A reflection on Soren Kierkegaard, by Tim Summers

There is a passage in John Updike’s 1996 novel In the Beauty of the Lilies in which a doubting Protestant minister, Clarence, meets a church official, Dreaver, in the hope of shoring up his own faltering faith. This opening part of the novel is set in the early C20th, when many Christians reacted defensively to developments in science and biblical scholarship by adopting the literalist approach to the Bible known as fundamentalism (not originally a disparaging term). Clarence is a fundamentalist who began reading sceptical scholarship and philosophy in order to refute it, but ended up being "converted" by it.

So he meets with Dreaver, a younger man educated at Union Theological Seminary who has a far more liberal approach to Christian doctrine. Clarence cannot help liking him. For every ball Clarence can toss at him, every rationalistic objection - "the Resurrection appearances?", "a personal God?" - the scholarly Dreaver can respond off the cuff, with a virtuoso reinterpretation of Christian tradition that takes account of science, biblical criticism and philosophy. Their dialogue concludes with the following exchange:

“You’re saying,” Clarence said hesitantly, “that within the general indeterminacy..."

“There is room for belief”.

This encounter sets the course for the rest of the novel and three generations of Clarence's descendants. For although Clarence admires Dreaver and could surely have followed his counsels, enabling him to remain in the ministry, he decides (for as Dreaver says, what is involved is a decision) to relinquish the Christian faith. He resigns his ministry and his life is turned upside down, and we watch the consequences play out in later generations. The implication is that wider American culture is going the same way as, under the strain of progress, traditional belief is replaced by Hollywood, consumerism and cults.

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold," as WB Yeats wrote in "The Second Coming" of 1919, in which he sees Christ being superseded by a different god: whatever "rough beast / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born."

The important point in the Clarence/Dreaver encounter is that Christian faith has always been, and remains, a decision. In the view of the scholarly Dreaver, and his creator John Updike, there are enough good arguments, even amid the acids of science and criticism, to make that decision a credible one. And absent such a decision for faith things really do fall apart, just as Yeats foresaw.

Evidently Updike is describing his own wrestling with belief in the modern world. We know that two of his principal influences were the C19th philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and the C20th theologian Karl Barth. Both were involved in shaping a theology against the acids of science and criticism, developing doctrines viable for non-fundamentalists in (post)modernity. Neither takes the liberal line of Dreaver, with his watered down gospel, but I believe both do implicitly start from the position that, for all the recent disturbing scientific and critical developments, there remains "room for belief," and our building can start there. Indeed, as Kierkegaard argues, faith is "inward," "subjective," and not a matter of rational proofs. Christ appeared on earth as a man, in appearance much like other men, who did not compel belief. A decision of faith was always involved, even for those who knew Christ in person. Kierkegaard calls this decision the "leap of faith".

In this series of reflections I have been giving several versions of why I find Christianity convincing, culminating in arguments from Schopenhauer and what I call the “Romantic" faith of CS Lewis. But it must be admitted that none of these is a knockdown argument. It is quite possible that materialism is the truth, each of us is dust and nothing more, and all of these attractive discussions are simply wishful thinking. I certainly feel that the fundamentalist version of Christianity, which is the version to which Clarence wants to cling in Updike’s novel, falls at the hurdle of science and criticism just as in the story. As I have said before, the apologists are defeated when they set the bar too high.

However what Kierkegaard says in his various works, and brings to a focus in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, is roughly as follows. The human wisdom of science and criticism can greatly deconstruct traditional Christian teaching if we treat them as our main source of authority. This must be accepted if we (unlike the fundamentalists) are to be intellectually honest. There is an "ugly great ditch" between some of the findings of scientific research and the traditional Christian teachings. But who builds an eternal hope on contingent historical facts? There remains "room for belief" and belief is a personal decision - now as it was even in the time of Christ, in the physical presence of Christ - which cannot be based primarily on evidence. It is about infinite things and is an orientation of the entire soul. It cannot be something which is proved one day and disproved the next, depending on the latest finds in archaeology.

The consequence of it being a leap of faith and an orientation of the entire soul, is that the resulting Kierkegaardian faith is anything but liberal, despite taking cognisance of modern intellectual developments. Kierkegaard is harder on himself and the reader than Augustine, Luther or Pascal or any fundamentalist C21st church, or any church whatsoever in fact, and he makes disturbing reading despite being such a sophisticated (post)modern and an inspiration for later secular existentialists like Camus, Sartre and De Beauvoir. Want to find convincing arguments for giving away all your possessions and deliberately seeking persecution? You will find such arguments in Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard is extreme. He is, if you will, the concentrate. It's legitimate to leaven a reading of his work with some softness, offered by mystics who tend (as I have said) to be on the other, Catholic side of the aisle. (His literary fans such as Charles Williams, WH Auden and Dag Hammarskjold all do this, and perhaps Kierkegaard did so himself when laying down his pen; for he admired many mellower authors.) But for me he serves as a reminder of necessary decision and necessary harshness, in our human life that is short and urgent, and as a final step in my reasoning as to why decide to be Christian. If the truth of Romantic Christianity cannot be demonstrated with certainty, I will make the final leap of faith based on Kierkegaard’s essentially pragmatic position: that a decision is required; there remains room for belief; there is no meaning without faith - all are in despair without faith - and this is simply the best way to live.

The above image is a sketch of Soren Kierkegaard from 1840.