This past semester I participated in a reading seminar on the works of the “father of existentialism,” Soren Kierkegaard. What follows is an edited version of my final paper.
I think that I have learned two things from reading Kierkegaard; put another way, I think I have learned what Kierkegaard thinks about two things: the first thing has to do with the concept of faith, what it is and how it relates to the rest of life; the second thing has to do with how one comes to possess faith, whether of their own accord or by virtue of another’s guidance/teaching (it turns out that central to both things is the concept of paradox). I will begin with a few pages of exegetical work in order to explain what it is that Kierkegaard thinks on these two points; then I will conclude with a personal response with suggested application for thinkers, readers, and believers of today.
Faith and How it is Obtained
Faith is a central concept in the work of Soren Kierkegaard. What faith is, and how it relates to the ethical is the topic under consideration in Fear and Trembling.We can take what is found about faith in this book as fairly representative of Kierkegaard’s thought on the subject because of his latter opinion of the book itself. Walter Lowry notes, in the Editor’s Introduction to this translation, that in Kierkegaard’s journal he says that “When once I am dead — then Fear and Trembling alone will be enough to give me the name of an immortal author.” Though he moves on from some of the concepts in this book in his later religious works, understanding faith’s relation to the ethical will be key to understanding what he thinks of the concept in general.
Faith in Fear and Trembling
He begins by bemoaning how many wish to “go further” than faith. In his mind there is nothing higher than faith — if you have attempted to go beyond faith you are actually descending back into earthly understanding. When he begins to describe Abraham and his movement with faith, he says that when he began his sojourn, he “left his earthly understanding behind and took faith with him.” So when he speaks of “going further” or beyond faith, he is speaking about using one’s earthly understanding as the operating principle for one’s life; and this, he wants to say, is not faith.
Here it would be worth noting what faith is for. Is it faith for the eternal or the infinite? To this Kierkegaard offers a resounding “No!” On the contrary, faith/believing is “for this life.” Faith, then, is believing something, and believing for the present, and temporal. As he says in reference to the knight of faith, “after having made the movements of infinity, it makes those of finiteness.” And again a couple pages later, “He belongs entirely to this world.” Some may think, contra Kierkegaard, that believers have faith in what will come — what God will do; but this, I think, is better defined as hope.
At this point it would be helpful to place this conversation in reference to what Kierkegaard calls “the ethical.” After recounting the story of Abraham and Isaac and their journey to Moriah, he says that Abraham’s ethical duty is to love his son. This is what all fathers are called to do by virtue of ethics. Fathers love their sons and would rather give their life to protect the son’s at all cost. So Abraham’s ethical duty would be to reject God’s command to sacrifice Isaac; but Abraham does not do so. Instead he makes the journey to Moriah, ready to commit the murderous act if necessary. So Kierkegaard wonders how Abraham could be considered such a great example for believers if he was quite ready and willing to become a murderer. This sets up the paradox that is faith; “Either Abraham was every minute a murderer, or we are confronted by a paradox which is higher than all mediation.” Faith, then, is that which “can make a murder into a holy act.”
How does a murder become a holy act? For Kierkegaard, this can only be possible if there exists a “teleological suspension of the ethical.” The ethical is defined as “the universal,” applying to all people at all times. And faith becomes the paradox that “the particular is higher than the universal.” Faith is the realm in which “human reckoning ceases to function,” and where one believes “by virtue of the absurd.” There is a connection between the universal and human reckoning. Ethics (morals) are derived from our mutual understanding of how we should relate to one-another. They must be universal or else we could not hold each other accountable for our actions. As Kierkegaard notes, if Abraham’s actions on Moriah could be explained by the “circumstances of times,” then the entire enterprise of critiquing and learning from Abraham would be pointless. So, if there is a teleological suspension of the ethical, then one could be justified (in the sight of God) for committing an unethical act (in the sight of others). In short, if there is a higher telos, one outside of the ethical, then one could be teleologically justified by faith for transgressing the ethical.
This leads him to the question of whether or not there is an absolute duty toward God. Of course, Kierkegaard’s answer to this is “yes.” If there is a God, and our telos is found in him, then it is our absolute duty to obey this God regardless of ethics’ demands. And if this is so, if loving God is the ultimate duty, then “to love God may cause the knight of faith to give his love to his neighbor the opposite expression to that which, ethically speaking, is required by duty.” To bring this back to Abraham, ethically speaking, his duty is to love and protect his son from harm; but if he is to be a knight of faith and love God, then his duty to his son is subsumed in his higher duty to God, which may require an unethical act — the murder of the son. Faith as presented in Fear and Trembling is this paradox: “that the particular is higher than the universal.” Abraham — the particular, becomes higher than the universal — ethics, by a teleological suspension of the ethical, which happens when Abraham must violate the ethical in order to fulfil his higher duty to God.
Faith in Philosophical Fragments and the Postscript
Kierkegaard has more to say about faith, and more specifically how it is obtained, in the Fragments and the Postscript. The question that begins the Fragments is: “Can truth be learned.” For Socrates, truth was not learned, it was remembered from past lives. This, for Johannes Climacus (Kierkegaard) is not acceptable. So he seeks a description of how truth could be learned, and if so, from whom. This leads him to say that “the learner was created.” Now, if the learner is created, this would mean that he has a relation to the creator — what he will later refer to as the absolute. We should note the use of “absolute” here and how, as in Fear and Trembling, it is a reference to God.
It is in discussing the paradox of learning that faith is introduced — the paradox being that the historical is eternalized and the eternal is made historical. Without recounting every movement in the “pamphlet,” this paradox he is discussing is the ultimate paradox — the incarnation. After saying that the learner is not supposed to understand the paradox, but is to “understand that this is the paradox,” he then says that the “happy passion” in relation to the paradox is called “faith.” And shortly after, “this relation cannot be expressed… but only in that happy passion which we call faith, the object of which is the paradox.” So in Fragments, faith is a happy passion in relation to the paradox.
But how does one come to faith? Is it a matter of the individual will? To this, Kierkegaard again answers with a “No!” For him it is “easy to see… that faith is not an act of the will, for it is always the case that human willing is efficacious only within the condition” — which can only be provided by the god. We now have the answer to the question: How does one obtain faith? The god provides it. It is not a matter of the understanding on the part of the learner; on the contrary, “the learner becomes a believer or follower … when the understanding is discharged and he receives the condition.” He only “receives the condition in the moment and receives it from the teacher himself.” And again in the Postscript, “faith does not result from straightforward scholarly deliberation, nor does it come directly; on the contrary, in this objectivity one loses the infinite, personal, impassioned interestedness, which is the condition of faith.” Even if a genuine believer is a speculative thinker, “speculative thinking cannot have the same meaning for him as faith.” There seems, then, to be a congruity to what is said about faith in Fear and Trembling, and what he says in the Fragments; in the former the ethical is that which must be suspended and transcended in order to have faith, in the latter it is speculative thought and understanding that is a hindrance to faith. In summary of this exegetical section, Kierkegaard sees faith as both going beyond the ethical in order to fulfil one’s duty to God, and as the believing/recognizing as paradox the historical/infinite paradox; and it can only be obtained after the condition is provided — which only God can do.
Applying Kierkegaard’s Idea of Faith
I would now like to make some observations and responses to what has been said above. This will be fairly personal as I will make an attempt at explaining how I can apply what I have learned from Kierkegaard to my own life and philosophical thought. I do not pretend to have understood what he thinks completely, but for an author with such a vast corpus, and in the limited time we had to study him, this may be seen as an honest critique and response to my own characterization of him.
Response to Faith — What It Is
As stated above, faith is the paradox that “the particular is higher than the universal.” And it is also involved, somehow, in the accepting as a paradox the paradox of the infinite/historical. In regards to Abraham, because of faith, he was not a murderer, but a saint. This was possible because of the teleological suspension of the ethical made possible by his absolute duty to God. In regards to the paradox of the incarnation, faith is the ability to believe that the absurd happened — that the infinite became finite/historical, and that a historical event had infinite consequences. It is to these ideas that I will respond.
I feel the paradoxical nature of the Abraham story. Kierkegaard wants to say that Abraham’s willingness to murder his son because he heard God’s voice makes him a saint; and I simply cannot go with him down that road. At first, one could blame my hesitation to follow him on my historical position (3,000 years removed from the event); but I do not think this would be fair to Kierkegaard. He is not basing his telling of Abraham on historical contingencies, but sees the event as an archetype for faith in all time. Faith is that which justifies one who has transgressed the ethical, regardless of their place in history or which ethical norm they have violated; if the absolute duty to God has commanded the murderous act, one must either obey or be lost in non-faith. As Kierkegaard presents it, it is a matter anyone can understand, framed in the ultimate terms — a father’s ethical duty is to love and protect his son, and it is this universal ethic that faith requires one to abandon.
Since Kierkegaard is hell-bent on prioritizing the individual, subjective, experience over the universal, let me make it personal. I am a father with two sons who I love dearly. No, they have not been given to me as part of a promise to bless the world, but I love them more than anything in the world. Any father (or mother) should be able to relate; there is nothing I would not do to protect them from unnecessary harm. And I would certainly not remove my protection in order to commit the harm myself! I know what I would do if I thought God was telling me to murder my son; I would tell him to buzz off! A god that would require an innocent life as a test of my commitment to him is sick, twisted, and unworthy of my love and devotion. I simply do not care if that God created me; for whatever reason I would be unable to submit in this way. Is this a lack of faith on my part? Maybe. But what am I to do about it? Remember, Kierkegaard has already said that faith is not an act of the human will; it must come as a result of the condition which only the god can provide. So if I am unable to follow him down this road/definition of faith, the blame must rest on the shoulders of the divine teacher who has yet to provide me with the condition by which I can sacrifice my ethics. Again, one may protest that God did not require the murder of Isaac, in the end he provided an alternative; but this misses the point — faith is defined as the individual being higher than the universal, and he is only justified in doing this if he is acting in accord with a higher duty to God.
But why stop with Abraham, and fathers and sons? Why not think of another ethical command and see how it would feel to suspend it for the sake of a higher teleology? But we shall stick with children, since they were close to both Kierkegaard’s and the current author’s heart. And we shall make it a an extremely contemporary example — sexual abuse of young boys by priests. For the example, say that we have gathered all the boy-touchers into one room together for an inquisition. What could they possibly say, what excuse could they give for their actions — their unethical actions? I will not pretend to know the psychology of a person who commits this type of crime; but I can say with the utmost confidence that anyone present at these proceedings would, by virtue of their being an ethical human being, pronounce upon the priests a charge of acting in a heinously unethical way. There is simply no ethical reason to which they could appeal for justification; they have transgressed the ethical, and that is that.
“Ah, but wait just one minute,” a contemporary Kierkegaard might say. “One of these men, though he understands that he has still violated the ethical, was granted a teleological suspension of the ethical because of his absolute duty to God. Yes, the universal says that it is always wrong to touch little boys in their naughty places, and a priest surely knows this, but this (nameless) priest as an individual has become higher than the universal.” And the advocate may add, “I know that this is unintelligible to the entire world, that a priest-turned-molester is, in fact, a saint. Yes, a saint following in the footsteps of our great father of faith, Abraham. So maybe we should not judge this man quite so harshly for his pedophilia, maybe he is to be held up as an example for anyone who wishes to make the movements of faith.” Whether for lack of god-given faith, or some undefined intuition, my only response (and I assume yours as well) to this would be to say that it is complete and utter nonsense, not worthy of another wasted moment’s thought.
Response to Faith — How it is Obtained
Kierkegaard says that faith is not an action of the human will alone, but must come after the condition which only the god provides; and what else would we expect a good Lutheran to say? I am well-aware that Kierkegaard places a high value on human freedom, choice, and self-assessment; but when it comes to obtaining faith, or becoming a believer, he seems quite clear as to it, ultimately, being a matter of divine gifting or revelation. And this, I think, is something I have come to agree (at least partially) with him on.
I used to believe all the things. What I mean by “all the things” is all of the theological claims that Christianity makes. And what I mean by “believed” is that not only did I mentally assent to the claims, but I was willing to stake my life, my finite happiness, on what I believed precisely because I knew Christianity was a matter of my eternal happiness. I made tough life choices that required sacrifice and commitment. I gave up future opportunities, advancement, and prestige because of my faith. Friends and family turned away from my commitment; they wanted to go beyond faith, and my unwillingness to place speculation over faith was a stumbling block for them. If anyone was a believer, if anyone had faith, I did.
But things change; life presses in around you and you grow up. You experience pain and heartache that you never imagined facing yourself. And then, somehow, it is simply gone. The faith that once moved mountains, that was able to constitute an individual above the universal, disappeared. To be honest, it did not simply disappear; it died one piece at a time. Some parts of it were killed by logical thoughts like those above concerning Kierkegaard’s idea of what faith is. But other parts were killed by nothing I can pinpoint; so I am left with what Kierkegaard says about how faith is obtained — the god provides it. So why not assume that if faith is lost it is simply a matter of the god removing the condition? If the believing was never a matter of human freedom, then surely the loss of belief can not be a matter of human freedom. Can it?
I have learned a couple of things from Kierkegaard. Faith is to believe in the paradox; whether that of the individual becoming higher than the universal (ethics), or the infinite becoming historical (incarnation). Faith is obtained not as a matter of human will, but is contingent on the god providing the condition. While I take issue with some aspects of what Kierkegaard thinks, I also appreciate his honestly, and ruthless commitment to the individual wrestling with these topics, and I hope that Christians today will recognize and embrace the radicalness of their faith; it is, by the way, believing in a paradox.