Kierkegaard on the Epistemological Benefits of Faith: From Divine Hiddenness to Human Selfhood

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

This paper seeks to use Kierkegaard’s works to present a partial answer to the philosophical problem of divine hiddenness. We will begin with a brief introduction to the problem of divine hiddenness. Next, we will examine what Kierkegaard has to say about the epistemological benefits of faith. Based on Kierkegaard’s thoughts on faith, we will be in a position to offer a partial answer to the problem of divine hiddenness. Finally, we will show that, according to Kierkegaard, this cognitively significant faith is also the only avenue by which one can become a true self.

Before moving further, a few words about how I read Kierkegaard are in order. His works are typically divided into two primary groups: the earlier works and the later works. Most people who have only a passing familiarity with Kierkegaard only know his early works. These works include some of Kierkegaard’s most famous works, such as Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, Repetition, Philosophical Fragments, Stages on Life’s Way, and Concluding Unscientific Postscript. These early works, however, were written under pseudonyms, and therefore they do not necessarily represent Kierkegaard’s own views.

Kierkegaard’s later works (also known as his “second authorship”) are those works written after Postscript and before his “attack literature,” where he harshly criticizes the state church of his day. The later works basically fall within the years of 1847 and 1851, and almost all of them were written under Kierkegaard’s own name. Included among these later works are Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, Works of Love, Christian Discourses, The Sickness Unto Death, Practice in Christianity, For Self-Examination, Judge for Yourself!, and The Point of View for My Work as an Author.

In this paper, I am drawing only from the later works, because I contend that these are the works that most directly communicate Kierkegaard’s mature views on faith, Christianity, knowledge of God, and the like.

The Problem of Divine Hiddenness

The first thing to note in reference to divine hiddenness is the fact that, for many, it is a deeply existential problem. The felt absence of God – for both believers and nonbelievers – may lead to hopelessness, despair, or indifference. Moving away from the existential dimension, however, we encounter the philosophical problem. The problem of divine hiddenness has generally been posed along these lines: If God exists, then the greatest possible good for an individual is that he or she relate to God in a loving relationship. According to this line of thinking, since God would be all-loving, God would clearly offer a relationship to each person.[1] However, God does not, according to some, clearly offer any such relationship. Some people claim that this is problematic, because God both could (as all-powerful) and would (as all-loving) make this offer more clearly – if God exists. (For those familiar with the problem of evil, the analogies should be clear.)[2]

There are many philosophers who justify, excuse, or explain divine hiddenness. Kierkegaard is not one of these. He does not enter a formalized or clearly developed debate regarding divine hiddenness. His concerns are elsewhere. The concern of this paper, however, is to enter – at least partially – the philosophical debate about divine hiddenness.

Therefore, the goal of the next section is to provide an account of faith that explains how knowledge of God is possible and why many people possess neither knowledge of God nor clear evidence of God’s existence. After that, we will see that faith is also the only way in which one reaches true selfhood.

Faith and Its Epistemological Benefits

Kierkegaard has no interest in merely natural theology. For the question is not whether some impersonal Prime Mover or Intelligent Designer exists. Instead, we are directed straight to Jesus: the human being who claimed to be God. True faith, according to Kierkegaard, is essentially tied to Jesus as the God-man (PC, 141).[3] Jesus alone is the proper object of faith.

Kierkegaard speaks of faith as the choice to trust in Jesus’ claim that he is the God-man and that, as such, he loves all, invites all, and can forgive all sin. Faith is therefore not a belief that some teaching or doctrine is factually correct.[4] Rather, faith is trust in Jesus, the person.[5] Kierkegaard’s conception of faith is not tied to fideism, irrationalism, or direct volitionalism. Faith is not a blind leap in the dark. Faith is the choice to trust in Christ, and this choice does not need to be made in spite of reason or because it is somehow absurd.[6]