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Kierkegaard’s Leap of Faith: Finding Objectivity in his Subjectivity!

Sřren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is known as the father of existentialism.  While existentialism today may exist apart from specifically Christian beliefs,[1] it is primarily associated with Christianity.  And for Kierkegaard, that context would be explicit for his writings.  Christian existentialism (henceforward, simply “existentialism”) is the extreme focus on the individuality of a person’s being,” his subjective dimension, and his unique experience in his “encounter” with God.  The essence of existentialism for Kierkegaard is illustrated in his “leap of faith,” his “paradox” of the Incarnation, his “suspension of the ethical,” “truth as subjectivity,” “passion,” and the “absurdity” of Christianity.  He embodies a “knight of faith” in a hypothetical tax collector, and in the Biblical characters of Abraham and Mary, the mother of Jesus.  My project is to discuss “faith” in Kierkegaard’s writings as a focus of his subjectivism and demonstrate that it is perhaps not as much a leap as appears at first glance, or else both Kierkegaard and his readers become lost in extreme irrationality.

Kierkegaard lived in 19th century Denmark “where everyone in Christendom is a Christian” where “objective information (doctrine) is assumed to make us Christians.” (252)[2]  But, “doctrine does not (make) one a Christian; what it depends upon is approbation... (holding) fast this doctrine … so that one is ready to live in it and to die in it, to venture one’s life for it, etc.” (253)  As central as these two concepts are, however, they do not yet define “the thing of becoming and being a Christian… (even) “baptism” … (and) “a confession of faith.” (254)  In this context, he defines faith as “the objective uncertainty along with the repulsion of the absurd held fast in the passion of inwardness which precisely is inwardness potentiated to the highest degree.” (255) 

What is “absurd’ to Kierkegaard is seen in his “knight of faith,” as living a life that in “every instant is making the movements of infinity” within the everyday world—the simultaneous life of the finite and the infinite. (120-121) For Kierkegaard this absurdity is most clearly seen in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ: “that God has come into being, has been born, has grown up, and so forth.” (220)  Relative to faith, “the absurd is precisely by its objective repulsion the measure of intensity of faith in inwardness.” (220)  Today’s Merriam-Webster dictionary defines absurd, as “ridiculously unreasonable, having no rational or orderly relationship to human life.”[3]  Thus, “absurd” seems quite appropriate to Kierkegaard’s conclusions about the merging or overlapping of the finite with the infinite.

Another part of Kierkegaard’s definition of faith above is “objective uncertainty.”  He is reacting particularly to Hegel, and generally to most of the philosophers of the past who have striven for “objective certainty.”  Kierkegaard believes that the “person,” as an individual, has been diminished, if not left out of their discussions.  This objectivity does not address the “impossibility” of “bringing God to light objectively, because God is a subject, and therefore exists only for subjectivity in inwardness.” (211)  In reality, then, truth can only be known (related to) by a “subject.”  Any attempt to determine truth apart from the “knower” (my term) is virtually to destroy the notion of truth.  As Schacht says, Kierkegaard’s “truth is subjectivity” may as well be phrased “subjectivity is truth.”[4]  Thus, faith can only be “objective uncertainty” when necessarily bound to a subject (except when the Subject is God, or course).

Continuing with Kierkegaard’s definition of faith, “passion is … the highest expression of subjectivity.” (211)  Perhaps, the best illustration of this expression is his example of the Christian at prayer to his God and the pagan at prayer to his idol.  The Christian is praying in a false spirit, while the pagan is praying with intense passion. For Kierkegaard, the pagan is far closer to the truth than is the Christian.  (I will come back to this scenario later.)

Kierkegaard gives a rather down-to-earth example of his knight of faith.   He is a simple man, one unexpectedly ordinary, “Why he looks like a tax collector.” (119)  He has no real appearance of anyone extraordinary.  He is not “smartly dressed,” being just average in appearance.  But, “he treads more firmly; he belongs to the world.”  “He takes delight in everything.”  He is delighted with simple pleasures, such as a special dish that his wife might make. (120)  Nothing seems to really upset him, but this outward appearance is deceiving as “he has drained the cup of life’s profound sadness… he senses the pain of renouncing everything.” (121)  “He constantly makes the movements of infinity.” He has completed the absurdity of faith, the union of the finite with the infinite.

Thus, faith is most fully represented in this down–to-earth figure of serenity and composure, who also knows the storms of life.  In conjunction with descriptions of “paradox,” “absurdity,” and “passion,” one would expect a dramatic figure—nay, one would expect a sort of superman, maybe even one of Hegel’s proportions!  But with some reflection, one might have indeed have expected something paradoxical—the opposite of the obvious—for that is Kierkegaard’s pattern.  Who else could have contrived the infinite in the ordinary or the spectacular in a quiet life?  And, does not this man reflect Kierkegaard’s ultimate absurdity and paradox: the Incarnation of Jesus Christ in whom the infinite was perfectly wedded with the finite.  The depth of this blend is even reflected in theologians naming this movement, “Christ’s humiliation” or kenosis—that God could “humiliate” Himself to become man.  Christ’s Passion was his torture and crucifixion, but his humiliation was in becoming a man!

In Kierkegaard’s knight of faith, God does not become man, but he does come to indwell man in some mysterious way.  Here are two examples from Scripture.

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.  (Galatians 2:20)

 

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling[5]; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.  (Philippians 2:12-13—both emphases are mine.)

 

 While Kierkegaard does not explicitly address this “God-in-man” (my term), he does in a few instances indicate that God must act, where man cannot, for the “leap of faith” to happen.  God makes “the first movement of faith” (118),  after the “movement of resignation,” “to get everything, to get the wish and uncurtailed—that is beyond human power.” (127) However, “with God all things are possible.” (126) “So this movement (to the knight of faith) I am not able to make” (128)

One would wish that Kierkegaard would have said more here.  If a person in his own strength can arrive at “infinite resignation,” but not achieve the status of the “leap of faith,” how does it happen?  It would seem, then, that God must complete the sequence, or it does not happen.  From my perspective as a Reformed Christian, I believe that it is indeed God who gives that kind of faith, but Kierkegaard only gives hints that this position is own.  Indeed, his concept of a “leap of faith” seems to revert back to man’s initiative.

Perhaps, however, we can piece together something a little more solid or “objective.”  In his enthusiasm to counter the inert orthodoxy that existed during his time in Denmark, he overstated his case for existentialism (as it was later called).  There may be more objectivity to his “leap” than appears at first glance!

That he believes Biblical texts seems without question.  Nowhere does he suggest that the Bible is anything other than Revelation, God speaking to man in written form.  His writings almost “ooze” Bible passages, even acting as titles for many of his books, chapters, and essays.  He is centrally concerned for a “true” Christianity. Yes, he is more concerned with its inwardness (subjectivity), but he never suggests another way to achieve any kind of meaning in life.  His subject matter is almost always “Christian” (which includes the ethical), even though it is not always explicit.  He had ample access to German “higher criticism,” quite developed in his day, which was a major movement that attacked Biblical truth, but he does not seem to have been influenced by it in the least.  In fact the opposite seems true, “Christianity has declared itself to be the eternal essential truth which has come into being in time.” (222)

This objectivity in subjectivity is not without warrant.  The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) gives four possible interactions of faith and reason.[6]  Because of length and my interest here, I will cite only the fourth, “the strong compatibilist model.  Here it is understood that faith and reason have an organic connection, and perhaps even parity.”  This model could be applied to Kierkegaard’s faith, explicitly and implicitly.  Explicitly, his emphasis on subjectivity is clear and forceful.  Implicitly, the argument relies more on peripheral writings that weave “objective” Biblical themes into his writings so intimately that they would be devoid of meaning should this “objectivity” be removed. 

Clearly, Kierkegaard was a writer of hyperbole and extremes.  In this mode, overstatement is unavoidable and  may explain his praise of the praying pagan over against the  praying Christian. Thus, I think Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” and emphasis on “subjectivity,” somewhat belied more objectivity than perhaps he recognized in himself.  He championed the Christian faith vigorously in the face of widespread apathy.  His “brand,” Lutheranism, has considerable objectivity in it is catechisms and doctrines.  Indeed, Martin Luther began the Reformation with “the just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17)—a statement of doctrine highly compatible as the “reason” dimension of the IEP discussion above. 

Indeed, Kierkegaard’s “subjectivity” is impossible without Christian or Lutheran doctrinal “objectivity.”  Without the latter, the former becomes just temporary feelings that could be produced by a good cup of coffee in the morning, a rousing concerto, or a beautiful sunsetall irrespective of, and divorced from, the way that Kierkegaard discussed “faith” in the context of Christianity.  These temporary feelings could not produce the sturdy, persevering “knight of faith!”

Notes

[1] “Existentialism,” in Simon Blackburn, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press).

[2] Sřren Kierkegaard, “Conclusion: What It Is to Become a Christian,” in Robert Bretall (Ed.), A Kierkegaard Anthology, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1946).  Page numbers  in parentheses are from this text.

[3] www.m-w.com, “absurd.”

[4] Richard Schacht, Hegel and After, (London, England: Pittsburgh University Press, 1975), 123.

[5] It is from this verse that Kierkegaard gets his title, “Fear and Trembling.”

[6] http://www.iep.utm.edu/faith-re/

 


 

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