Interview with C. Stephen Evans: Kierkegaard, Natural Signs and Knowledge of God




I’ve been studying existentialist philosophy to try to better understand contemporary religion in the West. Works by philosopher C. Stephen Evans have been an immense help in developing my series on faith and reason. Dr. Evans work on Kierkegaard is among the best currently in print and his analysis of Kierkegaard’s thought in light of modern Christianity sheds a great deal of light on the subject. In my series, I’ve been exploring what seems to me to be a tension between a faith that is established on an existentialist leap of faith and the subsequent desire to ground that same faith on reason and evidence. Dr. Evans deals with these topics head on.

He was kind enough to take time with Philosophy News to talk about his work and how Kierkegaard can inform a contemporary understanding of faith. In his most recent book, Natural Signs and Knowledge of God, Dr. Evans explores the use of signs as pointers to God in contemporary philosophical treatments of religious knowledge and as the basis of a response to the “new atheism.” He believes that the classical philosophical arguments for God do in fact function as positive evidence for his existence even in light of atheistic and evolutionary critiques of religious belief. In the interview that follows, I asked Dr. Evans why he believes this and what he thinks Kierkegaard has to say to believers today.

Professor Evans (Ph.D. Yale) is University Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Baylor University. He has authored or edited over 20 books, many on Kierkegaard and existentialism. He was the editor for many years of Søren Kierkegaard Newsletter, is on the Board of Editorial Consultants for the journal Faith and Philosophy, and is contributing editor of Journal of Psychology and Theology. A link to his full CV is below.

I’m grateful to Dr. Evans for spending time corresponding with me on this subject and for his thoughtful dialogue.

Philosophy News Service: For people not familiar with your work, can you summarize any central themes in your writing particularly as they concern existentialist thought? What do you like to spend your time thinking about?

C. Stephen Evans: My work is wide-ranging, and I have written on issues in the philosophy of the person, in philosophical theology and philosophy of religion generally, as well as Kierkegaard. Though Kierkegaard is usually regarded as the father of existentialism, in my work I try to show how misleading that can be, particularly if we read Kierkegaard through the eyes of later writers such as Sartre and Camus.

All that being said, I think you can say that the following are issues that have been central to much of my work: How does a human being become a genuine or authentic self? and How is moral and religious truth known? I see these two questions as connected in the following way: Many writers think the problem of knowing religious truth is primarily an evidential problem. For them the question is whether we have enough good evidence. For Kierkegaard (and I agree with him here) the main problem lies not in the evidence but in the knower. How do we become the kinds of people who are capable of understanding and grasping the truth?


PNS: Many seem to view Kierkegaard as a postmodernist but in your primer Kierkegaard: An Introduction you appear to disagree with that assessment when you write, “Kierkegaard is certainly a philosopher who has a clear grasp of the limits of human language and human knowledge, but he is equally far removed from a philosophy that denies the value of rigorous thought and careful distinctions.” Would you say that Kierkegaard denies that any individual human can be in possession of a “metanarrative” that would provide the basis for interpreting all other narratives? If so, wouldn’t that make him a postmodernist?

Evans: Of course everything depends here on what we call “postmodernism” and how we define “metanarrative.” There are themes in Kierkegaard that overlap with later postmodern emphases, particularly his arguments that objective human knowledge–the kind we gain when we take a detached, objective point of view–is always incomplete and subject to correction, because of human finitude (particularly our temporality) and our sinfulness. However, Kierkegaard takes, I try to show, a decidedly Greek (or “premodern”) view of truth as something objective. His instincts are entirely with traditional realism. It is because truth is objective that our knowledge can never be more than an approximation.

As far as a metanarrative goes, if we mean by that a “final system,” in the Hegelian sense, Kierkegaard definitely rejects the possibility of such a thing. However, he affirms, just as strongly, the possibility, and in fact the necessity, for an individual to have a “life-view,” an overall view of the world and himself in it, which ought to give an inner consistency and shape to a person’s life. For Kierkegaard, the Biblical story is precisely the grand narrative that a person should use as a frame for his or her life. His whole authorship is an attempt to show the importance of a coherent Christian “world and life view.” He actually uses this terminology and in an early work excoriates the work of Hans Christian Andersen for lacking such a coherent world view.

PNS: In your view, is Kierkegaard a part of the Western analytic tradition or tangential to it?

Evans: I am not sure what you mean by “Western analytic tradition.” There is no doubt that Kierkegaard is deeply influenced by two things: The Bible and the Christian tradition, and Greek philosophy, particularly Socrates, but by no means exclusively Socrates. He also draws on Plato at many points, on Aristotle, and on the Skeptics, among others, though never uncritically. So Kierkegaard is in many ways a deeply western thinker. And he greatly values clarity in our understanding of concepts, and in that sense shares some of the values of “analytic” philosophy. However, he is also a very lyrical and poetic writer who does much of his philosophizing through narratives. That is an unusual combination and is what gives his work so much power.

PNS: A key theme in Kierkegaard’s writings (and in existentialist thought in general) is that there is an important distinction between living out truth and knowing truth. Echoing a theme present in William James, you write in Kierkegaard: An Introduction, “It is one thing to have a detached, propositional understanding of a truth; quite another to understand what that truth might mean for human existence, or to bring into clear conscious awareness an insight that is already present in a vague and perhaps even unnoticed way.” What do you mean by this?

Evans: I don’t think this is difficult to understand. The difficulty is to live out what we understand. We all can recognize that much of what we know morally and religiously is what Newman called “purely notional” knowledge. It has not been integrated into our lives or shaped our emotions, and it makes little difference to the way we live. Kierkegaard reminds us constantly that the point of moral and religious knowledge is that it should change us as persons. So he says that “to understand and to understand are two different things.” It is one thing to have a verbal or conceptual understanding of some moral issue; quite another to understand the difference it makes to my life. I can make a great grade in an ethics class and still live like a moral monster.

PNS: As I read Kierkegaard and your assessment of his thought, he seems to make a distinction between truths we know by way of reason and truths we experience. Religious knowledge falls into this latter category. What does “knowing God” mean for Kierkegaard and how does one come to knowledge of God?

Evans: The distinction between truths known by reason and truths known by experience is not one that figures importantly in Kierkegaard’s work. He seems to accept the view that truths known by reason are purely conceptual and do not tell us anything about reality but only about our concepts. All truths about reality require some experiential contact, but he is far from a simple empiricist who thinks we just passively receive “impressions.” The process by which we gain knowledge of reality is one in which we are very active, and our concepts play a huge role. Here there are parallels to Kant, but without Kant’s technical apparatus and without Kant’s anti-realism. Kierkegaard does not assume that just because we apply concepts to our experience that we are unable to grasp reality as it is.

The knowledge of God for Kierkegaard has to be taken in two senses. First, there is a general, natural knowledge of God, one derived primarily from morality in which we experience God as the one who assigns us our tasks. For this reason Kierkegaard never takes atheism as a serious problem. He thinks that anyone should be able to know that God exists, and that no proof or argument for God’s existence is necessary.

However, he also thinks this natural knowledge of God is not of much value. We continually transform the God we know in nature into the being we want him to be, and thus natural religion is subject to a kind of Feuerbachian critique. We don’t really come to know God as he is until we encounter God in the Scriptures and pre-eminently in the Incarnation. Here we find out what God is really like, and He is completely different from what we expect, as are God’s expectations for us, which we see in Jesus, understood as the “Pattern” for humans.

PNS: How would you summarize Kierkegaard’s distinction between subjective and objective knowledge?

Evans: It is primarily a distinction between subject matters. Kierkegaard thinks that some kinds of knowledge, such as mathematics, natural science, and history, require a detached, objective standpoint. The result of such striving he calls “objective knowledge,” knowledge which stems from objectivity. Moral and religious knowledge, on the other hand, is the kind of knowledge which requires emotional engagement. I can’t grasp the truth that I ought to help someone if I don’t feel compassion for that person’s suffering. To gain this kind of knowledge we have to develop the right kind of “subjectivity,” the right kind of passions. The passions in this case are not “distorting filters” that bias us, but more like telescopes or glasses that bring truth into focus. As far as truth is concerned, the truth that is the object of “subjective knowledge” is just as objective as any other, though it is subjective in the sense that it has a direct application to the self.

PNS: How do you think Kierkegaard would view the modern discipline of “religious apologetics?”

Evans: In general Kierkegaard is hostile to apologetics, though I have argued that it is a particular kind of apologetics he is rejecting. (See my essay on this in Kierkegaard on Faith and the Self). He rejects apologetics because he thinks apologists are watering down Christianity to make it acceptable to its “cultured despisers” (as in Schleiermacher, who wrote a book defending religion in just this way). Kierkegaard thinks the best defense of Christianity is a good offense. We need to present Christianity as it is, without watering it down, and its power will be clear, though the response will not necessarily be conversion. When genuine Christianity is presented, people either respond in faith or else they will be offended. If we don’t run the risk of offense we are not presenting true Christianity.

Apologetics pays modern people the compliment of assuming they are ready to believe if only they have the right evidence. Kierkegaard thinks that we have plenty of evidence. The problem is that we lack the imaginative power to understand the faith and we lack the emotions we need to even consider it. Too often apologetics diagnoses the problem as intellectual when it is not.

That being said, I think Kierkegaard goes too far in his critique of apologetics. I agree with him that often the problems are not intellectual, but that does not mean there are not genuine intellectual problems that should be treated honestly.

PNS: Paul Moser, who is doing a lot of work redefining religious knowledge (or, according to him, returning us back to what it was in first-century Christianity), is critical of aspects of Kierkegaard’s view of faith. He writes in his book The Evidence for God, “Faith in God therefore should not be characterized as an inward embracing of contradictory or absurdity, because that approach to faith undermines the import and need for supporting evidence of the truth of any proposition accepted and faith. Kierkegaard’s portrait of faith as contradictory or absurd, accordingly, is misleading and harmful if taken at face value.” How do you respond to this criticism?

Evans: With all due respect to Paul Moser, who is a very, very fine philosopher, I don’t think he really understands Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard accepts the idea that formal logic is neutral and objective, but he thinks that what we call “reason” is shot through with our assumptions and attitudes. “Reason” is a verb, not a noun, and how people reason reflect their character. Humans are sinful and their reasoning is shaped by sin. Given the “worldly” perspective of sinful humans, Christianity appears to be absurd. Kierkegaard here is following St. Paul, who said Christianity is foolishness to the Greeks, even though in reality Christ is the “wisdom of God.”

Kierkegaard holds what Dutch Reformed thinkers call a “perspectival” view of human reason. There is no neutrality in how humans think about God. Either we are faithful followers or rebels. From the point of view of the rebels, Christianity makes no sense, though from the perspective of faith it does. Even from the perspective of faith, much of God’s truth is mysterious to us. We don’t understand how God could become a human being. However, a person of faith does not find it surprising that God’s truth surpasses our ability to understand it. In fact the amazing, paradoxical character of God’s revelation is actually a sign that it is a true revelation.

All of this is explained in my new book Kierkegaard: An Introduction, and perhaps even more fully in Faith Beyond Reason: A Kierkegaardian View. For an interpretation of what Kierkegaard means when he calls the Incarnation the “Absolute Paradox,” see the relevant chapter of my Passionate Reason. He certainly does not mean a “logical contradiction,” but rather something that is incongruous, something that may appear to be contradiction to us but cannot be known to be such.

PNS: I’ve argued in a few of my essays on faith and reason that religious believers today tend to form beliefs existentially (that is, by direct experience of God) but then appear to want to affirm (and subsequently show) that their faith is rational and entirely consistent with modern, scientific views. First, do you think this is accurate and second, do you think this project has merit?

Evans: What you describe sounds like a version of the classical Augustinian view of “faith seeking understanding.” I think it is fine to seek a deeper understanding of one’s faith and to look for additional grounds for faith. However, it is important not to depreciate or lose sight of the fact that faith is a gift from God, and that God’s spirit within us gives us the ability to see truth.

PNS: In your latest book, Natural Signs and Knowledge of God, you argue that natural theology has value even if it turns out to be religiously inadequate. Can you explain what you mean by this?

Evans: It has value in combating the “new atheism,” and undermining the view, prevalent among intellectuals, that atheism is the default view, with religious belief being something that bears the burden of proof. It also has value in that its very limitations (which are many and obvious) point out the need for a revelation from God if we are to gain any adequate knowledge of God.

PNS: In developing the notion of a “natural sign” you state the most important concept is that “the root idea of a sign as something that brings an object to our awareness and also produces belief in the reality of that object. Natural signs of God would be a means whereby a person becomes aware of God.” Later you write that signs can be either serve as propositional evidence or non-propositional evidence. Can you briefly explain this distinction?

Evans: Propositional evidence is simply a proposition like “There are things in nature that appear to be designed” that can function as a premise in an argument or inference. Non-propositional evidence consists of experiences that dispose us to believe something, or actual physical objects that, when we encounter them, dispose us to believe. So Kant talks about the “moral law within and the starry heavens above” as prompting a kind of natural belief in God. Those would be natural signs and they are evidence, when evidence is construed non-propositionally, even if they do not furnish us with good propositional evidence. However, in the book I say that natural signs can also give us propositional evidence; they are really the basis of the appeal that the classical arguments for God’s existence possess.

PNS: What is Kierkegaard’s position on the value of propositional evidence for God?

Evans: He places no value on such evidence, because he sees no need for any inference or argument to believe in God. On the other hand, I think he does value the experiences and emotions that God has given us that point to his reality. I try to show in Kierkegaard on Faith and the Self that Kierkegaard’s view here is close to that of Alvin Plantinga’s “Reformed epistemology.”

PNS: In the conclusion of Natural Signs, you write, “…this hard-wired propensity to form beliefs in God is something that must be the case if belief in God is founded on natural signs; if religious beliefs are based on natural signs, then such a natural propensity to believe in God cannot be evidence against the reality of God.” Would you say that the propensity to form belief in God based on natural signs in evidentially neutral with respect to God’s existence? If signs don’t tip the evidential scale towards God’s existence, is there anything that does?

Evans: I myself do not think that natural signs for God are evidentially neutral. On the contrary, I argue in the book that they give us powerful evidence for God. Many contemporary evolutionary thinkers have claimed that the fact that we can explain religious belief as grounded in our biology shows that the belief is an illusion. On the contrary, I argue that if God is real these native mechanisms that naturally bias us towards religious belief are exactly what we should expect. The fact that we can give these mechanisms some kind of evolutionary explanation does not undermine this at all. So, far from this evolutionary story giving us evidence against religious belief, it actually gives us some positive evidence. On the other hand, I argue in the book that natural signs never give us “coercive evidence.” They always allow the person who does not wish to believe to explain away the evidence in some way.

PNS: Kierkegaard was severe in his criticism of the ecclesiastical charade posing as true Christianity that he believed existed in Denmark during his time. You seem to agree when you write, “Faith has declined in contemporary western culture because contemporary westerners have become emotionally and imaginatively impoverished. We have ceased to care in the right way about the right things.” What is your evaluation of the modern Christian church in the West? Where is the church going wrong and where do you think it’s headed?

Evans: Of course the church is different in different places and generalizations should be treated with care. I just returned from a visit to some Protestant churches in Slovakia and was impressed with how deep and healthy their faith was, though they are a small and struggling minority. But I do think that much of the Church in both Europe and the USA is unhealthy in various ways. The Church in Europe still has to deal with the problems that stem from having official, established churches. In the U.S. we don’t have that problem, but we often do have churches that succumb to “Christendom” in other ways, perverting the gospel in order to make it acceptable to our culture. We need faithfulness to the Church universal, rooted in the New Testament, but not skipping the history of God’s people. We are deluded if we think we can simply go directly to the Bible and understand it rightly without seeing how it has guided God’s people over the centuries. It is arrogance on our part to think we alone can read the Bible rightly.

We need church communities that are genuine counter-cultures. At the same time we must not withdraw from the broader culture, but seek to be salt and light, without triumphalism. But we cannot be authentic Christians in the broader culture unless we are part of authentically Christian communities. Sadly, Kierkegaard does not offer much help here. He saw the church in his day as more part of the problem than the solution. He may have been right. The church is part of the problem. But it must also be part of the solution.

Copyright © 2011 Philosophy News Service

Books by C. Stephen Evans (referenced in this interview)

Kierkegaard: An Introduction
Kierkegaard on Faith and the Self: Collected Essays
Faith beyond Reason: A Kierkegaardian Account (Reason and Religion Series)
Natural Signs and Knowledge of God: A New Look at Theistic Arguments

Dr. Evans’ CV

Dr. Evans’ page at Baylor