Kierkegaard and the Absurdity of Religion

 

Kierkegaard, himself, stresses the centricity of religion, specifically Christianity, within his project. Kierkegaard (1998) writes, “[W]hat I have wanted and want to achieve through my work, what I also regard as the most important, is first of all to make clear what is involved in being a Christian” (p. 129). Kierkegaard (1998) goes on to stress this goal, saying that his aim is “to present the picture of a Christian in all its ideal, that is, true form, worked out to every true limit” (p. 129). Here, one can see the immense importance of Christianity and all that it entails to the work of Kierkegaard but, this still does not answer the question of precisely what Christianity is to him.

To be sure, Kierkegaard is no orthodox Christian nor, does he have any interest in preserving or maintaining the organizational systemizations of the traditional Christian structures and institutions. This, Kierkegaard adamantly abhors. This is not Christianity to Kierkegaard. Here, Kierkegaard makes a clear distinction between what he refers to as Christendom, that is, the systemic institution of the Christian religion, and what he believes genuine Christianity to be.

Kierkegaard contrasts his view of Christianity sharply with that of Christendom. Christendom is marked by its overwhelming concern for objectivity, an objectivity that worries itself with seeking answers to questions such as “is this True?” and “is this Real?”  This kind of objective Christianity seeks to make the doctrines and tenets of religion rational. Christendom searches for methods of validating the ultimacy of its truth claims. In effect, the objectivity orientating Christendom makes great efforts and attempts to reconcile irrationality, to explicate faith, and to make religion reasonable.

To Kierkegaard all of these efforts attempting validity, ultimacy, rationality, and objectivity are vain and misguided. Paul Strathern (1997) writes that Kierkegaard “didn’t write about the world, he wrote about life – how we live, and how we choose to live” (p. 7). Strathern asserts that “Kierkegaard philosophizes about what it means to be alive” (p. 7). Kierkegaard focuses in on the orientation of one’s life and the necessitation of subjectivity, inwardness, and passion in all endeavors and especially in religious engagement.

As such, Kierkegaard is wholly concerned with the individual and the individual’s relationality, the way in which the individual subjectively engages with and relates to religion. Kierkegaard (1996) writes that “The problem we are considering is not the truth of Christianity but the individual’s relation to Christianity (p. 32). Christianity is not about “the scholar’s systematic zeal to arrange the truths of Christianity in nice tidy categorizations but about the individual’s personal relationship to this doctrine” (p. 32). The doctrines of Christianity, in and of themselves, are of little import. What is of the greatest consequence is the individual’s subjective relationality to those doctrines. Kierkegaard (1996) emphasizes this point further summarizing that “The objective problem is: Is Christianity true?” whereas, “The subjective problem is: What is the individual’s relationship to Christianity?” (p. 33). For Kierkegaard, subjectivity is the truth.

In this way, as Frederick Sontag (1979) explains, “Christianity ought not to be understood (p. 105). According to Sontag (1979), Kierkegaard proposes that “Christianity entered the world not to be understood but to exist in it and provoke a response (p. 105). Thus, any attempt to “rationalize it away” will “rob it of its power to challenge us” (Sontag, 1979, p. 105). Reason has no place within the individual’s relationship to Christianity. Christianity’s purpose is to confound the intellect of the individual, eliciting existential action, provoking a performative posture of impassioned response, and challenging the individual to more fully confront, embrace, and inhabit their subjectivity.

Here, Kierkegaard is a thoroughgoing fideist, seeing reason and religion as ends that cannot and must not ever meet. Faith, like existence itself, is simply an irreconcilable risk. Kierkegaard (1996) writes that

Without risk there is no faith. Faith is precisely the contradiction between the infinite passion of inwardness and objective uncertainty. If I can grasp God objectively, I do not believe, but because I cannot know God objectively, I must have faith, and if I will preserve myself in faith, I must constantly be determined to hold fast to the objective uncertainty, so as to remain out upon the ocean’s deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water, and still believe (p. 40).

Faith and doubt, belief and uncertainty, these are not polar opposites. They are not mutually exclusive. They are not antithetical. Faith and doubt are synonymous. Belief and uncertainty are one and the same. They are all dance partners, swaying endlessly. Never fully knowing which one leads, they pirouette in a perichoretic synthesis, hoping against hope, believing in spite of belief.

Here, Frederick Sontag (1979) explains that, for Kierkegaard, “to be a Christian is to maintain faith in spite of the impossibility of being certain” (p. 33). Faith defies certainty. Yet, according to Kierkegaard, what is it that belief believes in and what is that faith has faith in? For Kierkegaard, belief is nothing short of belief in the “absurd”. Faith is faith in the “absurd”. What, then, is the absurd?

The absurd is that the eternal truth has entered time, that God has entered existence, has been born, has grown, etc., has become precisely like any other human being, quite indistinguishable from other humans. The absurd is precisely by its objective repulsion the measure of the inwardness of faith (Kierkegaard, 1996, p. 42).

The absurd is the un-reconciled merger of the finite and the infinite. It is the dissonant harmony of incarnational being. It is the discordant amalgamation of God become man. The absurd is the oppositional union of timelessness and time, the noumenal and the phenomenal, the temporal and the eternal. Yet, this inconsistent and incongruent conglomeration is not only representative of a conception of divinity but, of the very existence of humanity itself. This comingling is the center of the subject and axis of the individual.

What is religion for Kierkegaard, or more appropriately, what is Christianity for Kierkegaard? Religion is the ultimate contradiction, necessarily nonsensical, and utterly irrational. Christianity is the absoluteness of the absurd, the completeness of uncertainty, and the totalizing of antithesis. Religion is madness. Christianity is the perfect paradox and the paradox is the truth.

 

 

References

Kierkegaard, S. (1996). From Concluding unscientific postscript.” In L. N. Oaklander (Ed.), Existentialist thought: An introduction (2nd ed.) (pp.32-46). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Kierkegaard, S. (1998). The point of view (H. V. Hong & E. H. Hong, Eds. and Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sontag, F. (1979). A Kierkegaard handbook. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press.

Strathern, P. (1997). Kierkegaard in 90 minutes. Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, Inc.

Well, H. G. (2003). When the sleeper wakes. New York, NY: Random House Publishing Group.

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One response to “Kierkegaard and the Absurdity of Religion

  1. Pingback: Great Public Intellectuals and Philosophers, Part I – The Adam Smith Society

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