“Away from Speculation! Back to Christianity!” Kierkegaard writes. This short statement encapsulates one of the central themes of Kierkegaard’s thought: (the parts I’ve read anyhow) that Christianity is to be approached subjectively, not objectively. The objective approach, is, to Kierkegaard, the dispassionate pursuit of WHAT is true. The individuals personal feelings and passions are put to one side and what is perused is the objective what. To us, as modern thinkers, children of the reformation and enlightenment, the objective approach seems to be the only valid approach to truth. To us, truth is the correspondence of propositions to facts. The subject must get out of the way if we are to grasp the facts.
Kierkegaard however, sees straight through this fiction. Truth cannot be reduced to objective facts, to the question of WHAT; this overlooks the most essential thing: the subject. There are not just facts in the world, there are also individuals who see the world and act in it. There is not just a WHAT, there is also a HOW! The very fact that we see the world, speak of it, and act in it, opens up a second realm not contained in what is perceived. Thus, Kierkegaard writes:
For an objective reflection the truth becomes an objective, something objective, and thought must be pointed away from the subject. For a subjective reflection the truth becomes a matter of appropriation, of inwardness, of subjectivity, and thought must probe more and more deeply into the subjective and his subjectivity.
To summarize, objective reflection asks, what are the facts? Subjective reflection asks, is this true for me? That is, am I living as if this were true, am I in proper relationship with the truth? Kierkegaard writes:
“When the question of the truth is raised subjectively, reflection is directed subjectively on the nature of the individuals relationship: if only the mode of this relationship is in the truth, the individual is in the truth, even if he should happen to be thus related to what is not true.”
So we have a very important distinction here. Truth as an object that can be grasped and truth as a relationship.
Contained within this distinction, I believe, are the seeds of the modern world. In his book, Mind and Cosmos, Thomas Nagel points out that the rise of modern science was made possible by the abandonment of subjectivity. The more I reflect on this, the more obvious and the more profound this observation becomes. Science, from the start, was concerned fundamentally with physical reality. The question of truth was focused narrowly on correspondence to reality. A proposition is true, only if it corresponds to the way things are, physically, tangibly. Truth, here, is seen as an object that can be touched, seen and manipulated. What cannot be seen or touched or manipulated is dismissed as “subjective.” There is a bias towards what can be grasped. And, as Paul Vanderklay has often pointed out, because it can be grasped, it can be colonized and bent to our will. Hence the modern scientism (the only truth is scientific truth, the physical, the tangible) feeds directly into our obsession with technology. We get ever more powerful, ever more objective, but our contact (or relationship) with the essential truth, meaning, beauty, God, is systematically dredged out of us, as we become statistics instead of humans. Thus, this simplified, objective view of truth is all about power. The exclusion of what Kierkegaard would call “the subjective approach,” in the modern world is no accident, the only restraining influence on this pure lust for power over mankind and nature is the truth that has been thrown under the wheel of progress. In a particularly prophetic passage, Kierkegaard writes:
Almost everything that nowadays flourishes most conspicuously under the name of science (especially as natural science) is not really science but curiosity. In the end all corruption will come about as a consequence of the natural sciences… But such a scientific method become especially dangerous and pernicious when it would encroach also upon the sphere of the spirit, let it deal with plants and animals and stars in that way; but to deal with the human spirit in that way is blasphemy, which only weakens ethical and religious passion. Even the act of eating is more reasonable than the speculating with a microscope upon the functions of digestion… A dreadful sophistry spreads microscopically and telescopically into tomes, and yet it the last resort produces nothing, qualitatively understood, though it does, to be sure, cheat men out of the simple profound and passionate wonder which gives impetus to the ethical… the only thing certain is the ethical-religious.
The “Objective Approach”
This brings me, finally, to my recent disagreement with Esther O’Riley, a Christian blogger and apologist at Patheos. Esther is a self-described evidentialist, who believes that Christianity is the most rational belief system and that this can be demonstrated by a cumulative case. According to Esther, the accumulation of evidence makes it highly probable that Christianity is true, and highly improbable that Christianity is not true. If we believe Esther, it seems our chances are quite good. Or not, depending on your perspective.
Now what I want to dispute is not Esther’s “cumulative case” for Christianity, though I do have a few thoughts on that which I will give briefly, but rather, I want to dispute her approach to Christianity.
First, some thoughts on the idea that Esther can give us a satisfactory “cumulative case” that Christianity is more probably true than not. Esther seems to think that it is possible to make a probabilistic case for Christianity on foundationalism. In other words, that it is possible to make a case from the “neutral” ground of secularism, arguing from agreed on first principles. I tend to think that there is no such a thing as a “neutral ground” where epistemological battles can be waged. Within “secularism,” there are materialistic presuppositions already in place which force the Christian to argue for a distorted version of Christianity. Instead, I want to think in terms of coherence. I want to explore the view of the world that Christianity presents, to see what it means to think as a Christian in all spheres of life. Then I want to ask, is this a coherent view of the world? It seems to me that to conceptualize Christianity as a coherent way of looking at and being in the world, is a much more powerful, and much less dubious way of presenting what I believe and thinking about how I came to hold my beliefs. I agree with Paul Vanderklay that rationality is better seen as a coherence machine, than as a way of arriving at absolute truth.
Critique of the “Objective approach”
Lets briefly take another look at our terms.
The subjective approach asks: How do I become a Christian? The individual seeks to come into proper relationship with Jesus, through inwardness and lived existence.
The objective approach asks: Is Christianity true? An evidential, probabilistic case attempts to prove that the doctrines of Christianity are the objective truth.
The fundamental problem with trying to make an objective probabilistic case for the truth of Christianity is that in the process Christianity is mutated into something it is not. By attempting to prove that Christianity is true, (this happens necessarily within the iron box of secularism) Christianity becomes a rational system, one philosophical worldview set against another. Christianity becomes a “sum of doctrinal propositions,” which must be proven to correspond to reality. To Kierkegaard, turning Christianity into a rational system is a fundamental misunderstanding. Christianity is not a set of philosophical doctrines, it is a relationship with Jesus the paradox, it is a way of being, it is “inwardness.” To peruse Christianity objectively, is like trying to have a relationship with someone by studying her under a microscope. Not only will you never enter into a relationship this way, but this approach is antithetical to developing a relationship: that is, you’re studying a different reality. As Kierkegaard puts it, “one proves God’s existence by worship, not by proofs.” (If you look closely at the logo I use for Coffee with Kierkegaard, you will see this quotation.)
I would now like to quote a section of Concluding Unscientific Postscript where Kierkegaard discusses how the objective approach to faith is a distortion of faith. He is at his absolute best, witty, cantankerous self and is worth quoting at length:
If in olden times the fearful thing was that one might be offended; now the fearful thing is that there is nothing fearful any more, that in a trice, before the individual has time to look around, he becomes a philosopher who speculates over faith. And over what faith does he speculate? Is it over the faith he has, and especially over whether he has it or not? Ah, no, such a subject is too trifling for an objective speculative philosopher. What he speculates about is the objective faith. The objective faith, what does that mean? It means a sum of doctrinal propositions. But suppose Christianity were nothing of the kind; suppose on the contrary it were inwardness, and hence also the paradox, so as to thrust the individual away objectively, in order to obtain significance for the existing individual in the inwardness of his existence, in order to place him as decisively as no judge can place an accused person, between time and eternity in time, between heaven and hell in the time of salvation.
I’ll interrupt Kierkegaard here to expand on what he’s arguing for here. Kierkegaard’s most fundamental objection to “objective Christianity” or “evidentialism” is eluded to in these lines. Kierkegaard was concerned with showing that to become a Christian does not entail “examining the evidence,” but rather comes down to one, decisive choice. A choice between time and eternity, heaven and hell, offence or acceptance. Kierkegaard notes that in the objective world, there are vast inequalities, some people are rich, others are poor, some have access to good education, others don’t, some are wise, others are simple. (I am obliged to Dr. Gregory B. Sadler for this point.) If Christianity is to be transformed into a doctrine to be understood, this presents a problem. The wise have an advantage over the simple, if you are smart enough to understand Christianity, you will become a Christian. The problem is that this would make it unequal: “this would make the power to become a Christian dependent on differential talent.”
However, Kierkegaard notes, there is a realm where all are equal: the subjective realm, the realm of the spirit, the essentially human. Here, all, rich or poor, wise or simple, come equipped equally and must make the venture to become a Christian themselves. To Kierekgaard, all hinges on the incarnation. The paradoxical idea that God became a particular man in first century Palestine is simultaneously repellent and attractive. The God-man calls those who are heavy laden to come hither and offers rest for the weary. However, we are repelled by the absurdity of the infinite becoming finite, we are offended by the particularity of the one who says that He is the way the truth and the life. Yet, the choice is ours. All of Christianity, and the entire task of becoming a Christian hinges on the God-man. Jesus is the absolute paradox: we cannot know that Jesus was the God-man, any more than Jesus’s contemporaries could know that this son of Mary was the son of God. Jesus, the paradox, is also the “possibility of offence:” when confronted by Him, we must choose: be offended or believe. To Kierkegaard, faith requires the possibility of offence, the act of faith is a choice to choose the uncertain and the paradoxical. Objectivity tries to get around the possibility of offence and gain certainty instead of faith, this cannot be done. Esther can speak all day long of probabilities and the accumulation of evidence, in the end it comes down to the choice: be offended or believe. Christianity cannot be reasoned to, it must be believed:
But becoming a Christian really is the most difficult of all human tasks since it is the same for all men it is nevertheless proportioned to the capacity of each individual. This does not hold of differential tasks. In relation to the task of understanding something, for example, a man with exceptional brains has a direct advantage over one of limited capacity; but this does not hold true of faith. When faith requires man to give up his reason, it becomes equally difficult for the cleaver and the most stupid person to believe, or it becomes in a sense more difficult for the cleaver.
Faith is the Christian’s link to Jesus; it abolishes the thousands of years of separation and makes the individual “contemporaneous with Christ.”Therefore, writes Kierkegaard:
Fear not the world, neither poverty, nor wretchedness, nor sickness, nor need, nor opposition, nor men’s injustice, their insults, their ill treatment, have fear of nothing that can destroy the outward man; fear not him who can kill the body, but fear thyself, fear what can kill faith, and therefor can kill for thee Jesus Christ, namely the offence, which indeed another can give, but which yet is impossible if thou dost not take it. Fear and tremble: for faith is contained in a fragile earthen vessel, in the possibility of offence. Blessed is he who is not offended in Him but believes.
There are two things that can destroy faith for Kierkegaard: offence and objectivity. To be offended by the God-man is to let go of faith and to disbelieve, thus “killing for thee Jesus Christ.” Objectivity also destroys faith, but in a different way. To Kierkegaard, faith is a passion. He defines it as: “an objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness.” Faith requires uncertainty, indeed it is the absurd, paradoxical content of faith:
that the eternal truth has come into being in time, that God has come into being, has been born, has grown up, and so forth, precisely, like any other individual human being, quite indistinguishable from other individuals.
which produces passion. Passion and paradox, writes Kierkegaard, are like two striving lovers, each is intensified by the other. The objective approach obliterates faith, it dismisses passion in its pursuit of objectivity, it remains aloof to the content of faith, seeking the probable and the certain. However, the objective approach must be ensued for true faith to occur. The individual must venture out, into the “objective uncertainty,” confront the “possibility of offence” and believe with infinite passion:
If I am capable of grasping God objectively I do not believe (or do not have faith) and precisely because I cannot do this I must believe. If I wish to preserve myself in faith I must constantly be intent upon holding fast the objective uncertainty, so as to remain out upon the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water, still preserving my faith.
The objective approach then, leads us away from true faith, it distracts us with probabilities when ultimately, all must choose and venture out over 70,000 fathoms of water.
Now, back to our quotation:
The objective faith – it is as if Christianity also had been promulgated as a little system, if not quite so good as the Hegelian; it is as if Christ—aye I speak without offence—it is as if Christ were a professor, and as if the Apostles had formed a little scientific society.”
Oh Kierkegaard, this is why I love you. He goes on:
Verily, if it was once difficult to become a Christen; now I believe it becomes increasingly difficult year by year, because it has now become so easy that the only ambition which stirs any competition is that of becoming a speculative philosopher. And yet the speculative philosopher is perhaps the farthest possible remove from Christianity, and it is perhaps far preferable to be an offended individual who nevertheless sustains a relation to Christianity than a speculative philosopher who assumes to have understood it.
The objective route turns Christianity into a system, a set of propositions, a tidy “little system.” Through the promulgation of an ‘objective Christianity’ the speculative Christian assumes that he has achieved faith, when in fact, his speculative system puts him at the “farthest possible remove from Christianity.” From the standpoint of “objectivity,” inwardness is dismissed for “dispassion,” faith for “probability;” the intellect is repelled by the Paradox and the possibility of offence.
Kierkegaard then, is making a distinction between knowing, in an objective, dispassionate, facts to understood way, and believing, in a subjective, passionate, relationship with Jesus way. Kierkegaard writes of the rational man who wishes to have a rational faith. At the end of his enquiry, or as Esther would say, after looking at the preponderance of evidence, the man is in a position to almost know, yet he cannot believe:
Suppose a man wishes to have faith, but he wishes to safeguard it by means of an objective inquiry and its approximation-process. What happens? With the help of the approximation process the absurd becomes something different; it becomes probable, it becomes extremely and emphatically probable. Now he is ready to believe it, and he ventures to claim for himself that he does not believe as shoemakers and tailors and simple folk believe, but only after long deliberation. Now he is ready to believe it; and lo, now it has become precisely impossible to believe it. Anything that is almost probable, or emphatically probable, or extremely and emphatically probable, is something he can almost know, or as good as know, or extremely and emphatically almost know—but it is impossible to believe. For the absurd is the object of faith and the only object that can be believed.
This distinction between belief and knowledge, subjective truth and objective truth, facts and relationship, opens up a further Kierkegaardian critique of the “objective approach” to Christianity. The objective approach lacks the urgency; the intellect plods along like the rational man above, engaging in a “long deliberation.” However, this approach completely neglects the existential significance of the decision that is to be made. Not only is the decision, as noted above, “between time and eternity in time, between heaven and hell in the time of salvation,” but there is also a relational element. Every second spent on objective deliberation is time not spent on developing inwardness, where God is to be found. Every second spent on “objective deliberation” is time separated from the Beloved, the Object of our desire:
“The existing individual who chooses the subjective way apprehends instantly the entire dialectical difficulty involved in having to use some time, perhaps a long time, in finding God objectively; and he feels this dialectical difficulty in all its painfulness, because very moment is wasted in which he does not have God.”
…while objective knowledge rambles comfortably on by way of the long road of approximation without being impelled by the urge of passion, subjective knowledge counts every delay a deadly peril, and the decision, so infinitely important and so instantly pressing that it is as if the opportunity had already passed.”
I would like to conclude by pointing out five things I have learned from Kierkegaard which add to his critique of the “objective approach.”
Applying the “Subjective Approach”
- Mystery: The objective approach has a problem with mystery. It wants all things to be comprehensible, to fall under the penetrating gaze of reason. However, the route of faith is much more pessimistic about our ability to know. From the fundamental position of trust in Jesus, I am much more comfortable saying “I don’t know,” admitting that I have doubts and uncertainties, and ultimately leaving things up to God. This extends beyond my intellectual convictions and into the events of my own life, trusting that all my ways are known to Him. We are little humans, we don’t know very much, why not choose hope over despair, faith over doubt?
- Spiritual formation: I have already alluded to this above: the objective approach will not bring you closer to God. God cannot be related to through philosophical reflections, he is found in inwardness: in prayer, meditation and interaction with others. If I want to relate more fully to God, I need to develop inwardly, I need to develop subjectively, the objective approach is a distraction that doesn’t help me grow as a Christian. As Kierkegaard puts it, one “proves God’s existence through worship… not by proofs.”
- Meaning: The “objective approach” promotes an approach to scripture narrowly focused on the literal or historical truth of the events described in the text. The existential or subjective approach favours an approach focused more on the text’s relevance for my life. Instead of asking, is this true historically? The existential approach asks: what does this mean? The moral, symbolic, typological and allegorical meanings take centre stage and the question of historical fact is suspended. Indeed, this is the approach most of us probably take instinctively when we read scripture. It is not the bare historical facts we are interested in, but rather the meaning of those events and the significance they have for our lives. We come seeking revelation, not facts. We come asking, how do I become a Christian? Not, did this historical event happen?
- Idolatry: Our “objective proofs” for God’s existence can become idols. Where do you ultimately place your faith? Does it or stand and fall on your favourite proof? Does it rest on a spiritual role model? Does it depend on a scientific theory? All of these are ways of building your house on the sand. You have faith in your ability to reason, on the piety of another, on the facts as you understand them. All of these are fallible, shifting idols of wood and straw. It is as if, Peter, thrusting himself into the sea were to fix his eyes on a sinking idol of stone, and sink with it. Kierkegaard calls us to place our trust radically, fully, comprehensively on the God-man. He calls us to act in faith, to: Venture far out, like a lonely swimmer who floats above 70,000 fathoms of water, so far out that God can get hold of you and there is no possibility of returning to dry land.
- Broken Sign Posts: In his 2018 Gifford Lectures, NT Wright argues that natural theology must be supplemented by faith for us to reach the right conclusions about God, humanity and the world. The “signposts” of natural theology, do not point in the right direction because they are “broken signposts:” only through the lens of faith can we see the world as it is meant to be seen and act in the world as we are meant to act within it.