“Man can be compelled to do a good many things. There are a good many other things he can do in a halfhearted fashion, as it were, against his will. But belief can never be halfhearted. One can believe only if one wishes to. Perhap the credibility of a given person will be revealed to me so persuasively that I cannot help but think: It is wrong not to believe him; I “must” believe him. But this last step can be taken only in complete freedom, and that means that it can also not be taken. There may be plenty of compelling arguments for a man’s cedibility; but no argument can force us to believe him.

The unanimity of statements on this point is astonishing; and the agreement ranges all the way from Augustine and Thomas to Kierkegaard, Newman and Andre Gide. Augustine’s phrase from the Commentary on John is famous; “Nemo credit nisi volens”: No one believes except of his own free will. Kierkegaard says that one man can do much for another, “but give him belief, he cannot”. Newman is forever stressing, in one guise or another, the one idea that belief is something other than the result of a logical process; it is precisely not “a conclusion from premises”. “For directly you have a conviction that you ought to believe, reason has done its part, and what is wanted for faith is, not proof, but will.” And Andre Gide? In the last jottings he published after his Journals we may read these sentences: “There is more light in Christ’s words than in any other human word. This is not enough, it seems, to be a Christian: in addition, one must believe. Well, I do not believe.” Taken all together, these statements obviously mean the following: It is one thing to regard what someone else has said as interesting, clever, important, magnificent, the product of genius or absolutely “true”. We may feel compelled to to think and say any and all these things in utter sincerity. But it is quite a different matter to accept precisely the same statements in the way of belief. In order for this other matter, belief, to come about, a further step is necessary. A free assent of will must be performed. Belief rests upon volition” (Josef Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love, p 35-36).


“Karl Barth (1886-1968) reacted against the liberal theological trend that started with Schleiermacher, because in reducing religion to feeling it also tended to reduce Christianity back into the meanings and values of the secular culture. He tried to bring theology back to the principles of the Reformation and the prophetic message of the Bible. Heavily influenced by Kierkegaard, he interpreted the Christian message to mean that God is so supremely transcendent and superior to all human aspirations that human reason and ‘natural theology’ (philosophy of God which does not accept the teachings of revelations) are worthless; and religion grounded in mere human experience (as in Schleiermacher) is impossible. His Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans rejected all merely historical interpretation of Scripture as incapable of doing justice to the text as the inspired Word of God. His ability to distinguish so sharply Christianity from human culture enabled Barth to resist Hitler’s attempts to enlist the German Lutheran State Church in the Nazi cause, saying, “We have no Fuehrer (leader) but Jesus Christ!” In the Humanity of God he still affirmed that God’s sole revelation is in Jesus Christ, who in becoming human, uttered the only really significant Yes! of the transcendent God to poor sinful humanity in need of redemption through grace” (Frederick Lawrence, Philosophers and Theologians, Boston College).


“Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) also reacted against the abstractness of Hegel’s dialectical march of ideas in the unfolding of the Absolute Spirit because it leaves out the concrete dynamics of personal and individual existence. For Kierkegaard what is actual and particular is more important than universal concepts and abstractions. Passionately Christian, Kierkegaard was contemptuous of organized religion and of the tendency to use doctrines to blunt our awareness of how we are making decisions about our personal existence. He attacks any kind of rationalism (i.e. exclusive dependence on sense observation or reasoning in rejection of belief or faith) and he tries to justify a new commitment or ‘leap of faith’ in which passion and feeling have as much importance as reason and in which the inward and personal life of human beings is recognized as the source of meaning and value. Continue reading

Kierkegaard — On Self and Passion



Kierkegaard’s understanding of “passion” is different from many writers of the early church who sought to quell passion in the soul. Here passion does not refer to inordinate desire, but rather to the awareness of the significance of one’s existence and actions.

It is impossible to exist without passion, unless existing means just any sort of so-called existence. For this reason every Greek thinker was essentially a passionate thinker. I have often wondered how one might bring a man to passion. So I have thought I might seat him on a horse and frighten the horse into a wild gallop, or still better, in order to bring out the passion properly, I might take a man who wants to go somewhere as quickly as possible (and so was already in a sort of passion) and seat him on a horse that can barely walk. But this is just how existence is, if one becomes conscious of it. Or if someone hitched a carriage with Pegasus and an old nag, and told the driver, who was not usually inclined to passion, “Now, drive”: I think that would succeed. And this is just how existence is, if one becomes conscious of it. Eternity is the winged horse, infinitely quick, and time is the old nag, and the existing individual is the driver; that is to say, he is the driver when his existence is not merely a so-called existence, for then he is no driver, but a drunken peasant who sleeps in the wagon and lets the horses fend for themselves. True, he also drives, he is a driver, and so there are perhaps many who–also exist.

Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs, trans Alastair Hannay, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) 260-261.