While sick this past weekend, I picked up Tolkien’s The Hobbit for the first time in years and found so much joy in re-reading it. Does anyone know if (and when) they are making a movie based on this book, and who is going to be in it?
Archive for January, 2008
One of the most fascinating thinkers of recent times is Soren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the Danish philosopher and theologian often called “the father of existentialism.” I first discovered Kierkegaard while studying abroad in Britain in the fall of 2005, and was immediately drawn to him and began devouring his books. Once I was back in the states, I took two classes on him as I was finishing up my philosophy degree in college. Of extra-biblical writers, only C.S. Lewis has done more to shape my thinking, and no other personality in history except Christ has gripped me so poignantly. Reading his biographies and books during that time in my life was like walking into a new universe: it opened up entirely new ways of thinking and challenged all my previously held assumptions.
Kierkegaard, however, is one of the most misunderstood intellectuals of all time. Even competent philosophers misunderstand the dual nature of his authorship (for example, the contemporary popularizer of philosophy, Walter Kaufman, fails to even distinguish between his pseudonymous works and his signed works, leading to disastrous results), and the vast majority of evangelical Christians either completely ignore him or absorb Francis Schaeffer’s caricature (I have tremendous respect for Schaeffer, but it seems to me that The God Who Is There sometimes simplifies and caricatures the positions it is attacking). The most common criticism of Kierkegaard is that he is an irrationalist, i.e., that he denies that reality (truth) is objectively true and operates according to rational principles.
This is certainly an understandable view, given the complexity of Kierkegaardian hermeneutics, and since it seems to accord with some of Kierkegaard’s most famous statements:
“Subjectivity is the truth.” (Concluding Unscientific Postscript [CUP])
“The only truth which edifies is truth for you.” (Either/Or)
“It is subjectivity that Christianity is concerned with, and it is only in subjectivity that its truth exists, if it exists at all; objectively, Christianity has no existence.” (CUP)
“Christianity is spirit; spirit is inwardness; inwardness is subjectivity.” (CUP)
However, a more careful reading of Kierkegaard demonstrates that he does not question the rationality of truth per se, only of truth as it is perceived by “the individual” (i.e., a finite and temporal person living in a fallen world). In Kierkegaard’s thought, truth is rational, but it must be subjectively appropriated by the individual, not because the truth itself is subjective, but by virtue of the individual’s subjectivity. For all his talk of the truth as paradoxical, once the individual is taken away, so is the truth’s paradox. Hence Kierkegaard’s famous dictum, “truth is subjectivity,” ultimately expresses an epistemological rather than an ontological claim. By analogy, the fact that dogs cannot see colors does not mean the world is black and white: the defect is in the subject, not the object.
The following Kierkegaardian statements support this view:
“An existential system is impossible. An existential system cannot be formulated. Does this mean that no such system exists? By no means, nor is this implied in our assertion. Reality itself is a system – for God – but it cannot be a system for any existing spirit.” (CUP)
“Christianity exists before any Christian exists . . . it maintains it objective subsistence apart from all believers.” (The Book on Adler, a signed work published posthumously and also called On Authority and Revelation)
“The eternal essential truth is by no means in itself a paradox, but it becomes paradoxical by virtue of its relationship to an existing individual.” (CUP)
For Kierkegaard, then, truth is indeed rational and systematic, despite its contrary appearance to individuals, and he is thus not in irrationalist in the sense defined above, as often accused. But why is the truth paradoxical for individuals? This view hinges upon Kierkegaard’s anthropology of human beings as finite and temporal creatures, and thus incapable of perceiving truth sub specie aeteri, from the point of view of eternity. The problem of sin and thus bias toward untruth in humans compounds this problem. (This is, in my opinion, one of Kierkegaard’s great legacies: the wedding of human epistemology and human ontology, in line with the Socratic dictum, “whatever is known is known not only according to its own nature, but also according to the nature of the one who knows it.”)
In addition, it is worth pointing out that although Kierkegaard (through Climacus, pseudonymous author of CUP) fiercely denies that faith issues forth from scholarship and speculative thought, he nowhere denigrates scholarship and speculative thought per se, as is evident from the following selections from CUP:
“Philosophical scholarship is wholly legitimate, and the present author certainly has respect, second to none, for that which scholarship consecrates.”
“But I should add a word here, in case anyone misunderstands a number of my remarks, in order to make it clear that he is the one who wants to misunderstand me, whereas I am not at fault. Honor be to speculative thought, praised be everyone who is truly occupied with it. To deny the value of speculative thought . . . would, in my eyes, be to prostitute oneself.”
Finally, it is worth noting that Kierkegaard does not hold that truth is always perceived as paradoxical or absurd to individuals. Rather, to the extent that reality is perceived correctly, i.e., by faith, it ceases to be absurd. From Kierkegaard’s published journals:
“When the believer has faith, the absurd is not the absurd – faith transforms it, but in every weak moment it is again more or less absurd to him. The passion of faith is the only thing which masters the absurd.”
In future posts I hope to discuss Kierkegaard’s faith and life at more length.
When I was in college, I struggled with doubt about my faith. Although the reasons for this and the issues at stake were, of course, complicated, there were two doctrines, in particular, which gave me the greatest amount of difficulty. The first was the doctrine of the Trinity – no matter how hard I tried to make sense of it, I simply could not understand how the one true God was, not simply operative in three different modes throughout history, but, actually existing from all eternity past as three distinct persons (in the rich and original Latin meaning of the term).
The other doctrine was hell. Even it were only for a billion or trillion – or, for that matter, a trillion trillion – years that my non-Christian friends would suffer, the concept was (though still emotionally unpleasant) at least manageable. But for eternity? For all time? To suffer alone and in the dark for billions of years, and never be one second closer to a destination? It just seemed too horrific to be just.
Even now as I write about this, I am gripped by it. The unimaginable loneliness of it, the overwhelming regret, the unthinkable sadness – to be always with sin and never with Christ! It is almost too much to even think about.
I certainly don’t have these doctrines figured out yet; if anything, the tensions have grown with time. But the amazing thing is, it is precisely these two doctrines – eternal destiny and the Triune God – that have, over time, taught me the most about reality, exposed most clearly my sin, pride, and error, and, in the end, given the greatest comfort. It is often this way, I think, that the points at which God’s truth most offends us are the very points where it is most pregnant to heal and save us.
If I had not struggled with hell, I don’t think I would understand my sin for what it truly is; nor would I feel the enormity of the value of the cross. In a similar way, if I had not wrestled with the the Trinity, I do not think I would view God as as personable and near, nor as mysterious and strange, as He truly is. For these reasons, instead of trying to release myself from the tensions created by these doctrines, I embrace them as great aids in the quest for truth and happiness. To put it most bluntly: when Christianity and I are at odds, its not Christianity that needs to be fixed: its me.
My wife got me the BBC’s Planet Earth for Christmas this year. The back cover reads: “With an unprecendented production budget, using high definition photography and revolutionary ultra-high speed cameras, five years in the making, over 2000 days in the field, using 40 cameramen across 200 locations, Planet Earth is the ultimate portrait of our planet.”
Its pretty incredible – I recommend it!