The Non-Theist Hiding in the Closet of Kierkegaard’s Philosophy

This paper, while flawed in a few ways, was a novel attempt in one of my Masters modules at proving that Kierkegaard hid a non-theistic conception behind his philosophical writings.

 

Søren Kierkegaard is widely regarded as a Christian philosopher. Many leading scholars tend to interpret his works through the lens of Christianity.[i] While some scholars have questioned whether Kierkegaard should be read as a Christian thinker, few have ventured further to question whether Kierkegaard even subscribed to a theistic conception of God at all. Yet this is the implicit assumption many scholars have taken by virtue of Kierkegaard’s apparent Christianity. Scholars such as C. Stephen Evans,[ii] and Zachary R. Manis,[iii] ground their ideas of a Divine Command Theory on the very assumption of a theistic conception underlying his philosophy. But Evans and Manis are not the only ones. Peter J. Mehl, too, assumes a theistic conception in Kierkegaard’s philosophy without justification:

“I am claiming … that Kierkegaard’s ideal of humanness is infiltrated by Christian theism even before he makes his case for the reality of God. The ideal of personhood as fully engaged autonomy, of complete rational responsible self-determination, is linked to Christian theism.”[iv]

And yet, it is this very assumption of theism that led Mehl to puzzle over Kierkegaard’s inability to see the connection between said personhood and theism. This is but one of many other examples of works presuming a theistic interpretation behind Kierkegaard’s Christianity, sometimes resulting in rather puzzling, and sometimes paradoxical consequences. However, the bigger problem, in my opinion, is that by assuming a theistic conception underlying Kierkergaard’s writings, many fail to appreciate or notice the non-theistic, non-Christian elements present in his philosophy.

In this paper, I argue that Kierkegaard does not subscribe to a theistic conception of God, but rather, to a non-theistic conception. By theism, I refer to the classical notion:

“God is the perfect being, which means or entails that God is, among other things, necessarily existent, eternal, changeless, almighty, all-knowing, supremely good, distinct from creation, and the creator of everything distinct from himself. God is also said to be absolutely simple, which means that the above-listed attributes are identical to God’s being and, more generally, that there is no ontological complexity in God.”[v]

I will begin this paper first, by casting doubts on a theistic interpretation, and then proceed to show evidence of a non-theistic conception in Kierkegaard’s writings. I will then proceed to outline two non-theistic notions that Kierkegaard might have possibly subscribed to: (1) atheism, and (2) panentheism. Due to the limits and scope of this paper, I will not be able to determine which of the two positions Kierkegaard might have held in his works. Nonetheless, I will discuss how atheism and panentheism might have possibly been related to each other. Along the way, I will anticipate possible objections and address them.

 

I. Theistic Silence

It is rather odd that Kierkegaard who writes in a Christian-like manner, makes absolutely no explicit mention about theism.[vi] This fact alone should give us pause. While it is indeed true that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence (which is not the point I am making here), the point I wish to highlight here is that one cannot simply assume theism in Kierkegaard’s works on the basis of his many references to Christianity.

Why is there no explicit mention of theism? Kierkegaard argues that God is beyond the limits of human reason, and it would be too presumptuous to assume that human reason is capable of discerning God’s nature, or that there is a necessary bond between God and Man that would allow us to discern by inspection, nor indirectly by means of analogy, of a theory of opposition and negation. Any form of speculation might seem to describe God, but it would instead describe “ourselves and our rational limitations.”[vii] Hence, we have no choice but to accept a God that would appear paradoxical and absurd to us. Since human reason cannot discern God’s nature in any way, we may postulate whatever qualities we like about God, such as the qualities of omnipotence or omniscience, or even the traditional Christian attributes. We could also postulate unconventional qualities to God, such as malicious hatred, and there would be no way we can use our reason to affirm or deny it.

Another reason for the silence is due to Kierkegaard’s emphasis on the subjective inwardness, which focuses on one’s own existence, on how the self “relates itself to itself.”[viii] Inwardness is concerned with the relations to objects, and not with the objects themselves. God is important to Kierkegaard’s philosophy. Without God, the individual would be in despair.[ix] However, it would be more accurate to say that it is not God per se that is of concern, but the God-relationship: “God is a subject to be related to, not an object to be studied or mediated on.”[x] It is not the absence of God in the individual’s life that would lead to his despair, but the failure of the individual to align himself with God, i.e. to relate himself to God, or to relate himself with God’s plan for the self: “The self is the conscious synthesis of infinitude and finitude that relates itself to itself, whose task is to become itself, which can be done only through the relationship to God.”[xi] Moreover, what gives the God-relationship its importance is not the objective existence of a God, but the possibility, the risk, of God’s non-existence (which, if true, despair is certain).[xii]

Given the strong emphasis on the importance of the God-relation, rather than on God, Kierkegaard’s philosophy would still hold up even if God does not objectively exist. It may seem strange to have a relationship with an objectively non-existent being, but as Kierkegaard explains, a relationship must have passion: “it is impossible in existing to think about existence without becoming passionate.”[xiii] For example, a hunter may falsely believe that there is a vicious beast behind the bushes. Objectively, there is no beast behind the bushes. But within the hunter’s subjectivity, the hunter has formed a relation with the beast, with a passionate fear of being attacked if he is not careful. And hence, the hunter lives and behaves as though there is a beast, for it is better for the hunter to assume a beast and act accordingly for his own safety. In the same way, the subjective belief of a God suffices to establish a God-relationship, for the self to relate itself to, for its own existential benefit.

Scholars presuming a theistic position in Kierkegaard would object to what I have said above, and usually argue that Kierkegaard does not dismiss the importance of the objective existence of God. Rather, he makes a distinction between the subjective truth that is “essentially related to existence” and the objective truth, and that he did not intend for the subjective truth to substitute or contend with objective truths.[xiv] This objection, however, misses the point. As I have mentioned earlier, God is beyond reason. We cannot rationally prove any quality of God’s nature, not even the existence of God![xv] And even if we accept that there can be objective truths about God, none of those truths of God would have any bearing on how the self relates to the God-relationship.

 

II. The Pantheism Problem

Interesting, despite the silence on theism, Kierkegaard has much to say about pantheism. His most significant passage on the issue involves a criticism he made on Schleiermacher:

“That pantheism constitutes a surmounted factor in religion, is the foundation for it, seems now to be acknowledged, and hereby also the error in Schleiermacher’s definition of religion as remaining in pantheism, in that he makes the extra-temporal fusion factor of the universal and the finite—into religion.”[xvi]

Here, it would seem that Kierkegaard is saying that pantheism is in fact “the foundation of religion,” but before we can conclude that Kierkegaard is indeed a pantheist, he adds the point that pantheism needs to be surmounted. To understand what this means, it would be useful to briefly outline what Kierkegaard was responding to when he criticised Schleiermacher in the passage above.

Schleiermacher was a strong supporter of Spinoza, a pantheist who argued that God is in all things, in the sense that God’s substance is in all that exists in nature. Schleiermacher took the argument further, defining religion in naturalistic terms. Since God’s substance is present in all things, “religion consists not primarily in knowledge of the divine or in actions that spring from duty, but in and through gefühl (feeling), the domain of pre-reflective, immediate experience.”[xvii] Religion, therefore, is “to know and have life in immediate feeling.”[xviii] In defining religion as such, Schleiermacher had transformed the understanding of religion from the ethical mode to the aesthetic mode.[xix]

Kierkegaard agreed with Schleiermacher that “immediate religious experience is the lifeblood of the various religions,”[xx] but he disagreed that faith belongs to the first immediacy: “that which Schleiermacher calls ‘religion’ … is at heart nothing other than the first immediate, the condition for everything—the vitale fluidum—the atmosphere that we, in spiritual sense, breathe in—and which, therefore, cannot be properly be indicated me with these words.”[xxi] The first immediacy is the basis of all experience. To equate faith or religious experience with it would be to pantheistically absorb everything into one.

This, according to Kierkegaard, is the error and the inevitable result of all – and not just Schleiermacher – who conceive of God purely in terms of eternity. In committing such an error, one would be under the “optical illusion” of pantheism,[xxii] dozing in “an oriental revery in the infinite, in which everything appears to be fiction – and one is reconciled as in a grand poem: the being of the whole world, the being of God, and my own being are poetry in which all the multiplicity, the wretch disparities of life, indigestible for human thought, are reconciled in a mistry, dreaming existence.”[xxiii] The other problem with dwelling in pantheism, was that by remaining within the view of eternity, pantheists like Spinoza, had evaded the difficulty of relating an eternal God outside of time, with a God that functions in time.[xxiv]

This is not to say that pantheism is wrong per se. Rather, when God is thought of in terms of eternity, God is regarded as the absolute standpoint, which happens to be the standpoint of pantheism.[xxv] But, this is not the error. Seeing God as the absolute standpoint is itself a crucial moment for understanding God: “The concept of Substance is the concept of the absolute Actuality, which contains all essence, all reality; if there were something outside God, different from God, God would indeed be limited. Therefore Ἓν καὶ Πᾶν (hen kai pan) [One and All]; only God is. Whatever in the world is reality, is only God.”[xxvi]

To remain here at this level, however, would be to dwell in pantheism – and that is the error committed by Schleiermacher and the other pantheists. It is thus essential to surmount pantheism. Not to reject pantheism completely, but to build on top of this conception and go beyond. What Schleiermacher got right, and what appealed strongly to Kierkegaard, was his approach to nature in wonder.[xxvii] If God is in all things, then one should be in wonder at being immersed in God’s presence, but not in the pantheistic sense of regarding religious experience within the realm of the first immediacy. Kierkegaard surmounts pantheism while preserving Schleiermacher’s wonder of God through nature, by arguing that it is in inwardness that one encounters God in all things. Writing under the pseudonym of Johannes de Silentio, Kierkegaard argues that faith is not the “first immediacy but a later one… [f]aith is not the esthetic or else faith has never existed because it has always existed.”[xxviii] The experience of God is not to be found in direct experience with the world, nor grasped through human understanding. It is through the inwardness of the subjectivity, that one is able to perceive God’s action in all things. Kierkegaard says:

“I observe nature in order to find God, and indeed I also see omnipotence and wisdom, but I see much else too that troubles and disturbs. The summa summarum of this is the objective uncertainty, but the inwardness becomes so great just because it embraces the objective uncertainty with all the passion of the infinite.”[xxix]

Schleiermacher had the passion, which Kierkegaard admired, but he lacked the inwardness to perceive both the light and the dark side of God in nature, the quintessential paradox required for exhausting reason in order to arrive at the higher immediacy of faith. “When reflection is totally exhausted, faith begins.”[xxx]

In brief, the aspects of pantheism which Kierkegaard agreed with are: (1) When one conceives of God from the viewpoint of eternity, one sees a God that exists in all things in a pantheistic manner. Consequently, (2) Kierkegaard grants that one can experience God in all things through immediate experience, but it would be incorrect to conclude with pantheists, like Schleiermacher, that God can be directly experienced in the first immediacy. God can only be encountered through the higher immediacy of faith, within the subjective inwardness.

 

III. God the Middle Term

In this section, I will discuss Kierkegaard’s conception of God as a “middle term,” a notion which explicitly demonstrates a non-theistic conception of God. This is highly significant especially since the idea is found in Works of Love, a work which Kierkegaard claims direct authorship, unlike his pseudonymous works where he could distance himself from the ideas expounded in those texts. And unlike the pseudonymous works where Kierkegaard felt a need for indirect communication, works with direct authorship were a means for him to communicate in a direct manner to “those who profess Christianity and know what it is but need to be encouraged or reassured.”[xxxi]

In Works of Love, Kierkegaard ascribes God the function of the middle term:

“Worldly wisdom is of the opinion that love is a relationship between person; Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between a person, God, a person, that is, that God is the middle term.”[xxxii]

There are two common ways of reading this passage. (1) The first way is to conceive of God as a third party in a love relationship. That means, in the case of A loves B, this relationship is parsed as:  A loves God, and God, in turn, loves B. But Kierkegaard shows that this is not the case:

“The merely human view of love can never go beyond mutuality: the lover is the beloved, and the beloved is the lover. Christianity teaches that such a love has not yet found its true object—God. The love relationship requires threeness: the lover, the beloved, the love—but the love is God. Therefore, to love another person is to help that person to love God, and to be loved is to be helped.”[xxxiii]

God is not a third party in the relationship, but love itself. (2) The second way is to conceive a love relationship in a relational manner. That means, in the case of A loves B, this relationship is parsed as: A relates to B, via God as the intermediary, i.e. A relates to God, and God relates to A. This, however, is problematic. For if we were to ask how A relates to God, we will have to answer the question by means of a fourth term, that A relates to God via M, i.e. A relates to M, and M relates to God. We can repeat the cycle ad nauseam, leading to an infinite regress.

What then, do we mean when we say that God is love? Kierkegaard seems to be suggesting a hermeneutical account,[xxxiv] where God/love as the middle term is to be understood as a logical metaphor. In logic, the middle term is the term occurring in both premises of a syllogistic argument, linking the two premises in order to arrive at a conclusion. But the middle term does not appear in the conclusion itself. The use of God as the middle term, provides a hermeneutical change of perspective, transforming a selfish love into a selfless love. In a selfish love, when I say, “I love you,” the “you” is conceived in my mind as a not-I, as another-I. So, when I say, “I love you,” I am essentially saying, “I love another-I,” that is, “I love I.” It is an I-I relationship. It is selfish for it leads me to express my love according to my understanding of myself. Whereas, by introducing God as the middle term of the relationship, I am, from God’s subjectivity, God’s you. So too is the person I am loving, for that person is also, in God’s subjectivity, God’s you. For the sake of illustration, if I were to parse it as a syllogistic argument, it might look something like this:

Premise 1: A loves God                       ->        You love God
Premise 2: God loves B                       ->        God loves you
–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Conclusion: Therefore, A loves B       ->        You love you

Parsed in this manner, the relationship is transformed into a selfless relationship, because it is now seen as a youyou relationship. But at the same time, with God as the reference point, it is not just a youyou relationship, but a (God’s-neighbour)-(God’s-neighbour) relationship. When I relate to my love relationship in this way, I subjectively perceive myself and the beloved as God’s neighbour, and thus express my love according to the understanding of myself (and the other) as God’s neighbour. As the middle term, God does not appear in the conclusion, yet, how one relates the self has been altered as a result of this mode of thinking.

However, when we begin to think of love in terms of actuality and possibility, we run into some interesting problems about the concept of God. Love is a possibility that can be actualised in this world. And all possibilities are grounded in some actuality, e.g. it is possible for A to love B, only if A and B are actualised in existence. Yet, all actual beings, and all possibilities can ultimately be traced back to the ultimate Actuality, God: “God is the actuality of the possible, and God’s actuality is the actuality of true love, the possibility of actual love is grounded in the actuality of true love.”[xxxv] So far, there are no problems when we conceive of God purely in terms of actuality outside of time. The problem begins when we try to conceive of the eternal God acting in time. In Works of Love, Kierkegaard goes on to elaborate that love hopes all things, and “to relate oneself expectantly to the possibility of the good is to hope… As soon, however, as the choice is made, the possible is changed, because the possibility of the good is the eternal.”[xxxvi] Yet, “when the eternal is in the temporal, it is in the future… or in possibility. The past is the actual, the future is the possible; eternally, the eternal is the eternal; in time, the eternal is the possible, the future.”[xxxvii] Here, we have “a modal and ontological gap between the necessary on the one hand, and the possible and actual on the other.”[xxxviii] God can never be actual, temporal, or existent! God can only be “that without whom nothing could or would be actual, temporal or existent.”[xxxix]

When Kierkegaard talked about God as a middle term, he was not just referring to the context of God as love. The implication of it has far reaching consequences. “God is neither a fact to be explained nor an explanation of facts.”[xl] For “nothing we can experience is God, but neither can we experience anything apart from God: there wouldn’t be anything to experience, or anyone to have an experience, without God.”[xli] This is reflected most clearly in Kierkegaard’s prayer at the beginning of Works of Love: “O Eternal Love, you who are everywhere present and never without witness where you are called upon.”[xlii]

God is therefore, in Kierkegaard’s conception, not a being, nor the first cause and explainer of facts, “but the infinite power of possibility,” the “eternal actuality of creative and transforming love,” and “the fundamental dynamic reality of love, without which nothing else could and would exist.”[xliii] As I had mentioned earlier, the problem with pantheism, was that by remaining within the viewpoint of eternity, it was unable to address the issue of an eternal God outside time, functioning within the temporal realm. God, as the middle term, could be seen as Kierkegaard’s solution to that problem, as a way in which an eternal God could operate in time. The consequence of such a solution, however, is that God ceases to be a being.

Yet, as a middle term, God is still the hermeneutical point of reference. In the context of love, we are to see ourselves and others as God’s neighbours, and relate ourselves as God’s neighbour to other neighbours of God. Similarly, all of creation, including ourselves, are not just mere facts of the world, but they too participate in God’s creative action, and thus we are to relate ourselves as a participant in God’s creative action, interacting with other participants of God’s creative action.

Thus far, I have shown that Kierkegaard subscribes, not to a theistic conception, but to a non-theistic conception of God, the question remains: what sort of non-theistic conception might Kierkegaard hold? I will discuss two possibilities: (1) atheism, and (2) panentheism. However, as it would be outside the scope of this paper to engage in extensive biographical research, I will not be able to determine whether Kierkegaard was indeed an atheist or panentheist.

 

IV. Kierkegaard the Atheist?

As I had mentioned earlier in Section I, since the God-relation is so essential to the existence of an individual, in the way one relates one’s self, to the point that God’s objective existence is inconsequential, it would be possible to interpret an atheistic conception in Kierkegaard’s philosophy, and consequently, a Kierkegaard’s atheistic approach to Christianity.

In Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard writes, under the pseudonymous author of Johannes Climacus, that God is “a postulate, but not in the otiose manner in which this word is commonly understood… The postulate is so far from being arbitrary that it is precisely a life-necessity. It is then not so much that God is a postulate, as that the existing individual’s postulation of God is a necessity.”[xliv] God, then can be regarded as an ethical fiction, which “seeks to enhance man’s sense of responsibility and ultimately deepens the moral [and/or existential] dimension of his experience.[xlv] One can have a God-relation with which the self can relate to, just by simply postulating the existence of a God.

Christianity too can be regarded as an ethical fiction as well, serving the instrumental purpose of the individual’s desire for eternal happiness, or in other words, the subjectivity. In Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard professes subjectivity for its own sake, as the final end. Subjectivity is the absolute: it is not justified by anything, but instead justifies everything. “There are many arguments in the Postscript to demonstrate that only by being in total subjectivity is he not deceiving himself in his life affirmation. The rest of the Postscript is concerned with ways of attaining a fuller subjectivity.”[xlvi] Christianity is seen as instrumental to the service of the subjectivity as the paradox of Christianity “thrusts the understanding away in the interest of inwardness in existing”;[xlvii] it “proposes to intensify subjectivity to the utmost.”[xlviii]

Elsewhere in the Postscript, Kierkegaard writes:

“I, Johannes Climacus… assume that for me… there awaits a highest good called an eternal happiness. I have heard that Christianity contracts to provide one with that good. And now I ask how do I enter the relation with this doctrine?”[xlix]

Just as how it is essential for the self to develop a God-relation, Climacus talks about the need to “establish a proper relationship” to Christianity. Like the God-relation, the Christian-relation is essential to the subjective inwardness. The objective truth of Christianity, on the other hand, is just as inconsequential as the objective existence of God.

Yet a puzzling question remains. If one takes an atheistic position and does not believe in the objective existence of God nor in the objective truth of Christianity, how can one be a Christian, or even profess belief in it? Evans rightly pointed out that ethical fictions only have their power over people unaware of its fictional nature, and for those aware of its fictional nature, “if the individual does not care whether his belief is objectively correct, then the objective uncertainty will hardly generate much passion.”[l] This is most poignant for Kierkegaard, who would have been quite well-aware of the ethical fictions if he did indeed conceive of God and Christianity as ethical fictions. It would not be possible for him at all to generate the infinite passion in his pursuit of Christianity.

One solution would be to argue that Kierkegaard was indeed an atheist who meant everything religious in an ironic manner. Was Kierkegaard such an atheist? While it is certainly not impossible to imagine, it is, however, quite implausible. Kierkegaard wrote with religious fervour, not just in his published works, but also in his private journals. It is hard to imagine why one would be so consistently ironic, even in the privacy of one’s own journals.

I propose an alternative view, and one that there certainly more philosophically interesting, in which Kierkegaard the possible atheist might have embraced Christianity in a way that would address Evan’s insights. As I mentioned earlier, Climacus’ pursuit of Christianity, was done primarily for the sake of his own subjectivity, for his eternal happiness, and not because of the truths of Christianity or any objective proof of the existence of God. Yet, in pursuing Christianity in this way, he contradicts his insistence on the need for an infinite distance between man and God: “Precisely because there is an absolute difference between God and man, man will express his own nature most adequately when he expresses this difference absolutely.”[li] To use God as an instrument is to treat God with familiarity. In which case, God cannot be the Absolute Other.[lii] Climacus would thus relate to God not as Absolute Other, a relation essential to his inwardness, but as a familiar. Therefore, in pursuing Christianity and God in this manner, Climacus cannot come close to attaining eternal happiness. Moreover, as Evans pointed out, viewing Christianity purely as an instrumental aid to eternal happiness does not suffice to produce the infinite passion that Climacus desired.

The only way to resolve the two problems above, would be to deny the primacy of the subjectivity and paradoxically embrace Christianity not instrumentally, but as an end-in-itself. This way, God could be preserved as the Absolute Other, a necessary relation for the subjectivity, and more importantly, would generate the necessary passions required. Climacus’ failure was that he could not do precisely that, and it was what prevented him from understanding and making the final movement of faith. It might have been possible that Kierkegaard succeeded where Climacus had failed. For Kierkegaard himself acknowledged that the Postscript was “the turning-point in [his] whole work as an author.”[liii] Soon after the completion of the Postscript, Kierkegaard abandoned the pseudonym, abandoned the “primacy of subjectivity and moved to total Christianity.”[liv] This would have required Kierkegaard to exhaust reason on his part, put aside his atheism, and make that leap into the higher immediacy of faith. This might explain the religious fervour in his writings, and it does take Kierkegaard’s insistence that “subjectivity is truth” to the highest level, that despite the underlying atheism, Kierkegaard is still able to live as if he were a true believer of Christianity.

 

V. Kierkegaard the Panentheist?

As I have discussed earlier in Section II, Kierkegaard did not reject pantheism, but saw that religion had to surmount it. Pantheists like Spinoza, evaded the difficulty of relating an eternal God outside of time, with a God operating in time,[lv] by remaining in the viewpoint of eternity. Kierkegaard was concerned with reconciling the power of human freedom that exists in time, with the power of a God outside time, in a way that would allow the divine to empower a person in his freedom.

The other option that Kierkegaard might have held, is panentheism, which “takes a middle position between a naturalistic pantheism and a supernatural theism,” it is the view that “God is so immanent within the world that this divine interpenetration means that all things are within God, while, on the other hand, affirming with traditional theism, that God transcends the realm of finite realities. God so penetrated the universe that everything is in God; but God stands in a free relation to the universe.”[lvi] If pantheism had to be surmounted without a complete rejection of its tenets, panentheism therefore, is a likely position that Kierkegaard might have subscribed to. In discussing the relation of omnipotence and love, Kierkegaard seemed to have expressed a panentheistic stance:

“The whole question of the relation of God’s omnipotence and goodness to evil … is solved quite simply in the following way. The highest thing after all that can be done for a being, higher than anything else one could do for it, is to make it free. The ability for doing precisely this belongs to omnipotence. This seems strange, since precisely omnipotence is supposed to make dependent. But if one is willing to think about omnipotence, one will see that precisely in this must lie in addition the determination to be able to take oneself back again in the expression of omnipotence in such a way that precisely therefore that which has come into existence by omnipotence can be independent. That is why one human being cannot make another human being completely free, because the one who has the power is actually imprisoned in having it, and therefore always still has a wrong relation to the one this human wants to liberate. Furthermore, in all finite power (talent, etc.) there is a finite self-love. Only omnipotence can take itself back while it gives away, and this relation is indeed precisely the independence of the recipient. God’s omnipotence is therefore God’s goodness. For goodness is to give away completely, but in such a way that by omnipotently taking itself back one makes the recipient independent. … This is the incomprehensible, that omnipotence … is able to bring forth the most frail of all things: an independent being who is directly over against omnipotence.”[lvii]

A truly omnipotent God creates beings independent from himself, “precisely as the expression of divine power.”[lviii] At the same time, this freedom is itself an expression of God’s love. God’s power is God’s love. In that gift of freedom to human beings, “God enables the divine power of the eternal, present within the innermost chamber of the self, to be understood as loving and thereby as relevant to the struggles of existing as a free creature within temporality.”[lix] Here, pantheism is surmounted, as the pantheistic power of divine Substance is united with the power of human freedom in time.

This brings us back to an earlier point made in Section III, about God as the middle term. Kierkegaard conceived of God as the middle term, as a solution to explain how an eternal God outside of time, could operate within time. This is consistent with the discussion above on panentheism. God the eternal divine power, brings actuality into possibility, through the free human action occurring in temporality. As the middle term, God cannot be discerned through first immediacy, nor understood as a fact nor an explanation of facts. “Nothing we can experience is God.”[lx] Yet, God, as middle term, as the hermeneutical point of reference, allows the subjective inwardness to experience of God through faith in the higher immediacy. And “neither can we experience anything apart from God: there wouldn’t be anything to experience, or anyone to have an experience, without God.”[lxi]

 

VI. Conclusion

In Sections I and II, I pointed out three reasons for doubting a theistic conception underlying Kierkegaard’s philosophy: (1) from his silence on theism since finite human reason is unable to discern any quality of God; (2) to the great significance he gives to inwardness that only the God-relationship matters, while the objective existence of God is inconsequential to his philosophy; and lastly (3) to his conception of God’s relation to the world and humans, while not pantheistic per se, is strongly rooted in a pantheistic outlook. These three points, I believe, should cast some doubt on the possibility of Kierkegaard subscribing to a theistic conception. But even if they do not succeed in casting doubt, points (1) and (2) should have at least demonstrated just how insignificant a theistic conception is to Kierkegaard’s philosophy.

In Section III, I demonstrated how Kierkegaard, by regarded God as a middle term, does not hold a theistic conception of God. God is not a being but “the infinite power of possibility,” the “eternal actuality of creative and transforming love,” and “the fundamental dynamic reality of love, without which nothing else could and would exist.”[lxii] God is neither a fact to be explained nor an explanation of facts, hidden from plain sight only to be recognised in the subjective inwardness. And perhaps, this might have been Kierkegaard’s solution to addressing the problem of an eternal God outside of time, operating within time.

In Sections IV and V, I discussed two possible non-theistic position that Kierkegaard might hold: atheism and panentheism. I showed how each position is related and coherent with the points raised in Section I to III. However, as it would be beyond the scope of this paper to engage in extensive biographical research, I am unable to determine whether Kierkegaard was an atheist, panentheist, or both. Nonetheless, I wish to conclude this paper with a brief discussion about the relation of atheism and panentheism. Instead of assuming, in a binary manner, that Kierkegaard held either one of these positions throughout his life, atheism and panentheism are, in fact, not mutually exclusive. And there are three possible ways in which we could explain the relationship between these two non-theistic positions in Kierkegaard’s philosophy.

(1) Firstly, the atheism we observe underlying Kierkegaard’s early works might not reflect the position Kierkegaard took. Instead, the atheist perspective which we find, was largely expressed by the pseudonymous author, Johannes Climacus. Climacus, did declare that he was not a Christian.[lxiii] And it is important to bear in mind that Kierkegaard made use of the pseudonymous authors so that he could keep their views distinct from his. Thus, it might be possible that Kierkegaard did not hold an atheistic position at all, but instead subscribed to the panentheistic perspective all along.

(2) A second possibility is that it might be entirely possible that Kierkegaard may have transitioned from an atheistic position to a panentheistic perspective. In my earlier discussion in Section IV on Kierkegaard’s atheism, Kierkegaard might have started out an atheist, but arrived at the conclusion, through Johannes Climacus, that the only way to fully achieve eternal happiness in the subjectivity is – paradoxically – to negate the primacy of the subjectivity, and to pursue Christianity not as a means but as an end-in-itself. To re-iterate, Kierkegaard did mention that the Postscript was, for him a sort of turning point.[lxiv] This might have led Kierkegaard to adopt a modified position, i.e. panentheism, not too far from his original atheistic position. After all, as discussed in Section II, we know that Kierkegaard agreed with certain tenets within pantheism. Panentheism would not be too big a leap for him.

(3) The third and final possibility is that given how the objective existence of God is inconsequential to his philosophy, and how we can never be able to use reason to affirm or deny the properties of God, it might thus be possible for Kierkegaard to have subsumed the panentheistic conception under his own atheistic view. That panentheism, just like God and Christianity, are no more than ethical fiction, postulated more as a means to aid one’s subjective inwardness.

Of course, given how it is, for Kierkegaard, that the objective existence of God is inconsequential, and that we can never truly know the nature of God, the panentheistic conception could be subsumed under the atheistic conception. That is to say, panentheism might have been postulated more as a means for the individual (or for Kierkegaard, at the very least) to be able to best relate himself to God, within the ethical fiction of Christianity.

While I am unable to conclusively determine which of these possibilities might be true for Kierkegaard, we can be certain that Kierkegaard never expressed himself as a theist. This alone should suffice for us to rethink our interpretation and understanding of Kierkegaard’s philosophy. The atheistic and panentheistic positions, which I have outlined above, provide a starting point for new reinterpretations of Kierkegaard in a non-theistic perspective.

 

Bibliography

Dalferth, Ingolf U. 2013. “Selfless Passion: Kierkegaard on True Love.” Kierkegaard Studies 2013 (1): 159–79.

Dalferth, Ingolf U. 2015. “The Middle Term: Kierkegaard and the Contemporary Debate about Explanatory Theism.” Kierkegaard Studies Yearbook 20 (1): 14–15.

Evans, C. Stephen. 1976. “Kierkegaard on Subjective Truth: Is God an Ethical Fiction?” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 7 (1): 288–99.

Garelick, Herbert M. 1965. The Anti-Christianity of Kierkegaard. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1939. The Point of View. Trans. Lowrie, Walter. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1941. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Swenson, D. F. & Lowrie, W. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1968-70. Papirer. Ed. Niels Thulst. København: Gyldendal.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1980. The Sickness Unto Death. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1995. Journals and Papers. Trans. Hong, Howard V. & Hong, Edna H. Virginia: Indiania University Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1999. Works of Love. Ed. Perkins, Robert L. Macon: Mercer University Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 2002. Provocations. Farmington: Bruderhof Foundation, Inc.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 2006. Fear and Trembling. Trans. Walsh, Sylvia. Ed. Evans, C. Stephen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 2009. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Ed. Hannay, Alastair. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Rogers, Chandler D. 2016. “Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and the Problem of First Immediacy.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 80 (3). Springer Netherlands: 259–78.

Runehov, Anne L. C., and Lluis Oviedo. 2013. Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions. Dordrecht: Springer 2013.

Teo, Wesley K. H. 1973. “Self-Responsibility in Existentialism and Buddhism.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 4 (2): 80–91.

Thompson, Curtis L. 2002. “From Presupposing Pantheism’s Power to Potentiating Panentheism’s Personality: Seeking Parallels between Kierkegaard’s and Martensen’s Theological Anthropologies.” The Journal of Religion 82 (2): 225–51.

 

Notes

[i] Barrett lists scholars such as C. Stephen Evans, Hugh Pyper, Bradley Dewey, Andrew Burgess, Robert C. Roberts, Timothy Polk, David Cain, Abraham Khan, David Gouwens, and himself as scholars who interpret Kierkegaard through a Christian lens. See Barrett, C. Lee. 2013. “Kierkegaard as Theologian: A History of Countervailing Interpretations” in The Oxford Handbook of Kierkegaard. Eds. Lippitt, John & Pattison, George. New York: Oxford University Press.

[ii] See Evans, C. Stephen. 2004. Kierkegaard’s Ethic of Love: Divine Commands & Moral Obligations. New York: Oxford University Press.

[iii] See Manis, Zachary R. 2009. “Kierkegaard and Divine-Command Theory: Replies to Quinn and Evans.” Religious Studies 45 (3): 289-307.

[iv] Mehl, Peter J. 1992. “Despair’s Demand: An Appraisal of Kierkegaard’s Argument for God.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 32 (3): 167–82. p. 179.

[v] Anders, Kraal. 2013. “Theism, Classical.” In Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions. Eds. Runehov, Anne L. C., & Lluis Oviedo. Dordrecht: Springer. p. 2239.

[vi] This was researched by searching for the terms, “theism” and “theist” in all of Kierkegaard’s works on my computer.

[vii] Cf. Garelick, Herbert M. The Anti-Christianity of Kierkegaard. p. 47.

[viii] Kierkegaard, Søren. The Sickness Unto Death. p. 13.

[ix] Ibid., p.16

[x] Kierkegaard, Søren. Provocations. p. 60.

[xi] Kierkegaard, Søren. The Sickness Unto Death. pp. 29-30.

[xii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Hannay p. 171.

[xiii] Ibid. p. 293.

[xiv] Evans, C. Stephen. Kierkegaard on Subjective Truth: Is God an Ethical Fiction? p. 292.

[xv] Kierkegaard argues, in Section III of Philosophical Fragments, that it is impossible to demonstrate the existence of God, if God does not exist, but on the other hand, it would be foolish to want to demonstrate the existence of God if God does exist. For a full treatment of the subject, see Stern, Kenneth. 1990. “Kierkegaard on Theistic Proof.” Religious Studies 26 (2): 219–26.

[xvi] Kierkegaard, Søren. Journals and Papers. Vol. 4. II A 91 n.d., 1837. #3849. p. 13.

[xvii] Rogers, Chandler D. Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and the Problem of First Immediacy. p. 262.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Ibid. pp. 264-265.

[xxi] Ibid. p. 260. Translation modified from Kierkegaard, Søren. Journals and Papers. Vol. 2. I A 273 n.d., 1836. #1096. p. 3.

[xxii] Kierkegaard, Søren. 1995. Journals and Papers. Vol. 2. VIII A 482 n.d., 1847. #2004. p. 402.

[xxiii] Ibid. Vol. 1. II A 125 n.d., 1837. #1019. p. 448.

[xxiv] Thompson, Curtis L. From Presupposing Pantheism’s Power to Potentiating Panentheism’s Personality: Seeking Parallels between Kierkegaard’s and Martensen’s Theological Anthropologies p. 239.

[xxv] Kierkegaard, Søren. Papirer. XIII, II C 26-28. 5, n.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Rogers, Chandler D. Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and the Problem of First Immediacy. p. 275.

[xxviii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling. pp. 71-72.

[xxix] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Hannay. p. 171.

[xxx] Kierkegaard, Søren. Journals and Papers. Vol. 1. V A 28 n.d., 1844. #49. p. 20.

[xxxi] Dalferth, Ingolf U. Selfless Passion: Kierkegaard on True Love. p. 162.

[xxxii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Works of Love. pp. 106-107.

[xxxiii] Ibid. p. 121.

[xxxiv] Dalferth, Ingolf U. Selfless Passion: Kierkegaard on True Love. p. 173.

[xxxv] Ibid. p. 176.

[xxxvi] Kierkegaard, Søren. Works of Love. p. 249.

[xxxvii] Ibid.

[xxxviii] Dalferth, Ingolf U. Selfless Passion: Kierkegaard on True Love. p. 178.

[xxxix] Ibid.

[xl] Dalferth, Ingolf U. The Middle Term: Kierkegaard and the Contemporary Debate about Explanatory Theism. p. 86.

[xli] Ibid.

[xlii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Works of Love. p. 4.

[xliii] Dalferth, Ingolf U. The Middle Term: Kierkegaard and the Contemporary Debate about Explanatory Theism. pp. 88-89.

[xliv] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Swenson, D. F. & Lowrie, W. p. 179, footnote.

[xlv] Teo, Wesley K. H. Self-Responsibility in Existentialism and Buddhism. p. 90.

[xlvi] Garelick, Herbert M. The Anti-Christianity of Kierkegaard. p. 62.

[xlvii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Swenson, D. F. & Lowrie, W. p. 195.

[xlviii] Ibid. p. 55.

[xlix] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Hannay, Alastair. pp. 16-17.

[l] Evans, C. Stephen. Kierkegaard on Subjective Truth: Is God an Ethical Fiction? p. 294.

[li] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Swenson, D. F. & Lowrie, W. p. 369.

[lii] Garelick, Herbert M. The Anti-Christianity of Kierkegaard. p. 65.

[liii] Kierkegaard, Søren. The Point of View. p. 41.

[liv] Garelick, Herbert M. The Anti-Christianity of Kierkegaard. p. 66.

[lv] Thompson, Curtis L. From Presupposing Pantheism’s Power to Potentiating Panentheism’s Personality: Seeking Parallels between Kierkegaard’s and Martensen’s Theological Anthropologies. p. 239.

[lvi] Ibid. p. 234.

[lvii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Journals and Papers. Vol. 2. VII A 181 n.d., 1846. #1251. pp. 62-63.

[lviii] Thompson, Curtis L. From Presupposing Pantheism’s Power to Potentiating Panentheism’s Personality: Seeking Parallels between Kierkegaard’s and Martensen’s Theological Anthropologies. p. 240.

[lix] Ibid.

[lx] Dalferth, Ingolf U. The Middle Term: Kierkegaard and the Contemporary Debate about Explanatory Theism. p. 86.

[lxi] Ibid.

[lxii] Ibid. pp. 88-89.

[lxiii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. pp. 16-17.

[lxiv] Kierkegaard, Søren. The Point of View. p. 41.

A Worrying Trend Arising Among Religions in Singapore

Allow me to share something that has been bothering me for some time now.

If you’ve been visiting Christian or Buddhist bookshops here in Singapore, and if you’ve been paying attention, you’d notice that over the past few years, there’s been a drop in the selection of intellectual books and a sharp rise in devotional materials.

Here are two examples:

Novena Church (currently closed for renovation) has a bookshop, which for many years, used to sell a wide variety of books. Years ago, they used to have a good mix. You could find intellectual books dealing with the doctrines of the faith or ethical issues. And that was balanced with a variety of devotional books and devotional items (statues, prayer beads, etc.).

However, as the years went by, the selection of intellectual books dwindled until there was not a single book on doctrine or ethics at all. In the two years before the Church closed for renovation, the bookshop sold nothing but devotional materials.

This trend is present in many other Christian bookshops.

But this trend isn’t just confined to Christianity. Buddhism seems to have the same problem too.

Years ago, there used to be a huge Buddhist bookshop housed in the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown. It was so huge that it occupied an entire floor. I loved to visit that bookshop because of the incredible selection of Buddhist philosophical books. They had a wide variety – and a good balance – of intellectual and devotional materials.

That bookshop, however, closed down, and a small souvenir shop was opened at a corner of the temple selling nothing but devotional books and items (prayer beads, etc.).

I asked a very intellectual Buddhist friend if he noticed a similar pattern in other Buddhist bookshops. He agreed and commented that many Buddhist circles were intensifying their devotional practices, paying little or no attention to the intellectual aspects.

This too is the trend in many Christian circles too.

The demise of intellectual books in religious bookshops has been a worrying indicator for me. The demand for intellectual reading material has dried up, while the appetite for devotional materials has increased sharply in recent years.

And this is a problem not confined to a single religion.

Let me state this to be clear: I am not against devotional practices.

Devotional practices are important in the context of religion. I believe that there must be a healthy balance of both the devotional and the intellectual aspects of religion. Devotional practices help to cultivate the heart, just as how the intellectual aspects help to cultivate the mind.

What bothers me is the sharp drop of religious intellectualism here in Singapore while religious devotion is increasing at a rapid rate.

Of course, I know some atheists and secular humanists might be laughing. Religious intellectualism sounds like a paradox. How can you be intellectual if you are religious?

To some degree, one can be intellectual and religious. At least to be able to justify, with reason, certain tenets of one’s religious beliefs, or of one’s ethical principles.

The slow death of intellectualism, which I’m seeing in Buddhism and Christianity here in Singapore is a worrying trend. Buddhism and Christianity are two of the biggest religions here in Singapore. That this is a trend affecting at least two big religions is disturbing for it points to greater problems slowly simmering in society.

Karl Marx wrote that religion is an “opiate of the masses,” in the sense that people flock to it seeking relief because they are in great pain. The spike in devotion and piety is a symptom of societal stresses. People are alienated from themselves and their work. One of the many outlets from the misery of such a fast-paced, high-stress society and the existential agonies is religious devotion, where they find spiritual and emotional relief. An oasis of calm and peace in a world of madness.

Marx isn’t saying that religious devotion is bad. Religious devotion brings relief from a life of constant pain and agony. That more and more people are flocking to it is a sign that the stresses of modern life is taking a huge toll on people, more than what they are able to bear.

Will we soon be reaching a critical point of high stress in our society that Singapore society breaks down?

That is one of my worries.

To reiterate my point: devotion is useful in cultivating a good heart. What bothers me is the death of intellectualism the rise of devotionalism, and its consequences on society.

Many do not have a good understanding of their own religious beliefs, teachings, or ethical positions. For example, there are many out there who are so fired up about their relationship with God, or with their rituals, but they know nothing about their religion’s teachings or scriptures.

Those who do have some knowledge of these issues, however, do not really know the justifications or rationale behind them.

With good intentions, and with a zeal cultivated by devotion and piety, we are witnessing a decline of religion.

Religion has turned into a soccer match. People take sides depending on their own initial biases. Sometimes the fights occur within one’s own religion.

What I am seeing in real life and on social media are people parroting material they’ve read without really thinking whether what they say is true or problematic.

Worse still, in the name of defending one’s religion (or one’s position on a religious matter), people are parroting terribly irrational answers, the kind of answers that deride the opponent (“Oooo… BURN!”), stirring up their team mates to cheer for them, like a striker scoring a goal.

This can and does lead to extremism.

But I’m not just talking about religious extremism in the kind of fundamentalism of ideas (that happens too). Rather, I’m concerned about extremism involving devotional practices, and its consequences.

Fuelled by religious zeal, one can get too carried away with certain practices or ideas about practices, taking them to an extreme level with dire consequences on others.

Yes, sinners should atone, but to what extent? Of causing bodily harm to themselves? Should we begin forcing certain sinners to atone publicly in certain ways? Yes, modesty is important to the cultivation of virtue and holiness, but to what extent? Of covering up from head to toe? Of imposing the covering up onto everyone else?

The danger begins when people uncritically attach values or high lofty ideals onto specific actions or items, judging those who do not practice those actions or carry those items as having rejected those set of values.

The danger begins when people uncritically think that they have achieved the spiritual goal by doing a certain set of actions, or carrying certain items, thinking that they have no further need to cultivate themselves (they have attained the religious ideal, what more is there to do?), and thus behave in a self-righteous manner.

The danger begins when people in their good intentions and zeal begin to impose – quite uncritically – certain norms onto others (and their community) without realising the consequences of their actions.

The REAL danger is when no one is willing to listen to any opposing voices that find it necessary to examine and critique what’s being done in the midst of all that religious zeal.

The path of dialogue and communication closed, there will only be greater misunderstanding and lack of trust among different parties. Society will thus become increasingly polarised and fragmented.

With the slow death of intellectualism, comes a decline in critical voices and critical examination. Religious circles thus become echo chambers, breeding extremism fuelled only by religious zeal and good intentions.

As the famous saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”