What Is Leap Of Faith?

leap of faith, in its most commonly used meaning, is the act of believing in or accepting something outside the boundaries of reason.


Jumping to conclusions (officially the jumping conclusion bias, often abbreviated as JTC, and also referred to as the inference-observation confusion) is a psychological term referring to a communication obstacle where one “judge[s] or decide[s] something without having all the facts; to reach unwarranted conclusions”. In other words, “when I fail to distinguish between what I observed first hand from what I have only inferred or assumed”. Because it involves making decisions without having enough information to be sure that one is right, this can give rise to bad or rash decisions.

Life Suicide Leaving Reaching Careless Risk

Leap Of Faith

The phrase is commonly attributed to Søren Kierkegaard; however, he never used the term, as he referred to a qualitative leap. A leap of faith according to Kierkegaard involves circularity insofar as the leap is made by faith. In his book Concluding Unscientific Postscript, he describes the core part of the leap of faith: the leap. “Thinking can turn toward itself in order to think about itself and skepticism can emerge. But this thinking about itself never accomplishes anything.” Kierkegaard says thinking should serve by thinking something. Kierkegaard wants to stop “thinking’s self-reflection” and that is the movement that constitutes a leap. He is against people thinking about religion all day without ever doing anything; but he is also against external shows and opinions about religion. Instead, Kierkegaard is in favor of the internal movement of faith. He says, “where Christianity wants to have inwardness, worldly Christendom wants outwardness, and where Christianity wants outwardness, worldly Christendom wants inwardness.” But, on the other hand, he also says: “The less externality, the more inwardness if it is truly there; but it is also the case that the less externality, the greater the possibility that the inwardness will entirely fail to come. The externality is the watchman who awakens the sleeper; the externality is the solicitous mother who calls one; the externality is the roll call that brings the soldier to his feet; the externality is the reveille that helps one to make the great effort; but the absence of the externality can mean that the inwardness itself calls inwardly to a person – alas – but it can also mean that the inwardness will fail to come.” The “most dreadful thing of all is a personal existence that cannot coalesce in a conclusion,” according to Kierkegaard. He asked his contemporaries if any of them had reached a conclusion about anything or did every new premise change their convictions.

David F. Swenson described the leap in his 1916 article The Anti-Intellectualism of Kierkegaard using some of Kierkegaard’s ideas.

H2 plus O becomes water, and water becomes ice, by a leap. The change from motion to rest, or vice versa, is a transition which cannot be logically construed; this is the basic principle of Zeno’s dialectic, and is also expressed in Newton’s laws of motion, since the external force by which such change is effected is not a consequence of the law, but is premised as external to the system with which we start. It is therefore transcendent and non-rational, and its coming into existence can only be apprehended as a leap. In the same manner, every causal system presupposes an external environment as the condition of change. Every transition from the detail of an empirical induction to the ideality and universality of law, is a leap. In the actual process of thinking, we have the leap by which we arrive at the understanding of an idea or an author. The Anti-Intellectualism of Kierkegaard, by David F. Swenson, The Philosophical Review V. XXV 1916 p. 577-578

This is how the leap was described in 1950 and then in 1960.

Kierkegaard agreed with Lessing, a German dynamist, that truth lies in the search for an object, not in the object sought. It is another case of “act accomplishing itself.” If God held truth in one hand and the eternal pursuit of it in the other, He would choose the second hand according to Lessing. Religious truth concerns the individual and the individual alone, and it is the personal mode of appropriation, the process of realization, the subjective dynamism that counts. Of Lessing, Kierkegaard writes approvingly. But if we are constantly occupied in the immanent striving of our own subjectivity, how are we to ascend to knowledge of a transcendent God whom traditional thought declares to be known even by reason. Lessing and Kierkegaard declare in typical fashion that there is no bridge between historical, finite knowledge and God’s existence and nature. This gap can only be crossed by a “leap.” Faith is a completely irrational experience, and yet it is, paradoxically, the highest duty of a Christian. Though as Thomte observes, it is not a spontaneous belief, faith is nevertheless something blind, immediate, and decisive. It has the character of an “act of resignation.” It is unmediated and a-intellectual, much like Kant’s proof for the existence of God. Nature makes no leaps, according to the maxim of Leibniz. But faith, according to Kierkegaard must do so in a radical way. Idea-Men of Today by Vincent Edward Smith 1950 p. 254-255[

Like Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, who plays an important role in the spiritual struggle for meaning on the part of the modern writer, cast off the bondage of logic and the tyranny of science. By means of the dialectic of “the leap,” he attempted to transcend both the aesthetic and the ethical stages. Completely alone, cut off from his fellow-men, the individual realizes his own nothingness as the preliminary condition for embracing the truth of God. Only when man becomes aware of his own non-entity — an experience that is purely subjective and incommunicable — does he recover his real self and stand in the presence of God. This is the mystique which has been rediscovered by twentieth-century man, the leap from outwardness to inwardness, from rationalism to subjectivity, the revelation, that is ineffable, of the reality of the Absolute. Literature and Religion: a Study in Conflict 1960 by Charles Irving Glicksberg p. 12

The leap into sin and into faith

Main article: Søren Kierkegaard

Johann Kaspar Lavater (right) trying to convert Moses Mendelssohn to Christianity as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing looks on.

Johann Kaspar Lavater (right) trying to convert Moses Mendelssohn to Christianity as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing looks on.

Kierkegaard describes “the leap” using the famous story of Adam and Eve, particularly Adam’s qualitative leap into sin. Adam’s leap signifies a change from one quality to another, mainly the quality of possessing no sin to the quality of possessing sin. Kierkegaard maintains that the transition from one quality to another can take place only by a “leap” (Thomte 232). When the transition happens, one moves directly from one state to the other, never possessing both qualities. “The moment is related to the transition of the one to the many, of the many to the one, of likeness to unlikeness, and that it is the moment in which there is neither one nor many, neither a being determined nor a being combined.”(Thomte Note 82-85). “In the Moment man becomes conscious that he is born; for his antecedent state, to which he may not cling, was one of non-being. In the Moment man also becomes conscious of the new birth, for his antecedent state was one of non-being.”

Kierkegaard felt that a leap of faith was vital in accepting Christianity due to the paradoxes that exist in Christianity. In his books, Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard delves deeply into the paradoxes that Christianity presents. Moses Mendelssohn did the same thing when Johann Kaspar Lavater demanded he discuss why he didn’t want to become a Christian. Both Kierkegaard and Mendelssohn knew the difficulties involved when discussing religious topics:

“As I so sedulously sought to avoid an explanation in my own apartment amidst a small number of worthy men, of whose good intentions I had every reason to be persuaded, it might have been reasonably inferred that a public one would be extremely repugnant to my disposition; and that I must have inevitably become the more embarrassed when the voice demanding it happened to be entitled to an answer at any rate.” Moses Mendelssohn, Letter to J. C. Lavater, December 12, 1769

Kierkegaard’s use of the term “leap” was in response to “Lessing’s Ditch” which was discussed by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781) in his theological writings. Kierkegaard was indebted to Lessing’s writings in many ways. Lessing tried to battle rational Christianity directly and, when that failed, he battled it indirectly through, what Kierkegaard called, “imaginary constructions”. Both may be indebted to Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau used the idea in his 1762 book Emile like this:

If I relate the plain and simple tale of their innocent affections you will accuse me of frivolity, but you will be mistaken. Sufficient attention is not given to the effect which the first connection between man and woman is bound to produce on the future life of both. People do not see that a first impression so vivid as that of love, or the liking which takes the place of love, produces lasting effects whose influence continues till death. Works on education are crammed with wordy and unnecessary accounts of the imaginary duties of children; but there is not a word about the most important and most difficult part of their education, the crisis which forms the bridge between the child and the man. If any part of this work is really useful, it will be because I have dwelt at great length on this matter, so essential in itself and so neglected by other authors, and because I have not allowed myself to be discouraged either by false delicacy or by the difficulties of expression. The story of human nature is a fair romance. Am I to blame if it is not found elsewhere? I am trying to write the history of mankind. If my book is a romance, the fault lies with those who deprave mankind.

This is supported by another reason; we are not dealing with a youth given over from childhood to fear, greed, envy, pride, and all those passions which are the common tools of the schoolmaster; we have to do with a youth who is not only in love for the first time, but with one who is also experiencing his first passion of any kind; very likely it will be the only strong passion he will ever know, and upon it depends the final formation of his character. His mode of thought, his feelings, his tastes, determined by a lasting passion, are about to become so fixed that they will be incapable of further change. Emile by Jean Jacques Rousseau, Foxley translation

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) used the term in his 1784 essay, Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment? Kant wrote:

Dogmas and formulas, these mechanical tools designed for reasonable use–or rather abuse–of his natural gifts, are the fetters of an everlasting nonage. The man who casts them off would make an uncertain leap over the narrowest ditch, because he is not used to such free movement. That is why there are only a few men who walk firmly, and who have emerged from nonage by cultivating their own minds. It is more nearly possible, however, for the public to enlighten itself; indeed, if it is only given freedom, enlightenment is almost inevitable. There will always be a few independent thinkers, even among the self-appointed guardians of the multitude. Once such men have thrown off the yoke of nonage, they will spread about them the spirit of a reasonable appreciation of man’s value and of his duty to think for himself.

Lessing said, “accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason.” Kierkegaard points out that he also said, “contingent truths of history can never become the demonstrations of necessary truths of reason.” Kierkegaard liked Lessing because he “had a most uncommon gift of explaining what he himself had understood. With that he stopped; in our day people go further and explain more than they themselves have understood.”

We all believe that an Alexander lived who in a short time conquered almost all Asia. But who, on the basis of this belief, would risk anything of great permanent worth, the loss of which would be irreparable? Who, in consequence of this belief, would forswear for ever all knowledge that conflicted with this belief? Certainly not I. Now I have no objection to raise against Alexander and his victory: but it might still be possible that the story was founded on a mere poem of Choerilus just as the twenty year siege of Troy depends on no better authority than Homer’s poetry. If on historical grounds I have no objection to the statement that Christ raised to life a dead man; must I therefore accept it as true that God has a Son who is the same essence as himself? On The Proof of the Spirit and of Power, Lessing’s Theological Writings, Chadwick p. 51-56

Lessing opposes what I would call quantifying oneself into a qualitative decision; he contests the direct transition from historical reliability to a decision on an eternal happiness. He does not deny that what is said in the Scriptures about miracles and prophecies is just as reliable as other historical reports, in fact, is as reliable as historical reports in general can be. But now, if they are only as reliable as this why are they treated as if they were infinitely more reliable-precisely because one wants to base on them the acceptance of a doctrine that is the condition for an eternal happiness, that is, to base an eternal happiness on them. Like everyone else, Lessing is willing to believe that an Alexander who subjugated all of Asia did live once, but who, on the basis of this belief, would risk anything of great, permanent worth, the loss of which would be irreparable? Søren Kierkegaard Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Hong p. 96, 130-131

Kierkegaard has Don Juan in Either/Or escort young girls “all in the dangerous age of being neither grown-up nor children” to “the other side of the ditch of life” as he, himself, “dances over the abyss” only to “instantly sink down into the depths.” He has Don Juan “preach the gospel of pleasure” to Elvira and seduces her from the convent and wonders if there is a priest who can “preach the gospel of repentance and remorse” with the same power as Don Juan preached his gospel. Both Lessing and Kierkegaard are discussing the agency one might use to base one’s faith upon. Does history provide all the proofs necessary to cross that “ugly, broad ditch”? Or is there “no direct and immediate transition to Christianity”. Does one become a Christian “in the fulness of time” as Kierkegaard puts it or is “there only one proof of spirit and that is the spirit’s proof within oneself. Whoever demands something else may get proofs in superabundance, but he is already characterized at spiritless.”

He also writes about this in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript:

If naked dialectical deliberation shows that there is no approximation, that wanting to quantify oneself into faith along this path is a misunderstanding, a delusion, that wanting to concern oneself with such deliberations is a temptation for the believer, a temptation that he, keeping himself in the passion of faith, must resist with all his strength, lest it end with his succeeding in changing faith into something else, into another kind of certainty, in substituting probabilities and guarantees, which were rejected when he, himself beginning, made the qualitative transition of the leap from unbeliever to believer – if this is so, then everyone who, not entirely unfamiliar with learned scientificity and not bereft of willingness to learn, has understood it this way must also have felt his hard-pressed position when he in admiration learned to think meanly of his own insignificance in the face of those distinguished by learning and acumen and deserved renown, so that, seeking the fault in himself, he time and again returned to them, and when in despondency he had to admit that he himself was in the right. …. When someone is to leap he must certainly do it alone and also be alone in properly understanding that it is an impossibility. … the leap is the decision. …. I am charging the individual in question with not willing to stop the infinity of reflection. Am I requiring something of him, then? But on the other hand, in a genuinely speculative way, I assume that reflection stops of its own accord. Why, then, do I require something of him? And what do I require of him? I require a resolution. And in that I am right, for only in that way can reflection be stopped. But, on the other hand, it is never right for a philosopher to make sport of people and at one moment have reflection stop of its own accord in the absolute beginning, and at the next moment taunt someone who has only one flaw, that he is obtuse enough to believe the first, taunts him so as to help him in this fashion to the absolute beginning, which then occurs two ways. But if a resolution is required, presuppositionlessness is abandoned. The beginning can occur only when reflection is stopped, and reflection can be stopped only by something else, and this something else is something altogether different from the logical, since it is a resolution. Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, Hong p. 11-12, 102, 113

The implication of taking a leap of faith can, depending on the context, carry positive or negative connotations, as some feel it is a virtue to be able to believe in something without evidence while others feel it is foolishness. It is a hotly contested theological and philosophical concept. For instance, the association between “blind faith” and religion is disputed by those with deistic principles who argue that reason and logic, rather than revelation or tradition, should be the basis of the belief “that God has existed in human form, was born and grew up”. Jesus is the “paradox”, the “absolute paradox”. When Christianity becomes a scholarly enterprise one tends to “reflect oneself into Christianity” but Kierkegaard says, one should “reflect oneself out of something else and become, more and more simply, a Christian.”

Kierkegaard was concerned that individuals would spend all their lives trying to define Christianity, love, God, the Trinity, sin, et cetera, and never get to the business of “actually” making a decision in time to become a Christian who could then act on the basis of that decision. He discussed the inner and the outer relationship existing in belief. “Compared with the Hegelian notion that the outer is the inner and the inner the outer, it certainly is extremely original. But it would be even more original if the Hegelian axiom were not only admired by the present age but also had retroactive power to abolish, backward historically, the distinction between the visible and invisible Church. The invisible Church is not a historical phenomenon; as such it cannot be observed objectively at all, because it is only in subjectivity.” There has to be a balance between objective and subjective knowledge. Hegel went to the extreme objective side so Kierkegaard decided to go to the extreme subjective side.

The decision rests in the subject; the appropriation is the paradoxical inwardness that is specifically different from all other inwardness. Being a Christian is defined not by the “what” of Christianity but by the “how” of the Christian. This “how” can fit only one thing, the absolute paradox. Therefore there is no vague talk that being a Christian means to accept and accept, and accept altogether differently, to appropriate, to have faith, to appropriate in faith altogether differently (nothing but rhetorical and sham definitions); but to have faith is specifically qualified differently from all other appropriation and inwardness. Faith is the objective uncertainty with the repulsion of the absurd, held fast in the passion of inwardness, which is the relation of inwardness intensified to its highest. This formula fits only the one who has faith, no one else, not even a lover, or an enthusiast, or a thinker, but solely and only the one who has faith, who relates himself to the absolute paradox. Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Vol I Hong p. 610-611

Even some theistic realms of thought do not agree with the implications that this phrase carries. For instance, C. S. Lewis argues against the idea that Christianity requires a “leap of faith,” (as the term is most commonly understood). One of Lewis’ arguments is that supernaturalism, a basic tenet of Christianity, can be logically inferred based on a teleological argument regarding the source of human reason. Nonetheless, some Christians are less critical of the term and do accept that religion requires a “leap of faith”.

What is often missed is that Kierkegaard himself was an orthodox, Scandinavian Lutheran in conflict with the liberal theological establishment of his day. His works built on one another and culminated with the orthodox Lutheran conception of a God that unconditionally accepts man, faith itself being a gift from God, and that the highest moral position is reached when a person realizes this and, no longer depending upon her or himself, takes the leap of faith into the arms of a loving God. In a Lutheran context, the leap of faith becomes much clearer.

Suppose that Jacobi himself has made the leap; suppose that with the aid of eloquence he manages to persuade a learner to want to do it. Then the learner has a direct relation to Jacobi and consequently does not himself come to make the leap. The direct relation between one human being and another is naturally much easier and gratifies one’s sympathies and one’s own need much more quickly and ostensibly more reliable. It is understood directly, and there is no need of that dialectic of the infinite to keep oneself infinitely resigned and infinitely enthusiastic in the sympathy of the infinite, whose secret is the renunciation of the fancy that in his God-relationship one human being is not the equal of another, which makes the presumed teacher a learner who attends to himself and makes all teaching a divine jest, because every human being is essentially taught solely by God. Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Vol I Hong p. 610-611

Jacobi, Hegel, and C.S. Lewis wrote about Christianity in accordance with their understanding but Kierkegaard didn’t want to do that. He felt that it was too dangerous to put in writing what was most holy to himself. He said, “Not even what I am writing here is my innermost meaning. I cannot entrust myself to paper in that way, even though I see it in what is written. Think what could happen! The paper could disappear; there could be a fire where I live and I could live in uncertainty about whether it was burned or still existed; I could die and thus leave it behind me; I could lose my mind and my innermost being could be in alien hands; I could go blind and not be able to find it myself, not know whether I stood with it in my hands without asking someone else, not know whether he lied, whether he was reading what was written there or something else in order to sound me out.” Kierkegaard was of the opinion that faith is something different from other things: unexplainable and inexplicable. The more a person tries to explain personal faith to another, the more entangled that person becomes in language and semantics but “recollection” is “das Zugleich, the all-at-once,” that always brings him back to himself.

The world has perhaps always had a lack of what could be called authentic individualities, decisive subjectivities, those artistically permeated with reflection, the independent thinkers who differ from the bellowers and the didacticizers. The more objective the world and individual subjectivities become, the more difficult it becomes with the religious categories, which are precisely in the sphere of subjectivity. That is why it is almost an irreligious exaggeration to want to be world-historical, scholarly-scientific, and objective with regard to the religious. But I have not summoned Lessing in order to have someone to appeal to, because even wanting to be subjective enough to appeal to another subjectivity is already an attempt to become objective, is a first step toward getting the majority vote on one’s side and one’s God-relationship transformed into a speculative enterprise on the basis of probability and partnership and fellow shareholders is the first step toward becoming objective. Concluding Unscientific Postscript p. 66

The appropriation of faith

Kierkegaard stuck to his concept of Christianity as an inner struggle where the single individual stands before God rather than before others. Because standing before God is where the decisive struggle occurs for each single individual. Each single individual who has an “interest” in becoming a Christian has a God-relationship which is different from any other individual. The more we look to “others” for our God-relationship, the more we have a simulated, mediated relationship with an idea. The idea, or ideal, isn’t the highest. But getting the idea off the paper or the drawing board and putting it to use in life is the absolute for the Christian. In Works of Love (1847) he wrote, “Love for the neighbor does not want to be sung about, it wants to be accomplished.” Christ didn’t say one should think about loving the neighbor, he said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22.39) He put it this way in Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions (1845) in Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846) in Sickness Unto Death (1849) and again in Works of Love (1847).

Ah, it is much easier to look to the right and to the left than to look into oneself, much easier to haggle and bargain just as it is also much easier to underbid than to be silent-but the more difficult is still the one thing needful. Even in daily life everyone experiences that it is more difficult to stand directly before the person of distinction, directly before his royal majesty, than to move in the crowd; to stand alone and silent directly before the sharp expert is more difficult than to speak in a common harmony of equals-to say nothing of being alone directly before the Holy One and being silent. Søren Kierkegaard, Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions p. 31

Where is the boundary for the single individual in his concrete existence between what is lack of will and what is lack of ability; what is indolence and earthly selfishness and what is the limitation of finitude? For an existing person, when is the period of preparation over, when this question will not arise again in all its initial, troubled severity; when is the time in existence that is indeed a preparation? Let all the dialecticians convene-they will not be able to decide this for a particular individual in concreto. Søren Kierkegaard Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Hong p. 490

The lowest form of offense, humanly speaking the most innocent, is to leave the whole issue of Christ undecided, to pronounce in effect: ‘I don’t presume to judge the matter; I do not believe, but I pass no judgement.” ….. The next form of offense is the negative, but passive form. Certainly it feels it cannot take no notice of Christ, leaving this business of Christ in abeyance and carrying on a busy life is something it is incapable of. But believing is something it cannot do either; so it stays staring at one and the same point, at the paradox. …. The final stage of offense is the positive form. It declares Christianity to be untruth and a lie. It denies Christ (that he has existed and that he is the one he claims to be) either Docetically or rationalistically, so that either Christ does not become a particular human being, but only appears to do so, or he becomes only a particular human being. Søren Kierkegaard The Sickness Unto Death, Hannay p. 163-165

But when it is a duty to love, then no test is needed and no insulting foolhardiness of wanting to test, then love is higher than any test; it has already more than stood the test in the same sense as faith “more than conquers.” Testing is always related to possibility; it is always possible that what is being tested would not stand the test. Therefore, if someone wanted to test whether he has faith, or try to attain faith, this really means he will prevent himself from attaining faith; he will bring himself into the restlessness of craving where faith is never won, for “You shall believe.” Works of Love, p. 33

Suppose that there were two men: a double-minded man, who believes he has gained faith in a loving Providence, because he had himself experienced having been helped, even though he had hardheartedly sent away a sufferer whom he could have helped; and another man whose life, by devoted love, was an instrument in the hand of Providence, so that he helped many suffering ones, although the help he himself had wished continued to be denied him from year to year. Which of these two was in truth convinced that there is a loving Providence that cares for the suffering ones? Is it not a fair and a convincing conclusion: He that planted the ear, shall he not hear.(Psalms 94:9). But turn it around, and is the conclusion not equally fair and convincing: He whose life is sacrificing love shall he not trust that God is love? Yet in the press of busyness there is neither time nor quiet for the calm transparency which teaches equality, which teaches the willingness to pull in the same yoke with other men, that noble simplicity, that is in inner understanding with every man. There is neither time nor quiet to win such a conviction. Therefore, in the press of busyness even faith and hope and love and willing the Good become only loose words and double-mindedness. Or is it not double-mindedness to live without any conviction, or more rightly, to live in the constantly and continually changing fantasy that one has and that one has not a conviction!

In this fashion feeling deceives the busy one into double-mindedness. Perhaps after the flaming up of the contrition of repentance, if this turns into emptiness, he had a conviction, at least so he believed, that there is a mercy that forgives sins. But even in the forgiveness he strongly denied any implication that he had been guilty of anything. Hence he had, so he thought, believed in a conviction that such a mercy exists, and yet in practice he denied its existence; in practice his attitude seemed designed to prove that it did not exist. Suppose that there were two men, that double-minded one, and then another man who would gladly forgive his debtor, if he himself might only find mercy. Which of these two was in truth convinced that such a mercy exists? The latter had indeed this proof that it exists, that he himself practices it, the former has no proof at all for himself, and only meets the contrary proof which he himself presents. Or the double-minded one perhaps had a feeling for right and wrong. It blazed strongly in him, especially if someone would describe in a poetical manner the zealous men, who by self-sacrifice in the service of truth, maintained righteousness and justice. Then some wrong happened to this man himself. And then it seemed to him as if there must appear some sign in heaven and upon earth since the world order could no more sleep than he until this wrong was put right again. And this was not self-love that inflamed him, but it was a feeling for justice, so he thought. And when he obtained his rights, no matter how much wrong it had cost those around him, then once again he praised the perfection of the world. Feeling had indeed carried him away, but also it had so enraptured him that he had forgotten the most important of all: to support righteousness and justice with self-sacrifice in the service of the truth. For which of these two is really convinced that justice exists in the world: the one that suffers wrong for doing the right, or the one that does wrong in order to obtain his right? Søren Kierkegaard, (1846) Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, Steere p. 111-113

Kierkegaard, Goethe, Marx, and Tolstoy

Kierkegaard questioned how a person changes. Some, like Hegel and Goethe, believed that an external event was required for a new epoch to begin. Kierkegaard disagreed because something might never happen in an external way that would cause a person to change and a possibility for a better life might be lost. Marx followed after Hegel and Goethe but Tolstoy agreed more with Kierkegaard in his “view of life”.

Goethe may have been mocking the idea that the birth of Christ was what made him important or he may have seriously thought that his, Goethe’s, own birth made him important. Kierkegaard didn’t believe that Christ had this “upside-downness that wanted to reap before it sowed or this kind of cowardliness that wanted to have certainty before it began.” Goethe began his autobiography with the certainty that his life was going to have a great effect on the world stage.

Within the first twenty pages of his autobiography Goethe had pointed to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake as another great life changing event in his life. Goethe’s book was translated Truth and Poetry but was also translated Truth and Fiction. Both authors seemed to be against having a fictional existence. Goethe believed the existence of Christ was being fictionalized while Kierkegaard believed the existence Goethe wrote about in his own autobiography was fictional – and much of it was.

On the 28th of August, 1749, at mid-day, as the clock struck twelve, I came into the world, at Frankfort-on-the-Maine. My horoscope was propitious: the sun stood in the sign of the Virgin, and had culminated for the day; Jupiter and Venus looked on him with a friendly eye, and Mercury not adversely; while Saturn and Mars kept themselves indifferent; the Moon alone, just full, exerted the power of her reflection all the more, as he had then reached her planetary hour. She opposed herself, therefore, to my birth, which could not be accomplished until this hour was passed. These good aspects, which the astrologers managed subsequently to reckon very auspicious for me, may have been the causes of my preservation; for, through the unskillfulness [sic] of the midwife, I came into the world as dead, and only after various efforts was I enabled to see the light. This event, which had put our household into straights, turned to the advantage of my fellow-citizens, inasmuch as my grandfather, the Schultheiss (judge), John Wolfgang Textor, took occasion from it to have an accoucheur established, and to introduce or revive the tuition of midwives, which may have done some good to those who were born after me.

Count Leo Tolstoy said he found out “there was no God” in 1838 when he was 12 years old. He had to work through this idea for the next 38 years until he could come away with a method by which he could believe, not only in God but in Christ. Kierkegaard heard the same from Hegelian philosophers and worked through his doubt to belief but he opposed that method. His thought was to start with faith and proceed forward making positive steps rather than always falling back to start over after doubt had prevailed. He said, “False doubt doubts everything except itself; with the help of faith, the doubt that saves doubts only itself.”

Søren Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard didn’t want to argue about his faith any more than he wanted to argue about why he may or may not get married or become a professor. He just wanted to make the movement from “possibility to actuality” and knew that he would just be wasting time if he tried to explain himself.

I think that, just as a Christian always ought to be able to explain his faith, so also a married man ought to be able to explain his marriage, not simply to anyone who deigns to ask, but to anyone he thinks worthy of it, or even if, as in this case, unworthy, he finds it propitious to do so. Either/Or Part II, p. 88-89, Hong

Tolstoy tried to explain the method he used to come to grips with the Christian religion. He acted on his beliefs by freeing his serfs, writing books to help them learn to read and giving them land to farm and live on. He didn’t argue and reason with his neighbors; he just did what he set out to do.

Karl Marx complained about Hegelian philosophers in Theses on Feuerbach in this way, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways: the point, however, is to change it.” Walter Kaufmann changed the quote to reflect the Kierkegaardian difference in his 1959 book, From Shakespeare to Existentialism:

His [Kierkegaard’s] relation to philosophy is best expressed by changing one small word in Marx’s famous dictum: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways: the point, however, is to change”-not “it,” as Marx said, but ourselves.” p. 202. Tolstoy said the same thing: “There can be only one permanent revolution — a moral one; the regeneration of the inner man. How is this revolution to take place? Nobody knows how it will take place in humanity, but every man feels it clearly in himself. And yet in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.”

Only in changing oneself is one equal with another, according to Kierkegaard because, in Christianity, all are equal before God. The world is too abstract to change; but the single individual, you yourself: that is something concrete. Kierkegaard put it this way in his Upbuilding Discourses of 1843-1844 and in his Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits of 1847:

The idea so frequently stressed in Holy Scripture for the purpose of elevating the lowly and humbling the mighty, the idea that God does not respect the status of persons, this idea the apostle wants to bring to life in the single individual for application in his life. […] In the hallowed places, in every upbuilding view of life, the thought arises in a person’s soul that help him to fight the good fight with flesh and blood, with principalities and powers, and in the fight to free himself for equality before God, whether this battle is more a war of aggression against the differences that want to encumber him with worldly favoritism or a defensive war against the differences that want to make him anxious in worldly perdition. Only in this way is equality the divine law, only in this way is the struggle the truth, only in this way does the victory have validity- only when the single individual fights for himself with himself within himself and does not unseasonably presume to help the whole world to obtain external equality, which is of very little benefit, all the less so because it never existed, if for no other reason than that everyone would come to thank him and become unequal before him, only in this way is equality the divine law.

Are you now living in such a way that you are aware as a single individual, that in every relationship in which you relate yourself outwardly you are aware that you are also relating yourself to yourself as a single individual, that even in the relationship we human beings so beautifully call the most intimate (marriage) you recollect that you have an even more intimate relationship, the relationship in which you as a single individual relate yourself to yourself before God?

The idea behind world history and constant quantification dehumanizes the quality known as the single individual and can produce “soul rot due to the monotony of self-concern and self-preoccupation” with anxiety about where you fit within the system. Language comes to the aid with copious quantities of words to explain everything. But Kierkegaard says: “the pathos of the ethical is to act.”

The observer stares numbly into the immense forest of the generations, and like someone who cannot see the forest for the trees, he sees only the forest, not a single tree. He hangs up curtains systematically and uses people and nations for that purpose – individual human beings are nothing to him; even eternity itself is draped with systematic surveys and ethical meaninglessness. Poetry squanders poetically, but, far from fasting itself, it does not dare to presuppose the divine frugality of the infinite that ethically-psychologically does not need many human beings but needs the idea all the more. No wonder, then, that one even admires the observer when he is noble, heroic, or perhaps more correctly, absentminded enough to forget that he, too, is a human being, an existing individual human being! By steadily staring into that world-historical drama, he dies and departs; nothing of him remains, or he himself remains like a ticket the usher holds in his hands as a sign that now the spectator has gone. If, however, becoming subjective is the highest task assigned to a human being, then everything turns out beautifully. From this it first follows that he no longer has anything to do with world history but in that respect leaves everything to the royal poet. Second, there is not squandering, for even though individuals are as innumerable as the sands of the sea, the task of becoming subjective is indeed assigned to every person. Finally, this does not deny the reality of the world-historical development, which, reserved for God and eternity, has both its time and its place.

As a rule repentance is identified by one thing, that it acts. In our day, it perhaps is less subject to being misunderstood in this way. I believe that neither Young nor Talleyrand nor a more recent author was right in what they said about language, why it exists, for I believe that it exists to strengthen and assist people in abstaining from action. What to me is nonsense will perhaps have a great effect and perhaps most of my acquaintances, if they were to read these letters, would say: “Well, now we have understood him.”

You are the one

The difference between Kierkegaard and Marx is that one applied everything to himself while the other applied everything to someone else or to the whole world. Appropriating information or a life-view is difficult and it’s more difficult the less one relies on the opinions of others. Abraham just heard God’s promises and they were unreasonable but he had faith. This idea that the world has to be reasonable or respond to human reason is one that omits the world of the spirit. The world is abstract, the church is abstract, the world of the spirit is abstract but the single individual is concrete if one wills to be that. And the single individual relates himself or herself to the world, the church, the world of the spirit, the environment, the established order, the educational facilities in a unique way according to Kierkegaard. The leap means to stop relating yourself to a crowd or a race and then to the world, the church, the world of the spirit, the environment, etc. Once the individual chooses to do that, the leap is made, resolutions become possibilities and one’s personality can be developed in freedom.

David and Nathan

David and Nathan

Kierkegaard started out, in Either/Or Part 1, by saying, ““You know how the prophet Nathan dealt with King David when he presumed to understand the parable the prophet had told him but was unwilling to understand that it applied to him. Then to make sure, Nathan added: You are the man, O King. In the same way I also have continually tried to remind you that you are the one who is being discussed and you are the one who is spoken to.” He discussed this again in another way in Either/Or Part II where he begins: “The esthetic view also considers the personality in relation to the surrounding world, and the expression for this is in its recurrence in the personality of enjoyment. But the esthetic expression for enjoyment in its relation to the personality is mood. That is, the personality is present in the mood, but it is dimly present. … The mood of the person who lives ethically is centralized. He is not in the mood, and he is not mood, but he has mood and has the mood within himself. What he works for is continuity, and this is always the master of mood. His life does not lack mood-indeed, it has a total mood. But this is acquired; it is what would be called aequale tempermentum [even disposition]. But this is no esthetic mood, and no person has it by nature or immediately.” Later, in 1845, he repeated the same point in Stages on Life’s Way with a story about an individual with an addiction to gambling and another individual who was a gambler but wasn’t in despair because of it:

A gambler comes to a standstill, repentance seizes him, he renounces all gambling. Although he has been standing on the brink of the abyss, repentance nevertheless hangs on to him, and it seems to be successful. Living withdrawn as he does now, possibly saved, he one day sees the body of a man drawn out on the Seine: a suicide, and this was a gambler just as he himself had been, and he knew that this gambler had struggled, had fought a desperate battle to resist his craving. My gambler had loved this man, not because he was a gambler, but because he was better than he was. What then? It is unnecessary to consult romances and novels, but even a religious speaker would very likely break off my story a little earlier and have it end with my gambler, shocked by the sight, going home and thanking God for his rescue. Stop. First of all we should have a little explanation, a judgment pronounced on the other gambler; every life that is not thoughtless eo ipso indirectly passes judgment. If the other gambler had been callous, then he could certainly conclude: He did not want to be saved. But this was not the case. No, my gambler is a man who has understood the old saying de te narratur fabula [ the tale is told to you]; he is no modern fool who believes that everyone should court the colossal task of being able to rattle off something that applies to the whole human race but not to himself. So what judgment shall he pass, and he cannot keep from doing it, for this de te is for him the most sacred law of life, because, it is the covenant of humanity. Søren Kierkegaard Stages on Life’s Way p. 477-478 Hong

The visible Church has suffered so broad an expansion that all the original relationships have been reversed. Just as it once required energy and determination to become a Christian, so now, though the renunciation be not praiseworthy, it requires courage and energy to renounce the Christian religion, while it needs only thoughtlessness to remain a nominal Christian. The baptism of children may nevertheless be defensible; no new custom needs to be introduced. But since the circumstances are so radically changed, the clergy should themselves be able to perceive that if it was once their duty, when only a very few were Christians, to win men for Christianity, their present task must rather be to win men by deterring them-for their misfortune is that they are already Christians of a sort. Everyone knows that the most difficult leap, even in the physical realm, is when a man leaps into the air from a standing position and comes down again on the same spot. The leap becomes easier in the degree to which some distance intervenes between the initial position and the place where the leap takes off. And so it is also with respect to a decisive movement in the realm of the spirit. The most difficult decisive action is not that in which the individual is far removed from the decision (as when a non-Christian is about to decide to become one), but when it is as if the matter were already decided. What is baptism without personal appropriation? It is an expression for the possibility that the baptized child may become a Christian, neither more nor less.

  • Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 326-327 (Problem of the Fragments) 1846, Swenson and Lowrie translation, 1941 Princeton University Press

Throughout his writings Kierkegaard reiterated his emphasis on the single individual learning how to make a resolution. One example is the following prayer from his April 26, 1848 book Christian Discourses.

Father in heaven, Thy grace and mercy change not with the changing times, they grow not older with the course of years, as if, like a man, Thou wert more gracious one day than another, more gracious at first than at the last; Thy grace remains unchanged as Thou are unchangeable, it is ever the same, eternally young, new every day-for every day Thou sayest, ‘yet today’ (Hebrews 3:13). Oh, but when one givest heed to this word, is impressed by it, and with a serious, holy resolution says to himself, ‘yet today’-then for him this means that this very day he desires to be changed, desires that this very day might become important to him above all other days, important because of renewed confirmation in the good he once chose, or perhaps even because of his first choosing of the good. It is an expression of Thy grace and mercy that every day Thou dost say, ‘yet today’, but it would be to forfeit Thy grace and mercy and the season of grace if a man were to say unchangeably from day to day, ‘yet today’; for it is Thou that bestowest the season of grace ‘yet today’, but it is man that must grasp the season of grace ‘yet today’. Thus it is we talk with Thee, O God; between us there is a difference of language, and yet we strive to make ourselves understood of Thee, and Thou doest not blush to be called our God. That word which when Thou, O God, dost utter it is the eternal expression of Thy unchangeable grace, that same word when a man repeats it with due understanding is the strongest expression of the deepest change and decision-yea, as if all were lost if this change and decision did not come to pass ‘yet today’. So do Thou grant to them that today are here assembled, to them that without external prompting, and hence the more inwardly, have resolved ‘yet today’ to seek reconciliation with Thee by the confession of their sins, to them do Thou grant that this day may be truly blessed to them, that they may hear His voice whom Thou didst send to the world, the voice of the Good Shepherd, that He may know them, and that they may follow Him.

  • Soren Kierkegaard, Christian Discourses April 26, 1848 Lowrie 1961 Oxford University Press p. 275-276

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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