Kierkegaard on Nature and Miracles: A Reply to Hampson
I promised in the post entitled “Scholarly Protocol” which addressed the form of UK theologian Daphne Hampson’s extended comment on my earlier post “Getting Kierkegaard Wrong” that I would address the substance of her comment as well. As I said, I addressed that substance in the first of this series of posts in that Hampson’s comment merely summarizes an argument she makes in more extended form in her book Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique. It is clear, however, that Hampson still hasn’t understood where her interpretation of Kierkegaard goes wrong, so I feel obliged to address that issue in more detail.
Hampson argues that Kierkegaard rejects “causality,” and more specifically, that he rejects the idea that there are laws of nature. It is this rejection, she asserts, that conveniently allows him to believe in miracles. Her argument makes sense. That is, it’s coherent. It’s just that it’s wrong. First, Kierkegaard clearly accepts both causality and the idea that there are laws of nature. Second, it is far from clear that Kierkegaard believed in miracles in the supernatural sense that sees them as a violation of those laws.
The first charge, that Kierkegaard rejects causality and the idea that there are laws of nature, can be swiftly and easily refuted. I already addressed the issue of Kierkegaard’s acceptance of causality in my remarks on Hampson’s misinterpretation of Kierkegaard’s treatment of the two distinct Aristotelian senses of change in my original post “Getting Kierkegaard Wrong,” so I won’t revisit that argument here, but will look more specifically now at the issue of whether Kierkegaard rejects the idea that there are laws of nature.
Kierkegaard writes in one of his notebooks sometime between 1841-42 that “[i]n nature everything is bound by law and hence governed by necessity” (SKS 19, 263). One might be tempted to argue that this reference comes very early, before Kierkegaard published his most famous works, and that it is thus possible that he changed his mind later. There is no evidence, however, to support such a view.
What’s worse for Hampson, is that an equally unequivocal reference to the reality of laws of nature occurs in the very work Hampson cites in support of her claim that Kierkegaard didn’t believe in the reality of laws of nature. This reference appears on the last page of the second volume of Either-Or, at the end of a discourse entitled “The Upbuilding That Lies in the Thought That in Relation to God We are Always in the Wrong.” Kierkegaard refers there to “the law which carries the stars on their paths across the arch of heaven” and observes that it would be a “terrible catastrophe” if “the law of nature lost its power and everything disintegrated into dreadful chaos.”
Kierkegaard is no friend of chaos. He falls squarely on the Apollonian side of the Apollonian/Dionysian divide. Not only does Kierkegaard believe in the reality of laws of nature, he believes that these laws are essential to giving order to our experience and hence provide the conditions under which it is possible for that experience to have meaning.
But if Kierkegaard accepts that there are laws of nature, what are we to make of his apparent rejection of “naturalism” that Hampson cites in her comment? The answer is that “naturalism” is synonymous for Kierkegaard with an all-encompassing physical determinism. It isn’t the idea that there are laws of nature that Kierkegaard rejects, but the idea that these laws necessarily determine human behavior.
Kierkegaard clearly holds something like a Kantian view of the relation between the phenomenal and noumenal view of a person. This view can be found, for example, in the section of Either-Or Part II entitled “The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage.” It may be challenging to make sense of how the phenomenal and noumenal aspects of a person can be brought together in such a way as to preserve human freedom, but Kant asserts they can be, and Kierkegaard appears to follow Kant in this respect. In fact, Kierkegaard distinguishes between “rationalism” and “naturalism” in a journal entry that examines this aspect of Kant’s thought (SKS 19, 159).
So much for Kierkegaard’s purported rejection of the idea that there are laws of nature. What about his position on miracles? The journal entry Hampson cites where Kierkegaard indicates that he rejects “naturalism” also includes a somewhat ambiguous reference to miracles. “Unfortunately,” it reads, “we know far too well what people in our day think of miracles” (SKS 24, 72). Those words are not Kierkegaard’s, however, but Bishop Mynster’s. Kierkegaard is quoting Mynster. But even if Kierkegaard is in agreement with Mynster’s words, it’s not clear exactly what those words mean. Do they refer to a pervasive rejection of the idea that are such things as miracles, or to the view that once there were miracles, but that miracles don’t happen any longer? Or could they be a disparaging reference to a propensity to focus on the purportedly supernatural aspect of miracles?
What is clear about Kierkegaard’s interest in miracles is that it is not their purportedly supernatural aspect that interests him. Kierkegaard is, in fact, openly contemptuous of people who focus on the supernatural rather than the edifying aspects of the accounts of miracles in the New Testatment. He asks, for example, in a discourse on Matthew 11:30 “My Yoke is Beneficial and My Burden Is Light” “is it really a greater miracle [Under] to change water into wine than for the heavy burden to continue to be heavy and yet be light!” (UDVS, 233).
What makes a burden that remains (one might be tempted to argue, according to natural law) heavy, nevertheless light, is not some violation of natural law. The “miracle” here is psychological, not physical.
The same emphasis on the miraculous as a psychological phenomenon rather than a physical one can be seen in Kierkegaard’s observation that
[a]t times, the circumstances determine that a penny signifies little more than it usually signifies, but if someone wants to perform a miracle [gjør et Vidunder], he makes the one penny signify just as much as all the world’s gold put together if he gives it out of compassion and the penny is the only one he has” (EUD, 362.)
That kind of generosity, or compassion, is certainly extremely rare but it doesn’t violate any natural law.
Kierkegaard’s interest in the miracle stories in the New Testament relates not to their purportedly supernatural aspect, but to the sense in which they can be subjectively meaningful, or more particularly, edifying. This can be seen yet again in his observation in his journal on the story of the feeding of the five thousand in John 6:1-15.
Since it was through a miracle [Mirakel] that enough food was procured [skaffet] to feed five thousand men, one would [be inclined to] believe that no thought would be given to the leavings [der blev ødslet med Levningerne]. But no, God is never like that. Everything was carefully gathered up according to the Gospel. The human is to be unable to perform miracles [Mirakler] and yet to waste the leavings [at ødsle med Levninger]. The divine is to perform the miracle [Miraklet] of abundance and yet to collect the crumbs [samle Smulerne op] (SKS, 20, 110.)
Kierkegaard’s point here is not to emphasize that Christ had supernatural powers, but to communicate something about God’s nature that would have an edifying effect on the reader, as is clear from his retelling this same story in one of his published “Discourses on the Communion on Fridays.”
God is and can be just as scrupulous as he is great and can be great in showing mercy. For example, God’s nature always joins opposites, just as in the miracle [Mirakel] of the five small loaves. The people had nothing to eat–through a miracle a superabundance was procured [skaffes], but see, then Christ commands that everything left over be carefully collected. How divine! One person can be wasteful, another thrifty,; but if there were a human being who through a miracle [Mirakel] could at any moment divinely procure [skaffe] a superabundance, do you not think that he humanly would have disdained the crumbs [Smulerne], do you think that he–divinely would have collected the crumbs [Smulerne]! So also with God’s greatness in showing mercy. (CD, 295-96).
Don’t be misled by the fact that the term that is translated as “miracle” in the first passage is “Under,” the term that is translated as “miracle” in the second is ”Vidunder,” and the term that is translated as “miracle” in the third passage is “Mirakel.” Kierkegaard uses the terms “Under,” “Vidunder,” and “Mirakel” interchangeably, and indeed, they are synonyms according to both Ferrall-Repp and the venerable Ordbog Over det Danske Sprog. Kierkegaard’s references, for example, to “the miracle of faith” are sometimes “Troens Mirakel” (cf., e.g., WOL, 295; CD, 115) and other times “Troens Vidunder” (cf., e.g., FT, 18 and SLW, 163).
The Hongs appear to have had a misguided ambition to consistently translate “Vidunder” as “wonder” rather than “miracle.” Yet even the Hongs couldn’t help but realize that “Under,” “Vidunder,” and “Mirakel” are synonyms for Kierkegaard and hence translated Kierkegaard’s “Dette er Christendommens Undergjerning, vidunderligere end det at forvandle Vand til Viin” as “This is the miracle of Christianity, even more miraculous than turning water into wine.”
It actually makes sense that Kierkegaard chooses to focus not on the objective aspect of miracles but on the sense in which they can be subjectively meaningful in that there are no references to “miracles” in the authorized Danish New Testament of Kierkegaard’s day. Every single reference to a “miracle” in the King James Version of the New Testament appears not as “Mirakel” in the Frederik VI’s New Testament, but as “Tegn,” i.e., “sign.” This, in turn, makes sense because every single reference to a “miracle” in the King James Version of the New Testament appears as σεμεἰον, i.e., “sign” in the original Greek. Signs require what the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce called an “interpretant.” That is, they are meaningful only subjectively. There is no such thing as an objective sign.
The question remains, of course, as to whether Kierkegaard believed miracles were supernatural events, but simply chose not to focus on that aspect of them. That’s a difficult question to answer. I argue in my book on his epistemology that Kierkegaard viewed all of empirical science as merely probabilistic and that suggests there is room for him to view miracles as merely exceptionally unusual, or highly improbable, events rather than events that violated laws of nature.
Support for this view can be found in the fact that Kierkegaard refers repeatedly to “the paradox” of Christianity as “improbable” rather than “impossible” (cf., e.g., Crumbs, 123, 159 and CUP, 195, 196). Support can also be found in the fact that when Kierkegaard refers to the feeding of the five thousand, he writes that food was miraculously “procured” (skaffet, see Ferrall-Repp) not “created” (skabt) that was sufficient to feed five thousand people. Who knows how it was procured. The implication of the word choice, however, is that the means used to secure it were not necessarily supernatural.
That said, even if Kierkegaard believes miracles are supernatural events, he does not reject the reality of laws of nature. There clearly are such laws, according to Kierkegaard, as the quotations with which this post began demonstrates even if, as I argue in my book Ways of Knowing, Kierkegaard believes the correspondence to reality of any particular interpretation of these laws cannot be shown to be certain.
Hampson is deluded in thinking that Kierkegaard rejects the idea that there are laws of nature and that he does this to make room for his belief in miracles. There is undoubtedly someone in the history of thought who holds the view Hampson attributes to Kierkegaard. It just isn’t Kierkegaard. Hampson’s Kierkegaard is a fantastical creation of her own imagination, concocted, it would appear out of the ambition to present a grand, over-arching theory about the development of thought after the Enlightentment. And she has been spreading the contagion of this erroneous interpretation of Kierkegaard all over the globe. First in 2013 at the bi-centenary of Kierkegaard’s birth in Copenhagen, Australia, and then in the United States, and then later in Budapest.
That is one of the dangers of what philosophers call “big picture” work: a grand over-arching theory that attempts to explain a particular development in the history of thought almost always requires that its author include thinkers on whose thought he or she is not expert. That’s why philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition tend to avoid it. It’s virtually impossible to do it well. It’s almost inevitably flawed, and sometimes very conspicuously so.
Theologians, on the other hand, appear not to have the same fear of error that generally characterizes philosophers. Hampson, by her own admission is working on a grand, over-arching theory that she plans to present in a book “provisionally entitled ‘Enlightenment and After.’” My guess is that she is going to fit her fantastical Kierkegaard into this development in a manner analogous to that in which Alasdair MacIntyre fit his fantastical Kierkegaard into the picture he presents of the historical development of ethical thought in his book After Virtue, though the distinction Kierkegaard makes in the journal entry cited above between “rationalism” and “naturalism” does not bode well for such a project.
The good side to this is that just as MacIntyre’s distortion of Kierkegaard’s thought provided an occasion for some really first-rate Kierkegaard scholarship, as is exemplified in John Davenport and Anthony Rudd’s excellent book Kierkegaard after MacIntyre, so will Hampson’s distortion of Kierkegaard, both in her book on him and in her forthcoming book, provide an occasion for much excellent Kierkegaard scholarship.
The really pressing question is how a book containing such a conspicuously and spectacularly erroneous interpretation of Kierkegaard could ever be published by a publisher such as Oxford? Something would appear to have gone horribly wrong with the process of peer review.