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A Discussion of Theology

15 Dec 2017Essay Samples

Free Witness: A Discussion of Theology and Faith in the Thinking of Soren Kierkegaard

Introduction

The religious writings of Soren Kierkegaard represent a fundamental challenge to traditional modes of thinking about subjects such as theology and faith. Indeed, this 19th century Danish philosopher's reflections upon the relationship between God and Man, Faith and Reason, are so idiosyncratic as to be virtually heretical within the parameters of most organized Christianity. Given this, some might question the value of studying his religious philosophy.

However, the significance of Kierkegaard's work lies in precisely this willingness of his to subject the basic elements of Christian faith and theology to philosophical analysis. This essay will discuss the Kierkegaard's thinking on both theology and faith. It will be argued that at the heart of his discussion of both issues is his critique of the inherent weaknesses of traditional theology. It will be seen that Kierkegaard perceived the damage that modern theology – rooted in Scriptural textual analysis – was capable of inflicting upon Christianity. Thus, Kierkegaard argues for a faith based upon paradox and belief instead of reason or theology. The significance of this perspective is that it allows for the existence of faith in a secular age where textually foundationed theology is no longer capable of survival as a coherent tradition.

Kierkegaard: Background

In many respects, it is impossible to truly understand 2 Kierkegaard without understanding the forces that shaped him and his religious reflections. Born in 1813, in a Denmark reeling from the social upheaval of the Napoleonic Wars, Kierkegaard was raised by an intellectual and melancholy father to become a thinker, a writer and a Christian. However, more significantly, Kierkegaard

acquired from his father a religiosity, almost of the Old Testament, which he never lost, and in his father's despair he saw a divine punishment, in his wealth and prosperity, a curse. . . . (Rohde, 7-8)

As one may gather, Kierkegaard was not the most optimistic or cheerful of men; a fact reflected in his writings, as titles such as The Sickness Unto Death would indicate.

However, his natural inclinations towards solitude and independent thinking led him to profound insights into the nature of the human spirit and the role of religion in a secular, modern age. The range and significance of his thinking in this regard is clearly beyond the parameters of this paper. However, a narrower focus upon Kierkegaard's discussions of the issues of theology and faith can yield profitable insights into both the theory and the practice of Christianity in the modern world.

The Questions of Theology and Faith

To say that Kierkegaard did not care for traditional 3 Christian theology is something of an understatement. This is not, of course, to say that he was atheistic or anti-Christian in any sense. Rather, his opposition to Christian theology may be seen as an aspect of his opposition to philosophical systematization in general. Kierkegaard noted that:

Most systematicians stand in the same relation to their systems as a man palace and lives in a barn adjoining it: they do not live in the great systematic structure, yet in moral things that must always be a vital objection. Morally, a man's ideas must be the building he lives in - or else there is something wrong. (Rohde, 28)

It was essentially this conviction that led Kierkegaard to his assault on the establishment of the Church of Denmark which he felt was guilty of a falsification of Christianity by pretending that it was possible to both "of the world" and Christian at the same time (Rohde, 26). Kierkegaard's vision of what it meant to be Christian was fundamentally opposed to that of many of his contemporaries. He declared that "to be a Christian. . .is suffering from beginning to end" with the ultimate objective being "to get rid of this world" (Come, 11).

Given this, it is not surprising that Kierkegaard had a very negative view of the theologians and clergy of his day, who were seeking an accommodation between faith and reason (Come, 11). He 4 bitterly denounced these canonizers of theological doctrines as "assistant professors - those animal-creatures . . . . If any class of men deserves to be called animals in comparison with the rest of us, it is professors and preachers" (Come, 12). These theologians, in Kierkegaard's view, were attempting to "explain" Christianity by resolving the contradictions and paradoxes of Christian faith, rather than appreciating these logical paradoxes as a basis for faith. Kierkegaard observed wryly that, were St. Paul to be examined in theology by a modern theologian, "of course he is rejected" (Come, 12).

The Scriptural basis for Kierkegaard's hostility to theology lies in his argument that "Christ did not establish any doctrine, he acted" (Come, 11). Given this example, Kierkegaard considered that the basis of faith cannot reside in a text, or in any theological interpretation of a text. This is not, of course, to say that Kierkegaard doubted the Biblical narrative. In essence, Kierkegaard's belief system shared the same basis as did that of the Christian theology he detested. As one critic observes:

On the question of the source or ground of Christian thinking and understanding (theology), Kierkegaard accepted the basic thesis of the traditional Christian doctrine of a special revelation of God in the JudeoChristian religious experience, centered and fulfilled in the incarnation, in the historical event of the appearance of the God-man Jesus as the Christ. (Come, 15)

However, from this common ground, Kierkegaard parted company with most of the Christian theologians of his day. It must be recalled that the 19th century was a time when textual criticism of Biblical texts began revealing similar mythological narrative strands to other historical belief systems of the Near East. While some religious thinkers and theologians considered this to be a serious challenge to Christian belief, Kierkegaard was openly contemptuous of the inherent weakness of a faith based upon reason and flimsy textual analysis. In 1851 he observed as much in his Diary:

In our day erudite doubts make their appearance more and more conspicuously and take away now one part, and now another, of the Scriptures. The orthodox are in despair . . . . Suppose doubt took it into its head to present certain probable evidence that Paul's epistles were not by him, or that Paul had never existed. Then what? Well, learned orthodoxy would have to despair. (Kierkegaard, Diary, 161)

The above passage is of particular interest as it indicates what is, for many, the significance of Kierkegaard's approach to theology and faith. In Kierkegaard's view, faith is not dependent upon texts, or scholarly analysis, or Jesus Seminars and the like. Indeed, for Kierkegaard these are the very antithesis of faith. He argues that a religious belief system cannot be "built on the basis of understanding faith, but on the basis of understanding that one cannot understand faith" (Kierkegaard's emphasis) (Kierkegaard, Diary, 165).

The fact that many people today - as in Kierkegaard's time - would be likely to dismiss Kierkegaard's argument as paradoxical is indicative, he would argue, of the degree to which theologians had abandoned the struggle for faith. He notes derisively in his Diary in 1852 that while the "freethinkers of our day attack Christianity and call it mythology, poetry" Christianity's "defenders, its official exponents" are unable to retaliate as their lives "express practically the opposite of living up to Christs's bidding, so to them Christianity is mythology, poetry" (Kierkegaard, Diary, 167).

The significance of Kierkegaard's approach to issues of faith lies in his frank statement regarding the nature of the struggle of faith in the modern age, and his presentation of a strategic battle plan allowing for the expansion of the faith in a faithless era. Indeed, Kierkegaard rejects any suggestion that a Christian must "defend" Christianity from the forces of disbelief, as such a stance automatically situates the Christian in a position of weakness. In The Sickness Unto Death he notes:

As for Christianity! Well, he who defends it has never believed it. If he believes, then the enthusiasm of faith is not a defense - no, it is attack and victory; a believer is a victor. (Kierkegaard, Sickness, 87)

In Kierkegaard's view "revelation is a paradoxical event, and it cannot be proved or made plausible by factual or rational evidence and argument" (Come, 20). The encounter with this paradox cannot be eased by authority or by theology. Rather, the Christian must face this paradox directly and make a "qualitative essential decision" (Come, 20).

This decision involves, for Kierkegaard, an act of faith. Kierkegaard defines faith in a variety of ways in his work. In The Sickness Unto Death he notes:

Faith is: that the self in being itself and in willing to be itself rests transparently in God . . . the opposite of sin is faith, as it says in Roman 14:23: "whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." And this is one of the most decisive definitions for all Christianity - that the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith. (Kierkegaard, Sickness, 82)

A necessary component of faith is the acceptance of the contemporaneity of Christ. This is one of the key weakness of modern theology, in Kierkegaard's view, which situates Christ in 8 an historical or literary/cultural context. Christ is, for Kierkegaard, immediately present in everyday life. In Practice in Christianity Kierkegaard declares that this immediacy of presence, the awareness of the contemporaneity of Christ, is the fundamental prerequisite to the act of faith which is, in its turn, the basis of all belief:

[Christ's] presence never becomes a thing of the past . . . As long as there is a believer, this person, in order to have become that, must have been and as a believer must be just as contemporary with Christ's presence as his contemporaries were. This contemporaneity is the condition of faith, and, more sharply defined, it is faith [my emphasis]. . . . (Gouwens, 134)

It is perhaps not surprising that Kierkegaard's is never exact in his definition of "faith". Indeed, he would perhaps have been amused to note how critics - much as was the case with the Biblical scholars whom Kierkegaard derided - disagree as to the nature of Kierkegaard's conception of faith. David Wisdo argues that Kierkegaard perceives faith as a "gift of grace" while others, such as C. Stephen Evans, see it as a "willed decision" of the individual. Still others assume a middle road between these two positions, suggesting that while the grace of God is responsible for the individual's insight into his or her own 9 sinfulness, the individual must make the willed decision whether to accept this insight (Gouwens, 137).

This "leap" of faith is dependent upon the human quality of freedom which Kierkegaard considers to be an example of the grace of God and a sign that she share in the divine substance. He declares :

To have unique-distinctive-individuality is to believe in the unique-individuality of every other [person]; because unique-individuality is not mine, but is the gift of God, by which God gives me being . . . .yet gives in such a way that the receiver obtains uniqueindividuality . . . . (Come, 59)

In this analysis, the freedom of each individual to admit God's grace is the gift of God, and it is only through an individual decision or "leap" to embrace paradox and perceive the contemporaneity of Christ as God that God's further grace can be accepted. In his Diary, Kierkegaard observes "faith itself is the evidence, the witness" (Kierkegaard, Diary, 165). This faith, the capacity to "witness" the Christ as God in the same fashion as he was witnessed by the Apostles, cannot be obtained through the medium of texts. Rather, the faith, the witness, must reside within:

There is only one proof of the truth of Christianity: the inner proof, argumentum spiritus sancti. In the Epistle of St. John (1,5,9) this is hinted: "If we receive the witness of men" (meaning all the historical evidence and considerations), "the witness of God is greater" i.e. the inner testimony is greater. And in verse 10: "He that believeth in the Son of God hath the witness in himself." It is not the reasons that motivate belief in the Son of God, but the other way round, belief in the Son of God constitutes the evidence. (Kierkegaard, Diary, 164-65)

In the above passage may be seen the key to understanding Kierkegaard's perception of the relationship between theology and faith. Theology, the "witness of men", can provide the basic evidence of the existence of a figure known as the Christ. However, faith cannot be based upon something so flimsy. Faith is a struggle, a leap, a paradox. It is something that can only be attained from within, and based upon the individual's awareness of the immediate presence of Christ as God. Evidence - historical, textual or otherwise - is irrelevant to such a faith as Kierkegaard's. In a sense, Soren Kierkegaard's view might be seen as analogous to the depiction of faith in the famous observation of Christ to St. Thomas: "blessed are those that have not seen and yet believe" (John 20:29).

Bibliography

  • Come, Arnold. Kierkegaard as Theologian: Recovering My Self. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1997.
  • Gouwens, David. Kierkegaard as Religious Thinker. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Kierkegaard, Soren. The Diary of Soren Kierkegaard. Trans. Gerda Anderson. Ed. Peter Rohde. London: Peter Owen, 1960.
  • Kierkegaard, Soren. The Sickness Unto Death. Trans. and Ed. Howard Hong and Edna Hong. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980.
  • Rohde, Peter. "Soren Kierkegaard: The Father of Existentialism." Essays on Kierkegaard. Ed. Jerry Gill. Minneapolis, Minn: Burgess, 1969, 6-30.

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