Sawing Lessons: Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript

Sawing Lessons

“In the great forests of North Dakota, there lived a rough old sawyer named Dawkins.  In his early years, Dawkins dominated the region with his woodcutting abilities; able to produce as much sawn wood as any ten sawyers in the region combined.  As he grew older, he took a promising young sawyer from the best sawyer school he knew, and began to teach him the tricks of the trade; teaching him to lean lightly on the saw with the left hand to allow for vigorous shredding strokes with the right hand.  To old man’s utter surprise and amazement, the young buck told him that the new pervading post-Hegelian dogma in sawyer school was to press hard upon the saw with the left hand so that the saw could not move.  Utterly dumbfounded and dismayed, old Dawkins asked the boy:  “Boy, if the saw don’t move, how you gonna cut the wood?” to which the boy happily exclaimed, “we do not want to move the saw and we do not want to cut the wood.”  After straightening the boy out in the woodshed, and leaving him his estate, old Dawkins spent the rest of his life writing books and debating prominent PhDs in the new philosophic school of sawyers.”

 

The above story is an abridgment of the concluding illustration of Book 1 of Concluding Unscientific Postscript by Soren Kierkegaard.  The author of this article has abridged it to give it a happy ending so that the children don’t get nightmares. Unfortunately, on page 50 of his book, the ending is not cheerful and the stakes are higher.  What is faith?  What is truth?  What is Christianity?  The answers to these question are attempted by the great Danish thinker, but not in the way that one might suppose.  If one comes to an answer, says the ironic Dane, one can never find the answer.  If one never finds the answer, but remains infinitely passionate, he finds the answers and eternal joy.  The paradoxical Dane says that the believer’s response to the burning questions that haunt Christians is:

“…becoming aware of the paradox and holding on to the paradox at every moment, and most of all fearing in particular an explanation that would remove the paradox (182)”.

Are we to revel in paradox; avoiding understanding God’s revelation at all costs?  Or is God’s revelation a revelation; meant to be known and meditated upon; it’s implications, interpretations, and applications drawn out?  No doubt, the Creator’s secrets cannot be understood by the creation, but has not the Creator revealed much truth to those made in His image; that they may understand it?  That they may know God and that His elect may have the mind of Christ (i.e. to know the very truth that God knows).  Has this not always been the assertion of Christianity, that God has revealed Himself to man?

“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”  Deut 29:29 

Concluding Unscientific Postscript

Soren Kierkegaard
Soren Kierkegaard

Soren Kierkegaard was a great 19th century philosopher who is sometimes considered the father of existentialism.  His work, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, is beautifully written and it’s engaging style makes it difficult to put down.  He emphasizes the primacy of infinite interest in Christian teaching over and against the demonstration of systematic truths of Christianity.  He considers the latter an “objective” problem and the former a “subjective problem.

“The objective problem will then be: about Christianity’s truth. The subjective problem is: about the individual’s relation to Christianity (18).”

According to Kierkegaard, a Christian does not objectively know truth and then leave the question of his relationship to it (the infinite interest) as an afterthought.

“… the only unpardonable lèse-majesté against Christianity is for the individual to take his relationship to it for granted. (17)

Christianity is chiefly concerned with the subjective problem; how you, he, and I can be eternally happy.  He speaks thus to the critic who complains that his perspective is presumptuous:

“But my conscience is quite clear in this matter; it is not I who in myself have become so impudent, it is precisely Christianity that obliges me to be so. It places a quite different sort of weight on my own little ‘I’, and on every rather little ‘I’, since it wants to make him eternally happy if he is fortunate enough to enter into it. That is, without having understood Christianity, since I merely pose the question, I have nevertheless grasped this much, that it wants to make the single individual eternally happy, and that it presupposes precisely in the individual himself this infinite interest in his blessedness as conditio sine qua non [a necessary condition], an interest by virtue of which he hates father and mother and doubtless also cares less about speculative systems and world-historical outlines (17).”

The Christian does not invest his hope of eternal happiness in objective truth; which, for Kierkegaard is “the historical truth, the philosophical truth (19).”  Faith is “infinite interest in Christianity (19)” and infinite interest in one’s own eternal happiness (17). Should one seek objective understanding of Christian truth, he would necessarily, and by definition, lose faith since one cannot have infinite subjective interest while he is trying to become objective.

“Thus the investigating, speculating, knowing subject does indeed ask about the truth, but not about the subjective truth, the truth of appropriation. Thus the investigating subject is of course interested but not infinitely, personally, passionately interested in his relation to this truth in respect of his eternal happiness. Far be it from the objective subject to be so immodest, so vain (19).”

Therefore, at the end of his section on objective truth, he concludes with an illustration of a sawyer:

“The contradiction between the subject with a passionate infinite interest and philosophical speculation, when it is supposed to help him, is one that I shall try to illustrate in a metaphor drawn from the perceptual world. In sawing wood, it is important not to exert too much pressure on the saw; the lighter the hand of the sawyer, the better the saw operates. Were someone to press down on the saw with all his might, he would no longer be able to saw at all. Similarly, it is important for the speculating person to make himself objectively light, but the person with a passionate infinite interest in his own eternal happiness makes himself subjectively as heavy as possible. For this very reason he makes it impossible for him himself to speculate. If now Christianity requires this infinite interest in the individual subject (which is assumed, since this is the point on which the problem turns), it is easy to see that he cannot possibly find in speculation what he seeks (50).”

In this illustration, moving the saw is understanding objective truth, pushing hard on the saw to lock it up is faith, and lightening up to allow the saw to move is seeking objective truth.  Since determining the truth of Christianity is seeking objective truth (helping the saw to move), and since the great Dane insists that one cannot have infinite interest while seeking objective truth, the infinitely interested individual must not try to understand what Christianity is, but must remain infinitely interested in something that he does not understand.  Even the very meaning of the term “Christianity” must not be investigated as that will cause the subject to try to be objective; disintegrating his subjective interest.  Kierkegaard, however, does not think that the pursuit of objective truth is valueless.  However, for the one who pursues objective truth,

“the question of his personal eternal happiness just cannot arise, for the very reason that his task consists in getting more and more away from himself, and becoming objective… (49)”

The Christian is to search for subjective truth; pressing down hard upon the saw so that it cannot move.

Biblical Objective Knowledge

What is the role of objective knowledge in the Bible?  Can we agree that objective knowledge is incompatible with faith?  How can we agree with Kierkegaard when God has revealed His truth to us?  Does not the very fact of revelation dispose of the passionate Dane’s view? God’s revelation, by definition, is objective truth given by God to man.  God’s truth is not merely true for Him, it is true for you and me.  Note that Kierkegaard does not derive his definition of faith from careful exegesis; logical exegesis itself would be against his principle.  On his own principles, Kierkegaard’s Christianity is based on Kierkegaard’s personal subjective truth, not on revelation from God.  The latter is a surer authority. Anyone who wishes to believe God and not Kierkegaard will believe God’s Word, and, therefore, will not accept Kierkegaard’s personal truth.  If God’s Word is correct, that all things were made for Christ (Col 1:16), Christianity is about bringing Christ glory, and Kierkegaard’s personal truth is a misunderstanding of the message of Christianity.  It is not about passionate interest in one’s own eternal happiness.

 

God has revealed objective truths to men and he commands men to believe (1 Jn 3:23).  We may be saved from the “wages of sin” through belief in the gospel (Rom 1:16) by the work of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5).  Anything that the Holy Spirit reveals to man is objectively true since God knows all things and He cannot lie[1].  Since we may be saved through belief in God, and we know that these beliefs are true because they are given by the Holy Spirit, we are saved through knowledge (knowledge here is taken to be defined as justified true belief).  2 Peter 1:1-11 also tells us that we are sanctified through knowledge and Paul prays that the Colossians may be sanctified, that they may receive knowledge of God’s will so that they may obey God.  Sanctification, which necessarily produces good works, is through knowledge of the truth (John 17:17).  Moreover, the believer is promised an eternity of knowing God.

And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (Jn 17:3)

God saves men through objective knowledge of His truth, God sanctifies men through objective knowledge His truth, and God promises an eternal life of objective knowledge of His truth.

Biblical Subjectivity

Kierkegaard’s emphasis on the subjective element of Christianity is not entirely without merit, but the subjective element is not saving faith.  Saving faith is belief in God (i.e. the propositions He has revealed to us).  The subjective element is the outward affections produced by a renewed mind that has been transformed by a work of God the Holy Spirit.  Our infinite interest in God, our infinite passion (if you will) to know Him, our love for Him, and our good works are motivated by our knowledge of the objective truth of the gospel.  We love because He first loved us (1 Jn 4:19).  We grow in our ability to keep the greatest commandments, to love God and our neighbor, because of God’s truth (the seed, see What is Love?) that is in us (1 John 3:4-11).

 

Many goats with dead spirits try to manufacture godly affections – counterfeit fruits – and they fool everyone around them into thinking that they are born of the Spirit.  Man, after all, looks at the outward appearance while God looks at the heart.  The sheep, with minds renewed by the Holy Spirit, are affected by the truth they know and exhibit godly affections.  These affections, the fruits of the Spirit, are real fruit.  Let Kierkegaard’s infinite interest in Christianity be compared to the love of the man who keeps the greatest commandment; to love God with all his heart, soul, and strength.  Without objective knowledge of God, it is impossible to keep this commandment, but Kierkegaard will not allow that; thus cutting himself off from the only means gaining true infinite interest.  It is the objective truth that sanctifies (John 17:17).  The eloquent Dane encourages infinite interest without saving faith, or sanctification, which is impossible for no man seeks after God (Romans 3:10-18).

 

For more exposition and criticism of Kierkegaard, see the following lectures:

Religious Experimentalism and Irrationalism by Gordon H. Clark

Irrationalism by Gordon H. Clark

 

Footnotes

[1] It is well to notice that Kierkegaard’s epistemology guides his denial of the possibility of any objective knowledge (again, justified true belief).  But what Christian can deny that “He [the Holy Spirit] will guide you into all the truth Jn 16:13.”  Is this not a promise that at least some objective knowledge is possible by the Spirit?

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