Subjectivity is Truth: Back to Kierkegaard

“Subjectivity is the truth.” This is the famous and notoriously cryptic phrase at the heart of Soren Kierkegaard’s highly philosophical theology. It’s been back in my consciousness lately, even though it’s been a few years since I spent time with the elusive Dane. I have read essays by Paul DeHart, the theologian at Vanderbilt, and Kierkegaard is one of the thinkers he often returns to.

Kierkegaard and me

It’s like that for a lot of us, it seems. Kierkegaard doesn’t like to let go. My journey with him started at university, and I remember it as a moment of intense and exciting discovery. It was my final year at Olivet Nazarene University, and our teacher Craig Keen was leading a group of enthusiastic young evangelicals through most of the texts. My classmates and I spent late nights in the library or in each other’s apartment, debating strange vignettes of Whether or and the surprising movements of Unscientific Conclusion Postscript. We tried to get into Kierkegaard’s lifelong wrestling match with the Christian philosophy of the great GWF Hegel. We discovered the key terms, trying to weave a cohesive path through everything we learned. Faith, immediacy, moment, repetition, paradox, contradiction. What did this playful and pugnacious writer mean by all of this?

In and around all of these stimulating ideas, there is, by philosophers’ standards, a lot of biographical intrigue. His sad love story, a public argument with a pastor. His somewhat too credible parables of a seducer. There was enough to keep the interest of the 21 year old holy children.

DeHart finds the center of Kierkegaard’s life and thought in “the restless will to be yourself”. I think that’s a pretty good way to put it. Moreover, it is in this restless will that his philosophy reveals a theological belly. “Subjectivity is the truth” doesn’t mean “individualism is the way” or anything like that from Ayn Rand. It means, on the contrary, that there is no discovery of the truth of the universe for humans without an inward turn. Without, that is, a courageous resolution to confront myself. This confrontation, in turn, becomes the surprising place where God reveals himself beyond my own will.

Stages on the path of life

A motif repeated in Kierkegaard’s writings describes this revelation through the stages of life. They go something like this:

  • In search of pleasure and immediate gratification, I do not reflect on my life. I guess I’m living my life to the fullest.
  • As I start to think, I suspect that I am not living my life, but my life is living me. I decide to live with moral intentionality, regardless of the lack of pleasure or reward that such a life brings.
  • I encounter God as a shine of grace in my relentless struggle to live a good life. In an instant, or in a series of instants repeated differently more likely, I discover that my moral resolve was itself only a preparation for the gift of life that God has for me. My turn inside opened me to the God beyond. I am not my own truth, but my subjective resolution has led me to the truth.

Kierkegaard is sometimes called the father of existentialism. I think that’s not wrong, as long as you don’t make him a mid-twentieth-century Frenchman with a cigarette and no sense of humor. For him, withdrawal is what emerges when we pay attention to our existence, to our way of existing in the world. You could say that there is a deep asceticism in Kierkegaard, although it is not the asceticism of the fathers and mothers of the desert. He is the father of the desert one would meet in modern Copenhagen, going to the opera and sitting in a cafe reading the newspaper.

Kierkegaard on the diagonal track

For me, all of this makes him a diagonal traveling companion. Careful attention to how I live in the world is the only trustworthy path to God. “Interiority,” he sometimes calls it. Kierkegaard never lets us rest on the easy assumption that God is lying to the world while waiting to be discovered. Kierkegaard is not kind to the idea that a person, church, or culture can assume that God is on their side. It brings out some of his funniest or (and!) Most vitriolic prose.

God is not “out there” to find, for divinity appears in the world in the paradox of a God-human. Truth appears in the world as a treasure hidden in a field. Without the courage and determination to go digging, we will only see the field. Just as Jesus’ contemporaries had to sit down with harsh or confusing teachings if they ever hoped to hear the divine voice speak. The heart of the gospel, for Kierkegaard, is that the truth of God enters the world and makes it difficult.

Subjectivity is the truth

Prayer is difficult. Moral resolution is difficult. Faithfulness in marriage and family life is difficult. Loving your neighbor is difficult, even before coming to the question of strangers and enemies. But the biggest paradox of all, and the mysterious trick that delights and frustrates its readers, is that this difficult path is only a step on the path of life. The dancer must train and retrain her steps, but all this is in the service of the majestic leap of the dance floor. The Christian learns and relearns the habits of discipleship, but all of this is at the service of the moment of immediacy, the moment when the eternal gift of God bursts into our consciousness.

And yet, avoiding ourselves, our habits, our unique paths of existence, is the surest way to avoid this surprise of the divine presence. For Kierkegaard, the courage to face yourself is the beginning of the courage to meet God. Our irreplaceable subjectivity is the truth.

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