“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 object, 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 Christ, 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.
35 thoughts on “Kierkegaard critiques the Objective Approach”
When you say – “Truth cannot be reduced to objective facts”, are you saying, what Hegel (1770-1831) said – “the presupposition of an ‘objective absolute truth’, or ’cause’ is unnecessary for truth” ?
I have not read any Hegel (as someone fascinated by Kierkegaard I really should) so I am not entirely sure what he is saying in those lines. It sounds like he is saying something like you don’t have to believe in objective reality to think of truth. If that’s what Hegel is saying, that is not the point I’m trying to make.
I’m trying to say that there is a truth of WHAT- objective facts and a truth of HOW- the individuals relationship to the the truth.
We cannot just speak of objective facts as truth because there are also individuals who act and perceive, therefore opening up the “essentially human” realms. That is, the ethical, aesthetic, and religious. These are existential, subjective, relational realms, not objective realms. The task is to become fully human, to relate to God, to BE in the truth: not to find out the objective truth.
I couldn’t agree more with your last sentence.
WHAT – objective TRUTH – The Crucifixion
HOW – subjective TRUTH – Individual seeking first the Kingdom of God (or Discipleship to Jesus Christ)
This is why I believe a healthy “imagination” is so important – “For me, reason is the natural organ of truth,” Lewis wrote, “but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination . . . is not the cause of truth, but its condition.” In other words, we don’t grasp the meaning of a word or concept until we have a clear image to connect it with.” [C S Lewis ] in our attempts to “re-think the way we think”.
Yes, that is a good summery. I also agree with Kierkegaard that the objective truth of the incarnation, the resurrection and eternal life are all realities that cannot be approached objectively. That is, you cannot prove any of them, you must believe or be offended.
Yes, I agree. A developed imagination is essential for hope and relationship. I’ve thought that the picture images in the bible of God on a throne are actually more helpful than the Classical Thiest conception of God, for the purposes of Worship. You can conceptualize God as King (or Jesus) but you can’t conceptualize the great I AM.
In all fairness to Esther and apologetics many in the church are driven to it because they’ve been hard pressed by subtraction stories and other story-verse aggressions. It is not dissimilar to the development of orthodoxy as a response to the creativity of heresy.
Part of what I’m attempting to do is to undermine the subtraction story by refusing to participate in its epistemological box. My critique of apologetics in many of its forms is that it participates in the subtraction story and retains some elements of it, in the attempt to have a “rational faith.” I’m very much still working through this last part so I’m having a difficult time articulating it.
She is under the same reductionist (subjective) apologetic we all are because it is the only one possible when you are trying to introduce people who are totally ignorant of a “spiritual dimension” to a supernatural/natural and spiritual being in a spiritual dimension –
“Apologetics is controversy. You cannot conduct a controversy in the expressions which alone convey the concrete; you must use terms as definable and uni vocal as possible, and these are always abstract. And this means we are really talking about “God in circumstances”, and because God is an “unseen mystery” we are denied every means of conveying WHO God is. Faintly parallel to the state of a witness who has to try to convey something so concrete as the known character of a friend under cross-examination. Under other conditions you might possibly succeed in giving a real impression of your friend; but under cross-examination, unless the listener is willing to meet you half-way, your witness and testimony are doomed to failure.” [apologies for my translation of C S Lewis]
This is because people need to know they are sick before they will listen to a doctor or as Lewis puts the issue – “If you are a geologist studying rocks, you have to go and find the rocks. They will not come to you, and if you go to them they cannot run away. The initiative lies all on your side. They cannot either help or hinder. But suppose you are a zoologist and want to take photos of wild animals in their native haunts. That is a bit different from studying rocks. The wild animals will not come to you: but they can run away from you. Unless you keep very quiet, they will. There is beginning to be a tiny little trace of initiative on their side.Now a stage higher; suppose you want to get to know a human person. If he is determined not to let you, you will not get to know him. You have to win his confidence. In this case the initiative is equally divided – it takes two to make a friendship. When you come to knowing God, the initiative lies on His side. If He does not show Himself, nothing you can do will enable you to find Him. And in fact He shows much more of Himself to some people than to others- not because He has favourites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition. Just as sunlight, though it has no favourites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as clearly as a clean one.”[Mere Christianity]
The reductionist frame to me is not the subjective one, but the objective one. My problem is this, these apologists take a new atheist epistemological frame and then try to argue for Christianity within that frame. Whether that is successful is difficult to say, Esther seems to think so.
I think we shouldn’t argue within that frame, we should show that the reductionistic (purely objective or scientistic frame) is illegitimate, and we should start thinking in terms of a larger, more truthful frame. This new frame is not just the addition of a “supernatural realm” it also includes the subjective realm.
I think both of your quotes are to the point I want to make in the article. God is a subject and cannot be approached objectively. We must “prepare our hearts” or “delve deeper into inwardness” (and away from objectivity) if we are to get to know Him. Lewis says it beautifully in the last quote:
“And in fact He shows much more of Himself to some people than to others- not because He has favourites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition. Just as sunlight, though it has no favourites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as clearly as a clean one.”
Your comment “God is a subject and cannot be approached objectively.” is, in my humble opinion, only half correct. God is an “Objective Reality, also a subject, (both, and)” that must be approached “subjectively” by each individual because God is nothing to you if He is not personal, and there is only one “objective Way” to approach Him subjectively and that is – in Christ (an Objective yet subjective Reality).
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My “objective/subjective” source for my subjective/personal statement is – Galations 2:16-20 but only in the KJV version, not in the NIV version. (Don’t ask me why)
I agree. I also think that within the subjective, there can be objective truths, grounded in God. I’ll see about your verse.
Perhaps only total obedient commitment and a supreme search, not for evidence of, but for God Himself is essential for “faith” because…. “In failing to do so, we are arguably missing the point entirely. Refusing to take the course which God Himself recommends may be the equivalent of refusing to use the scientific method to do science !” [Kitty Ferguson]
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Yes. I like this.
I do not know the source for this was it you ? –
“Science strips away the subjective in an effort to leave only the objective behind. But this “objective reality” represents a “mind independent reality”. This “mind independent reality” is intrinsically meaningless and attempts to turn individuals into objects. The subject is completely devalued, and the subject/objective relationship is ignored. So there is an inherent contradiction trying to value this objective reality, because “value” does not exist in this “objective reality” only the “valuer”. “
Nice quote, where did you find it from? That isn’t my my writing but it captures a lot of the same directions I’m thinking in.
Hi Julian, thanks for the invitation.
I absolutely loved this post, and I really can’t do much more than to underline what you’ve said 🙂
Indeed, it’s not that Kierkegaard dismissed the concept of objectivity generally, or the role of hard facts. It’s that (insofar as Christianity is concerned) he took them to be, more or less, beside the point – particularly beside the point of BEING a Christian. To the extent that they’re important at all, they’re only important from WITHIN a subjective context. By themselves, they’re an absurdity.
Take a candidate example of a fact: Jesus was the Christ, the messiah, who died and was resurrected”. Great. Now what? You think looking at that sentence and nodding your head is what it means to be a Christian?
Kierkegaard has no patience for that notion.
Facts are static, often even bound to a time and a place…but the self isn’t. The self is dynamic, active, extended through time, and in constant flux. Christianity is what YOU do, ABOUT facts. Being a Christian isn’t a property, it’s a process – a dialectic – a matter of continuously and over and over again relating yourself to the person of Jesus, and everything he represents. Faith is a disposition – a commitment. Further, it has to be that way, because the facts which underwrite Christianity are quite often, by nature, utterly mysterious, and largely incapable of being apprehended rationally. After all, we’re dealing with GOD here.
This is the guy who said that the desire to “understand” Christianity as if it were some sort of a doctrine is a desire that is open to suspicion. Christianity isn’t ‘something you “achieve” once you’ve accepted some requisite number of propositions. His project was to push back against (if not make a mockery of) the attempt to reduce Christianity to facts – to systematize it – at a time when grand, Hegelian “systems” were dominating intellectual landscape. To systematize Christianity is to make it into a triviality – a Wikipedia entry at best.
My critique of apologetics is actually three-fold (the first two of which aligns nicely with your own, Kierkegaardian critique):
1) Apologetics, though it often pretends to be so, isn’t actually designed for the non-believer, and is (for that reason) largely ineffective in that regard. It’s designed for the believer.
2) The kind of believer it’s designed for (and who is receptive to it, as a discipline) is a kind of believer, the authenticity of whose faith is somewhat suspect.
3) On it’s own (rhetorical and evidentialist terms), it often rests on “bad faith” methodology, poor standards of argument, misunderstandings of Science, and misapplication of Philosophical concepts such that it alienates serious seekers (particularly those with a scientific of philosophical education).
In any event, I kept it somewhat brief as I really just stopped by to read what you had to say and to get in touch. I’m sure we’ll unpack most of this as time goes on 🙂
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Jarrod, thanks for sharing your insights, I’m glad you enjoyed the piece.
You’ve articulated wonderfully what many miss or misunderstand about Kierkegaard. When he says “truth is subjectivity” he isn’t saying either that the historical content of Christianity doesn’t matter or that you should “follow your feelings.” Rather, what he is saying is that the objective facts and whether you have a good grasp on them or not, have nothing to do with becoming a Christian. You can have infinite knowledge of all the apologetic arguments and the theological doctrinal nuances and have a system that explains all of reality: it won’t bring you one inch closer to being a Christian.
“Take a candidate example of a fact: Jesus was the Christ, the messiah, who died and was resurrected”. Great. Now what? You think looking at that sentence and nodding your head is what it means to be a Christian?”
Exactly! This is a point I tried to make to Esther a few months ago. The objective fact of the Resurrection is irrelevant, meaningless, useless, to me, unless I relate to it subjectively. The fact of the Resurrection has about as much significance as the fact that the binder in front of me is pink, if I do not grasp its meaning and act on its significance. I think you articulated it it better than I’m doing now.
“After all, we’re dealing with GOD here.”
This is Kierkegaards anti-apologetics apologetics. He went out of his way to show that Christianity is paradoxical and beyond reason, because, after all, if it is from God, why should we be able to comprehend it? What Kierkegaard also does while showing Christianity to be paradoxical is to make Christianity deeply seductive (maybe you yourself feel seduced) and thus trying to lure the reader into making the leap.
I’m thinking of writing a post soon about how postmodernism is “God’s judgement on Christendom.” 🙂 The deconstruction of our “towers of babel,” civilizational achievements and grand intellectual systems, brings us to a place of intellectual humility, where the leap and the radical call to “sell all you have and follow me” can be considered. That’s a rough summery, I’d be interested to see what you’d make of it.
1) Interesting point. You mentioned to Esther that you’ve been drawn to Tillich and Kierkegaard because they are the ones who are speaking to the real, deep issues. It seems to me thought that you are in the minority, a lot of unbelievers would give a lot more credence to someone like WLC than they would Kierkegaard. Why do you think that is so? (if you think it is so) If I were to venture to answer my own question, I would say that WLC is arguing from within the materialist, secular frame all of us have internalized, while Kierkegaard is directly challenging its epistemological foundations. Kierkegaard requires you to rethink a lot more than someone like WLC does. I’m sorry, it seems like I took your original point in a compleatly new direction.
2) If you’re thinking of Kierkegaard’s notion of faith as “holding fast with infinite passion to the objectively uncertain” I can see where you might be going with this. I think this plays out most obviously in the realm of Christian discipleship, the radical, paradoxical, commands of Christ are reasoned away. I’m sure you’ve seen this Kierkegaard quote on christian scholarship but I’ll share it anyway:
“The matter is quite simple. The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”
3) I’m not smart enough to agree or disagree with that, I guess it depends what you mean by “apologetics.” I suspect you aren’t talking about any attempt to prove God’s existence, but are thinking of apologetics in a much narrower sense.
Look forward to hearing from you!
1) I think that’s right. A lot of unbelievers are under the impression that:
1. They used to be Christians
2, Craig IS a Christian
3. The relevant difference between Craig and they is that Craig is convinced of a set of propositions that they
Of course, all three of these things are… dubious, in a Kierkegaardian perspective. But, convinced as they are that THAT’S the gap that needs to be crossed, Craig offers a familiar way to cross it – both because the average non-believer shares the evidentialist perspective of the average believer, and because (frankly) that’s the same gap they’ve already crossed in the other direction. Craig says: “Here’s an argument, the conclusion of the argument purports to reports an objective, theological fact, and becoming convinced of the truth of that conclusion is the end game”. Further, the soundness of the premises can be established by appeal (usually [he can get sneaky about this]) using the tools of Science, Philosophy, and the historical method.
It’s also the case that Kierkegaard just isn’t very accessible. He’s not easy reading. Even most Christians don’t bother with him – if they’re aware of him at all. Further, his Christian themes are front and center… and though they’re unconventional enough to be interesting to even the most soured ex-Christian, you wouldn’t know what until you dig into him, and getting past the surface is the very problem. To the war-weary unbeliever who gets irrationally jumpy at the sound of Christian noises in the distance, Kierkegaard (on the surface) sounds like simply a pompous, flamboyant, stylized apologist. Further, it’s often not his nuanced critiques of contemporary Christendom which unbelievers are first to see, for reasons which would be familiar to any veteran of the internet religion wars.
Moreover, simply, the larger Christian community just doesn’t present Kierkegaard as the guy unbelievers ought to be engaging with. Christians don’t recommend The Sickness Unto Death, they recommend The Case for Christ. I’ve 6 copies of the latter, all given to me for free. I only have the former because I bought it myself 🙂
It’s sort of a shame, because Kierkegaard has something extremely valuable to offer the non-believer that the apologist doesn’t. Kierkegaard says “yeah, you can’t make rational sense of some of this stuff; So what? Neither can the Christian. That’s not the goal”. To the unbeliever who can’t will themselves into being convinced, on rational grounds, of the truth of apologetic arguments and assumes that means there’s a brick wall between them and Christianity and that they might as well give up – Kierkegaard says “Fine, but you can still WILL yourself to Christianity”. Now, there’s a path. There’s a way forward for the unbeliever, and it’s a way forward that they have volitional control over. All they have to do is START MOVING.
I agree that I’m in the minority. I have a rather unconventional history, and (today) am in a rather unconventional place. But even so, I certainly didn’t bypass apologetics myself. I spent quite a long time playing that game, and being convinced of its rules. I’m also (for better or for worse) firmly wedded to the analytic tradition, so, I sort of have a toe in both pools of water. I discovered the mystical and existentialist schools of Christian Philosophy about a decade ago, and have been tugged in their direction ever since. As such, it may be the case that, at least for some unbelievers, apologetics is just a phase one goes through before coming out on the other end.
2) Yes, I’ve always adored that quote 🙂 He manages to condense nearly the entirety of my distaste with the state of the church in a few sentences!
But yes, apologetics, as a discipline, is completely immersed in the very object-driven, proposition-oriented, existentially/subjectively-disengaged conception of Christianity that Kierkegaard rejects. Further, it often uses these very characteristics as a basis for pretentiousness toward the unbeliever. “Look at what ‘I’ have and ‘you’ don’t”, says the apologist to the unbeliever; “Behold all the ways the defects in your worldview prevent you from being like me”. In that sense it is both NOT authentically Christian (in the Kierkegaardian sense) and arrogant about it, as if the believer’s hallow faith is meaningfully better than the unbeliever’s lack of it.
One is left then to ask: “What we are to make of the sort of Christian who finds themselves attracted to this type of discipline?” Is the message of the cross born out in their attitude? Are they representative of an authentic, Christian life? Would Kiekegaard say that they manifest a quality of faith-commitment to the deep, core truths of Christianity, or are they mired in the very muck they pridefully claim to be clear of? Not sure he’d have a lot of kind words to say about them.
3) Indeed. I take apologetics to be a pretty narrow enterprise (I roughly sketched out my view in a comment to Esther) – definitely not equivalent to any attempt to establish the existence of God. I’m not even sure I’d characterize it as a genuine attempt to establish the existence of God. Again, I think its target audience are people who already believe in God. I think Christian Philosophy is a fundamentally different animal than Christian apologetics, and it’s the former that a serious seeker and student of Christianity should be engaging with.
That piece on postmodernism sounds completely fascinating. I’ve been speaking out, myself, as of late about (what I take to be) Christendom’s descent into postmodernism – not that this phenomenon doesn’t have an analogue outside of Christendom of course. Tackling it from the angle that postmodernism might be thought of as a kind of “second flood” – a burning down of the old guard and a reset button on civilization which sets the stage for a rebirth of authentic spirituality is something I’ve literally never considered. Please do follow up on that. I’d love to see that idea explored.
As an aside, I listened to the hangout between Esther and Adam last night, and (though I didn’t expect to enjoy it, as I’m fundamentally at odds with both of their perspectives), I was actually rather fascinated by it. I have a bit of background in normative and meta-ethical philosophy (and an obsessive interest in it), so, this topic is right up my alley. I’ll probably drop by that post sometime soon when I get a chance to chew everything over 🙂
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I think when Kierkegaard says “Fine, but you can still WILL yourself to Christianity” he should also warn that inherent in the individual “intending” or “willing” their “self” towards any object is the danger that “To the extent that one makes intentional acts into objects, he loses sight of their objects [Dr Viktor E Frankl]
That’s a good point, especially since some later existentialists would go on to embrace that very idea – that the very act of willing in the face of the absurd is an end unto itself, independent of the object the act is pointed at.
Important not to read that notion back into Kierkegaard, who would have swiftly rejected it.
And indeed, that danger is ever-present, and care ought to be taken to avoid it.
One of the things that new Christians should be taught, but they are not, is – “Grace is opposed to ‘earning’, an ‘attitude’. Grace is not opposed to ‘effort’ which is an ‘action’.”, in fact “effort” is “wisdom” because it is attempting obedience (or discipleship) – which I think Kierkegaard would endorse whole-heartedly.
Sorry about the delay with my response, I had a good start when I accidentally hit the power button on my laptop: start from scratch. One would think that a blogging site like WordPress would have an auto-save on the comments section…
I think your three points are spot on. On your first point, Kierkegaard (SK) is good at showing Christianity as a difficult existential task which takes a lifetime of striving to make any progress on. I think Nietzsche said once, there has only ever been one Christian and he died on the cross. On your second, I had to laugh at that one. SK would add that we can never know any person’s “hidden inwardness,” for all we know Craig is a knight of faith! SK writes of Gottfried Lessing, who posited a “wide ugly ditch” between the contingent truths of history and the deliverances of reason, that he has “seized upon the Archimedean point of religion.” SK then asks:
“Has Lessing accepted Christianity, or has he rejected it? Has he defended it or has he attacked it?”
It seems to me that there is a mistaken human anthropology behind these apologetic efforts. They assume:
A) That we know WHAT we believe.
B) That humans are rational.
The psychologist Jonathan Heidt describes human cognition “the rider and the elephant.” Our subconscious mind is like the elephant, while our conscious, rational mind is like the chattering rider on top. The elephant makes most of our decisions and the chattering rider gives post-hoc rationalizations.
When you think about what you believe in light of this picture, (and I think your own experience will bear this out) it becomes quite hard to know what we actually believe. As Paul Vanderklay (Have you come across his channel yet?) says, we aren’t transparent to ourselves, we really don’t know what we believe. If I think about my belief, as a Christian, in the Ressurection for example, what does it really mean to believe in the Resurrection? I don’t really know what belief in the Ressurection ENTAILS, I have doubts, and do I act as if I believed there was a Ressurection?
I think this is where your notion of “GET MOVING,” and Kierkegaard’s truth as subjectivity (your relationship to the truth) is helpful For the unbeliever who wants to become a Christian, it won’t do to listen to more WLC, to read more Lee Strobal books, to dive deeper into Christian apologetics, instead, he simply has to commit. He needs to engage in Christian practices, to participate in a Christian community, to pray, to sing, to follow Jesus in his/her daily life, to read the bible, ect. As Kierkegaard says, “one proves God’s existence by worship, not by proofs.” We can start to see the importance of faith: faith is not doubt, faith is not certainty. Faith is trusting in what is objectively uncertain. It is the venture out over 70,000 fathoms of water, keeping your eyes only on the One who can lead you through.
I’d be interested in hearing more of your story, if you’re uncomfortable sharing it here in the comments, shoot me an email in the contact section. I must say I am surprised that you as a member of the “analytic tradition”, at least from my low resolution snapshot of what that entails, are into Kierkegaard. I had a conversation on Paul Vanderklay’s comment section a few months ago with a very intelligent guy obviously wedded to the analytic tradition. He didn’t see much value in the existentialist thinkers, “a little goes a far way” was how he put it. It seemed to me that what separated us was that he and I were interested in fundamentally different questions. There seems to be a radically different way of looking at things within that tradition that wants to see everything in an objective, scientific manner. An atomized instead of a holistic approach, an object oriented instead of phenomenological/existential approach. It’s sort of that entire approach that is challenged by Kierkegaard, and needs to be overcome by anyone trying to wrestle with religion at a deeper level than apologetics tends to present it: which is difficult because the “analytic” way of thinking is very difficult to break out of and is part of the “background” of our thinking here in the west. That might be another reason why you keep getting “A Case for Christ” instead of “Concluding Unscientific Postscript.”
Well indeed, what is the point of having a “Reasonable faith” TM if there is nothing about your life that distinguishes you from the unbeliever? You can see the same sort of nastiness on the other side, if you look at the atheist apologists talking about faith as a cancer that needs to be eradicated. Maybe this is because of the rationalistic, dispassionate, objective, nature of the dialogue. I have a WHAT that you don’t, and to show you why you’re wrong I need to abstract myself out of existence and be objective. A position of faith brings much more humility about how good a Christian you really are and how much you really know.
This is something with regards to faith that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. The appologists present Christianity as a system to explain all of reality, if only you adopted this system they say, you would have the monarchical vision like I do. This is the opposite of faith. Faith says: I don’t know anything, I am small and weak and sinful, and THEREFORE I need to have faith. Faith does not say: because I reached heaven with my tower of babel, I now have faith. Faith says, because I cannot get anywhere on my own, I must have faith. Faith is epistemic humility: you don’t have the monarchical vision, but you trust in the One who does.
On the Postmodernism piece, I want it to be, in part, an exploration of Kierkegaard’s attack on Christendom. (I’ve noticed that many of my pieces have turned into explorations of Kierkegaardian themes without me intending it.) Which of Kierkegaard’s works do you think most clearly focus on the attack on Christendom? I’ve been reading Practice in Christianity which was one of the first of Kierkegaard’s attacks, a none too subtle attack on bishop Mynster and the Danish church. I would love to hear your thoughts on Christendom’s descent into postmodernism, is there a place online where you publish your thoughts?
Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the morality piece; though it’s not a very in depth/rigorous piece, more like a helpful way for me to think about morality. I usually disagree with Esther on most things, but I haven’t thought about this issue enough to know where I stand exactly. All I know is that Adam is completely out to lunch. 🙂
I’ve been reading some more of your comments on your Discus profiile and I am starting to see what you mean by the postmodern turn of Christendom. (though I would love to hear more) I can’t say that I’ve noticed the same thing, though you are probably a much keener observer of these things than I am. Indeed, I have been concerned about precisely the opposite problem, the unity of modernism and Christianity and the distortions that causes. So while it is perhaps true that the apologists are moving into postmodernism, you cannot forget that this is a shift from modernism.
Ouch! I’ve had that very thing happen to me. Sometimes it takes me days just to get over the despair of seeing all my work disappear and motivate myself to get going on it again
Craig? A knight of faith?
Joking of course…you’re right (and by that, I mean SK is right). For all we know 🙂 David Dark (one of my favorite people in the world right now, and someone you should get acquainted with) says that he often meets people who proudly claim “I’m a Christian”, and that he’s always tempted to respond: “Already? I’ve been trying so, so hard”. A Christian isn’t something one becomes, it’s something one IS ALWAYS BECOMING.
Not sure I’m fully on board with what you present as the implications of Heidt on belief. I hold more of a Frankfurtian conception of the structure of the will and its relationship to personhood, so I take the relationship between the “elephant” and the “rider” to be a bit more dialectical than epiphenomenal. We’re capable of reflecting on and forming attitudes about our subconscious desires, and opting to identify or disidentify with them. We can even manifest desires not to have the desires that we do. Heidt’s insight is profoundly important, but I I’m not inclined to appoint the subconscious as ultimate arbiter of what we believe. I’ll definitely grant though that it’s often mysterious at first glance (and often even after reflection) what the source of our motivations happens to be, and we quite regularly find ourselves being tugged in one direction of another for reasons which we don’t understand.
“He needs to engage in Christian practices, to participate in a Christian community, to pray, to sing, to follow Jesus in his/her daily life, to read the bible, etc.”
Yep 🙂 Kierkegaard borrowed this idea of Christian conviction arising naturally out of the commitment to Christian practice from Pascal, whom he was heavily influenced by. Not sure if you’ve read much of him, but as a Kierkegaardian, you’d probably get a lot out of him. But you’re exactly right…faith isn’t a description of one’s state of certainty. Faith is irrelevant to degree of certainty. Faith is choosing to act in the face of reasons for inaction. I like your 70,000 fathoms illustration!
You’re also right to draw a connection between faith, and (by example, the resurrection) the lack of a comprehensive understanding of what’s entailed by the subject which inspires the faith. Faith isn’t about affirming the subject, it’s about committing to wrestle with it – to enter into conversation with it – to relate to it. It’s absolutely dependent on a degree of mystery – even a sense of unease. It’s what makes faith an act of will rather than an involuntary, attitudinal response, and, moreover, a form of receptivity to being moved in ways which are unpredictable to you.
That brings us to your critique of the apologetic presumption (which is spot on):
“The apologists present Christianity as a system to explain all of reality, if only you adopted this system they say, you would have the monarchical vision like I do. This is the opposite of faith”
Yep! What the hell could you possibly know about ALL of reality? Sheer arrogance sneaking in on the back of humility. How small must be the mind of God, that it should fit inside the apologist’s head? What’s left to commit to? What’s left to change your heart over? What’s there to enter into relationship with, now that you’ve reduced a person to a proposition?
I briefly poked my head into Vanderklay’s channel last week as I saw him mentioned. His language was superficially impregnable, and I immediately realized that he’s not the sort of person whose ideas I’d be able to get a feel for by skimming. I knew I’d need to come back to him when I have the time to dedicate to him…so I plan on doing that.
I’ll concede to a bit of “twoness” as a Kierkegaard lover in the analytic tradition (there are some points of tension, but I don’t see the sort of hard, distinguishing line that your conversation with the commenter would entail. I have a feeling he and I would disagree on quite a lot, despite being in the same tradition.
The analytic tradition (the contemporary incarnation of it which I subscribe to anyway – it’s had a tumultuous past) is more of an approach to (or a toolkit for) doing philosophy than a particular set of views, or a constraint on the types of questions one may be interested in. It emphasizes argumentation, conceptual analysis, the referential relationship between language and the world, and descriptive specificity. That does place it fundamentally at odds with Kierkegaard’s PROJECT, but not necessarily with many of his most important views… to the extent that we can pin him down on them that is 🙂 I find the things he actually says to be immensely valuable.
Further, (though I get a great deal of our Kierkegaard full stop) my primary interest in him is as a way of understanding and engaging with Christianity in a deeper sense – something the mystics and existentialists are uniquely equipped to do. As I’m not a Christian, I don’t actually need the method by which I understand Christianity to comport with my own intellectual tradition. My own language works great for me, but Christianity is FAR more expressive in her native language, and a lot of deeply important things would get lost in translation. So, I prefer to speak to Christianity in HER language, and Kierkegaard allows me to do that.
I made mention of this originally only to highlight that I am (even to this day) completely comfortable with the apologetic approach. It’s just that it only knows my language, and that’s why I don’t trust it to capture what Christianity has to say.
I’ve only shared my story with a couple of people and I’ve never learned how to make it brief enough to be manageable, but comprehensive enough to confer much understanding. I’ll try to summarize, but feel free to probe as you see fit.
I was raised an Adventist to parents who were active in the church and strongly identified as Christians, but were rather lukewarm in their personal lives. My church was not a place of deep, intellectual engagement with Christianity, and hosted scandals so frequent and so outrageous as to be genuinely comical, As an Adventist, it was made known to me by the wider Christian community (all the way down to my own paternal grandparents) that I was a cultist who was inevitably destined for hell. All this to say that questions about what constitutes an authentic faith and what is the Christian’s relationship to moral action were with me from an early age, as was the experience of being intellectually unfulfilled as a Christian, as well as an alien in my own land, shunned and despised by my own people.
These drove me, in reaction, to commit to taking my own faith seriously, beginning a personal study of Christianity that’s continued more or less uninterrupted to this day. It quickly put me (doctrinally) at odds with the Adventists, but by then I was so invested in the church, had responsibilities as a youth leader that I couldn’t turn my back on, and still a bit to young to set out on my own. As such, I remained in the church, doing my best to keep my developing faith a secret. Now, my spiritual alienation was complete.
Over the years the existential, intellectual, and (especially) moral questions I wrestled with became more complicated, and I discovered (and turned to) the Christian philosophical tradition to deal with them. Eventually, the scandals started to hit home at around the time I was old enough to disengage from the church, so I had nothing to lose, and did so. I was content for a time as a non-denominational Christian who (despite trying to find a new church to lay down roots) was, by now, used to going it alone. This was fortunate because I eventually came to realize that the church of my youth was more or less a microcosm of the wider church community.
The questions became yet more complicated, I had by now begun a formal education in Philosophy in order to learn to tools by which to answer them, and I drifted toward (though not technically to) Calvinism, finding it (at the time) to offer the most philosophically-satisfying answers. But (through a complicated interaction of factors, some of which I’ve hinted at already) I came to understand that the implications of this position (a position I considered to be true) were unsettling: I wasn’t one of the elect. In hindsight, it explained everything.
Now, I had a new existential question which would consume me: What does it mean to be a Christian who is going to hell, and knows it? How are they to live? How ought they relate to God? These questions, in combination with the moral questions that have, by now, become even more probing and even more complicated, eventually drove me to dystheism. But, I wasn’t a petulant dystheist. I was a SERIOUS dystheist. I developed an entire dystheistic theology from the ground up, borrowing from (among others) Calvinism, the Jewish post-Holocaust school, and the Gnostic tradition (whose scriptures were just beginning to come into circulation).
I found existential contentment here, and even a solution to many of my moral concerns. Further, I now had an account of my spiritual alienation and a new vocabulary for understanding it, and was able to bring it to resolution. I was at rest here for some time, and learned to make a home for myself in hell (I understood hell to be God’s punishment on the righteous – not that I necessarily considered myself to be righteous). I also began engaging in (though they seemed perfectly rational at the time) self-destructive behaviors designed to practice enduring the tortures of hell.
Sometime after becoming comfortable here (which, given the position, is no easy task), I felt free to re-engage with classical Theology, which I had had on the back burner for some time (the dysthestic tradition being more mystical, literary, and experiential in nature). On analyzing the arguments for the existence of God, I first became conscious of how lenient I had been on them before, inexorably wedded to theism as I was. Re-engaging them in this new context, now with a philosophical education, I came to disbelieve in God.
After a brief hiatus in which I explored the implications of this position on my worldview and re-established my footing, I found myself in an odd place – a liminal place – and the place I’m in today. I’m caught between traditions. I’m a lover of Christianity who isn’t a Christian. I’m a secularist whose fondest memories are as a spiritualist. I have a home I built for myself in hell, but I no longer believe in hell. I have an analytical mind, and a mystical heart. I have twoness about everything now 🙂
I haven’t collected and published my thoughts anywhere. I don’t write very much, and I’m not creative or disciplined enough to make it into meaningful content anyway. Most of what I’ve said on these topics (which is still quite a lot) can be found on Disqus. You may want to head over to Rebecca Florence Miller’s old blog on Patheos Evangelical though (or dig REALLY deep into Disqus history). I was very active there from late 2014 until the end of the blog, discussing everything from my thoughts on the state of the church, to Christian themes in art, to metaethics, to the Christian existentialist conception of lent. You’ll find a lot of my critique of the Christendom’s affair with post-modernism there, as well as just some damn good conversations between a diverse cohort of people who became good friends there. I considered detailing my critiques here, but it’s a massive topic, and this post is terribly long already. I’ll probably expand more in a later post.
But you’re right that Christendom ALSO has a problem with modernism. The latter tends to plague the apologist, while the former is increasingly manifesting among the laity, especially in the post social-media age, and particularly as a consequence of the current political climate. There’s emerging research that suggests Christians are increasingly conforming their Christian identify to other ideological commitments which they consider more fundamental to their identify – whereas, until recently, their ideological commitments were a consequence of their Christian identify. This climate of fractured ideological allegiances all (separately) mediating Christian identification is a climate ripe for post-modernism, and accounts for why I see it on the rise.
Okay Jarrod, I’m finally going to reply to your wonderful comment!
Let me throw in something here near the beginning that occurred to me as I was thinking about responding the last few days. I think another critique of apologetics, at least apologetics done badly, is that it makes genuine conversation (geschpräch) impossible. Apologetics (Having a ‘reason’ (TM) for what you believe) is like a mask someone puts on which turns human beings into secretaries. You end up talking with the Christian public relations front, instead of a real Christian. I’m noticing this more and more recently, you will be talking to real person until a dicey apologetics issue pops up. Then suddenly the persons eyes will glaze over and his/her mouth will start talking on its own. The reasons for the historicity of the resurrection will pour smoothly out his lips, its as if someone hit “play” in a tape recorder hidden inside his head. It occurs to me that this person is lying. He is not revealing his genuine inner being, he is not uncovering who he really is (as one must in a real conversation) he is not telling the truth. The “reasons” which just flowed out of him so easily, are not “reasons” he abstracted from in depth research, his claim that the bible is “historically accurate” is not a conclusion he came to after reading dozens of good books. No, he got that line from his favourite apologist and now I have the privilege of hearing that particular insight be regurgitated for my listening pleasure.
On David Dark on working to become a Christian. I was talking to a friend of mine recently on Kierkegaard’s attack on Christendom and his assirsion that he wasn’t a Christian. Her problem with that was that it seemed to undermine the role of grace, if we are relient on God’s grace, shouldn’t we be comfortable in calling ourselves Christians? What would you say to that kind of a Christian? I think one way of looking at it is that the Kierkegaardian perspective of emphasising the radical, impossible demands of Jesus shows even more clearly our need for grace. Just as the Kierkegaardian view of knowledge and our inability to know, shows even more clearly our need for faith. Also, to use a Kierkegaardian analogy, we are like dancers leaping up in faith for grace and coming down to earth again: it needs to be continously renewed, instead of a “once saved always saved” moment.
I think I agree with your critique of how I presented Heidt’s analogy, I might have overstated my case. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that our beliefs are not hovering somewhere in the ether of our minds, rather our beliefs are embodied. I think thats the best way of putting it. I wouldn’t say therefor that our subconcious is the “ultimite arbieter of what we believe,” rather that a belief is something that fills you head to toe. At least when we are talking about a belief as central and important as religious belief. You speak of a dialectic, and I think that is helpful. The rider and the elephant influence each other. I think though that it is difficult, because of this dielectic and because of the embodied nature of belief, to really understand our motivations and what we really believe. I think the story you tell of not finding the arguments from theism convincing after moving towards atheism is a testimony to this. It seems like you lost your faith from your toes to your head, instead of the other way around. Though, maybe that’s not accurate, I wonder if you could even answer that question… Part of my point is that none rational factors play a role in conversion and belief and that the apologetic notion of the human as a rational agent who is best converted by arguments doesn’t do justice to the complex beings that we are.
I actually haven’t seen Kierkegaard make the point explicitly that we become christians through practicing Christianity. Have you seen him make this point in any of his works? It seems more implicit from the works I’ve read. I have Pascal’s Pensees on my shelf at home, I am hoping to dig into it at some point. I cannot take credit for the 70,000 fathoms analogy because that is Kierkegaards, I find it very powerful.
I would like to push back a bit on this point: “Faith is irrelevant to degree of certainty. Faith is choosing to act in the face of reasons for inaction.”
I think “assurance” or “trust” or even “certainty” is a mark of strong faith. Jesus speaks of those with “little faith,” Paul of the “assurance of things unseen,” even for Kierkegaard, faith is about having genuine, strong trust, in the promises of God. For example, in the Abraham story, what made his act a act of faith was the trust, or assurance or certainty he felt that he would get back his son. Maybe the difference I’m getting at is that for Kierkegaard, faith is a passion, that’s partly what distinguishes it from the kind of “syllogistic faith” of the apologist. Kierkegaard’s notion is “holding fast” with passion to what is uncertain, (though there needs to be holding fast) while the apologist is about assenting to the conclusions of the rational argument. I think another difference is that the apologist gains his “assurance” from the cogency of the arguments. The Kierekgaardian recognizes that assurance is a gift from God, something we cannot bring into existence on our own. I think the father’s plea for faith in Mark 9:24 is the model:
“Jesus said to him, If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes. Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
I also think then, there are two aspects to faith. First, our venture of trust, and second, our receiving God’s gifts through our venture. This is what Kierkegaard is thinking of, I believe, with his analogy of the leaping dancer. Faith is such a deep, rich, concept that its a bloody shame that it gets reduced the way it does. I think you would enjoy this article on Faith from the stanford encyclopedia of philosophy: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/faith/
I love your comments on faith, but I think, as I said above, I’m not completely there with you. Yes, it requires mystery, venture, yes it is about wrestling (see the origin of the name Israel), absolutely it is about opening yourself up, (submission might be the Christian word) to God, but I do have my quibbles about what you say about “unease” that would seem to be something that faith tries to overcome. Say more about your point that faith is about committing to wrestle with rather than assent to something like the resurrection. I do think there is definitely an aspect of belief within faith, but its not the same type of belief as a scientific or logical belief.
Its seductive to have a system that explains everything, a row of cubie holes that can accommodate every idea or every thinker. Thinking is much easier if all you have to do is forcefully shove someone into the box and then forget about it. Its this over simplified system which is behind the sloganeering, inability to listen/have a conversation, or the hubristic rationalistic anti-rationalism that characterizes the excesses of the apologists.
I’ve been listening to Vanderklay for months so the sort of specialized shorthand he’s developed to describe his ideas is second nature for me. He is quite impenetrable for outsiders, but he is well worth getting into. He has some amazing conversations with regular people who listen to his channal that are well worth listening to, you might enjoy this one with Luke Thompson, a friend of mine who is thinking about similar things that you and I are discussing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSiCZLHkZXA&list=PLYSXopxC8Z9tN1iNIyDB6SZGJPQUuyfg7&index=1
The way you distinguish between Christianity’s language and the language of apologetics is helpful. My critique is from a Christian Kierkegaardian perspective. I’ve been thinking that there is a fundamental difference between the two as well. As for the analytic vs continental tradition, I think the continental tradition is asking much more interesting questions, though I am operating mostly on stereotypes.
I will make a few comments on your fascinating story:
To be honest, the problem of Christian witness is one thing I as a Christian struggle with. Why do so many lay Christians, especially in the US, equate their Christianity with Republicanism and American patriotism? While I am pretty conservative on a lot of my social views, my annabaptism puts me at odds with most of what I see in contemporary evengelicalism- which has also infiltrated my own tradition.
I find it strange that you drifted towards Calvinism as the most intellectually/philosphically satisfying of the Christians traditions. I myself find myself intellectually attracted to Eastern Orthodoxy (very much through people like Jordan Peterson, David Bentley Hart, Jonathan Pageau) but as a Christian, more attracted to annabaptism. Its a strange distinction, but I think you know what I mean.
Do you think your turning to Dysthiest was sort of a “slippery slope” slide from your Calvinism? I can see how someone could go from radical calvinism to a view of God as a cosmic despot. What a horrific view of the world! Though with my own disposition to melancholy, I could sort of see myself bravely facing such a reality. Was your adoption of this view more a reflection of your temperment than the cogency of the arguments? I mean, do you still think today that Theists are most rational in adopting dysthiesm?
You sir, are a strange and facinating person. 🙂
One way Evengelical Christians, especially within the reformed tradition, have embraced postmodernism is through Van Till’s persupositionalist theology which holds that everyone has presupositions and that its impossible to have neutral view of the world. This, if abused, opens up the playing field for things like young earth creationism or whatnot. Proponents of these views will hold that they are simply offering a theory with different presupositons than those offered by secular theorists. But, if I think about it, I would still characterize this approach as “modernist.” I am currently more concerned with modernist Christianity.
I think I know what you mean by post modern christianity, though if you have any links to examples to share, please email them. Are you thinking of the sort of hyper emotionilistic, “personal relationship,” Christianity trademark, type of spirituality? I wonder what Kierkegaard’s critique would be of that type of movement since it seems like he could be seen as a founding father of it…
I’m sorry if my reply seems curt, I’ve been running against time all day and wrote my response during my lunch breaks.
Your statement – “A Christian isn’t something one becomes, it’s something one IS ALWAYS BECOMING.” – I suppose could be said this way – One becomes a Disciple but the Disciple is always becoming a Christian.
Probably a better way of saying it …
“Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth which has a place in the Fatherhood of God, but omits Christ as the living son. And a Christianity of that kind is nothing more or less than the end of discipleship. In such a religion there is trust in God, but no following of Christ.” [Dietrich Bonhoeffer]
I LOVE your opening paragraph. You captured PERFECTLY something I’ve felt, but haven’t yet put into words. I’m So, SO exhausted of inauthentic conversation, and the apologist who you reference is nothing more than that. It’s like having a conversation with a voice messaging system. There’s only room for agreement or disagreement, never comprehension, or understanding. Indeed, THEY haven’t engaged with the material, so even IF their surface-level slogans find a receptive ear, what have they managed to communicate? …a surface level slogan, with no indication of engagement with the material.
As regards your conversation with your friend, I’m not sure how much of a disagreement there actually is between her and Kierkegaard. The distinction seems more conceptual than doctrinal, and I think it more or less comes down to the “continuous renewal” that you speak of. It’s not as if Kierkegaard would have claimed NOT to be under grace, though he has been criticized as misunderstanding the Lutheran doctrine of grace. I think, in part, what he was getting at (and this is certainly what Dark is getting at) is as follows: To say that one IS a Christian is to say that the property “Christian” is instantiated by a person. But the self isn’t static, it’s dynamic. In what sense can static properties be instantiated by something which is in a state of flux? The best you can say is that P (whereas P is some time-bound snapshot of a person), is a Christian at time T. By the time you’ve finished saying that, you’re already at time T2.
Are they a Christian then too? If so, they’re a Christian… again. They’ve made ANOTHER commitment, and then ANOTHER at T3. There’s an intrinsic again-and-again-and-again-ness to being a Christian. Being a Christian isn’t something a person ever “IS”, because there’s no such thing as a person who “IS”. Personhood is ongoing, and being a Christian is ongoing. This calls back to that crazy opening of “Sickness Unto Death”, that the “self is a relation, which relates itself to its own self”. It’s constituted of a relation TO the dyadic relationship between body and soul, which is grounded in a relationship to God. As such, it’s always, always moving, pushing and pulling, back and forth, around and around. If you look in at any one, static point, you’ll only get the push, or the pull, or the back, or the forth…never all of them. It’s a marriage, married to a marriage, married to a marriage.
The dynamic process of BEING a Christian is a function of the dynamic process of being a person – and, moreover, it’s a function of the continuous process of recommitting over, and over again in time. That’s the “through faith” of “by grace through faith”. So, it’s possible she simply has all of these assumptions built in to her conception of a Christian (whereas Kierkegaard has a much thinner use of the word), and that the two aren’t actually saying anything all that different. Don’t know without talking to her myself, but, at least, that’s what I would say to that kind of Christian.
As regards my statement that faith is irrelevant to degree of certainty, I had in mind not the object of faith, but the set of facts which form the context under which one holds it. Certainty isn’t conceptually prior to faith – faith isn’t, for example, apportioned in accordance with how certain one is in the facts of the resurrection (which is the way many Christians understand it). It’s not as if the person who begins by having more confidence in the resurrection can be said, as consequence, to have more faith. On the contrary, faith is conceptually prior to degree of certainty. You commit to faith in the face of uncertainty, and certainty follows from that. I think that’s what Kierkegaard is getting at by the “holding fast to what is uncertain”, as well as what Hebrews refers to as the “substance of things hoped for”. Hope doesn’t grow out of the ground, hope extends downward from the sky, and becomes grounded.
Same clarification with regards “unease”. There’s a tie in to Kierkegaard’s notion that all of Christianity can be traced back to the struggle of the anguished conscience. You don’t have faith INSOFAR as you are free of anguish and unease, you have anguish and unease…and it drives you to faith.
There’s a concept in doxastology (the study of the logic of belief) known as the “alief”, which may cash out your idea of a non-logical/non-scientific belief-like aspect of faith. It’s certainly something I employ in my concept of faith as wrestling. It’s something like an underlying attitude about the truth of something which one doesn’t actually consciously hold as a propositional belief – often the attitude is even directly in conflict with something one holds as a propositional belief. Imagine one of those skyscraper sky-decks with the glass floor. You have the A-lief that you’re in danger and are about to fall, even though you have the B-lief that the glass is a solid structure, and you’re perfectly stable above the ground.
So, faith entails a sort of “twoness” of attitude toward the subject, whereby you’ve placed your trust in it, but can’t necessarily justify that trust propositionally, on rational grounds. It places you in a mode of dialectical engagement between both of these aspects of your nature, each of which refer to the subject in fundamentally different ways. To the extent the two can’t be reconciled (and depending on the subject of faith and how mysterious/irrational it is, they often can’t be), you have a dialectic that is butting heads, generating increasingly more questions on every iteration, each of which one must recommit (to faith) in the face of. Further, the subject of Christian faith refers to a PERSON, not an inanimate object, and interpersonal relation entails a certain degree of wrestling by its very nature. It’s a process of reevaluating oneself constantly in light of another person, and then reevaluating them in light of the person you’ve become AFTER reevaluation, and so on, ad infinitum.
If you still have some points of disagreement after these clarifications, I’d be interested to have you expand on them.
Well, the EXPERIENCE of losing my faith was intellectual, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility of non-rational factors having influenced the degree to which I was intellectually convinced by the arguments. If there’s a way to resolve that question for sure, I haven’t found it. Though, I’d resist the notion that dystheism constituted a “move toward atheism”. I think this is a eutheistic presumption. As a dystheist, I was a committed theist. The presence of God was utterly and powerfully real to me, and informed every aspect of my life. People who are teetering on the edge of atheism abandon belief in God long before they get to where I was. A good barometer for how firm is one’s belief is whether they continue to hold it even after it costs them everything to do so. I wasn’t on a slow drift away from theism, I held onto it until the bitter end; I was so opposed to atheism I literally accepted eternity in hell in order to avoid it.
By the time I got to the barrier of theism and atheism, there simply weren’t any personal or existential implications left to get in the way of rational analysis. Nothing of personal import was riding in the existence of God that I hadn’t already dealt with and become comfortable with. Literally the driest, most methodical (and most boring) part of my journey was the move from dystheism to atheism. That said, I do wonder whether I would still be a Christian today, had I discovered the Christian existentialists earlier than I did. I suspect I might be.
There was a fair bit more influence from the non-rational up that point, though. There was a lot of interface between the existential, the personal, and the intellectual as a late Calvinist/dystheist. The dystheistic tradition (to the extent there is one), consists of a smattering of poetry, esoteric literature, symbolic expression, mystical reflection, wisdom literature, and heartbroken lamentation. So, it’s a highly “Dionysian” tradition which doesn’t lend itself particularly well to rigorous, rational analysis. At the same time, I GOT there from pseudoCalvinism (a relatively analytically-minded tradition), and rigorous, methodical reflection on questions of Moral Philosophy and their theological implications (Moral Philosophy was the focus of my Philosophical study). So, it was a little bit of head, a little bit of toe, and a little bit of heart 🙂
I do think dystheism in the weak sense (which is simply the denial of omnibenevolence) has the most explanatory power, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that theists are committed to dystheism as a matter of logic. I think, given certain background assumptions which would be reasonable to hold, eutheism is a perfectly defensible view. Though, I’m not sure how many eutheists actually hold these background assumptions, as it’s not often that I find eutheists who either: 1) Hold a comprehensive view of the nature of normative obligation that they apply consistently both to themselves and God, or 2) If they don’t apply them consistently, a coherent account of their inconsistency which is compatible with their view.
Kierkegaard’s notion (Fear and Trembling) of a realm of valuative action that transcends the ethical (which he understands as the aesthetic realm) is one particularly interesting way, if not of defending eutheism, at least of avoiding dystheism. There’s a fascinating interaction between the deontic conception of moral obligations as consisting of “compelling, overriding reasons for action/inaction” (which have their roots in Kant), and Kierkegaard’s suspicion of the role and scope of rationality, which would call into doubt the degree to which we can recognize a compelling, overriding reason when we see one.
But, I did take dystheism to constitute the most evidentially-compelling solution to the problem of evil given MY conception of the nature of goodness, modal-possibility, and divine knowledge. Other conceptions will yield different conclusions…but, at least, I found it a reasonable move, given the positions I held.
Kierkegaard doesn’t say that one becomes a Christian THROUGH practicing it. Pascal’s idea is that commitment has a relationship to conviction, such that by making an ongoing commitment to Christian practice in the face of doubt, one can lay the foundation for the cultivation of conviction, and thereby vanquish the doubt. It’s the difference between saying that loving someone is achieved through acting in love to them, and saying that by committing to act in love toward someone for long enough, you may come to genuinely love them.
I’d be interested to hear more about what you think of Jordan Peterson. You strike me both as the kind of person who would like him, and the kind of person who wouldn’t, so I’m really curious as to what you do, and don’t get out of him.
I’m also interested to hear a bit more about the intersection between Anabaptist proper, Anabaptism infected with American Evangelicalism, and your own Kierkegaardianism. What things things do you fine in harmony between them, and what things are in tension?
I’m still trying to make heads or tails of contemporary Christianity in light of the current political climate. The number of intersecting causes and implications are so vast I struggle even to know where to begin – though, the topic of its impact on Christian witness is something the aforementioned Rebecca Florence-Miller and I have discussed at particular length. I think the church has dealt a crippling blow to Christian witness by embracing Trump at precisely the moment in time when it is struggling with a disengagement crisis already. I think that action will define the image of the Christian community to the outside world for at least a generation…and it’s a crucial generation. It’s not a problem limited to the US either. There are strong parallels in (among other places) Brazil, Eastern Europe, and Russia.
Skye Jethani astutely observed that, until recently in history, the Christian community (while it didn’t claim their allegiance), at least claimed a degree of moral respect from the wider world. Christians were deemed a pious people, and committed to an ethical life (to such a degree that they were often made fun of for it – See Ned Flanders). The view among the average non-Christian was that they either couldn’t (or didn’t want to) ascend to the high commitments made by the Christian. He went on to note a shift in the last decade or so, where the average non-Christian now views the Christian community as incompatible with piousness, and incompatible with the ethical life. The Christian is no longer Ned Flanders, she is Mr. Burns. Her credibility is forfeit. The Christian is no longer seen as rising above the world, she is seen as being OF the world – and anyone who desires to be in the world and not of it must desire to be non-Christian.
Not only is there a barrier to communication and engagement, neither side even takes the other seriously anymore.
I think that has a LOT to do with the infiltration of politics not just into the Christian’s life, but into the Christian conception OF a Christian life. The politicization of Christianity is actually a powerful driver (and provides one common example of) my observation of Christianity’s descent into postmodernism. Postmodernism already provided the foundation for modern political rhetoric, and modern political rhetoric is now modern religious rhetoric.
If I were to head over to the typical religious forum and criticism Trump on ethical grounds, the average response from the average Christian would be one or more of:
1) Hillary/Obama/AOC did something objectionable too, so it’s illegitimate for me to condemn Trump for doing so.
2) The fact that I condemned Trump entails that I’m a liberal and a Democrat (I’m actually neither), and BECAUSE I’m a liberal and a Democrat, my association with them renders my opinion null and void.
3) Despite how well established are the facts surrounding the condemnation, they can be dismissed simply by reference to the supposed illegitimacy of their source, OR can be overridden by any piece of evidence, whatsoever, including a mere denial from the person being condemned.
This is relativism. In fact, these are paradigmatic examples of relativism. Similar patterns of thought abound in Christian apologetics as well, one common example being the argument that different moral standards applied in the OT because it was a different culture and time. It’s actually rather surreal how thoroughly postmodernist conceptions of truth and ethics have infiltrated Christian discourse, while the Christian community continues to maintain that it holds a commitment to moral and truth absolutism.
…and it’s not like the secular community counterbalances this problem either. Watching their bumbling buffoonery as they try to engage Christians on these issues is genuinely nauseating. There’s been a full-scale, cross-faction renunciation of the Western philosophical edifice, and not even in a nice, Kierkegaardian way either 🙂
There’s a LOT to say about the role of social media here as well, and the extent to which it fragments communities into ever smaller ideological camps, each with their own conception of facts (often not even exposed to others) compounds this problem. Indeed, social media algorithms use data about ones demonstrated conception of facts to DETERMINE what conception of facts they are, in turn, exposed to, making their engagement with reality self-insularizing. It’s the technological foundation of the “post-truth” world, and has infected the Christian community as well as the non-Christian. The contexualization of one’s engagement with reality behind one’s group identity is the postmodernist nightmare scenario, and we’re living it.
As an aside, I’ve watched a view videos with Vanderklay (he’s even popping up on my Youtube feed now!). I like him, and I’m started to get the hang of him. Going to watch the video you just referenced in a few moments.
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Sorry, just saw your comment now.
Yes, that’s a good way of putting it. The emphasis is on the “living” in “living Christ, and the “following” of Jesus…point being those are active, dynamic concepts. Following is something you KEEP doing, and a living Christians is one who is continually receptive to your focus.
To speak of Christianity as an “end of discipleship” is to speak of it as a point of termination or a point of rest. A Christianity that terminates or a Christianity at rest is no Christianity at all.
“Christ-likeness” is the termination point, seeking first the Kingdom of God as a disciple (discipleship/sanctification/the pursuit of holiness)is the point of rest – “Unsatisfied desire is in itself more desirable than any other satisfaction”[C.S. Lewis ].
Living my life as Christ would live it if He was in my shoes is beyond me and my abilities, only active, dynamic relational (through the Holy Spirit’s empowerment) moment by moment obedience (my effort to will/intend/act) to Christ allows me to rest in His Kingdom.
“Eternity is with us now. Heaven and hell are with us now. Losing our soul is not something which happens after death. My fear of losing my ‘soul’ – the core of my personality, imagination and sensitivity – is far greater than my fear of anger or restlessness. To dismiss the loss of my own soul for personal security and comfort is to die before death. “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world – security of mind, health and reputation – and suffers the loss of his own soul”. [Gerard Hughes]
“God moves as Beloved. That is, as an Object of desire moves those who desire It.” [Aristotle]
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You’ll notice that I’ve not replied to a few of the topics we were discussing, I hope these weren’t topics you were eager to dive into. The topics I skipped are mostly those where I simply don’t know enough to add much.
It reminds me very much of ideological thinking. Once you’ve heard the views of one evengelical appologist, you’ve sort of heard them all. This makes me think of Peterson calling out Helen Lewis for being ideologically possessed, weather or not he was correct in his assesment, I think his comments could equilly apply to the kind of apologist we are critiquing. Have a listen to this clip. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tH14XifS5jg
Let me tie to together your comments on faith and your story of you losing your faith.
I was struck first of all by your point that a person doesn’t have more faith if he is more convinced of the arguments of the resurrection. Indeed, the person who is the most confident of the arguments of the resurrection could have the least amount of faith. I think this really brings out the kierkegaardian point that the people peddling objective reasons for Christianity arn’t bringing people to faith, they are confusing faith with the degree of rational certainty one feels. I’ve thought recently about the connection between apologetics and contemporary christian music. Both seem to be trying to beat the modernists/secularists at their own game: distorting Christianity in the process. But there seems to be an even deeper connection, both seem to be about brining a false sense of certainty and confusing it with faith. The appologists confuse faith with the degree to which one is convinced by the arguments. (faith is trusting what you have good reason to believe) While the musicians confuse faith this the happy dappy feeling you feel after listening to their bad copy of modern pop songs with even worse lyrics.
Just one more comment on your distinction to alief and belief and I will get into my quibbles with how you define faith. I think a good analogy for your distinction might be the attitude many Christians have towards homosexuality. Many would affirm, intellectually, that homosexuality is a sin, but at the same time would feel a unease, a sadness even, that this is the position they have to take. I’ve heard one Christian describe it as his head (belief) and his heart (alief) being at odds.
So now to my disagreements/quibbles with how you define faith. I don’t know if there is much daylight between us, I havent met many people with whom I’m so strongly on the same wavelength on a variety issues as you. I guess my main quibble with your definition, at least, if I take it on face value, is that it would make you, an unhappy atheist, a person of faith. You wrote in your previous comment:
“Faith isn’t about affirming the subject, it’s about committing to wrestle with it – to enter into conversation with it – to relate to it. It’s absolutely dependent on a degree of mystery – even a sense of unease.”
You are certainly someone who is committed to wrestling with Christianity and have been doing so for years, as is evident by the quality of this conversation. What distinguishes you, from the person who has faith?
I think the missing element is trust or faithfullness. Faith is placing Christ at the center of your universe, trusting Him despite all doubt and tragedy. Faith also entails allegiance to Christ: Christ at the center is Christ as ruler. Abraham is the paradigm example here, his trust in God allowed him to follow God wherever God called Him to go and to trust through it all that God would fulfill His promises. I think this is really what Kierkegaard is getting at when he speaks so movingly of going out over 70,000 fathoms where only God can get you. It’s Christ at the center of the universe, its contemporaniousness with Christ, it’s Christ as ultimate concern. It’s Peter out on the water with His eyes on Jesus: even when all the arguments fail, even when our lives get turned upside down, even when the good feelings go away: faith is keeping your eyes on Jesus and trusting Him.
Of course, this does entail a struggle, or a “wrestling” because it is difficult to be faithful when it it goes against your interests, and it is difficult to trust when your life comes crashing down around you. I think you’re spot on when you say that anguish and unease drives one to faith. I think again of the analogy of being out over 70,000 fathoms, or of Peter walking out over the waves. Tragady, guilt, and uncertainty are when one comes to faith because it is in those moments that one’s own systems, idols and towers of babel come crashing down, and one has the required humility to pass through the eye of the needle.
I think this is where I would argue your move to Dysenthiesm was actually the moment your lost your faith. The comic despot you “believed” in is not someone whom it is possible to trust. It’s like saying you have faith in a pedophile. Its impossible to have faith in a pedophile, you can only know he exists and try to protect your children from him. What you did have though, was a belief that a cosmic despot existed. (I’m stealing this word from David Bentley Hart, he uses it to describe the God of the calvinists) But this belief isn’t anything like faith, it’s a objective, propositional belief, the same kind of belief you would have about the existence of giant turtles, albiet less certain.
You mentioned on Esther’s Patheos post that while you’ve been studying Christianity for years, you have some problems you cannot get around. (If I’m summerizing what you said correctly) If I may ask, and I shudder to do so, given that you seem to know Christianity better than most Christians, what is holding you back from being a Christian? You write that you might still be a Christian had you discovered the existentialists earlier, well, are you, as Kierkegaard would have it, offended by the Paradox? 🙂 From what I’ve gathered from our conversations, one of your main struggles seems to be the fact that so many (if not most) “christians” are not exactly paradigms of goodness, or even coming close to living up to the example of Christ. Despite our claims to be renewed by grace.
On the two questions you raise about my interest in Peterson and the interaction Kierkegaard and annabaptism, thanks for asking! These are two fascinating questions.
You can probably guess what I don’t like about Jordan Peterson. I’m pretty sure Kierkegaard would have hated his guts. 🙂 My main issue with him is that he conflates Christendom with Christianity. Christendom is built into us, our empire is built on the values of Christendom, but all this has nothing to do with Christianity. This defence of Christendom which is near the heart of his project, leads to his blanket dismissal of the barbarians within: “The postmodern neo-marxists.” I don’t like how dismissive he is of postmodernism, often he ends up sounding like the triumphalist modernists who think PMism is just a passing phase that Christendom will soon triumph over.
That said, there is a great deal I admire about Jordan Peterson, not least his Character. He is a person who has clearly grappled with the darkness of life and this really gives his message a existential gravitas. He is someone who is willing to speak honestly. He has genuine compassion for those he is seeking to help. He speaks with the authority of someone who has earned his wisdom.
As for what I get out of him, I’ve found the intersection between philosophy, theology and psychology in his work absolutely fascinating. He’s opened up ways of thinking about all three of those and has helped me move beyond a analytical, scientistic way of seeing things. His distinction between the phenomenological and the scientific has been increadibly helpful. Or as he puts it, the world as a forum for action and the world as a place of things. He, along with other thinkers such as Ian Mcgillchrist, have helped me see the world as fundamentally dual. That there is a fundamental distinction between heaven and earth or matter and the Spirit. There is much more I could say, but I don’t want to summerize JBP’s thought here. My article on Kierkegaard and JBP would probably be the best place to see what I get out of Peterson.
Along with what I’ve learned, JBP has also served as a conversation starter as those of us who are interested in his thought, keep thinking about the issues he raises: the meaning crisis, symbolism, the nature of truth, the modern condition, postmodernism, ect. He’s also gotten many of us interested in exploring the thinkers hes been influanced by: Doestoyevski, Jung, Nietzsche, ect.
On Kierkegaard and Annabaptism. Let me first push back a bit on you calling me a Kierkegaardian. While it is a flattering label, I’m not sure I deserve it. I’m certainly not someone who is trying to conform all of his thinking to Kierkegaard’s, that would be to contradict everything the man stood for. I would say the reason I find Kierkegaard so compelling/fascinating right now is that I am increasingly aware of my own ignorance and the futility of my own systems at getting a grip on reality. As I try to peel back the layers and feel the chaos closing in around me, Kierkegaard points me to the one fixed point, the one solid rock I can stand on: Jesus Christ.
I can think of at least three things about Kierkegaard that really fit well with Anabaptism.
First of all, Kierkegaard is very Christ centered, it seems to me, in his theology. For him, the Christian is called to be an imitator of Christ, even if this leads to inevitable suffering. I love the emphasis he has on radical decipleship regardless of the consequences.
Second, for Kierkegaard the Christian life is more of a How one is in relationship with God and how one acts than a what one believes. This is also an emphasis in Anabaptism which places a emphasis on the fruits of ones faith over and above dogmatic squabbles.
Third, Kierkegaards attack on Christendom reminds me very much on the two kingdom theology of the Anabaptists. (especially my own Hutterite tradition) This notion that christendom has nothing to do with true, radical Christ following Christianity and that indeed to confuse the two is to be unfaithful to Christ.
As for whats in tension, I guess Kierkegaard’s individualism and his weak ecclesiology are things I want to push back on, nuance or take a deeper view on. Community is central to Christianity.
One thing I would add to Jethani’s point is that while I wouldn’t want to excuse Christians for their poor witness and inability to live true lives of decipleship, I think there is another factor. What about the new “woke religion” that has become the new moral framework in many western countries? It seems to me that from the perspective of the “woke religion,” white, evangelical Christians are seen as morally repugnant, and in direct opposition to the goals of the SJWs. Its fascinating to see the alliances developing between conservative Christians and the new atheists because they share the same basic moral framework as classical liberals and defenders of Christendom.
I see the conservative evengelicals as thoughly modernist, which is why I wouldn’t read the examples you give as examples of postmodenism. I would simply see it as good old american pragmatism. If the most important thing is to defend the judeo Christian foundations of the west, and if this is to be done by pushing the Conservative Christian agenda, why should things like truth or morality stand in the way?
I’ve been thinking about the paradox of Kierkegaard attacking Christendom, but also being firmly within, and drawing from the philosophical tradition. Do you see a way of reconciling that tension? How can the Chrisitan see Christendom as a idolatrous tower of babel, while also being enriched by its philosophical heritage?
I’ve also been listening to some David Dark, I’m loving what I’ve heard so far.
“When you deny “objective Reality” as a means to confirming or denying the truth or falsehood of any claim that might be made then you are left with mere “subjectivism” – the subject disassociated and disoriented from Reality.” [Jerry Root] … so … “Once a God-given gift such as ‘logic’ has been made subjective, all ‘truth’ becomes doubtful” [Francis Schaeffer]
I don’t have a problem with “objective reality,” what I do have a problem with is people who think they have a monarchical vision of reality and then try to foist their “subjective” vision as “objective reality” onto others.
I think a good parallel would be if someone said the same thing about the authority of the bible, once the bible ceases to be a source of authority which we use to mediate disputes, we descend into subjectivism. Again, I don’t have a problem with the authority of the bible, I just don’t think some people’s interpretations are authoritative.
The problem for every individual though remains – the moment I think some people’s interpretations, of the Bible or anything else, are authoritative and some aren’t I am being subjective in my discernment, it is unavoidable. And Paul tells me to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” [Phi 2:12] then at what point does my personal discernment or my personal “individual subjectivism” surplant Christ and “my god become me”?