Climacus on Christianity as an Existence-Communication

In his work, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Johannes Climacus discusses what he calls the dialectical aspects of Christianity or those aspects of Christian belief that one might call intellectual.   Climacus of course do not think that Christianity is merely a set of doctrines to which one must assent.  Rather, Christianity is a way of existence-as Climacus says, “Christianity is not a doctrine,” but is “an existence-communication” (VII, 328-29; pp. 379-380).[1] As C. Stephen Evans observes, this statement has been misunderstood often.  Climacus himself anticipated the potential misunderstanding and gives a lengthy footnote to clarify his meaning.  Here he explains,

Surely a philosophical theory that is to be comprehended and speculatively understood is one thing, and a doctrine that is to be actualized in existence is something else. If there is to be any question of understanding with regard to this latter doctrine, then this understanding must be:  to understand that it is to be existed in, to understand the difficulty of existing in it, what a prodigious existence-task [Existents-Opgave] this doctrine assigns to the learner (VII, 329; p. 379).

Because the Christianity of Climacus’ day had become overly speculative, he purposely distances himself from the word “doctrine,” as he fears that by employing the word, Christianity will continue to be categorized and understood as a philosophical theory instead of way of existence.  Thus, he comes up with a new term, “existence-communication.”  In no way is Climacus denying that Christianity has intellectual content; rather, he wants to make sure that this content is set forth in such a way that the uniqueness of Christianity as a transcendent (as opposed to an immanent) religion is upheld.  As Climacus explains,

If Christianity were a doctrine, it would eo ipso not constitute the opposite of speculative thought but would be an element within it.  Christianity pertains to existence, to existing, but existence and existing are the very opposite of speculation.  The Eleatic doctrine, for example, is not related to existing but to speculation; therefore it must be assigned its place within speculation.  Precisely because Christianity is not a doctrine, it holds true, as developed previously, that there is an enormous difference between knowing what Christianity is and being a Christian.  With regard to a doctrine, this distinction is unthinkable, because the doctrine is not related to existing.  I cannot help it that our age has reversed the relation and changed Christianity into a philosophical theory that is to be comprehended and being a Christian into something negligible.  Furthermore, to say that Christianity is empty of content because it is not a doctrine is only chicanery.  When a believer exists in faith, his existence has enormous content, but not in the sense of a yield in the paragraphs (VII, 329; p. 380).

The content of Christianity is dialectical; it is the “absolute paradox” and as such, it differentiates Christianity from immanent religions in which in principle all doctrines can be penetrated rationally, making revelation superfluous.  Climacus is firmly committed to what the orthodox Christian tradition calls the “mysteries of the faith”-the Incarnation, the Trinity and other doctrines which are both central to the Christian faith and can only be known through revelation.  In addition and related to the previous passage, Climacus believes that the content of Christianity has the potential to actually transform a person’s existence, giving him/her a new passion-“it is relating to the pathos-filled as an impetus for a new pathos” (VII, 488; p. 559).  Christian belief then is intimated related to action.  As Evans explains,

Climacus understands Christian belief as not merely accompanied by action but as essentially expressing itself in action.  Because of this he attempts to rethink the nature of that belief in such a way that it does not exclude belief as an intellectual act but does exclude even the possibility of belief being only an intellectual act.  This conception of Christian belief is itself demanded by “existential appropriation” that is Christianity and the content of Christianity, which is the absolute paradox, can be seen to correspond exactly to each other [VII, 532; pp. 610-611].  Both the content of Christianity and the appropriation of Christianity become “specifically different” from everything else (Kierkegaard’s Fragments and Postscript, p. 210).

[1] All citations are from the Hong translation.

Climacus on the Uniqueness of Christianity as a Transcendent Religion

SKJohannes Climacus, whose view often overlaps with Kierkegaard’s own view yet is never to be simply identified with the latter, emphasizes Christianity as a transcendent religion.  By this he doesn’t mean to suggest that there is no continuity whatsoever between nature and grace or that grace destroys nature.  Rather, his point is to stress the uniqueness of Christianity in comparison with what he calls “immanent” religions, religions that do not require any kind of divine revelation but which arise from the human mind itself and are, as you might guess, obtainable by unaided human reason or via religious experience.  Because Climacus believes that human beings in their current state “lack the truth” due to sin and that this condition causes them to be prideful and to proclaim their own self-sufficiency, Climacus points to humanity’s need for “the God” to become man, for the eternal to enter into time and reconfigure all of history. Given these beliefs, Climacus draws attention to the Incarnate Christ as the object of the Christian’s faith; thus, according to his account, the historicity of the incarnation is a non-negotiable.  Commenting on Climacus’ view, C. Stephen Evans observes,

If Jesus’ life is merely a collection of stories or myths, or if Jesus is merely a creation of the early church (so that it is considered unimportant whether or not what the early Christians believed is literally true), then Christianity is essentially transformed into its opposite, and no “advance” on Socrates has been made at all.  For in such a case Jesus’ life would merely represent a possibility that man must be assumed to be able to know.  What distinguishes Christianity, according to Climacus, is that man is assumed to really lack the truth, and therefore must acquire it in existence in a genuinely historical relation to the God as he actually appeared (Kierkegaard’s Fragments and Postscript, p. 249).

Climacus and de Silentio on Ethics and Repentance

Soren KierkegaardAccording to Johhanes Climacus, though the ethical is not absent from the religious person’s concerns, what separates the two spheres is the manner in which the religious person (in particular, the Christian) relates to God.  As C. Stephen Evans explains,

[h]er relation to God […] consists primarily not in self-confident action but in repentance.  Her task is not primarily to achieve a God-relationship herself by positively realizing her moral duty, but to achieve a sate of inward obedience to God by allowing God to transform her character.  This is well illustrated by Fear and Trembling where Johannes de Silentio claims that “an ethic which ignores sin is an absolutely idle science, but if it acknowledge sin, then it eo ipso transcends itself” (III, 146; p. 108).  The reason for this is given in a footnote attached to the same paragraph:  “As soon as sin appears, ethics perishes, precisely because of repentance; for repentance is the highest ethical expression, but precisely as such the deepest ethical self-contradiction” (III, 146n, p. 108n).[1]


[1] C. Stephen Evans.  Kierkegaard’s Fragments and Postscript:  The Religious Philosophy of Johannes Climacus, (New York:  Humanity Books, 1999), 140.