Written by Michael Lucana
This is an exploration of the concept of faith from an Existentialist viewpoint. I freely borrowed, reinterpreted, and repurposed many ideas from Soren Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling,” translated by Alastair Hannay. In addition, while the arguments below are ascribed to Kierkegaard himself, it should be noted that the book itself is written under the peudonym of “Johannes de Silentio.” For the sake of simplicity, I have combined the views of Silentio and Kierkegaard.
I have to admit, I only started reading the works of Soren Kierkegaard (B.1813 – D.1855) very recently. And as someone who has always been keenly interested in philosophy and religion, you would think that I would have had some familiarity with one of the most famous precursors to Christian-Existentialism. But nope, nothing.
So, over the course of the past year I decided to go for it. I picked up a couple of books by Kierkegaard and really tried to make an effort to see just what the big deal was. Once I got my bearings, (Kierkegaard’s writing style is incredibly dense and loaded with a very special brand of irony) I kind of began to kick myself for never having read him sooner. When I read what he had to say about diverse topics like anxiety, despair, and even love, I was honestly kind of surprised at how close some of his words hit.
I’ve written on what Kierkegaard has to say about anxiety and despair recently, and how his words concerning those topics have hit a nerve with me. But I haven’t really deep dived into what he has to say about faith and this is mostly because he has so much to say about it. So, this article is an attempt to make amends of sorts, to try to get into what I think is so important about the way that Kierkegaard thinks about faith.
A Self-Critical Christianity
Unlike most philosophers who focus on religion, Kierkegaard is very much concerned with shining a light on what is actually involved in the lived experience of faith. But does this make him a theologian, like the great theologians of the Medieval period in Europe? Not quite.
This isn’t to say that writers like Saint Anselm of Canterbury or Saint Thomas Aquinas weren’t concerned with their faith, but rather, their projects were more concerned with articulating the rational features of beliefs that they were very much already invested in. Someone like Anselm for example, already bought into the whole Christianity thing, and his writings were really more concerned with spelling out his beliefs in a way that he thought were rationally justifiable.
Kierkegaard, in this regard, is an entirely different creature with an entirely different set of concerns. The reason for this is that, for Kierkegaard, Christianity has already been around for close to two-thousand years. It doesn’t need to be, and, according to him, perhaps should never have been, defended on a rational basis.
Additionally, Christianity, for Kierkegaard, is politically endorsed in Denmark, it’s a part of everyday culture, and its accompanying beliefs are assented to, but as a matter of course. It’s an inauthentic sort of Christianity, at least the way Kierkegaard sees it. One is born into it, and in some way, is forced to conform to the beliefs that belong to it. Faith itself, the experience of it, doesn’t really seem to be required in this sort of Christian life, and that is exactly why Kierkegaard, in many of his writings, takes aim at trying to work out exactly what faith is and why it even matters.
What is Religion without Faith?
How can you be a Christian, or religious in any sense, without having faith though? What does that even mean for Kierkegaard?
In Kierkegaard’s view, the age in which he lives is one where Christianity uneasily sits side by side with ‘enlightened’ philosophical systems like Hegelianism, which he thinks treats faith as akin to a naïve, or undeveloped way of existing, of being in the world. Think of small children. They live in the immediate moment, being carried from one experience to another. It isn’t until their cognitive capacities fully develop, and they learn language and gain experience that we really think they’ve matured, that we can really say that they are rational beings. Should they choose to retreat to a child-like way of living in the world, we would normally think that there was something wrong, that they had taken a step backwards.
In this same way, Hegelianism takes it that, to stick to faith is to compromise your own rationality, to go backwards, not forward. The true mark of a fully developed person is to move beyond faith, to something more certain, more rational. Something like knowledge. After all, “Faith […] keeps fairly ordinary company, it belongs with feeling, mood, idiosyncrasy, hysteria and the rest.” (97) And, if one really thinks of faith in this way, then it is no surprise that faith could only ever be something that was suited to “clumsier natures…” (66)
But despite this view of faith, which Kierkegaard takes to be implicitly assented to in the culture of his day, most people still think of themselves as Christians. They still go to mass, they still get married in churches, and they still behave as if they were Christians. But really, what they are is only culturally Christian, at least for Kierkegaard. They are, in his view, merely citizens of Christendom, unknowingly following only the external trappings of the religion, while all the time carrying with them this internal idea that faith is really something that only a rationally immature person would be capable of. It is for this reason that Kierkegaard jokingly asks, “…why do we sometimes hear of people blushing to admit they have faith?” (79). In other words, why is having faith something to be embarrassed about?
For Kierkegaard then, his task, as he sees it, is to articulate a concept of faith that places it either on equal footing with rationality, or maybe even beyond it.
A Bible Story
While it may seem that Kierkegaard’s move should be to completely attack philosophical thinking and reject the validity of rationality, he doesn’t quite do that. He’s not completely anti-rationalist. What he wants to do instead is to seriously engage with philosophical thinking and in doing so, establish that faith is not as simple as we would like to think.
Throughout much of Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard repeatedly comes back to the biblical story of Abraham, who was commanded by God to sacrifice his own son Isaac. Previous to this, God had promised Abraham that his descendants would become a mighty nation. It could be said that all of Abraham’s hopes and dreams were tied up with Isaac. Here’s the passage from Genesis 22 if you are unfamiliar with it, I have streamlined it slightly:
Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”
Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. […] , he set out for the place God had told him about […]
[…] Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.
But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” […] Do not lay a hand on the boy […]Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
Kierkegaard, in considering this story, is both astounded and quite rightly horrified by Abraham’s faith in God. After all, on the face of it, there is no way for Abraham to justify the killing of Isaac in any way that accords with common notions of morality. Yet Kierkegaard says that Abraham is held up as the exemplar of faith, that if we’re trying to figure out what faith consists of, we should be looking at Abraham.
So again and again Kierkegaard tries to justify Abraham’s killing of Isaac on rational grounds, and again again, as he himself even admits, he fails to do just that. Abraham is always doomed, philosophically speaking. This seems like an admission that there is something seriously wrong with faith, that it really is a crude and primitive way of being that we should move on from as quickly as possible. After all, who would want to worship a God that asks us to do that?
Putting Philosophy in its Place
But Kierkegaard makes an interesting move, or at least it’s a move that I’ve always found very fascinating. You see, instead of taking his inability to justify Abraham’s actions as proof that there’s something wrong with faith, he takes it as a sort of proof that there’s something wrong with rationality, as exemplified in philosophical thinking. As Kierkegaard sees it, there might be something about rationality that prevents it from understanding, on a deeper level, exactly what is going on with the story of Abraham and Isaac. In this way, Kierkegaard thinks, the Abraham episode is not a literal endorsement of child sacrifice, but an endorsement of something far different and actually quite foreign to rational thinking.
As Kierkegaard puts it, if we buy into the rationalist view of the world, we are prone to think that, “faith is something inferior or that it is an easy matter..” (80), that it is something that can be understood and then ultimately, be set aside. But there is more to faith than this, a rich interior landscape which can’t be reduced or explained away even by philosophy, as he says:
“Philosophy cannot and should not give us an account of faith, but should understand itself and know just what it has indeed to offer, without taking anything away, least of all cheating people out of something by making them think it is nothing.” (63)
This is different from saying that philosophy should ‘stick to its lane’ or mind its own business. Far from it. After all, the way that Kierkegaard gets to his own conclusions is through philosophical reflection, no doubt about that. But Kierkegaard is not using philosophy to pass judgment on faith, instead, he’s using philosophy to get a better idea of what faith consists of, even if it means rejecting the commonly held view of his day (and possibly even our own) that faith is just something like an irrational belief.
In doing do, Kierkegaard also thinks he’s being more true to the spirit of philosophy which, after all, has its origin in the humble admission that real wisdom actually consists in knowing that you don’t have knowledge. This admission should, if anything, push us towards a more authentic form of rational inquiry, not only about the nature of faith, but of how we relate to it. After all, faith is what lies at the heart of “the paradox of [human] existence,” (76). In other words, as Kierkegaard sees it, getting a grasp on faith is what helps us make sense of our own experience as human beings, and the experience of being a human being is, most of the time, anything but rational.
So what is Faith?
For Kierkegaard, faith is not really anything like a belief that one primitively assents to. It’s not really a rational kind of knowledge either. Somebody can’t really say they have faith if all they do is say, ‘I believe that God exists,’ or ‘I know that God exists.’ These two ways of thinking about God demand rational justification, they demand to be examined and criticized just like any other belief that we may have. This is why I think that Kierkegaard, unlike the Medieval Theologians previously discussed, doesn’t really try to argue that God exists. As he says, “…faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off,” (82) In other places, he calls faith the ‘greatest passion’ that one could have, and that passion is directed towards, “the eternal being,” (80) God.
So, for Kierkegaard, faith is a certain kind of relationship with God. And it is this relationship with God that really underlies how Kierkegaard conceives of faith, as an obligation to a certain kind of life, and to a certain kind of attitude that one has towards the divine. When we look back at the Abraham episode from Genesis 22 and try to to make sense of it under this sort of interpretation, we begin to notice two very interesting things about the sort of relationship that Abraham has with God.
First, Abraham does not hesitate to relinquish Isaac. God commands (seemingly capriciously) that this which, by all accounts, is the dearest thing to Abraham is to be given up, to be renounced.
To relinquish what is your heart’s desire is not anything divinely mysterious by the way. It’s painfully difficult, maybe impossible in some cases, but it is a capacity that every human being has in them. It’s more than just the capacity to accept loss, heartbreak, misfortune, and all the horrible things that sometimes happen in life that don’t make any sense at all. It’s also the capacity to willingly, and actively, give up your own comfort and joys when it is clear that it is unrealistic to hold on to them.
In Abraham’s case, he is given a horrible task, but the task is not given to him as a choice really. It’s not as if God says right away, ‘Do this or do not do this.’ No, actually, the command is given as something which must come to pass. God might as well have said to Abraham, ‘your son Isaac is destined to die, no other way about it.’ But additionally, and even more horribly, Abraham still needs to move towards this destined moment, he still voluntarily needs to pack up the donkey, get himself over to Moriah, walk up on up there, and build the damn altar. He still needs to go along with destiny, fate, God’s commandment. He can’t just sit back and let things play out, he needs to have some involvement in the whole terrible affair.
This is what Kierkegaard calls the first part to faith, what he calls ‘infinite resignation.’ In infinite resignation, one “renounces the love that is the substance of [their] life,” and in this way, according to Kierkegaard, they are “reconciled in pain.” (75) But that is just the first step, there is still a ‘second movement’ to be carried out.
Second, Abraham does not waver in his belief that God will give him what God has promised him. Abraham does not succumb to despair, he does not stop giving a damn, even when he has seemingly lost everything.
Nowhere in the account of the attempted sacrifice of Isaac are we privy to Abraham’s inner thoughts, but he does show a commitment to go forward full steam with God’s commandment, as if it were almost a preordained event. Yet there is no doubt that Abraham loves his son Isaac, that his whole world, that all his hopes and dreams rest with Isaac, at least the way that Kierkegaard interprets it.
Yet Abraham continues without hesitation up until the moment that God stops him. It was, after all a test. And when Abraham receives Isaac back, he takes him back as if he had never renounced him, as if he had never stopped caring. But Abraham’s response to getting Isaac back could have only been possible if Abraham had always possessed hope in the face of apparent hopelessness. That is, Abraham never completely renounced that which he loved.
Kierkegaard thinks that this holding on to hope when all seems hopeless can only be possible, “by virtue of the absurd, by virtue of the fact that for God all things are possible.” (75). Abraham needs to be deeply committed to the idea that God will not fail him, that somehow, no matter how things play out, God will fulfill His promises. This is what it is to have faith apparently.
Of course, we are not meant to think that we should literally do what Abraham did in order to say that we have faith. No, that instance of faith is specific to Abraham, as Kierkegaard insists. What we are supposed to take away from that story is the attitude towards the divine that Abraham exhibited, and the paradoxical movement away from the world and also towards it that Abraham made.
Living in Faith
I’ll be quite honest, to this day, as I’m typing this out, I myself still can’t wrap my head completely around Kierkegaard’s idea of what it means to have authentic faith. I can follow along with his thinking, even see the validity in what he has termed ‘infinite resignation,’ but that second move, that embracing of the ‘absurd,’ the second essential piece to faith, ah that seems hard to do. Why? Because it seems almost incomprehensible doesn’t it?
You lose everything and you accept it? Ok, that’s difficult but it seems humanly possible. I can try to distance myself like an ascetic from attachments, I can say to myself, ‘in this life, things will be taken away from me (by God), the best I can do is develop a strong sense of selflessness in order to be reconciled with the pain and confusion that accompanies being a human being. I am in love with someone and we can never be together? Okay then, I renounce any claim to ever being with the one I love. I sever my attachment. In this way I’ll survive, I’ll cope.’
But then you have to go further and say, ‘I also look forward to the day when those things that God takes away from me will come back to me in some way, also by the grace of God.’ To keep using the analogy about lost love (one of Kierkegaard’s favorite analogies by the way), ‘I have accepted that I will never be with the one I love. But I also know that one day she will come back to me, in some way, shape, or form, and on that day I will have her back as if I had never lost her, as if I had never renounced my attachment to her.’
And this is what confuses me and leaves me unable to make that leap into faith, that leap into a way of life which gives up all claim to the things of the world but never really gives up caring for them. I can’t be Abraham and both resign myself to the loss of my son while at the same time hoping against hopelessness that God will somehow restore him to me. I can’t let go and also hold on at the same time. It’s a fine line and I don’t know if I’m cut out for something like it, but then again, when I read Kierkegaard, even he doesn’t always sound like he thinks he’s capable of it either.
For a human being to have this sort of faith, they would have to be built different, they would have to be made of something far better and stronger than I think I could ever be with my mere rationality. They would have to be both something astounding and really, kind of frightening also.
Yet faith is something that, according to Kierkegaard, we are all capable of embodying, if we authentically choose to commit to it. This is the main thing about Kierkegaard’s approach to faith, one that I’ve skirted around quite a bit in this article. For Kierkegaard, faith is a deeply personal choice, it’s something that you can’t be born or even forced into, and it’s not something that he thinks you can be completely convinced about on a rational level either. It’s not even something that he thinks you could really fully explain to another person.
As a human being you are thrown into an absurd world that seems to make no sense. More than that, the world is completely hostile to you, taking away those things you grow to love without really caring how you feel about it. Kierkegaard’s preferred response to this is not to question the existence of God, nor to sink into nihilistic despair, but instead to actually turn to God, and say, ‘I accept everything terrible and absurdly horrible that you send my way. I accept it to such a degree that I might as well be moving towards it myself. But despite how things turn out, I will not stop caring, I will not stop loving, I will not stop giving a damn. I won’t simply shut myself off from the world, I won’t give up on trying to make it better, or on getting back what I’ve lost, in whatever way you see fit, because ultimately, it is all up to you.’
Maybe I can’t fully understand this way of life, this way of relating to the world, to others, to the divine, but then again, maybe I’ve been going about it all wrong. Maybe I’ve been trying to rationalize it and only making it more difficult for myself. Human existence is paradoxical, full of contradictions, and awfully absurd in so many small and large ways. Maybe the simplest way through it has just been sitting in front of me this whole time. Maybe it really can be just as simple as taking a leap.
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