Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Truth as Subjectivity in the Theology of Kierkegaard: Part 2


This preceding biographical sketch must serve as context for Kierkegaard’s theology, and indeed he would have it no other way. For him, this is the only way it even can be discussed. In his Journals, Kierkegaard explains his calling thus,

“The purpose of my life would seem to be to express the truth as I discover it, but in such a manner that it is completely devoid of authority. By having no authority, by being seen by all as utterly unreliable, I express the truth and put everyone in a contradictory position where they can only save themselves by making truth their own.”

The objectivity claimed by so many Enlightenment thinkers is thoroughly rejected by Kierkegaard, who instead claims and embraces his own subjectivity. It should be noted, however, that Kierkegaard does not so much seem to question the existence of an “objective truth” as we would define that term, but rather seems to question (a) our ability to access that truth in an objective manner, and (b) the relevance of any “truth” accessed in such a way to the individual and the world. Kierkegaard believes that it is not our consideration of a thing that matters, but rather the decisions we make in relation to the thing in question. In the voice of Johannes Climacus, he explains,

“Objectively we consider only the matter at issue, subjectively we have regard to the subject and his subjectivity; and behold, precisely this subjectivity is the matter at issue. This must constantly be borne in mind, namely, that the subjective problem is not something about an objective issue, but is the subjectivity itself. For since the problem in question poses a decision, and since all decisiveness…inheres in subjectivity, it is essential that every trace of an objective issue should be eliminated. If any such trace remains, it is at once a sign that the subject seeks to shirk something of the pain and crisis of the decision; that is, he seeks to make the problem to some degree objective.”

Here we get to the heart of Kierkegaard’s concept of subjectivity and its importance. When a concept or idea is considered in the abstract, that’s all it is: an abstract concept. It is in no sense “reality”. A thing can only be real or true when a decision is made and we engage the thing subjectively. This flies in the face of philosophers like Kant and Hegel. Theologically, Kierkegaard’s claim seems to be that their objectively observed god is no God at all. He doesn’t, and indeed can’t exist as such. Their faith of “reason” isn’t “true” because it is devoid of subjectivity and decision…it is simply the result of presumably pure, objective reason. Under the pseudonym of Anti-Climacus in The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard tells a parable that expresses his feelings about those philosophers who seek to objectively reflect on reality. He explains that it is as if they build an immaculate palace, all the while unaware that they do not personally live in their beautiful construction, but rather in a barn or a dog kennel beside it. Kierkegaard appears to accuse them of effectively removing themselves from reality.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Truth as Subjectivity in the Theology of Kierkegaard: Part 1

*For the next few days I'll be posting a paper I wrote on Soren Kierkegaard in short, readable sections. I originally thought I wouldn't post this here, but I think Kierkegaard's thought may actually be very relevant for Christianity today. I have added a few hyperlinks here for those who need a little more info on key people, events, or concepts that I gloss over.


“Was it Kierkegaard or Dick Van Patten who said ‘If you label me, you negate me?’”
-Wayne Campbell (Mike Myers)
My introduction to the thought of Kierkegaard was in 2001, in a subtitled quote of a joke in the movie Wayne’s World. Now, after having studied Kierkegaard, this seems oddly appropriate. Kierkegaard’s body of work is a bit intimidating, as he frequently hides his theology behind satire, and pseudonyms. Moreover, his pseudonyms are sometimes less pseudonyms and more full blown characters. At times he has one character discover the work of another character and offer commentary on it. I think he does this not so much to distance himself from his work, as to create dialogue. In many ways, it seems to me that he was to the theology (and philosophy) of his day what Stephen Colbert is to American politics in ours. Additionally, it seems to me that he may have created his pseudonymous “characters” because he believed that truth could only be expressed subjectively, and therefore he needed to create entire personalities to express (a) what he was not yet willing to attach his own name to and/or (b) positions that he did not personally hold, at least in the form presented (though at times they represented positions that he had held in the past, or the “pure” form of a position that was part of his thinking). Kierkegaard lays out his controlling idea in no uncertain terms in the character of Johannes Climacus in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, when he says, “Subjectivity is truth, subjectivity is reality.” Though this statement is made “in character”, it is in a character that Kierkegaard clearly identifies with and it is just as clearly characteristic of his entire theological scheme.

Kierkegaard must be read and interpreted against the backdrop of the Enlightenment, and particularly the philosophy of Hegel. In Kierkegaard’s view, Hegel had basically reduced God and Faith to a system. Caputo explains,

“…every time that Hegel said that Christianity painted a beautiful religious ‘picture’ of which he was delivering the hard-core ‘conceptual truth,’ that his philosophy was ‘Christianity’ raised up to the level of Reason, Kierkegaard howled in pain.”

Kierkegaard devoted much of his writing (particularly his pseudonymous writing) to countering Hegel’s thought and indeed the entire direction that the Enlightenment had led philosophy and theology. Indeed, Kierkegaard seems almost fixated on Hegel at times. Though he explicitly attacks Hegel’s thought, even ridiculing it at times, he also seemed to hold a great deal of respect for the man. He brings this dissonance into the light when he says:

“If Hegel had completed his logic and then said in the preface that the entire thing was merely an experiment in thought, where he had even made a number of unwarranted assumptions, then he would definitely have been the greatest thinker of all time. As it is, he is merely a joke.”

Additionally, one must consider Kierkegaard’s rather bizarre family situation, as well as his on-and-off romantic relationship with Regine Olsen. His father was the dominant influence in his life, and this influence was not altogether positive. His father had led a difficult life of poor circumstance, and at one point, in deep despair and frustration, had apparently overtly “cursed God” in some manner. Because of this, the senior Kierkegaard carried a deep sense of guilt and believed himself and his son to be cursed (a belief that Soren shared for some time). Further, the senior Kierkegaard apparently delivered the news of his blasphemy in a seiries of earth-shattering confessions to Soren. It is speculated that these confessions also included an affair with a maid while Soren’s mother was on her death-bed (the maid eventually became the Father’s second wife), and a visit to a bordello. In the wake of these confessions, S. Kierkegaard seemed to distance himself from his father and everything he held dear, including theology and religion. In the place of these pursuits, Soren dove into philosophy, hence his obsession w/ Hegel.
Regine Olsen also profoundly influenced Kierkegaard, or more accurately, his relationship with her influenced him. He coyly courted her, though in his own mind he probably also saw it as a form of training. He gave her specially selected books for her to read and then would engage her in discussion about the various topics. This relationship was probably doomed from the start due to the negative influence of Kierkegaard’s father and the very warped version of love he learned from him. His relationship to Regine eerily mirrors his relationship with his father in reverse. Eventually they became engaged, but Kierkegaard broke it off, seeing himself as being called to a life of study, writing and celibacy. Regine protested vigorously, but her cries seemed to fall on deaf ears and she eventually married another. Even so, Kierkegaard seemed to hold onto an odd hope that they would eventually be reunited in some kind of “spiritual bond”.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Who Am I? by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Who am I? They often tell me

I stepped from my cell’s confinement

Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

Like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They often tell me

I used to speak to my warders

Freely and friendly and clearly,

As though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me

I bore the days of misfortune

Equally, smilingly, proudly,

Like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I myself know of myself?

Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,

Struggling for breath, as though hands were

compressing my throat,

Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,

Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,

Tossing in expectation of great events,

Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I? This or the other?

Am I one person today and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,

And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?

Or is something within me still like a beaten army,

Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, 0 God, I am Thine!

March 4,1946

Monday, October 01, 2007

Creation Stories and Theology in Genesis: Part 6 Conclusion


In February 2007, a tornado ripped through the local High School in Enterprise, AL. Eight teenagers died crouched in the supposed safety of the school’s central hallway, including 16-year old Katie Strunk. Katie died just feet away from the classroom where her mother, a teacher, was seeing to the safety of her students. I know because my father told me on the phone. He was her preacher. He was also the police chaplain who identified her body and informed her parents of her death. I’m sitting in a coffee shop as I type this, and I find that I’m struggling to hold back tears because of the raw emotion of it. This voice that’s embedded deep inside of me keeps telling me, “this isn’t they way it’s supposed to be.” I turn on the news every day and I’m greeted with reports of war, reports of children starving to death, reports of violence, and sometimes worse. I watched the twin towers fall on live television. I helped muck out houses in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. I’ve seen 4 pieces of water damaged plywood and a tarp that someone nailed together as a shelter for their family in Mexico. The voice in my heart screams to me again. It tells me that something is seriously wrong. I read the opening chapters of Genesis, and I’m reminded that the voice speaks the truth. I am also reminded that the tear-drenched proclamation that the voice keeps telling me is not simply a message of despair. When I look at it closely I can see that it is a message infused with hope. I remember that the cosmos has a Creator, who dreamed up the way things are supposed to be in the first place and who is certainly powerful and loving enough to get us there again. I flip to the back of my Bible and I see, in no uncertain terms, a return to Eden and a God who promises to make all things new.38 I am reminded that the curses pronounced in Genesis 3 do not reflect God’s desire for the world, nor are they intended to be permanent. I see Katie and her family reunited with the sting of death removed. I see children who spent their lives empty, now full and smiling. I see war, violence, terror and all of their effects, erased and forgotten. I see people who lost their homes due to hurricanes, tsunamis and poverty welcoming the city of God as it descends from heaven and a Savior who left to prepare them a place there. I see a return to harmony…to shalom. As Michael Wittmer so eloquently states,

    “…the gospel story of redemption represents God’s restoration of creation. God refuses to allow our fall to ultimately destroy his good creation, and he graciously comes to earth to put away sin and restore the world to its original goodness.”39

This is our story, at least the beginning and end of it. It would be a sin, if the people of God inadvertently worked to exclude people from community rather than working to include them. It would be a sin if the people of God replaced the relationship he has always desired with a legal code. It would be a sin if the people of God misused the creation texts as a justification for exploiting and abusing the earth. It would be a tragic sin, if the people of God were inadvertently working to perpetuate the curse rather than working with God to reverse it.


  1. Bell, Rob. Sex God. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007.
  2. Bouma-Prediger, Steven. For the Beauty of the Earth. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.
  3. Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, ed. Mays, James L, vol. 1. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982.
  4. Ellis, Robert R. "Creation, vocation, crisis and rest: a creational model for spirituality." Review & Expositor 2, no. 103 (Spring 2006): 307-324.
  5. Enns, Peter. Inspiration and Incarnation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.
  6. Gonzalez, Justo L. Christian Thought Revisited. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1999.
  7. Grenz, Stanley J. Theology for the Community of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.
  8. Hicks, John Mark. Yet Will I Trust Him. Joplin: College Press, 1999.
  9. Levinson, Jon D. The Jewish Study Bible. Edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  10. Longmann, Tremper, and Raymond Dillard. Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.
  11. Marshall, Paul. Heaven Is Not My Home. Nashville: Word Publishing, 1998.
  12. Matthews, Victor H, and James C. Moyer. The Old Testament: Text and Context. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005.
  13. McKnight, Scot. Embracing Grace. Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2005.
  14. Middleton, J. Richard. The Liberating Image. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005.
  15. Middleton, Richard, and Brian Walsh. Truth Is Stranger Than It Used To Be. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995.
  16. Plantinga, Cornelius. Not The Way Its Supposed To Be: a breviary of sin. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
  17. Von Rad, Gerhard. Genesis: a commentary. The Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972.
  18. Wittmer, Michael. Heaven is a Place on Earth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004.