Sunday, July 15, 2007

Kierkegaard or I've been rambling too much lately

Every now and then, a Christian will say something that reveals far more than they could imagine. Over on Julia Sweeney's forum in a discussion generated by a believer sharing her conversion experience, she produces this gem to support her belief in the inerrancy of Scripture:

Ok, so you are choosing to believe these men, I choose another group of men, that I believe were divinely inspired.

The context for this can be found here.

I'll readily admit that if "Caira" were to be asked about this remark, she would qualify it, and maybe she would even take it back. Be that as it may, lightning has struck.

But what does this have to do with Kierkegaard?

Kierkegaard's provides our contemporary Evangelicals with a means of side-stepping rational argumentation about faith. His doctrine of "the leap of faith" provides a means of transforming mere "belief" of the Truth of Christianity into "faith" in God, in His Mercy, and the rest.

Because of this transformation, "faith" is something special for Kierkegaard and for Evangelicals, even if they never heard of him. Kierkegaard presented his "leap of faith" in "Fear and Trembling." He told and retold over and over the story of the Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac. In the retellings, Kierkegaard tries to understand Abraham's attitudes, beliefs, and thinking.

Kierkegaard builds a wonderful edifice. Suffice it to say, he argues for a conception of faith that is more of a way of life, than it is a set of beliefs and convictions. Faith for Kierkegaard is more a way of seeing and apprehending the world, it is a way of being in the world.

His wonderful edifice is built on a foundation of sand. Never once. Not even as an irresponsible flight of fancy, does he consider the possibility that his beloved Abraham may very well never have existed. There is an even more troubling fact: of human experience: it is possible to imagine far more than what is real. That I can thinksomething in no way guarantees its reality. Or more cynically phrased, that I want something to be true, no matter how fervently and sincerely, in no way guarantees the fulfillment of my desire.

It is a bit of trickery on Kierkegaard's part to make the leap of faith primarily and even exclusively experiential. Faith is no longer subject to logic, rationality, or even of commonsense. Faith cannot be refuted as can mere belief and conviction. The faithful can stop up their ears because they experience "faith" daily. The feeling of superiority which cretins imagine to be integral to possession of truth abides.

I will give Kierkegaard one thing: his faith is not a conviction or belief in any creed. It is an amplification of the New Testament theme of "what must I do to be saved?" It is first and foremost individual and egotistical in the extreme. It is Protestant. I'd be surprised if Kierkegaard had much of a following in Roman Catholic theological circles. There's really no place in his theology for the Church to be God's emissary on earth.

Further, even more egotistical in Kierkegaard's theology, is that faith is its own end and justification. It is unclear to me whether faith is a means to God, or God is a means to faith, meaning a particular frame of mind of a particular individual.

Because faith is so important, and even if there is some super-special kind of faith that is beyond most so-called Christians, the question remains is faith the end and justification of theology and religion? One believes in God, Jesus, Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, Allah, et al. not for their sake, but for the sake of the believing. Faith is its own reward?

* * *

I got a little side-tracked. The weak foundation of Kierkegaard's leap of faith? He avoids questions. Maybe it's an anachronism to suppose, "But maybe Abraham didn't exist at all." Not believing that Abraham ever existed as portrayed in Genesis makes Fear and Trembling a very, very difficult book. If I acknowledge that he was writing theology and that the specific brand of theology that he was writing presupposed a real Abraham and the factual accuracy of the Bible, then a certain parochialism presents itself in his writings.

He avoids questions. The leap of faith looks too much like a desperate attempt to avoid a plague of doubts, questions and uncertainties. There maybe psychological insights in his writings, but when he discusses God, religion, Christianity, Abraham, and company, there is no psychology. He takes those concepts and ideas at face value. They are transparent.

For Kierkegaard when a person talks about Christianity, there is no psychology and no question of motivation. Consideration of such questions would lead to never ending uncertainty. On the other hand, his leap of faith certainly looks like an attempt to divine the motivations of a true Christian, but without considering whether such a creature is possible, let alone desirable.

It may very well be that living over a century and half after Kierkegaard, we are a bit wiser than in his day. Despair may be "the sickness unto death" but it only feels that way for a while. The horror of conceiving of a life without God and Jesus lies in the imagination. It's good for the soul, as it were, to live through a little period of nihilism and existential despair. It can be gotten over. And if not, then the problem is not theological, philosophical or existential.

* * *

Faith means never having to produce evidence. As long as one has faith, there is no need for mere evidence. Evidence is for the godless skeptics. Faith is the absence of evidence. Faith with evidence is not faith. Ergo, the less evidence the greater the faith. Just look at creationists.

It is Kierkegaard who is responsible for the Evangelical hocus-pocus of "faith" being more than mere belief and simple conviction.

* * *

God exists only as long as we have no reason to doubt him. Playing make-believe that one has no doubts is not the same as having no reason to doubt.

Why do I say such things? I would like to believe that once upon a time it was possible to believe in God with self-deception, without hatred of those who think differently. Or using one's belief in God as a tool to self-induce feelings of superiority.

* * *

To go back to Caira's remark. She has her experts that she chooses to believe. Kierkegaard may not have intended his leap of faith to be a justification for a crass relativism: each person believing as they wish. Further, without reason's giving of justifications for belief, discussions of faith become assertions of power, control, and manipulation of one's listeners. Or rather, discussion ceases.

It also occurred to me just now that Kierkegaard may very well be the origin of this nonsense that ex-Christians were never "true Christians." It's very difficult to see how one of his knights of infinite resignation would decide one day to stop being a Christian. Presumably once one finds the way to authentic existence, it is very, very difficult, if not impossible, to give it up. The authentic life seems to be something about which one may not change one's mind.

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