For centuries philosopher and theologians have debated the existence of God and the legitimacy of religion, trying to justify faith through logic. Soren Kierkegaard believed in the Christian concept of God and wrote extensively on Christianity, but did not try to rationally explain his religion. He was not an apologist, or if he was, his apologetics were certainly unconventional; Kierkegaard not only acknowledged the unbeliever’s claims that Christianity is a paradox, irrational and completely improvable, he accepted these claims and even argued for them! “What now is absurd? The absurd is,” Kierkegaard proclaims, “that the eternal truth has come into being in time, that God has come into being, has been born, has grown up, and so forth, has come into being precisely like any other individual human being, quite indistinguishable from any other individuals (Anderson 52-53).” Logically this makes no amount of sense whatsoever. How could it? But Kierkegaard says that religion is not something we can make sense of in a conventional sense. It is quite literally irrational, and the main problem with religion has been the tendency for people to change it into a set of rules and doctrines, in other words trying to intellectualize something that simply cannot be intellectualized; “Faith constitutes a sphere all by itself and every misunderstanding of Christianity may at once be recognized by its transforming it into a doctrine, transferring it to the sphere of the intellectual. (Anderson 51 – 52).”
For centuries the focus of philosophy had been trying to determine the objective truth about the nature or reality, but Kierkegaard’s was willing to accept something he saw as unjustifiable, which went against way philosophy operated at the time. This was because Kierkegaard wasn’t interested in things that were objective and universal, and instead believed that subjective, personal things were far more intriguing and important. In fact, Kierkegaard based his whole philosophy around action in such a way that objectivity is thrown out the window, in fact regarded as completely useless. “What good would it do me,” Kierkegaard wrote, “if truth stood before me, cold and naked, not caring whether I recognized her or not?” He believed that people use objectivity as a way to escape belief, actions and decisions. “It is essential that every trace of an objective issue should be eliminated. If any such trace remains, it is at once a sign that the subject seeks to shirk something of the pain and crisis of the decision . . .” (Anderson 39)
According to Kierkegaard everything is subjective and personal; objectivity is a myth that “proposes to make everyone an observer, and in its maximum to transform him into so objective and observer that he becomes almost a ghost.” People need to take responsibility for their beliefs and the fact that believing in anything is a choice. For Kierkegaard what an individual chooses is not nearly as important as the fact that they chose, for choice itself is the crux of human existence. “The most tremendous thing which has been granted to man is: the choice, freedom.”
Because of his emphasis on choices, Kierkegaard is essentially an individualist; choices are by definition subjective and personal and cannot be objective. The kind of choices that Kierkegaard is concerned with are not collective decisions either. As we shall see, Kierkegaard believes that the most important things are what happens inside the individual. Additionally, these choices cannot be comprehended or even understood by outside sources. When a person decides how to live he must decide on his own for himself. “The man who can stand alone in the world, only taking counsel from his own conscience – that man is a hero (Anderson 31)”
In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard discusses the three “spheres of existence” that an individual can chose to live in: the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious. In the aesthetic sphere people live simply for physical or intellectual pleasure, seeking out that which is the most immediately pleasing or stimulating. Those in the second sphere decide to accept moral responsibility and lead a life of duty to moral law. The religious sphere is perhaps the most difficult to inhabit, as it requires giving up everything, including ethical standards and the universal good in order to live a life devoted to God.
Most people tend to see ethics and religion as inextricably intertwined, and indeed a lot of what we consider to be ethical stems from religious texts or sermons, and most organized religions seem to place a large emphasis morality and ethics. But Kierkegaard thinks that living for ethics and living for God are two entirely different things.
The prevailing ethical code of the day was Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act always in such a way that one could with the maxim (or principle) of one’s action could become universal law (Anderson 47).” This is not too far removed from the idea that one should do unto others what one would have others do unto them, or the Biblical “love your neighbor as yourself.” All these ethical codes emphasize acting in a way that one wishes others would act, and as such seek to establish a moral community based on diminishing the individual’s desires for the betterment of everyone’s desires, the universal. Kierkegaard wrote that, “the ethical is the universal, and as the universal . . . it applies at all times,” and it is the duty of the individual in the ethical sphere to “continually. . . annul his singularity in order to become the universal” (Philosophic 267). When the individual asserts his own will against the universal, he sins. At this point Kierkegaard says “he can work himself only be repentantly surrendering as the single individual in the universal (Philosophic 267)”.
In order to inhabit the religious sphere, however, one must adopt a number of principles that run contrary to life in the ethical sphere. First of all, the ethical sphere is logical and rational: it operates on a set group or rules and values (primarily that the universal shall be placed before the individual) and makes logical sense. The religious sphere, of course, is irrational by nature. “One should expect, if one is a believer, that with God all things are possible, even things which are physically and logically impossible (Anderson 48).” This is a qualitative difference between the two spheres, but there are also a couple of fundamental differences that make them necessarily opposed to each other.
In the ethical sphere the needs of the collective are put before everything else, but in the religious sphere one must out God before everything else. This alone makes the two regions completely incompatible. Kierkegaard uses a verse from the Bible to drive home the point: “In Luke 14:26, as everybody knows, there is a striking doctrine about the absolute duty toward God: ‘If any man cometh unto me and hateth not his own father and mother and wife and children and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.’ This is a hard saying, who can bear to hear it? (Anderson 49)”
The final major difference between the ethical sphere and the religious sphere is that not only is God higher than the universal, but the individual becomes higher than the universal as well. “Faith,” writes Kierkegaard, “is precisely the paradox that the single individual as the single individual is higher than the universal, is justified before it, not inferior to is but as superior – yet in such a way, please note, that it is the single individual who, after being subordinate as the single individual is superior, that the single individual as the single individual stands in an absolute relation to the absolute” (Philosophic 268).
The first two points from an ethical standpoint do indeed seem irrational, but they are in a certain sense understandable: one can theoretically imagine negating the boundaries of what is possible and what is impossible, just as one can envision devoting oneself not to the duties of society, but to those of a deity. However, the idea that the individual transcends the universal and actually becomes greater than it is not only irrational to those in the ethical sphere it is also nonsensical and completely morally wrong. Remember that in the ethical sphere the result of asserting one’s self over the universal is sin, necessarily. From the ethical point-of-view, then, the religious are in fact unrepentant sinners!
Once again we are shown Kierkegaard’s vision of religion and realize that it is completely incomprehensible from an outsider’s point of view. It does not make any sense, but, paradoxically, this is why Kierkegaard says it works. “Faith is precisely the contradiction between the infinite passion of the individual’s inwardness and the objective uncertainty. If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe” (Anderson 52). To Kierkegaard the human experience is that of making choices; perceiving something objectively does not require a decision or commitment, and as such it cannot really be called existing. However, when uncertainty is present, the individual must take charge of his or her life and make a decision whether to believe or not. “The greater the uncertainty – the greater the risk the believer takes in believing – the greater the faith,” and there’s really nothing that takes more belief, more faith, than Christianity, which is not just irrational, but in fact a paradox (Anderson 52). “When the paradox is paradoxical in itself, it repels the individual by virtue of its absurdity, and the corresponding passion of inwardness is faith” (Anderson 53).
So we find that this paradox is, paradoxically, what faith depends on. Nothing could in fact be more irrational. But what does faith look like in action? How would someone operating under such an irrational system act? To illustrate this Kierkegaard uses the example of Abraham, the father of three major religions, who was called by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. The story of Abraham and Isaac is recounted in Genesis, Chapter 22: “And God tempted Abraham and said unto him, Take Isaac, tine only son, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering upon the mountain which I will show thee” (Anderson 54).
God was not tempting Abraham to sacrifice Isaac; rather he was tempting him to do the ethical thing, to not sacrifice him. For truly, from an ethical standpoint Isaac’s death would not be sacrifice, it would be murder, plain and simple. And as Susan Anderson asks in her book On Kierkegaard, “could there be anything more wrong, from the ethical perspective, than that a parent – who brought a child into the world and therefore has the most solemn obligation to protect the child – would turn around and take the life of that child?” (Anderson 56). But Abraham, because his faith in God was so strong went along and did it. He prepared to sacrifice that which was most dear to him.
There are other stories of fathers sacrificing their children, and Kierkegaard brings up a number of these: Agamemmnon, Jephtha and Brutus were all tragic heroes called upon to kill a child. And they all did so. But their circumstances were quite different from Abraham’s. In each case the sacrifice was necessary in order to protect the community; Agamemmnon to appease an angry deity, Jephthah to fulfill a promise with God that the fate of Israel rested upon, and Brutus to uphold the principle of Roman justice. Their sacrifices made sense ethically: they gave up what they held most dear in the name of the universal. Furthermore, it is easy to relate and sympathize with these tragic heroes; indeed, we pray for that we would have the courage to do what was required in the time of crisis.
But Abraham? He was willing to destroy his own son to prove his faith in God. His act, by ethical standards, was totally unjustified. “It is not to save a nation, not to uphold the idea of the state that Abraham does it; it is not to appease the angry gods. If it were a matter of the deity’s being angry, then he was, after all, angry only with Abraham, and Abraham’s act is totally unrelated to the universal, is a purely private endeavor” (Philosophic 271). Not only would he be defying ethical morality, he would be actually destroying the universal, the potential for further generations, which was “cryptically . . . hidden, so to speak, in Isaac’s loins, and must cry out with Isaac’s mouth: Do not do this, you are destroying everything” (Philosophic 271).
Because Abraham had faith, God spared Isaac, but this does not change the fact that Abraham raised the knife and was ready to go through with what God had originally asked him to do. And yet “even at the instant when the knife glittered he believed . . . that God would not require Isaac” (Anderson 58). And even if God let Isaac be killed, Kierkegaard speculates that Abraham would have not despaired; he would have believed, “he did not believe that some day he would be blessed in the beyond, but that he would be happy here in the world. God could give him a new Isaac, could recall to life him who had been sacrificed. He believed by virtue of the absurd; for all human reckoning had long since ceased to function” (Anderson 58).
No one can understand Abraham, for the entire act occurred within him, between him and God. Kierkegaard writes “Abraham cannot be mediated; in other words, he cannot speak. As soon as I speak I express the universal, and if I do not do so, no one can understand me.” Abraham of course cannot express himself in the universal, ethical sense, because “he has no higher expression of the universal that ranks above the universal he violates.” Abraham performs the ultimate act of faith: he risks everything, and then by virtue of that risk, of his faith, he gets it all back. It makes no sense at all, but that is how religion operates, according to Kierkegaard. Even believing the story of Abraham requires an act of faith, for “the observer cannot understand him at all; neither can his eye rest upon him with confidence.” But while having faith is tremendously difficult, Kierkegaard stands in awe of it: “to be able to lose one’s reason, and therefore the whole of finiteness of which reason is the broker, and then by the virtue of the absurd to gain precisely the same finiteness – that appalls my soul, but I do not for this cause say that it is something lowly, since on the contrary it is the only prodigy (Anderson 60).” (Philosophic 271).
It is difficult to find flaws with Kierkegaard’s argument and description of religion, since he is not speaking in rational terms, and not trying to convince his audience through the methods of logic. He does seem to be taking faith as a prima-facie good, and since the whole of his argument basically stems from the idea that faith is inherently worthwhile and beneficial, it’s a bit of shaky ground to be on. But that’s not really the point: faith, like Abraham’s situation, cannot be mediated, simply because it is by definition irrational and inexplicable. If I had not had direct experience with the kind of faith that Kierkegaard is talking about, I doubt that I would be able to understand him at all. But I know what it is to gain something by giving it up, and I know how you have to lose yourself in order to find yourself. It’s all subjective and it’s all irrational, and it’s something you’ll just have to take my word for. My word and Kierkegaard’s at least.
Kierkegaard’s idea that God may call upon the religious to do things that are unethical does run him into a bit of trouble, because he is basically giving people an excuse to murder and pillage in the name of God. I don’t like the idea that whenever someone does something irrational or unjustified it could be that God asked them to. Unfortunately, there’s not really any way out of this problem since it would be impossible to know whether one had been tempted by God or not. However, in theory one would have to have passed through the ethical sphere in order to achieve the religious sphere. This really guarantees nothing, since God could ask for anything, but perhaps moving from the ethical sphere to the religious sphere could be looked at as a case of knowing the rules and knowing when to break them. Either way, this is an unfortunate side-effect of Kierkegaard’s theory, but it is not a fatal flaw that negates his philosophy or makes it any worse. In fact, it might make it more worthwhile, since it takes a bigger risk to believe in.
Kierkegaard’s whole philosophy in fact, is not built on a solid foundation of logic; it is built on faith, a concept that does not even make sense logically. “Faith is namel this paradox that the single individual is higher than the universal – yet, please note, in such a way that the movement repeats itself, so that after having been in the universal he as the single individual isolates himself as higher than the universal. If this is not faith, then Abraham is lost, then faith has never existed in the world precisely because it has always existed” (Philosophic 268).
Philosophic Classics Volume IV: Nineteenth-Century Philosophy, third edition. Baird, Forrest E., Kaufmann Walter eds. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2003.
Anderson, Susan Leigh. On Kierkegaard. Belmont, California: Wadsworth/Thompson Learning, Inc.: 2000.