The Legitimate Use of Kierkegaard in Apologetics

In a post earlier this year entitled The Legitimate Use of Aquinas in Apologetics (2014), I drew upon several essential aspects of Thomas Aquinas’ (1225-1274) thought that (I believe) are relevant for a context in apologetics. Furthermore, I do strongly believe that those essentials can be utilized by the Christian apologist to engage not only unbelievers, but also serve as an aid for Christians to be self-reflective with respect to their own faith-based journey. In this post, I wish to invoke a similar vocation with the legitimate use of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) in apologetics. However, I do wish to be poignant, as well as careful, with what I intend to take from Kierkegaard.

Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen in their book, Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction (2013) make the observation that philosophy has a vital role for Christian missions. As they write:

Increasingly in the West today, Christians are in a minority amid an often hostile culture, and in this situation it is vital that we are able not only to live out our faith but also account for it. We should never underestimate the compelling power of a life lived in Christ and of a conversion narrative, but the credibility of our faith will still depend to an extent on our being able to provide a logical account of it.1

Furthermore, it is this attitude of Christian philosophy being a missional vocation which we may appropriately apply to Kierkegaard. To take an example, in his book The Point of View for My Work as An Author, you are really able to see this notion of “Governance,” where Kierkegaard believed that it was God’s purpose for his life that it should unfold in the ways that it did, that he should utilize the gifts of intellect and imagination that God has given him. As he writes: “To this, every hour of my day has been and is directed.”2

 

As a great admirer of Kierkegaard and yet a thorough-going Thomist, I understand that certain elements of Kierkegaard’s thought are useful (indeed, vitally useful) to consider for not only the Church, but for the Christian individual – that he make use of his gifts and talents given by God, engage the culture with which he has been placed, and truly enforce a Christianity that begins on Jesus’ terms and not on that of tradition or creed.

 

Kierkegaard in Context

He has been called “the melancholy Dane,” “the father of modern existentialism,” and even (rightfully, I think) “the Danish gadfly,”although his importance was seen much too late. Scholars in the English-speaking world nearly a century later finally began to see not only the theological as well as philosophical insights in his thought, but the literary and psychological as well. German thinkers in the mid-20th century from Martin Heidegger to Karl Barth owed a great deal of influence of their thought to Kierkegaard.

In fact, as Karl Barth famously wrote in his Epistle to the Romans, “If I have any system, it consists in this, that always as far as possible I keep in mind what Kierkegaard spoke of as the infinite qualitative difference between time and eternity. . . God is in heaven, you are on earth.”4Aside from his influence on philosophic/theological thought is the grave importance he has in his own historical context.

For instance, in his Attack on Christendom (1854-1855) he reacts to Hegel’s synthesis of church and state, to which he argues that the Christianity of the Danes produced a “citizen Christian.” It was this atmosphere of “religious rationalism” that dominated Western Europe from the time of John Locke (1632-1704) up into the thought of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) that Kierkegaard was primarily concerned. As Roger Olson accounts:

The prevailing winds of philosophy in Kierkegaard’s time, especially on the European continent, were in favor of Hegel’s rationalist philosophy and approach to Christianity. Kierkegaard set his face against it because he considered it a complete betrayal of true Christianity. But his criticism strikes at much more than just Hegel; it strikes at the heart of all rational approaches to Christianity.5

This Kierkegaardian critique of cold, dead, orthodoxy is perhaps the best reflection of his “most important philosophical thesis,”6 truth is subjectivity.

 

Truth is Subjectivity

This is not to be confused with the idea that truth is subjective, where Kierkegaard might thence be faulted for being “the father of relativism,” but rather that truth concerns the “whole person.” As John D. Caputo nicely explains:

The truth of Christianity is not to supply raw material for the reflections of German metaphysics, no more than it is to be relegated to Sunday morning piety and ignored the rest of the week. If Christianity is ‘true’ it is true in the sense that the Scriptures speak of when it is said of Jesus that he is ‘the way, the truth and the life’, meaning the that its truth is a way of living in the truth.7

If you recall from the introduction, I discussed this notion of “Governance” relevant to Kierkegaard as an author. Consider this passage from Kierkegaard’s Journals that serve as a fine exemplary for what I mean here:

What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not what I must know, except in the way knowledge must be precede all action. It is a question of understanding my destiny, of seeing what the Deity really wants me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. And what use would it be if I were to discover a so-called objective truth, or if I worked my way through the philosophers’ systems and were able to call them all to account on request, point out inconsistencies in every single circle? . . . What use would it be able to propound the meaning of Christianity, to explain many separate facts, if it had no deeper meaning for me and for my life? 8

Kierkegaard rightfully understood that any “objective facts” regarding Christianity really only scratched the surface of the bigger issue. It is why Kierkegaard (I believe rightfully) says that “[t]he thing of being a Christian is not determined by the what of Christianity but by the how of the Christian.”9

 

The Three Stages of Existence

Kierkegaard distinguishes between three “stages” or “spheres”10 of existence which an individual may optionally abide by. These three stages being: (1) the aesthetic, (2) the ethical, and (3) the religious. As Kierkegaard contended in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846), human beings are intended by their Creator to freely develop from the aesthetic through the ethical and finally the religious stage, which in this sense makes the development “natural.” Hence why, according to C. Stephen Evans, “spiritual development is never inevitable or automatic.”11 He further continues:

[A] person can become “fixated”. . . in a particular stage, and if the person becomes aware of this and aware of the higher possibilities he or she is refusing, then that stage really has become an existentially-chosen sphere or existence.12

The aesthetic stage deals with sensuousness: “a life that turns entirely on giving oneself pleasure, ranging from the most basic and sensual to the highest and most artistic pleasures.”13It has often been said that this stage is reducible to a form of hedonism. Evans refers to the aesthetic as “the immediate,” which refer to the “natural, spontaneous sensations that lie at the heart of conscious human experience.”14 The significance of this is that the “immediate” can refer to a small child or even to a mature life-stance adult.

The ethical deals with a personal transition from the sphere of the aesthete to the sphere of recognizing morally universal rules of conduct. The individual in this case is burdened by the universal which dominates him; he recognizes his own finitude and thus is confronted with guilt, taking note of his mortality and estrangement from God. As Sproul accounts for this point:

When a person believes he can attain righteousness simply by fulfilling the letter of the law, then the ethical becomes an obstacle to faith. The reality of guilt places the person in a new situation of either/or: He either remains at the ethical stage or makes a transition out of it to the third stage or highest stadium, the religious stage.15

The religious stage, according to Kierkegaard, cannot be obtained merely by rational thought/decisiveness. The individual must make what Kierkegaard calls “the leap,” or, famously known as “the leap of faith.” Kierkegaard however, does not mean to take an irrational or blind leap to loving and trusting God, but rather, he means the “risk one takes with one’s life when one decides passionately to entrust oneself entirely and without reserve to God whom no one can possess as an object.”16 We can structure the three stages as follows:

becoming a self

Conclusion

What can the Christian take from this? Interestingly, Christians can take just as much as past non-Christian thinkers have. The decline of Christianity in Western Europe – as some argue – being due in some parts to the rise of intellectualism (hence, putting emphasis on evidence and ‘rationale’) is something Kierkegaard would have emphatically disagreed with. It is the case (as I agree with Evans and other scholars) that westerners have become emotionally as well as imaginatively impoverished. Drawing from his Postscript, “My principal thought was that, those of our time, because of so much knowledge, have forgotten what it is to exist, and the meaning ofinwardness.”17

Kierkegaard’s view of truth (in my view) is revolutionary in its call for departing from “abstract and conceptual systems” to plugging back its initial concern into “living the truth,” particularly, taking seriously what Jesus said in John 14:6.

 

____________________

Notes:

  • [1] Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction (Baker Academic: 2013), p. 5.
  • [2] Quoted from Murray Rae, Kierkegaard and Theology (Continuum Press: 2010), p. 5
  • [3] R.C. Sproul, The Consequences of Ideas (Crossway: 2000), p. 149
  • [4] Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans. Trans. Edwyn Hoskins (Oxford University Press: 1933), p. 10.
  • [5] Roger Olson, The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction(IVP Academic: 2013), p. 119.
  • [6] Sproul (2000), p. 154.
  • [7] John D. Caputo, How to Read Kierkegaard (Granta Publications: 2007), p. 13
  • [8] Quoted from Caputo (2007), p. 9
  • [9] Quoted from Olson (2013), p. 119 – emphasis his.
  • [10] See C. Stephen Evans’ discussion of this in Kierkegaard: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press: 2007), pp. 68-70.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 68
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Caputo (2007), p. 24
  • [14] Evans (2007), p. 70
  • [15] Sproul (2000), p. 152
  • [16] Olson (2013), p. 120
  • [17] Evans (2007), p. 18
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