Peter Drucker’s Existential Purpose

In 1949 Peter Drucker, management guru and “mentor” to Rick Warren of purpose-driven fame, wrote an essay entitled “The Unfashionable Kierkegaard.” This essay formed the foundation of the philosophy that was to guide him the rest of his life. So important was this essay to him, that it was made available on the Internet at An introduction to this paper states, “This paper, written at the end of the forties on the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, holds a special place in Drucker’s work, which is otherwise concerned with processes within society.” (

A New York Times commentary on Drucker’s life, “A Man’s Spiritual Journey From Kierkegaard to General Motors,” by Peter Steinfels (November 19, 2005) can be found at . This insightful article gives an account of Drucker’s religious beliefs in the context of his management philosophy.

“Mr. Drucker was raised in Vienna in a family of intellectuals, the perfect incubator for the polymath he became. Jack Beatty, in his biography ‘The World According to Peter Drucker’ (Free Press, 1998), passes on Mr. Drucker’s description of the family Lutheranism as ‘so “liberal” that it consisted of little more than a tree at Christmas and Bach cantatas at Easter.’

“Then, at age 19, Mr. Drucker came across the works of the theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard – and was bowled over. He studied Danish in order to read Kierkegaard’s yet-untranslated writings.

“From Kierkegaard to studying General Motors and the secrets of entrepreneurship may seem like a long stretch. But Kierkegaard’s stark Christian vision spoke to Mr. Drucker’s lifelong search for what he was observing while working in a Germany sliding into Nazism – an explanation of why, in a modern world of organizations and rapid change, freedom has so often been surrendered.”

The Significance of Kierkegaard

Dr. Francis Schaeffer warned evangelicals about how the philosophies of Soren Kierkegaard were permeating not only liberal Protestant churches, but also encroaching upon evangelicalism in his 1968 book The God Who Is There (Crossway, Complete Works, Vol. 3, 1982). Kierkegaard, he said, “is the father of modern existential thinking, both secular and theological thinking.” (p. 14)

Dr. Schaeffer raised the question:

“Why is it that Kierkegaard can so aptly be thought of as the father of both [secular and theological]?. . . Kierkegaard led to the conclusion that you could not arrive at synthesis by reason. Instead, you achieve everything of real importance by a leap of faith.” (p. 15)

“. . . [T]he important thing about [Kierkegaard] is that when he put forth the concept of a leap of faith, he became in a real way the father of all modern existential thought, both secular and theological. [italics in original]

“As a result of this, from that time on, if rationalistic man wants to deal with the really important things of human life (such as purpose, significance, the validity of love), he must discard rational thought about them and make a gigantic, nonrational leap of faith. The rationalistic framework had failed to produce an answer on the basis of reason, and so all hope of a uniform field of knowledge had to be abandoned. We get the resulting dichotomy like this:

Existential experience; the final experience; the first order experience

Only particulars, no purpose, no meaning. Man is a machine.” (p. 16)

Because of the untenable nature of this philosophical dichotomy, Dr. Schaeffer predicted that man would adopt a synthesized mysticism to fill the void. He warned that there would be a “new, evolving religion” with a “new theology.” He observed that by using words with “undefined connotation” (p. 89) the new theology could easily replace existing theology.

“[People] in our culture in general are already in process of being accustomed to accept nondefined, contentless religious words and symbols, without any rational or historical control. Such words and symbols can be filled with the content of the moment. The words Jesus or Christ are the most ready for the manipulator. The phrase Jesus Christ has become a contentless banner which can be carried in any direction for sociological purposes. In other words, because the phrase Jesus Christ has been separated from true history and the content of Scripture, it can be used to trigger religiously motivated sociological actions directly contrary to the teaching of Christ. This is already in evidence, as for example in the ‘new’ morality being advocated by many within the Church today.

“So there is open to the new theology the possibility of supplying society with an endless series of religiously motivated arbitrary absolutes. It is against such manipulated semantic mysticism that we do well to prepare ourselves, our children and our spiritual children.” (p. 90) [emphases added]

The Truth:

This Kierkegaardian “leap of faith” permitted Peter Drucker to develop a synthesized concept of man as “human capital” — a machine with purpose, both secular and theological. (See previous posts on Peter Drucker for more information on this point.) The “purpose-driven” theology appears to give meaning to evangelicals who have been steeped in existentialism for nearly three decades. But this theology is shallow, representative of the “manipulated semantic mysticism” of which Dr. Schaeffer warned.

Dr. Schaeffer worried that many evangelicals did not truly know the faith. To counter this mysticism he asked a series of rational, serious questions:

“What does it mean to believe on, to cast oneself on, Christ? I would suggest there are four crucial aspects. More detail could be considered, but these are crucial. They are not slogans to be repeated by rote and they do not have to be said in these words, but the individuals must have come to a positive conclusion and affirmation concerning them, if he is to believe in a biblical sense:

“1. Do you believe that God exists and that He is a personal God, and that Jesus Christ is God — remembering that we are not talking of the word or idea god, but of the infinite-personal God who is there?
“2. Do you acknowledge that you are guilty in the presence of this God — remembering that we are not talking about guilt-feelings, but true moral guilt?
“3. Do you believe that Jesus Christ died in space and time, in history, on the cross, and that when He died His substitutional work bearing God’s punishment against sin was fully accomplished and complete?
“4. On the basis of God’s promises in His written communication to us, the Bible, do you (or have you) cast yourself on this Christ as your personal Savior — not trusting in anything you yourself have ever done or ever will do?” (p. 147)

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:1-3)