Kierkegaard on God
November 7, 1995
The ontological argument (or "proof") for God's existence proceeds a priori, on the basis of reason alone. All that is needed is the correct conception of God, and God's existence can be seen to be contained in that very conception. In Anselm's argument, God is "that than which nothing greater can be conceived." For Descartes, God is "the perfect being." For Leibniz's follower Wolff (the target of Kant's criticism), God is "the most real being." Spinoza combines the last two by identifying perfection and reality.
In each case, the description of God contains a superlative: God is the "highest" of all beings. The argument goes on to claim that a non-existent God would be a "lower" being than an existing God. Thus, non-existence conflicts with the nature of God as a superlative being. Kierkegaard contended that appeal to degrees of reality is irrelevant to existence.
Ranking degrees of reality is permissible in the realm of "ideal being" or "essence," but not in the realm of "factual being" or existence. Each existing thing is as real as any other one. The claim that an essence contains more reality if it includes existence mixes up the two types of being. One does not get "more" at the ideal level by the addition of factual being. For example (adapted from Kant), in its essence, $101 is more than $1 00, but 100 existing dollars is no more than an ideal $100.
Thus one cannot not reason from essence toward existence, but only from existence toward essence. Napoleon's existence is not proved on the basis of our knowledge of the deeds of a man. We could only say that there exists a man who did those deeds. With God the situation is worse, for, "The works from which I would deduce his existence are not directly and immediately given." We may find a measure of "wisdom in nature," "goodness," etc. in the world, but this may vanish in a moment's notice. To call what takes place in the world the works of God, we must presuppose that God exists. "if in the moment of beginning his proof it is not absolutely undetermined whether the God exists or not, he does not prove it; and if it is thus undetermined in the beginning he will never come to begin, partly from fear of failure, since the God perhaps does not exist, and partly because he has nothing with which to begin."
God is, for reason, the unknown; and none of reason's efforts can make the unknown known. Reason has reached its limit in the unknown, which as unattainable is absolutely different from it. The modest response is simply to declare the limit of reason as an unknown (cf. Kant), but the temptation is to try to overcome the limitation by projecting the known onto it. Here Kierkegaard echoes Feuerbach's contention that religion projects the nature of the human being into the alien other: "deep down in the heart of piety lurks the mad caprice which knows that it has itself produced the God." Reason reduces the unlike to the like, and the extreme case is that of the God-human, the Incarnation. Yet even here, reason is as far away as ever, because it does not understand what the God is, and so it cannot comprehend the unity of the God and the human being. This is the absolute paradox.
The passage in the text ends at this point, but it is worth considering how the thread continues in the Philosophical Fragments. Kierkegaard asks how reason can understand the absolute unlikeness of the God and the human. One cannot appeal to the God, since the God is unknown. "Their unlikeness must therefore be explained by what man derives from himself, or by what he has brought upon his own head. But what can this unlikeness be? Aye, what can it be but sin; since the unlikeness, the absolute unlikeness, is something that man has brought upon himself."
The encounter between reason and the paradox it comes upon may issue in reason's being offended. Reason finds the conception of the identity and difference of the God and the human to be absurd. It may lash out at the conception of the God-human with derision, and explain it as a delusion. But, Kierkegaard maintained, this is only an illusion; the source of the offense is the paradox itself. "The offended individual does not speak from his own resources, but borrows those of the Paradox; just asone who mimics or parodies another does not invent, but merely copies perversely." Nietzsche is as profound an example of the offended consciousness as any. As a commentator notes, his doctrine that the human being must be overcome is an echo of the Christian doctrine of a new life in Jesus.
Now we may turn to the positive consequence of the paradox, the embrace of the absurd through faith. which itself is a gift bestowed by the Incarnate God. Faith stands in contrast to knowledge; it is subjective as opposed to the objectivity of knowledge. In faith is the truth which is essential to the existing human being. Thus, this truth is "subjective." The subjectivity of truth is one of Kierkegaard's most famous theses, but it should be understood from the start that it is restricted to "ethico-religious" truth.
Objective truth is an understanding of the nature of things, and Kierkegaard characterized the pursuit of objective truth as a process of "approximation." Reason through its investigations comes ever-closer to the whole truth of things, though it is never satisfied. Reason certainly cannot reach God through an investigation of nature, as was argued earlier. Yet it is vital for human beings to find God without delay, as their salvation depends upon it. It seeks God with a passion which has no limits, an infinite passion.
Subjective truth is found in the intensity of the passion. It culminates in faith, which overthrows reason altogether. Kierkegaard had stated in the Fragments that the highest pitch of any passion is to will its own downfall. In faith, that passion has been realized: reason has been overcome in the face of the absurd, the absolute paradox. This is the highest point an existing individual can attain.
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