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The Faith that Embraces

Windmill Ministries
Published by in Live It. ·
 
The Faith that Embraces
Reflections on the Thought and Life of Soren Kierkegaard
 

          Soren Kierkegaard challenges a central issue of Christianity. It is something I’ve had on my mind a lot lately. “What is faith?” But even more, “What grounds biblical faith?” The faith described in chapter 11 of the book of “Hebrews,” after all, doesn’t look very Aristotelian. It doesn’t look like a logical system. It is thoroughly practically and (not apparently) very reflective. What I mean is; well, I’ll quote Kierkegaard: “Life is understood backward, but lived forward.”[1] Faith calls us to live; it is not a conclusion to an argument. At least, it does not appear to be so for many biblical characters. Instead, it is the beginning of a journey. It is the response to a revelation. It is the embrace of a Person.

           At the same time, Kierkegaard is dangerously and devastatingly wrong. Once again, let me emphasize where he is profoundly correct; we cannot ground eternally significant faith in a few manuscripts of history.[2] In that sense, I have said – and I believe – that faith is trust based on evidence, but Kierkegaard is correct in saying this “evidence” is not merely facts of history, but also includes realities about an experienced person and convictions about the authority of His revelation. Paul, Peter, James, John, and Abraham experienced God. They knew God, and they did not merely know about God. And I think that’s where Kierkegaard got it right. Perhaps I have over-emphasized the evidential aspect of faith too much. It might be safer to affirm that biblical faith is trust based on knowledge. That knowledge includes facts of history (it must!), but that knowledge also includes realities of experienced grace and the choices of commitment. Certain convictions result from an inner experience of God, not from biblical scholarship; but some convictions do result from scholarship! I think Kierkegaard is dead wrong in his assertions about reason, apologetics and history; he discounts them. I think it is dangerous to oppose these. It is foolish. But he was right about his claim that we should not merely base our faith on evidences of history; these must be strengthened and anchored in daily life and experience. They must also be carried alongside a conviction about the authority of God’s Word. I compare this relationship between evidence and inner knowledge to a marriage; the evidence leads us to the proposal, but the relationship leads us to the intimacy of what it means to know and to be known. Uniting these two – the objective and the subjective – provides a solid ground for biblical faith.

          Kierkegaard would’ve likely winced at the previous exercise. I brought together two opposing ideas, and I synthesized them. Kierkegaard loved and lived in the paradox, and he emphasized (over-emphasized!) the experience of the individual.[3] He did this in three ways especially.
 
1.     The Way of Faith

“Life must be understood backward; it must be lived forwards.” – Soren Kierkegaard
 
        Once again, for Kierkegaard, faith is man’s highest passion.[4] It is not mental assent in objective propositions about “the way things are.” It is a subjective, submissive life-conformity and allegiance to a person: Jesus Christ. Kierkegaard uses a parable to describe this. Christianity is like a king who disguises himself – even more, becomes – a beggar to win the love of a maiden girl. He knows that she can never attain to royalty, and he knows that if she knows him in all his royal pomp, it will leave her distant and estranged. So, he becomes a beggar for her. He enters her world.[5] For Kierkegaard, this entering of condescending love is sovereignly enacted by God. Karl Barth, Bonhoeffer, and even the existential philosophers of the 20th century glean from the ideas this man disclosed in his writings.                                                                               
        Kierkegaard remained rather obscure during his relatively short life, but he wrote profusely. And he paved the way for a new way of thinking. As he saw it, “humanity can neither know nor find the truth unless God puts them in it through revelation. This revelation, a miraculous self-authenticating disclosure, is not part of a rational system.”[6]
         
2.     The Way of Abraham
 
        Kierkegaard argued that “the experience of reality—the loss of a loved one, the feelings of guilt and dread—was what mattered, not the “idea” of it.” He stood in stark contrast to Hegel. He did not believe reality could be unified into a system. And even if we could do so, Kierkegaard did not think we should. He looked down on universals; he embraced the particulars: the individual, the decision, and experience. He argued that Hegel left out what was most important in a system about reality: existence itself.

        Existence before God was about passion. It was about walking in the way of Abraham. This is portrayed in of his most significant works, “Fear and Trembling.” In it, Kierkegaard reflects on Abraham’s obedience to God’s command to slaughter his son, Isaac. Abraham was an ethical man, a law-abiding man. He knew it was wrong to murder. But God had spoken. Abraham was not unethical, Kierkegaard argues, but his duty was bound up with a transcendent Person. Abraham had to put his reason aside – take a leap of faith – and obey amid paradox. This was, to Kierkegaard, the deepest level of devotion: to move beyond the merely aesthetic stage, through the ethical stage, and into the religious stage.
       
           Kierkegaard’s saw that our relationship to God is fundamental to our identity. The religious life consists of submission, adoration, and sacrifice. This is how you prove the existence of a king! Worship, not reason, is the correct apologetic. The hard path, not the easy road, is the way of Christianity. Not only can we not prove God’s existence, per Kierkegaard, we should not bother: “What is more, even if we could prove God’s being (in himself) it would be irrelevant to us; it is God’s existence or relatedness to us that alone has religious significance. God is presented to man for an existential choice, not for rational reflection.”[9]

The Way of Difficulty

“affliction is able to drown out every earthly silence…but the voice of eternity within a man it cannot drown. When by the aid of affliction all irrelevant voices are brought to silence, it can be heard, this voice within.”[10] – Soren Kierkegaard

             “Christianity is pain.” That is not a quote from Kierkegaard, but it well could be! In his time, the church in Denmark was shallow, ritualistic and formalistic. Christianity was cultural. Kierkegaard set out to “make it difficult” and save the church from herself.[11] Faith was a leap and not a rest. Faith was a paradoxical wrestling, and not a rest of complacency. The religious life was one of pain, sacrifice, and climb from despair to despair. It was the life of Abraham. The pain that he saw in Christianity, as well as the deep piety and the paradox of Kierkegaard are reflections of his own life. Or perhaps it is the other way around? Maybe his life was an outflow from his philosophy. For this reason, I have reserved Kierkegaard’s own story until now. Because for Kierkegaard, our life and choices are the proof of the realities we believe in.

 
          Soren Kierkegaard was born into a strict Lutheran home in Copenhagen, 1813. His father was a wealthy businessman afflicted with sorrow. His mother was once his father’s housekeeper. Soren’s father, Michael, cursed God as a shepherd boy and believed that his life was a punishment from that single childhood event. Out of six brothers, five died prematurely. Soren never thought he would make it past the age of 34, and when he died at 42 his body was old and worn-out. He battled melancholy all his life.

           In his twenties, he almost married the woman that he loved, Regine Olsen. She was younger and, from the evidence we have, loved him deeply. Soren broke off his engagement with unknown reasons. In his diary, he cites his melancholy. It is possible that his perceived calling as a writer influenced the decision as well. Also, it may have been his father’s secrets – his curse, and illicit relationship with his mother prior to their marriage – that prevent Soren from entering a relationship that he believed compelled the greatest openness and honesty: “He believed firmly that marriage required open communication and honesty but felt that he could not explain himself to Regine without disclosing secrets about his father that he had a duty not to divulge.”[12]

           After he broke of the engagement, Soren pretend to be a playboy to spare Regina her good image. Regine never believed that Soren’s theatrics were sincere reflections of his heart. She was right. “Fear and Trembling” was inspired by this episode in Kierkegaard’s life. Regine was his Isaac, or perhaps he was his own. It was a sacrifice for a greater calling. It was a leap of faith.

           Kierkegaard spent the rest of his days fiercely writing. All his works today fill 26 volumes in the latest English translation.[13] Because of his wealth, he never had to work or concern himself with pleasing his publishers. He set his sights on the institutional church, and he fought bitterly until the end for what he believed was the true faith – it wasn’t polished and dusted and easy, but it was hard and dangerous and unvarnished. Christianity, for Kierkegaard, was not so much a way of living that you think your way into, but a way of thinking that you live your way into.

   
 
[1] Det er ganske sandt, hvad Philosophien siger, at Livet maa forstaaes baglænds. Men derover glemmer man den anden Sætning, at det maa leves forlænds. “It is perfectly true, as the philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.” Journals IV A 164 (1843). See Phenomenology: Critical Concepts in Philosophy, by Dermot Moran (2002)
Variant: “We live forward, but we understand backward.”
[2] Geisler, N. L. (1999). Baker encyclopedia of Christian apologetics. Baker Reference Library (409). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
[3] Galli, M., & Olsen, T. (2000). Introduction. In 131 Christians everyone should know (227). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
[4] Geisler, N. L. (1976). Christian apologetics (52). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
[5] Geisler, N. L. (1999). Baker encyclopedia of Christian apologetics. Baker Reference Library (409). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
[6] Fahlbusch, E., & Bromiley, G. W. (1999-2003). Vol. 3: The encyclopedia of Christianity (117). Grand Rapids, MI; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill.
[7] Geisler, N. L. (1999). Baker encyclopedia of Christian apologetics. Baker Reference Library (409). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
[8] Ibid., 410.
[9] Geisler, N. L. (1999). Baker encyclopedia of Christian apologetics. Baker Reference Library (409). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
[10] Galli, M., & Olsen, T. (2000). Introduction. In 131 Christians everyone should know (226). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
[11] Fahlbusch, E., & Bromiley, G. W. (1999-2003). Vol. 3: The encyclopedia of Christianity (117). Grand Rapids, MI; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill.
[12] Fahlbusch, E., & Bromiley, G. W. (1999-2003). Vol. 3: The encyclopedia of Christianity (117). Grand Rapids, MI; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill.
[13] Fahlbusch, E., & Bromiley, G. W. (1999-2003). Vol. 3: The encyclopedia of Christianity (117). Grand Rapids, MI; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill.
 
 



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