Kierkegaard and the leap to faith.
I’ve decided that the only way to understand religion is in terms of what Søren Kierkegaard called the “leap.” (CUP, p 340) He never used the term “leap of faith.” I’m still struggling with Kierkegaard. My post is a series of comments on some important ideas of his. There are others.
I am particularly interested in the religious implications of his earlier works, those not explicitly Christian. When people refer to Kierkegaard as the first existentialist, it is to these earlier works that they refer.
One influence on my decision to study Kierkegaard was reading some of Reinhold Niebuhr’s sermons, prayers, and religious essays (2015). Far from being a “Christian realist,” as I may have portrayed him here, Niebuhr was first of all a man of faith. But what does this mean?
Truth as subjectivity
It means that through an act of “imaginative reorientation,” one chooses to see the world as gift, and Christ as our savior, because doing so makes life more meaningful. Reasons can be given, but the world as gift and Christ as savior becomes a reality by acting as if it were so. This is what Kierkegaard means by “truth as subjectivity.”
Truth is not just a proposition. Truth becomes a way of life. This is exemplified in Christ’s claim that “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Christ not only claims to teach the truth; His life is the truth (Evans, p 62). Our lives can never be the truth, but we can seek to make the ideals represented by Christ’s life and teachings our own, in so far as this is humanly possible. In this way faith becomes a reality.
Abraham and Isaac: attempted murder or sacrifice?
If Abraham is taken as a model of faith, then the story of the binding (Akedah) of Isaac is an unethical act.
The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he intended to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he intended to sacrifice Isaac. But in this contradiction lies precisely the anxiety that indeed can make a person sleepless, and yet Abraham is not who he is without this anxiety. (FT, p 30).
If Abraham is justified in sacrificing Isaac, then there must be something higher than the ethical. Kierkegaard calls this the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” (Sometimes I find Kierkegaard’s terminology almost unbearable.)
Like Niebuhr, Kierkegaard seeks to find a place to stand outside society, which for him is identical with the ethical. The ethical is whatever society says it is, what Hegel called Sittlichkieit, the ethical order that makes society possible. But truth is the word of God. Abraham is a “knight of faith,” one who obeys only himself and God. The morality of society has nothing to do with it. For Kierkegaard that’s good.
Less frequently commented on is a version of this story told by Kierkegaard in which Abraham knew he was willing to do God’s bidding, but he also knew that God should never have asked it of him. For the rest of his life Abraham was depressed by this knowledge.
Isaac throve as before; but Abraham’s eye was darkened, he saw joy no more. (FT, p 46)
Do we not have a right to expect that a just and merciful God would not put us to such a terrible test in the first place? Or should we say with the Lord that His thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55: 8-9). For nothing is changed in this story when an angel steps in at the end, halts Abraham’s hand at the moment he would slit his son’s throat, and substitutes a ram caught in a thicket. Abraham would have killed his adored son, and he knows it. That’s what pains him forever, or so Kierkegaard imagines. He has a good imagination.
To be fit for eternity
We can worry about whether something called eternal life exists. At the committal of the body to the grave, one of the rites of the Anglican Church (shared by many other churches) refers to “the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life,” a wording that has always struck me as odd. A sure and certain hope is still just a hope, one that sounds a little desperate.
Kierkegaard would say that we are worrying about the wrong thing. The right thing to worry about is not whether eternal life exists, but whether I am worthy of it. As he faces his death Socrates is uncertain about eternity, but it does not worry him. Life after death may be nothingness, an endless sleep, or it may be his version of heaven, questioning the great heroes of the past (Apology, 40b-41e). What Socrates worries about is whether he has ordered his life so that he might be fit for eternity. In worrying about his fitness for eternity, Socrates is creating eternity (CUP, p 201). We can do the same.
The incarnation is Christianity; it is not a paradox
For Kierkegaard, the central doctrine of Christianity is that at a certain point in history, God took on human form and loved us from a position of utter vulnerability, feeling human pain in every bone of his body. This vulnerability destroyed him, or would have, if Christ were fully human, but he was not, and so he saved us by giving us a plan for how to live and die, and the faith to believe in Him (PF, 108-109).
The contradiction of the incarnation is that something cannot be eternal and temporal at the same time. But there is no contradiction, for contradiction can only be logical, and the incarnation is simply unbelievable. But that doesn’t speak against it either, for much that is unbelievable is true, such as the scientific claim that 93% of our body was originally stardust.
This means that I can experience the incarnation through faith, or I can think reasonably about it. If I can think about it, then it is not a contradiction like a square circle, which is a logical contradiction based on the definition of terms. That God became man is actually closer to an historical claim about an event in time, albeit one that can never be proven. But we don’t even need to prove it; we just have to live as though it were true. Doing so is faith.
What would Kierkegaard say to Western intellectuals today?
What would Kierkegaard say to Western intellectuals who believe that we live in a post-Christian world? The first thing he would say is that questions of faith have nothing to do with the time in which one lives. Conversely, one cannot conclude that Christianity was true merely because it has endured for millennia. Kierkegaard detested Christendom, the establishment religion. It means nothing to believe in Christianity because others do, or disbelieve because others don’t (Evans, p 194).
Isn’t the loss of faith really the decline of the mythic imagination, by which I mean the ability to tell good stories about the meaning of life? Myths are neither true nor false; they are either rich or impoverished in narrative, symbol, and meaning. Science tells us about a marvelous and fantastic world. Science also gets things done. But it has nothing to say about faith, and the fact that we live in a so-called scientific world only means that we have to work harder to make our faith real. That’s the real meaning of subjective truth.
Stephen Evans, Kierkegaard: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (CUP). Princeton University Press, 1992.
Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (FT). Princeton University Press, 1983.
Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments (PF). Princeton University Press, 1985.
Reinhold Niebuhr, Major Works on Religion and Politics, ed. Elisabeth Sifton. Library of America, 2015.