Kierkegaard and the Modern Religious Mind

I met my wife-to-be when I was 17 and she 14. She was from Oregon, I was from New York. She grew up in a middle-class town consisting mainly of residents of Irish, Scottish, and German descent. I was raised lower-middle class in a homogenous population of second and third generation Italian-Americans. She loved sushi, salsa, smoked salmon, and lima beans. I subsisted mainly on pasta with red sauce and Iceberg lettuce salads. Distance, age, family background, economics, and a long list of other circumstances should have kept us apart. Yet we found ourselves spending a summer together and connected on wholly irrelevant grounds: we both are identical twins. Our relationship made little sense and most everyone we knew let us know it. My mother regularly reminded me of my full-blooded Italian heritage and the implications of “breaking the chain.” Her father, with a knowing grin on his face, thought that “dating” a scrawny boy of 17  who lived 3000 miles away wouldn’t last more than 3 months. Our twin siblings, amused by the quaint letter writing and phone calls, didn’t get it. Our worlds couldn’t have been more distant. Our families couldn’t have been more different. Yet we were in love. Damn the critics and naysayers and all the reasons why it wouldn’t work. We didn’t care what was reasonable. We cared about each other and we wanted nothing more than to be together and spend each waking minute with each other.

For Søren Kierkegaard, being a Christian is like falling in love. Most passionate, erotic relationships are not rational nor should they be. They are not strictly irrational though Cruise-Oprah-Crazy-in-lovereason doesn’t seem to apply to them. When two people fall in love, they may know very little about one another but this is not relevant; in fact its part of its virtue. Common sense becomes a ballast and the lovers discard it, intentionally or not, for the possibility that all the promises they hope are true will be realized. To those on the outside, their relationship may seem silly at best and dangerous or harmful at worst. Yet they jump in with both feet, critics and naysayers be damned. Theirs is a voyage christened by passion and driven by the excitement of a lifetime of discovery and private, personal moments that only the two will share. Their relationship is lived each moment, and only analyzed or talked about or reasoned with when disaster strikes. They have nothing to prove to outsiders and seek to be true only to themselves and what they’ve committed to each other.

If one is to be a true Christian, says Kierkegaard, one must take a similar leap of faith.

This idea is so important and so central to my thesis in this series that I will now say plainly what I have only hinted at thus far: if one wishes to understand the contemporary religious worldview, he or she must first understand Kierkegaard’s religious epistemology. I think it could be convincingly argued that Kierkegaard has had and currently does have very little direct, global influence on the contemporary religious mind and religious belief and even exerts little explicit influence in the West. But this is to view Kierkegaard only as an ideologue—something he would have passionately rejected. I find him relevant mainly (ironically) in his role as an analyst and polemicist. Kierkegaard understood perhaps better than anyone before or since the essence of the religious frame of mind--what it is or what people hope it to be. In this role, Kierkegaard spans Western religious thought and could be seen to provide us with a searing analysis of religion per se. It is in this role that I will examine his ideas and I will do so through examining various stages or movements in his thought.

The Anti-religious Christian

Kierkegaard_Grave_thumbKierkegaard (d. 1855 at age 42) grew up in Copenhagen, one of seven children born to a wealthy Danish businessman. His father left him two things upon his death: a great deal of money, and a strong sense of guilt and inadequacy. At a young age, he leveraged the the former in order to spend his short life making sense of the latter. He briefly was engaged but called off the relationship to pursue a life of rescuing Christianity from the Danish church and Hegelian philosophy. He excelled at academics but rejected the academy and even academic philosophy for a less formal, more Socratic form of philosophizing. His primary mission was, as William Barrett describes it, to overcome intelligence. Intelligence kept Kierkegaard inside his mind when his goal was to get out of it. Kierkegaard was attempting to understand why Western Christianity was eschewing Christ. He saw Western civilization as being formed around the figure of Christ who it was now rejecting. Kierkegaard’s entire professional life could be viewed as an attempt to deal with this specific problem. In his analysis, he provides both a searing polemic against conventional Danish religion (and in so doing, critiques any religion that is modeled after it) but also provides a vision of what he believes to be a more authentic Christianity and includes a hearty analysis of the “proper” religious commitment in the process.

Movement 1 – The Primacy of the Individual

It might be tempting to view Existentialism as a particular, nuanced instance in a general, monolithic class of Western philosophical development but I think that would be a mistake. Existentialism represents a paradigm shift in Western philosophy because it changes the focus of the philosophical enterprise itself. As we saw briefly in James’ Pragmatism, Greek thought which has, for all intents and purposes, governed Western philosophy, emphasizes the study of essences—what things are. Philosophy done in this tradition is thoroughly analytic and seeks to analyze concepts in terms of their properties, the necessary and sufficient conditions of their existence, the logical relations they stand in to other concepts, and the like. Those employing the Greek model attempt to analyze concepts as an observer, from the third-person perspective. (It’s little wonder that the Greek analytic tradition forms the basis of the modern scientific method. Instead of studying physical objects as in the sciences, Greek philosophy studies concepts.) Existentialists draw a bright line between this analytic approach to truth-gathering and the existential approach. The latter may be dimly related to the former but the experience of being in the world as a subject is in a different category from analyzing the world as an object.

Kant made a similar point that changed the course of modern philosophy. Kant argued that existence can never be a rational predicate. For existence adds no new property to the concept of a thing.1 Ironically, Kant used this argument to demonstrate that the ontological argument does not work as a proof for God’s existence—something Kierkegaard would have been entirely comfortable with. His argument was that from a pure concept one could not derive an existent being. According to Barrett, Kant was interested in establishing what could be known from observation and thus Kant came down on the side of positivism. It is here, says Barrett, that Kierkegaard separates from Kant calling this a crossroad in philosophy with Kierkegaard going one way and Kant the other. But the distinction between concept and being is a distinction on which both would agree and establishes the foundation for Kierkegaard’s existentialist philosophy and his religious epistemology.

Kierkegaard viewed true philosophizing just as the experience of being in the world. One wrestles with ethics by facing ethical dilemmas and working through them. One deals with knowledge by learning about the world and applying what one learns in order to make one more successful at life (a sound definition of sophia if ever there was one). One philosophizes about existence by existing—by being an individual that experiences the textures, dynamism, joy, agony, and suffering of being human. The existential turn then pivots on this shift in focus: instead of analyzing the world as an object “out there” and using language to describe it, existential philosophy is done as the individual person existing in and relating to the world.2

First-person experience and third-person descriptions

An example from psychology may help make this distinction clearer. Students in my introductory philosophy class generally have a difficult time understanding how anyone could hold to the theories of behaviorism or eliminative materialism. The idea that there are no mental states like  being in pain but only bodily behaviors like wincing and saying “ouch” or brain states like long axons firing seems not only theoretically and practically unsupportable but obviously and grossly false. The problem turns, I think, on how the theories are understood. If understood as ontological views about the makeup of the mind, then I think the prima facie reaction of my students has some merit. But if seen mainly as epistemological theories by those who take their science seriously then the views seem defensible. If subject S is in pain and a psychiatrist wishes to analyze this state, what does she have at her disposal epistemically? She can only analyze it as a third-person phenomenon: the behaviors the subject is exhibiting, the state of her brain during the time he is in pain, the linguistic constructs he uses to describe the state he’s in and the like. If there is more going on “inside the head,” the psychiatrist has absolutely no access to it. She can only observe from “the outside” and so the only truth claims she can make about the “mental state” must be based on those third-person observations. She cannot make any truth claims about what it is like for the subject to be in pain from the first-person perspective.

Analytic philosophy is, in many ways, in the same position methodologically. The psychologist describes mental states in terms of what is expressed through the behaviors of the person in those states. The epistemologist, for example, may attempt to uncover what a mental state is by isolating its essential properties and necessary and sufficient conditions. This contrasts with the first person point of view where the believer experiences being in the state rather than a dispassionate description of the state she's in apart from what it is like to be in that state. Consider the following ways of understanding what it means to be in pain.


Third-person description

First-person experience


S has a wince on his face and he is clutching his lower back. He appears to be immobilized as he does not respond to my requests to move. S is now moaning and claims he is unable to control the action. S is now kneeling on the floor and is attempting to lie down with his back on the floor. The subject is in pain.

Oh god, this hurts! Ouch! Can’t somebody help me? I can’t move without excruciating pain! I can’t stand any longer! I have to find a position to stop the pain. This is killing me! I’ve never felt anything so horrible! If I don’t get down on the floor, I’m going to fall over. It hurts when I move, I’m not going to make it!3


S believes the following facts: he has an intense feeling of pain in his back, he is unable to stand up, he is disposed to shout “ouch” and clutch his back when in this state. This means that S accepts that the propositions that ground those facts are true (are the way the world actually is) and his actions are commensurate with the acceptance of those propositions.

The transition from the third-person description to the first-person experience is a category shift. In a broad sense, the two are related. But with regards to the content of the two, they are metaphysically unique because one could have the latter without the former.4

This is the type of transition Kierkegaard attempted with all of philosophy but particularly in his religious epistemology. The religious epistemology of his day was rapidly moving towards defining religion per se in terms of what could be rationally described by way of analysis expressed in communal forms like church attendance, ritual, doctrine, and historical, scientific and philosophical argument. But this is to get things backwards. This is to replace the experience of being in the world with a sort of communally constructed proxy which is to supplant the authentic relationship with God for a socially and ideologically powerful shadow of the real thing.5 

Barrett’s view is that Kierkegaard rejects the Greek model (through his criticism of Hegel) and attempts to transcend philosophy by altering the way it should be done. He writes, “ [For Kierkegaard and Nietzsche] ideas are not even the real subject matter of these philosophers-and this in itself is something of a revolution in Western philosophy: their central subject is the unique experience of the single one, the individual, who chooses to place himself on trial before the gravest question of his civilization. For both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche this gravest question is Christianity, though they were driven to opposite positions in regard to it." (Barrett, 1963) (The position Kierkegaard comes to is directly relevant to the thesis of this series. The raison d'être of philosophy and of life is to be in a personal relationship with the transcendent God.) C. Steven Evans in his excellent primer on Kierkegaard writes, "It is one thing to have a detached, propositional understanding of a truth; quite another to understand what that truth might mean for human existence, or to bring into clear conscious awareness an insight that is already present in a vague and perhaps even unnoticed way." (Evans, 2009)

More egregiously, the analytic approach embodies the anti-Christian metaphysic. Christianity is essentially personal--it is a lived relationship between persons that transcends rational analysis. By divesting existence in this sense from metaphysics, Hegel creates a foundation for a decidedly anti-Christian way of understanding the world. Further, any metaphysic where existence precedes essence (or reason), will be a Christ-centered worldview because existence depends on relating to the world and the world is only fully relatable if one relates to a transcendent being who also exists as a temporal, finite being, bridging the gap to humanity. This being is Christ.

Subjective versus objective ways of knowing

Kierkegaard makes this distinction in terms of what he calls subjective and objective understanding. Religious understanding is radically subjective in that it’s truths are such that they can only be experienced by the individual they cannot be reduced to a set of propositions and analyzed.6 The implication of this idea for the contemporary debate over religion is that the true Christian (and we could add Muslim, Jew, Mormon, or any other religion that includes the idea of a divine being to whom the individual must relate) is one that does not argue for her Christianity or merely formalize it by attending church or given token alms to the poor but one that lives it as a relationship with Christ. Similarly, the atheist or religious critic is in absolutely no position to critique, provide guidance about, or otherwise analyze the experience of (and ceteris paribus the substance of) the religious individual.

While it could be argued that the contemporary religious person isn’t really Kierkegaardian in the sense described here, it is my claim, in an effort to understand the contemporary situation, that many ground their faith and subsequently maintain it in precisely these terms. Many average believers are not at all threatened by arguments or evidence against their faith and will continue to believe even in the teeth of strong arguments and evidence even if they are unable to summon an adequate defense. This, I’m arguing, is because ultimately, their faith is not grounded on arguments or evidence and, in fact, to believe it is commits a category mistake along Kierkegaardian lines.7

Religiously, the analytic methodology adds absolutely nothing to—and can take nothing away from—the substance of religion qua subjective experience. If one tastes strawberry pie and then attempts to describe the taste in scientific or epistemological terms, the description uses symbols to point to a reality. But the symbols are meaningless apart from the experience that the description is supposed to symbolize and unless one had the experience of tasting strawberry pie, one cannot understand the meaning of the symbols (this is not to say that one cannot understand the meaning of the relationship between the symbols themselves). This is the difference between objective, analytical understanding using a symbolic system and subjective experience of the reality being symbolized. The former is a type of façade that one puts on the latter as a surrogate but it should never function as a replacement according to Kierkegaard. This may explain the “personal incredulity” or outright dismissal of many (non-academic) religious people when faced with the arguments and criticisms of writers like Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins.

Problems with truth telling

But there is an issue here. As I’ve stated previously, while many believers may adopt a Kierkegaardian epistemology as the ground of their faith, it is not thoroughgoing. Many believers deem it both important and necessary to convert others to their way of thinking using tactics ranging from testimonials to IEDs. Similarly, when a specific religious belief is critiqued (say the historical veracity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ), many believers will attempt to provide rationally-based counter-evidence and counter-arguments to address the critique. Even those that find such arguments unnecessary (or incomprehensible) find it psychologically important that such defenses exist. These are topics I will address in a later essay but this does bear somewhat on the current topic. This type of move from subjective to objective or from a faith grounded on first-person experience to and apologetic based on third-person scientific and philosophical evidence is something Kierkegaard would reject. As we’ll see later, his position is that Christianity is absurd—as absurd as a passionate relationship with a loved one. More to the point of the current topic, Kierkegaard’s position is that a belief based on subjective understanding cannot be “objectified.”

Evans captures this point well in discussing Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript in which he uses the pseudonym Climacus as the book’s author. Evans writes,

"Objective understanding is understanding that can be directly or immediately passed on to another person. Climacus characterizes this kind of understanding as an understanding of 'results'; perhaps historical and mathematical knowledge are proper domains for this kind of understanding, where communication is appropriately direct. Subjective understanding, by contrast, is not communication of 'results' but of 'a way,' and this kind of understanding cannot be directly or immediately passed on to another person, but requires an indirect or 'artful' form of communication…. Subjective understanding, by contrast, is an understanding that bears on a person's own existence, how life should be lived. Climacus does think that it is possible to think about such things and to communicate one's thought to others. However, in this case, for genuine communication to occur and genuine understanding to be achieved, the recipient of the communication must be able to do more than grasp what the communicator says in an abstract way. " (Evans, 2009)

For Kierkegaard, through subjective understanding, one enters into the experience of the act that might only be described objectively and so there is a greater opportunity for shared "meaning." For example, if one describes her experience of "being in love" to someone that has never been in love with the goal of getting the other person to have the same experience, she is attempting to use a symbolic system (language) to create the experience which cannot do the job. Taking the example further, if that same person attempted to argue that the recipient must come to be in love as she is in love, the level of credulity and comprehensibility diminishes even further. Christianity, in Kierkegaard’s view, would be inadequate if based solely on what Evans calls "a purely verbal kind of knowledge." The idea here is that Christianity can only be understood “from the inside” as a lived experience. One gets inside by taking a leap of faith—a topic we’ll cover more in depth in a future essay. The relevant point here is that any attempt to argue (or torture or bomb or guilt or threaten) someone into faith is a non-starter.

And so we come to the first important insight Kierkegaard’s existentialism provides into the basis of the modern conflict over religion. If religion is primarily about an individual living out a personal relationship with God, it is not subject to or constrained by any third-person (scientific) analysis or laws. Since the domain of scientific study is the physical world that is at least in principle objective and analyzable from the third-person perspective, any attempt at a critical examination of religion by science is immediately dismissed by believers as a kind of category mistake. For the believer who is not interested in religion as an academic subject (and not motivated by finances or some other goal not directly tied to having a relationship with a divine being), the modern critique may come across as silly as someone who attempted to argue that no one should be in love because there is strong scientific evidence that lovers are deluded or that no one is ever actually in pain because naturalistic metaphysics cannot accommodate such an odd phenomenology. The “brick wall” that many atheists encounter when attempting to argue people out of their faith may be grounded on exactly the type of epistemological distinction Kierkegaard makes. If what Kierkegaard shows us is correct, this wall is indeed thick and may be impenetrable if the only tools the atheist has are rational ones.8 

Until this scenario is well understood by both believers and non-believers alike, I don’t believe substantive dialogue can move forward.

Copyright © 2010 Philosophy News Service


  1. See Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason 5, 905-37.
  2. There is a growing movement in philosophy called X-Phi that appears to be geared in the direction of combining tradition analytic philosophy with empirical data analysis. While this movement has an admirable goal of getting philosophers out of their armchairs, this is much different than what Kierkegaard envisioned.
  3. Of course, writing out the first person experience is itself attempting to capture linguistically what cannot be captured according to existentialists so the reader should understand this description as a proxy for what the person actually experiences.
  4. I acknowledge that this claim is question begging against certain forms of behaviorism and eliminativism. Still, there are good prima facie arguments that a particular mental state is not ontologically identical with bodily behaviors or brain states and I’m assuming those arguments are sound for the purposes of this essay.
  5. This focus on the primacy of the individual has led some to conclude that Kierkegaard’s religious epistemology is a precursor to what would later become postmodernist. This is bolstered by the fact that Kierkegaard agreed with Kant’s view of the limits of reason. But I think this evaluation is wrong-headed and I will deal with it in a later essay.
  6. This obviously runs counter to traditional views of truth where truth is understood as involving propositions. This is a topic we’ll explore more in a later essay when we look at Kierkegaard’s religious epistemology.
  7. While Kierkegaard may not have a direct influence on modern religious thought, Barrett argues that he has had an indirect influence by saturating 19th and 20th century theology. He finds prominent (though weakened) threads of Kierkegaard’s central thesis in Barth, Brunner, Tillich, and Bultmann concluding that ironically, “present-day Protestant theology practically lives off Kierkegaard's capital." For an interesting example of this point, see this paper by Jürgen Moltmann which has strong Kierkegaardian overtones.
  8. It’s worth noting that the scientist may start out with a strong bias against Kierkegaard’s epistemology. Science is in the business of explanation and in order to do its business it has to have objective access to the things it wishes to explain. If one wishes to fully and exhaustively understand the nature of a bat, it does him no good if he begins his inquiry on the supposition that there are aspects of being a bat that are wholly inaccessible to him. It does him even less good if he were forced to admit at the beginning that in order to analyze most of the unique features of what it means to be a bat requires him in fact to become a bat. Modern science is intolerant of boundaries and this is why it is most intolerant of private knowledge.

    Science has not been willing and now is not able to impose any a priori limits to its scope of inquiry. In more charitable moments, I think that this unwillingness is mainly driven by an insatiable desire to explain. But many—particularly those sympathetic to existentialist thought—see this limit as being driven by a kind of pigheadedness. For acknowledging that the hard sciences are mainly concerned with objects is, in and of itself, innocuous, one might even argue necessary. The Kierkegaardian critique is that science tends to go beyond objective inquiry and sets itself as epistemic judge over all inquiry even in the teeth of obvious limits. Instead of being satisfied to provide insight into the objective world, modern science proclaims that the objective world is the only thing into which we can gain insight. Instead of acknowledging clear boundaries between the phenomenal and the phenomenological, science declares the phenomenological (we could say here the existential) a myth and proceeds to tell the story of the world solely in terms of the phenomenal. Instead of letting ontology set limits on epistemology, modern science has declared what is knowable and demands that every existing thing unequivocally obey its declaration. If this is correct (or even if it captures a common perception), this too adds to the contemporary tension we’re seeing, I think.

Works cited:

Evans, C. S. (2009). Kierkegaard: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Barrett, W. (1963). Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books.

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