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Soren Kierkegaard’s Views on The Paradoxical Nature of Faith

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Table of contents

  1. Climacus’ position: faith as a paradox
  2. Faith is not knowledge
  3. Faith is not will
  4. The relationship between philosophy and faith
  5. Possible tensions in Kierkegaard’s argument
  6. Possible objection
  7. Conclusion

Soren Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments seeks to show the limits of reason when it comes to knowledge of the divine. His work is a polemic against idealism, which states that through sheer reason and will alone we can have knowledge of the eternal. However, Kierkegaard argues that reason and will alone cannot reconcile the numerous paradoxes and contradictions Christianity imposes, only faith can. Thus, Kierkegaard argues that faith is not knowledge nor will. He uses his pseudonym, Climacus, to illustrate the paradoxical nature of faith and remove his authority as an author and in turn, facilitate subjectivity in the reader. His indirect communication to the reader is intentional as the aim of his thought-project is for the reader to think for themselves and account for the limits of human reason when it comes to understanding faith and Christianity. This paper will first explain why Climacus argues that faith is paradoxical, and how faith is not knowledge nor will. Next, it will contrast Kierkegaard’s and Socrates’ philosophical ways of thinking and their relationship to faith, and how it applies to the broader theme of what philosophy can tell us about faith. Then reveal possible tensions in Climacus’ position, mainly the role of the will in both our dependency on god for the condition and our human agency in faith will be revealed. Lastly, the author will consider an objection against his possible tensions.

Climacus’ position: faith as a paradox

To first understand faith as a paradox, one should first explain Climacus’ notion of the absolute paradox. God appeared as a lowly human servant (Christ) to provide the condition to faith. Since god is eternal and the understanding cannot reconcile the eternal, the god interjected into time and space and ultimately made a historical moment matter eternally. Nevertheless, it is harder for the understanding to reconcile the eternal appearing in a historical moment than it is for the understanding to grasp the eternal. Climacus contends that to reconcile this paradox and this misalignment with our reason and understanding, we must appeal to faith. Thus, the god himself must provide the condition; otherwise, the learner is not able to understand anything: ‘only the person who personally receives the condition from god (which completely corresponds to the requirement that one relinquish the understanding and on the other hand is the only authority that corresponds to faith), only that person believes’. Further, faith is not something that has to do with historical accuracy and being close to the events of Christ. In fact, being a disciple and knowing every action and move of Christ does not make one have faith in Christ. Thus, it is not the historical that is a prerequisite for faith; rather, god provides the condition for faith to occur.

However, this means that faith is just as paradoxical as the absolute paradox. It is just as much a wonder and a paradox when god gives us the eternal condition for faith, as faith is essentially a “wonder [in which] the eternal condition [gives] in time”. It is also not something that we can nail down by our understanding as any attempts to explain faith through reason will ultimately fail. However, when we understand and accept that faith is just as paradoxical as the absolute paradox, it becomes easier to understand that we cannot understand the paradox as Climacus is asking us not to “understand the paradox but [only] to understand that this is the paradox’. It is impossible to understand the paradox as that would presuppose our reason could think through the eternal and historical co-existing, which is philosophically impossible for Climacus. Instead, we need not try to understand the paradox, but recognize that it is the paradox. The paradoxical nature of faith reconciles when the understanding suspends itself, as faith occurs “when the understanding the paradox happily encounter each other in the moment, when the understanding steps aside and the paradox gives itself”. Nevertheless, the paradoxical nature of faith “unites all the contradictories, is the eternalizing of historical and the historizing of the eternal”.

Faith is not knowledge

Climacus’ main view is that the truth of god is not a knowledge a human can know. Contrary to Hegelian idealism, which states that humans can think something into existence and necessity, Climacus wants to argue that knowledge of the eternal cannot be found through reason and will. Faith is not a form of knowledge, as “all knowledge is either knowledge of the eternal […] or is purely historical knowledge’. Since faith reconciles the paradox of the eternal and historical colliding, ‘no knowledge can have as its object this absurdity that the eternal is the historical’. Nevertheless, the object of faith is not the teaching but the teacher (God appearing as a lowly servant), as faith merely cannot be a substitute for knowledge. Climacus gives multiple examples of contemporaries living at the same time as Christ, where they hold great historical accuracy of Christ and have memorized every syllable he has ever spoken. Yet, he argues that these contemporaries would still not have faith. Faith is something more than knowledge and historical accuracy, it is something beyond our understanding. If faith was something that could be easily knowable with historical accuracy, then would it really be faith? If we regard faith as something objective and knowable, then there seems to be no point in appealing to faith. We have faith because we acknowledge the limits of our reason and understanding, and we appeal to god to reconcile these paradoxes our reason presents us with.

If faith was knowledge, then it will be purely Socratic. The condition would already be present in humans and it would simply be a matter of recollecting. Climacus says “if we do not assume the moment, then we go back to Socrates, and it was precisely from him we wanted to take leave in order to discover something”. However, it is important to note that Kierkegaard is not against reason and the Socratic doctrine of recollection; rather, he wants to show that its highest and appropriate use of the Socratic doctrine is always between humans, not between humans and god.

Faith is not will

Climacus also explains that faith is also not an act of will. Since god must provide the condition to the learner, faith cannot be an act of will. If we did not need the condition from God, then we will return to the Socratic philosophy of recollection. The Socratic philosophy reverts to the learner having the condition in themselves with the teacher merely reminding them of what is already present, but ultimately it is the learner that wills that recollection. Thus, the teacher can be dispensed of when the learner comes to this recollection. However, in Christianity, when one comes to faith, god is not simply dispensed of. Instead, Kierkegaard wants to build upon Socratic philosophy. It may be the highest relation between humans, but it does not explain our relationship with god. God must give us the condition, and it is not through sheer will alone that can get us the condition. As a result, without the condition, willing is of no avail. Thus, our reason and wills are set aside so that faith can enter in: “let no innkeeper or philosophy professor fancy that he is such a clever fellow that he can detect something if god himself does not give the condition. No matter how smart or clever, each individual is equal to faith in terms of god giving the condition. Faith is not something that is to be understood and is not something that we can boast about like we would in describing historical events. All human will depends upon a condition, and the condition for faith must come from the paradox; therefore, the paradox insights this happy passion called faith.

The relationship between philosophy and faith

From a broader perspective, philosophy and faith can help us understand how the paradoxes of eternity and time can be reconciled. Kierkegaard ultimately argues that philosophical reasoning alone cannot explain how god, an eternal figure, can appear in a historical moment. Thus, faith is philosophically impossible because of how entangled it is with paradoxes. However, Kierkegaard tries his best to indirectly communicate the limits of our reason using the Socratic philosophy. He essentially uses some reason to dispel reason, in which he argues that since the Socratic is the highest relation between him and the reader, there must be a different kind of relationship between humans and god.

Kierkegaard’s and Socrates’ philosophies are inherently similar but differ when it comes to the eternal. Both Socrates’ and Kierkegaard’s rhetoric relies on an individual’s own subjectivity. Socrates’ constant use of questioning to lead the learners out of their comfort of ignorance is comparable to Kierkegaard’s use of paradoxes to lead us into faith. This form of indirect communication allows the learner to think for themselves and take responsibility for their claims about knowledge (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Thus, Kierkegaard’s argument entirely depends on recognizing the limits of human reason and how faith cannot be philosophically explained. The absolute paradox, God in the form of a lowly servant, is not something that can be understood by our understanding. Thus, Kierkegaard’s use of indirect communication allows us to think about the paradoxes for ourselves. The relationship between the reader and Kierkegaard’s writing is still purely Socratic; thus, Kierkegaard can only go so far in aiding us to think for ourselves. We cannot give each other faith since god can only provide the condition, so Kierkegaard gives just the right amount of knowledge that is consistent with his position that the highest relation between humans is Socratic.

Possible tensions in Kierkegaard’s argument

Kierkegaard argues that faith is not an act of will, but then he says that “belief is not a knowledge but an act of freedom, an expression of will”. Thus, there is a tension between belief as an expression of will and faith not as an act of will. Could it be that belief in god can be an expression of will? Nevertheless, we do not think belief as an expression of will is consistent with Kierkegaard’s position of faith not as an act of will. Aforementioned, faith is not an act of will because it is set aside so faith can enter in and god can give us the condition. If faith was then an act of will, then we do not need the condition from god. As a result, we then turn to the Socratic doctrine which Kierkegaard was against in explaining our relationship with the eternal.

The tension between will and faith can also be applied to the relationship between reason and faith. I believe that Kierkegaard may not have sufficiently shown how reason plays a role in faith. Is reason set-aside forever after we come to have faith? This cannot be the case, as we continue our lives with others and learn from each other Socratically. Thus, it cannot be the case that god suspends reason in humans indefinitely, which may mean that reason and faith co-exist and juxtapose each other. However, one can find that as paradoxical as the historical and eternal existing throughout time. Nevertheless, Kierkegaard’s suspension of reason was reactive in the sense that he is so passionately opposed to the philosophy of idealism that he didn’t want to fall into the trap of their philosophy by accounting for our use of reason when it comes to faith.

Possible objection

Perhaps one may reply to the possible tension I revealed and say that it really is not a tension at all. When Kierkegaard says, “belief is not a knowledge but an act of freedom, an expression of will”, he was not talking about faith in the eternal, but rather he was referring to ordinary belief. Kierkegaard actually clarifies the difference between belief and faith: “here faith is first taken in its direct and ordinary meaning [belief] as the relationship to the historical; but secondly, faith must be taken in the wholly eminent sense”. However, I want to reply with a different tension between human agency and the eternal giving us the condition. To briefly lay out Kierkegaard’s argument again, God provides us with the condition for faith. However, we can use our will to choose to take offense or have faith. Even if we do choose to have faith, we still use our will continuously when we choose to believe in god or not, and that is a responsibility we choose every day. Nevertheless, the revised tension is asking whether faith is a free act or not. Kierkegaard does not account for how our human will to believe or not is suspended when god gives us the condition to faith. At the same time, we have will and exercise will in our daily lives, but also faith is not will. How is our will suspended, or even transferred, to god when he gives us the condition? How do we regain our will back after god gives us the condition? Kierkegaard could possibly reply by saying this tension between human freedom and God controlling our will can be reconciled if we simply appeal to faith because we should not try to understand absurdity. Nevertheless, this reply is not sufficient because it rolls over a valid concern of human will and autonomy, and simply having faith may not be enough when human freedom is of concern.


To conclude, this essay has argued that Kierkegaard’s purpose in his thought-project is to show the limits of human reason when it comes to knowledge of the eternal. We need god to provide us with a condition to faith. Faith itself also cannot be rationalized as faith itself is a paradox. Faith is also entirely subjective; it is not deducible through human reason alone or found in the New Testament. However, faith unites the paradoxes. Knowledge itself cannot explain faith as no knowledge cannot account for the co-existence of the historical and eternal. We also cannot explain faith through sheer will as god must provide the condition to us. Nevertheless, tensions between human agency and the transference of our will in order for god to provide us with the condition remains as a possible objection. However, Kierkegaard urges us to abandon our complete reliance on reason and understanding to explain the divine and instead take a paradoxical “leap” of faith. 

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