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

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[6] Those who regard Kierkegaard as an irrationalist, fideist, or direct volitionalist often make the mistake of treating the pseudonymous works as normative. Fortunately, Kierkegaard scholars have debunked such caricatures. As Hannay and Marino put it, it is simply a “lingering myth about Kierkegaard…that he is an irrationalist in some sense that denies the value of clear and honest thinking” (Introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard, eds. Alastair Hannay and Gordon D. Marino (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 1). Regarding the charge of volitionalism, see PC, 140-141; FSE 81. Regarding the charges of irrationalism or fideism, see CD, 119, 174-175; WL, 215; SUD, 5; PC, 158. For more on these issues in regard to the Climacus works, see C. Stephen Evans, “Does Kierkegaard Think Beliefs Can Be Directly Willed?”, in his Kierkegaard on Faith and the Self: Collected Essays (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2006), 299-309, as well as his essay, “Is Kierkegaard an Irrationalist? Reason, Paradox, and Faith,” which is reprinted as Chapter 7 of his Kierkegaard on Faith and the Self, 117-132.

[7] It should be noted that this paper is not unique in pointing out that Kierkegaard speaks about “knowledge” and “certainty” in relation to religious truths and claims. The fact simply has not received much attention. However, of the few who do speak of Kierkegaard’s religious epistemology, there is still a general lack of emphasis on the role he gives to the Holy Spirit. As we will see, that the Holy Spirit is given to those who trust Jesus is indispensable for Kierkegaard’s account of religious epistemology.

[8] On the nature of subjective knowledge in Kierkegaard’s authorship, see Marilyn Gaye Piety’s dissertation, Kierkegaard on Knowledge (McGill University, Montreal, 1994). According to Piety, subjective knowledge for Kierkegaard “is knowledge which is essentially related to the existence of the individual knower in the sense that it prescribes the manner in which that person ought to live” (Piety, 38-39). Contrary to objective knowledge, which is descriptive, subjective knowledge is prescriptive of how human beings ought to live. Further, Piety shows that, for Kierkegaard, subjective knowledge “is characterized by an immediate relation between the knower and the object of knowledge” (202). That is, the knower comes into contact with the reality that is subjectively known (cf. 225-226, 233).

[9] See, e.g., WL, 105, 379; CD, 194, 197; PC, 27, 250; FSE, 70; JFY, 190-191, 197. Both “certitude” and “certainty” are translated from the same Danish word. As Marilyn Gaye Piety points out, “there is no terminological distinction in Danish between ‘certainty’ in the formal sense and ‘certitude,’ or certainty in the psychological sense. …There is only one Danish term ‘vished,’ which is used by Kierkegaard to denote both certainty, in the sense of demonstrability, and certitude, in the sense of subjective conviction” (Piety, Kierkegaard on Knowledge, 22). Therefore, when Kierkegaard speaks of either certainty or certitude, he is at least referring to a “sense of subjective conviction,” although at times it seems he has in mind a “sense of demonstrability.” Where the term vished has been translated as certainty, there is no reason to think that Kierkegaard means indubitability, incorrigibility, or that what is certain must be immune from doubt.

[10] Similar personal remarks are also found in his journal entries and in a newspaper article from 1855. See TM, 49 and JP VI 6389 (Pap. X1 A 272) n.d., 1849, as found in PV, 191.

[11] See, e.g., FSE, 71-87; JFY, 95, 98.

[12] Again, understanding the nature of personal or subjective knowledge is key here. It is through subjective knowledge that we come to know a person, a subject. Therefore, when others search for God merely as one object among many, their search is misguided and will miscarry. Such people pursue merely objective knowledge; they desire to know the truth without themselves being willing to act or strive according to that truth. According to Kierkegaard, God will not be found in this way.

[13] C. Stephen Evans has written of the similarities between Kierkegaard’s account of “self-actualization” and an Aristotelian “human nature theory” in Kierkegaard’s Ethic of Love: Divine Commands and Moral Obligations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 8-12, 18-23, 85-111. Like the Aristotelian account, there is an emphasis on becoming one’s true self, or on “the actualization of a distinctively human potentiality” (87). However, for Kierkegaard “the concept of what a human being is differs in several respects from Aristotle’s” (87). Most notably, Kierkegaard takes the self to be given by God such that one realizes his or her idealized self only in relationship with God through faith.

[14] WL, 58; CD, 88, 174; PC, 106, 183, 196, 198, 225; PV, 78.

[15] PV, 118, 121-122; cf. UDVS, 134, 147.

[16] Early in his life Kierkegaard knew that “the crucial thing” in his life was to find “a truth that is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die” (JP V 5100 (Pap. I A 75) August 1, 1835, as found in EO II, 361). His search led him to the truth of what it means to become one’s true self by becoming a Christian, and he spent his entire life focusing on the single issue of how one can enter into a reconciled relationship with God through faith. In his own words, Kierkegaard’s “whole authorship pertains to Christianity” insofar as it points to “the issue: becoming a Christian” (PV, 23).

[17] Lest we give a mistaken impression, we should note that while the life of faith is the best possible life for an individual, it is also very difficult and is characterized by suffering and pain in this life. See, e.g., FSE, 81; UDVS, 217, 221; TM, 212-213, 251, 253, 293-294, 312.