In a wise and provocative essay, Simon Critchley demonstrates again how the existentialist hero of Christianity, Soren Kierkegaard, speaks equally as forcefully to atheists as to believers. In "The Rigor of Love" (from "Opinionator," in The New York Times, 8 August 2010), Critchley argues that non-believers might come closer to meeting the exacting demand to "love one another" than do creedalistic and ritualistic believers.
Says Critchley, "...faith is a proclamation or pledge that brings the inward subject of faith into being over against an external everydayness. Such a proclamation is as true for the non-Christian as for the Christian. Indeed, it is arguably more true for the non-Christian, because their faith is not supported by the supposed guarantee of baptism, creedal dogma, regular church attendance or some notion that virtue will be rewarded with happiness if not here on earth, then in the afterlife. Thus, paradoxically, non-Christian faith might be said to reveal the true nature of the faith that Christ sought to proclaim. Even — and indeed especially — those who are denominationally faithless can have an experience of faith. If faith needs to be underpinned by some sort of doctrinal security, then inwardness becomes externalized and the strenuous rigor of faith evaporates."
Critchley's argument here uses the unfortunate straw man of simplistic and non-thinking Christianity, the "Christian" who claims that merely because he/she attends church and believes perfunctorily the ancient doctrines and creeds, then he/she is a proper believer. (Though I acknowledge that most Christians these days, and probably most of humanity, do not think strenuously enough, I do not agree that Critchley's sort of simplistic Christian actually exists; every Christian I know also proclaims that he or she is a Christian through "faith" or "action," not merely through having been correctly baptized or through believing the correct cerebral doctrines).
Be that as it may, Critchley has uncovered, in this essay, the challenging force of Kierkegaard's examination of faith. It is a deeply subjective, existential, voluntary appropriation of the infinite -- either of the infinite God or of the infinite existence of another person. Critchley wisely notes that, for Kierkegaard, the deep faith in, or even love for, another person, is also a reaching out for the transcendent God; and this is where Critchley claims that some non-believers are better able to sense transcendence than are believers.
Critchley's argument would be wiser had he settled for the more modest claim that non-believers are equally able to apprehend faith as are believers. There is no need here to posit a superiority of atheistic faith over believers' faith. The mere equating of the two is forceful enough.
Of course, as a believer, I would claim that the equating of the two provides another argument for a transcendent God. I would use Critchley's argument, from subjective faith, as the foundation for the existence of some sort of transcendence. It is this transcendence, whom Christians name God, that drives us beyond our inner selves.
Again, the fierce subjectivity of Soren Kierkegaard shines as a beacon for both the faithful and the faithless in our age. Even for Simon Critchley, an admitted atheist it seems, Kierkegaard's examination of faith provides a route into transcendence, into a reality beyond our ordinary human existence. I am grateful for his essay.