Friday, November 02, 2007

Truth as Subjectivity in the Theology of Kierkegaard: Part 4

A Leap of Faith

So, for Kierkegaard, faith consists of a decision…a choice to radically commit oneself to Christianity. This decision is not obvious, nor is it simply the inevitable conclusion of reason. Indeed, in some ways it is antithetical to reason. It is a decision to trust in paradox. This trust is no mere mental assent. It is the commitment of one’s life and resources to something that makes no sense when viewed objectively. It is a determined choice to engage this God subjectively and thereby a decision to view the world subjectively through this lens and engage it accordingly. Kierkegaard illustrates this beautifully in the voice of Johannes de Silentio in his work Fear and Trembling. In describing the “leap” of the “knight of faith,” he explains:

“And yet, the whole earthly figure he presents is a new creation by virtue of the absurd. He resigned everything infinitely, and then he grasped everything again by virtue of the absurd”

Even so, Kierkegaard knew that such a choice was a dangerous and intimidating prospect. He understood that if faith is a subjective decision, as opposed to the obvious result of using objective reason, the possibility exists that such a commitment might require one to violate not only the societal norms of reason, but also the norms of ethics and morality. This is not to say that Kierkegaard is totally comfortable with this conclusion. He finds it deeply troubling and continually highlights the difficulty and seriousness of such a commitment. In Fear and Trembling, he pseudonymously ponders his discomfort, using the Story of Abraham:

“Therefore, though Abraham arouses my admiration, he at the same time appalls me. He who denies himself and sacrifices himself for duty gives up the finite in order to grasp the infinity, and that man is secure enough. The tragic hero gives up the certain for the still more certain, and the eye of the beholder rests upon him confidently. But, he who gives up the universal in order to grasp something still higher which is not the universal—what is he doing? Is it possible that this can be anything else but a temptation? And if it be possible, but the individual was mistaken—what can save him? He suffers all the pain of the tragic hero, he brings to naught his joy in the world, he renounces everything—and perhaps at the same instant debars himself from the sublime joy which to him was so precious that he would purchase it at any price. Him the beholder cannot understand nor let his eye rest confidently upon him…”

Kierkegaard further realizes that when one makes this subjective choice of faith, one runs the risk of making and committing to the wrong choice. Since the choice is relational, and not simply the natural result of reason, there is nothing concrete to guard against this.
In Philosophical Fragments, he illustrates this dilemma by telling a parable of an unaffiliated knight who is offered a place in the army on both sides of a battle. The knight makes his choice and his chosen army loses the battle. When he is captured, he attempts to accept the place in the ranks of the victorious army that he was originally offered. He is unambiguously informed that the previous offer is no longer on the table.


In looking at Kierkegaard’s concept of subjective truth, particularly in relation to Theology, one might raise the objection that it runs the risk of creating God in our own image and/or remaking religion to suit us. Certainly fragments of his work could be appropriated this way, but one would have to ignore the bulk of his writing to do so In the view of Kierkegaard, the historical witness of those who subjectively engaged God was characterized by suffering, and was in no way self-serving. Still the accusation can be made that Kierkegaard’s thought is to focused on the individual, or at least that it neglects the communal aspect of faith. This, I think is a fair criticism, though one must take into account the Enlightenment context he is speaking into. Kierkegaard’s critique (though largely ignored in his own day), acts as a powerful corrective against the influence of the Enlightenment on Theology. In discussing Kierkegaard’s concept of subjectivity as truth, Jurgen Moltmann explains,

“Protestant subjectivism has led religiously and culturally to all possible kinds of individualism, pluralism, and egoism. But it has also brought into modern culture the dignity of every human person, and individual human rights, so that these can never again be forgotten.”

1. Caputo, John D. On Religion. Routledge, 2001.

2. “Comedy Central: Shows - The Colbert Report.” (accessed October 1, 2007).

3. Kierkegaard, and Bretall. Kierkegaard Anthology. Modern Library, n.d.

4. Kierkegaard, Soren. Parables of Kierkegaard. Princeton University, 1989.

5. ———. The Essential Kierkegaard. Princeton University Press, 2000.

6. Kierkegaard, Søren. Attack Upon Christendom. Princeton University, 1944.

7. Moltmann, Jurgen. God for a Secular Society: The Public Relevance of Theology. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1999.

8. Strathern, Paul. Kierkegaard in 90 Minutes. Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 2001.

9. “Wayne's World.” July 10, 2001.


Anna said...

so i'm looking through your 'new posts on blogs i read' and i start reading something that looks oddly familiar. i wonder why.. haha.

Michael said...

I'm having a little bit of trouble following your argumentation. You state, "So, for Kierkegaard, faith consists of a decision…a choice to radically commit oneself to Christianity." As you unpack - Kierkegaard does not acknowledge the ontological existence of Christianity outside of the epistemic subjectivities of individual believers. Therefore, I have trouble accepting your statement that, "This trust is no mere mental assent. It is the commitment of one’s life and resources to something that makes no sense when viewed objectively."

My trouble with your line of reasoning is that I believe you are equating "Christianity" with "Christ." While there is paradox involved, I do not think K is asserting that Christians are doing something wildly illogical by putting their trust in Christ.

Adam said...

Thanks for reading and for your comments. I think that Kierkegaard has to be read in context, and particularly against the backdrop of Hegel and Kant. In K's view, they had reduced God to a system. In many ways, most of his work can be read as a critique of this. I do not believe that he would say that there is nothing rational about following Christ. He would (and does), however assert that reason won't get you there. Logic doesn't get the job done. It is his contention (and on this point I agree with him) that to have faith is to commit oneself in spite of one's doubt. Faith/Belief assumes doubt. If there were no doubt, it would simply be knowledge. Further, Kierkegard emphatically states that even if one could arrive objectively at a "correct" knowledge of Christ, such knowledge is useless if Christ is not subjectively engaged.

My point is that if faith/Christianity is merely an objective, rational decision based on our ability to put the facts together (if, indeed we're smart enough to do so), then if at any point we have doubts or if at any point we can't reason it out or complete the equation, then the entire thing makes no sense whatsoever. Additionally, I've never seen where the ability to solve an equation really engendered much passion in anyone. Subjective commitment to something, however...well, that's a different story.

I should note, that I am not in agreement with Kierkegaard on everything. I do find him to be quite interesting, and possibly useful in a time when much of our religion/theology has gotten confused with modernity.

Anonymous said...

Well written Adam. It is especially nice to see someone consider Kierkegaard within context for a change!