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Kierkegaard: Father of Relativism?

Kierkegaard: Father of Relativism?

Growing up, I remember a sermon that was about “people that ruled the world from their graves”. Essentially, it was a list of philosophers, political or existential, who, through their ideas, undermined the truth of Christ through a humanistic rationalization. The attitude with which the preacher approached these ideas was similar to how many Christians view postmodernism.

  If cultural relativism was the forgiving of all worldly philosophies, cultural practices and behavior based on the relative nature of environment, then postmodernism is the encouragement of it. It’s regarded as a sleeping evil masked with a unifying and “kumbaya” mentality, a Humanistic euphoria of false peace. Relativity was the golden rule turned upside down, a concept which undermined what I was taught to be the truth of Jesus Christ. 

Since I grew up as a Christian, how was I to make sense of the absolute truth in a subjective existence? Thank God for Kierkegaard!

Soren Kierkegaard was one of the most influential philosophical and theological thinkers of the 19th century.  Kierkegaard, who was a Christian, is also considered the first existentialist. For me, he redefined “postmodernism” as the pursuit of subjective truth rather than the denial of absolute truth. While one can attribute a number of involved, dense and complex philosophical theories and ideas to Kierkegaard, it could be approached in a way that sees Kierkegaard as an honest and obsessed scholar who was exploring a clear, yet difficult idea: complete devotion to Christ, first and foremost, and beyond everything else. 

Kyle Roberts, Theology Professor at Bethel Seminary, puts Kierkegaard’s philosophy this way: “One must ‘become a true self,’ before God … and allow the God-relationship to direct their development and behavior.” The goal is not hard to recognize. As Christians, we all desire to know Christ personally. But the difficulty arises when one considers what this could mean in the context of “living like a Christian.” What is required of us to follow Christ? This question spreads to every aspect of our existence.

Kierkegaard wrote extensively on the idea of faith, more specifically, his idea of subjective faith which, defined in his own writing, is “an objective uncertainty, held fast through appropriation with the most passionate inwardness, is the truth, the highest truth there is for an existing person.” We are all guided by our own experience, and a relationship with Christ would imply a unique call and interpretation of God’s will in your life. When Kierkegaard was 22 years old, he wrote of his desire to “find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.” But this is not to be taken as arbitrary relativism. John D. Caputo (Professor of Humanities at Syracuse University) points out that Kierkegaard’s use of the word “subjectivity” is not meant to imply justification based on self validation, rather, the “subjective” refers to that one thing that will transform your life. If Christ is the truth that will transform your life, then the question has to be approached honestly: How does one truly follow Christ? 

Kierkegaard explores faith in his book, Fear and Trembling. The book uses the story of Abraham to explore the concept of faith and ultimate devotion—the enigmatic call from God to sacrifice his only son is a horribly absurd request. I’ve always thought about this story in a historical and metaphorical context, but Kierkegaard lifts the story out its historical context and considers what it could be taken to mean today, and more importantly, what it means to you. He explores the defining moment, the moment when your “inward passion” for the “objective uncertainty” comes to test. Where do we find the tenacity and strength of heart to truly follow Christ all the way to the absurd? 

Roberts points out: “Kierkegaard is inviting his readers to take the leap from the universal ethical to the religious, where they live ‘in fear and trembling’ before God.” The goal is not to make following Christ arbitrarily difficult, but to constantly search for God’s truth.

Roberts continues, “Faith, for Kierkegaard, was a restless thing,” and Kierkegaard himself writes, “Fear and trembling signify that we are in the process of becoming; and every single individual, likewise the generation, is and should be aware of being in the process of becoming. And fear and trembling signify that there is a God—something every human being and every established order ought not to forget.” 

I’ve often felt suffocated when I consider my responsibility as a Christian, and in the arena of theological theories it’s as though Christ himself has been analyzed into a theory rather than a reality, something Kierkegaard himself was fighting against. Kierkegaard did not want to analyze Christ into an abstraction, and for me, he succeeded in making Christ more subjectively exigent. The intent of this idea reveals a pure and lucid goal: the honest and desperate pursuit of Christ.

Only by the mysterious nature of God’s grace can we make the first step forward. Devotion to Christ is a conflict that requires a sincere and ingenuous faith. Kierkegaard explored this concept to the extreme, and his writings challenge the reader to evict any insulation that disrupts their personal relationship with Christ. You don’t have to be an expert to see the value and practicality of what Kierkegaard encouraged, it is the constant re-evaluation and application of one’s faith. Do not deny objective truth, but keep pursuing the truth that is infinitely true for you. 

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