One of the most glaringly obvious critiques of Kierkegaard’s Christian existentialism is that you can pretty much remove your accountability to any action by attributing its source to God. In his landmark work on the subject¹, Kierkegaard exposes some problems with Kantian/Hegelian universalism, the philosophical ideas that focus on humanity moving towards a rationally justifiable way of acting ethically in all situations. Put simply, in any ethical dilemma there would be a right way to act, which the right amount of reasoning can allow us to discern. But Kierkegaard uses the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac to problematise this premise: According to the ethical, Abraham is nothing but a murderer, so how then can he be named the father of faith? Kierkegaard suggests an absolute duty to God, which sometimes transcends the ethical — God asks of us things that conflict with our notions of the ethical, but this is faith, as it puts God’s purposes beyond our own rationally discernible ones. To paraphrase Kierkegaard, if loving one’s neighbour is an expression of loving God then there is no love of God; love of God is just the language we use to describe our actions of love for our neighbour.
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This again is the most obvious critique of Kierkegaard: If we are to “obey God rather than men” then sooner or later someone is going to do something stupid and try to justify it by saying they were serving God, whose purposes are higher than our rationally discernible ones. George Bush claims God told him, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan’. Pope Urban II initiated the first crusade with the belief that God was with his troops. No doubt these instances and others take inspiration from similar biblical stories (eg. Deuteronomy 2:24-25). In many instances people will actually believe that the Lord is leading them into violence, whereas there will be other people who decide first what they want to do and then attribute the initiative to God. Whatever the case is not to the point (although adherents of the former may be understandably annoyed by abusers of the latter), but rather that a person or group of people have the ability to justify, even gain support for, their cause by appealing to a higher, divine purpose.
Because I love Kierkegaard so much (having read three of his books, Sickness unto death and Fear and Trembling twice) I have to stick up for the guy here. I don’t want to believe that his conception of God has anything to do with the three examples given above. But I really don’t know enough about him to make that decision. However, I will make it based on his reading of Abraham’s story: Abraham never goes through with the sacrifice. Isaac remains alive and lives a life necessary to being the progenitor of the nation Israel. It seems that God only asked Abraham to be willing to sacrifice fully his son to display his complete trust in God. At the last moment, Abraham is provided a ram to sacrifice to God instead of Isaac (read all about it in Genesis 22:1-18). What is more, God had told Abraham earlier, “Your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him” (17:19 NIV), and yet even more definitely, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned” (21:12 NIV). On this Kierkegaard bases his argument that Abraham, as man of faith, believed the absurd, that God asked him to sacrifice his son as much as he would retain or ‘regain’ his son as the Lord would give Abraham descendants through Isaac. You could chance to say that God is justified in inviting Abraham to child sacrifice by the results rather than the source of the action. What is more, laws in the Torah present God as staunchly against child sacrifice (eg. Deuteronomy 12:31).
So I have made a mild case for Kierkegaard’s acceptability. In making this case though, I have almost brought his argument back into the ethical. I am justifying to readers Kierkegaard’s position using rationality, as he inevitably also does, so we miss the point that Kierkegaard’s ethics aren’t grounded in interpersonal dialogue but the single individual’s trust and faith in God. What matters for him is not what others think, but what God thinks.
I’ve been pressed to think of other examples of the religious transcending the ethical. A while ago I linked to a video where in some cases even the commitment to marriage might be broken for the sake of God. Unfortunately, if you were one who clicked on it, the link was dead at the time. So here it is again. Anyway, it basically describes two guys leaving their families (at a time when they probably provided much needed support for their wives and children) to sell themselves as slaves and share the Gospel with other slaves. Another example was when I was at Eastercamp years ago and a speaker spoke on being led by the Spirit onto the mission field with his and his wife’s new child who later died on the field because they couldn’t give it the support it needed so far away from home. The story created a lot of division and many people didn’t like the speaker too much afterwards. That’s understandable. Unlike the story of Abraham, in these cases of the religious transcending the ethical, there are no great fruits to point to, or maybe there are, but only with great loss. I can make no attempt to justify the actions of the people in either of these stories, but only point to them as possible examples of what Kierkegaard is saying. In each case, if he is right, their actions shouldn’t justify them to people, but only to God as they are done in faith. They are still subject to the judgement of good Christians, and concerned people with two feet firmly on the ground.
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If we take Kierkegaard seriously, in his words of prophetic flair, echoing the biblical, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 4:19 NASB²), then there remains the problem that what we designate “God” to be can be anything. As of yet I have only read one of Zizek’s books, Violence, and it was exhilarating. I almost only have good things to say about the guy. But I was let down by his defence of traditional atheism. Of course it’s probable that more much more thoughtful examples exist, but I must pick on Zizek here for a moment because his words indicate how easy it is for even super-smart people to fall into the weakness of this simple critique of Kierkegaard³. He starts by removing the definition of the religious suspension of the ethical away from common criticisms:
So it is not that you can just do whatever you want: your love for God, if true, guarantees that in what you want to do you will follow the highest ethical standards.
(Violence, p.116, 2009, Big Ideas series)
And then he digs at the roots of this idea, to provide a more deeply set alternative:
Fundamentalists do (what they perceive as) good deeds in order to fulfil God’s will and to deserve salvation: atheists do them simply because it is the right thing to do. Is this also not our most elementary experience of morality? When I do a good deed, I do not do it with a view to gaining God’s favour, I do it because I cannot do otherwise — if I were not to do it, I would not be able to look at myself in the mirror. A moral deed is by definition its own reward.
Admittedly, Zizek is primarily speaking of our motivations for doing good; it’s the assumptions behind his argument that are the problem. He supposes that the thoughtful atheist practice of good for good’s sake is an improvement on the previous good for God’s sake. Yet the central problem is that he is pitting one subjectivity up against another. In my relationship with God, the leading of the Holy Spirit, or whatever my Lord asks me to do, is expressed subjectively and therefore warrants the possibility of responses such as, “God wouldn’t ask you to do that” or “I’d rather make up my own mind than obey that god”, as people have different conceptions of the good. See where I’m going? To do good for good’s sake is just as subjective as to do it for God’s sake. You’re only changing the terms with which you refer to good.
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Kierkegaard’s theologico-philosophy is an example of changing the terms. Throughout church history, different people have located the Spirit in different structures. This overview is a bit of a slaughtersome generalisation but it’s helpful in making the point I want to make. So you could say that in ancient Israel the Spirit was located in the prophets, whom God used to direct his people. When the Jewish nation it seemed became overzealous for the law and missed the God behind it, the Spirit then found himself into the apostles and those who walked with Jesus, maybe even some more prophets (a few Gentiles here and there) in the first century Church. Then as the Church grew in numbers and needed some point of centrality for its many members the Spirit was located in the bishopric and Church leadership, who quickly defined what it meant to be and not be Christ’s. A millenium and a half later, a bunch of northern Europeans got annoyed at the hypocrisy of certain churchees and decided that the Spirit was located in Scripture. Amid this history Kierkegaard steps onto the scene and locates the Spirit in the relationship between the single individual and God.
Kierkegaard, attested to as the founder of existentialism, may also be somewhat accountable for the individualism rampant in 21st Century Western civilisation, which is so fashionable to rail against that I just couldn’t help myself. We can see him as a precursor to individualistic practices of Christianity, where our theology meets all our own needs and serves to justify our own already constructed comfortable worldview, with me at the centre. In modern Catholicism, the Spirit remains located in the Church, who determines right and wrong, and how to interpret Scriptures and tradition. In modern forms of Protestantism, the Spirit is located in readings of the Scriptures in accordance with the denomination’s tradition, or continual attempts to read the Scriptures in themselves, based on the assumption that a theology would be kind of self-evident. And then in Pentecostal/Charismatic circles, the extra emphasis on experience and leading of the Holy Spirit plays a large part in the way we read Scripture.
What then can we say? What if we’ve been looking at it the wrong way, and the ball is actually in God’s court? I’m not saying this to dismiss human responsibility, but, depending on who reads the stories, there are instances in history where the Spirit seemed to take his own initiative when things got a bit evil, a bit human. One example is the Montanists in the early history of the Church, a group who found the Spirit located among their own adherents rather than in the authority of the Church (I read this post on them just a couple of days ago). The Spirit led them to prophesy and to take up their own practices distinguishable from those of the Church at the time. The Waldensians and Cathari are examples of similarly motivated groups that arose later in Europe. The Catholic encyclopaedia provides some deliciously almost unbiased histories, although you may want to look elsewhere as well. Kierkegaard arose at a time when the Danish Church held a monopoly over what it means to be Christian in his area. His religious suspension of the ethical should be read in this sense: The Spirit rose Kierkegaard up as a single individual counterpoint to the dry and passionless practice of the Church at his time. And throughout history, it seems, the Spirit rises up to indwell certain structures for a time when other structures have neglected to have God at the centre
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²The NIV overlooks the idiomatic value for something a little more specific, “We must obey God rather than human beings!”
³Zizek is not in direct dialogue with Kierkegaard, but this critique of religion could easily be substituted for a critique of Kierkegaard.
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There’s an old school translation of Fear and Trembling here, but I’d recommend a newer one for more serious readers.
You can get an overview of the work and some helpful commentary on SparkNotes.
For some good reading on Kierkegaard’s use of and departure from Kant, check out this article here.
Roger E. Olson makes use of the universal/ethical and judges the Calvinist God against it here.