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

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To have faith is to trust in Jesus. Faith means trusting that Jesus is the God-man and that he has the power and authority to forgive sin. Once an individual trusts Jesus in faith, one encounters powerful evidence of God. This evidence includes the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. Although such evidence is not reproducible or objectively verifiable by some outside observer, it is no less real for that. God, through his own Spirit, grants an individual certainty and personal knowledge regarding God’s reality and character.[12]

Therefore, Kierkegaard helps us respond to the problem of divine hiddenness. For he provides an account of how and why some individuals come to receive true religious knowledge while others remain in darkness and doubt. After all, the lack of perceived evidence is not the same as a complete lack of evidence. We have, then, a partial explanation of why many people see no evidence for God’s existence. According to Kierkegaard, then, the divine hiddenness that is experienced by so many people can be reconciled with the existence of a loving and omnipotent God.

Instead of demanding that God reveal himself through reason alone or through some physical or miraculous manifestation, Kierkegaard gets us to ask whether something might be required of us before the relevant evidence becomes clear. For it is God who has the right to determine how people come to know God, and God has determined to give knowledge and evidence through faith.

From Divine Hiddenness to Human Selfhood

Delving into the question of divine hiddenness led to Kierkegaard’s thoughts on faith, along with faith’s epistemological benefits. This conception of faith, in turn, now leads to his understanding of being human and human selfhood. For Kierkegaard, faith is the only way in which we can flourish as truly human selves.

Kierkegaard equates gaining faith with becoming one’s true self (or also, in his terms, with becoming spirit). Instead of resting content with merely objective knowledge about how human beings are, Kierkegaard desires to speak about “how human beings ought to be” (JFY, 157). More clearly than anywhere else, in The Sickness Unto Death Kierkegaard maintains that human beings ought to have a self (SUD, 21, 22, 33). Indeed, the “greatest hazard of all” is to lose one’s self (SUD, 32), and one’s entire life is wasted if he or she never becomes a self (SUD, 26).

In order to become one’s self, one must avoid despair. Since Kierkegaard conceives despair and faith as opposites (SUD, 49), to avoid or overcome despair just is to gain faith. Therefore, gaining faith is the way in which one becomes a self. Kierkegaard writes that “the self is healthy and free from despair only when…it rests transparently in God” (SUD, 30). Since faith is defined in terms of the self resting transparently in God (SUD, 49, 82, 131), his point is that an individual exists as a true and healthy self only insofar as that individual exists in faith.

As we noted earlier, Kierkegaard specifies that faith is essentially related to Jesus. The same is true in terms of becoming one’s self. He writes that “Christ also first and foremost wants to help every human being to become a self…in order then to draw him to himself” (PC, 160). For it is through the help of Jesus and the love of God that a human being is unified within oneself as a self (UDVS, 84). Given that we are created beings rather than self-creators, this dependence in which we receive our selves is altogether fitting and is in no way demeaning (UDVS, 177, 182). Therefore, the task (and the highest good) for human beings is to receive God’s love, to receive faith, and therefore to become one’s true self.[13]

Kierkegaard describes the individual with faith in various ways. To gain faith is another way to say that one becomes a Christian, which Kierkegaard calls the primary “task” of existence.[14] Additionally, to exist in faith, as a Christian, is also described as becoming “the single individual.”[15] These differing descriptions, however, do not comprise a list of different things that are good for human beings. That is, he is not saying that one should become a Christian and become the single individual and become a self, as if these were distinct tasks. There are not many issues; there is just one.[16] Kierkegaard is saying that it is good for human beings to gain genuine human selfhood. And becoming one’s true self requires becoming a Christian, as a single individual, in a personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus. This is what it means to flourish, or to live the best possible human life, and this life of faith is available to each and every person.[17]

Becoming one’s true self, or gaining true and lasting personhood, is possible only through faith. And, as we have seen, this faith influences not only one’s relationship to oneself but also one’s relationship to God. Through the epistemological benefits of faith an individual becomes acquainted with God and receives firsthand evidence and knowledge of God’s existence and character. Given this available evidence of divine reality, arguments for atheism or agnosticism based on divine hiddenness remain unconvincing.