There is a line from Nietzsche that should give every thoughtful Christian pause: “Faith is not wanting to know what is true.” This is a more profound articulation of what has been heard from other quarters, that faith is a ‘crutch’ for the weak (this might be Nietzsche as well), wish fulfilment, or “believing what you know ain’t so.” The idea is that Christians, those with faith, are simply those who are unable to face the hard truths of life, the uncertainty, the struggle, and instead protect themselves with fantasies and comforting beliefs.
There is a lot of truth to Nietzsche’s critique, if there is anything that characterizes contemporary Christianity, it is fear. Christians in the West are terrified of terrorists, conservatives, social justice warriors, the immanent collapse of Western Christendom, Trump, and on and on. It was fear that led the majority of American Christians to vote for Trump. Fear which drives up the sale of guns after mass shootings. Fear which drives increased polarization. Fear which shuts borders. Fear, Fear, Fear. Fear is the opposite of Faith. Thus Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the man who died for his defiance of the Third Reich, who had much more reason to fear than most of us Christians in the West, could write:
Fear takes away a person’s humanity. This is not what a creature made by God looks like… the Bible, the gospel, Christ, the church, the faith—all are one great battle cry against fear in the lives of human beings.
If we overcome fear by faith, does this mean, as Nietzsche suggests, that Christians are afraid of facing the truth? That Christians are those who sit tight with their comforting beliefs, and simply don’t bother to venture out into uncertainty? Is that what it means to have faith?
There is a Polyanish caricature of faith embodied by many Christians which would suggest that this is the case. Christians who hold their beliefs to be certain and self-evident. Christians who protect themselves from the truth with unshakeable dogmas. Christians who, in the name of “rationality,” create an elaborate system of labels and boxes, into which any challenging idea can quickly be dispensed. Out of sight, out of mind. I will not be the judge of weather of not such people have faith, only God can see the hidden inwardness of each individual and the suffering, anguish, and uncertainty that necessarily accompany Faith. But I can say this, if you have no doubt, no suffering, no dread, then you have either achieved immortality or you have no Faith. Why? Because Faith is not a way to avoid the truth, but rather, it is the only way to face the truth. Like God called Abraham out of the land of his father, faith constantly calls us out of our place of comfort and into uncertainty. And yet, it is precisely faith which sustains us on our journey.
In this piece, I will sketch out three images of faith, all of them drawn from the work of Søren Kierkegaard. The way Kierkegaard conceives of faith directly challenges Nietzsche’s account and also, deeply challenges those of us who claim to have faith.
Faith as Contemporaneousness with Christ
As believers, as people seeking Christ here in the 21st century, we have a problem, how are we to encounter Jesus Christ, a person who last walked the earth 2000 years ago? There are 2000 years separating us and that decisive event that is the incarnation, how then can we respond to the call of Christ to “come and follow me?” To Kierkegaard, this is where faith comes in, through faith (which is a gift from God), we can encounter the living Christ, become contemporaneous with him and enter into a relationship with him. There is then, this image of us, through faith, reaching back 2000 years and setting our eyes on Christ. And yet, the 2000 years remain, in actuality in place, we are embodied beings, who have been shaped by a particular culture, place, time, civilization and so on. And so, a movement of stripping back the layers begins. While we fix our eyes on Christ, while we cling to him in faith, we begin the process of deconstruction. This is done existentially, as we strive to “die to our old self,” to strip away the evil in our hearts, to kill our pride, our hatred, our false allegiances, our darkness. It is precisely the holding fast to Christ which allows us to both confront the evil within us, and to simultaneously be conformed to His image. The stripping away of layers is done intellectually, as we shed the scales from our eyes which distort the image of Christ, our idolatrous ideas, cultural presuppositions, political ambitions and the theological assumptions we carry which makes the voice of Christ muffled and domesticated. The stripping away is done practically as we reconsider the practices we engage in which shape to be more like our culture, better citizens, better hedonists, but worse Christians. So faith as contemporaneousness with Christ is a radical stripping away, repenting, reordering our loves and allegiances, while keeping our eyes on Christ.
Faith as a Venture
Kierkegaard writes of “holding on to the objective uncertainty with infinite passion,” and then “going out over 70,000 fathoms,” where only God can reach you. I have probably quoted this line from Kierkegaard in every piece I have written on him, but I keep coming back to it because it so powerfully captures the notion of faith as a venture. The “objective uncertainty,” is that which is, objectively speaking, uncertain, paradoxical, or even irrational: Jesus the God-man. And yet, for the person of faith, the paradox of the God-man is the rock, the centre, the lifeline to which one eternally clings.
Faith here is in a sense ‘betting your life’ on the “objective uncertainty,” it is, as Kierkegaard puts it, a choice between “time and eternity, heaven and hell.” The acceptance the paradox is not some objective proposition one merely adds to the list of things one believes, rather, it is something one clings to with “infinite passion,” it is a Truth one commits to, and seeks to embody in the pattern of one’s life. To Kierkegaard, the best proof for the deity of Christ is a person who has “risked his entire life” on that reality and “lives in conformity.” The best proof of God’s existence, writes Kierkegaard, is worship.
Faith is this holding fast to the Truth—which is paradoxically both the “objectively uncertain” and our only certainty, our only comfort and hope—and then going out into uncertainty. Faith allows us, and even calls us to where we do not want to go, out over 70,000 fathoms, down into the abyss, all the while holding fast to Christ. It is no coincidence that Christ called his followers with the words “follow me:” to know Christ is to follow him, to follow him, is to be called into uncertainty. It is only by the venture into uncertainty that we grow in the image of Christ, that we grow in faith or that we grow to know Christ. It is only faith, the “holding fast,” which makes the venture possible. Nietzsche thinks Christians are “afraid of the truth.” But ironically, it is only Christians who should not be afraid of the truth. Because we hold fast, we should be able to look at the darkness of the past, we should be able to recognise the truth of who we are today, and we should be able to face the future fearlessly. Because we hold fast we should be able to face our doubts and fears head on, and trust that we will overcome them. Because we hold fast, Christians should be the most fearless livers of life, the most fearless speakers of truth, the most fearless in confronting injustice, the most fearless in radically living the image of Christ. Because we worship a God who was killed and descended into the lowest places, we too must follow him to death, to the abyss, and then, with him, rise again.
Faith as Resigning and Receiving
In the most famous of his works, Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard explores the faith of Abraham “the father of faith.” Kierkegaard focuses on the story of the binding of Isaac, in which God “tempts” Abraham to take his only son Isaac to Mount Moriah and kill him as a sacrifice. What makes the situation especially difficult for Abraham, is not just that God is calling him to such an absurd and vile act, but that God had promised to make a great nation out of the descendants of Isaac. How could God honour His promises on one hand and call Abraham to an act that would nullify those promises on the other? Despite these questions, Abraham is obedient and travels to Mount Moriah to sacrifice his only son. At the last second, and Angel intervenes and stops Abraham from killing Isaac, showing him a Ram to offer in his stead. To Kierkegaard, this story shows the paradox of faith: that faith gives up what is of greatest value, and expects to receive it back, “by virtue of the Absurd.”
Kierkegaard conceives two characters, the knight of infinite resignation, and the knight of faith to show the movements of faith. The first, the knight of infinite resignation, is one who renounces what he loves, who gives up the finite in hope of the infinite. Kierkegaard recognises that it is difficult to make the move of infinite resignation, but Faith, and Abraham go further:
So I can perceive that it requires strength and energy and freedom of spirit to make the infinite movement of resignation, I can also perceive that it is feasible. But the next thing astonishes me, it makes my head swim, for after having made the movement of resignation, then by virtue of the absurd to get everything, to get the wish whole and uncurtailed—that is beyond human power… Whenever I essay to make this movement, I turn giddy, the very instant I am admiring it absolutely a prodigious dread grips my soul—for what is it to tempt God? And yet this movement is the movement of faith and remains such, even though philosophy, in order to confuse the concepts, would make us believe that it has faith, and even though theology would sell out faith at a bargain price.
I sympathise with Kierkegaard, the movement he here describes as faith, is one that makes my own head swim. To have faith, is not just to resign everything, not just to resign and hope for better things in heaven, but it goes further. Faith “renounces the claim to everything,” and expects to receive it back “by virtue of the absurd.” This is the faith of Abraham. Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac, not because he was a knight of infinite resignation, but rather, because he was a knight of faith who expected to receive his son back from the dead. He believed, even as he lifted up the knife to slay his son, that God would keep his promises.
…but Abraham was greater than all, great by reason of his power whose strength is impotence, great by reason of his wisdom whose secret is foolishness, great by reason whose form is madness, great by reason of the love which is hatred of oneself.
So, we have seen three different, but closely related, images of faith: Faith as contemporaneousness with Christ, faith as a venture, and faith as giving up and receiving. What all three of these images have in common is trust, a “holding fast,” to Christ. It is this trust that then allows the second movement, the stripping away, the venture, the giving up and receiving back. We can see that Faith is not motivated by fear; rather, fear is antithetical to faith. Faith is a courageous movement into uncertainty, motivated by trust. Conversely, it is only by venturing into uncertainty that it is possible for your trust to grow. Faith is not uncertainty, but it is how uncertainty is overcome. Faith is a good and pure gift from God that is given to to those who venture out over 70,000 fathoms where only God can reach them. It is only by reaching out, that God reaches down to touch us. This is the paradox of faith: it is only by going out like Peter over the uncertainty of the sea, keeping our eyes on Christ, that the assurance of Faith is given.