Thursday, October 2, 2014

A Kierkegaardian response to the problem of hiddenness

Kierkegaard somewhere says that the best argument for the Gospel is something like this: Everyone agrees that the moral teaching of the Gospel—love of neighbor and so on—is morally good. Thus, one should wholeheartedly strive to live it. And one will find oneself unable to do so, which will lead to one's throwing oneself on the grace of God.

Abstracting from the details, Kierkegaard is committed to something like this thesis:

  1. A sufficiently wholehearted attempt to live the morally upright life puts one in a position to have an epistemically justified faith.
By contraposition, if one never attains the epistemic conditions for an epistemically justified faith, one did not make a sufficiently wholehearted attempt to live the morally upright life.

But if one fails to make that wholehearted effort, then one cannot reasonably complain about hiddenness. This story may seem offensive to non-Christians, but I suspect that Kierkegaard also thinks very few Christians make that wholehearted attempt.


Heath White said...

How do we get from

A. Living in such a way X is morally good
B. I can’t do X

to an epistemically justified belief in … anything at all? I’m not saying there’s nothing there, but it’s not obvious to me how it goes.

Is there an implicit appeal to “ought implies can”? E.g. “I ought to do X; therefore I can do X somehow; but I can’t do X in my own strength; so there must be some power whose assistance will enable me to do X”? But I’m not sure that captures what Kierkegaard wants, in that he may be more concerned with grace-as-pardon rather than grace-as-power.

Karl Aho said...

Thanks for sharing these reflections, Dr. Pruss. I appreciate the Kierkegaard passage about the need for grace. But I'm not sure that Kierkegaard thinks that "a sufficiently wholehearted attempt to live the morally upright life" leads to epistemically justified faith. Kierkegaard (e.g. in the Climacus literature) thinks that faith is a gift from God. If faith is a gift from God, then pursuing the morally upright life cannot straightforwardly lead to epistemically justified faith. Your language of being in the position to have faith rather than having faith helps with this worry, but it's still a worry for me.

Also, how are arguments for the Gospel different from arguments for the existence of God? (On my reading, Kierkegaard seems to present several of the former while criticizing the latter.) Are responses to the problem of hiddenness different from arguments for the existence of God?

Finally, do you know where Kierkegaard says these things about love of neighbor? My guess would be Works of Love or the journals, but I'd love to have a better sense of where to look to follow up. (I suppose that Purity of Heart is also possible given "wholehearted" in 1.)

Alexander R Pruss said...


Maybe that's the argument?

Or maybe the thought is that when you try wholeheartedly, God will give you the grace, and the presence of the grace will provide the epistemic justification? Or that it will lead you to throw yourself on God's mercy, and the experience of God's mercy will be the justification? I am not completely happy with either reading. I wish I had the full text at hand, but my quick bit of searching didn't turn it up (I remember reading it in the Journals and Papers).

In any case, my main thought was about the structure. Suppose it is the case that serious attempt to live the morally strenuous life always leads to an encounter with God. (If only because God is found in the neighbor that one is loving.) Then, I think, the problem of hiddenness does not have much force.


But trying to lead the morally upright life may turn out to have already been a fruit of prevenient grace.

I am taking it that an argument for the Gospel, unless it presupposes the existence of God (and some do), also provides an argument for the existence of God.

I think it's from the journals. "Wholehearted" is my word. I don't think he uses it. It could be that I misremembered it badly, too.

Jakub Moravčík said...

I think that there is a problem with the world "wholeheartedly". It isn´t obvious why it should be there at all, nor what exactly does it mean. It seems to me that the whole argument stands on usage of this word so I my previous sentence could be seen as a question.

Karl Aho said...

I think that Kierkegaard may proffer this as an argument for the Gospel that presupposes the existence of God. Otherwise it's hard to square this argument with his criticism of arguments for the existence of God.

I'll check the journals tomorrow and see if I can get us the passage.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The text I was remembering to is similar to JP #1881, but not the same.

Maybe it's JP #4933, but I think not (it's missing one ingredient I seem to remember from the text). Still, #4933 has the kernel of the idea as clearly as one can expect to see Kierkegaard give it: "Venture giving all your possessions to the poor and you will certainly experience the truth of the teaching simply by experiencing the scale on which you need the teaching in order to persevere in what you ventured. Venture once to make yourself completely vulnerable for the sake of the truth, and you will certainly experience the truth of the teaching, experience how it alone can save you from despairing or from succumbing, for you will need Christianity both to protect yourself against others and to maintain yourself upright when the thought of your own imperfection would weigh you down."

I don't see here a presupposition of the existence of God.

I think the things he calls proofs of the Gospel, like the "inward proof", the "argumentum spiritus sancti" (JP #3607), are not like proofs in the traditional sense of the word. When he says that this or that is the only "proof" of the Gospel, I generally hear scare quotes around "proof". So I think he would have no objection to "proofs" of God's existence in this sense of the word. But you know the texts much better than I.