Kierkegaard on going beyond faith

In our "Philosophy in the Pub" meeting yesterday we started Søren Kierkegaard's classic book Fear and Trembling. It is a beautifully written text and deeply profound (although, I find it hard to think that I'll end up agreeing with him).

What struck me was the critique of the philosophers of his own day (nineteenth-century Denmark) who liked to say that they start with radical doubt (like Descartes) and go beyond faith (after all, everyone has faith, right?). Their doubt and their faith, however, are cheap and false. Both real faith and real doubt are lifelong projects not the kind of thing one can acquire in a few days.

Abraham is Kierkegaard's model of true faith and he forces the radical nature of such faith by means of exposing its problems (willing to kill his own son!). It is simply impossible to make any rational or ethical sense of Abraham's faith.

Abraham's faith was his lifelong project. He trusted God for years and years before Isaac was born. Then, when Isaac grew, God demanded that he kill him. In order to keep Isaac Abraham had to draw the knife (not to do so, or to hesitate when doing so, would utterly change the dynamics of the act and nullify it as an act of faith). This terrible story (and Kierkegaard is great at highlighting just how terrible it is) is the climax of Abraham's life-journey of faith. He never progressed to "higher" or "better" things: "in one hundred and thirty years you [Abraham] got no further than faith."

To Kierkegaard's contemporaries, faith was mundane; everyone had it. The task was to progress from there to higher things. Kierkegaard offers a radically different and deeply challenging vision of faith. This is a faith that one does not presume that one already has. This is a faith that is a pursuit for life. It is hard. It is rare.

Now, as I said, I have some serious worries about Kierkegaard's vision (esp. on the core issue of the relation of faith and ethics). Nevertheless, I think that he is spot on to show us that the most profound and deep things are often the apparently simple things that we take for granted. It reminded me of a little quote I read as a teenager: "never further than thy cross; never higher than thy feet."

Theological profundity does not come from moving beyond the core and "simple" story of the gospel. It never goes further; it only goes deeper.


Anonymous said…
Robin, this is off topic, but since you don't seem to have an e-mail address listed I thought it would be okay to contact you here. I came across a video on youtube by a Catholic priest name Robert Barron who says that "We may legitimately hope that all men be saved." Just go to youtube and type in "Fr. Barron comments on Is Hell Crowded or Empty?" I would love to read your thoughts on what he had to say. It's about nine minutes long. God bless!
Robin Parry said…

I like the clip. Here is where I disagree.

1. He has misunderstood Barth and Bell. He claims that they (as opposed to Balthasar) claim that God will certainly save all people. But in fact both of them say exactly what he likes about Balthasar — we may reasonably hope that all will be saved but we cannot know it.

2. His given reason (human freedom) for backing away from certain universal salvation is inadequate for reasons I explain in the book.

3. His interpretations of the fifth ecumenical council rejection of Origenism does not persuade me. He, along with quite a few Catholics, takes it to be a denial of convinced universalism but not hopeful universalism. I do not see that emphasis there at all in the original anathemas. I think that it is a rejection of a specific configuration of universalism but that their problem is not with the level of certainty. In brief, I think that the focus on hopeful universalism as the way past the anathemas is to miss the point. (I may be mistaken but that's my current understanding.)

4. Given God's revelation of the future of humanity in the resurrection I do not see that psychological certainty about the future of humanity is in any way inappropriate. This is not simply human hubris — it is a response to what is understood to be divine revelation in the gospel itself.
Anonymous said…
Thanks Robin! Very thoughtful response. I appreciate it.

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