Soren Kierkegaard’s Philosophy on Religious Knowledge

June 30, 2021

The nature of truth has been very controversial and deeply debated in the history of philosophy and theology. It has been the centre of debate for a very long time and has attracted the attention of many great thinkers like Soren Kierkegaard. The question of the nature of truth can be backdated to the biblical times. Today it is still unanswered and controversial as it was centuries ago. Since at least the time of Ancient Greece, primarily in the west, knowledge and truth have been said to be either subjective or objective. Soren Kierkegaard claims that religious knowledge is characterised by subjectivity in contrast to objectivity. This paper will explore Kierkegaard’s philosophy on religious knowledge and have a deep insight into the nature of religious knowledge and existence of God. First the paper will look into the meaning of subjectivity and objectivity. The paper will then explore Kierkegaard’s idea of religious knowledge as being characterised by subjectivity as opposed to objectivity. The paper will finally have a deep insight into the nature of religious knowledge and the existence of God.

It is imperative that some basic information concerning the concepts of knowledge, known as epistemology in philosophy, be well understood before getting into the more complicated ideas expressed by Kierkegaard. The term objective refers to the dispassionate knowledge that one can attain about this world, or in this case, religious knowledge and the existence of God. Objectivity involves the application of empirical, rational, and scientific methods of inquiry to the topic of discussion. On the other hand, subjectivity refers to the personal, passionate, and practical approach to knowledge or the topic of discussion. In other words, subjectivity defines what is within an individual that makes him/her exist or gives the unique relationship between the subject and the object. Subjectivity is in contrast with objectivity which involves what is outside the individual, what others can see, feel or measure.

According to the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard, subjectivity is truth and truth is subjectivity (Wolff 92). Kierkegaard entrenches his thought in the traditional Christian faith in Jesus Christ as the only means of personal salvation. The thoughts of Kierkegaard are instrumental in defining a way of existing in the world in a manner that is insistent on an individual and deeply personal experience leading to religious truth. The religious experience is characterised by a highly subjective awareness of truth and the existence of God within one’s own individual existence.

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Kierkegaard has a unique perspective on truth and makes great emphasis on man as an existing individual, which leads to his subjective basis for the truth (Wolff92). This actually means that knowledge has a relationship with the knower, who is essentially an existing individual, and for this reason, all essential knowledge is primarily related to the existence. In order for one to be subjective, it involves making a decision or choice. This means that there is employment of free will and choice in subjective knowledge. In the process of choice, human beings utilise their emotions, will, and feelings as an existing quest for the truth. Therefore, in order for one to be totally subjective, he/she must first of all come in to terms with own existence and what it constitutes.

In his philosophy, Kierkegaard implies that the mode or method of being subjective can be communicated but the content cannot. This, in other words, is to say that it is possible to share what subjective thinking feels like or what becoming subjective looks like. It is possible for a subjective thinker to say what he is thinking and feeling, not what he is thinking and understanding, but how he is subjectively thinking and understanding.

Kierkegaard claims that in order to become religious, one must completely be subjective (Wolff 94). He claims that the objective uncertainty in an appropriation process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth and the highest conviction that can be attained in an existing individual. Considering that Soren was himself a Christian, his statement might be controversial in the Christian faith. It might seem to be central to the generally accepted scripture which says what one needs to do in order to be saved, or in other words become a Christian. The scripture, for instance, says that you just need to believe in Jesus Christ, and you will be saved. For Kierkegaard, it is not salvation as such but subjectivity in becoming contemporary with Christ in order to attain eternal happiness. He might be seen to be introducing new doctrine in the religious books. It would be clear if he stated that there is a preliminary mind setting, which is subjectivity, required for one to be religious.

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Kierkegaard’s great contribution to the understanding of religious faith is in importance for every existing individual to be aware of the subjective nature of truth as opposed to the objectivity in order to be religious. However, it should be noted that he does not advocate for non-reflective and irrational faith. Individuals should be reflective and rational about their faith, but must always recognize that the reflection should be oriented towards their relationship with the truth.

He further implies that faith can only be possible for an existing subject, which every human being is, and not an object. He stipulates that when a question of truth is raised objectively, reflection should be directed objectively to the truth, as an object to which the knower is related. The reflection is not directed to the relationship, but the object to which the knower is related. If the object happens to be the truth, the subject is said to be related to the truth. He argues that when a question of truth is raised subjectively, then reflection is directed subjectively to the nature of the individual’s relationship. If the mode of the relationship is found to be in the truth, then the individual is said to be in the truth even if he might be related to that which is not true (Wolff 94).

In the question of the existence of God, Kierkegaard is very categorical and certain that somehow God is not bound by our simple categories of true or not true. He argues that God does not reason as men do and that he can overcome the petty distinctions, errors, and untruths that a mere existing human being can entertain or accommodate. Soren seems to have a very strong belief in the existence of GOD represented by the scripture. God does not look at the things the way man looks; man is interested in the outward appearance, but God looks at the mind and heart.

For Kierkegaard, religious knowledge as subjectivity seems to imply a relational state of existence and not a set of propositions to be believed as the objective truth. The propositions about Christianity for instance such as the doctrines, beliefs, and historical facts if held are valid and meaningful only to the individual who has a relationship of passionate inwardness or subjectivity. For Kierkegaard, religious truth is not in any way derived from theoretical reasoning or rationality. The only certainty is to hold on to these truths with passionate awareness. The facts are not truth themselves but are approximations about a certain truth. Kierkegaard argues that approximations are certainty attainable for historical knowledge, but also an inadequate basis for eternal happiness.

Kierkegaard has a lot to say about how one subjectively relates to the truth. According to him, passion is somehow synonymous with subjectivity. For one to have a deep conviction in his relationship with God, he must be passionate or subjective. This means that the individual must have some deep conviction in what he believes. For one to believe in God, who is all truth, he has to be passionate in his awareness about the existence of God. Individuals hold on to religious knowledge, although God is infinite, and man is merely finite. This seems to be a paradoxical absurd situation. Nobody has ever seen God, but they passionately believe in the existence of God. He stipulates that Christianity is spirit, and the spirit is inwardness (subjectivity). Subjectivity is essentially passion, which is at best an infinite personal interest in one’s eternal happiness.

The other characteristic of subjectivity, which characterizes religious knowledge, is paradox. Most of the things in religious knowledge are paradoxical in nature and cannot be verified using any rational or empirical formula. Subjective truth involves belief in the face of contradiction as seen in religious faith. In Christianity, for instance, it seems absurd to say that God was born in flesh like any other human being. Being that there are two kinds of truth, one must agree that the truth of seemingly logical contradiction can only be held subjectively. It cannot be held objectively as objectivity involves what can be proven empirically or logically. According to Soren Kierkegaard, the incarnation of Christ is the ultimate paradox and can only be held subjectively or passionately (through passionate inwardness).

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I absolutely agree with Kierkegaard that religious knowledge is characterised by subjectivity. Religious knowledge is very much paradoxical. We can only believe in the existence of God through faith, but the existence of God cannot be determined objectively. In matters of faith and religious knowledge, there are limits of objective and theoretical thought. The existence of God can only be true subjectively. In other words, there is nothing to point to or observe that would give us a verifying principle to prove the existence of God. This truth must be arrived at through faith, which can only be attained through passionate inwardness. A subjective truth is one held personally with no recourse to any scientific or empirically verifiable data.