Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher and religious thinker, is generally considered one of the founders of existentialism. His philosophy was mainly “an answer to the challenge of theological nihilism – the dead orthodoxy of a dead Church.”1 It was an attack on the rationalist’s desire for proofs as an evasion of the claim of revelation.
Kierkegaard has become popular more recently due to the uprise of secular existentialism and Christian existentialism; both of which find their origins in his ideas. Yet, “it would be inaccurate to call Kierkegaard an existentialist. He himself was concerned to understand how to become a Christian, whereas existentialism is concerned with what it is to be a human being.”2
In his Philosophical Fragments (1844), Kierkegaard goes on to explain that it is always better and appropriate to reason from existence and that existence is never subject to demonstration. The person who attempts to demonstrate the existence of God has actually already presupposed the existence of God.
In the Concluding Unscientific Postcript (1846), Kierkegaard argued that nobody can attain religious faith by an objective examination of the evidence, but only by a subjective choice, “a leap of faith.” Furthermore, he argued, the amount of objective evidence supporting a belief does not make the belief genuine or true. Rather, true belief is measured by the sincerity and passion of the believer. Thus, he concluded that in religion “truth is subjectivity.”3
Kierkegaard bitterly criticized all attempts to make religion rational. He held that God wants us to obey Him, not argue for Him.4
Kierkegaard insisted that Christian faith is not just having “correct” beliefs. Faith involves personal commitment and practical obedience. Faith, when thought as simply having the right ideas, tends to become superficial, false, and second-hand.
His ideas are somewhat similar to the ideas of Blaise Pascal the French mathematician and philosopher who lived during the period 1623-62. Pascal stated that “the heart has its reasons which are unknown to reason”, thus drawing a clear line of distinction between the logic of heart and the logic of the intellect. God could not be reached by reason but is perceived intuitively by the heart.
We see in Kierkegaard also an emphasis on faith as involved in the knowledge of God. He accepted the position of Hume and Kant that it is impossible to find certain knowledge through the senses.
The idealism of Aristotle, Plato, and their followers, which assumes that man has the truth in himself and needs only to become conscious of this truth, was to Kierkegaard completely false. Truth, he said, must come from outside. God, or the Teacher, gives man not only truth but the ability to understand it. Man has freedom of choice and must exercise that freedom. Religion and faith involve suffering. To be what one is by one’s own act is freedom. This saying of Kierkegaard is one of the tenets of existentialism.5
Truth to him was subjectivity: “The thing is to understand myself,” he says, “to see what God really wishes me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.” “An existing human being must decide or choose to become an ethical or a religious person. One is not “immediately” ethical or religious; there is no transition to these by means of information and demonstrations. Were it possible for a theory or a philosophy to tell an individual what he or she is – to determine completely the kind of person he or she is – then that person would cease to be an individual, that is, a person who is responsible for what he or she becomes or does not become. If we did not have this freedom, we would no longer be responsible for what we are. Thus, in Kierkegaard, choice or decision becomes highlighted as the most important feature of human existence.”6
Real truth was not a matter of detached, abstract speculation. It was a matter of painful heart searching. The object was to find eternal happiness. “Reasoning will lead us only to paradox; and historical enquiry leads only to probability, which is without value for faith.”7 “Christian beliefs are absurd; they are an offence to the reason.”8 Faith means belief in the absurd, or else it wouldn’t be faith.
“The emphasis in faith is on the will rather than on the intellect.”9 It depends entirely on the choice of the will. It is a huge risk. It is a “leap of faith”. To become a Christian has to do with a change in the will, and it is “risking”, he says, “Without risk faith is an impossibility.”
“Faith must be existential faith.”10 Faith expresses a relation from personality to personality. To Kierkegaard the personal is the valuable. Faith and reason are mutually exclusive opposites. With Kierkegaard, what counts is not what you know, but how you react. And the end-product is not more factual knowledge, but an enlarged understanding of oneself and human existence. His analogy is: “the only possible relation between a person and person is a relation in faith… Take the two most passionate lovers who have ever lived, and even if they are, as is said, one soul in two bodies, this can never come to anything more than that the one believes that the other loves him or her. In this purely personal relation between God as personal being and the believer as personal being, in existence, is to be found the concept of faith.”
The factors that lead to Kierkegaard’s philosophy are many; such as:11
1. There was a strong element of formalism in the Lutheran Danish State Church of his day. He attacked what he called “nominal Christianity.”
2. “The great earthquake”, as he calls it, when he came to know shocking things in his father’s life who he adored and even tried to emulate. At that moment Kierkegaard decided to think and to do not what others expected of him, but only what seemed true or worthwhile in his own experience.
3. Kierkegaard despised the armchair ease with which philosophers of the day claimed to have access to the thoughts of God. No one, he urged, can see the whole of reality and even a glimpse into a little of the truth is always a costly matter. We cannot know God by just theory, or even prove His existence. He was radically opposed to the system of philosophy of Georg W. F. Hegel, to whom absolute knowledge was possible and rational.
“Kierkegaard objected to Hegel’s claim that his philosophy was a philosophical expression of Christianity. Hegel’s basic convictions that there is a continuity between all things and that reason has the power to uncover that continuity provoked Kierkegaard to say that Hegel had forgotten what it is to be an existing human being.” Ethics and religion have to be appropriated by an individual subjectively. He stressed that “one proves God’s existence by worship.”
True knowledge of God will transform the one who knows Him and will involve him in a costly discipleship. For truth concerns life no less than it concerns thought.
1 James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door, 3rd edn., Intervarsity Press, 106
2 Diogenes Allen, Philosophy for Understanding Theology (John Knox Press, 247
3 Ivan Soll, “Kierkegaard”, The World Book Encyclopedia, 1980.
4 Ivan Soll, “Kierkegaard”, The World Book Encyclopedia, 1980.
5 The Encyclopedia Americana
6 Diogenes Allen, Ibid, 244.
7 Colin Chapman, The Case for Christianity, A Lion Handbook, 169-170.
8 Colin Chapman, The Case for Christianity, A Lion Handbook, 169-170.
9 Colin Chapman, The Case for Christianity, A Lion Handbook, 169-170.
10 Colin Chapman, The Case for Christianity, A Lion Handbook,169-170.
11 A Lion Handbook of Christian Belief, 449-450.