Kierkegaard and christianity
Soren Kierkegaard is said to be one of the “founding fathers” of
existentialism. His style of writing, his tone and vocabulary tie him closely to another forerunner of existentialist thought: Fyodor Dostoevsky (although either of them would probably deny this vehemently). However, in the course of his writings, Kierkegaard takes quite a liberal and (dare I say it?) individualistic stand on the side of Christianity. In the passages I have read of Kierkegaard (“That Individual” and “Truth is Subjectivity”), he puts forward two basic themes which seem to be his “driving force” behind each piece respectively. It is behind these themes that Kierkegaard makes his forceful drive to discover the “eternal truth” and the paths which lead us there.
Kierkegaard wastes no time in setting the tone for the first selection, “That Individual”. Right away he starts his discussion on the “crowd”, which he states early on is (in its very concept) the untruth. In a crowd, the vociferation and frenzy of that crowd often drowns out the truth, even if each member of that crowd has individually obtained the truth . Kierkegaard makes the statement that “only one attains the goal”, in that we all are capable of obtaining said goal (in this case the eternal truth) if we each seek after the goal as individuals. In crowds, he says, it is sure that no one is working, living, striving for the highest aim, but only for one or another earthly aim. Only as individuals (with God as our helper) can we obtain that which is the absolute, eternal truth. In these beginning paragraphs, Kierkegaard has already set his theme for this passage: that only as individuals with the help of God can one achieve the goal, or “eternal truth”, that is Christianity.
As we delve deeper into the passage, we almost discover a politico-religious message hits us shortly after he forms his original premise. Kierkegaard states that the crowd being the untruth, none has more disregard for what it is to be a man than those people who see fit to lead this flock of falsehood. In elaboration, Kierkegaard goes on to state that even Christ, who taught the incognizant masses about human compassion and salvation through the Lord’s ways, deliberately chose not to have any crowd affiliation of any type. He only existed as the Truth, remaining unflinched by the populace, even to his own crucifixion. The only way Kierkegaard sees that one could address the crowd like a politician and remain a competent seeker of truth is to address the masses not with the intent of teaching them something but with the aim to enlighten one of those in the crowd to individually seek out the truth for himself. After all that is the only way to the eternal truth, and the truth itself is in its most eminent degree “the most ‘impolitic’ thing that can be imagined”.
As we continue on our journey of truth Kierkegaard reiterates his theme like an award-winning opera, this time with more emphasis than the first. In this he does once again state that only the individual, aided by God, can achieve the ultimate truth of Christianity. He goes further, however, to declare that the communication of the truth can only be perceived or expressed by the individual. The press and the populace therefore cannot carry or fully express the eternal truth, for it is only communicated through God to the individual. Kierkegaard likewise goes on to state that the truth is also to fear God and honor one’s neighbor. In this Kierkegaard states his opinion on human equality, that if everyone were to truly love his neighbor as himself then complete human equality would be attained. He does show some resentment with this ideology, however, in that loving one’s neighbor is simply a form of self-denial — a way to make what seems to be an easier truth than that which one would aspire to. In this respect, Kierkegaard says that placing one’s authority in this system is also the untruth.
In his finishing statements, Kierkegaard defends the penitent attitude of the “good” Christian. He sets up an interesting argument: How can one so weak and impotent (in his own mind) successfully make his stand against a crowd who possesses the power? His answer: getting the crowd on your side is not the objective of the thinking Christian, it would be mocking himself. The benefits of being so meek and self-reserved are bountiful enough: it’s fair to all, offends no one, and makes no distinctions of class or stature. No one is forbidden to become an “individual” in this right, everyone who strives to individually know the truth and doesn’t seep into the “crowd” can aspire to this plane. It is in the individuality of man that one can become great.
Kierkegaard’s “Truth is Subjectivity” was (for this observer, at least) the harder of the two texts. Its subject matter and subversive language often made it seem contradictory to itself, almost as if it were running around in circles. Kierkegaard starts out trying to explain his reasoning about how something makes sense this way, only to do an about-face and illustrate its utter invalidity, shunning it to the depths of Hell. However, I shall try and decipher this as well as I possibly can.
Kierkegaard begins asking why Christianity is such a good theological view to follow. He brings up the point that in Christianity the individual is the most important thing (besides God) to preserve in order to discover the truth. This he says (or to be more specific, “Johannes Climacus” says) is an extremely vain and egotistical view of oneself, and seems to run counterpoint to what Christianity is all about. He (Climacus) observes from an outside viewpoint that the chief offense against Christianity would be to take the relationship between individual and God himself for granted, and in this vein he asks what one can do to participate in the happiness that Christianity promises. At least he’s close to making his first decision in the right direction.
To begin his search for the method by which to obtain this Christian
happiness, Kierkegaard says, one must secure a personal and historical account of what Christianity truly is, for to try and achieve something without first
understanding all of its contents would be a oversight. One must immerse himself in the study and comprehension of this religion to fully understand it and pursue its good. Like a professor or sage, one must derive a sort of pleasure from his work to fully understand what his subject is really about (not an “eternal happiness” mind you, but at the least a smidgen of felicity). From this concentration on the works of Christianity, Kierkegaard’s second theme emerges from the mist…
The crux of his writing, the subject of his work first appears here, shadowed in all-abstruse language. His premise is this: In choosing faith we must suspend our reason in order to believe in something higher than reason. However as the writings continue, Kierkegaard realizes how absurd this form of reasoning is and comes to a point in which he realizes that Christianity is (in essence) a paradox.
Back to the present — not long after stating his point (however esoterically) Kierkegaard enters a discussion on objectivity and subjectivity. Early on he dismisses the objective point of view simply because God is a subject, thus proving the objective angle absurd in itself. Subjectively, however, the proverbial can-of-worms is opened. He states that in inwardness, a person who prays in a false spirit is as idolatrous as one who worships an actual idol, for even though he is worshipping God he is praying with his eyes upon something less than the infinite. In turn, the idol worshipper is more true than the false Christian.
Objectively, each of the premises on which Christianity is built slowly fall apart. Objectively, a human can’t believe there is an immortality without having some proof of it first. Objectively, the truth is existent when it is said to be so and passionately believed to be so. However, the ability to believe this statement is still uncertain at best. Objectively, it is absurd that a God so powerful and omniscient came into being, grew up, and developed like most individual human beings. The focus in all of these lies in the what instead of the why and how, and that is how objectivity (while it can still be utilized to further understand the truth) is ultimately ruled out of such a subjective knowledge as Christian truth.
Now the topic arises again: in the absurdity that is Christianity one can only hope to subtract reason from one’s dichotomy and replace it with something higher than reason itself. For as long as reason is still applied, then all that one will see is absurdity in the face of what should be a glorious act. For example, Kierkegaard asserts that once one gets into the mind-set that one will “set forth” to be a Christian, pushing aside all absurdity and striving forward to be the best Christian he can, then he has transplanted absurdity as his object of faith and has thus made it impossible to believe. One must understand that Christianity cannot be understood before he can further explore the meaning of “eternal truth”.
As Kierkegaard begins to adjourn his composition, he looks at how it is
simply a matter of course that the people of his time are Christians. It is no longer folly to be a Christian like it had been in the past, it is simply harder to distinguish the truth-seeking Christians from the simple, practical Christian. In his closing he almost looks at the present and future with lackluster optimism (as do most existentialists), believing that maybe the objectively-oriented Christian has replaced the truth-seeking Christian as the normal of the world. Maybe this scares him to no end and, after seeing today’s society of naysayers and pessimists, maybe it should…
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