Philosophers explain the meaning of the Kierkegaard quote that comforts Joe Biden

Biden knows where to look for emotional support.
Biden knows where to look for emotional support.
Image: Reuters/ Jonathan Ernst
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In an emotional interview with TV host Stephen Colbert, US vice president Joe Biden mentioned that he’d found solace in the writing of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. He said that his wife, Jill Biden, had taped a Kierkegaard quote to the mirror, which read “Faith sees best in the dark.”

The line comes from the philosopher’s Gospel of Sufferings and is an apt choice of quote for Biden, whose son Beau died in May of cancer. In the quoted passage, Kierkegaard writes in response to the Gospel of Matthew 11:30, “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light”. The full passage, as quoted by religion website Patheos, reads as follows:

The believer humanly comprehends how heavy the suffering is, but in faith’s wonder that it is beneficial to him, he devoutly says: It is light. Humanly he says: It is impossible, but he says it again in faith’s wonder that what he humanly cannot understand is beneficial to him. In other words, when sagacity is able to perceive the beneficialness, then faith cannot see God; but when in the dark night of suffering sagacity cannot see a handbreadth ahead of it, then faith can see God, since faith sees best in the dark.

It’s beautiful writing but far from straightforward. “Kierkegaard has this way of being quite aphoristic and coming up with a wonderful phrase that you could put on the mirror, and yet it’s not clear what he means because he’s always a dialectical thinker,” Joel Rasmussen, professor of theology at Oxford University, tells Quartz. (Kierkegaard is dialectical in that he often writes from the perspective of various pseudonyms in dialog with each other, instead of putting forward one, clear argument.)

In times of great suffering, there can be no rational source of hope or comfort. Yet Kierkegaard writes that faith cannot be fully understood in times of happiness. One can only experience true faith when life is bleak.

“One sees a kind of goodness coming out of this darkness but, as one of Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms often says, it’s by virtue of a leap. It’s a leap in rationality. One can’t argue one’s way, in a straightforward fashion, to a position of faith,” says Rasmussen.

Kierkegaard’s argument can be understood against the backdrop of Christian theology, adds Rasmussen. The idea of God dying on the cross is “scandalous” from a Biblical perspective and is “as dark a moment as one could really believe.” Yet it’s also “the full witness of God loving humanity,” says Rasmussen.

Kierkegaard is not a cheery philosopher, and the line quoted by Biden is a “very Kierkegaardian form of consolation,” says Hugh Pyper, philosophy professor at Sheffield University.

“It’s not a matter of being in a dark place and saying, ‘It will all work out’,” he tells Quartz. “You’ve gone beyond that, there’s no hope or future, and no logical reason to keep going at all. It’s precisely then that you experience faith.”

It’s not a lighthearted sentiment. But when life seems incomprehensible, these philosophers are saying, Kierkegaard’s writing can be an irrational source of solace.