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The rationality of religious belief has been a focus of inquiry in the philosophy of religion. At issue is whether it is necessary or even possible to provide rational validation for religious truth claims. Richard Swinburne, one of the most ardent contemporary advocates of the rationality of religious belief, contends there is rational justification for believing that God exists. In view of the principle of simplicity, which assumes that the simplest hypothesis is the most likely to be true, Swinburne claims that since God as conceived by theism is the most simple being, the theistic hypothesis possesses a high degree of probability. He further argues that the theistic hypothesis, when combined with the historical evidence about the life and works of Jesus, makes it probable that there is a God who became incarnate in Jesus and that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. Several difficulties arise from Swinburne's apologetic program. If religious beliefs are matters of probability, should not such beliefs be reformulated in a less misleading manner? Should we not rather say: ‘I believe that it is probable that there is God’; ‘I believe that it is probable that God became incarnate in Jesus and rose from the dead’. Would these reformulations do justice to the nature of religious belief?[1] Can we treat God as an hypothesis that best explains observable phenomena and human experience? Since new evidence could arise at any time to show that the hypothesis was mistaken, would this not imply that we can only believe tentatively?

This essay seeks to address these questions in light of Kierkegaard's thought, which remains a vigorous protest against the attempt to validate religious beliefs on the basis of rational argument. One of Kierkegaard's central claims is that the historical and philosophical inquiry into religion has no essential bearing on religious belief. In fact such rational inquiry is, in his view, detrimental. Since the greatest certainty it can deliver is only approximative, it fails to provide a conclusive foundation for the truth of what is believed. This could produce only a provisional and tentative adherence, leading the individual to postpone indefinitely the firm adherence demanded by religious truth. Religious belief Kierkegaard insists is a matter of choice, not of argument. There are no reasons to which one can appeal to negotiate the transition from unbelief to belief and faith.

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In Swinburne's view to claim there is a God is not demonstrably incoherent; it is therefore ‘proper to look around us for evidence of its truth or falsity’.[2] Using the same criteria employed for assessing any explanatory hypothesis in science, he argues that the belief that there is a God is justified. ‘The very same criteria which scientists use to reach their own theories lead us to move beyond those theories to a creator God who sustains everything in existence’.[3] An explanatory theory, according to Swinburne, is justified if it meets the following criteria: (1) it leads us to expect many and varied events which we observe, and, conversely we do not observe events whose non-occurrence it postulates; (2) The proposed hypothesis is simple; (3) It does not conflict with our background knowledge; (4) we do not observe events in the manner that we would expect if the theory were false (e.g., no rival theory satisfies to the same extent these criteria).[4] Among these criteria, the notion of simplicity occupies a central position in Swinburne's argument. He argues ‘that a theory is most likely to be true in so far as it is simple’.[5] In turn, a theory is simple in so far as it predicts the observable phenomena when we would not otherwise expect to find them. In Swinburne's view theism provides by far the simplest explanation of all phenomena. The simplicity of theism lies in the fact that it ‘postulates not merely the simplest starting-point of a personal explanation there could be, … but the simplest starting point of explanation for the existence of the universe’.[6] According to Swinburne, the intrinsic probability of theism is basically a matter of how simple a hypothesis is. ‘Theism postulates a God who is just one person, not many. To postulate one substance is to make a very simple postulation. He is infinitely powerful, omnipotent. This is a simpler hypothesis than that there is a God who has such-and-such limited power’.[7] That anything should exist is not itself probable. ‘But, given that there does exist something, the simple is more likely to exist than the complex’.[8] In Swinburne's view the vast complexity of the physical universe needs explaining and raises the likelihood of the existence of God without which it is very unlikely that such a universe should otherwise come to be.

The logical probability that, if there is a God, there will be a physical universe is quite high. … There is quite a chance that, if there is a God, he will make something of the finitude and complexity of a universe. It is very unlikely that a universe would exist uncaused, but rather more likely that God would exist uncaused.[9]

He further argues that an orderly physical universe provides evidence for the existence of God because ‘it is a priori improbable that a Godless universe would be governed by simple laws’, and because ‘there is quite a significant probability that a God-created universe would be governed by simple laws’. He therefore concludes that ‘the operation of laws of nature is evidence … for the existence of God’.[10] While he admits that no deductive arguments for the existence of God, such as the ontological argument, carry much weight, his own version of the cosmological and design arguments, together with the arguments from the existence of conscious beings, miracles and religious experience, cumulatively render it more probable than not that there is a God. He writes:

The existence, orderliness, and fine tunedness of the world; the existence of conscious humans within it with providential opportunities for moulding themselves, each other, and the world; some historical evidence of miracles in connection with human needs and prayers, particularly in connection with the foundation of Christianity, topped up finally by the apparent experience by millions of his presence, all make it significantly more probable than not that there is a God.[11]

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Kierkegaard's thought presents a radical critique of the attempt to validate religious beliefs on the basis of rational argument. In his view, the whole process of reasoning is fallacious because it can only proceed by assuming that which it intends to prove, failing thereby to prove that God in fact exists. He insists that existence can never be demonstrated.

It is generally a difficult matter to want to demonstrate that something exists. … The whole process of demonstration continually becomes something entirely different, becomes an expanded concluding development of what I conclude from having presupposed that the object of investigation exists. Therefore, whether I am moving in the world of sensate palpability or in the world of thought, I never reason in conclusion to existence, but I reason in conclusion from existence. For example, I do not demonstrate that a stone exists but that something which exists is a stone. The court of law does not demonstrate that a criminal exists but that the accused, who does indeed exist, is a criminal.[12]

He illustrates this point by examining the futile attempt to infer Napoleon's existence from his works. It is possible to prove Napoleon's existence from his works only if in advance it is assumed that the works were performed by him, that is, if Napoleon's existence is presupposed. If we do not presuppose Napoleon's existence, such works can only demonstrate that they were accomplished by a great general, but in themselves they fail to prove Napoleon's existence.[13] Similar reasoning applies to the attempt to infer God's existence from his works, that is, from the order and existence of the world. Although nature is certainly the work of God, ‘only the work is directly present, not God’.[14] God's works from which we are to infer his existence are not immediately and directly present in the world, but can only be known by being interpreted as the works of God. In talking, for example, about the goodness of nature and the wisdom present in the order of things, we are already assuming the existence of God and have not stated a proof of his existence. The starting point of the argument is dependent upon a prior conviction of the goodness of nature as God's creation. If one does not start with this assumption then it is not possible to conclude from the observation of nature that God exists. For while there are natural phenomena that seem to evince wisdom and goodness, there is also much in nature that evinces what to human beings appears to be randomness, cruelty, wastefulness and indifference to human concerns, all of which seem contrary to the existence of God. It appears that only if one already believes in God can one see his hand in nature and thereby disregard the observation of features of nature that are not consonant with his existence. Thus, Kierkegaard concludes:

I do not demonstrate it [God's existence] from the works, after all, but only develop the ideality I have presupposed; trusting in that, I even dare to defy all objections, even those that have not yet arisen. By beginning, then, I have presupposed the ideality, have presupposed that I will succeed in accomplishing it, but what else is that but presupposing that the god exists and actually beginning with trust in him.[15]

The problem with the attempt at arguing from empirical facts to metaphysical or religious truths is that it always ascribes more to the premises than is immediately given. As Kierkegaard puts it, ‘as soon as I frame a law from experience, I insert something more into it than there is in the experience’.[16] In other words, an ideal interpretation is placed upon the experience which does not arise from experience itself. However scientific and detailed an investigation of nature might be, it will never be able to tell whether nature is the work of God or the product of chance. If belief in divine providence is not assumed in advance, nothing will count as ‘proof’ for the probable existence of God.

Therefore, anyone who wants to demonstrate the existence of God … proves something else instead, at times something that perhaps did not even need demonstrating, and in any case never anything better. … If, at the moment he is supposed to begin the demonstration, it is not totally undecided whether the god exists or not, then, of course, he does not demonstrate it, and if that is the situation in the beginning, then he never does make a beginning – partly for fear that he will not succeed because the god may not exist, and partly because he has nothing with which to begin.[17]

For Kierkegaard reflection by its very nature is infinite and no presuppositionless beginning is possible. It rests ultimately on an act of choice. ‘The beginning can occur only when reflection is stopped, and reflection can be stopped only by something else, and this something else is something altogether different from the logical, since it is a resolution’.[18] Since it is of the essence of reflection to be infinitely continuous, in order to make a beginning possible such infinite process can only be halted by a decision which has no place in logic.

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Kierkegaard's critique brings out a fundamental problem with Swinburne's account of the rational justification for religious belief. Swinburne's concern throughout is with logical probability, that is, with the extent to which an hypothesis is supported or made probable by other propositions. The basic structure of Swinburne's argument is that if various observable phenomena are more probable on the assumption that there is a God than they would be without this assumption, then to that extent such phenomena increase the probability of God's existence. This means that to believe something would imply believing it as more probable than something else, and this in turn would imply believing that this belief is more probable than some other belief, and so on ad infinitum. Since no complete justification is available for the premises of religious belief, this leads into an infinite regress, making it impossible to believe anything. Thus, as Kierkegaard suggests, there must be an act of choice to stop the justification process in order to believe. Reason is incapable of offering final justification regarding metaphysical or religious propositions. With regard to a religious proposition, a person can find as many reasons for it as against it. He is forced into a decision regarding alternatives that are not subject to conclusive determination by means of further reflection. Kierkegaard explains:

If I am essentially reflective and am in the circumstance of having to act decisively, what then? Then my reflection will show me just as many possibilities pro as contra, exactly as many. … Nothing is more impossible and more self-contradictory than to act (infinitely – decisively) by virtue of reflection. He who claims to have done it merely indicates that he either has no reflection (for the reflection which does not have a counterpossibility for every possibility is not reflection which is indeed a doubleness) or that he does not know what it is to act.[19]

Another difficulty with Swinburne's account of religious belief is that it lacks a due appreciation of the subjective factors involved in assessing the probability of religious belief. To argue for the probability of God's existence on given evidence is one thing, but the actual acceptance of a religious proposition as one's own belief is another. Even assuming that some kind of evidence for the existence of God can be obtained by rational argument, coming to believe is essentially more than a matter of determining objective probability on the basis of evidence. Subjective factors, such as dispositions and prior commitments, influence what counts as evidence for accepting a particular belief.[20] This means that the belief that God exists is not a purely objective affair; the propensity or inclination to believe is already operative in the very perception of evidence for the existence of God. To equate belief with probability assessment neglects the personal and subjective dimension of belief. For the religious person belief is not a question of estimates of probability but of a passionate commitment that comes from love and dedication. It resembles the supporter of a sports team. While based on objective measures of probability it is probable that his team will not win, all the same, the supporter may believe that it will win. His belief does not result from an estimate of probabilities. He expects and hopes his team will win, even if objectively considered it is inferior to the rival team. It may appear that a degree of irrationality is manifested in this situation. For the sports supporter, however, the passionate commitment and loyalty to the team do not sound irrational; they are part of what it means to be a supporter. In a similar way, many subjective factors and motivations dispose the religious believer to find certain beliefs more or less plausible, and more or less probable on given evidence.

Swinburne tries to address this problem by distinguishing between belief and faith. While belief is proportioned to evidence and established on the basis of acceptable inductive criteria, faith is a matter of trust and commitment, of a willingness to act on the assumption that God exists. He writes: ‘Faith in God is not the same as belief that there is a God; and faith may involve total commitment while belief is far from completely confident. For faith involves how we act on our beliefs’.[21] He further argues that in order to be rational, faith has to be based on the epistemic justification of the correspondent propositional belief and on the coherence between the ends and means of an action. In Swinburne's view, however, faith involves acting only on a ‘weak belief’. This means, for example, that for someone who follows the Christian way, he does not need to believe and act that each item of the Creed is more probable than its negation but rather that the entire Creed is more probable than any rival Creed.[22] Despite being different, the rationality of belief and faith are correlated, because to pursue an end the religious person must hold some beliefs about this end and the way to attain it. One of the most distressing consequences of Swinburne's conception of belief as based on estimates of probability is that it implies a less than adequate expression of religious belief. It implies, for example, that ‘I believe that probably there is a God, maker of heaven and earth, who incarnated in Jesus Christ’. Can the firmness of conviction and passionate commitment called for by genuine religious faith be rooted in provisional beliefs derived from tentative judgments of probabilities? The trust in God the believers speak of seems to go beyond estimates of probability and readiness to act on the resulting belief; it arises from a deeply felt confidence in God, whose strength is greater than any estimate of probabilities. The mere fact that a creed is more probable than any rival creed, and that it would therefore be wise to act on the assumption of its truth, is obviously not sufficient in, or of itself to elicit genuine faith in God. Faith requires a degree of certainty which beliefs based on assessment of probabilities cannot sustain. What is decisive in believing a religious proposition is conviction and not reasons. It is, as Kierkegaard puts it, ‘conviction which sustains the reasons not the reasons which sustain the conviction’.[23] This appears to suggest that a fundamental conviction of faith has priority over reason and is already operative in the very perception of evidence for the existence of God.

The attempt to justify religious belief on the basis of probability assessment fails to take into due account what is involved in the believer's willingness and the nonbeliever's unwillingness to accept certain beliefs. When considering what to believe or not to believe, would anyone behave in the way Swinburne's account of religious belief seems to suggest? One natural question that arises is: for whose sake is Swinburne's probabilistic investigation of religious belief conducted? It is very unlikely to persuade those who are not already convinced of theism. If it were possible to establish the probability of God's existence on the basis of rational argument, how do we explain the failure of so many to appreciate the force of the evidence provided when considering the same facts? The reason is that the judgments about probability on evidence available vary greatly and there is no agreement among rational beings about what counts as evidence for the probability of God's existence. That is why ‘the believer says that the facts show the probability of God's existence’ and ‘the unbeliever says that the same facts show the improbability of God's existence’.[24] On the other hand, for the believer such probability assessment is pointless, because in faith he is already certain of God's existence. In fact the probability assessment can even become an obstacle to faith in God. As Kierkegaard puts it: ‘the person who never relinquished probability never became involved with God. All religious, to say nothing of Christian, venturing is on the other side of probability, is by way of relinquishing probability’.[25] If we begin with the assumption of faith that God exists, then no greater certainty will result from whatever evidence rational argument can provide, ‘because the certitude of faith is infinitely higher’.[26]

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In more recent works, Swinburne takes the discussion further and argues that if there is a moderate a priori probability that there is a God, it becomes overwhelmingly probable on available evidence that God would become incarnate in Jesus. Swinburne offers three main reasons as to why God should become incarnate: (1) to provide a means of atonement; (2) to identify with our suffering; (3) and to show us how to live and provide us with encouragement.[27] In addition, he sets out five prior requirements that must be satisfied for someone to be God incarnate: (1) live a perfect human life wherein God provides healing to humans; (2) teach great moral truths; (3) show he believes himself to be God incarnate; (4) teach that his life provides atonement for human sin; (5) and found a church that preserves and promotes his teaching and works.[28] While he admits that God might have become incarnate in someone other than Jesus, he contends that ‘there is no known serious candidate in all human history for satisfying even most of the prior requirements for being God incarnate’.[29] He argues that, unlike Jesus, neither Moses nor Muhammad nor the Buddha claimed to provide atonement for human sin.

The fulfillment of the prior requirements in question, however, does not settle the case that Jesus is God incarnate. In Swinburne's view, it might be possible that someone satisfies the five prior requirements but fails to be God. Thus, Swinburne concludes that we should expect God to provide further evidence beyond the fulfillment of the prior requirements. The required additional evidence, what Swinburne calls the a posteriori requirement, is the resurrection, a ‘super-miracle’, whereby God gives his divine signature of approval to the incarnate life of Jesus.[30] Regarding the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus found in the New Testament, Swinburne notes that it ‘is the sort of evidence (not too much of it, but the right kind) we would expect to have if there was such a super-miracle’.[31] While he acknowledges that the New Testament reports concerning the resurrection appearances of Jesus exhibit differences, such differences, according to him, are not ‘substantial enough to cast doubt on the basic story’.[32] In his view, the bodily resurrection of Jesus would constitute the kind of seal of approval God would put on His incarnate life. Thus he concludes that ‘the coincidence of there being significant evidence for a super-miracle connected with the life of the only prophet for whom there is significant evidence that he satisfies the prior requirements for being God incarnate would also have been very improbable unless God brought it about’.[33]

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This kind of reasoning may appeal to those who accept Christian orthodoxy, but is very unlikely to convince those who stand outside the circle of Christian belief. The evidence he provides for his arguments is less than compelling. Why did God have to die and be resurrected in order to experience human suffering? It seems logically possible to think, for example, that God could have shared in human suffering through Jesus’ being only tortured and not killed. In that case, no Resurrection would have been necessary. Another of the reasons Swinburne gives for God's incarnation and Resurrection is that it shows human beings what a perfect life is like. Could not someone lead a perfect moral life without being God incarnate? And why must God incarnate be executed? It is less than obvious that a perfect moral life, ‘must end in death, plausibly the hard death of execution’.[34]

With regard to the probability of evidence required to be able to believe in the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus, Swinburne acknowledges several discrepancies in the scriptural accounts, especially in the post-Resurrection accounts of Jesus’ appearances. He assumes, however, on the basis of the ‘principle of testimony’, that ‘in the absence of counter-evidence, apparent testimony should be taken as real testimony and so apparent historical claims as real historical claims’.[35] Since it is a well-known fact that eyewitness testimony is not always reliable, why does the mere fact that a person reports something entail in the absence of counter-evidence that we should believe what is being reported? Even in the absence of counter-evidence, we are not compelled to believe on the basis of another person's report without some justifying evidence.

Swinburne's attempt to demonstrate Jesus to be God incarnate ends up in circular reasoning. The prior historical criteria he establishes to determine the evidence he would expect Jesus’ life and death to be like if Jesus were indeed God incarnate are derived from the life Christians believe Jesus did in fact live.[36] If he starts from the Christian premises, that is, from what Christians believe to be true, no further verification is obtained by logical argument. To use one of Kierkegaard's expressions, the argument is no more than an expanded concluding development of what is already considered to be true by the believer. It appears that undergirding Swinburne's arguments is the believing acceptance of the Christian doctrines which shape the marshalling of the evidence and thus the conclusion drawn from the evidence. Here again the question arises: For whom is the rational demonstration intended? For someone inclined not to accept the Christian premises it is very unlikely to be convincing. For the Christian believer it is not needed because he already knows on the certitude of faith that Jesus of Nazareth is God incarnate.

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A further problem with Swinburne's position is whether he accounts adequately for the relationship between the historical probability that Jesus is God incarnate and belief. Can the belief that God incarnated in Jesus be inferred from historical knowledge? If it is possible to establish, on the basis of historical research, significant evidence that Jesus was God incarnate, how does Swinburne account for the fact that many people do not perceive the revelatory significance of the events and consequently do not believe? This appears to suggest that only in the believing acceptance of the truth of the gospel can the revelatory significance of the Christ-event be disclosed. Concerning this point, Kierkegaard offers a compelling argument for why it is not possible to apprehend the revelatory significance of the events attested in Scripture on the basis of historical knowledge. Faith, in Kierkegaard's view, is required by the very nature of the historical event. He distinguishes two types of faith: faith in the ordinary sense which has the direct historical fact as object; and faith in the eminent sense, to which corresponds the historical fact of God's coming into existence. It is Kierkegaard's position that ‘everything that has come into existence is eo ipso historical’.[37] The coming into existence of the historical is contingent by its very nature, that is, it could have happened otherwise. Since the coming into existence of an historical event involves always a transition in freedom from non-being into being, such an historical event has an inherent illusiveness that prevents it from being apprehended directly. The reason the historical cannot be the object of immediate cognition is ‘because the historical has in itself that very illusiveness that is the illusiveness of coming into existence’.[38] Kierkegaard uses the example of the star to illustrate what he means. One is certain that a star exists because immediate sensation and cognition tell one that this is the case. However, when one begins to reflect upon the nature of the star, how it came into existence, the star becomes involved in doubt. In other words, the immediate sensation of the star is certain, but how it came into existence is open to doubt. The coming into existence of the star could be, for example, the product of divine agency or simply the result of a natural process.

What Kierkegaard is arguing here is that evidence based on knowledge of historical data can never provide the degree of certainty that removes doubt. Faith is the only faculty capable of overcoming the illusiveness of the historical fact. ‘Belief believes what it does not see; it does not believe that the star exists, for that it sees, but it believes that the star has come into existence. The same is true of an event. The occurrence can be known immediately but not that it has occurred’.[39] Belief provides the individual with the subjective certainty that removes doubt and allows him to come to a decision with regard to a particular historical event. For Kierkegaard doubt cannot be overcome by knowledge; it can only be terminated by an act of freedom and will. As he puts it: ‘The conclusion of belief is no conclusion but resolution, and thus doubt is excluded’.[40] Although belief and doubt are opposite acts, they have something in common: both are acts of will. When the skeptic doubts the existence of something he does not do so by virtue of knowledge but by an act of will. Fearing being deceived and wrong by the conclusions he draws from what he sees and knows he decides by an act of will to restrain himself from any conclusion.[41] Belief, on other hand, by an opposite act of will, decides to believe what is beyond immediate sensation and immediate cognition, excluding thereby all doubt. In the act of belief the individual always runs the risk of being wrong in his judgments, but nevertheless he wills to believe. ‘One never believes in any other way; if one wants to avoid risk, then one wants to know with certainty that one can swim before going into the water’.[42] Thus, according to Kierkegaard, faith as an act of resolution is the instrument by which the historical is apprehended. The uncertainty inherent in the historical event is resolved not by an inference but by an act of will.

When faith in the imminent sense is applied to the event of God's entrance into history, one must overcome not only the uncertainty that belongs to any historical event, but the difficulties arising from the fact that God, being eternal and necessary in his essence, comes into existence and becomes temporal. This event takes place in history, but cannot be reduced to a simple historical fact. It is what Kierkegaard calls an ‘absolute fact’.[43] The appearance of God in time contains two qualitative opposites: the eternal and the historical. Although the absolute fact is an historical fact and as such the object of faith, the historical element in it does not have decisive significance. Kierkegaard contends that no historical evidence can be provided to religious claims such as the claim that Jesus is the Son of God. For the appearance of God in time is not something that can be known directly. That an individual human being is God cannot be demonstrated from history. Only through faith can the individual be aware of the divine that is hidden in the temporal. Historical investigation can provide evidence for the fact that there was a man called Jesus who was born, lived, and died. It can also show that his teaching had a great influence on western culture and had even changed the shape of the world. This evidence, however, cannot provide the basis for the conclusion that Jesus is God. ‘At most it can demonstrate that Jesus Christ was a great man, perhaps the greatest of all. But that he was – God – no, stop’.[44] Because the incarnation is not a simple historical fact no amount of historical evidence can render it probable. It can only be an object for faith, not an object for historical knowledge.

Kierkegaard's main reason for rejecting historical evidence as a basis for faith in the incarnation of God is that such an event is an absolute paradox.[45] The absolute paradox lies in the fact that the divine revealed in the temporal existence is incommensurable with the historical. With the help of history and by looking at the results of Jesus’ life we cannot arrive at the conclusion that he is God, because between God and human nature there is an infinite qualitative difference. If we start with the assumption that Jesus Christ was merely a human being it can never be shown that he was also God on the basis of historical evidence. In the case that God and man are assumed to resemble each other and to belong essentially within the same quality ‘the conclusion ‘ergo it was God’ is humbug; for if to be God is nothing else than that, then God does not exist at all’.[46] Objectively viewed, the incarnation, being a paradox, is by definition ‘the improbable, that which is foolishness to the understanding’.[47] With characteristic irony Kierkegaard portrays a man who wishes to have faith on the basis of probability:

There is a man who wants to have faith; well, let the comedy begin. He wants to have faith, but he wants to assure himself with the aid of objective deliberation and approximation. What happens? With the aid of approximation, the absurd becomes something else; it becomes probable, it becomes more probable, it may become to a high degree and exceedingly probable. Now he is all set to believe it, and he dares to say of himself that he does not believe as shoemakers and tailors and simple folk do, but lo and behold, now it has indeed become impossible to believe it. The almost probable, the probable, the to-a-high-degree and exceedingly probable – that he can almost know, or as good as know, to a higher degree and exceedingly almost know – but believe it, that cannot be done, for the absurd is precisely the object of faith and only that can be believed.[48]

What Kierkegaard is suggesting here is that it is not reasonable to want to demonstrate from logical argument and historical evidence that a human being is divine, because it is beyond the structures of reason to comprehend such an idea.[49] There is, therefore, no direct transition from the historical life of Jesus and from the fact that he performed miracles to the conclusion that he is God. Miracles, Kierkegaard argues, do not demonstrate anything. ‘The demonstrations for the divinity of Christ that Scripture sets forth – his miracles, his resurrection from the dead, his ascension – are indeed only for faith, that is, they are not “demonstrations” ’.[50] Even in his resurrection Christ remains just as hidden and incomprehensible to human understanding as he was during his life time. Although it may sound contradictory, God can only reveal himself in Jesus Christ in a way which maintains his ‘unrecognizability’. As Kierkegaard puts it: ‘[Jesus Christ] was true God, and therefore to such a degree God that he was unrecognizable – thus it was not flesh and blood but the opposite of flesh and blood that inspired Peter to recognize him’.[51] While it is natural to assume that had one been a contemporary of Jesus Christ one would have been in a better position to recognize his divinity, this, in Kierkegaard's view, is deceiving oneself, because God ‘cannot be known directly’.[52] It is the very historicity of Jesus Christ that makes it impossible for his contemporaries and succeeding generations to perceive his divinity.

Christ's appearance is and still remains a paradox. To his contemporaries the paradox lay in the fact that this particular individual being, who looked like other human beings, talked like them and followed the customs, was the son of God. For all subsequent ages the paradox is different, for since he is not seen with the physical eye it is easier to represent him as the son of God, but the shocking thing now is that he spoke within the thought world of a particular age.[53]

The historical element in the Christ-event is like a veil behind which faith sees but reason cannot perceive nor apprehend. In Kierkegaard's view, the attempt to prove Christ's divinity from the consequences of his life or on the basis of biblical scholarship is doomed to failure, because ‘we cannot, without somewhere or other being guilt of shifting from one genus to another, suddenly by way of conclusion obtain a new quality, God’.[54] Thus, while Kierkegaard emphasizes the historicity of the incarnation he maintains at the same time that history is of no help in matters of faith. In one passage he seems even to suggest that historical evidence is virtually irrelevant to faith.

If the fact of which we speak were a simple historical fact, the historiographer's scrupulous accuracy would be of great importance. This is not the case here, for faith cannot be distilled from even the finest detail. (…) Even if the contemporary generation had not left anything behind except these words ‘we have believed that in such and such a year the God appeared in the humble form of a servant, lived and taught among us, and then died’ – this is more than enough.[55]

Kierkegaard's point here is that history is only an occasion to come to faith and no amount of historical evidence will produce faith in someone. Therefore, this minimal historical information would be ‘more than enough’ for faith to occur.

The reason for making faith independent of historical evidence is that faith requires a degree of certainty that historical inquiry cannot provide. According to Kierkegaard the results of historical inquiry can never be more than probable and tentative, and are always subject to revision in the light of new findings. He illustrates this point by considering the critical historical study of Bible. Even if it were possible to demonstrate the canonicity of the books of the Bible, that they are authentic and their authors trustworthy, nothing decisive would follow from this. Has the person who previously did not have faith come a single step closer to faith? No, not a single step, says Kierkegaard. For ‘faith does not result from straightforward scholarly deliberation, nor does it come directly; on the contrary, in this objectivity one loses that infinite, personal, impassioned interestedness, which is the condition of faith’.[56]

For Kierkegaard faith is a sphere by itself; it is both a gift from God and human decision and cannot, therefore, be concerned with theoretical unresolved contradictions. In this sense historical evidence is superfluous to faith.[57] The attempt to justify Christian faith on the basis of historical research fails, because it can provide no more than probable results, unable to be the basis either of acceptance or rejection of the Christian faith. In Kierkegaard's view, to want to quantify oneself into faith from the probable results of historical inquiry ‘is a misunderstanding, a delusion’.[58] Since God's coming into existence in human form transcends the range of possible human understanding, to make such an event probable would amount to falsifying it. In a passage aiming at the apologetic project of the kind carried out by Swinburne, Kierkegaard writes:

If one were to describe this entire orthodox apologetic endeavor in a single sentence, yet also categorically, one would have to say: Its aim is to make Christianity probable. Then one must add: If this succeeds, then this endeavor would have the ironical fate that on the very day of victory it would have forfeited everything and completely cashiered Christianity. … To make Christianity probable is the same as to falsify it. Indeed, what is it atheists want? Oh, they want to make Christianity probable. That is, they are well aware that if they can get Christianity's qualitative extravagance tricked into the fussy officiousness of probability – then it is all over with Christianity. But the orthodox apologetic endeavor also wants to make Christianity probable; thus it is working hand in glove with heterodoxy.[59]

VII

  1. Top of page
  2. I
  3. II
  4. III
  5. IV
  6. V
  7. VI
  8. VII
  9. Notes

Given the difficulties outlined above, Swinburne's apologetic does not seem to achieve the aim that inspired it, namely, to provide a rational justification for belief in the existence of God and the truth of Christian doctrine. Notwithstanding the intellectual achievement of Swinburne's work, of his philosophical method and the precision of his argument, his approach will not persuade those who stand outside the circle of Christian belief. At times his account of the epistemic probability to be associated with the proposition of the existence of God, the incarnation and the resurrection of Christ, come across as old Christian apologetics expressed in the language of analytic philosophy, and as such essentially an anachronism rather than representing the kind of new thinking that is needed.[60] The latter demands a recognition that in both faith and science, reason always functions within a fiduciary framework in which beliefs of various kinds necessarily precede and undergird all thinking.[61] Thus, to those who stand outside the theist and Christian framework of belief, Swinburne's case for the reasonableness of theistic and Christian doctrines will not be persuasive. His calculation of the epistemic probability for the truth of theism and Christian doctrine is heavily dependent on prior beliefs and convictions that are not shared by all reasonable people who pose the question of the existence of God.

Notes

  1. Top of page
  2. I
  3. II
  4. III
  5. IV
  6. V
  7. VI
  8. VII
  9. Notes
  • 1
    For a critique of Swinburne's position along these lines see D. Z. Phillips, ‘The Friends of Cleanthes’, Modern Theology 1: 2 (1985), pp. 9192.
  • 2
    Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 1.
  • 3
    Richard Swinburne, Is There a God? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 2.
  • 4
    Is There a God? p. 24.
  • 5
    The Existence of God, p. 330.
  • 6
    The Existence of God, p. 106. Elsewhere Swinburne writes: ‘Theism claims that every other object which exists is caused to exist and kept in existence by just one substance, God. And it claims that every property which every substance has is due to God causing or permitting it to exist. It is a hallmark of a simple explanation to postulate few causes. There could in this respect be no simpler explanation than one which postulated only one cause. … And theism postulates for its one cause, a person’. Is There a God? p. 40.
  • 7
    The Existence of God, p. 97.
  • 8
    The Existence of God, p. 109.
  • 9
    The Existence of God, pp. 151152.
  • 10
    The Existence of God, p. 166.
  • 11
    Is There a God? pp. 120121.
  • 12
    Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, ed. and trans. H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong (Princenton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 40. With regard to metaphysical truths, the process of demonstration ends in analytic tautologies. Commenting on the biblical ‘I Am Who I Am’, Kierkegaard remarks that ‘this is an analogy to the metaphysical point that the highest principles for all thought cannot be proved but only tautologically paraphrased: introverted infinity’. Søren Kierkegaard, Søren Kierkegaard's Journals and Papers, vol. 4, ed. and trans. H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1975), p. 511.
  • 13
    Philosophical Fragments, pp. 4041.
  • 14
    Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, vol 1, ed. and trans. H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 243.
  • 15
    Philosophical Fragments, p. 42. One of Kierkegaard's major objections to rational arguments for the existence of God is that they make a mockery of God. ‘To demonstrate the existence of someone who exists is the most shameless assault, since it is an attempt to make him ludicrous. … How could it occur to anyone to demonstrate that he exists unless one has allowed oneself to ignore him; and now one does it in an even more lunatic way by demonstrating his existence right in front of his nose. A king's existence or presence ordinarily has its own expression of subjection and submissiveness. What if one in his most majestic presence wanted to demonstrate that he exists? Does one demonstrate it, then? No, one makes a fool of him, because one demonstrates his presence by the expression of submissiveness … and thus one also demonstrates the existence of God by worship – not by demonstrations’. Concluding Unscientific Postscript, pp. 545546.
  • 16
    Søren Kierkegaard, Søren Kierkegaard's Journals and Papers, vol. 1, ed. and trans. H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1967), p. 469. For Kierkegaard coming to know something always involves personal interpretation. It depends not only ‘upon what one sees, but what one sees depends upon how one sees; all observation is not just a receiving, a discovering, but also a bringing forth, and insofar as it is that, how the observer himself is constituted is indeed decisive’. Søren Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, ed. and trans. H. V Hong and E. H. Hong (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 59.
  • 17
    Philosophical Fragments, pp. 4344. In another passage Kierkegaard argues that the attempt to demonstrate God's existence is misguided, because only by implicitly assuming the truth of that which is to be proved can the argument proceed. ‘If, namely, the god does not exist, then of course it is impossible to demonstrate it. But if he does exist, then it is foolishness to want to demonstrate it, since I, in the very moment the demonstration commences, would presuppose it not as doubtful – which a presupposition cannot be, inasmuch as it is a presupposition – but as decided, because otherwise I would not begin, easily perceiving that the whole thing would be impossible if he did not exist’. Philosophical Fragments, p. 39.
  • 18
    Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 113. Elsewhere Kierkegaard writes that ‘every beginning, when it is made, … does not occur by virtue of immanental thinking but is made by virtue of a resolution, essentially by virtue of faith’. Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 189.
  • 19
    Søren Kierkegaard, Søren Kierkegaard's Journals and Papers, vol. 3, ed. and trans. H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1975), pp. 717718.
  • 20
    For the role of subjective factors in the assessment of evidence for religious belief, see William Wainwright, Reason and the Heart: a Prolegomenon to a Critique of Passional Reason (Itahaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), pp. 108123. In Faith and Reason, Swinburne seems to accept as part of the foundation of one's system of belief some kind of subjective factors. Maintaining that the two major factors in determining probability are evidence and inductive criteria he defines the rationality of belief in the following terms: ‘a person's beliefs are rational if and only if, given his evidence, they are rendered probable on his own inductive criteria’ and a person's beliefs rendered probable by his evidence ‘consists of rightly basic propositions which he is justified in holding with the degree of confidence with which he holds them’. Richard Swinburne, Faith and Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 93, 94. This seems to suggest that the degree of confidence with which I hold a proposition on given evidence, makes it rationally justified which implies that whatever I believe must seem probable to me. From this, however, it does not follow that such belief can be justified in accordance with universally acceptable epistemological principles. It appears that the belief that is supposed to be based on objective evidence cannot be considered evidence that would be generally accepted. Moreover, given the fact that, as Swinburne admits, people may differ in their inductive criteria used for the assessment of evidence, depend heavily on authority for most of their beliefs, and the amount and kind of investigation of religious claims which they need to make must depend on opportunities open to them, it becomes difficult to justify the rationality of belief in terms of a single scale of probabilities. See Faith and Reason, pp. 4445, 51–52, 98–103.
  • 21
    Faith and Reason, p. 110.
  • 22
    Faith and Reason, p. 225226.
  • 23
    Journals and Papers, vol. 3, p. 663. In a similar vein, Dostoevsky in a much-quoted letter writes, as follows, about the power of conviction over proofs and arguments in his own faith. ‘I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly, and more perfect than the Saviour; I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no one else like Him, but that there could be no one. I would even say more: If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with the truth’. In the same letter he speaks of this longing for faith as ‘all the stronger for the proofs I have against it’. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoevsky to his Family and Friends, trans. E. Colburn Mayne (Honolulu, Hawaii: University Press of the Pacific, 2003), pp. 6768.
  • 24
    Phillips, ‘The Friends of Cleanthes’, p. 92.
  • 25
    Søren Kierkegaard, For Self-Examination and Judge for Yourself! ed. and trans. H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), pp. 99100.
  • 26
    Søren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity, ed. and trans. H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 27.
  • 27
    Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 4349.
  • 28
    The Resurrection of God Incarnate, p. 59.
  • 29
    The Resurrection of God Incarnate, p. 61.
  • 30
    The Resurrection of God Incarnate, p. 62.
  • 31
    The Resurrection of God Incarnate, p. 212.
  • 32
    The Resurrection of God Incarnate, p. 148.
  • 33
    The Resurrection of God Incarnate, p. 202.
  • 34
    The Resurrection of God Incarnate, p. 49.
  • 35
    The Resurrection of God Incarnate, p. 70. Elsewhere he writes that ‘we should believe what others tell us that they have done or perceived – in the absence of counter-evidence. I call this principle the principle of testimony’. The Resurrection of God Incarnate, pp. 1213.
  • 36
    Swinburne acknowledges that the reasons he provides for God becoming incarnate are derived from Christian tradition. ‘When I give these reasons, the reader will be right to feel that I would not have given them if I had not derived them from the Christian tradition’. The Resurrection of God Incarnate, p. 35.
  • 37
    Philosophical Fragments, p. 75. Kierkegaard uses the term historical in two senses: the historical as the coming into existence of any event, including natural events, and the historical in the strict sense, that is, the ‘coming into existence with its own coming into existence’. Philosophical Fragments, pp. 7576. Here Kierkegaard has in mind history in the sense of human history, which has the additional contingency derived from the freedom of human agents.
  • 38
    Philosophical Fragments, p. 81.
  • 39
    Philosophical Fragments, p. 81.
  • 40
    Philosophical Fragments, p. 84.
  • 41
    Philosophical Fragments, pp. 8485. ‘If, for example, sensation shows me in the distance a round object that close at hand is seen to be square or shows me a stick that looks broken in the water although it is straight when taken out, sensation has not deceived me, but I am deceived only when I conclude something about that stick and that object. This is why the skeptic keeps himself continually in suspenso, and this state was what he willed’. Philosophical Fragments, pp. 8283.
  • 42
    Philosophical Fragments, p. 83.
  • 43
    Philosophical Fragments, p. 99.
  • 44
    Practice in Christianity, p. 27.
  • 45
    Kierkegaard often refers to the paradox as a contradiction; the incarnation is even described as a ‘self-contradiction’. Philosophical Fragments, p. 87. The contradiction consists in the fact that the eternal ‘can become historical only in direct opposition to all human understanding’. Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 211. This contradiction is further designated as the absurd. ‘The absurd is that the eternal truth has come into existence in time, that God has come into existence, has been born, has grown up’. Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 210. This cannot be an object for knowledge, but only for faith. ‘For all knowledge is either knowledge of the eternal, which excludes the temporal and the historical as inconsequential, or it is purely historical knowledge, and no knowledge can have as its object this absurdity that the eternal is the historical’. Philosophical Fragments, p. 62. Kierkegaard maintains that ‘the absurd is the negative criterion of that which is higher than human understanding and knowledge’. Journals and Papers, vol. 1, p. 8. Thus, for Kierkegaard the paradox or absurd are expressions for what is supra rationem rather than for what is contra rationem. Although Kierkegaard at times speaks of the paradox or absurd as the object of faith that requires one to believe against the understanding, he does not exclude the work of reason from the object of faith as such. To reason is assigned the negative but important task of pointing out the incomprehensibility of God's self-revelation in human form. Therefore the person who embraces the absolute paradox does not believe mere nonsense. The believer ‘both has and uses his understanding … in order to see to it that he believes against the understanding. Therefore, he cannot believe nonsense against the understanding, which one might fear, because the understanding will penetratingly perceive that it is nonsense and hinder him in believing it’. Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 568. On the other hand, for the believer the object of faith is neither absurd nor paradoxical. ‘When the believer has faith, the absurd is not the absurd – faith transforms it. … The passion of faith is the only thing which masters the absurd – if not then faith is not faith in the strictest sense, but a kind of knowledge. The absurd terminates negatively before the sphere of faith, which is a sphere by itself’. Journals and Papers, vol. 1, p. 7. Kierkegaard's conception of the paradox can be viewed as a criticism directed in particular against the attempts in nineteenth-century Denmark to make Christian doctrines plausible or even straight forward rational. The relentlessly objective tone of Swinburne's apologetic project whereby the content of Christian doctrines appear to be made probable by prior propositions which constitute evidence for it, does seem to go along the same lines. In this way, many of Kierkegaard's criticisms of the attempt to validate religious beliefs on the basis of rational argument apply aptly to Swinburne's apologetic project.
  • 46
    Practice in Christianity, p. 28.
  • 47
    Søren Kierkegaard, The Book on Adler, ed. and trans. H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), p. 47.
  • 48
    Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 211.
  • 49
    The paradoxical nature of the incarnation is in conflict with logic because it is ‘a direct breach of the general logical principle that nothing can simultaneously have and lack the same property. The property in question can be named “possessing spatio-temporal boundaries”, or “having either or both a beginning and/or end”, and it is ascribed to the eternal, which by definition has no duration and therefore lacks both a beginning and an end’. See Alastair Hannay, Kierkegaard: The Arguments of the Philosophers (London: Routledge and Kegan, 1991), p. 107.
  • 50
    Practice in Christianity, p. 26.
  • 51
    Practice in Christianity, p. 128.
  • 52
    Philosophical Fragments, p. 63.
  • 53
    Journals and Papers, vol. 3, p. 400.
  • 54
    Practice in Christianity, p. 27.
  • 55
    Philosophical Fragments, pp. 103104.
  • 56
    Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 29.
  • 57
    This view of the relationship of faith to history finds support in the thought of major figures of contemporary theology. For example, Paul Tillich after making the distinction between the historical and the truth of faith, he stresses that faith is its own authentication not historical evidence. ‘The truth of faith cannot be made dependent on the historical truth of the stories and legends in which faith has expressed itself. It is a disastrous distortion of the meaning of faith to identify it with the belief in the historical validity of the Biblical stories. This, however, happens on high as well as on low levels of sophistication. People say that others or they themselves are without Christian faith, because they do not believe that the New Testament miracle stories are reliably documented. Certainly they are not, and the search for the degree of probability or improbability of a Biblical story has to be made with all the tools of a solid philological and historical method. (…) They are questions of historical truth, not of the truth of faith. (…) Faith can ascertain its own foundation. (…) Therefore, faith cannot be shaken by historical research even if its results are critical of the traditions in which the event is reported’. Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper and Row, 1957), pp. 8789.
  • 58
    Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 11.
  • 59
    The Book on Adler, p. 39.
  • 60
    John Hick, ‘Is the Doctrine of the Atonement a Mistake?’ in Alan G. Padgett , ed., Reason and the Christian Religion: Essays in Honour of Richard Swinburne (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 247.
  • 61
    For the role of commitment in the scientific enterprise see: Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), pp. 299324. He expresses the logic of commitment in the epistemology of science as follows: ‘truth is something that can be thought of only by believing it’. Personal Knowledge, p. 305. This bears striking similarities to Kierkegaard's religious epistemology. Like Polanyi, Kierkegaard too views the subjective factors as crucial in the process at arriving at truth.