Unbelieving Believers: The Intended Audience of Concluding Unscientific Postscript

Keeping his intended audience in mind is perhaps the most difficult thing to do when reading Johannes Climacus’ Postscript.  He writes, neither to those who deliberately reject Christianity nor to genuinely faithful Christians.  He is not writing to those who are caught in the throes of becoming a Christian.  Each of these audiences can of course find much in Postscript, but it is not written to them.  And, far too often, Postscript is criticized as if it had been written to these audiences.  (As a result, the book is criticized as if it were apologetics (God forbid!) or as if it were evangelistic).

Now I realize this may seem a strange claim, especially in the case of the last group, those in the throes of becoming a Christian.  “After all,” an objector might say, “Climacus’ controlling question is:  ‘How do I become a Christian?’  So isn’t he writing to that group?”

No.  Climacus’ interest in his controlling question is retrospective, not prospective.  He asks the question, and answers it, not as an exercise in evangelism, not as a tractarian, but for the sake of his intended audience, those who believe that they are believers, but who fail to believe.  His interest in his question is retrospective because, given the confusions of his intended audience, they will think of themselves as on the far end, as it were, of the question, not on its near end.  They need to realize that the way in which they believe they became believers is not a way of becoming believers.  I will call the intended audience the unbelieving believers.*

This intended audience is not wholly homogenous.  Some of the unbelieving believers account for their becoming Christians by believing it as a historical truth; some account for their becoming Christians by believing it as a speculative truth.  But both sub-groups have treated becoming a Christian as coming to be objectively convinced of the truth of Christianity.  To the extent that they have been worried about their subjective relationship to Christianity, their appropriation of it, they have taken it to be precipitated from objective conviction.  But appropriation does not precipitate from objective conviction.  Even worse, objective conviction makes appropriation even more difficult than it already is.  Objective conviction requires the inquirer to discipline out of her inquiry all questions of subjectivity, of how she is related to the object.  That very disciplining out tends to attenuate or destroy subjectivity.—This is one reason why the unbelieving believer who worries about appropriation expects appropriation to precipitate from objective conviction–the conditions of acquiring objective conviction are hostile to appropriation, so if it is to happen, it will look to those who pursue objective conviction but worry about appropriation like something that really can happen only once objective conviction occurs.

In showing what is really involved in becoming a Christian Climacus aims to shock his audience into recognizing that they are unbelieving believers.  Their account of how they became Christians, once they are clear about it and about the way one does actually become a Christian, reveals that they are not Christians.  They may be objectively convinced of something–it is unclear it really counts as Christianity–but they are not really believers, appropriators of Christianity.

That unbelieving believers are the intended audience is part of the story why Climacus is not much concerned about answering the objective question about the truth of Christianity.  (It is not the full story, but I am unsure I can tell the full story.)  His intended audience takes that question as settled.  They expect settling it to have settled the question of their faith too.  Climacus aims at unsettlement.  He will begin with an invitation:  “Tell me, and tell yourself, how you became a Christian…”

*NB  I use this phrase to suggest the simultaneous similarity and dissimilarity between Climacus’ intended audience and the father of the son possessed by a spirit (in Mark 9; cf. especially 9:24).

6 responses

  1. Speaking of intended audience, I wonder whether Kierkegaard ever had any intended audience, except God himself. He works read like confessions, but I suspect he would never confide in anybody in person.

    What is it that separates the unbeliever and the unbelieving believer?

    • I am thinking of the unbeliever as the person who deliberately rejects Christianity. The unbelieving believer thinks that he or she believes, but really he or she does not. So calling him or her an unbelieving believer is meant to capture (in a situation-specifying way) his or her conviction that he or she believes; calling him or her an unbeliever is a way of tracking the fact that really, he or she does not believe.

  2. Thank you for a good brief analysis. I am reading the Postscript myself and your words have helped me understand the gist a little better.

    But tell me, why do you reject the apologetic power of his book? I think the unbelieving believer needs an apologetic, and the Postscript recommends the only solvent for self-sufficient modernism – the truth of subjectivity instead of arguments based on the ‘objectivity’ of the historical and speculative.

    I’m glad you bring up the ‘believing unbelief’ of the distraught father in Mark 9. But I think Jesus includes even his apostles among those ‘of little faith’ and suggests they still had no access to efficient prayer (see Mark 9:19 and 29). I’m assuming they had attempted to cure the boy ‘in the name of Jesus the Messiah of Nazareth’ or some such incantation. Jesus says, in effect, ‘you don’t know me.’

    • Thanks. I’m glad to help and write hoping that I can. As for apologetics–I understand Climacus to treat apologetics as a betrayal of Christianity, in effect yet another attempt to turn Christianity into something of which a person ought to be objectively convinced. The unbelieving believer needs something, but not apologetics. That will only deepen the confusion. What the unbelieving believer needs is *conversion*. Although I do not know if there is any place where Climacus says this in so many words, what he is trying to make clear is–a person is converted to Christianity not convinced of it. But Climacus is not evangelizing. That would come later, only after the unbelieving believer faces up to his or her unbelief. Climacus does say, at one point late in the book, that it is easier to become a Christian as a non-Christian than as a Christian; and, that remark captures the plight of the unbelieving believer.

      Thanks again for your kind remark.

  3. I read Fragments a second time, and finally was able to write a digest/review. I could be mistaken, but we seem to have different views, and it would be nice to discuss it further. Now I’m looking forward to reading Postscript, though not without “trembling”.

    • Perhaps we have different views, but I am unsure whether we do or not. At any rate, an admittedly quick look at your review did not seem to me to suggest different views, although we inflect some things differently. Maybe, if you have the time and inclination, you can tell me where you locate our differences in view, and let me know about them. I would be happy to learn more about Fragments.

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