Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye (1813–55)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC044-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 03, 2022, from

4. The religious consciousness

Central to Kierkegaard’s account of religion is his treatment of the concept of faith, a treatment that throws into relief the most distinctive features of his philosophical standpoint. There are two main areas in which these manifest themselves and in which it is the crucial inadequacies of human reason, practical as well as theoretical, that are emphasized.

The first concerns limitations in the outlook of accepted morality that make themselves felt at certain levels or junctures of experience and are held to call for what is termed a ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’. The implications of this prima facie puzzling notion are explored in Fear and Trembling, an intricately wrought study in which Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous author – Johannes de silentio – treats as his central theme the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. Johannes portrays Abraham as being ostensibly called upon to set aside ethical concerns in deference to a higher telos or end that altogether transcends them. Such a situation is contrasted with the predicament of what he terms the ‘tragic hero’, the latter being someone who is forced to make a choice between conflicting moral requirements but who in doing so still remains within the bounds of the ethical domain. Thus although the decisions taken there may be at an agonizing cost, the fact that they can none the less be seen to conform to universally recognized norms renders them rationally acceptable to others and capable of gaining their respect. This, however, is not so in the case of Abraham, who, as a solitary ‘knight of faith’, responds to a divine command supposedly addressed to himself alone and having a content – the killing of his own son – that must inevitably strike ordinary thought as being both outrageous and incomprehensible. No attempt is made to soften the paradoxical character of such points. On the contrary, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym sets out to underline, indeed to dramatize, the disturbing nature of the demands which religious faith can impose on the life and conduct of an individual. At the same time, he takes practising churchmen severely to task for paying lip service to a phenomenon whose awesome significance they fail to appreciate, and he also criticizes contemporary theorists of religion for construing an intrinsically transcendent category in terms drawn from social and essentially secular conceptions of ethics. This was not to suggest that from a religious point of view moral standards and principles could in general be abrogated or overruled. It did mean, on the other hand, that within that perspective they took on a radically different aspect, one where they possessed a relative rather than an absolute status and where it was the individual’s own relation to God that was paramount, assuming precedence over all other considerations.

The claim that faith in the religious sense pertains to what exceeds the limits of human rationality and understanding recurs in the two subsequent writings that Kierkegaard referred to as his ‘philosophical works’ – Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Here, however, it is discussed within a wider setting and in connection with theoretical questions concerning the proper interpretation of religious assertions. Although once again ascribed to a pseudonym, albeit a different one, both books appeared under Kierkegaard’s imprint as their ‘editor’ and in any case may be taken to have expressed views that were basically his own. Thus in each of them it is made apparent that the author totally rejects the feasibility of trying to provide religious tenets with an objective foundation. The belief that the existence and nature of God could be conclusively established from resources supplied by pure reason might have enjoyed a long philosophical career; none the less it was demonstrably unacceptable, Kierkegaard largely echoing – though in a summary form and without attribution – some of the objections that Kant had levelled against arguments traditionally advanced by theologians and metaphysicians. Nor was he any more receptive to the suggestion that religious claims of a specifically historical character, such as those relating to the doctrines of Christianity, were susceptible to justification on straightforwardly empirical grounds; it was impossible to regard them as representing ordinary historical facts of the sort to which standard appeals to inductive inference and evidence would normally be considered appropriate. As he acknowledged, Lessing and Hamann were thinkers who in different ways had already underlined the problematic issues raised by the latter. But it was perhaps Hume’s contention in his first Enquiry that only a ‘miracle in his own person’, subverting all the principles of his understanding, could bring a reasonable individual to embrace the Christian religion which most strikingly foreshadowed Kierkegaard’s approach to the subject. No doubt Hume himself had intended his words to be taken in a strictly ironical sense. Even so, Kierkegaard implied that it was open to believers to look at sceptical asides of the type cited in a different light. For by exposing the vanity of attempts to encompass within its grasp matters that lay beyond the scope of reason, such remarks could be said to provide salutary reminders of what was really at stake. It was not to the spheres of impersonal judgment and dispassionate assent that the religious consciousness rightfully belonged, but on the contrary to those of individual choice and inner commitment.

Citing this article:
Gardiner, Patrick. The religious consciousness. Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye (1813–55), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC044-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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