Soren Kierkegaard’s concept of truth illustrates the “efficacy” of faith and the distinction between the expression of faith, which is universal, and the content of faith, which is not.
Kierkegaard distinguishes between objective and subjective truth or thinking. The emphasis of objective thinking is on the whatness of things, the content of science or mathematics or historical events. Whatever we may think of the facts of these fields of knowledge, new information in them does not change our daily lives. Dates may change in historical chronology or details of theoretical physics may be refined. These changes will not alter our daily lives. (Granted that changes will create controversy and may affect lives collectively or societally, but the changes themselves are not the content of our daily behavior but practical applications of society’s technology and power.)
Subjective truth is not the what but the how of our perceiving of things. We cannot appeal to anything outside of ourselves in order to confirm the validity of subjective truths. We cannot prove these subjective perceptions, yet it is here where faith dwells, where our will and decisiveness rest. Subjectivity is where the core of our self resides: values and beliefs that drive our daily lives, our behavior. Yet we cannot prove their validity, their objectivity. This unprovability is the core of faith. Faith’s efficacy exists because it is the style of expression or the “personality” of faith that corresponds to our subjective mind. Thus the content of faith is made to correspond to the subjective mind, making the “package” of faith efficacious for us.
But Kierkegaard does not see the content of faith as so readily assimilating to subjective truth. Our decisions and actions are not motivated by facts or the content of faith, for these may be but pretexts. In many, this realization may produce discomfort and anxiety. But this is the sad fact of the history of Christianity and of virtually all religions. Values have not corresponded to actions. And not only in the realm of religion. In politics and other fields of worldly contention the same story can be read. Yet the individual (especially the solitary) has the psychological and even the intellectual disposition for detecting this gap between what is said and what is done.
Kierkegaard notes that we cannot examine our subjective truths the way we can apply criteria to objective truths. We cannot “know” if our values and actions are absolute and finished because we have not tested them under every possible experience. As the ancient Greek historian Herodotus said, “Call no one happy until they are dead.” But we have criteria nevertheless.
We may live our entire lives suspended on the tinder hooks of what we think to be the objective and the irrefutable (though even science and human knowledge is not all irrefutable). Yet we may never live our values fully or naturally. We may never exhibit the courage of our values in ethical behavior, how we consume, how we treat others, how we think of our world. We may never smell a flower, gaze at a star, feel a wind-swept breeze or warm sunlight. We may never recognize what we are doing at any given moment. That is, we may never be conscious of these real events, the objective truths that we can make fully subjective.
For this connection between subjective and objective to happen is like the image of a striking bolt of lightning often used as a metaphor in eastern thought, or the elusiveness of the kingdom of heaven suddenly attained, as used in the parables of Jesus. Consciousness never purports to intellectualize the realization of what it means to be alive. Our understanding must ultimately be subjective, making the real world part of our lives and values, not mere abstract beliefs or intellectualisms. If we reach this insight, then, as Kierkegaard says to his readers of Either/Or, “throw this book down!”