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The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 55): Soren Kierkegaard–Getting Naked and Self-Conscious, and the Meaning of Faith

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 55): Soren Kierkegaard–Getting Naked and Self-Conscious, and the Meaning of Faith

There is one more 19th century philosopher I want to draw our attention to: the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). When Kierkegaard died in 1855, Darwin had not yet published Origin of Species, Nietzsche was merely 11 years old, and Marx, still smarting from the failure of a full-fledged proletariat revolution in 1848, had been living in London a mere five years, having accomplished nothing. That’s right, Kierkegaard came before Darwin, Marx, or Nietzsche had even begun to make their mark on history.

Kierkegaard is often called the father of existentialism, but that is somewhat misleading. Modern existentialism should be traced to Jean-Paul Sartre in the 20th century—and Kierkegaard really was nothing like Sartre. Kierkegaard lived in early 19th century Denmark, in which Christianity, specifically Lutheranism, was the “state religion,” and the institutionalized church was as shallow and dead as could be. If you want to think of it this way: what Kierkegaard experienced in the State church of Denmark was a result of Luther’s Reformation.

As we discussed earlier, when Luther revolted against the Catholic Church, he appealed to the secular leaders of various kingdoms and countries to support him. The result was that various states ended up not only sponsoring a particular religion—or more precisely, a particular denomination or branch of Christianity—but actually enforcing that particular strain of Christianity on its subjects. This resulted in the “wars of religion” throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.

By Kierkegaard’s day, though, those tensions had calmed down, and people were largely fine with the idea of state-sponsored religion. Of course, by the 19th century (again, as we’ve seen in earlier posts), Christianity was being fashioned into more of a deistic, rationalistic, proper sort of tame religion that could “benefit” society. Many people are well-aware how Nietzsche savaged that notion; but the fact is, so did Kierkegaard. Although both men were sickened by such a tepid form of Christianity, the answers each man gave could not be more far apart. Nietzsche wanted to destroy Christianity; Kierkegaard wanted to remind people what the heart of Christianity really was.

The heart of Christianity, Kierkegaard argued, was not “reasonable.” The heart of Christianity was living, passionate faith-filled relationship with the living God…and the choices that stem from such a faith-filled relationship often will not seem “reasonable” or even “moral” to the prim and proper, deistic, rationalistic, liberal theologians (and institutionalized church) of early 19th century Europe.

Now as it turns out, as with Nietzsche, I have already written a number of posts on Kierkegaard. I think my posts do a very good job crystalizing just what Kierkegaard was about. And so, this post really functions as the doorway to these other posts. I hope you take the time to read them.

 

Kierkegaard: Aesthetics, Demoniacs, Ethics, and Religion

Kierkegaard: Aesthetics, Demoniacs, Ethics, and Religion

Kierkegaard

Despite what I’ve discussed in the past few posts regarding Kierkegaard’s thought, there is one thing that should be painfully obvious…at least it was to Kierkegaard: the vast majority of people don’t put much thought into their lives. Most people just drift along in their lives, making choices based on whatever shiny object comes their way, like a kid with ADHD in a toy store, or Pinocchio in Playland…or pretty much anyone in America who goes to Hardee’s because of the sexy women in their commercials, or drinks Dos Equis Beer because they take their philosophy of life from the most interesting man alive: “Stay thirsty, my friend!”

Kierkegaard divided people in society using the imagery of a horse-drawn cart. Thinking people have a goal or direction in life—they choose to drive the cart; but then there are the other people who have no real goal or center to their lives—instead of driving their cart, they just sit in the back, getting drunk on whiskey, while the horse wanders about where it will. Or as Kierkegaard put it: “…the existing person is the driver, that is, if existing is not to be what people usually call existing, because then the existing person is no driver but a drunken peasant who lies in the wagon and sleep and lets the horses shift for themselves” (CUP 311-312).

And so, Kierkegaard’s first challenge to anyone is to “put down that crappy Pabst Blue Ribbon, sober up, and learn how to drive your life!” But once that happy juice is put down, the next question becomes, “What kind of driver will you be?” Once you learn to reject the swill that society is trying to get you to buy into, and start to take control of your own life, how will you live your life? Kierkegaard saw essentially four options to this question. In fact, they are not completely separate options; they can be different stages in one’s life journey. Regardless, Kierkegaard labeled them as the Aesthetic Stage, the Demonic Stage, the Ethical Stage, and the Religious Stage.

The Aesthetic Stage

The person in the aesthetic stage has essentially learned to pull himself up with his own boot-straps and make something of his life. In some ways, one can see this as akin to “the American dream”—you can be anything you want to be, and you don’t have to have your life dictated by society. As Vardy put it, “The aesthetic life can be devoted to any temporal goal—power, money, reputation, hobbies—but above all, the person in the aesthetic stage must be in control of their own lives and must achieve by their own standards” (37). This person, as Frank Sinatra sang, “did it my way,” and is relatively successful in achieving those goals. But those temporal goals are just that…temporal. And once that sinks in, the person in the aesthetic stage can go in one of two directions.

The Demonic Stage

The “dark direction” can be what Kierkegaard calls the demonic stage. This is essentially the aesthetic stage on HGH and any other steroid you can think of. Vardy compare this stage to Nietzsche’s “Superman”—someone who flips off society and does (quite literally for Kierkegaard) whatever the hell he wants to do. Nothing and no one will ever tell him what to do, and anyone—even God—who tries to do so will be met with a defensive wall a mile high and a whole arsenal of weaponry being launched over that wall. As Vardy states, “A person in the demonic state is ‘closed in’ on her-or himself because this individual cannot bear to have her or his identity challenged by the divine. By living in the demonic stage, the individual stands outside the ethical” (44).

This, I believe, gives an interesting take on precisely what the demonic really is—ultimately what is being describe is a spoiled child in a grown up body with as many weapons at his disposal has he can accumulate in order for his self-preservation. And isn’t the root of evil and the demonic really just the refusal to let anyone be above you, and thus be in a position to tell you what to do or if you are wrong? This is why people in the demonic stage, much like those spoiled brats who turn into spoiled adults, are so unhappy.

Without any boundaries or limitations regarding what is right and wrong, that person, even though he may be in “complete control” regarding doing whatever he wants, is ultimately aimless and rootless, without any real sense of direction. I believe that we, being made in God’s image, have the freedom to choose which direction in life we want, given the ones offered to us—and so our freedom is limited. Yet we do not have the freedom to create our own direction. That kind of “freedom” is no freedom at all—for it forces one to close in on oneself, forever spiraling downward.

The Ethical Stage

But there is another option, which is admittedly better than the demonic stage, but still is, for Kierkegaard, ultimately despairing: the ethical stage. One might wonder, “Is Kierkegaard saying that trying to be ethical is not a good thing?” In a way, yes he is! Well, let’s be clear: he’s saying it is not the best thing.

So let’s ask, “What does it means to live ethically?” Most people would say it means to live according to a certain standard of morality or virtue that any reasonable person full-well knows. Therefore, “to sin” means to commit an immoral act, and to “live ethically” means to do certain things in your life that conform to that moral standard of behavior. Most Christians thus assume that the goal of the Christian life is for one to be forgiven of the unethical things one has done, and then be given the chance to “start over” and, with Christ’s help, do those ethical things that God wants you to do. Does this sound “sort of right, but sort of not right”? You’re not alone.

Kierkegaard said the problem with this view was that it equated “duty to ethics” with “duty to God.” The two are not always the same. For oftentimes, “ethics” really are just the moral standards of a given society, and they can change from time to time, culture to culture. One cannot mistake “living according to a given moral standard” with “living a life of faith to God.” Of course there is some overlap, but the two are not the same. As Vardy states, “Indeed living the ethical life is all too often to lead a life of conformity, to conform oneself to the state, the community or, perhaps, the Church—but not to God” (51).

Simply put, if one equates the Christian faith with simple adherence to a certain standard of moral behavior, then one is equating the Christian faith with nothing more than rule-keeping, and slavery to an impersonal rule-book. That is why as very “virtuous” man in a given society may ultimately be a very sinful man in God’s eyes. For as Kierkegaard states, “the opposite of sin is by no means virtue…No, the opposite of sin is faith which is why in Romans 14:23 it says ‘whosoever is not of faith, is sin.’ And this is one of the most crucial definitions for the whole of Christianity: that the opposite of sin is not virtue, but faith” (Sickness Unto Death, 114-115).

Faith vs. Sin, not Virtue vs. Sin

Think about that quote—it truly is mind-blowing! That is why Abraham, when he set his mind to sacrifice Isaac (an immoral act that all of us would find horrific) was not “sinning.” He was doing the opposite—he was stepping out in faith. That is why God credited it to him as righteousness. Here’s another mind-blower: even if God let Abraham go through with sacrificing Isaac, that act, however “immoral” when judged by our own standards, would not have been considered “sin” in God’s eyes. It would have been a faithful and righteous act.

That might be an extreme example, but we see such a dynamic throughout the Bible and throughout our lives. Jeremiah was considered “immoral” by the moral standards of 6th Century BC Judah because he spoke treason against the king of Judah, who was YHWH’s anointed—but he was faithful to God and a righteous man. Paul was considered “immoral” by his fellow Jews because he ate with Gentiles and accepted them without forcing them to submit to the Torah—but he was faithful to Christ and a righteous man.

Martin Luther King Jr. was considered “immoral” because he spoke out against what we now admit was a “racist morality” in America. On top of that, he was “immoral” in that he plagiarized part of his doctoral thesis and slept around with some women. Nevertheless, he was faithful to what God had called him to do, and he was a righteous man.

It’s not that ethics and morality are irrelevant. It’s that they are not the whole ball of wax. God does not judge us solely on our moral/immoral acts according to a certain society’s standard. He judges us on our decision to walk in faith. This lead us to the final stage for Kierkegaard: the religious stage. How does one get to this stage? As Vardy explains, “Human beings learn to live behind the mask of public opinion, the identity they have constructed for themselves, and think that this gives them security.  Once it is recognized that this mask is no more than a construct, and that underneath the ‘happy and secure’ exterior there is only emptiness, then the individual may begin…to take the religious dimension seriously” (56).

In other words, a man might be self-possessed enough to live his life to achieve any goal, and that man might be the most morally straight-laced ethical man in that society—but those things aren’t enough. Those things do not get to the heart of what it means to be human. Those things will ultimately lead to despair. But for Kierkegaard, that despair is essential: despair must come before faith, just like crucifixion must come before resurrection.

The Challenge to Christians in America

This is something many Christians in America need to really wrestle with. We love to wear the crosses around our necks, have crosses hung in our homes, put cross-embroidered Bible covers on our Bibles—that makes us feel good about ourselves, and we like to think God is pleased with us for that. The only thing is, we really don’t like to let ourselves be nailed up to those damned things! But, as Kierkegaard points out, that is the only way to resurrection, faith, and a relationship with God.

Christ was nailed to the cross and suffered because he remained faithful to God, even though he was condemned as an immoral sinner by the society around him. His faithfulness led him to confrontation with the world, condemnation as someone who was immoral, and suffering. So what does it mean to be like Christ? Confrontation, being condemned, and suffering—if those three descriptions are not part of your Christian life, then perhaps further reflection of your life is in order.

Many self-professed Christians are really just admirers of Christ, not followers of him. As Vardy puts it, “Faith is, essentially, a life—a life lived in imitation of Christ and as a follower of Christ. It involves becoming a self, an individual whose life is informed by an awareness of one’s dependence on and accountability to God. The ‘admirer’ of Christ is not the follower. Admirers can look on Christ objectively, they may talk about Christ, they may applaud him—but their admiration does not lead to following him day by day. Only the follower is the disciple” (63).

So what stage do you find yourself in? A drunken peasant in the back the cart of your life? A driven aesthetic? Someone flirting with the demonic? A proud ethical kind of guy? Or a broken, but ironically faithful and empowered follower of the crucified and resurrected Lord of Creation?

Kierkegaard: Academia, Idolatry, and the Nature of Faith (Part 2)

Kierkegaard: Academia, Idolatry, and the Nature of Faith (Part 2)

Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard had a particular dislike for philosophers, theologians, and “academics” by and large. Anyone who has spent time in the graduate level/academic world will know why. Now, while it is not true in every single case, the academic world of philosophers and theologians is one where each “specialist” is in his own little world where he knows all there is to know about certain facts about a specific subject—but he is rather helpless once you get him outside of that little world. It may sound harsh, but it seems that 90% of what is published in academic journals is largely irrelevant to humanity. Maybe that’s a bit of hyperbole, but it’s also kind of true.

Kierkegaard clearly saw that it is oftentimes the learned academic who is the biggest fool: “…what is most difficult of all for the wise man to understand is precisely the simple. The plain man understands the simple directly, but when the wise man sets himself to understand it, it becomes infinitely difficult…the more the wise man thinks about the simple…the more difficult it becomes for him” (CUP 143).

Why is that? As Vardy says, “Kierkegaard’s complaint is against philosophers, theologians and others who busy themselves building up more and more learning and lose touch with the simple and what really matters. In particular they lose touch with the essential nature of faith. They fail to address the important issues, such as what it means to have faith and how having faith will affect them as single individuals” (26). And again, “…most philosophers are good talkers and writers but fail to express anything significant with their lives” (26). Now, I would take issue with that whole “most philosophers are good writers” bit—but do they do anything significant with their lives? It doesn’t seem so. What’s the joke about the philosophy of most philosophers? “I can drink you under the table!”?

Sadly, though, many confessing Christians are pretty much in the same boat. Oh, they may not spend their time “drinking people under the table” while amassing random and useless facts and using incomprehensible philosophical jargon, but they do spend their lives just doing what they want while giving lip service to a few standard “religious facts” about God and Jesus. They are, in fact, neglecting to live out a very real, subjective relationship with the Living God, in favor of mentally ascribing to a few supposed “objective facts” about God…then they pretty much live their lives however they want. They have fallen into the Enlightenment trap, which is a fundamental lie.

Why is that? Because, as Kierkegaard clearly saw, faith is not an objective enterprise: “If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe” (CUP 182). Take, for example, the fundamental Christian claim of the incarnation: that Jesus is God in the flesh. Now, there is no objective way to “prove” that claim. For that matter, there is not objective way to “disprove” that claim either. It is a claim that goes above and beyond objective reality. Instead, the central Christian claim is actually a subjective claim, in that if Jesus is God in the flesh, and if through Christ God is redeeming humanity so we can be in right relationship with Him, the truth of that claim can only be realized in the context of a relationship with a God who cannot be objectively proven—it can only be subjectively and relationally lived out, realized, and experienced.

Or more simply put, I can do the objective research and become rationally convinced that Jesus lived from 6 BC-33 AD, that he really said the things in the gospels, that he really was betrayed, crucified, and buried. I may even be rationally convinced that he came back from the dead. But accepting those things as factually true does not constitute faith. Accepting those facts are a safe thing to do—they don’t necessarily affect my life. But those facts do, if I am honest, challenge me to face that very real subjective challenge: how do I choose to relate to Christ in the here and now, if indeed he rose from the dead and is God in the flesh? And it is choosing to step into that relationship that will decide our humanity. Or as Kierkegaard said, “Essentially, it is the God-relationship that makes a man a man” (CUP 210).

But to take that initial step, and to keep walking, is what faith is—that is why the first example of real faith in the Bible is that of God calling Abraham to leaven Ur of the Chaldeans and to walk to a place he didn’t know where he was going, but that he trusted God to bring him to. That is what faith is—it is a stepping-out; it is a risk; it is vulnerability and the admission that, “Holy crap, if I’m wrong, I will have utterly wasted my life!”

But here’s the thing: in our lives we are always “stepping out” based on what we think or hope to be true. We are always taking risks—it is inevitable. In that way, our lives will be our testimony to what we truly believed…not to what we say we think is objectively true, mind you—but to what we really believe. This is why Kierkegaard hammered modern philosophy so much. As Vardy puts it, “Modern speculative philosophy mocks faith and makes it out as something of no consequence which is held on to by the naïve and ignorant. This Kierkegaard refused to accept. If faith is the highest, then reason has no right to cheat people out of faith” (34). Modern philosophy would have us believe (oh, the irony!) that “faith and belief” is illusionary, with no basis in the real, objective world. And in its place, modern philosophy puts forth “believe in facts and objective truths!”

But you can’t “believe” in something that can be quantified and measured—to do so is ultimately idolatry. It might give the illusion of security (an ancient man making a sacrifice to Baal according to the measured requirements might feel secure that Baal would send the rains to water his crops), but in the end it gets you nowhere, for you haven’t really stepped out into a subjective relationship with the Living God. You’ve measured and quantified measurable and quantifiable things, but you haven’t stepped out to live.

Kierkegaard: The Nature of Faith (Part 1)

Kierkegaard: The Nature of Faith (Part 1)

Kierkegaard

As I think I tried to get across in the previous post, “faith” and “reason” should not be viewed as polar opposites that are engaged in some kind of war with each other. Reason and rationality are good things, but they will always, inevitably, be rooted in some sort of relational faith. Simply put, contrary to Immanuel Kant, reason and rationality are inevitably subordinated to faith—not the other way around. Any objective facts one might learn through one’s reason are just that—facts. In order for them to be interpreted and given meaning, one must root them in faith…in something or someone (but that is another topic in and of itself). As Vardy says, “The objective approach makes the individual irrelevant, as nothing is staked on objective facts—they need not affect an individual’s life. We can study science, history, theology, psychology or philosophy and may build up much objective knowledge but this does not really get us very far” (24).

Faith, Reason…and Yankee Stadium?

And so, we would do well to admit the obvious: faith goes beyond reason; it is higher and deeper than human rationality. It does not negate reason or war against it; rather, it is the “playing field” on which reason and rationality play and compete. To equate the two as equal competitors would be a categorical mistake, like equating Yankee Stadium with Babe Ruth. Without Yankee Stadium, Babe Ruth would have never accomplished all the baseball greatness he accomplished. Without Yankee Stadium, he would have just been a fat orphan who never amounted to much. And as great and big as Babe Ruth was, try to use him as a baseball field and play a game on him—it just isn’t going to work! And if you limit your field of knowledge to only the person of Babe Ruth, then you won’t know the game of baseball, the existence of any other ball field, or the greatness of the many other ball players throughout the history of the game.

Faith, Reason…and Mathematics?

But my baseball analogy only goes so far. And since Kierkegaard knew nothing of baseball, perhaps we should move on to precisely what his take on “Faith” is. But let’s first do it in sort of a mathematical equation. First, in regards to Reason: Reason = Facts = Objective Knowledge. Reason takes no consideration of the inherent relationality of human beings, and it assumes that “truth” is only found in “facts.” By contrast, in regards to Faith: Faith = Relationship = Subjective Knowledge. Faith sees relationality as supremely important, and it claims the ultimate “Truth” concerning human beings is found in a person’s personal, subjective relationship with God. Faith, for Kierkegaard challenges a person to stake his life on a claim that reason  would reject, namely “that reason itself is limited and there is something bigger, something Eternally True. It is not a single decision, it is a commitment to living and thinking differently, it is the beginning of a relationship, and relationships are essentially subjective. Faith cannot depend on tests or be affected by arguments. It is a subjective state of being” (23-24).

Faith: An Existential Act, not a Rational Proof

And this leads to another thing Kierkegaard emphasizes. The person who says, “I am logically convinced that there is a God,” is not, on the grounds of that statement alone, making a “Christian proclamation.” For to claim that you believe God exists is really nothing more than saying you believe a slug exists, or that London is a real city—you are just making a statement of fact. That is not faith; for the Christian faith is an existential act, not a rational proof or fact. Much like the famous “leap of faith” scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Indiana Jones has to step out into what he perceives to be a giant chasm, only to find that there was a land bridge there all along, the Christian faith demands that we step out into what our reason cannot sense or understand.

It’s not that the land bridge wasn’t there—it was that Indiana’s limited senses forced him to reason that there was nothing there…and if he had not taken that step, he would have never known that there was something more; his senses and reason would have never been opened up to a whole new, and “more real” reality than he would have remained in, had he not taken that step. And what, by the way, was his reason for taking that step? Was it not his love and the relationship he had with his father? That is precisely what the Christian faith describes and demands: stepping out beyond what our senses can reason out, being urged on by that love and relationality we find in our very souls to a deeper and “more real” reality—that is where Eternal Truth and Life is found.

Kierkegaard: The War Between Faith and Reason

Kierkegaard: The War Between Faith and Reason

Kierkegaard

Perhaps the most misleading idea in current philosophical dialogue that plays itself out in popular culture is the assertion that “faith” and “reason” are polar opposites, and that there has always been an underlying “war” between faith and reason, religion and science. Such claims are as uncritical and simplistic as those who make them. Their definition of “reason” is really just “objective scientific method,” and their definition of “faith” is “blind belief in fairytales.” Neither definition is much of a definition and both definitions are nothing more than nursery school explanations of graduate school concepts.

Immanuel Kant and George W.F. Hegel

So what is “faith”? What is “reason”? Kierkegaard gives a very thought-provoking explanation of both. But before we discuss his take on these things, we need to quickly review the philosophical worldview of early 19th Century Europe, namely the influence of two men: Immanuel Kant and George W. F. Hegel.

Immanuel Kant is the one credited for arguing that when it comes to understanding morality and God, rationality, reason, and scientific knowledge must be the “playing field” on which morality and God is understood. He was influenced by, and ultimately rejected, the teachings of George Hegel, who tried to wed the growing Enlightenment worldview to a sense of spirituality. What he came up with, though, was not Christianity. It was a vague pantheism.

Hegel argued that ideas and truth develop throughout history, so that what is “true” essentially evolves over time. There is an initial concept of truth (thesis), then another idea happens to run into conflict with it (antithesis), and after awhile the thesis and antithesis “duke it out,” reconcile, hop in bed together, and eventually give birth to another truth (synthesis), which in turn becomes the new thesis. Eventually another conflicting idea (antithesis) comes along…and so on and so on. Hegel, therefore, believed that this “evolution of ideas” would eventually lead to the “Ultimate Idea,” which he understood to be “God”—the ultimate reality of everything known.

Whatever your reaction to Hegel’s theory itself may be, you should see that his underlying assumption was still the same as Kant’s: rationality and reason were in the driver’s seat of truth. Hegel’s “God” was really just “ideas, fully understood.” Now, I’m guessing that most modern people will say, “What’s the problem? How else are we even able to understand morality and God without our reason, and without a careful ‘scientific’ study of the world?” The very fact that most people probably see nothing startling with Kant’s claims shows just how much we have been influenced by him. It doesn’t even occur to us that there is anything wrong with that notion.

What’s the Problem?

There is. The problem isn’t that reason is used within our search for morality and God. The problem is the assumption that reason and the scientific method is the primary, if not only viable, way of coming to an understanding of morality and God. The problem is that the Kantian view essentially reduces human beings to mere brains. And we all know what happens if one detaches a human brain from the rest of the body—it quickly dies and becomes useless.

Such is the ultimate problem with the modern/Enlightenment worldview—it elevates the rationality as the only real way truth can be assessed, and all other ways are fairytales and illusions. Of course, a moment’s reflection should convince every one of us just how (ironically) irrational such a view is: the times you are holding your baby in your arms as he falls asleep, the times a certain song, poem, or work of art touches your heart and affects you in a way you don’t fully understand, and yet you are aware of a deeper meaning to life that you can’t quite get your mind around, but you know it’s there, and is just as real, if not more so, than what your tiny brain can understand.

Simply put, the Enlightenment worldview and Kantian elevation to human reason as the “be all/end all” to truth is nothing more than egotistical idolatry, and a denial of the deep mystery and wonder of life. It is the removal of the human brain from the body, the putting it on a pedestal, and the bowing down to it. Of course, when that happens, in a very short time, both that brain and the one who worships it will be dead. We must remember, against the backdrop of the millions of years of existence, the past 200 years of Enlightenment-influenced ideas is but a blip on the radar screen of history.

Given this Enlightenment worldview of Kant and Hegel, enter Kierkegaard. He saw where such a view led to, and he rejected it. It wasn’t because he was opposed to “reason.” It was because he was opposed to the naïve (and he would argue sinful) attempt to place limited human reason as the arbiter of truth about everything regarding humanity and God. He rejected the same old ancient idolatry dressed up in modern clothes.

Human Beings: Rational and Relational Creatures

For Kierkegaard, what it means to be a human being cannot be reduced to mere rational ideas. To be a human being is to be a relational creature. Therefore, it is relational knowledge (what Kierkegaard calls faith) that takes precedence over rational knowledge. You can amass all the data about a woman—her likes, dislikes, body size, hair color, personal history, etc.—but unless you actually go up and talk to her, and get to know her in a personal and relational way, all your facts and figures about her life won’t mean anything when it comes to living as a human being. We see the same view in the Bible itself: when a husband and wife have sex and produce a child, the Bible puts it in terms of “Adam knew Eve, and she bore a son…” etc.

So, relational knowledge goes much deeper than rational knowledge, for it is relationality that defines human beings, not rationality. In fact, our rationality is only of any use when it is subordinated to relationality.  Rationality is the servant, relationality is the lord, and for Kierkegaard, it is that relationality that lies at the heart of faith. That is why he reacted so strongly against the Enlightenment’s claim that unaided human reason’s pursuit of truth about things could be king, and could give meaning to human life.

But Kierkegaard puts it in even starker terms: the putting of human reason on a pedestal is nothing less than sin, for it is usurping the primacy of relational knowledge with limited human knowledge about facts. It is essentially saying, “I can cover my room with Justin Bieber posters, buy every teen magazine that has pictures and facts about Justin Bieber, learn every one of his songs, and know every fact about him, and thus convince myself that I actually know him (even though I don’t, and won’t ever will, because I’m too busy plastering myself with Bieber paraphernalia!”

What is Truth?

Or let’s leave my rather silly example of Justin Bieber, and use another one—one that Kierkegaard used to condemn the institutionalized Church. As Vardy writes, “the Truth that Jesus reveals is not a matter of doctrines or propositional knowledge, it is Truth about human beings and their relationship to God” (14). Many Christians (and non-Christians, for that matter) are so busy learning facts and doctrines about Christ, that they have never taken the time to get to know him. It is that obsession with gathering facts about Christ, elevating your reason to the point where you think you can “prove” God exists and Jesus is Lord, and assuming that the Christian faith is just another theory that can be convincingly proven, if only we get our facts straight and use our reason to convince people—for Kierkegaard that is sin. Sin is not just a moral failing—it is ultimately placing yourself and your limited, autonomous human reason at the center of your life, and believing that it can figure everything out by itself.

Autonomous Human Reason is Sin?

For Kierkegaard, it is a sin to limit the Christian faith within the borders of human reason alone. Biblically speaking, sin brings death, and the Enlightenment idolatry of human reason brings death to the individual, relational person who is made in God’s image. Kierkegaard, as well as the entire Eastern Orthodox Tradition, understood that just because something isn’t “rational,” doesn’t mean it’s not true. Is the love a parent has for his child “rational?” Is the beauty of Van Gogh’s “Starry Starry Night” “rational”? Are Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos “rational”? Is stepping out in a living faith and entering into a relationship with the Trinitarian God as revealed in Christ “rational”? The answer to all those questions is, “No”—but they are all real and true. In fact, they are more real and more true that the actual paint on a canvas, notes on a page, or systematized creed.

Now don’t get me wrong: the paint, notes, and creeds are needed, but they are only tools by which a painting, concerto, or relationship goes forward and is developed. What the philosophy since the Enlightenment has done is to cast aside the painting, concerto, and relationship as “not really true,” and then point to the paint still in the tubes, or the ivory keys on the keyboard, or the “naturalistic facts” that make up the biological world, say, “THAT is truth because we can measure it and quantify it!”

Ultimately, modern philosophy ever since the Enlightenment, the kind that Kierkegaard lambasted, and the kind that still is prevalent today in not only philosophy classes, but also comparative religions classes, and even the pop culture “science vs. religion” debates, is an exercise in silliness—but it is the worst kind of silliness, for it is a silliness that negates the human being, and ultimately brings death. As Kierkegaard put it, it is the worst kind of sin, for it attempts to put autonomous human reason—an amputated human brain—in the center of the universe. It is philosophical geo-centrism…and it signals the death of true knowledge and faith.

Getting Naked With Soren Kierkegaard: Yes, You Should be Self-Conscious!

Getting Naked With Soren Kierkegaard: Yes, You Should be Self-Conscious!

Kierkegaard

There are certain things in my life that have convinced me that I am not really a bright person: my pathetic choice to be a die-hard Cubs fan, my enjoyment of fart jokes, and my career choice of teaching—quite possibly the most under-appreciated and under-paid careers in history. Now sure, I have had a good bit of academic training in Biblical Studies, and I feel am well-versed in that area. But once a few basic concepts and contexts are grasped, reading a book like Jonah, or Mark, or even Revelation, really isn’t that difficult.

But when I try to read guys like G.K. Chesteron or Soren Kierkegaard, I feel like the only words that form in my mind are those of Forrest Gump: “Mama always said, ‘Stupid is as stupid does!” I may have a PhD in Old Testament, but those intellectual heavyweights knock me out and send me to the mat within one or two pages. Fortunately, there are people who read and actually get what these men have written. One of my best friends, in fact, is currently wrapping up his PhD on Kierkegaard! I am in awe.

In any case, a few months ago I came across an introduction to Kierkegaard by Peter Vardy, and like the introduction to Nietzsche, it amazingly made a very difficult topic clear and understandable. Vardy was able to take the “graduate-school” intellect of Kierkegaard’s writings and explain it to my “5th grade brain” (at least when it comes to Kierkegaard!). In all seriousness, though, it was an amazing book, and I felt myself attracted to, and challenged by, Kierkegaard’s outlook. As will be seen in the next few posts, the fundamental core of Kierkegaard’s philosophy is actually strangely similar to that of Nietzsche’s. Both men lived in 19th Century Europe, and both men were sickened by the lifeless and stale brand of European Christianity that effectively reduced the Christian faith to mere polite moralism. But where Nietzsche went wrong, Kierkegaard hit the bull’s eye.

The introduction to Vardy’s book starts off with this quote: “Kierkegaard’s aim is straightforward: to strip you…naked at two in the morning, to sit you in front of a mirror and to force you to think about your life” (xi). Well now, that pretty much says it, doesn’t it? If that is not a wake-up call, I don’t know what is. Over the next few posts, I am going to share my thoughts on Kierkegaard from the front of that mirror…but I will be sure to put some pants on.

Like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard lived in a 19th Century “Christian” Europe that bowed at the altar of Enlightenment objectivity, rationality…and politeness. The “Christian theology” was all systematized and neat, and the “Christian life” was a thin veneer of a gentle moralism. It mirrored “The Gilded Age” of the Industrial Revolution: all shiny and bright on the surface, but just underneath that surface was despair and heartache. Kierkegaard, therefore, really wanted to “strip people naked” in that sense, for only by stripping off that “gilded mask” could there be any hope of anyone (a) coming to truly understand who they really were, and (b) reaching out to the Living God through faith.

As Peter Vardy states, “most of us forget who we are—we become so focused on creating a mask that is pleasing and acceptable to our peers, our colleagues, our parents, our partners that, beneath the mask, we never realize that ‘I’ as an individual has ceased to exist” (xiv). So how does Kierkegaard describe these sorts of people? He writes, “They use their abilities, amass wealth, carry out worldly enterprises, make prudent calculations, etc. and perhaps are mentioned in history, but they are not themselves. In a spiritual sense they have no self, no self for whose sake they could venture everything” (Concluding Unscientific Postscript  64-5).

Indeed, Kierkegaard’s description isn’t just of “those people”—let’s face it, it describes every single one of us at one time or another. We become so concerned and obsessed with impressing others, with making sure that other people are either proud or envious of us, that we do everything we can to project an image of the kind of person we think others will admire or approve of. And here’s the irony: while we are so busy trying to make our lives and idol that projects a false image of ourselves to others to worship, we end up becoming enslaved to the expectations and admirations of those very people. And since we become so afraid that other people might somehow find out “who we really are” (i.e. not like that idol/image we project), we drown ourselves in a flurry of activity in an attempt to keep up that image.

And why don’t we want people to find out “who we really are”? If we are honest, it’s because we don’t even know who we really are—we’ve been so enslaved in our own “self-idolatrous behavior,” we simply have lost sight of our own true humanity. As Vardy says, “We throw ourselves into activity of various kinds which is subconsciously designed to prevent us having to think deeply about ourselves at all” (xiv).

That is why spending time “away,” is so important—away from the iphone, the texting, the job, the blogging (!!!)…whatever. Silence and reflection is essential if we are to understand who we really are. It can also be frustrating and frightening at first—like any idolatrous addiction, we think we will lose the sense of who we are if we give up those activities. Well, hopefully we will lose the sense of who that person is, for that person is merely a mask, a hollow shell with eye-sockets. And let’s face it that person is not happy, because he’s not real.

So, do we have the courage to strip off those activities and masks and stand naked before…whatever is there? That is Kierkegaard’s challenge. And that is the topic of my next few posts over the next few days.

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