Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye (1813–55)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC044-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 24, 2023, from

5. Faith and subjectivity

Kierkegaard was certainly not alone in suggesting that writers who tried to justify religious belief on cognitive grounds were more confused about its true nature than some of their sceptically minded critics and to that extent posed a greater threat to it; indeed, Kant himself had virtually implied as much when he spoke of denying knowledge to make room for faith, as opposed to seeking to give religious convictions a theoretical foundation that could only prove illusory (see Kant, I. §4). The question arose, however, of what positive account should be given of such faith, and here Kierkegaard’s position set him apart from many thinkers who shared his negative attitude towards the feasibility of providing objective demonstrations. As he made amply clear, the religion that crucially concerned him was Christianity, and far from playing down the intellectual obstacles this ostensibly presented he went out of his way to stress the particular problems it raised. Both its official representatives and its academic apologists might have entertained the hope of making it rationally acceptable to a believer, but in doing so they showed themselves to be the victims of a fundamental misapprehension. From an objective point of view, neither knowledge nor even understanding was possible here, the proper path of the Christian follower lying in the direction, not of objectivity, but of its opposite. It was only by ‘becoming subjective’ that the import of Christianity could be grasped and meaningfully appropriated by the individual. Faith, Kierkegaard insisted, ‘inheres in subjectivity’; as such it was in essence a matter of single-minded resolve and inward dedication rather than of spectatorial or contemplative detachment, of passion rather than of reflection. That was not to say, though, that it amounted to a primitive or easy option. On the contrary, faith in the sense in question could only be achieved or realized in the course of a person’s life at great cost and with the utmost difficulty (see Faith).

To understand what lay behind this claim it is important to recognize that Kierkegaard broadly distinguished between two levels or stages of development at which religious belief manifested itself. In his account of the first of these, in which he specified the criteria that any standpoint must conform to if it was to count as a religious one, he was at pains to emphasize the element of ‘objective uncertainty’ surrounding assertions about the transcendent, such uncertainty deriving from the absence of rational support previously alluded to. So construed, faith essentially involved personal venture or risk, preserving it being figuratively compared to ‘remaining out upon the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water’. But to hold fast to a conviction in the face of a lack of objective justification or grounds was not the same as giving assent to something that appeared to be intrinsically contrary to reason, an ‘offence’ to the understanding itself. And it was in the latter terms that Kierkegaard referred to the Christian conception of the incarnation, this being an ‘absolute paradox’ that required the believer to ‘risk his thought’ in embracing its reality. Moreover, it was in the light of such a requirement that the level of faith aspired to in Christianity could be said to constitute ‘the highest passion in the sphere of human subjectivity’, exceeding other forms of religious belief in virtue of the unique nature of the demands it made upon an individual’s mind and outlook.

According to Kierkegaard, the paradox of the incarnation lay in the notion that the eternal or timeless had entered the sphere of finite and temporal existence: this amounted to uniting contradictories in a fashion that meant a ‘breach with all thinking’. Such a feature precluded treating it as if it could be vouchsafed by ordinary historical enquiry, and he set aside the scholarly pursuit of biblical research and criticism as altogether irrelevant to what was here at issue; quite apart from the specifically ‘approximative’ status he assigned to history as a branch of knowledge, the content of the particular ‘hypothesis’ under consideration defied logic in a way that contravened the principles governing any kind of accredited cognitive discipline. Furthermore, he regarded its paradoxical character as having another crucial consequence, namely, that there was no basis for the common assumption that the contemporary witnesses of what was recorded in the Gospels were in a better position to authenticate the reality of the incarnation than subsequent generations who had only the testimony of others to rely on. To suppose that in the present case the evidence of direct observation was superior to testimony was to fail to see that neither could ever function as more than an ‘occasion’ for belief of the sort of question. With both, a volitional leap of faith was necessary, one that involved a ‘qualitative transition’ from the realm of rational thought into that of the intellectually inaccessible or ‘absurd’.

Kierkegaard’s stress on the gap separating faith from reason, which it could need divine assistance to surmount, was reflected in the controversial account he offered of religious truth; this likewise received a subjective interpretation. Thus in a well-known passage in the Postscript he contrasted two distinct ways of conceiving of truth, one treating it as a matter of a belief’s corresponding to what it purported to be about and the other as essentially pertaining to the particular manner or spirit in which a belief was held. And it was to the second of these conceptions that he ostensibly referred when he declared that ‘subjectivity is the truth’, genuineness of feeling and depth of inner conviction being the decisive criterion from a religious point of view. Admittedly he has sometimes been criticized here for a tendency to shift from construing religious truth along the above lines to doing so in terms of the objective alternative, with the questionable implication that sheer intensity of subjective acceptance was sufficient to authenticate the independent reality of what was believed. But however that may be, it is arguable that in this context – as is often the case elsewhere – his prime concerns were conceptual and phenomenological in character, rather than epistemic or justificatory. Kierkegaard’s central aim was to assign Christianity to its proper sphere, freeing it from what he considered to be traditional misconceptions as well as from the falsifying metaphysical theories to which there had more recently been attempts to assimilate it. If that meant confronting what he himself called ‘a crucifixion of the understanding’, the only appropriate response from the standpoint in question lay in a passionate commitment to the necessarily paradoxical and mysterious content of the Christian religion, together with a complementary resolve to emulate in practice the paradigmatic life of its founder (see Existentialist theology §§1, 2).

Citing this article:
Gardiner, Patrick. Faith and subjectivity. Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye (1813–55), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC044-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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