When it comes to the question of philosophy’s relationship to God, I suggest there are two very different traditions or postures–two different threads that course through the history of western philosophy. The first I’d describe as the sanguine tradition that, despite disagreements on the particulars, affirms a harmony or complementarity between faith and reason, philosophy and God. Aristotle, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas all believe that disciplined philosophical reflection will lead us to conclude that God exists and that philosophy enables us to understand some of God’s properties (e.g., simplicity, immateriality, eternity, etc.). Philosophy is seen as a kind of “on-ramp” to theistic belief, or what Aquinas calls a “preamble” to faith.
But there is another philosophical stream, no less faithful, that is more skeptical of this sanguine sense of synchronicity, or at least wants to complicate the picture. These are not philosophers who are skeptical of God, it should be noted, but rather philosophers who are skeptical of the god of philosophy. In figures like Kierkegaard, Pascal, Heidegger, and O.K. Bouwsma, there is suspicion whether the being at the end of this philosophical chain of inference should be identified with the revealed God who liberated slaves from Egypt and endured the horror of a cross. The “sanguine” tradition, you might say, was confident that we could climb up to God via the ladder of philosophical reflection; the skeptical tradition worries that the being at the top of the ladder isn’t God but an impostor, a substitute, an idol. Whatever being philosophy climbs up to, they would say, is already a domesticated being cut to the measure of human ingenuity. No, these philosophers would say: if God is going to be known it is only because that God stoops down to reveal himself–sometimes to the scandal of reason.
The Danish thinker Soren Kierkegaard is an exemplary figure in this skeptical tradition. This week I’d like to highlight one of his pseudonymous texts called the Philosophical Fragments, penned under the name Johannes Climacus. This is just a teaser and I hope it might be enough to entice you to tackle this brief text for yourself (I’m citing the standard Hong edition published by Princeton University Press).
The Fragments begin with a thought project, formulated as a question: “Can truth be learned?” The focus here is on learning as a coming-to-know, which introduces the significance of time. Climacus’ answer contrasts the “Socratic” model—which assumes we already have everything we need for the truth—with what we might call a “revelational” model in which truth can only be learned if it is given.
In the Socratic model, time or history never really matters: like the Platonic doctrine of recollection, the ideas are always already possessed, so the role of a teacher is merely incidental, a matter of remembering what has always been. The “aha” moment for the learning is merely “an occasion.”
In contrast, in the “revelational” model, time (“the moment”) is everything because it is at some moment that truth breaks into history and it is at some decisive moment that truth is revealed/given to the soul. (This is what, in the Postscript to the Fragments he’ll call “truth as subjectivity”). The “moment” then has eternal significance because the previously unknown becomes known. The moment acquires “decisive significance” as a moment of transformation.
For Climacus, then, the situation of “the learner” before this revelation is to be in a situation of untruth (“due to himself”: “to be untruth and to be that through one’s own fault…Let us call it sin”). What “the teacher” needs to provide, then, is not only the truth but also the very condition to even receive the truth (p. 14). So the teacher is not just a provider of a message or information; the teacher doesn’t just inform, but first has to transform the learner to be able to receive the truth. The only sort of teacher who could do that, he says, is “the god.” (The Hong translation preserves this strange formulation precisely to preserve the sense of this as a thought experiment. It won’t be hard to recognize the Incarnation behind all of this, but Climacus is floating this as a “what if” scenario.)
This is where Kierkegaard’s thought project in the Fragments intersects with what I’m calling the “skeptical” tradition about the relationship between faith and philosophy. In this account, the possibility of thought ever “arriving at” God entirely depends on “the god.” So God (“the god”) is, in some sense, that which cannot be thought or anticipated—can’t be scaled up to from what we already have, can’t be anticipated or predelineated or extrapolated from what we already know. Otherwise the god would not be wholly other, qualitatively different.
Thus, he emphasizes, God is a paradox, but “paradox is the passion of thought.” Indeed, “the ultimate paradox of thought” is “to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think” (p. 37). In paradoxical fashion, we desire to know the unknown, which is the very limit of thought.
At this juncture Climacus (Kierkegaard) floats his own critique of arguments for the existence of God (p. 39): to commence a demonstration is already to believe the conclusion I want to reach. I don’t reason to existence, I reason from existence. So even to begin the process of a demonstration is already to have in hand a being cut to the measure of what I can imagine.
Demonstrations presuppose the existence of God—in which case, I obviously came to affirm God’s existence by other means; in which case, the demonstrations are not necessary, or even the most germane way to come to that conclusion. Reaching this “conclusion” is, in fact, not like a deductive inference; it is a, famously, a “leap” (43). “Anyone who wants to demonstrate the existence of God,” Climacus concludes, “proves something else instead.” (43) Then a dash of biting Kierkegaardian wit: “For the fool says in his heart that there is no God, but he who says in his heart or to others: Just wait a little while and I shall demonstrate it–ah, what a rare wise man he is!”
In relation to thought, God is not a logical conclusion at the end of our inferences; God is the unknown—the “frontier” of thought. “But a frontier is expressly passion’s torment, even though it is also its incentive” (44). The best reason (philosophy) can achieve here, then, is to recognize its limits, to know what it does not and cannot know—and to recognize that the god is “absolutely different”: “Defined as the absolutely different, it seems to be at the point of being disclosed, but not so, because the understanding cannot even think the absolutely different” (45).
It is this situation that necessitates revelation: if a human being is to come truly to know something about the unknown (the god), he must first come to know that it is different from him, absolutely different from him. The understanding cannot come to know this by itself; if it is going to come to know this, it must come to know this from the god. Kierkegaard’s skepticism about philosophy’s capacity to reach god is not a prelude to atheism but rather the preservation of a theism worth believing.
I’ve learned a lot about Kierkegaard from my one-time colleague here at Calvin, C. Stephen Evans. His book, Kierkegaard’s Fragments and Postscripts: The Religious Philosophy of Johannes Climacus, is an excellent introductory resource.