The Treason of Stupidity: Soren Kierkegaard's Critique of Christian Apologetics in "The Sickness Unto Death"
by Jonathan Fox
If there is a single over-arching theme in the writings of Soren Kierkegaard, it is criticism. When his attacks were not focused on Christendom, he was targeting the Danish weekly The Corsair, or the philosophical system of G.W.F. Hegel. In Part Two of his work The Sickness unto Death, (Note: Kierkegaard wrote The Sickness unto Death under the pseudonym Anti-Climacus, who represented the position of the ‘ideal-Christian’ within Kierkegaard’s dialectic. So we may safely assume that Kierkegaard shares Anti-Climacus’s beliefs on this issue.) during a discussion of ‘the possibility of offense’ in the Christian doctrine of sin, Kierkegaard offers a twofold critique of apologetics, or the attempt to defend Christianity. He criticizes apologetics on the grounds that such a defense of Christianity too readily acquiesces to the philosophical system under which the attack was made, and with the claim that it is vain to defend Christ to the nonbeliever, since such a man’s choice not to believe is psychological rather than intellectual. His two criticisms here correspond to what he calls “the two dialectical contradictions of Christianity” in Concluding Unscientific Postscript:
“There are two dialectical contradictions, first, the fact that this historical datum [the incarnation] is compounded in a way contradictory to all thinking, and [second,] the basing of one’s eternal happiness upon the relation to something historical [the incarnate Christ].”
So there is an inherent paradox in the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation itself, as well as that lowly man seeks his happiness in relation to an exalted God. These paradoxes can be called the paradox of the Incarnation, and the paradox of the self before God.
In his Addendum to Part Two of The Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard claims that each of these paradoxes is accepted completely by the Christian in faith, but that the paradoxes might occasion offense (Note: For the purposes of this paper, I will define offense as ‘the reaction of the nonbeliever to a doctrine such that he refuses to believe it,’ although Kierkegaard calls it “despair over the forgiveness of sins.” (The Sickness unto Death, 158). See also footnote 12 on ‘despair.’) from nonbelievers. Kierkegaard’s arguments in the Addendum state that the believer should not attempt to offer a defense in response, in the first place, so as not to acquiesce to a philosophical system that denies paradox, and in the second place, so as not to dignify the willful nonbeliever (and in so doing to demean Christianity) with such a response. I will argue in this paper that the first of Kierkegaard’s claims is right, simply because it is common sense, but that, based on reference to scripture and for the sake of internal consistency in The Sickness unto Death, the second part of his argument is right only insofar as a particular individual’s unbelief can truly be called willful.
In order to understand either of Kierkegaard’s objections to apologetics, it is important to understand first the sort of attack to which he urges the Christian not to respond. The first such attack Kierkegaard identifies is that which argues for the logical impossibility of Christian doctrines, such as the Incarnation. The paradox of the Incarnation does constitute for Kierkegaard a contradiction in terms, since he defines it as the union of the two diametrically opposite natures of the eternal and the temporal. According to the logical ‘system’ espoused by Hegel, such a union is absolutely impossible. And, the skeptic might continue, this means that Christianity is impossible. If this is the case, then the Christian is forced to abandon or to dilute the doctrine of the Incarnation. But Kierkegaard was always adamant in his critique of Hegel’s philosophical system, because he believed that men are so fully involved in the world as free agents that they cannot observe or describe it objectively.
So any attempt to defend Christianity within such a system, Kierkegaard believed, is a grave error. After all, within the Hegelian system, the Incarnation really is an irreconcilable contradiction of terms, a “breach with all thinking.” But in denying Hegel’s system as a method for inquiry, Kierkegaard deflects the attack with far greater success than if he had attempted to “remove the offense,” and does not cede any doctrinal ground. In fact, Kierkegaard’s concession that the Incarnation is, in fact, a “breach with all thinking,” so long as he rejects Hegel’s system, makes his view of agnostic faith all the more robust.
Kierkegaard employs a similar tactic in the same Addendum to deny an Aristotelian ethical position (Note: Aristotle espoused the ‘golden mean’ as an ethical principle. Kierkegaard refers to it as ‘virtue,’ and places it on a continuum between the extremes of sin (radical disobedience) and faith (absurd obedience.)) by stating “the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith.” It is this claim, in fact, that begins Kierkegaard’s entire discussion of offence; he here denies the primacy of exactly such moderation as would not allow the Christian to believe in the absurdity that is the paradox of the Incarnation.
In his "Attack upon Christendom," Kierkegaard caricatures those members of the Church who would engage in conversation with an adherent of the ‘system’ when he writes:
“Imagine a fortress, absolutely impregnable… There comes a new commandant. He conceives that it might be a good idea to build bridges over the moats… He transforms the fortress into a countryseat, and naturally the enemy takes it.”
“So it is with Christianity,” writes Kierkegaard. “They changed the method—and naturally the world conquered.” Many contemporary apologists, those who advocate natural theology or intelligent design especially, ought to consider Kierkegaard’s point carefully. A faulty philosophical method cannot be expected to yield true results; apologists should be wary of which systems they align themselves with for the sake of arguments.
But what of the atheists, of those who disagree with Kierkegaard’s denial of Aristotle or Hegel? After all, Kierkegaard can surely be accused of manipulating philosophy to fit his own presupposed theology. What is it but begging the question to claim that an anti-Christian philosophy is wrong merely because it is anti-Christian? Kierkegaard’s non-theological bases for denying Hegelianism were extensive, but I will not attempt to discuss them here. And his second criticism of apologetics, underlying his first, regards just those persons who disagree with the philosophical presuppositions of Christianity.
Kierkegaard’s primary concern in the Addendum to Sickness is the assertion that, fundamentally, the reason that skeptics cannot believe is not intellectual but psychological. It is despair, (Note: Despair is Kierkegaard’s main subject in The Sickness unto Death, and is tied to his notion of ‘anxiety’ as articulated in The Concept of Anxiety. Kierkegaard never gives a satisfactory definition of despair, except to say that it is “anxiety in the face of the eternal.” This can be understood to mean that, as anxiety is often like vertigo, the corresponding psychological response to the open choice of whether to leap from a great height, despair is the corresponding psychological response to the open choice of whether to take a leap of faith when confronted with the paradox of the self before God.) Kierkegaard claims, the psychological response of the nonbeliever to the paradox of the self before God, which is the true cause of a person’s unbelief. And so, writes Kierkegaard, “the real reason why people are offended by Christianity is that it is too elevated…that it wants to make man into something so extraordinary that he cannot grasp the thought of it.” Men only disbelieve Christianity because they do not have “the humble courage to dare to believe it.” In this case, the unbleiever’s offense at the paradox of the self before God becomes a sort of self-defeating envy of faith, brought upon him by his own pride and fear. Kierkegaard explains this parallel, “That which in an interpersonal relationship is admiration/envy, in the relationship between God and man is adoration/offense.” The pagan, according to Kierkegaard, proudly and stubbornly refuses to take the absurd leap of faith in adoration to God, and is thus offended by the elevated claims of Christianity for entirely psychological reasons. It is then that Kierkegaard concludes in his Addendum, “One can see now how extraordinarily…stupid it is to defend Christianity, how little knowledge of humanity it betrays…” A defense of Christianity can only compromise the doctrine it alleges to defend and betray the apologist’s own insecurities about it, since no intellectual argument could possible persuade the pagan away from his despair.
Before I critique this part of Kierkegaard’s argument, on the basis that it is not entirely consistent with his own thought or with scripture, I will offer an example from each of these sources in support of his argument. Kierkegaard tells in the Addendum a parable about “a poor day-laborer and the mightiest emperor who ever lived.” Imagine, says Kierkegaard, that the emperor offers this laborer an audience. The laborer would consider meeting the emperor the most important event in his life. But imagine, Kierkegaard continues, that this day-laborer, who has no reason even to think that the emperor knows of his existence, were to receive from the emperor an invitation to marry his daughter, the princess. Surely the laborer would think the emperor, or even he himself, had gone crazy. “Just a small kindness,” writes Kierkegaard, “that would make sense…but this, becoming a son-in-law, [is] too much.” What good would a defense on the emperor’s behalf be? The generosity of the offer is too absurd for the laborer to believe it.
Jesus tells a parable in the gospel of Luke with a similar theme. A rich man who has been sent to Hell implores Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers, claiming, “If someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” (Luke 16:30, NIV) “If they do not listen to [the scriptures,]” replies Abraham, “they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”(Luke 16:31) This story provides scriptural support for Kierkegaard’s psychology of unbelief; if meeting a resurrected man will not cause the rich man’s brother to repent, no sign from God will. Jesus seems to speak against the same demand for a defense when he says, “Why does this generation ask for a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, no sign will be given to it.”(Mark 8:12) Kierkegaard may certainly bring forth scripture in defense of his position.
But do these examples really mean that no one at all could possibly be won over by an intellectual defense? Certainly, apologetics cannot overcome every doubt, but it would seem that for some, a single doctrine is the final stumbling block, and a defense might help them overcome their doubt. Is it fair to make such generalizations as Kierkegaard does? He has implied that it is; yet elsewhere in Sickness, he makes a claim that suggests the contrary. Speaking of God’s judgment of individuals, he writes, “People can be…treated in many ways just like cattle, but to judge people like cattle is not possible… However many are judged, if there is to be any seriousness or truth in the judgment, then judgment is passed on each individual.” In the Addendum, Kierkegaard makes just the kind of psychological generalization that (he argues here) must be silly or false, in his claim that the real cause of men’s doubt is their proud despair. At the very least, to maintain consistency he must admit that the psychological judgment of whether a person’s doubt is willful must be passed on an individual basis. But if he cannot generalize, and if “God,” as he submits, “is the [only] judge,” then the Christian is right to offer a defense, “so that by all possible means [he] might save some.”(1 Corinthians 9:22)
Kierkegaard’s final criticism of apologetics is that it “[makes] Christianity out to be some miserable object that in the end must be rescued by a defense.” He seems convinced that to offer the skeptic any intellectual defense Christianity belief is to go so far as to blaspheme. Christ did, after all, deny that any sort of sign would be given that might make faith obsolete. Yet Christ himself does not seem quite so concerned as Kierkegaard about His own dignity. At the end of the gospel of John, Jesus appears to Thomas, who refuses yet to believe in the resurrection until he has seen the nail-marks in Jesus’ hands. One might expect, based on what He said earlier, that Jesus would reject Thomas’s request for a sign, but this is not what happens. Jesus says to Thomas, “Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”(John 20:27) And Thomas does believe. As if to clarify for Kierkegaard, Jesus tells Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed.”(John 20:29) Thomas is an example contrary to Kierkegaard’s generalization; he doubted the resurrection, but when the risen Christ revealed Himself to him, Thomas’s despair was overcome and he believed. To remain consistent with scripture, Kierkegaard must concede that not all who doubt Christianity necessarily lack the humility to believe, or at least that Christ would still have us seek these ‘pagans’ for His kingdom.
Kierkegaard’s critique of apologetics remains helpful in several respects: it does not allow the apologist to make himself a doormat to speculative philosophy, to neglect the role of agnostic faith, or to remove any ‘offensive’ doctrine from Christianity for the sake of the defense. But the Christian must still be ready “to make a defense to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope [he has.]”(1 Peter 3:15, ESV)
It is also important to recall, as anyone familiar with his prolific writings is well aware, that Kierkegaard was anything but anti-intellectual. In fact, Kierkegaard’s intellectual integrity far exceeds many contemporary apologists’. But some who appropriate Kierkegaard’s thought cannot be so favorably characterized, and they would do well to remember that, if all truth is God’s truth, intellectual inquiry cannot be called anti-Christian.
Wow. You just read a pretty long, academically inclined essay on Kierkegaard. Who are you?