Faith and Paradox: S0ren Kierkegaard

Foolishness to the Greeks

In 1 Cor. 1.23 Paul declares the Cross to be foolishness to the Greeks. Instead of choosing the wise, powerful and noble of the world, God chose what is foolish, weak and despised. The foolishness of the gospel according to the wisdom of the world is dramatically performed in Paul’s speech on the Areopagus to the learned Athenians, whom the text identifies as Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. While some in the audience believe Paul’s preaching about the crucified and risen Jesus, others scoff at the raising of the dead (Acts 17.16-34).

Several Christian thinkers are well known for revelling in the foolish or paradoxical nature of Christianity. While the Roman apologist Tertullian (160-225) did not actually say, ‘I believe because it is absurd’, as is commonly thought, this striking line fairly summarizes some of his assertions. Even the Benedictine monk Peter Damian (c. 1007-1072/1073) claimed that Jesus did not choose philosophers as disciples, but mere fisherman. Finally, there is Blaise Pascal’s famous option for ‘the God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars’.1 For Pascal (1623-1662), the heart finally outruns reason: ‘this faith is in the heart, and makes us say not Scio [I know], but Credo [I believe].’* [1] [2]

The best-known modern advocate of the foolishness and paradox at the heart of Christianity was the Danish thinker Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). For Kierkegaard, the distinguishing mark of Christianity is the ‘absolute paradox’ it places before us in the figure of the God-man Jesus Christ. He is a ‘paradox’ as he is the walking unity of apparent contradictions. The transcendent, eternal, infinite God became this earthly, temporal and finite man without ceasing to be God. To speak of Jesus, we need to combine impossibly contradictory things both of which are necessary to his single reality.

As a paradox, the Incarnation is an offense to reason in terms of both its ‘loftiness’ and its ‘lowliness’.[3] Jesus Christ appears as a homeless peasant, but speaks as God does, forgives sin and demands that we give our all to him. This lowly man speaks and does ‘lofty’ things. Conversely, the doctrine of the incarnation claims that the Creator of all known and unknown universes, dimensions and times became just this one person who lived long ago in a distant place, gathered a few followers, gave them some cryptic sayings and died on a Cross at the hands of his creatures. The majestic God speaks and does ‘lowly’ things. Even more offensively, Jesus expects all the billions of people in the world, scattered through all times and places, to learn about him from a slow oral transmission, rather than constantly and clearly broadcasting it across the skies for all to see.

Kierkegaard eagerly underlined the paradox of Christianity because he thought it needed to be harder to be a Christian. In nineteenth-century Denmark, Christianity was the official state religion. So any Dane was automatically a Christian. Having faith was the norm. There was also ‘the System’, meaning Hegel’s thought, in which everything - God, the Cross, the Napoleonic wars, you, that tree - had a rational place within the sweeping unfolding of reason. In response to both Christendom and ‘the System’, Kierkegaard highlighted the difficult and arduous process of becoming a Christian. For his contemporaries, being a Christian meant being born into their society. Kierkegaard pointed at becoming a Christian by accenting its paradoxes and offensiveness. He said the individual matters.

One tactic Kierkegaard adopted for making faith once again be faith was ‘indirect communication’. Christianity’s claims about Jesus Christ and the response of faith in him are not like other forms of knowledge and reception, as when a chemistry professor writes a chemical pathway on the board and her class scribbles it down. Having faith in Jesus is not like knowing one more interesting fact about the world. Religious or existential concerns cannot be ‘communicated directly’, as they aren’t like chemistry equations but require passion, subjective appropriation and attuning one’s whole life to this truth. How, then, can the presentation match the content? How does one talk about matters of life and existence in a way which causes people to stop and reflect upon the course and future of their lives and not simply adopt what someone else says? ‘Indirect communication’ is what it takes.

To speak indirectly, Kierkegaard developed full-blown personas with their own viewpoints about life and then wrote works from their perspectives or even staged conversations between them within his books. Readers of Kierkegaard’s works will meet a cast of characters: Johannes Climacus, Vitor Heremita, Johannes de Silentio, Hilarius Bookbinder, Johannes Anti-Climacus, Vigilius Haufniensis, Constantin Constantius, Judge William, the Young Man and more. (As Kierkegaard published whole books under the name of some of these characters, it is important to remember who the stated ‘author’ of the work is, as one cannot always assume that the viewpoint is Kierkegaard’s own.) Each one of Kierkegaard’s personas or ‘masks’ has a different, serious and well thought-through view on life, even the ones who think that the pursuit of enjoyment and entertainment is the highest and best type of life. This style of writing, forcing one to come to grip with different ways of life and thinking, generates reflection on how to live and to exist.

Kierkegaard’s most outstandingly paradoxical characters are Johannes Climacus, the ‘author’ of Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript, and Anti-Climacus, the ‘author’ of Training in Christianity and The Sickness unto Death. The relationship between Johannes Climacus and Anti-Climacus, and between them and Kierkegaard himself, is complex. Johannes Climacus (John the Climber) says that he would not call himself religious (which is somewhat strange given that he is named for a sixth-century monk who wrote The Ladder of Divine Ascent), but is absorbed in the difficulty of becoming a Christian. Anti-Climacus, on the other hand, represents for Kierkegaard a kind of ‘ideal’ yet almost inhuman type of Christianity. Kierkegaard notes that Anti-Climacus has a bit of ‘the demonic’ in him, but still insists that his portrayal of the Christian ideal is ‘sound’. (In his Journals Kierkegaard places himself higher than Johannes Climacus but lower than Anti- Climacus.)

Johannes Climacus calls the idea that the eternal God became one particular man ‘absurd’.[4] Climacus is also responsible for Kierkegaard’s well-known line that ‘truth is subjectivity’. This does not mean that if one believes hard enough, then everything and anything can be ‘true’. This commonplace view would not be very paradoxical or interesting. Furthermore, Climacus also says that Christianity actually thinks that subjectivity is ‘untruth’ on account of sin. So perhaps we should not trust our own thoughts, passions and desires too much. But Climacus does think that there is more ‘truth’ in the pagan’s passionate worship of an idol than in a Christian’s uncaring recitation of the creed. By giving utter devotion to his god of stone and wood, the pagan grasps that religious existence is a matter of surrender and self-giving. It grasps the whole individual. The absolute paradox of Christianity generates this kind of impassioned and suffering believing or pathos (passion). In doing so, the paradox creates an individual. It invokes within a person concerned about external beauty (aesthetics) or external obligations (ethics) a tumultuous ‘inwardness’ or subjectivity (religion). The paradox does this because the paradox can neither be finally comprehended nor gotten rid of: ‘Faith must not be satisfied with incomprehensibility, because the very relation to or repulsion from the incomprehensible, the absurd, is the expression for the passion of faith.’[5] It is this ‘passion of faith’ which snatches the individual from being just another unthinking part of ‘the System’ or from assuming that faith is natural or easy.

Fear and Trembling contains Kierkegaard’s most famous account of faith. It is ‘written’ by Johannes de Silentio (John the Silent), who repeatedly concedes that he is not Christian. He says he wants to understand Abraham, and especially the faith and anxiety Abraham must have felt when told to sacrifice his only son Isaac (Gen. 22.1-19). The tale of the binding of Isaac is fascinating because its laconic and matter-of-fact narration of these strange events leaves so many questions unanswered. Fear and Trembling begins with four short retellings of the story. In each retelling the events are broadly those of the biblical text, but Johannes de Silentio adds different twists and revelations of the characters’ thoughts and feelings. The results are haunting, and their effect is to make this ‘father of faith’, who trusted God and did what God had commanded him, a paradoxical and enigmatic figure.

When he pursues three ethical questions about the story, Johannes de Silentio introduces two similar yet finally very different figures: the ‘tragic hero’ (or ‘knight of resignation’) and the ‘knight of faith’. Johannes de Silentio brings up three tragic heroes whose stories seem similar to that of Abraham. Agamemnon is told to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia so that the goddess Artemis could be appeased and his ships could sail to Troy. Jephthah in the Old Testament makes a vow to God for victory in battle and then sacrifices his own daughter when she unexpectedly greets the victorious Jephthah first. Junius Brutus of Rome promises to hunt down all traitors and in the end must kill his own sons for treason. As Johannes de Silentio sees it, in each case one set of ethical duties, the ethical relationship between parents and children, is suspended or broken for the sake of a higher set of ethical duties, the city or society as a whole. These figures thus remain within ‘the ethical’ and ‘the universal’.[6]

Johannes de Silentio adds that in ‘paganism’ the universal and the ethical are the divine, the highest and eternal order of things. The tragic hero is able to renounce and surrender the finite and the temporal (e.g. one’s children) and focus on the infinite and the eternal (the ethical and universal). This surrender is not an easy matter, but requires commitment, courage and loss. The knight of resignation, or even ‘infinite resignation’, accepts this loss, and finds comfort in the universal and eternal, meaning the ethical nature of things.

Abraham is not a tragic hero, but a knight of faith. Abraham does not exchange one set of ethical duties for another, but moves beyond the ethical and the universal altogether. In fact, ‘the ethical’ exists for him as a kind of temptation. Being a good father to his son, following one’s parental duties, would in this case mean disobeying the command of God. Abraham moves beyond the sphere of the ethical entirely. He can do so because of his faith and trust in God. Abraham believes that God can and will return Isaac to him, not in the hereafter, but in this life. He trusts the God who can bring back the dead (Heb. 11.18) and who will bring Isaac back to him. It is by Abraham’s faith that an act which should be reckoned as attempted murder becomes a holy act, one pleasing to God. It is because of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son that Abraham is then given Isaac back. Faith is, accordingly, a ‘prodigious paradox’.[7] It makes the individual (Abraham) higher than the universal (the ethical). It puts the individual directly into contact with the absolute (God), rather than having the relationship between the individual and the divine mediated through the universal (the ethical).

The tragic hero has one movement. He renounces the temporal and the finite for the sake of the eternal and infinite. In the eternal and infinite, the tragic hero finds consolation and joy. Abraham’s faith has two movements. The first is like that of the tragic hero. Abraham renounces the world by giving up Isaac, the promised child through whom he would become a father of many nations. Thus the tragic hero’s resignation is ‘half way’ to faith and serves as a kind of transition step. Yet the second movement is that Abraham believes that he will get Isaac back in the here and now. In this movement, the knight of faith leaves the consolation of the eternal and infinite and returns to the finite and temporal. Johannes de Silentio thinks that the first step, the renunciation of the temporal, can be done. It is difficult, but it is within one’s powers. The second step, however, Johannes thinks, is not within any person’s powers to achieve by themselves. One can weep for the tragic hero, but before Abraham, the knight of faith, one can only feel a kind of terrible awe.

Two of Johannes de Silentio’s targets here are Kant and Hegel. Kant thought that the principles of reason - including those of practical reason, or ethics - were universally binding and necessary truths. Any reasonable person, regardless of time or place, could reflect upon life and come to certain necessary and universal truths about ethics. Hegel thought that Kant’s ethics were too abstract and general to be of much use within life. For Hegel reason is manifested, or mediated, through the demands of law, social customs and intuitions, which can change over time. Within this short story from Genesis, however, we find a divine command addressed to one specific individual, not a social custom or something true for every reasonable being. We find a man who believes in the absurd and paradoxical, that Isaac will be returned to him, and this man goes on to be called the father of faith.

In the true style of indirect communication, the positions of Anti-Climacus, Johannes Climacus and Johannes de Silentio should not be thought of as ‘objective knowledge’ which we can just adopt as our own. In their very plurality and disagreements with each other they are supposed to be spurs for own reflections upon existence. Kierkegaard’s own thought remained in motion even after publishing these pseudonymous works. Kierkegaard later began to publish various ‘edifying discourses’ under his own name. These discourses seem less concerned about provoking ‘infinite subjectivity’ or ‘inwardness’ than consoling and encouraging Christians who suffer on account of following Christ. While the notion of offence remains, faith also becomes a matter of confidence, of expecting victory in sorrows and sufferings: the theme of love becomes heightened. (In his Journals, Kierkegaard even criticizes Luther for saying that we can only love our neighbour and have faith in God, rather than being able to love God as well.)

Scholars still argue about whether Kierkegaard is an irrationalist. In his Journals, Kierkegaard noted that ‘when the believer has faith, the absurd is not the absurd - faith transforms it’.[8] The exact phrase ‘leap of faith’ cannot be found in either Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous works or those published under his own name.[9] Even his style of indirect communication is an impetus to thought about existence and even to modes of existence which thought might have difficulty understanding, but not faith.

Study questions

  • 1. Is the Incarnation ‘paradoxical’ or ‘foolish’?
  • 2. Does faith ever lose its paradoxical or apparently foolish nature? Should it?
  • 3. Is the individual higher than the universal/ethical?
  • 4. Does Kierkegaard’s method of ‘indirect communication’ seem helpful or just confusing?

Further reading

Gen. 22.1-19; Judg. 11.29-40; Heb. 11.1-19.

Kierkegaard, S0ren, ‘Blessed Is He Whosoever Is Not Offended in Me’, sections A, B, C of part II of Training in Christianity, trans. Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1944), pp. 79-123.

  • -, ‘Tuning Up’ and ‘A Tribute to Abraham’, in C. Stephen Evans and Sylvia Walsh
  • (eds), trans. Sylvia Walsh, Fear and Trembling (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 7-11; 12-20.


  • [1] Blaise Pascal, Pensees, trans. Roger Ariew (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004), p. 266.
  • [2] As quoted in Michael Moriarty, ‘Grace and Religious Belief in Pascal’, in Nicholas Hammond (ed.), TheCambridge Companion to Pascal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 144-164 (155).
  • [3] See Soren Kierkegaard (Anti-Climacus), Training in Christianity and the Edifying Discourse Which'Accompanied' It, trans. Walter Lowrie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1941), pp. 86-108.
  • [4] S0ren Kierkegaard (Johannes Climacus), Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. David F. Swensonand Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), p. 188.
  • [5] Kierkegaard (Johannes Climacus), Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 540.
  • [6] S0ren Kierkegaard (Johannes de Silentio), Fear and Trembling ed. C. Stephen Evans and Sylvia Walsh,trans. Sylvia Walsh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 50-51.
  • [7] Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, p. 46.
  • [8] S0ren Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, vol. 1(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967), 10, p. 7.
  • [9] As pointed out by Alastair McKinnon, ‘Kierkegaard and the Leap of Faith’, Kierkegaardiana 16 (1993),pp. 107-125.
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