This year is the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Soren Kierkegaard in Denmark. In recent years I have discovered the relevance of Kierkegaard’s thinking for my own life and ministry. In particular, his Philosophical Fragments addressed the criticisms of Christianity made popular by the new atheists in our time. They prove that their arguments are merely the arguments of the rationalists of the nineteenth century warmed over. There are writers in every age who repeat the same arguments. The following is a summary of Kierkegaard’s response to the rationalists of his day as expounded by Dr. Murray A. Rae[i], to whom I am indebted for this material.
From when I first became a Christian in 1955, and worked in college student ministry, it was considered necessary to be able to counter the arguments of rationalists like Bertrand Russell with logical reasons for faith. I became adept at being able to cite historical evidence for the truth of Christianity. I interpreted history as providing positive arguments for the truth of the Christian faith. But critics of Christianity also can find historical arguments for their own position. The fulfillment of the prophecies, the signs of the miracles of Jesus, the nature of the incarnation and resurrection, the growth of the Church, and the effect of Christianity on the history of the world cannot prove the truth of Christ because there is no way to verify the claims. These events may serve as illustrations of the truth of Christ, but they cannot conclusively demonstrate them to be true. Even those who witnessed the life of Jesus had a hard time of identifying him as the Messiah because of the hiddenness and lowliness of his life. Jesus was aware of this when he explained why he taught in parables: “You will ever be hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.”[ii]
The historical testimony of the Scriptures serves as the occasion through which we are confronted with the need to believe, but it is not in itself a sufficient ground of faith. Without the condition, or means of faith, which is given by God, historical testimony remains indecisive. “Apostolic witness has always to wait upon the life-giving breath of the Spirit.”[iii]
Those who have criticized the accuracy of the New Testament maintain that there is no historical evidence that Jesus is divine. Even if they have proved to their satisfaction that Jesus, as we know him in the Christian faith, never existed, it does not follow that the authors of the New Testament did not exist, or that Christ did not exist. The witness of the apostles to the person of Jesus at a point in time is historical evidence to which we must give or withhold assent. We are required to give an assent to a fact of history. That event is the way God has revealed himself to us. Truth about God cannot be the product of our own deliberations because of our own limitations. The only way we can know the truth about God is that God reveals it to us.
When Simon Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus replied, “this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.”[iv] The apostle was not capable of knowing the truth of the identity of Jesus except by the revelation of God. His human reason was insufficient to comprehend the truth about Jesus.
Christianity is a call to follow Jesus in the discipleship of obedience. To follow him by imitating the pattern of his life requires a body of reliable historical knowledge of Christ. The only Jesus we know is to be revealed in the pages of the Gospels. Those who are skeptical of the trustworthiness of the Gospels are providing themselves with the means of avoiding the challenge of the claims of Jesus upon them.
Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector[v] to those who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else. It is a parable of two types of human beings. One, the Pharisee, is full of his own accomplishments, and boasts of them. The other, the tax-collector, is too aware of his failings, his sinfulness, his inadequacies, to even look up to heaven. The Pharisee is reminiscent of the type who is full of his own intellectual abilities, and who, subsequently worships himself, whereas the tax-collector humbles himself and calls on the mercy of God as his only hope.
“In Judge for Yourself!.. Kierkegaard adduces the contrast set forth in 1 Peter between sobriety and drunkenness to suggest that it is the Christian who sees and understands the Truth while the wisdom of the world merely clouds and distorts. With consummate wit Kierkegaard has someone of ‘secular mentality’ drunkenly proclaim, ‘I stick to facts. I am neither a fanatic nor a dreamer nor a fool; I believe nothing, nothing whatever, except what I can touch or feel; and I believe no one, not my own child, not my wife, not my best friend; I believe only what can be demonstrated – because I stick to facts.’ The soliloquy continues becoming ever more repetitive and ridiculous until finally in a drunken stupor the speaker admits, ‘The only thing, I suppose, that would momentarily disturb me would be if someone had the notion to say that I was drunk, intoxicated – I, the coldest and calmest and clearest common sense.’
“The drunk’s principles, of course, are the maxims of rationalism: Believe nothing, stick to facts, trust no one, insist on demonstration… Is this not a kind of madness? Even if it could be done, and Kierkegaard thinks it impossible, would adherence to such principles not constitute an impoverished and ultimately inhuman existence? To whoever believes it possible, ‘the apostle says, “Become sober!” – and says thereby: You are intoxicated; unhappy one, if you could see yourself, you would shudder, because you would see that you are like an intoxicated man when he – disgusting! – scarcely resembles a human being.”[vi]
The rationalist is drunk on his own ability to pass judgment on what God (if God exists) can do. His logic is impaired by his addiction. He thinks it is irrational to believe in Christ. But irrationality is the contravention of some principle of logic. It is not illogical to claim that something which is inaccessible to human enquiry may be revealed to us by God. The alternative to reason is divine revelation, which calls into question the authority human reason has claimed for itself. God reveals the error of those who trust absolutely in their own intellectual capacity.
Reason must give up its claim to being the ultimate authority. God gives understanding through faith, but on the condition that human understanding recognizes its own limitations. Reason wants to presuppose what God can and cannot do. That is why human reason is offended by the Gospels’ confession that in the human figure of Jesus, the eternal God is present extending an invitation to love and follow him.
Christianity confesses that the truth about Christ is learned neither by speculation, nor through imagination, nor by historical investigation, but rather by virtue of the gift of faith. Receiving the gift of faith brings about a radical transformation, a new birth, a conversion. This involves letting go the authority of human reason – the abandonment of all preconceptions about God, and about humanity in relation to God. If we are to receive faith then we must admit the limitations of our own rational capacity. Reason needs to be redeemed. St. Paul talks about personal transformation by “the renewing of your mind.”[vii]. When that happens “you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
The truth about Christ is not capable of being learned by reason because humanity’s reason is infected by sin. So Christ has to give us the means to understand it. That means is faith. There has to be a repentance and a conversion – a new birth such as Jesus mentioned to Nicodemus.[viii] God has to come into our lives, by his Spirit, and give us the means to understand the truth, not only about God, but about ourselves.[ix]
The sinner is bound – he is not in possession of freedom to make any choices. We cannot freely decide to repent of our sins and then present ourselves before God to receive his grace. Our knowledge and our freedom to choose are contingent upon the divine gift of grace. However we are free to respond to the grace that has been done for us and disclosed to us in Jesus. By coming among us as a human, God in Christ has made it possible for us to respond to him, but he also allows the possibility of rejection, because he comes anonymously in humility. God does not force himself upon us.[x]
How does God extend his grace to us so that we can receive the gift of faith? St. Paul tells us, “How, then, can they call upon the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent…Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.”[xi]
Hearing the word of Christ is the gift of grace. God’s action of revelation is the means by which recognition and repentance becomes possible. The choice now confronts us as to whether we will respond in faith. It is not intellectual assent that is required, but the response of living in the light of the truth that has been revealed.
“Learning the Truth cannot be reduced to a work of the intellect. It is not the preserve of reason, or of the imagination, or of memory. Instead it is a way of life in the company of Jesus whose identity as the Truth is confirmed by those who have known his blessing along the way.”[xii]
Faith is a mode of existence, and only those who take the plunge, who venture out over the seventy thousand fathoms of water, are in any position to learn the Truth. “Understanding Christianity is like learning to swim: it is only when entering the water, when setting out upon the life of faith, that one begins to understand.”[xiii] You cannot evaluate Christian faith from the point of view of philosophical detachment. That is like trying to swim without getting into the water.
“Faith is a matter of personal response to and trust in the God-Man who confronts us with the challenge to follow him… The first disciples came to recognize Jesus and confess him as Lord only in the act of following him.”[xiv] That is the only way we may come to understand the essential truth of the Christian faith.
[i] Murray A. Rae, Kierkegaard’s Vision of the Incarnation: By Faith Transformed
(Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997)
[ii] Matthew 13:14
[vi] Rae, op.cit., 160,161