Existentialism usurps for man that attribute which God reserves for Himself alone when He describes Himself as the *self-existent “I Am.” In a breathtaking act of audacious *presumption, the existentialist proclaims himself an *autonomous being, existing of his own *volition and determining his own destiny and *truth. This is the mark of a humanity which refuses to grow up, choosing rather to live forever in the cocoon of self-centered *infancy. Soren Kierkegaard is known as the father of *religious existentialism and ultimately of secular existentialism. Existentialism grew out of Kierkegaard’s exegesis of the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of *Isaac in his book Fear and Trembling. Kierkegaard concludes from the story that truth is relational and *relative because God appears willing to set aside His general moral commandment in order to accommodate the *situation. Even if He did, Kierkegaard ignores the fact that this would be a prerogative of God alone as the great “I Am”. Moreover, God rescinded His directive at the last moment, indicating that it was given temporarily only for the purpose of proving Abraham’s faith.
Who was Soren Kierkegaard? (1813-1855) Soren Kierkegaard was a Danish religious philosopher and father of existential philosophy, both secular and religious.
Historical context. The middle years of the 19th century, from 1850 to 1865, were years of revolution in Europe and America. We have for example, the French Revolution of February, 1848 and the American Civil War of 1861-65. As usual, the stage had been set by the work of philosophers and novelists, who were active in the 1830s and 1840s, not the least of whom was Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard’s philosophy of relative truth was developed in part as a reaction against his authoritarian and guilt-ridden father, who had imposed an intensely logical, but sterile religious upbringing.
Kierkegaard grew up in a world still dominated by the British trading empire, in spite of the exertions of an ambitious France to eclipse that empire, a la Napoleon Bonaparte . Although Britain had lost her western colonies in the American War for Independence, she still held sway in the East, notably in India. The British trading outposts in India started out innocently enough, but military and political involvement increased rapidly in response to French engineered coups in various provinces. At the dawn of the 19th century Britain ruled like a modern Rome over the Indian subcontinent.
Summary of Kierkegaard’s teaching. Kierkegaard has come to be regarded as the father of both religious and secular existentialism. Existentialism is a philosophy of the individual existing for the moment as a free and responsible agent, deciding his own destiny and determining his own truth. According to Kierkegaard, this is truth based not on a rational examination of evidence, but rather on an irrational “leap of faith.” He sets forth Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac as the supreme example of such irrational faith, in Fear and Trembling (1846). According to Kierkegaard, Abraham responded to God in faith contrary to all reason and everything he knew to be true about God and the nature of his ethical demands. Kierkegaard therefore asks, “Is there such a thing as a teleological suspension of the ethical?” Can ethical requirements be suspended as the soul existentially communes with God?
To summarize, Kierkegaard postulated three phases of human existence in Either/Or (1843): the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. The aesthete is an observer, who can discuss and appreciate art and beauty, but is satisfied with nothing more than a sensuous, hedonistic enjoyment of life. In the ethical stage a person moves beyond the sensuous to commitment and submission to a set of moral laws or objective rules of conduct. Finally, in the religious stage man transcends the ethical and the rational by a passionate “leap of faith.”
Kierkegaard cynically criticized and lampooned Hegel for what he regarded as a pompous and overblown system based entirely on rationalism. Kierkegaard put it this way in Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846), a caricature of Hegel: “When the question of the truth is raised subjectively, reflection is directed subjectively to the nature of the individual’s relationship; if only the mode of this relationship is in the truth, the individual is in the truth, even if he should happen to be thus related to what is not true.”(1) This is a revolutionary sentence in its radical redefinition of truth as relational rather than rational. Thus, truth is related to and defined by a subjective internal reference, rather than an objective external standard.
Rollo May goes on to explain that a man is thus freed from his past and restraining social and religious conventions to achieve existentially his own “’I-am experience”. Thus, man assumes the name and prerogative of God in Exodus 3:14. In this passage God declares Himself to be the only great existential, One – “I Am That I Am: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I Am hath sent me unto you.”
Implications for subsequent history. In the neo-orthodox tradition that has flowed from Kierkegaard, the Bible is not seen as historical and objective truth, but as the medium through which God witnesses to the truth in the soul of the believer. “How then does Christianity fit in, seeing that it is a historical religion? Kierkegaard’s reply is that the results of historical research are uncertain, and that in any case they do not really help. For what matters is the subjective choice, the leap of faith, one’s commitment to the absurd.” (2)
The Bible is thus made truth as the individual encounters the Spirit in the Word. The idea of truth as relative or relational has had a staggering impact for evil in the modern world. “What’s true for you may not be true for me” or “to each his own” is the way it is perceived by the “man in the street.” It is hard to imagine an aspect of life that has gone unaffected by this philosophy; its consequences have been pervasive and deadly. As a consequence, faith and the Bible have been marginalized as irrational and irrelevant.
Biblical analysis. Christianity is a faith based on historical fact and eyewitness accounts. “To whom also he showed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). Faith is not based on the irrational, but simply on the invisible: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.”
In response to Kierkegaard, it is our duty to point out that the faith of Abraham was not irrational because it was a response to the word of God which had been given to him and to which he responded in an objective fashion. It was not a subjective response to an ambiguous, inner impression. Genesis 11:19 reveals that Abraham was trusting God to raise Isaac from the dead, thus supplying a beautiful type for God’s dealing with His own Son. Note also, that when all was said and done, God did not suspend his ethical requirement and Isaac was spared. The command was temporary and intended only for the testing of Abraham.
Corrective or Prescriptive Actions: We must reject the existential relativism of Kierkegaard and look instead to the external standard of God’s revelation in all our decisions: “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path” (Ps. 119:105).