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Striving for the Good in the Face of Uncertainy: The Paradox of Faith and Politics in Kierkegaard and Niebuhr

[My argument in this paper is that Kierkegaard and Niebuhr together, with their notions of faith and justice as paradoxical, provide a political theology that is neither despairing nor presumptuous in its vision for how to strive for the good. This is what I presented at the American Academy of Religion Annual Conference in San Diego this past week. For that reason, it is written more for a talk and is not in final format, so some of the references are not properly cited yet.]

The paradox of politics for Rousseau was the question of, “Which comes first, good people or good laws?”  In other words, how can a democracy be legitimate when the legitimacy comes from the democracy itself which is to be founded? There is always the problem of delimiting the people and deciding who speaks for them. It is never a fixed entity, and certain groups are always excluded. According to Bonnie Honig in her book Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law and Democracy, “…even established regimes are hardly rendered immune by their longevity to the paradoxical difficulty that Rousseau names… the paradox of politics is replayed rather than overcome in time” (EP, 14).

Furthermore, democracy cannot be reduced to merely the rule of law or the extension of rights to new constituencies. Instead, because of the power of the role of the people in mundane political procedure, there is the potential for the disturbance of existing institutions and practices. And this requires an acknowledgement of a place in democracy for the suspension of existing laws and norms – and of routine time – only this place is no longer that of the sovereign, as Honig argues in contrast to Carl Schmitt, but that of the subjectivity of individual political actors and their orientations toward the good, as well as their openness toward the possibility of a revelation and a conversion, or what Honig drawing on Rosenzweig calls a “miracle” (more about this notion of a miracle in a moment). Honig further explains:

Belief in a linear time sequence is invariably attended by belief that sequence is either regressive or progressive. [both of which Kierkegaard and Niebuhr reject] Linear time, its normativity, causality — are thrown off balance by the paradox of politics in which what is presupposed as coming before (virtue, the people, the law) invariably comes after (if at all), and what comes after invariably replays the paradox of politics that time was supposed to surmount (15).

One thinks as well here of the both “already” and “not-yet” presence and availability of the Kingdom of God, in the way that Jesus talks about it. And it is precisely this notion of paradox that Kierkegaard and Niebuhr each in their own way employ in their understandings of faith and politics, respectively.

First, in Kierkegaard’s view, without risk, there is no faith. And so it is in society with the emergence of opportunity for change – for passing on the vocation of citizenship, for the formation of virtuous people, and for the inclusion of new, formerly excluded groups. An Individual, personal leap and risk must be taken with resoluteness. But this risk and leap is always only possible as a response, not as an initiative. It’s a response to what Simon Critchley, analyzing Paul through a Kierkegaardian lens, calls an “infinite demand.”

This demand remains incomprehensible, for Kierkegaard, for whom faith is always a passionate inwardness rather than external, or primarily doctrinal security, which he criticizes both in Hegel’s philosophy and the nominal Christianity of his culture. If we politicize this, Kierkegaard serves to guard against the polarization of the citizenry into either despair or presumption – resignation or ideological entrenchment. As Critchley remarks, a faith (or faithlessness for him) “with passionate inwardness best sustains the rigor of faith because it does not require security, guarantees or rewards” (Faith of the Faithless, 252). For Critchley, believers, as well as non-believers, are no longer allowed the naivety of a pre-Kierkegaardian faith. For Kierkegaard, faith starts neither with our political effectiveness, nor even our ideas. Faith is a leap, and a realized life in response by subjects to an infinite demand — one that ultimately is a demand of love, as will be seen below.

In Kierkegaard’s day, the Danes of Christendom would prefer to proceed by merely “knowing” the truth as a security, not resolutely striving toward it with exceeding interestedness. For Kierkegaard, Socrates in contrast actually does put faith in the good and even sacrifices his life for it — and Kierkegaard admired Socrates for this — but Climacus only saw this as what he called “Religiousness A”, as the highest example of the ethical stage of existence – not because Socrates’ subjectivity lacked passionate inwardness, but because the object of his faith itself was not paradoxical. Everything that Socrates needed to learn, he thought, came from within, and from recollection, rather than from outside or beyond. As Niebuhr would later say, Socrates lacked a messianic consciousness. For him, a Christ was not expected (Nature and Destiny).

So, as Kierkegaard has it, it is not only the nature of faith that is paradoxical, but also its object, and what that object promises. Socrates’ ethic failed to preserve this tension, and he also could not account for Kierkegaard and Niebuhr’s conception of human sin. For Socrates, ignorance is the source of conflict, harm, hate, and so on, rather than sin.

So what Socrates doesn’t appreciate is this: what stands in the way of the potential for this gathering and mobilizing on the part of the people, then, is the paradoxical combination of human finitude and human freedom. And here I’m focusing on Niebuhr’s understanding of sin, which builds on Kierkegaard’s in part. As both finite and free, Niebuhr would say, human beings have natural limitations but infinite expectations and pretensions, which leads them to become self-conscious about their insecurity and hence creates anxiety. Anxiety inclines the people to seek their own certainty and security, which is always insufficient, and to do so to the detriment of extending new rights to new constituents –even with democracy. So the big question becomes, what does it take for people to become prepared for and postured to affect change, in spite of this anxiety?

Rosenzweig is instructive here. His view of a miracle, which I alluded to a moment ago, is not that it compels or commands attention, but that it is a subtle signal soliciting a response. Those who want to receive the signal, to witness it, have to be open to its possibility. This openness requires habituation to certain patterns of receptivity, and the cultivation of an orientedness to the good, to the divine (Honig, The Miracle of Metaphor).

Kierkegaard’s view is similar. Again, just as faith is paradoxical rather than reducible to the rational, so too is the remedy for sin paradoxical. It is unexpected and from outside or beyond, rather than a mere lesson to be learned. So, following Kierkegaard, for there to be any change, individuals must undergo conversions (that is, they must receive and respond to a transformative revelation — they must be open to the miraculous in Rosenzweig’s sense). But what is the nature of this conversion, for the people, at the social level? For this, one is better served by turning to Niebuhr.

Whereas for Kierkegaard the paradox of faith finds its object in the doctrine of the incarnation – that the infinite of the divine dwells in humanity – in Niebuhr’s work, while there is still a christological paradox, it is social and ethical as much as theological. Niebuhr argues in the third chapter of Nature and Destiny that:

“the significant contrast between the divine and the human in Christ is not, as Greek thought assumed, the contrast between the “impassible and the passible.” [Here we see Niebuhr’s ambivalence toward metaphysics.] It is [rather] a contrast between the perfect coincidence of power and of goodness in the divine.”

For Niebuhr, it is impossible to symbolize the divine goodness in history in any other way than by complete powerlessness or rather by a consistent refusal to use power in the rivalries of history. Niebuhr goes on:

“The final majesty, the ultimate freedom, the perfect disinterestedness of the divine love can have a counterpart in history only in a life which ends tragically, because it refuses to participate in the claims and counterclaims of historical existence. It portrays a love which seeketh not its own” (emphasis added).

What Niebuhr does through this christology is to situate finite and free human beings in society in accordance with the dialectical relationship between God’s justice and love.

Niebuhr may have a less suspicious outlook on philosophical theology than Kierkegaard, but he is just as realistic or even as pessimistic as Kierkegaard is in his outlook on the limits placed on political progress as a result of humanity’s sinful condition. In this way, they both hold fast to faith in the face of objective uncertainty — Kierkegaard in terms of human subjectivity, and Niebuhr in terms of politics, and what human beings are to strive for.

So the paradox, politically speaking, for Niebuhr, is that Christians must strive to realize proximate justice within history, even though we will still inevitably sin in the process — while at  the same time also resisting the temptation to push forward with the expectation of fully achieving a justly representative society. This is because Niebuhr understands that the meaning of life and history while revealed in history is not fully fulfilled through history. Like Kierkegaard, he sees the meaning of life and history as having a transcendent source. (This is also what I think most distinguishes Kierkegaard and Niebuhr from several important contemporary political philosophers today, such as Badiou or Agamben, for example.  While this is far too terse of a synopsis, I would venture to say that Niebuhr would consider Badiou’s “event” as dehistoricized, somewhat like Greek though, and Agamben’s “messianic time” as lacking the universal reach of the Christ event.)

So again, Niebuhr strikes a balance bound to neither an ideology of false utopias nor despair about change. (In Nature and Destiny, he characterizes these two ends with the paradigms of “Renaissance” and “Reformation,” respectively, both of which are reactionary and half-true in what they emphasize about human progress — i.e., Renaissance humanism, and Reformation depravity).

Now of course the criticisms of this position are familiar, because it can be seen as a kind of false third way between either choosing to actually struggle for real progress or just resorting to political quietism. But Niebuhr insists that Christianity has unique recourse to a penultimate social ethic because theologically it holds together the paradox and uncertainty of faith and politics, and therefore, Niebuhr might say, the possibility of faith and politics. Niebuhr states:

“The Christian belief that meaning of both life and history is disclosed and fulfilled in Christ and his Cross, is in a sense a combination of Greek and Hebrew interpretations of life. It conforms to the Greek interpretation of life because in it there is an understanding of the fact that the meaning of life transcends history; but in Greek thought history tends to be excluded from the realm of meaning, and life is fulfilled by escaping from the historical process. In Christianity the meaning of life and history is fulfilled, though not wholly, within the historical process. New Testament faith conforms to the Hebrew interpretation of life [then] because in this view life is fulfilled in history, though in Christianity the implicit difference between “life” and “history” is made explicit…” (Nature and Destiny, 1996 (36))

— namely, because, again, paradoxically, Christ fulfills history not by just living but in fact by dying, only this death is not final. After all, that is the hope that Christians have in the midst of the uncertainties of history.

Finally, Niebuhr states that:

“The final majesty of God is contained not so much in [God’s] power within the structures [– this is the false certainty we crave –] as in the power of [God’s] freedom over the structures, that is, over the logos aspects of reality. This freedom is the power of mercy beyond judgment. By this freedom God involves [God’s self] in the guilt and suffering of free [human beings] who have, in their freedom, come in conflict with the structural character of reality” (71)

— because human beings doubt that the structural character of reality really is good!

So for Christians, the agape of God, which was paradoxical for Kierkegaard because it came in the form of the finite, and paradoxical for Niebuhr because it did not exploit, is the basis of God relationship with humanity and history. And therefore it is from faith in this both seemingly tenuous and risky relationship between humanity, God and history, constituted by the paradox of agape, that I understand Kierkegaard and Niebuhr to be illuminating the horizon upon which historical-political, subjects can strive for the good — because of the consequent freedom that comes from this agape, from the anxieties and rivalries of history, and the hope that that final meaning and fulfillment is not totally tied to historical outcome.

In sum, and by way of response to this very cursory look at two major figures, the political is inherently paradoxical, and so must be our engagement with it. But people ignore, suppress, or overtly deny the paradox, clinging instead to false certainties and neat political ideologies, contenting themselves instead with voicing opinions or voting. Those most adversely affected by this are not surprisingly the poor and the oppressed. Kierkegaard didn’t speak to this very much, which in part one can attribute to his context. Niebuhr, however, was sensitive to economic injustices, but he was still addressing these issues from a place of privilege and power. Because of this, I do not think he was truly sensitive to the weight of oppression that certain groups were experiencing. Moreover, there is a difference between intervention and solidarity.  Many times it seems that people have used Niebuhr’s thought to justify the former without doing the hard work of the latter. So, if we can evaluate Niebuhr’s thought with the interests of the powerless in mind, some of his blind spots may come into focus for us. No doubt two of the most glaring are the matters of race and gender. And Niebuhr’s complicity with U.S. nationalism at times may also become evident.

In this respect, Kierkegaard’s call to actually heed the infinite demand of love is a stronger injunction to imitate Christ.  Niebuhr by comparison is satisfied, it would seem, to merely use Christ as the benchmark.  My sense is that the more faithful appropriation here, even politically, is Kierkegaard’s, but the challenge becomes how to do that in light of Niebuhr’s apt prediction that such attempts to embody Christ’s ethic will eventually lead to martyrdom.

And finally, by way one more closing critical observation, it does not appear that Niebuhr really develops his political theology with a high view of the church’s role in society in mind – despite his pastoral experience in an urban and economically depressed congregation in Detroit early on in his life. And it seems to me that, especially as the United States continues to fragment – religiously, culturally, politically, etc. – a robust understanding of the role of the church in the public sphere with respect to this paradoxical politic is essential, and wanting in both Kierkegaard and Niebuhr. The question remains looming in my view, for example, as to how the organizing identity of local congregations will posture itself and its church members for political agency and activism, in comparison to the conventional ways this has been done in recent history in both conservative and liberal contexts.

Niebuhr says, for example, that heedless love has to replenish mutual love — otherwise it will degenerate into something less. In order for this to happen, however, it seems to me that Christians must primarily derive their identity from a community in which heedless love is the norm, or the at least the archetype. This cannot be the case if the primary identity of Christians comes from citizenship of the state. Without a well-developed ecclesial structure and identity that informs the Christian politic, any complicity with violence on the part of Christians for the purpose of approximating justice will risk being rationalized instead of sorely felt, mourned and repented of.

These limitations notwithstanding, there remains tremendous promise from both of these thinkers with respect to not just Christian faith and practice, but sober hope for society, individual social responsibility and collective political engagement.

Kierkegaard’s Passionate Individual Inwardness

Uncertainty - more work to do

“An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual . . . The truth is precisely the venture which chooses an objective uncertainty with the passion of the infinite.  I contemplate the order of nature in the hope of finding God, and I see omnipotence and wisdom; but I also see much else that disturbs my mind and excites anxiety.  The sum of all this is an objective uncertainty.  But it is for this very reason that the inwardness becomes as intense as it is, for it embraces this objective uncertainty with the entire passion of the infinite . . . Without risk there is no faith.  Faith is precisely the contradiction between the infinite passion of the individual’s inwardness and the objective uncertainty.” p. 182

“Existence is the child that is born of the infinite and the finite, the eternal and the temporal, and is therefore a constant striving.” p. 84

“An existing individual is himself in process of becoming . . . In existence the watchword is always forward.”  p. 368

Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript

Church as Messianic or Prophetic? Attempting a Clarification

Soren Kierkegaard studying

Soren Kierkegaard studying (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In his book, The Nature and Destiny of [Humanity], Reinhold Niebuhr distinguishes between three different kinds of religious “identity” and “purpose” (my words).  I see them closely corresponding to Soren Kierkegaard‘s three stages of life: the aesthetic, the ethical-moral, and the religious.

In the first place, there is the sensual life of indulgent self-interest.  And lest we be too hard on this group, it should be acknolwedged that the “aesthetic” life can be quite civil and friendly.  I think about the relative peace enjoyed by those who benefit, for example, from pax romana, or presently, pax america — that is, the economic and political stability established as a result of imperialism.  It is a climate in which we are more or less free to pursue our own ambitions and dreams without too much interference, as long as we don’t harm anyone else and obey the law.

A second mode of existence is one that recognizes and strives to adhere to a higher moral law.  Today we might actually reverse the Kierkegaardian language and call this mode the “religious” life.  The religious life can be very good, and deeply prophetic.  While it risks a great deal of self-righteousness, it also has the capacity to speak truth to power, criticize injustice and inspire generosity.  This mode looks out for the disenfranchised.  The trouble is that it can tend to miss the “log in its own eye.”

Thirdly, there is what Niebuhr calls the messianic consciousness, which is the properly Christian one for him.  The key lesson from messianism is that we cannot achieve justice or be righteous on our own no matter how hard we try.  Sin and egoism have so enslaved us as to make our good deeds no more than “filthy rags” before God’s throne, as Scripture says.  Only a sinless, suffering servant can bring about the full redemption and peace we all long for…


My friend Bo Sanders over at Homebrewed Christianity has become fond of talking about three different kinds of churches: the therapeutic, messianic and prophetic (he claims to get this from Cornell West and Slavoj Zizek).  What’s so interesting to me, and what might already be clear, is the way that the messianic and the prophetic are switched so as to alter the Niebuhrian logic.  On this reading, the prophetic is preferable to and “higher” than the messianic, because the messianic is cynically interpreted to be escapist and other-worldly — i.e., God cleaning up the mess for us, and our responsibility is proportionally shrunk as long as we’re counted among the “saved.”

Now, I think it’s possible to see that both series of depictions are getting at essentially the same thing, but each with slightly greater respective emphasis on one of two necessary components to the life of the church: namely, the messianic (merciful) and the prophetic (just).  Jewish liberation theologian Marc Ellis was the person who first made the point to me about the problem with sheer messianism.  Of course, the naive Christian in me at the time wanted to challenge him by replying with the weaknesses of strict propheticism, some of which have already been highlighted above.  But actually I believe now that Ellis was right.

This is because Ellis also discusses the concept of revolutionary forgiveness.  This is an especially useful motif with regard to political, ethnic and national reconciliation, but surely it can apply to interpersonal relationships as well.  By this phrase, Ellis means first that no one gets to claim innocence for themselves.  Once all parties agree to this, then there can be some healing and transformation toward a better future, and — I would venture to say — toward salvation itself, which is always messianic and prophetic.