God, the Cog in Our Systems

In my post on Tuesday (“Why We Need Kierkegaard”), I mentioned that Kierkegaard’s work is still important because he addresses how we currently interact with and frame our religious beliefs. Modern Christians tend to think that we need to be objectively certain about our religious beliefs, and that this is the most important aspect of the life of faith. The problem is, as I wrote in the previous post,

The more time we spend abstractly reflecting upon the historical truth of [a] claim, the easier it is for us to not live in relation to that claim, to not line up our lives with what that claim entails for our lives.

Being overly concerned with proving the veracity of the historical and logical veracity of our religious beliefs necessarily leads to an objectification of those beliefs. This “objectification” separates our existence from those beliefs, and what they might require of us.

This is not just a modern, American phenomenon. Kierkegaard was writing in 19th century Denmark, mostly in response to a group of philosopher-theologians that were heavily influenced by the philosophical work of Hegel. Hegel, in turn, was influenced by the modernist epistemological conversations preceding him — especially from Immanuel Kant, whose important work on knowledge and reason (Critique of Pure Reason) was meant to not only define the limits and nature of knowledge, but also to determine how we can best understand the relationship between human reason and the use of physical evidence to determine truth.

The line of philosophers in this conversation stretches back to the Greeks, but modern historians of philosophy often mark the beginning of the modern philosophical period with the work of RenĂ© Descartes, whose work was a watershed in several ways. Descartes, like Kant, wanted to define the limits and nature of human knowledge. Through his work (especially in Discourse on the Method and Meditations), he sought to find a firm “foundation” for human knowledge, and after much internal struggle, found that the surest piece of knowledge he could have was of his own existence (hence, cogito, ergo sum, or I think, therefore I am). His goal was never really about chipping away at every piece of knowledge humans assume is certain though — rather, it was to find something firm on which he could build a system of knowledge. An important note to remember about Descartes’s project is that (according to Anthony Gottlieb, a historian of philosophy):

Descartes infers nothing from his own existence. Instead, he asks how he comes to possess this one certainty, so that he can then find others in the same way. The secret of that certainty is just that it involved a ‘clear and distinct perception of what I am asserting.’ Crucially, Descartes then introduces God… Descartes’s system of knowledge depends not on his own existence but on God’s.

The Dream of Enlightenment, 14

It’s here, I think, where Descartes makes his fatal error. God, for Descartes, becomes pragmatic. In all of his work up to this point, Descartes relates to God “objectively”: God is no more than a guarantor of human knowledge. In such a view of the world, and especially of human knowledge, how can one relate to God subjectively, then? Kierkegaard would question whether that’s possible, and I’m inclined to agree with him. The first modern philosopher that started the epistemological conversation (that we are still having!) inverted our relationship to God. The God who once required something of us, to whom we are subject, now becomes a cog (the biggest, most important cog, at least!) in our own human systems.

Why We Need Kierkegaard

I obviously have some sense that Kierkegaard’s whole project, especially as it relates to ethico-religious epistemology, is something that needs to be explored. But the real question I think most people have when I tell them about what I’m writing on is why? Why does some relatively obscure (to people outside of academia) philosopher from Denmark in the 19th century have anything to say to us? What hath Christian existentialism to do with modern American Christianity?

I think the short answer boils down to this: we are obsessed with finding the right answer to our ethical and religious questions, and with objectively knowing that the we know with certainty that how we are acting and what we believe is “right.” We are so obsessed, in fact, that many of us spend more time building up mental frameworks to maintain our certainty that we are right and others are wrong than we do in living out our ethical and religious ideals we claim to believe.

Many of us American Christians grew up in faith traditions that placed heavy emphasis on believing the right things (that Jesus died for our sins). Those faith traditions told us that doing so was the guarantee of our salvation. The paradigmatic Bible passage here was Romans 10:9: “That if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” This, most of us were told, meant that mental assent to this historical claim was sufficient for our salvation. So those of us who believed this particular claim (Jesus died for our sins and was resurrected by God) were saved. And our time needed to be spent doing two things:

  1. Convincing other people that the claim was true, in order that they may also be saved.
  2. Building up apologetic frameworks that helped us to remain convinced that what we believed was true. (In the age of science and information, that particular claim is a difficult one to defend, both rationally and with historical or natural evidence.)

Kierkegaard never argued that there was no objectively right way to live or objectively correct religious framework — that was not his concern at all (he didn’t have that concern, partially because he didn’t face globalism and religious pluralism the way we face it today). His concern was that the objectification of faith claims like Jesus’ death for the sins of humanity and his subsequent resurrection robs the claim of its existential force. In other words, the more time we spend abstractly reflecting upon the historical truth of that claim, the easier it is for us to not live in relation to that claim, to not line up our lives with what that claim entails for our lives.

This was the problem with modernity that Kierkegaard was trying to combat. He saw in the epistemological frameworks of those modern philosophers that came before him, and his contemporaries (Descartes, Hume, Kant, and especially Hegel), the human tendency for objectifying faith claims in order that we could ignore the ramifications in our own singular, individual lives.