Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813–1855) was a prolific author and philosopher who lived in nineteenth-century Denmark. He was also a theologian, and much of his work centered on faith in God, Christian love, and the Christian church, but he approached these subjects from a philosophical rather than a biblical viewpoint. Søren Kierkegaard is understood to be one of the first existentialists, and his work influenced both theistic and atheistic existential philosophers. His writings also gave rise to the colloquial phrase leap of faith. Some of Kierkegaard’s most influential works are Fear and Trembling (1843), The Concept of Anxiety (1844), and The Sickness unto Death (1849).
Kierkegaard argued that truth cannot be found by observation alone but must be understood in the mind and heart apart from empirical evidence. He said that, without this element, faith is no longer faith but only an acknowledgement of what is there. If you see a chair in your house, you can say, “The chair is there,” because you plainly see it. But, since you cannot observe God with your eyes, you must have faith that He is there.
Kierkegaard also said that doubt is necessary to faith; in fact, the two are interdependent. Faith implies doubt, whereas belief is based on observable phenomena. When there is no doubt, faith is simply observation (leading to “belief”) and ceases to be faith. Thus, according to Kierkegaard, we can “have faith” in God, but we cannot “believe” in Him. Faith requires the acceptance of what is beyond reason; in fact, we have faith in spite of reason. The so-called “leap of faith” that Kierkegaard’s writings first proposed is based on this doubt-faith relationship. Søren Kierkegaard compared commitment to God to romantic love. He said both require a person to commit himself in an all-encompassing manner despite the fact that the empirical evidence available is insufficient to justify such a complete giving-over of oneself.
Kierkegaard saw himself predominately as a religious poet, not as a philosopher. He wrote some of his books using pseudonyms and in a fictional style with multiple narrative points of view, making some of his teachings rather hard to pin down. Through his works, Kierkegaard focused on the need for an individual to fully engage reality and thus stave off boredom and what Kierkegaard referred to as “despair.” Truth is found in the subjective experience of reality, not in a detached, objective observation of reality.
Kierkegaard taught that there are three stages of life: aesthetic, ethical, and religious. The aesthetic stage is the most immature; in this stage, a person is ruled by passion and sensory experiences. In the ethical stage of life, one is ruled by society’s regulations; the individual begins to live for others and make choices based on what is right, rather than on what feels good. The religious stage is the most mature stage of life and the highest goal of every man; in this stage, total faith in God (apart from reason) charts one’s course. The most important task of every individual is to have a personal relationship with Christ, to engage in the life of the Spirit with abandon. Kierkegaard was critical of churches that kept a person from truly experiencing the spiritual life that God wants for us. True, passionate faith does not come through ritual or memorizing liturgies. Individual, subjective love of God cannot be mediated by the clergy or by manmade objects.
Søren Kierkegaard rightly recognized the problem of a complacent church that requires nothing of Christians but to be respectable and regurgitate a creed. He decried nominal Christianity, or what he called “Christendom”; such empty religion leads many people to be officially “Christians” without having any idea of what it actually means to be a Christian. What faith demands, Kierkegaard said, is adventure and risk and pain. Anything less than total commitment to Christ is “playing church” and out of step with the New Testament model of the church. Kierkegaard is to be commended for his attempts to awaken Christians to the need for total religious commitment.