Our Beacon Forum

Beyond Rigidity: Toward Religious Existentialism
By:Farhan Shah, Norway
Date: Sunday, 29 December 2019, 10:41 pm


Authoritarianism can be religious as well as secular. It has many problems: a fear of change, a denial of human agency, a rejection of differences, a neglect of the natural world, a neglect of love, and, in the case of religious authoritarianism, a flight from responsibility in the name of pre-given 'rules' from God.

It can seem to many that the only real option to religious authoritarianism is a stale secularism where everything "spiritual" or "religious" is rejected in the name of an ideal of progress inherited from western modernity. In this kind of secularism, much is lost but something is gained as well: a recognition that we humans are responsible for our actions and create ourselves in response to given situations, creating "worlds" for one another and the rest of nature.

​Perhaps a new kind of religious existentialism, influenced by the process thinking of Muhammad Iqbal and AN Whitehead, can offer a creative and constructive way of being-in-the-world for Muslims, Christians, and others who seek a viable alternative to rigidity. It can affirm that we create ourselves and "worlds" for one another and recognize the cosmic lure toward this kind of creativity is the very Soul of the universe.

The existentialism of the 20th century can seem outdated and outmoded in many respects. It had an impact on many Christian theologians: Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich, for example. And an early version of it, with Soren Kierkegaard, was a powerful corrective to objectifying forms of theology and social life that denied the truth of subjectivity and the primacy of individual choice. Still, it can seem like a thing of the past, and rightly so. Too often it ignored the more than human world, neglected the intersubjective nature of existence, and spoke primarily for a Eurocentric, middle-aged elite who believed that their own experience of existential isolation and angst was normative and universal for the world.

Nevertheless, in light of the emergence of a new secularism in Islam, as described by Mustafa Akyol in the Opinion piece for the NY Times, we can wonder if a new kind of existentialism might emerge that retains and extends the wisdom of the old movement. We might call it Open and Relational (Process) Existentialism, because aspects of it resemble the Open and Relational Thinking championed by the Center for Open and Relational Theology. Or, more simply, we might call it Process Existentialism, since our version is influenced by the philosophies of Muhammad Iqbal and Alfred North Whitehead.

Almost all forms of existentialism, Process or otherwise, are based on personal responsibility and the idea of an open future that is not determined in advance. Rather, the future is an open possibility, influenced by not entirely determined by decisions and actions in the present. In Process Existentialism this idea is combined with a unique understanding of God based on nurturance not authoritarianism. In Process Existentialism God is not understood as a self-absorbed, narcissistic and omnipotent ruler whose primary concern is with reward and punishment, but rather as a creative companion to the world's becoming.

This kind of existentialism can be appealing to post-evangelical Christians who are disillusioned with the rigidities and hypocrisies of the church, but who want to continue in their walk with Jesus; and also to the new, somewhat disillusioned, generation of Muslims who are struggling - in a fluid world - to construct a hybrid identity, transcending the binary oppositions as "Muslims" versus "Europeans", "religious" versus "secular", "Islam" versus "human rights" etc.


The fundamental premise of Process Existentialism as we conceive it is that existence precedes essence. This means that human beings have no pre-existing essence, understood as an unchanging substance. Our destinies are not predetermined by race, class, gender, or historical circumstances, because we are, moment by moment autonomous and self-creating. That is to say, we become self-created agents by virtue of our freedom and actions and our intersubjectivity, i.e., our interpersonal relations. This fact is adumbrated by the well-known existentialisitic proposition "existence precedes essence".

Here a special word is important for contemporary Muslims. Intra-islamically, "existence precedes essence" implies, among other things, that as Muslims, we have real possibilities in the world. To be sure, we find ourselves embedded in situations that deeply influence who we are, for good and for ill. But once we understand how we became who we have become, and once we understand that we are in fact activities of process, of self-becoming, we realize that it is actually possible to change much of our mode of existence. We can become something new.

More specifically, our fate is not sealed by the decisions of the past, be they decisions we ourselves made, or decisions that were foisted upon us by society, including religious orthodoxies and cultural norms. This can help us to understand that there is no "essence" as a colonized subject, as a woman who have internalised patriarchal mode of existence, or even what it means to be a "Muslim". These are all contingent and contextual conditions. We are all always in the process of happening, of creative unfoldment, always engaged in the task of accomplishing ourselves as a person.


With freedom comes responsibility. To always be in becoming means that we have to choose between the conscious possibilities despite the burden of our facticity, i.e., natural properties as weight, height, skin colour; historical facts as schooling, family background, ethnicity; social facts as class and nationality; and intra-psychological properties as desires, hopes, fears, feelings, and set of beliefs. In some circumstances these factical problems are blessings. We can rightly take pride in the circumstances into which we are born and that shape our lives. But these different qualities of our embodied existence can become "rigidities" when they function in oppressive ways.

These rigidities are a petrifictation of a dynamic existence. Often they are the outcome of socialization and internalization, by people in places of power, who have imprinted in people's mind that essence precedes existence; that there are no real possibilities of change and reconfiguration; and that the universe is a closed one, in which the future, predetermined by God, is simply held in store, ready to be parceled out according to a pre-fixed schedule of events. The universe, as Iqbal asserts, is not a "blocked universe, a finished product, immobile and incapable of change." For Iqbal, authentic living and mode of existence is nothing but novelty and innovation, not reproduction, repetition and rigid identities. It is, in short, the active and committed engagement of transcending human facticity when it becomes oppressive, given our realistic possibilities of transformation.

The crux of Iqbal`s religious philosophy can be captured in the notion of the "trust" confided to humanity. For Iqbal, God elected Adam (the human agent) to be, despite all his/her faults and shortcomings, God`s co-creator on earth because it has received the trust that the human being alone among created beings accepted, to his/her risk and peril. Iqbal interprets the acceptance of "trust" that of personality, creativity and freedom. That is to say - the human subject is the agent whose vocation is to take active part in the life and freedom of the Creative Self (God) that accorded human beings this latitude. This thought correlates with the Islamic notion of "Amanah", i.e., personal responsibility and trustworthiness.


​Iqbal's ideas are themselves an example of Process Thinking, Islamic style. They are grounded in the Qur'anic revelation of a dynamic universe, of a cosmology of emergence, in which God is continuously active in situation-specific ways, always for the good. They resonate with ideas developed by process thinkers influenced by Whitehead.

In Whitehead's philosophy, 'existence' is an activity: a moment of experiencing and responding to the world, creating something novel in the very act of experiencing and responding. Whitehead calls it "concrescence." Concresence is as an act of being-in-the-world, always finding itself "thrown" (Heidegger's word) into an already-given past and beckoned by a not-yet-determined future, with responsibility for how it creates itself in the present.

Our suggestion, then, is that existence precedes essence and that existence is concrescence. We recommend a kind of process existentialism. It will be different from other forms of existentialism in the following ways:

- Process Existentialism places much greater emphasis on relationality/mutuality whereas many forms of existential philosophy lean toward solipsism.
- Process Existentialism places greater emphasis on the body, whereas many forms (other than Merleau-Ponty) neglect the body.
- Process Existentialism sees human 'existence' as embodied, not only by human beings, but by all beings who have any kind of sentience. Animals and living cells, too, are being-in-the-world; they, too, are world-makers.
- Process Existentialism affirms the reality of God, who likewise 'exists' as an ongoing activity of concrescence, whereas many forms of existentialism neglect God. In a sense God, too, is being-in-the-world. In God's case the world is the universe as a whole, as gathered into an ongoing activity of concrescence; and God's world-making is the provision of energy and guidance to the many entities in the world as they perpetually unfold.

None of these difference neglect the core wisdom or "article of faith" of religious existentialism: that we create ourselves even as we are richly connected to others and to God, and that we need not be colonized by socialization from the past, secular or religious. We are, or can be, deeply free, deeply human, and deeply religious - which are three ways of saying the same thing.

The question emerges for all of us, Muslim or Christian or otherwise: And how might be create ourselves? This is the question of authenticity. A Process Existentialism proposes that we create ourselves in freedom from the excesses of socialization, and in freedom for responsiveness to the will of One in whose very life the universe unfolds. This One is not an entity among entities in the sky; it is the subjective unity of the universe itself, understood as having a life of its own: the Soul of the universe.

For Christians and for Muslims the life of this One was revealed uniquely, but by no means exclusively, in the life and ministry of Jesus. For Muslims the callings of the One are supplemented and completed in the beauty and wisdom of the Qur'an, understood as a liberating call toward freedom, love, and responsibility. These callings are what process philosopher call 'initial aims' or 'possibilities for fulfilled existence.' They are not rigidities; they are possibilities. And it is we, moment by moment, who choose and actualize them. Such is our freedom.