Faith, Truth, and Soren Kierkegaard

Faith, Truth, and Soren Kierkegaard

Glynn Cardy

Sun 11 Sep

Faith and belief have long been used as synonyms in many people’s thinking.  The phrase ‘the Christian faith’ for some seems to be synonymous with belief in doctrines and creedal statements.  This leads to the idea that to be a Christian is to assent to a body of doctrinal or philosophical ideas.  So Christianity is, allegedly therefore, fundamentality about the intellect.

While engaging with ideas is important it is not what faith is.  Faith is more about doing than thinking.  Faith is more about engagement; in Tillich’s words it is ‘the courage to be’.  Indeed because of the confusion around the word ‘faith’ I often [following Tillich] substitute it with the word ‘courage’.  So Christianity, contrary to those who stress assent to beliefs, is something you do – and in particular ‘doing love’.

Beliefs, ideas, and doctrines are shaped by the cultures, times, and philosophies of their germination.  This becomes very obvious when we look at say homosexuality, or divorce, or war, and how time-locked and culture-locked are biblical and theological statements on these subjects.  A church that questions and seeks to ‘do love’ inevitably will find its beliefs and theology changing.  There is a continual dialogue for such a church between the past, the present, and guiding principles like compassion, mutuality, and justice. 

Faith, unlike belief, is an attitude; and it often involves risk.  It is about venturing out, as Kierkegaard once said, over the 70,000 fathoms.  Because I enjoy snorkelling [particularly the silence], this Kierkegaardian metaphor resonates with me.  I have vivid memories of swimming out past coral reefs and seeing the enormous drop-off below me –  seemingly bottomless.  However, snorkelling is by and large a safe activity.  I think Kierkegaard was indicating that to ‘do love’ involves risk, and often loss.  ‘A theologia crucis rather than a theologia gloriae’ – suffering rather than glory.

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55) lived his short life in the relative obscurity of Copenhagen (then a city of 125,000).  Kierkegaard railed against a form of religion and philosophy that thought of Christianity as the equivalent of being a good citizen [‘putting on your socks in the morning’ as he once mocked] and a way of Hegelian[i] integrated thinking about the world, faith and history.  For Kierkegaard Christianity was something you did, rather than something you thought.  Kierkegaard’s goal was not to produce a comprehensive system of philosophy [like Hegel] but to awaken the intensity and passion of existence in the individual.

Faith, for Kierkegaard, was absurd – not logical or rational.  Faith was, I quote him, “like a person walking along a fault on the earth’s surface, with a foot on each side and a chasm below.  The menace of the chasm gives life its passion, its salt, and makes life infinitely interesting.”[ii]  He goes on: “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily.  Not to dare is to lose oneself.” 

This understanding of faith impacted on Kierkegaard’s understanding of truth.  Truth for Kierkegaard was not a body of propositions but a way of life transformed.  Truth was not a collection of thoughts or syntheses, but personal tasks.  As St Augustine said, certain things we can learn only if what we love we are seeking to learn about.  So truth is not something objective, but subjective.  So if you objectively posit that God is love, it means little unless you are personally [subjectively] transformed by that love.

For those who had a God that would always be there to support, rescue, or save one from the risks of the deep, Kierkegaard was scathing.  He resisted every effort of philosophers and preachers to domesticate God to a level of human understanding and compliance.  Kierkegaard believed in the radical transcendence of God – best summarized by another Augustine quote: ‘If you understand it, then what you understand is not God’.

It is in this sense that we need to understand Kierkegaard’s statement that ‘before God we are always in the wrong’.  He was trying to affirm that God is beyond any human metaphors or domestication.  I would though express it differently and avoid the sin/redemption motif [implied in the ‘we are always in the wrong’].  The sin/redemption motif is itself a domestication of God.  It’s important to realise that Kierkegaard had a big emphasis on grace – and interestingly reads the Zacchaeus story[iii] as Jesus/God offering grace before repentance. 

Soren Kierkegaard remained relatively unknown until the early 20th century when his writings influenced Karl Barth and Martin Heidegger.  It is intriguing that modern day theologians, of both conservative and liberal persuasions, find inspiration in Kierkegaard’s works.  Kierkegaard was very orthodox in his confessional beliefs.   He actually didn’t care too much for theological debate – for him it was about following the man who humbled himself and went to the cross (as referred to in the Philippians 2 hymn). 

Theologians more aligned with my biases, like John Caputo, point out how Kierkegaard’s views lead into the postmodernist critique [namely Derrida’s deconstructionism] of both philosophy and Christianity.  So the ‘real’ is not an idea in your head, but something that feeds the poor and releases the captive.

One consequence of Kierkegaard’s approach to truth and faith is the difficulty of communicating it.  Preachers and writers, parents and teachers, cannot tell someone the truth or instil faith.  The parishioner or student has to discover and find it for herself or himself.  So a good preacher, for example, is one who tries to use irony and humour, paradox and puzzles, to entice the listener into stumbling upon the truth for them.  The task is to help the listener to find their own independence, freedom, and truth without acquiring dependence upon the preacher, teacher, or parent.

Of course I have problems with some of Kierkegaard’s biblical understandings, which reflect his downplaying and disregard of historical-critical research.  This downplaying/disregard is still common among a number of theologians.

The most obvious error to my mind is the infamous text I referred to last week – Genesis 22, where Abraham, supposedly out of obedience to God, travels to Moriah for the purpose of killing his second born son (Isaac).  As I said last week, when one reads the whole of Isaac’s story one realizes it is the story of a damaged victim of patriarchal abuse.  The Torah itself, therefore, critiques an uncritical approach to this God who threatens a child.

Kierkegaard however uses Genesis 22 in his book Fear and Trembling to argue for the ethical position that sometimes God tells someone to do something that is unethical.  Kierkegaard’s supporters use the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer justifiably being part of the plot to kill Adolf Hitler.  Kierkegaard’s detractors though say the argument ‘God said it and therefore it’s okay’ has been used by many deluded murderers – for example David Koresh of Waco infamy.

Immanuel Kant, and his stress on the importance of reason in ethics, is critical of Kierkegaard.  Kant said that Abraham was duty bound to question a voice that dared to command a patently immoral deed.  But for Kierkegaard that is to put ethics before God.  Personally I like the approach of the biblical theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza when she says: ‘no scripture that perpetuates violence should have the status of divine revelation.’  Or, to quote Augustine again: ‘So if it seems to you that you have understood the divine scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up the twin love of God and neighbour, then you have not yet understood them.’ 

Kierkegaard’s notion that faith was absurd, rather than rational, might be better supported if he used, instead of Genesis 22, the text Luke 15:1-7 [the absurdity of abandoning the 99 sheep in order to save the one lost], or Luke 5:1-7 [throwing your nets yet again, though you’ve been fishing all night].

I admire Kierkegaard’s goal of trying to urge us to assume responsibility for our lives, to realize that the art of life is to know what to do in circumstances we face alone – rather than follow other’s [parents, preachers, peers, God’s] prepared scripts for our lives.  He wanted to us to usher in an age marked by enthusiasm, passion, daring, decisiveness, and heroism rather than his present age [1840s] of reflection and deliberation, or I suspect than our current age [2016] with its self-absorption, love of image, surface, speed, and instantaneous gratification.  He wanted us to do rather than just to think.  He wanted us to be guided by moral norms embedded in conscience and the example of Christ.  Kierkegaard’s leap of faith is the call to act inventively, to make a judgement when there are no guard rails.  We go as far as we can with calculations then, says Kierkegaard, we leap.

[i] Note that Kierkegaard admired Hegel and used Hegelian means to produce un-Hegelian results.

[ii] John Caputo, How to Read Kierkegaard, London, Granta : 2007,p.20.

[iii] Luke 19:1-10.