Unity In Diversity - Essays in religion by members of the faculty of the Unification Theological Seminary - Edited by Henry O. Thompson - 1984

Human Action and Theology of Action in Their Philosophical Historical Context: Josef Hausner

"What Mind can Conceive, Man Can Achieve."

I. Introduction

The Importance of Human Action

Thoughts and ideas are very important aspects of the activities of the human mind, and we cannot deny their value for the intellectual life and the spirit of man. However, only in activities do man's spirit and existence attain their genuine realization and fulfillment, because existence means life and life expresses itself primarily in action. It is on the level of human action "where the action is."

What man thinks and feels is of secondary importance, because feelings and thoughts -- even if one were able to share them with others close to him -- belong to and remain the exclusive domain of the individual. Most important is how we translate our thoughts and ideas into realities of actions. The relationships between man and man are shaped, not so much in the human heart as on the stage of concrete actions. That is where daily life is consummated, where nations meet in confrontations and bloody wars.

Summarizing his life at the age of only 22 in order to draw conclusions for his future, Soren Kierkegaard, (1813-1855), the father of existentialism, wrote into his diary:

What I really wish and intend is to clarify for myself what I am to do, not what I shall know, except for that knowledge which is necessary for the progress of any action. I have to understand my purpose, to see what God actually wants me to do. It is important to find a truth which shall be a truth for me, and to find an idea worth living and dying tor.

What would be the use of discovering so-called objective truth, of working through all the systems of philosophy? What I am lacking is to live a perfect human life -- and not a life of knowledge -- to develop my ideas on something real which is connected with the deep roots of my life, my existence. (August, 1835)

This entry into his diary became the leading motif in Kierkegaard's life and later developed into that influential philosophical current which came to be known as existentialism.

From the words of Kierkegaard we hear and feel a desire for the real, the concrete, a longing for a new philosophy, which shall not be alien to the individual, to his life and personality. Disillusioned by the great philosophical systems, Kierkegaard maintained that they do not respond to that important human need. He compared the philosophical systems to a magnificent structure, the architect of which has a little lovely home elsewhere. There is always a gap between the philosophical system and the constructor of that system. The new philosophical system, existentialism, has to be the home in which one lives, because existentialism means and expresses existence, and existence is action. It is in the domain of action where we have to make decisions and where we have to choose between alternatives.

Intention, Action and Responsibility

Action is the result of thought and intention. Intention is the motive of purpose that impels an individual to action. Action is the purposeful performance of a deed. Man's intentions, motives and purposes, whether for good or evil, are of great significance if they result in action. Intention gives meaning to and determines the validity of an act. Intention in itself, if it is not expressed in action, plays almost no role in determining the merit and moral value of an individual. Actions alone determine the moral status of man, and by them alone is he judged and evaluated for good and/or evil.

As long as we only reason with ourselves, and as long as we conceive even the most sublime of our intentions, we do not confront real alternatives. We cannot be made responsible for our thoughts or intentions. Only in the realm of action do we come into a structure of relationships with others, are faced with confrontations, become responsible for our deeds and may be made accountable for our actions.

The Three Dimensions of Human Action

The individual as well as human groups become involved in three dimensional directions:

a. Man acts in the area of creative work, as a producer of goods and supplier of material needs for human existence.

b. Man acts in an area which implies a relationship between man and man. It is here where he acts in an inter-related social-ethical context.

c. Man acts in the historical direction for the fulfillment of goals and purposes for future human generations. Man is telos-oriented.

Aaron David Gordon (1856-1922), a friend of Martin Buber and theoretician of the Palestinian Jewish Kibbutz movement, maintained that action, the idea of action is the essential purpose of man. Work is an organic part of man's life. Work in the field is absolutely necessary for the production of the life-sustaining substances. Man's (Adam's) work connects man organically with the soil (Adamah), with nature, with the whole of the Universe.

In action, in his creative and productive work, man becomes a partner in God's Act of Creation, man cooperates in the continuous act of Creation, contributing thereby to the daily renewal of Creation.

In his relationship with others, man establishes the foundations for a society of man, for living together and communication between individuals, regulated by norms and ethical principles. Man builds his social environment and creates the conditions which enable him to face the difficulties and vicissitudes of human life and be victorious in his struggle with nature. Man also is able to plan for his tomorrow, for after tomorrow, for his children, for the next and future generations. Without this ability to plan for the future, without the imaginative foresight for future generations, man's life would be lacking the interest for inspiring initiative. He would be limited and unaware of his historical dimension. Only by grasping his essence as a historical being is man able to pursue the most imaginative interests and to make intensive efforts for creative actions in the interest of future generations.

II. The Anatomy of Action

What is Human Action?

In the word conduct we have a general term for human action as such, but, when speaking of a particular instance we usually use the words "act" and/or "actions." The character of human action, as the phrase is ordinarily used, makes the distinction from any other sort of physical action in that that human action is conceived as an expression of consciousness. The human organism exhibits all forms of actions: physical, animal and human actions in the strictest sense. The only physical actions of the organism, however, which are our concern in relation to the concept of human actions -- are those actions which depend upon and express consciousness in the form of feeling or purpose. Purposeful action is that action which is performed after being preceded by a conceptualization regarding the thing which is to be executed. The ideas and images which precede the move and which are to be executed, can be based only on some kind of previous experience.

Action, Social Context and Constraint

The actions of the individual depend upon the essentially social character of human life. The actions of the human individual, for the most part, do either explicitly contain or imply a reference to other persons. This social factor in individual action manifests itself not merely in the social context of the action, but mainly in the definite control which social influence exerts over the will of the individual. Man is confronted with social control, which he experiences in the form of commands and prohibitions which continue through his life in various forms as:

a. Constraints upon his desires from without

b. Constraint as an internal factor of his own will.

The external social constraint tends more and more to become internalized, to develop into an internal factor of one's own will and character. It transforms society's law into his own nature. At first it comes to the individual in the form of particular injunctions to refrain from particular acts, or to avoid particular objects. This obedience is given to particular persons, but it tends more and more to be transformed into impersonal and generalized rules of action to be obeyed as such. It is that which Freud calls suppression, and the sociologist, socialization.

These rules become concrete, and their control reaches out beyond every particular case and pervades the whole practical thinking of the individual. All human action is expressive of consciousness, and to the extent to which it is intelligent and significant to that same proportion is an action voluntary and the expression of character.

Deliberation, Decision, Means and Ends

The individual who seriously is determined to deliberate must come to a decision which is ultimately the option between two or more complex possibilities. Usually, he starts with some sort of decision already vaguely outlined in his mind in the shape of possible alternatives, and the function of deliberation consists in the elimination of those choices which are doubtful, in order to make the proper course of action clear.

Conceptual thinking has long been at work upon the materials which memory always supplies, and which is a level at which the individual usually thinks in terms of generalized purposes, to which he refers, and by which he guides his particular actions. We cannot ignore the desires of the individual, of the adult individual, which are nearly always more or less significant. The more intelligent and reflective the individual is, the more his desires and purposes will be organized in a systematic and structured way, and rendered to that scheme or type of life in which he believes to be able to attain the completest realization of his powers. The more complex and significant the desires are, the less it is possible to imagine their conflict as a mere collision between two forces of different intensities.

One practical relation that must be seen as forced upon the attention of an individual trying to bring about an ideally represented state of things is that of means and ends. And here comes into the entire picture of human action the process of deliberation, in which the individual seeks to discover the means of attaining an end, or to determine which of two or more ways is the best.

The more important a matter for examination and decision is, the more does the choice tend to express, not an isolated desire for a particular end, but the whole character of a human being, or, even more than that, his ultimate and all-inclusive desire for the lifestyle regarded by him as the best. The more ardently and resolutely a man lives, the more will the unity of his character tend to coordinate his plans even in the simplest actions of his daily life. Having deliberated and decided on the proper means, the man who was impatient to act will have removed the obstacles in his way and will act at once. The general purpose of action was present all through, and by the way of the deliberative process the general purpose is finally expressed in the shape of a definitive volition.

The Essence of Action and Moral Activity

Action belongs within the world of existence, to the category of events, processes, and/or changes. An action has a beginning and an end, it occurs in time, it has preceding conditions and subsequent consequences, and it does not occur independently.

A process is always related to a thing or things, a substance or substances, "in" or "to" which it takes place. All changes imply something relatively permanent, as a condition not only of its being known, but also of its existence.

Mental activity, being a process, is inherent in a substance, either in the organism as a whole, in the union of mind and body, or in the soul or mind as a reality independent of the body. Neither thinking, nor willing, nor any other form of mental activity occurs without conditions which call it forth, and to which its expression is subject. These conditions may be either mental, bodily, or both. The essence of moral action and activity is to be found in that form of mental activity in which an idea is retained before the mind in spite of its inconsistencies with tendencies or dispositions already present. In other words, the essence of a moral action and activity consists primarily in the fact that we retain in our minds an idea, in spite of the fact that this idea is inconsistent with prevalent tendencies and dominant dispositions. It means that our visions and commitments to change things disregard already opposing conditions and circumstances once we have made up our mind.

III. The Philosophy of Action

Arguments against Hegelian Philosophy

The first representatives of the Philosophy of Action and Existentialism resulted from the attack against the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). Two arguments were primarily raised against Hegel's thought:

a. Hegel reflects on the world exclusively from the view of the spirit and disregards the real man, and his real problems (Feuerbach, Marx, and to a certain extent also Nietzsche).

b. Hegel transforms religion into philosophy, and prevents man from coming into a direct relationship with God (Soren Kierkegaard).

Based on the philosophical world view of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), the young Hegelian Bruno Bauer (1809-1882) emphasized the paramount importance of a philosophy of action based on a social critique which has the task to reveal and eliminate the unreasonable1 in the existing conditions of man, and to free the path for reasonable developments.

Joining the Young Hegelians, Moses Hess (1812-1875) maintained that it was the merit of German philosophy that it established theoretically the unity of spirit and the world. However, in opposing Hegel, Hess stressed that Hegel's philosophy connects only in the idea the unity of thought and being, whereas this unity must be realized or fulfilled consciously in the sphere of the spiritual, and translated into reality in social life.

Hess asserted that the starting point should no longer be the conceptualization of abstract thinking, but the conscious will. Speculative philosophy has to be replaced by the Philosophy of Action. Only the conscious action as the true synthesis of thought and being will permit man to act independently and creatively in history. Against Hegel, whose philosophical speculation was oriented toward the history of the past, Hess emphasized that it is the task of philosophy to expand its horizons and become future-oriented. Contemplating on the past and the present, philosophy has to elaborate its conclusions for the future. The philosophy of the spirit has to be transformed into a philosophy of action.

Not being, but action, is the most important asset, the first and the last in the scale of human values. Identity is conceived as the content of action. Real life, the living "I" cannot be conceived either as the thinking, or as that which we think of, but only as the fulfillment, or the agent, of action. These three moments together form the "I," which is not something dormant or static, but is conceived as in continuous movement and change -- as life itself. The "I" is a spiritual act, an idea which can be conceived only in its change and development and/or movement. As the planets, as everything which we conceive as moving and growing, so man is not only a static and spiritual being, but his self-consciousness is in continuous change and in continuous changing activity which is conceived as life itself. Without that action there is no real "I" and no real identity. Life is activity -- creation of an identity, through which the barrier is overcome, and which transforms the "I" from a "non-I" into that state which we regard as activity.

The free, conscious, future creative action is possible because we all are partaking in the Spirit of God, and the future-oriented development tendencies enable us, through the Philosophy of Action, to determine that future.

August Cieszkowski (1814-1894), one of Hegel's disciples and a contemporary of Karl Marx (1818-1883), was a spiritual adherent of the intellectual-cultural school known as Polish Messianism. His philosophy of action was based on the previously already mentioned world view of Fichte and on the concept of the will which influences the changes of the dominant situation, which became the fundamental idea of Cieszkowski, as well as that of the other Young Hegelians. Cieszkowski affirmed that after the "laws of history" were formulated and defined by Hegel, it is time to establish the Philosophy of Action for the future course of human history.

In his writings2 he stated that history is the evolution of the Spirit on three human levels:

a. feeling -- in the direction of the beautiful

b. consciousness -- in the true, and

c. action -- in the direction of the good.

Action is the domain of the spiritual. The Spirit is action par excellence. Will is preceded by thought, but action is the manifestation of the will. The revelation of truth in action will find its concrete form in life and in social conditions.

The adequate form of life, of the state, of life in the state, of social life, of the true solution of social contradictions, of conscious creation, of autonomous institutions, of the realization in the ethical sphere of law and morality, of the construction of the universal human community -- all are the task and the mission for action.

Man's action is Creation, creation of personality creation of society. Man fulfills himself participating in Divine Providence through his actions. Free and creative action is a form of worship and elevation towards God. Through man's action society becomes the society of man, and through the common effort of man who implements the Will of God in history -- man may establish the Kingdom of God on Earth.

IV. The Historical Context of Existentialism

The Crisis of the Twentieth Century

The nineteenth century, especially its second half, was characterized as a period of peace and stability. The dominant ideas of the century were those of rationalism, progress and hope. The confidence in man's rational abilities surpassed all previous expectations. But that was destroyed by the atrocities and convulsions of two bloody World Wars. World War I, and the collapse of all which had been regarded, until 1914, as the unchallenged order and the uncontested values generated new attitudes and a new world view.

Man's previously predominant sense of confidence in his world was lost. He began to feel helpless, surrendering to a chaotic and dismal world -- a threatening environment, which overwhelmed him socially, politically, morally and economically, and which invaded all aspects and manifestations of his life.

The shock produced by the European conflagration of the years 1914-1918, with its accompanying symptoms: the Russian Revolution and the rise of bolshevism, fascism, nazism and economic depression, were the signs of the time of an era of crisis and turbulence, violent confrontation and bloodshed.

The road to decline and decadence was virtually opened with the anti-Christian writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, and with them their demoralizing and disintegrating influences: Die Genealogie der Moral, Der Wille zur Macht, Der Antichrist.

The intellectual doctrinarian of decline after World War I was the German historiosopher Oswald Spengler, the author of the bestseller: Der Untergang des Abendlandes and the mythological theory of "Blut and Boden," (Blood and Soil), the veneration of the myth of the Aryan race, deepened the moral, social and religious crisis of the world, and especially that of its shortsighted leaders.

World War II, in its totality and cruelty was the logical consequence of the neo-pagan anti-Christian spirit which dominated Europe and the world between the two Wars.

The world situation in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s was marked by political instability, social confrontations, youth revolts, psychological fear and economic depression. It was a world which lived, and still lives, in the shadow of a thermo-nuclear war, under the permanent threat of destruction and the peril of the extinction of western civilization, if not of the entire human race. This is the "Sitz im Leben" of the new philosophical current known as modern Existentialism.

What is Existentialism?

The philosophy of existence, as a current which developed in Germany at the end of the 1920s, attracted large segments of the German public. Its most important representatives in Germany were Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger. During the 1930s existentialism was suppressed by the leaders of the Third Reich. In the 1940s and especially after World War II the philosophy of existence flourished in France, and came to be designated with the name of Existentialism. Its main representatives in France were Gabriel Marcel and Jean Paul Sartre. Existentialism may be considered as a link in an all-inclusive cultural-historical continuity, with influences in philosophy, poetry and scientific thought.

In the theological field it was the dialectical trend which was to a great extent influenced by existentialism. There are close connections between Bultmann and Heidegger.

Existentialism, more than a philosophical system, is the expression of the tragic sense of man's existence. Existentialism is not a formulated systematic philosophy but the interpretation of man's "Dasein" as an existence towards death, and the anxiety of man before death. Existentialism is the interpretation of a period in human history dominated by dangers and despair. Existentialism is also the literary expression of a pessimistic view of life, of a tragic "Weltgefuhl" and of a "Gotterdammerung" (decline of gods).

V. Concluding Remarks

Theology of Action

Anxiety and despair can be overcome solely by the restoration of faith in God, confidence in man and his destiny, and in the acceptance of the concept that "the world, even though tormented, can be changed."

What we must do, in order to attain a world which can be considered as good, is to follow God's Commandments, to walk in His Ways and to act in accordance to His Will.

The tragic destiny of man, the pessimistic "Lebensgefuhl," fear and despair, can be defeated only by purposeful human action. Elements for such a theology of action we find in the thought of Gabriel Marcel, but even more explicit and clear in the thought and writings of Nicolai Berdyaev (1874-1948). According to Berdyaev, existence is a permanent and continuous struggle between good and evil, between the spiritual and the material, between freedom and enslavement. Evil is expressed in the struggle for life, in suffering and death. Even though he thinks the world to be evil, Berdyaev does not teach resignation. On the contrary, he emphasizes the importance of the fight and struggle against reality, against the evil manifestations in the individual, in society, in nature. The problem of man is at the core of Berdyaev's thought. His religious philosophy is anthropology more than theology. His teachings contain four positive concepts: Personality, Spirit, Freedom and Action (Creation).

The foundation of the "Imago Dei" in man is hidden and resides in his spirit, in his individuality, his "I," his personality. The individual is more important than society, but the individual cannot live alone, without others. Isolation means death. The "I" is and finds itself only in the relationship with others, with the "Thou." The individual, belonging to nature, is under the rule of the laws of enslavement and death. "Personality" is a spiritual phenomenon and in it resides the element of man's freedom.

Freedom is the dominant factor in the Kingdom of God. In our life, freedom reveals itself from time to time in our struggle against nature and enslavement. Original sin resides in nature more than in man. In man there is an inherent continuous struggle against nature, against enslavement, against death.

There is a relationship between man and God. Without God man is powerless and without purpose. God acts in reality through man. The Kingdom of God, the final ideal, is the realization not by God alone, but through man's action. Man is the telos of salvation and redemption. Man will be redeemed and saved not by renunciation, ascetism and self-abnegation, but through and by action (Creation), since the power of action (Creation) comes to man on behalf of God who created man for the satisfaction of His Creative Spirit.

In Plato's theory, the ideas, as the ultimate and only realities, have movement and life, soul and intelligence. The soul is most active when detached from the body, in the ecstatic union with the infinite and eternal idea of the good. According to rabbinic thought, however, "Ayn ha'Midrash ha'Ykkar ela ha'Masseh" ("The act, not the doctrine, is of paramount importance"), especially in the rabbinic doctrine of the "Zaddik" (the Righteous), where one single individual can by a single action, either good or evil, determine the existence of the entire world. Every human being, every individual, must therefore weigh each of his daily actions, not only for their effect on him, but mainly for their effect on the well-being and restoration of the entire world.


1. Blind determinism is the conception which is able to find a ready acceptance with those who look upon human action and conduct from a biologistic -evolutionary perspective, or from a point of view of a philosophy like that of Schopenhauer or Von Hartmann's, which sees in blind will the ultimate principle of all existence. According to those views -- the true forces which generate human actions lie in the strong instinctive tendencies of man's nature which shape his desires and feelings. The calculating intellect to which the reflection of the individual naturally but mistakenly attributes the direction of his life, are only superficial activities. In reply to such a blind deterministic conception, it can be maintained that such a conception of human life may have an appearance of profundity, but that it conveys no real insight. To appeal to instinctive tendencies means to involve ourselves in empty mystery, which obstructs the work of scientific analysis and explanation.

2. Cieszkowski wrote: Prolegomena Zur Historiosophie, Gott und Palingenese "Ojcze Nash" (Our Father). 

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