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The Truth about Kierkegaard

by Chris McCartney

In C. S. Lewis's The Last Battle, a Calormen soldier by the name of Emeth is accepted into heaven despite the fact that he worshiped the false god Tash. Why? Because as Aslan tells him, "All the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me, ... for he and I are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him." Despite the fact that the objective content of his religious beliefs was false, his worship was accepted because his heart was in the right condition. "Unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly." (Lewis, 156) The name of the Calormen soldier is significant. Emeth means truth. Lewis is capitalizing on the philological characteristics of the Hebrew word "emeth" which is more closely related to the ideas of trustworthiness and reliability than to the philosophical idea of "correspondence."

If your religious background is like mine, the name of C. S. Lewis is more likely to engender a positive reaction than that of Kierkegaard. But I think Lewis makes a mistake here—one that could easily be seen as a Kierkegaardian error, but which in fact Kierkegaard himself does not fall into. Lewis thinks that it is possible for someone to worship with a true heart, though he worship a false god. But Paul's letter to the Romans makes it clear that such is not possible because of the sensus divinitatis; those who worship idols do so out of a false heart suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. Those who worship with a true heart do so because God has already revealed himself to them. So Lewis errs here, but this mistake does not tell against Kierkegaard's theory of truth. To see that this is so, we need to interpret the notorious statement of the Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

When Kierkegaard argues that truth is subjectivity, he is not making the same kind of claim that we might expect from a post-modern relativist: that what's true for you is true for you, and what's true for me is whatever I feel is true for me, with no moral constraints on what I ought or ought not believe. Rather, he is arguing for the primacy of Personal truth over impersonal objectivity; of the rightly ordered heart over the rightly ordered head; of the inside of the cup and dish over the outside. He admits that there is such a thing as objective truth, but he argues that objectivity is not at the heart of what we ought to value about truth because we existing humans can only approximate the object. "This conformity [of thought with being] is actually realized for God, but it is not realized for any existing spirit who is himself existentially in process of becoming." (Kierkegaard, 170)

It is easy to read Kierkegaard's notorious statement in the wrong way, that is, by assuming our traditional definition of truth. We associate truth with being, or reality, and then we think that Kierkegaard is saying that reality is subjective: the real world is whatever I feel like believing it is. This attitude would be as offensive to Kierkegaard as it is to us. Kierkegaard is not saying that reality is subjective. He is challenging our definition of truth as correspondence with being, not because he doesn't think there is a reality out there. In fact, his critique of this definition of truth assumes that there is a reality out there, for his criticism is that the modern concept of truth reduces truth to either a mere approximation or a mere abstraction. The objection requires that there be a reality to which our approximation is not truly accurate (only approximate), a reality of which our abstraction is merely an abstraction (not the reality). Clearly, Kierkegaard is no postmodernist. Nor can he be blamed for writing words that are similar to those written by postmodernists. Kierkegaard penned his infamous statement in 1846—ten years before Nietzsche entered puberty.

We also might confuse his use of "subjectivity/objectivity" with our own ideas of subject and object. When Kierkegaard talks about objectivity, he doesn't mean the objective thing in itself– the being. Nor does he mean the mere ego when he speaks of subjectivity. His use of "objectivity" is in reaction to the Hegelian system of objective mind. In Hegel, our assumption that objectivity is apart from the human mind and subjectivity is in the mind is inaccurate, and similarly in Kierkegaard. The terms "subjectivity" and "objectivity" in Kierkegaard are about the attitudes people can have when they think about the world. This difference, between attitudes, or ways of thinking, rather that the difference between the thinker and the thing is what is at issue in the discussion about truth.

But what are these ways of thinking? What does Kierkegaard mean by the "objective" attitude? What does he mean by the "subjective" attitude?

The objective attitude is one in which truth has no importance for my life. It is the way of thinking in which I take the truth sub specie aeterni, as if I myself transcend the truth and can look at it with a God’s-eye view. This Kierkegaard rejects. Truth as subjectivity has a moral aspect. As subjectivity it involves the knower in obligations. As subjectivity, truth is not merely a matter of thought but of obedience and faith.

What does the Bible say about this? Is truth merely a matter of thought (objectivity) or does it involve the whole of life? Put like this, there is hardly any difficulty in showing that Kierkegaard's understanding of truth is more Biblical than the modernist's. "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free." "I am the way, the truth, and the life." "Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth."

Now Kierkegaard does not say, as does Lewis, that it is possible for someone who worships an idol to reach heaven. The closest he comes is when he says that "When the question of 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."(Kierkegaard, 178) But this does not imply that a person can ever have a true heart in worshiping Tash, for total depravity tells us that no pagan ever worships with a true heart, and God's promise tells us that He will give himself to those who seek his face. As Aslan tells Emeth, "All find what they truly seek." So we have in scripture the guarantee that true worship will always find its true object, that is the God of Abraham (I'm not saying that Kierkegaard had his theology all together on this point, I'm only defending his definition of truth not the entirety of his worldview). Kierkegaard's comparison of the true-hearted pagan with the "Christian" hypocrite, is only to say that subjective idolatry is worse than objective idolatry. Hypocrisy is worse than paganism. And this is in keeping with the words of Christ: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean." (Mat. 23:25f) What Kierkegaard means by subjectivity is nothing less than the inside of the cup of which Jesus speaks; Subjectivity is inwardness.

To sum up, we have found that given our ordinary definitions of truth and objectivity, Kierkegaard does not deny that there is an objective truth of which we can have approximate (not absolute) knowledge. And when we pay close attention to how Kierkegaard uses terms: "truth" in the sense of trustworthiness and integrity, and "objectivity" in the sense of an impersonal, abstract attitude toward things; we see that Kierkegaard’s notorious satements are in line with the truth of scripture.

But then we have these troubling statements about the improbability of the faith. At first glance, it may seem that Kierkegaard thinks that Christianity is unreasonable and we should believe it anyway. But we must remember that this reading only makes sense if we think of truth as objective. As objectivity, the truth can be more or less reasonable; one can be more or less warranted in believing it, but the degree to which one is warranted in believing the objective doctrines of Christianity has nothing to do with whether or not one is living in the truth. Even the demons believe the objective doctrines of Christianity, and tremble. There they are, with maximal epistemic warrant for believing Christian doctrine, and it does them no good. What they lack is subjectivity: they do not love the truth, but hate it.

So the improbablity of the faith is not a matter of the objective content of the doctrines, that is, the content that can be recognized sub specie aeterni. Christianity as objectivity cannot include such confessions as "Jesus died to save me from my sins" for objectivity has no "me." How then can there be an improbability in the subjectivity of faith? If the improbability is not in the objective statement that a Prophet of Nazareth died on a cross two thousand years ago, it must be in the subjectivity—that he died for "me" wonder of wonders!

Ever since the scholastics, understanding has been equated with deriving the necessity of the faith, with scientia, but in one of the most revealing of the troubling "improbability" passages Kierkegaard writes, "If ever any other sort of understanding threatens to come to power within him, the believer perceives that he is in the way of losing his faith; just as a young woman, when she discovers after the wedding that it is easy to understand how she became her husband's choice, ought to be able to understand that this is because she no longer loves."(202) What is it that she has come to understand? What has she come to see as necessary? What is it that now makes sense to her? Not that her husband would be a loving person, or that he would give himself to someone or other, no, not the objectivity of her husband's love, but that he would love HER! Is this not true of the bride of Christ more than of any other bride? The more we love our precious Savior, the more deeply we know the rancidity of our own heinous sins, the less likely it seems that Christ would die for us while we were yet sinners. But if we think that we can understand why he died for us, if we comprehend the cause that moved him so to act, if it makes sense that Christ would die for us, we have entered through the gates of hypocrisy. We have ceased to love our husband.


C. S. Lewis. The Last Battle. Macmillan, NY, 1956

Søren Kierkegaard. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans David Swenson and Walter Lowrie, Princeton, 1941.