“Is there any similarity between existentialism and the gospel?” New Era, Jan. 1975, 11–12
Answer/Sister Mae Blanch
Existentialism, the philosophy that has dominated modern Western thought since World War II, shares at least one important tenet with the gospel, although they differ sharply on their views on the nature of man. There are almost as many versions of existentialism as there are existentialist philosophers, but the one principle that they all start with can be summed up in the statement, existence is prior to essence. That is, the existentialists believe that man has no essence, no inherent eternal nature that defines him, prior to his existence. Thus man has the sole responsibility for determining through thought and action what his essence will be; man, through the exercise of his free will, defines himself. Existentialists claim life has no meaning except that which man gives it, and it is therefore essential that man enjoy complete freedom to create his life so that it is a reflection of the truth as he has discovered it. To find his own truth, then, is an obligation no man can escape, and he must accomplish this with no outside help. Since in existential thought truth is relative, each man must determine his own; he cannot borrow that of someone else or even receive help from someone else in finding his own.
Mormon philosophy differs sharply from the existentialist in its view on the nature of man. Man is an eternal being; his nature already exists when he is born into this world and has existed for eternity. The highest potential for man has been defined by God through his prophets: “… as God is, man may become.” The purpose of his life is to provide him with the opportunity to grow toward this goal. Life has a meaning, a meaning ordained by God.
But like the existentialists, Latter-day Saints also place great emphasis on the necessity of freedom. Man must be free to make the choices that will lead him toward godhood. The Latter-day Saint does not determine his essence through thought and action, but he does determine his ultimate fate by these same means—and the sole responsibility is his. However, help is available to him in making these crucial choices. He has the help of parents, teachers of the gospel, leaders in the Church, the scriptures, and most important of all, the Holy Ghost.
The differences between existential and Mormon views on the nature of man and the purpose of life are irreconcilable, but for both philosophies, freedom is essential, free will a reality, and choice an imperative. But for the Latter-day Saint, a loving Father in heaven offers help and direction.