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

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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]

According to Kierkegaard, faith yields results that are epistemically significant.[7] In order to see the epistemic and cognitive benefits that follow from faith, we will look briefly at four ideas found throughout the later works.

First, in Practice in Christianity, Kierkegaard discusses the sense in which Jesus is “the truth” (PC, 203-206). Truth is not mere knowledge. Christian truth has more to do with being than with knowing. But if one is true, then knowledge of the truth follows. Consider this extended quotation:

…when the requirement is to be truth, to know the truth is an untruth. For knowing the truth is something that entirely of itself accompanies being the truth, not the other way around. And that is why it becomes untruth when knowing the truth is separated from being the truth… (PC, 205)

Kierkegaard tells his readers that this kind of knowledge cannot be gained apart from how one chooses to live. The main point here is that knowledge of the truth comes of itself after choosing to live in the truth as Jesus did.

Second, Kierkegaard says that someone with faith discovers or knows numerous facts, including facts about God’s existence and God’s nature. Throughout the later works, Kierkegaard claims that a Christian can “come to know everything about love” (WL, 364), know that one is loved by God (WL, 364), know “that God’s will is grace” (CD, 65), and know that Jesus was love and acted out of love (PC, 178). He also says that those with faith can discover “that God is” (WL, 362; cf. WL, 361) – that is, that God exists – and also that Christians can “know God” very intimately (CD, 291). There seem to be, then, some facts or truths about God that the Christian knows. The status of much of this knowledge is, to be sure, of the subjective rather than the objective sort, but it is knowledge nonetheless.[8]

Third, Kierkegaard speaks in terms of certitude and certainty. In many works, he often speaks of the certainty that faith possesses as well as the “certitude of faith.”[9] Often, certitude is the result of imitation. That is, given true imitation of Jesus, an individual may receive certitude that one’s faith and efforts are not in vain.

Fourth and finally, Kierkegaard believes that God can and does give an individual certitude about one’s relationship with God. And he says that God gives this certitude through God’s own Spirit witnessing with an individual’s spirit. He maintains that only God can give an individual certitude about one’s relation to God, and that God gives this certitude “as God’s Spirit witnesses with this person’s spirit that he loves God” (CD, 194). Therefore, Kierkegaard believes that God’s own Spirit is the bearer of certitude about some religious truths. Additionally, in The Point of View, Kierkegaard testifies that “[God’s] Spirit witnessed powerfully with my spirit that this [Kierkegaard’s method] had his complete and highest approval” (PV, 60).[10] Further, a central role of the Holy Spirit is also affirmed in both For Self-Examination and Judge for Yourself!.[11]

Kierkegaard obviously takes Paul’s words from the Epistle to the Romans very seriously. Paul, writing to those with faith in Jesus, says: ” …you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:15-16, NIV). The main point to make regarding Kierkegaard’s use of this passage is that he sees the testimony of the Holy Spirit, given directly to an individual, as real evidence for God and as a source of certitude regarding God’s reality. The Holy Spirit’s testimony to an individual is neither reproducible for another to see nor objectively measured or controlled. However, the mere fact that God’s reality may not be objectively, deductively, or abstractly proven does not mean that there is no proof or no evidence available.

An individual who has faith, according to Kierkegaard, personally encounters the Holy Spirit and experiences this inner testimony of God’s Spirit. The result of this encounter is certitude and acquaintance knowledge. Therefore, someone with faith has a distinctive kind of evidence for God, which results in subjective knowledge of God.

Toward a Response to the Problem of Divine Hiddenness

The main argument of this paper is that Kierkegaard’s religious epistemology, as we have explained it, provides a partial response to the problem of divine hiddenness. Many who cite divine hiddenness as an objection to theism claim that there is not enough evidence of God’s existence. What Kierkegaard’s works show is that there is a possibility that evidence of God is available to each person. However, this available evidence might not be apprehended or perceived by each person. If this is true, then the fact that one particular unbeliever sees no evidence for God’s existence may be a result of the choices he or she has made. That is, the use of one’s will may block one from “seeing” or “hearing” the evidence of God that is available.

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.

Abbreviations for Kierkegaard’s works

AN      Armed Neutrality. See On My Work as an Author.

CD      Christian Discourses, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

EO II   Either/Or, Part Two, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.

FSE     For Self-Examination and Judge For Yourself!, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.

JFY     Judge For Yourself! See For Self-Examination.

OMWA  On My Work as an Author, The Point of View for My Work as an Author, and Armed Neutrality, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

PC       Practice in Christianity, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

PV       The Point of View for My Work as an Author. See On My Work as an Author.

SUD    The Sickness Unto Death, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.

TA       Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age. A Literary Review, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.

TM      “The Moment” and Late Writings, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

UDVS Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

WA     Without Authority, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

WL      Works of Love, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

[1] According to some, the typical qualification for being clearly offered is that it is beyond reasonable doubt for all concerned.

[2] Therefore, those who deal with this problem have a wide range of possible answers or solutions. Atheists deny that God exists. Agnostics withhold judgment. Some theists deny that God is all-powerful. Others argue that divine hiddenness is compatible with the existence of an omnipotent and all-loving God. Four drastically different views can be found by surveying the following: Paul K. Moser, The Elusive God: Reorienting Religious Epistemology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); J.L. Schellenberg, Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993); and Robert McKim, Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[3] A key to the abbreviations is found at the end of the paper.

[4] Kierkegaard constantly attacks the notion that Christianity is or ought to be equated with doctrine alone. See, e.g., CD, 214-215; WA, 187; PC, 106; FSE, 36, 39-40; JFY, 127-131; AN, 129.

[5] According to Kierkegaard, faith will be recognizable in this life (WL, 5-11; FSE, 18-19), and most especially insofar as one accepts Jesus as one’s “prototype” or “pattern” (UDVS, 197, 217, 225-226, 231-232, 240; WL, 264, 288; CD, 41-44, 54, 75, 122; WA, 158-159; PC, 184, 197-198, 202, 238-239, 243, 245; JFY, 147, 160, 169, 191, 198-199, 209). However, even the best human’s imitation of Jesus will fall short. Therefore, Jesus is not only prototype but also Redeemer and Savior, the one who grants rest and provides grace (WL, 3, 69; CD, 261, 298; WA, 123; PC, 151, 157; AN, 131; JFY, 147, 159).

[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.