In 2006, Pope Benedict gave a lecture in Regensburg, Germany, entitled “Faith, Reason and the University.” The lecture is remembered for the reaction of Muslims to the Pope’s quotation of a thirteenth century Byzantine emperor that they saw as anti-Muslim.
Lost in all the fuss was Benedict’s subject: the relationship of faith and reason in the Christian tradition. What concerned the Pope was that, as one commentator put it, “the modern mind doubts...that we can both know and believe.”
To understand why that’s the case you need to be familiar with the work of the 19th-century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, whom I often quote. Now that’s easier said than done, because his writing is dense and his style tempts the reader to rename him “Snoring Kierkegaard.” Fortunately, my friend Ken Boa is here to help us.
Though Christian, Kierkegaard is considered to be the father of existentialism, the school of philosophy that puts the individual and his emotions, thoughts, responsibilities and actions at the center of its considerations. As Ken tells us, Kierkegaard’s influence extends to both secular philosophers like Martin Heidegger and John Paul Sartre, who were so popular in radicalizing the 1960s, and theologians like Karl Barth and Emil Brunner.
In other words, Kierkegaard played a crucial role in shaping the way people thought throughout the 20th century.
To understand him, it’s important to understand how he understood God, which Ken helps us to do. For Kierkegaard, God was utterly transcendent, and “an infinite qualitative difference” separated God from humanity.
While Kierkegaard believed that God became incarnate, he felt the incarnation didn’t do much to bridge the gap. Instead, it provides Kierkegaard with the basis for putting what he calls “absurdity” at heart of his definition of faith.
For Kierkegaard, faith isn’t a way of knowing or an act of trust in God’s goodness and love for us. Instead, it’s a belief and trust in the “strength of the absurd.” By “absurd,” he means that which contradicts reason.
As Ken makes clear, this goes far beyond recognizing that, in matters of faith, reason can only take us so far. Instead, it’s an abandonment of reason. All that matters for Kierkegaard is the willingness to take a “leap into faith.”
As Ken points out, Kierkegaard was responding to what he viewed as a caricature of faith—assent to propositions that did little, if anything, to change the way people lived. But, to put it mildly, Kierkegaard over-corrected and, in doing so, helped to create the postmodern world in which we live.
Secular thinkers stripped away the Christian language. What was left was a radical individualism in which action, like faith, was tragically divorced from reason. Knowing became the domain of science.
Kierkegaard didn’t intend any of this, but that’s his legacy. It’s a legacy we need to understand, which Ken helps us do. And that’s why my teaching on the ColsonCenter website and my book The Faith is important. It establishes the proper role of faith and reason. Reason is, in fact, a gift of faith.