Five Examples of Placing Man at the Center (3)

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

Another thinker whose world and life view has influenced millions of people is Soren Kierkegaard, “the father of Existentialism.”

In contrast to Kant, whose life was marked by pedestrian regularities, Kierkegaard led a rather tortured existence.[1] He was greatly disturbed that the Enlightenment, instead of liberating man, ended up stealing his soul, and, as Kierkegaard thought, obliterating man’s individuality.[2]

His response to this was to teach the complete freedom of the individual’s will as it progresses through the stages of life to eventually realize its need of God.[3] But his God was really only a figment of his biblically informed imagination. For Kierkegaard, truth, like living, was more subjective than objective. He did not repudiate objectivity, but he inveighed against the sort of detached assent to reality which he saw in men like Hegel. This led him to assert that what one must do “is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.” This is no more than is repeated today by the majority of college students.

Kierkegaard had an inconsistent view of objectivity. Says MacIntyre,

If what we believe depends upon the believer’s ultimate choice of rational criteria, then surely all beliefs have an equal moment, or rather equal lack of moment, for claiming objective truth. Kierkegaard, however, tried to evade this conclusion and continued to argue both that ultimate choice is criterionless and that one choice can be more correct than another.[4]

He said, “Christianity protests every form of objectivity; it desires that the subject should be infinitely concerned about himself. It is subjectivity that Christianity is concerned with, and it is only in subjectivity that its truth exists if it exists at all; objectively Christianity has absolutely no existence.”[5]

Obviously, Kierkegaard has made man the all-determiner just like Kant did. Only whereas Kant located the center in the mind, Kierkegaard places it in the “heart”. Either way, it is man who must take center-stage.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

In Nietzsche one comes across a singular man of great eloquence and genius who may lay claim to being the most influential philosopher of the last one hundred years. He is notorious as a castigator of Christianity[6], especially in such works as The Antichrist, and The Twilight of the Idols. He finally succumbed to madness in January 1889, but by then he had written his books and it would be misleading to represent his works as mere insane rantings.[7] It would also be wrong to lay at his feet the motivations of German Fascism with which he would have had little sympathy.[8]

Nietzsche’s philosophy, which was heavily psychological, had as its central aspect “the will to power.”[9] The lust for power is “the most basic human drive.”[10] His concept of the ubermensch was of someone who had fought their instincts and had mastered themselves. “Among his heroes there was not one he admired for conquests; all were men of surpassing intelligence, passionate men who had mastered their passions and employed them creatively.”[11] He believed resolutely that the scientific method was the way to come to truth, yet unscientifically he held that history must repeat itself as it eternally runs through the possibilities open to it. Thus “Nietzsche would be reborn eternally.”[12] This was the only alternative to the teleology of the Christian view of history.[13] He also seemed to see, at least occasionally, that without God everything collapses into subjectivity. He even gave backhanded expression to a transcendental argument by declaring, “We are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.”[14]

Where Nietzsche’s criticisms have stung most is in his notion of Christian practical ethics as “Resentment.”[15] By this he means that Christian morality is a reaction of “slave classes” to their social taskmasters. The morality is their quiet backlash against those who overwhelm them. The “true reaction, that of deeds,” says Westphal, “is denied to the weak, and in them resentment lingers, festers, and poisons.” Their ethic is what Nietzsche sneeringly called, “spiritual revenge.”[16] It is immoral because it does not come clean about what it really is.

A History of Running Up Dead-End Streets: Comment on the Five Examples

These five examples of influential thinkers who departed from a biblical outlook on the world demonstrate the need for a Christian interpretation of life, and, thus, a biblical-theological worldview. Plato’s is the most comprehensive attempt to bring universals into harmony with particulars, but he never could provide a good explanation of the relationship. What is more, he could not explain how the imperfections within the realm of experience do not make the forms themselves imperfect, since the forms would fail to describe everything in the material world.[17] He needed the mind of the Triune Creator to make sense of his best insights, but he did not recognize Him.

Descartes tried to build from the indubitable foundation of his own thinking existence, but he did not see that he ended up begging the question of the existent “I” in his famous dictum. In reality there is no foundation in the self.[18] For a start it is not possible to arrive at the self from the apprehension of thinking. For another thing, it is impossible to relate thinking to anything that may or may not exist along with it. Even the law of non-contradiction cannot work in such a reductionistic outlook.[19]

With Immanuel Kant the human mind becomes the all-determiner of the percepts it receives and the outside world beyond the senses remains forever unknowable. Yet Kant wants to ground knowledge in a “universally valid consciousness” through the mind’s encounter with the experienced world of the senses.[20] Thus, as Van Til observed, “Kant saved the objectivity of science by subjectivizing it.”[21]

Kierkegaard meanwhile thought that the only way to escape from the cold clutches of objectivity was through the door of the irrational – through an existential leap, but into nothing objective!

Finally, in Nietzsche we have someone who wants to stick with reason and science but who cannot give a good reason why he should or provide a framework for the study of history or science or grammar which makes them meaningful pursuits. His suspicions regarding “resentment” may hit the mark in some cases, but it misses the point entirely in its failure to address the transcendental necessity of the Christian worldview.[22]

Carl Henry issued a summons to Christians to come to their own with the intellectual panoply God has given them. “A method whose primary axiom is transcendent revelation will encompass all the eras of cultural experience and call them to account.”[23] If we are to do this effectively then we must do it through the theological reasoning which is expected of us.

Theology may and must remain alert to the contemporary unbeliever’s special difficulties with Christianity. If Christianity traffics in the truth – not merely “truth for Christians” but truth valid for all men, it must speak to the outside world. It dare not overlook unbelief – not simply because unbelief dangles glittering temptations through its caricaturing of Christianity before the world, but because revelational truth, if that is what Christians know and believe, can reduce all its secular alternatives to special pleading and absurdity.[24]

[1] Rogers and Baird, 125.

[2] He felt Hegel’s dialectic philosophy was especially guilty of doing this.

[3] See Alisdair MacIntyre, “Kierkegaard, Soren Aabye,” in, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 4.337.

[4] Ibid, 339.

[5] Cited in J. Oliver Buswell Jr., A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, 1.72.

[6] “Nietzschean humanism is not so much atheism, in the strict sense of the word, as antitheism, or, more precisely, anti-Christianism.” – Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 12.

[7] Walter Kaufmann, “Nietzsche, Friedrich,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 5.505.

[8] I think this has been shown adequately by Kaufmann who notes that, “his ideas and spirit were clearly opposed to those of the National Socialist German Labor Party. In fact, few writers have been so hard on nationalism, socialism, the Germans, labor movements, and ‘party men’” – Ibid, 513.

[9] Ibid, 510.

[10] Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, 222.

[11] Kaufmann, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 5.511.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, 512.

[14] Ibid, 513.

[15] This is found in his book, The Genealogy of Morals.

[16] Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, 236-237.

[17] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 122.

[18] Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 393.

[19] Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 509-511.

[20] Herman Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, 1.143, 158-159, 323.

[21] Bahnsen, 354.

[22] For a full evaluation of Nietzsche’s attacks on Christianity see Stephen N. Williams, The Shadow of the Antichrist: Nietzsche’s Critique of Christianity, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006).

[23] Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, 1.215.

[24] Ibid, 244.

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