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Either Kierkegaard or McCartney

by Philip L. Ledgerwood

Mr. McCartney is a kindhearted fellow, and like all fellows who are truly kind, he does not cease to be kind just because people aren't watching. He is kind even when reading and interpreting Søren Kierkegaard. He shows us an error in a book by C. S. Lewis, a famed and respected Christian, and endeavors to show that Kierkegaard does not go so far as to commit the same error. He proceeds to point out where Kierkegaard is misunderstood, then shows how a correct interpretation of Kierkegaard aligns with Scripture. It is the present writer's contention that Mr. McCartney has been too nice in his presentation of Kierkegaard, that Kierkegaard does not mean what Mr. McCartney presents, and that Kierkegaard's actual views do not provide a Biblical corrective to anyone's conception of truth.

The first main point in Mr. McCartney’s paper is that Kierkegaard is not a postmodern relativist. However, there is a subtle distinction between postmodernism and relativism. Relativism is, as Mr. McCartney points out, the view that your truth is true for you and my truth is true for me. Kierkegaard writes something similar in the passage from his Journals in 1835: "...the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die" (1835). The postmodern view is that there very well may be an objective reality out there, but all we know is our subjective perceptions of it. The issue, therefore, isn't the existence of objective reality; the issue is the inability to decide if our subjective perceptions correspond with the external world. This is Kierkegaard's position. Kierkegaard may not be postmodern, but postmodernity is decidedly Kierkegaardian.

It is at this point that one finds the heart of Mr. McCartney's argument which is that Kierkegaard is not talking about two different kinds of truth or two aspects of truth, but two different attitudes one can take toward truth. One can either consider the truth as cold, isolated fact (objective) or embrace it with a life-changing passion (subjective). On this basis, Kierkegaard is shown to line up with the Biblical picture of truth as something one embraces with a life-changing passion.

Is Kierkegaard merely discussing attitudes toward truth? In the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard says, "Let us take the knowledge of God as an example. Objectively, what is reflected upon is that this is the true God; subjectively, that the individual relates himself to something in such a way that his relation in truth is a God relation" (1060). In other words, the objective is the cognitive content of truth: God is the true God. The subjective is how that truth affects us. How do we feel about it? How does it change our lives? Kierkegaard illustrates this further in the Postscript when he says, "Objectively the emphasis is on what is said; subjectively the emphasis is on how it is said" (1061). It is the difference between the "what" and the "how" -- the content of truth and how one feels toward the truth.

Between the fact and our feeling, where does Kierkegaard believe truth is? The answer is clear. Kierkegaard writes, "Subjectivity is truth, subjectivity is reality" (Postscript, 169). Later, he writes, "Only in subjectivity is there decision, to seek objectivity is to be in error" (Postscript, 214). Kierkegaard tells us that the definition of truth must keep objectivity uncertain (Postscript, 1062). He presents objectivity and subjectivity as a fork in the road (Postscript, 1062).

The reader will notice Mr. McCartney summons no evidence from the text to support the idea that Kierkegaard is talking about two attitudes toward truth. There isn't any. Nowhere in the Postscript will the reader find the term "objective" associated with an opinion, view, or attitude. Everywhere one finds an illustrated distinction between objective thought and subjective thought, Kierkegaard distinguishes between the true fact and a person's passionate response. Just a couple of examples are his contrast of the man with "knowledge of the true idea of God" versus the man who prays to an idol "with all the passion of infinity" as well as the contrast between someone who "objectively inquires into immortality" versus the one who "stakes the passion of the infinite on the uncertainty" (1060). Such a sharp division between the fact of truth and our response to truth have led some commentators to assert that Kierkegaard even refers to two different kinds of truths, one set objective (Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C.) that doesn't affect our lives and one set subjective (God is love) which does (Palmer 35-36). Even the more conservative commentators, however, affirm that Kierkegaard is making a distinction, not between two attitudes, but between the fact and how it affects us: "Kierkegaard's 'break' is a return to 'subjectivity,' a refusal to even ask the question about our knowledge of our world and focus attention only on our attentions and attitudes towards this world" (Solomon 87). To sum up, for Kierkegaard, objectivity is the fact itself, not our attitude toward it. Our attitude is the realm of the subjective.

A thorough reading of the Concluding Unscientific Postscript will show that the quotes and ideas cited above are not isolated examples of Kierkegaard being especially extreme at points. They are repeated. They are the common threads that bind the Postscript together. However Kierkegaard might be understood, it is frightfully clear that Kierkegaard is not arguing for thinking about truth with life-changing passion versus thinking about truth as cold, isolated facts; he is arguing for the disregard of the fact altogether.

Mr. McCartney accurately points out that the Biblical conception of truth is more than just propositions. Truth is something that requires faith and obedience. He asks, "Is truth merely a matter of thought..." but Kierkegaard's whole point is that truth is not a matter of thought at all. Cognitive assent and understanding has no place in Kierkegaard's definition of truth. In the Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard says that his definition of truth is a paraphrasing of faith (Postscript, 1062). For Kierkegaard's view of faith, the highest truth for an existing person, one need only look at his work Fear and Trembling.

Here, we have Abraham and a problem. On the one hand, God has promised that Abraham will father countless descendants through Isaac. On the other, God asks Abraham to kill Isaac. Add also the ethical universal that sacrificing a human being is wrong, and you have a real crisis for Abraham. Kierkegaard cannot figure out Abraham's reasoning. All he knows is that, in the face of contradictory "objective" truths, Abraham acts for no intelligible reason. This, for Kierkegaard is the pinnacle of faith: to passionately embrace absurdity and act. It is in this work that he writes, "...[Abraham] believed by virtue of the absurd; for there could be no question of human calculation, and it was indeed absurd that God who required it of him should the next instant recall the requirement. He climbed the mountain. Even at the instant the knife glittered he believed that God would not require Isaac.... He believed by virtue of the absurd; for all human reckoning had long since ceased to function" (65). Kierkegaard refers to Abraham's condition as "insane” (103), and makes a great deal of the fact that Abraham could never explain his faith to anyone else. One of many similar passages reads, "Faith is this paradox, and the single individual is quite unable to make himself intelligible to anyone" (99). When Kierkegaard says that Christianity is not doctrine, he does not mean that Christianity is not merely doctrine, he means that doctrine has no place in true Christianity at all, because doctrine is rational and intelligible to all -- objective. In his Journals, he writes, "The problem is not to understand Christianity, but to understand that it cannot be understood" (1848). Kierkegaard does not allow for the argument that he merely means that some truths in Christianity are so wonderful that they are difficult to apprehend. Kierkegaard believes that faith and Christianity are antirational -- plain and simple.

The obvious objection is that, if there is no reason for one's beliefs, there is no particular reason to be a Christian. Kierkegaard, although a Christian himself, is painfully consistent on this point: "In making a choice it is not so much a question of choosing the right as of the energy, the earnestness, the pathos with which one chooses" (Either/Or, 141). Kierkegaard, in comparing the hypocritical Christian with the genuine idolater in the Postscript, says, "The one prays in truth to God although he is worshipping an idol; the other prays in untruth to the true God and is therefore in truth worshipping an idol" (1061). Although we might agree with the assessment of the hypocrite, this is a serious obstacle to those who would protect Kierkegaard from condoning honest and passionate idolatry. Kierkegaard commits, nearly word for word, the exact same error that was found in C. S. Lewis’ story.

Now that we have seen Kierkegaard's true colors, how does his conception of faith fit with Scripture? In I Kings 18, God shows us that, even if one passionately worships Baal to the point of self-mutilation, the true God will have you killed for it. Jesus Christ repeatedly makes claims to being the only legitimate object of saving faith. In Hebrews 11, we learn that absurd, irrational, and unintelligible Abraham actually had some good reasons for what he did -- he believed God on the reasonable basis of God's trustworthiness, and he figured that God could raise Isaac from the dead.

The Bible also presupposes that truth must contain rationally intelligible facts. Before I can love truth, have faith in truth, or obey the truth, I have to rationally understand that truth. The Ten Commandments begin with "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (NASV, Ex. 20:2). God begins His list of ethical demands with an objective, historical fact. Granted, this fact means more to Israel than just a bare recitation of a fact, but regardless of what any particular Israelite might choose to believe, the situation was that God brought them out of Egypt, they owed Him obedience, and they would be blessed or destroyed according to their preference. The statement, "Jesus died to save me from my sins," means more to me than just a recitation of historical fact. Further, it is a mystery why the Father chose me, individually speaking. However, this does not mean that the statement is not also objective. Jesus died for me before I was even born. Nor does it mean that, “Jesus died to save me from my sins” does not make any sense. I can understand that fact even if it is difficult for me to comprehend the motives or fully absorb the wonder of it.

In closing, I would like to say that Chris McCartney's treatment of truth may give a biblical corrective to excessively rationalistic accounts of truth. However, he presents an interpretation of Kierkegaard that is too generous, and Kierkegaard will not be declawed. Once one sees what Kierkegaard actually means by a division between fact and response in his Postscript, it does not prove to be Biblical at all. His Knight of Faith is easily unhorsed by the small child who articulates, "Jesus loves me. This I know, for the Bible tells me so."

Works Cited

Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. David F. Swenson and Walter Lowrie. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960.

Kierkegaard, Søren. “Concluding Unscientific Postscript (selections from Section I, Chapter 2; Section II, Chapter 2).” From Plato to Nietzsche. 2nd ed. Ed. Forrest E. Baird and Walter Kaufmann. Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 1997. 1051-1069.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Either/Or. 2 vols. Trans. David F. Swenson and Lillian Marvin Swenson. Garden City: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling. Trans. Alastair Hannay. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

Kierkegaard, Søren. The Journals of Kierkegaard, 1834-1854. Trans. and ed. Alexander Dru. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1948. References cited by date of origin.

Palmer, Donald D. Kierkegaard for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers, 1996.

Solomon, Robert C. From Rationalism to Existentialism. Lanham: Littlefield Adams Quality Paperbacks, 1972.