Kierkegaard and Easy-Believism

How far can you stretch an idea till it breaks?

Sometimes an idea is like a lie – it becomes more and more complex and unlikely to be true as its owner frantically attempts to keep it afloat.  One such idea is that Christian faith is compatible with reason and evidence.

The relationship between faith and empiricism has long been tenuous, but it’s time we realize that the two will never be reconciled.  Many have tried (sometimes successfully) to elucidate the conflict by pointing out instances in which the claims of the Bible are opposed to reality.  In my opinion, we don’t need (though it can be helpful and intellectually satisfying) to painstakingly point out all the facts.  Actually, to show that faith is opposed to reason, we don’t need to consider facts at all. We only need to think about the nature of faith itself.

When discussing philosophy with my Christian friends, the name brought up most frequently is Søren Kierkegaard.  Christians often regard him as a champion of the faith, some citing him as their favorite philosopher.  This surprises me every time I hear it.  True, he was a committed Christian and theologian, but his work makes Christianity an uncomfortable position to hold, especially because of the light he sheds on what it means to act in faith.

Kierkegaard was critical of Hegel, who believed that, building up from Descartes’ base-line of “I think, therefore I am,” one could reason his/her way to Christian faith.  Kierkegaard believed that faith could neither be arrived at by reason or moved beyond by reason.  In “Fear and Trembling,” which takes as its starting point the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac, he emphasizes that faith is disconcertingly outside the realm of rational ethics.

“The fact is, the ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he wanted to murder Isaac; the religious, that he wanted to sacrifice him.”

And yet he still highly praises Abraham’s faith.  Oddly, Kierkegaard and I view Abraham’s story very similarly, yet we draw polar opposite conclusions.  He decides it is wonderful and beyond his understanding.  As for me, I think I see exactly what is going on, and I want none of it!  He agrees that ethics must be rational, not revealed, and that matters of faith are contrary to the the way the world works.  Why would I choose faith?

Kierkegaard was also critical of the lackadaisical  “faith” of his Danish compatriots.  He considered their “que sera sera” attitude much too simple and lazy.  It is not justifiable to passively sacrifice to God, hoping that all turns out well.

“I cannot carry out the movement of faith: I cannot close my eyes and confidently plunge into the absurd – it is impossible for me.”

Kierkegaard’s faith was an informed faith.  He knew very well that to have faith, he would have to deny certain aspects of the material world around him.  This is yet another reason that pointing to facts is often not sufficient to persuade a person of faith.  The disparity between the “spiritual” and physical realms is not overlooked by a thinking Christian.

However, to a more simple believer, facts are everything!  For them, believing is not a struggle. It is a matter of course.  “The heavens declare the glory of God!”  From a superficial glance at the world, without knowledge of philosophical difficulties, such as the Problem of Evil, or the extent to which the scientific method has enabled humanity to understand bygone “mysteries” as natural processes, it is not hard to imagine proposing the idea of a creator.  Nature is complex and awe-inspiring.  Isn’t that proof enough of God?

Other Christians, still well below the refinement of Kierkegaard, realize that nature is not enough to point to God but instead look to the authority of Scripture as “evidence.”  A mind-numbing amount of circular reasoning convinces them that the Bible must be true because it says so.  Seemingly, no amount of textual or historical criticism will rattle their conviction that the Holy Book is a sufficient glue to hold reason to faith.

In any case, statements like: ‘All you gotta have is faith’ and ‘Just believe in Jesus and you will be saved,’ not only patronize unbelievers but paint religion as a tawdry and laughable.  Faith is neither as simple as following the evidence nor as easy as throwing one’s hands up in the air, submitting to the will of God.

There are several simple lessons I think we can learn from “Fear and Trembling”:

  • Faith will never ethically justify an action.
  • Faith, being personal rather than universal, cannot be explained to others.
  • A plunge into faith is a plunge into absurdity.
  • Faith creates emotionally draining contradictions.

Faith is an enormous sacrifice.  If you choose to forfeit your ability to make ethical choices with the full realization of what you are undertaking (and that the world will judge you based on universals), then I have no argument with you.  This type of faith has placed itself out of the domain of debate.

“At every moment I am aware of the enormous paradox which forms the content of Abraham’s life, at every moment I am repulsed, and my thought, notwithstanding its passionate attempts, cannot penetrate into it, cannot forge on the breadth of a hair.  I strain every muscle in order to envisage the problem – and become a paralytic in the same moment.”

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~ by falleninparadise on July 19, 2011.

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