Understanding Millenials Through The Eyes of Kierkegaard

Photo by Peter Bucks on Unsplash
Photo by Peter Bucks on Unsplash

I write as one untimely born. I write as a millenial to millenials, whom by the end of this sentence may already be bored of the writing of this millenial. How wearisome it is to read something that doesn’t immediately capture one’s attention! Is it because one’s heart is searching for something else? Are you still reading this? Then I am surprised. And I trust you will then read on. This seems to be the paradox of the millenial — a person stuck hoping for an experience they remember and when such an experience finds them, they are remembering what they had hoped for. It is no wonder that the travel industry much profit from the wanderings of 20 year olds. Once a person has tasted the novelty of another country, they have engaged all their senses towards its sights and its sounds. The senses then dwell and eat away at the person while he or she works. Slowly but surely, its memories float to the surface and before they know it, they are off again in search of what they had remembered. But once there, what they had hoped for vanishes and is replaced by what they had remembered. And the chase goes on.

One of the ways reading Kierkegaard has helped me is to understand my own generation from the eyes of someone who lived 200 years ago. While we each have one life to live there are a few ways we can live. Kierkegaard captured this in his 3 stages: the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious. The aesthete lives for their immediate pleasures, the ethical for their responsibility to others and the religious by their faith in God (which transcends responsibility). But these 3 ways of living are not equally valid, as Kierkegaard hints at in his use of stages. Instead each one builds on the other until the highest mode of living is found in the religious.

From my own reflection, it seems that the typical millenial is characterized most by their search for the aesthetic. This is unsurprising given that global youth culture is marked by secularism. In secularism the lost of the religious mode of being gives way to the mode of responsibility (the ethical) but what millenials are subconsciously realizing is that without the religious there is no ethical. After all, who are other people to tell you how to live? Instead one is left with the individual including their tastes and what strikes their conscience. Do what makes you happy – as long as it doesn’t harm anyone (that you care about). The reduction of life to the immediate are present in many ways: in the preoccupation with lifestyles, in boredom and in the anxiety that comes with having to make decisions that ultimately have little meaning. These are problems that haven’t gone unnoticed. But their solutions seem far from simple and I hope to be able to start to pry them out little by little as I read further.

Further Reading

https://www.iep.utm.edu/kierkega/#SH1c

https://www.amazon.com/Either-Fragment-Life-Penguin-Classics/dp/0140445773

https://www.amazon.com/Stages-Lifes-Way-Kierkegaards-Writings/dp/0691020493

https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2019-03/connecting-with-the-new-global-youth-culture?fbclid=IwAR0CFxrebbnK5LTGIu3K9_Ro4ovyBslQcE5V6QRGv2OjNgj6WIASgL1X414

When Good Ends and Evil Begins

What makes evil, evil? Is it evil to hate a person in my mind? Or if I pretend to love them while secretly hating them? What if I openly hate them? What if I pretend to love them and then hate them by working against them without their knowledge? What if I murder them? You might say, ‘that’s enough. Of course you shouldn’t murder them!’ So abstractly labeling the latter as evil is easy. But if you’re required to retrace your steps backwards then it’s not so clear when good ends and evil begins. I think the default is to pass over every stage until the last one. In the age of the trite and trivial, it’s easy to pass over the early behaviors because they have less obvious consequences.

In truth, they’re all evil though varying in degrees. That seems overblown until you realize these behaviors or thoughts aren’t isolated incidences but states of being lived in the presence of an infinite person. Like my mother used to say, ‘it’s your attitude.’ When we pass over these small ‘bad’ actions without recognizing its evil, it’s akin to severing our vessels from our heart. These little behaviors are symptoms of our inner condition and who we are. Imagine the physician who points out to the patient that he has peripheral vascular disease. The patient retorts, ‘nice try doctor but these aren’t my vessels.’ Yet the madness of severing our behaviors from our self is seen everywhere. The malady becomes terminal when blinded by our spiritual sickness we can no longer recognize the good and evil we attempt to define. The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not to know good and evil. No, the food poisoning sets in before that.

In The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard described the severity of sin (the Christian conception of evil) as terrible precisely because it occurred before God –

”…there was much truth in the idea, even though it has occasionally been misused, that what made sin so terrible was its being before God. From this people proved the eternity of hell’s punishment and then later became cleverer and said: ‘sin is sin; it is none the worse for being against or before God.’ Strange! Even lawyers talk of aggravated crimes; even lawyers distinguish between crimes committed against public officials and private citizens, prescribe different punishments for patricide and ordinary murder.

Wronging God infinitely heightens the severity of sin because God is not someone external, who exists outside ourselves like a police constable. Instead, he is a constant relation relating to our self. And the magnitude of our crime is judged based on the self’s standard and the person its been committed against. And it has always been this way. What would one think if a child murdered his father? Would such a child have committed the same crime by murdering his dog?

Kierkegaard wrote that the self has a conception of God yet does not do what God wants and is disobedient. Thus God is never sinned against occasionally but always as long as one was in such a state. Now the higher the consciousness of one’s self, the more intensely the awareness of the self’s standard of measurement – God. The more conception of self, the more God and the more conception of God, the more self.

Calvin, the Swiss theologian recognized the link between the knowledge of one’s self and of God:

“For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. In the second place, those blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain. Here, again, the infinitude of good which resides in God becomes more apparent from our poverty”

The state of evil therefore lies in the will. And its severity lies in its relating of the self to its foundation, God. Evil is evil because it says “this is good for me!” and defies God for good is not ‘for you’ but rather ‘for God’. He is the person of infinite goodness. After all, Nietzsche remarked that good and evil were simply expressions of the will to power. A person who sins is a daughter who slaps her father whilst sitting on his lap. “I would rather sit on my own lap than yours, thank you very much!” Her crime lay in slapping not an inconsequential person but her father who gave her life and of using the elevation of his lap to do the very deed. Little girl, don’t you realize that you can’t slap your father without sitting on his lap?

Complement this article with:

  1. The Sickness Unto Death, Soren Kierkegaard.
  2. Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche
  3. Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin.

Is the Existence of God and Evil Logically Contradictory?

Epicurus ponders a question as old as time itself.

Evil Shows That There Is No God: God and Evil Reconciled

The Traditional Argument

J.L. Mackie was an Australian philosopher of the 20th Century, who most famously wrote of the logical contradiction between the existence of God and evil, which has now become one of the de facto arguments against Christianity and theism in general. In my own time in university, I’ve heard many a student say, “how can a loving, all powerful, all knowing God possibly allow so much evil to exist?” Another variation is for the student to replace the word “evil” with “suffering”. Though I’ve edited this article, much of it is based on an essay, which I wrote during my time in a Presbyterian seminary so forgive any language that may be hard to understand. Not all of the arguments here are mine, but footnotes have been deleted due to formatting issues. If you would like to have a look at them, please contact me for the full pdf. This article was written to address the so-called logical contradiction of evil and God, not the necessarily existential or emotional aspect of one’s struggle with this belief, which would necessitate a whole other article by itself. Without further ado, Mackie in Evil shows that there is no God argues that traditional theistic beliefs are ultimately irrational.

The question is a philosophical rather than existential struggle to belief by trying to find a logical contradiction in the existence of God and evil. Mackie attempts this by means of a valid deductive argument with true premises for God’s non-existence. If valid, the statement “God and evil exists” is contradictory and hence false. Mackie’s argument is this:

1. God is omnipotent

2. God is wholly good

3. Evil exists

4. Good is opposed to evil by eliminating it as far as it can

5. There is no limit to what omnipotent beings can do

6. A good omnipotent being eliminates all evil

7. Evil exists, therefore a good omnipotent God does not

In Mackie’s view, traditional theism affirms the existence of God and evil, and therefore what is contradictory. To make a contradictory, false statement “true”, theism must deny the logicality of its affirmation. Mackie demonstrates that the only alternative solution is to deny at least one of the premises or modify it while undermining theism’s core position. Four examples of solutions that implicitly deny these premises are that good cannot exist without evil, evil is a necessary means to good, the universe is better with some evil than without, and evil is due to free will. Either way, belief in God is irrational. If rational, then either God or evil cannot exist.

Mackie’s Philosophical Contribution by this Argument

In retrospect, Mackie’s deduction is logically valid. If the premises are true, he concludes a significant philosophical question that has been debated for millenniums. After all, thousands of years before, the Greek philosopher Epicurus once said the exact same, “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?” Moreover, it is proof that the traditional theistic God does not exist. If we assert he does despite this proof, then our theistic belief is irrational and ultimately cannot be known to be true or false. Theism appears to be in a bind and this argument will be examined later on.

Does Free Will Necessitate that Evil Exist?

Mackie also gives a sound refutation of evil as necessary for free will and undermines the concept of libertarian freedom. First, he questions why freedom is a “good” and more valuable than any other good that it necessitates co-existence with evil. If a wrong act is done freely, does it then become good? Secondly, it is evident that humans sometimes choose good over evil freely, whether it is due to circumstance or desire. If men can freely choose good sometimes, why can God not make us choose good every time? Therefore, free will is reduced to randomness so that God cannot be held responsible for the “sometimes wrong”.

Ganssle’s libertarian argument that it is possible for evil to exist so that free will can have the possibility of actualizing different realities subtly undermines an omnipotent God. If God is not sovereign over everything including the intrinsic world, then he is not sovereign at all. This is exacerbated when understanding that Christian theism constitutes an omniscient God because foreseeing an event that may lead to evil, Mackie’s premises necessitates that God omnipotently act to prevent it in his foreknowledge.

Lastly, in order to know if we have free will, we must be able to know that it is in our power to choose otherwise. Yet we cannot know all that affects our desires both internally and externally so that we can do so freely. We would have to know every cause, factor and relationship of the world and ourselves to determine if our next decision was free. Moreover, would we really know if other alternative realities would actualize depending on our choice? They remain a speculative possibility and possibilities are merely a synonym for uncertainty. To know if we have free will, we would have to be omniscient. We are clearly not, and so must resort to a better definition of free will in this traditional libertarian defense of theism.

A Christian Response to Mackie

Since evil self-evidentially exists, Mackie’s argument on appearance draws logical proof for God’s non-existence and furthermore the irrationality of objecting belief. On closer examination, I hope to show that Mackie’s argument is intrinsically flawed from its definitions and premises while his conclusion itself assumes and proves the Christian God’s existence. Consequently, the belief that God and evil cannot co-exist is not just irrational but false, and the belief that God and evil does is not merely rational but true.

I will start with the premises. Premise 3) is true but unjustified from an atheistic position. First, Mackie does not provide a definition of his most important problem, which he uses to conclude his argument. What is evil? What evil does he have in mind that cannot co-exist with God? The fact that he has not defined it but is assumed in what he says it is, reveals that it is a subjective “evil” he is asserting when saying “it” cannot exist with God. This is merely reduced to a personal preference that God’s existence is incompatible with. He has yet to justify its universality or nature, and he cannot, because to justify it one must be omniscient (to know all that is good and evil) and omnipotent (to be able to determine good from evil universally instead of being subject to it), which no human is. Yet Mackie assumes that evil exists. He does so by saying that a theist cannot deny it but the burden of proof lies on him to show it does as an atheist. Christian theism explains evil as an ethical rebellion with its beginning in the world as a result of the Fall. Raising the question of evil assumes that God exists because a universal, objective standard must be used which can only be determined by an omnipotent and omniscient being, else subjectivism ensues.

Moreover, new exhibitions of what humans universally know as evil is continually found each day in newspapers. The definition of evil is always changing and debated by philosophers. We are unable to question God’s compatibility with evil by its mere presence because we do not know evil exhaustively and so cannot define it. Without defining evil, we are unable even to know good and evil properly. The answer lies only in a Christian theistic idea of evil that is defined by God. When Mackie concludes that God and evil cannot exist he can only do so if he affirms that they do. Such a statement becomes rationally irrational.

In the conclusion, Mackie is right when saying that God cannot exist with evil as a deductive result from his premises, because this god is the god of his subjective ideal based on his premises and not the God of Christianity. In fact, the Christian theistic belief is assumed in order for him to prove that his conceptual god does not. How? There are two main premises that Christian theism disagrees with here, without undermining its core “theistic” position: 4) and 5).

First, 4) can be changed to – a good being eliminates evil as far as it can unless it has good reasons for not doing so. However, I am merely pointing out that Mackie’s deduction is false from Christian theistic premises and not saying this directlyproves God’s existence. Rather it helps to affirm it. This is because the debate would be shifted to what constituted “good reasons” depending on whether it was aligned with Mackie’s standard of evil (which is subjective) or my standard. A parent may sometimes allow a child to suffer evil for his own good, but we are precisely like the child. We cannot see it as a good. The distinction is not up to us. Secondly, Christian theism can modify 5) to be – there are no logical limits to what an omnipotent being can do. It is impossible for God to perform impossibility. Mackie actually assumes this Christian presupposition underlying his idea of omnipotence because if there were no illogical limits to what an omnipotent God could do, then it is no contradiction for God to coexist with evil because he could allow contradictions to occur. It is his burden to prove that God cannot do what is illogical and he cannot without assuming the Christian view of a logical God.

The Underlying Issue of Such a Question

The logical question is actually revealed to be one of psychological resistance because God’s choice to allow evil must be approved by our idea of what a “good, omnipotent being” must do or be for him to exist; which is by having no evil. Either God is subject to our moral judgment or else our logic. Therefore, we have changed the premises while seemingly undermining theistic belief. The problem is that it is not Christian theism. Rather it is Mackie’s conception of God.

Ultimately, the question of whether God and evil can coexist is not ours to ask. Why is it that a good being eliminates evil as far as it can or that it does unless it has good reasons for doing so? What allows us this definition to what a good being can or cannot do to be good besides our self? We cannot determine whether God and evil can coexist unless we first understand what a good being does. Christian theism answers this. God is good. It is his nature. Hence all that he does is good regardless of whether we call it evil. He is not a good being because he is subservient to some higher law. Rather, the law was created for his creation so if God were to “steal”, he would not be doing wrong because all that is created is his. God defines good and evil, by being the natural embodiment of good so that no matter what he does is determinatively good. There is no law higher than himself. There is no claim for God’s responsibility either because there is no superior being to which he can be held accountable; he transcends both.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Mackie must assume Christian theism to deny his wrong and illogical concept of God by the use of his unjustified definitions. Ultimately, such a belief against God and evil’s co-existence becomes irrational and false. Without God to define omnipotence, good, and evil, we have no foundation but our subjective selves to deny his existence. We cannot use our notions of reason or morality to prove or deny God’s existence because we are unable to interpret morality rightly by our standards or justify reason’s validity. We must use him to justify them. God and evil does exist, and exists rationally. However this relationship does not depend on our rationality because it is flawed, but rather our very nature and question presupposes that he does. Therefore, in order to know how and know clearly, we need direct revelation from God himself because in him, we live, move, and have our being.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know what you think down in the comments!