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Faith and Reason - Passion and Paradox

Passion and Paradox

By Soren Kierkegaard

This excerpt from Soren's work "Concluding Unscientific Postscript" examines two "modes" or ways of reflection: the objective way, which attempts to apprehend truth by eliminating all subjectivity, and the subjective way, which attempts to apprehend truth by eliminating all objectivity. For Kierkegaard, the rule of faith is necessarily antithetical

to the canons of reason, since objectifying God or attempting to explain Him in strictly rational terms weakens the radical decision to "walk by faith, not by sight." As SK says elsewhere on this subject, "There are two ways of reflection. For objective reflection, truth becomes an object, and the point is to disregard the knowing subject (the individual). By contrast, in subjective reflection truth becomes personal appropriation, a life, inwardness, and the point is to immerse oneself in this subjectivity."

This does not mean that SK endorsed "absurdism" or advocated irrationality in the life of faith. Even a cursory reading of his writings demonstrates that he was a quintessential dialectician who used logic to refute his archenemy G.W. Hegel and his followers. (Sadly, Kierkegaard has been slandered in this regard by many in Evangelical circles who have not taken the time to seriously study his writings.)

Kierkegaard did not deny that objective truth ("science") had its place but maintained that such knowledge only acquired meaning and "weight" when appropriated inwardly. Knowledge apart from value is indifferent; value apart from knowledge is blind... Indeed, the very value we place on knowledge indicates that it is more basic than knowledge itself. In other words, a scientist or rationalist secretly assumes that knowledge

is "good" for its own sake, yet the idea of what is "good" only comes from the value-center of the heart. "We believe in order to understand," as Anselm once said, and reason is invariably the servant of passion....

On another level, SK values the objective mode as setting up the tension that is required for the apprehension of subjective truth.  Objectivity never leads to certainty, yet our lives demand urgent, irrepeatable choices. As SK says, "Faith is the contradiction between the infinite passion of inwardness and objective uncertainty. In other words, if I apprehend God objectively, I do not have faith; but because I cannot do this, I must have faith." 
When truth is (objectively) understood as subjectivity it is called a paradox.

The ongoing quest to offer an "apologetic" for the objective truth of Christianity is subject to temptation. Relating to the truth of Christianity "objectively" imports Greek conceptions about "correspondence to reality" and rationalistic formulas that attempt to justify cognitive content... Objectively understood, Christianity becomes a set of dogmas or creedal affirmations, and truth becomes an abstract, comprehensible "object" or "system" of knowing. Good doctrine becomes a category of thought, part of a larger mosaic of understanding that seeks to comprehend, categorize, and explain God in abstract terms. Kierkegaard maintained that any objective knowledge gained through such efforts emasculates the life of faith, making it an object that is "probable," "likely," or "reasonable," but not a truth for which one is willing to live and die... Nor is such a methodology a substitute for a direct encounter with the LORD through faith.

The same comments can be made, incidentally, regarding the recent onslaught of counter-apologetic books that attempt to make a "rational case" for atheism or agnosticism.  Each person inescapably chooses to live according to the passion of their own heart, and that is the truth that marks that person's life...  Since God only can be known through subjective inwardness, those who attempt to use objective means to argue their case against the rule of faith are making a category mistake...  - John Parsons

To become objective, to become preoccupied with the "what" of Christianity, instead of with the "how" of being Christian, is nothing but a retrogression.

How shall we understand the truth in terms of subjectivity? Here is a definition: The truth is an objective uncertainty held fast through personal appropriation with the most passionate inwardness. This is the highest truth there can be for an existing person. At the point where the road divides, objective knowledge is suspended, and one has only uncertainty, but this is precisely what intensifies the infinite passion of inwardness. Subjective truth is precisely the daring venture of choosing the objective uncertainty with the passion of the infinite.

Natural Theology
I observe nature in order to find God, and I do indeed see omnipotence and wisdom. However, I also see much that is troubling and unsettling. The sum total of this is that God's existence is an objective uncertainty, but the inwardness, the certainty of his existence, is still so very great, precisely because of this objective uncertainty. In a mathematical proposition absolute objectivity is given, but for that reason its truth is also an indifferent truth and concerns me very little.

Now the definition of truth stated above is actually a paraphrasing of faith. No uncertainty, no risk. No risk, no faith. Faith is the contradiction between the infinite passion of inwardness and objective uncertainty. In other words, if I apprehend God objectively, I do not have faith; but because I cannot do this, I must have faith. If I want to keep myself in faith, I must continually see to it that I hold fast the objective uncertainty. I must see to it that in the objective uncertainty I am "out on 70,000 fathoms of water" and still have faith.

Paradox as Faith's Content
This is not all. Truth as subjectivity, when it is in highest intensity, holds fast to more than objective uncertainty. When subjectivity or inwardness is truth, then truth, objectively defined, is a paradox. Paradox shows precisely that subjectivity is truth, for objectivity's repulsion, the paradox, is the resilience and barometer of inwardness.

Socrates' great merit is precisely in being an existing thinker, not a speculative thinker who forgets what it means to exist. And this is indeed admirable. But let us now go further; let us assume that the eternal, essential truth is itself the paradox. How does the paradox emerge? By placing the eternal, essential truth together with existing. The eternal truth itself has come into existence in time. That is the Paradox, and the highest truth for an existing person.

Again, without risk, no faith; the more risk, the more faith. Therefore, the more objective reliability, the less inwardness (inwardness is subjectivity); the less objective reliability, the deeper the possible inwardness. Hence, when the paradox is the object of faith it thrusts away by virtue of the absurd, and the corresponding passion of inwardness is faith. What, then, is the absurd? The absurd is that the eternal truth has come into existence in time, that God has come into existence, has been born, has grown up, has come into existence exactly as an individual human being, indistinguishable from any other human being.

Subjectivity is truth and if subjectivity is in existing, then, if I may put it this way, Christianity is a perfect fit. Subjectivity culminates in passion; Christianity culminates in paradox (God in Christ; God on the Cross); paradox and passion fit each other perfectly, for paradox perfectly fits a person situated in the extremity of existence. Indeed, in the whole wide world there are not to be found two loves who fit each other as do paradox and passion, Christianity and faith.

Faith and Reason?
Thus, if someone wants to have faith and reason too, well, let the comedy begin. He wants to have faith, but he wants to assure himself with the aid of objective deliberation. What happens? With the aid of reason, the absurd becomes something else; it becomes probable, it becomes more probable, it may become to a high degree exceedingly probable, even demonstrable. Now he is all set to believe it, and he dares to say of himself that he does not believe as shoemakers and tailors and simple folk do, but only after long and careful deliberation. Now he is all set to believe, but, lo and behold, now it has indeed become impossible to believe. The almost probable, the probable, the to-a-high-degree and exceedingly probable, that he can almost know, or as good as know, to a higher degree and exceedingly almost know – but believe, that cannot be done, for the absurd is precisely the object of faith and only that can be believed with the passion of inwardness.

Christianity claims to be the eternal, essential truth that has come into existence in time. It proclaims itself as the paradox and thus requires the inwardness of faith – that which is an offense to the Jews, foolishness to the Greeks, and an absurdity to the understanding. It cannot be expressed more strongly: Objectivity and faith are at complete odds with each other. What does objective faith mean? Doesn't it amount to nothing more than a sum of tenets?

Christianity is nothing of the kind. On the contrary, it is inwardness, an inwardness of existence that places a person decisively, more decisively than any judge can place the accused, between time and eternity, between heaven and hell in the time of salvation. But objective faith? It is as if Christianity was a little system of sorts, although presumably not as good as the Hegelian system. It is as if Christ – it is not my fault that I say it – had been a professor and as if the apostles had formed a little professional society of thinkers. The passion of inwardness and objective deliberation are at complete odds with each other. There is no way of getting around it. To become objective, to become preoccupied with the "what" of Christianity, instead of with the "how" of being Christian, is nothing but a retrogression.

Christianity is subjective; the inwardness of faith in the believer is the truth's eternal decision. Objectively there is no truth "out there" for existing beings, but only approximations, whereas subjectively truth lies in inwardness, because the decision of truth is in subjectivity. For how can decision be an approximation or only to a certain degree? What could it possibly mean to assert or to assume that decision is like approximation, is only to a certain degree? I will tell you what it means. It means to deny decision. The decision of faith, unlike speculation, is designed specifically to put an end to that perpetual prattle of "to a certain degree."

For an existing individual, therefore, there is no objective truth "out there." An objective knowledge about the truth or the truths of Christianity is precisely untruth. To know a creed by rote is, quite simply, paganism. This is because Christianity is inwardness. Christianity is paradox, and paradox requires but one thing: the passion of faith.

Source Credit: The Kierkegaard quote is taken from Provocations, Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, compiled and edited by Charles E. Moore, Plough Publishing, Copyright 2002 (page design and coding of this page by John Parsons).


Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard by Soren Kierkegaard (Author), Charles E. Moore (Editor). Perhaps the most accessible presentation of the wonderful thinking of Soren Kierkegaard available in English. Highly recommended!


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