Kierkegaard on the Paradox of Faith and Political Commitment
“ Man is so made that when anything fires his soul, impossibilities vanish.”
At this moment, when all appears lost, when no path can offer certainty — and those who promise certainty cannot be trusted — we face the paradox of commitment: we must act with nothing but our hope or never look to hope again. This is the paradox of commitment, and above all that highest of earthly commitments, the political.
The political commitment and the commitment of faith are twins in sharing this paradox: reason tells us that they are wishful thinking; that one possesses faith is yet to be seen; that a political, and thus economic doctrine, will secure human happiness is likewise unproven until put to the test. Yet, it is just this action to prove that contains the paradox, for a faith that requires proof, is no faith, and a government that has not yet governed cannot prove itself at all.
Under these criteria, it is understandable why the saint might weep in frustration and the revolutionary rage at his impotence. It is almost miraculous then when a martyr such as Antonio Gramsci, who arose from lowly origins, and was beset with a tubercular spine, understood better than most the force of any present moment to dissuade us from higher expectations. Sometimes it is not reason that is called for but belief, a belief that is the product of pure will.
As the founder of the Italian Communist Party, Gramsci was imprisoned by Mussolini’s regime. In ailing health, abandoned by his own party for his unorthodox views, and having little hope of seeing freedom or family again, he would famously write from prison that: “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” The will, which we may take as a synonym of faith, has ever been the motive force of progress for it is not constrained from dreaming and making dreams reality even when reality says it should not be.
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Imagine now an old man weary and waited down with cares. He travels with his only son, a child of his old age, and the most precious thing his life has known, containing all his hopes and dreams for the future. Now consider that this old man is Abraham, the son is Isaac, and they are walking silently and ominously to a mountaintop in the land of Moriah. We know the tale and what must come next. The knife is raised above the boy’s upturned neck and, just as he begins to bring it down upon young Isaac’s throat an angel stays his hand. As promised Isaac is given back to Abraham, and Abraham’s faith has met God’s test.
Kierkegaard gives us a retelling of this story in Fear and Trembling, which criticizes Hegelian ethics. Hegel defined society as a “whole”, the Universal. Whatever behavior contributed to the good of the whole was good as society defined it. But, what if an individual were compelled to do something they felt was right but society had labeled wrong? Abraham faced just this paradox. God had told him to sacrifice his son, an act that any sane society would condemn; and yet, Abraham is no criminal with murderous intent but the father of three faiths, and a symbol of the faithful. Surely then, if what the Universal always judged wrong is wrong, then the father of three faiths and over a billion adherents is also the father of iniquity in fulfilling his duty to God.
This conflict, between doing what you feel is right for a higher purpose and what society deems acceptable, Kierkegaard called “the teleological suspension of the ethical”. Put plainly, the individual sets aside the consideration of ethics as it reaches past the Universal to touch the Absolute, the higher end or purpose it seeks to meet. For Kierkegaard, the Absolute was God, but it need not be, for the Absolute is an ideal taken on faith; or rather, it is the result of faith, for one can only attain the Absolute after first taking the leap to faith itself, and, just like religious faith, political commitment of the highest kind always comes down to the individual like the personal relationship one seeks with God. If this sounds blasphemous I will attempt to demonstrate it is not.
For Kierkegaard, faith is not dogma, it is not a creed to be impressed in memory and recalled mechanically, or observed but once a Sunday; for him, faith must be lived and repeatedly renewed through a passionate and subjective relationship that neither seeks nor requires the approval of reason. In a word, faith is action. Consequently, whatever stifles this passionate commitment must be an enemy, and there are few greater enemies to such commitments, he surmised, than modern media. In his own day, it was the prevalence of newspapers that turned his stomach; could he have but glimpsed the present moment he might well have despaired, for we are gorged on a feast that never ends and pervades every corner of our lives, and with this omnipresence it weighs upon our minds and catches up our days in endless fascination and distraction.
The media, at first appearing like a servant informing us about the world, we, at last, become its slave. Instead of broadening the world and our experience of it, they transform the world into a distant object fit only for empty opinions and idle speculation. And the Internet’s propagation of cowardly anonymity has only added to this lack of risk, of responsibility and commitment that allows community to thrive, for, in a world where all claims are equally valid and hallowed, opinion is of great a weight as the considered reflections of the seasoned expert, all action must be nullified beneath an apathy of uncertain outcomes. For indeed very little in life is certain, and this pervasive uncertainty is incubated within a media mulching machine that in chewing up every side puts all sides into question. A constant rumination that would put even the eternally ruminating cow to shame. When all probable solutions have been put to the torch of an endless critical commentary, we must, like Hamlet, lament that action will lose its very name.
The volume of information to which we have access is enough to involve ten generations of scholarly exegesis. The individual, looking upon this mountain in despair of ever reaching its summit, is often only too quickly pardoned for foregoing the climb. But, for the individual to be an individual they still must make a choice, and their decision of what is worth their efforts is what will define them. Only an unconditional commitment will do, and it is a commitment that sets this most important issue, that issue the individual has committed themselves to, in stone for that individual for life.
In making such a commitment, the individual is granted something eternal by the act, for we have embraced the paradox of faith and made the leap towards the Absolute. And if you think this too abstract let me ask you a question: Would you risk a certain now for a future maybe? This is the thinking behind every cynic of political and social change. To walk an untried and uncertain path is a leap too far, the possibility of failure outweighs the hoped-for gains. And yet, we are proud to accept the greatest risks with every new election. Democracy is built upon change, so clearly we are not completely averse to it, for if it were truly so fearful a long-lived monarch with a palace full of healthy, legitimate, and competent heirs would be a more comforting preference than the endless uncertainties of the electoral lottery.
Such a faith has always been the ruling principle of our government, for, although it looks like political discourse has moved from a world of objective fact to one of subjective belief, the political world we knew before only ever accepted a fact tacitly; it was belief that always truly held chief importance. Whether from a Bush administration, whose disregard for the “Reality Based Community” brought the nation to war, or the skilled advertising of an Obama campaign, which promised “Hope and Change” and affected none. Only now due to the speed and aggressive assertiveness with which this trend has developed does it cause serious alarm. We can no longer assume that facts can save us, reason cannot convince the unreasonable.
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In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Karl Marx adopted Hegel’s view of the Universal and applied it to the class system of his day. For Marx, the Universal Class was the working class, and the extent or diminishment of social progress would be due to the extent or diminishment of the involvement of the Universal Class in the political sphere. Like Hegel and his Universal good, Marx saw it as a likely development of history that the Universal Class would make the values of justice and equality the values of the whole.
But Kierkegaard might have viewed it differently, as he argued that there are duties that cannot wait to be justified to the Universal and that, like Abraham, it is sometimes necessary to suspend the ethical consensus to fulfill a higher commitment. It is a leap into the dark that every individual must one day make. At this moment with the possible devastation of nuclear war, and the certain devastation of Global Warming as our pick of fates, those who wait upon others for the signal to act will have waited too long. The only question is how to act but, for Kierkegaard, that is a question only the individual can decide for themselves.
We are now only left with the paradox of faith that the redemption of the species may be found only in the choice of the individual. Marx no doubt would have balked at this suggestion as he argued well that the individual is always constrained by the material conditions of their life, of the social and economic realities of one’s place and time. Blame for inaction is located on Hegel’s whole, the Universal, not the individual.
Yet, it is just this paradox that the Universal, or political, comprised of the many, that only the faithful commitment of the individual brings together and sustains. The individual may be constrained by their conditions, but the actions one can take within those constraints are still a possibility, and, wherever Marx and Kierkegaard might disagree, at least on one point they are in perfect alignment — that the life of passionate commitment is a necessity to save our world if not also our souls.
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Yet, the two thinkers might not be as mutually exclusive as I have made them out to be. In the middle of the twentieth century, when man’s inhumanity towards man was on display as it had rarely been, the Marxist thinker Ernst Bloch was fashioning a bridge that has allowed faith and political idealism to find common cause. In The Principle of Hope, Bloch examines the fact that throughout human history, a dream has always been expressed, a dream of a better world, of utopia. We have an innate desire for complete perfection that we will seek in this world or another, but always pushing us on.
The only two results of this impulse, he observed, must lead either to the consummation of perfection, or the realization of perfect destruction. But Bloch did not view the path to perfection as one of theory and abstraction, but of practical action. Paradise is not something already made, to which we might return to, but something that must be brought about. We cannot look to the past for the traces towards a paradise that has never been, we can only move forward in anticipation of the “not yet”. His mistake perhaps was to force these ideas into a scientific framework to which they are alien. This “not yet” signals the poet that Bloch might have been but Kierkegaard always claimed to be.
For Bloch, this drive towards perfection was a collective movement, but even great movements must start with a prime mover, and with that we return to Kierkegaard. For it was Kierkegaard’s mission to make room for the individual in a system in which the individual is rendered as just a small piece of a collective whole, a mission that defined faith as the acceptance of paradox.
The Absolute of the political ideal is forever before us, always to come, has not yet arrived, like our future state in heaven, or — our future heavenly state. Whether of the left or right of the political spectrum, the future eternally lies where we all place our hopes, but it will always require a leap through faith to reach it.