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Miguel de Unamuno identifies with Christian thinkers Blaise Pascal and Søren Kierkegaardand includes them in a list of thinkers who embody his tragic sense of life. Unamuno embraces their suspicion of certainty and with them questions classical proofs for God’s existence. Nevertheless, Jan E. Evans argues in this essay that Unamuno’s understanding of the role of doubt in faith is not that of Pascal and Kierkegaard. Key is each author’s view of the limits of reason, illustrated in their reactions to the hiddenness of God. It is Unamuno’s view of reason that keeps him from making the leap of faith that Kierkegaard and Pascal make. Ms. Evans is Associate Professor of Spanish at Baylor University.

Miguel de Unamuno is Spain’s most distinguished twentieth-century man of letters, having published in every possible genre from drama and poetry to the philosophical essay, the short story, and the novel. All this he did while teaching Greek and working as rector of the University of Salamanca during most of the years from 1891 into the 1930s. His tenure at the university was interrupted at intervals by his outspoken criticism of the government, and during one six-year period, he lived in exile in France. His last banishment from his post as president of the university was caused by his public, explicit criticism of the Francoist forces in October of 1936.

The story goes that Unamuno went to a celebration of El Día de la Raza, the commemoration of the discovery of the new world by Christopher Columbus, on October12, 1936, in the Paran info of the University of Salamanca with a letter he had just received from the wife of a Protestant pastor who had been detained and incarcerated by Franco’s forces in August of 1936. Unamuno had tried to intervene on behalf of the man, Atilano Coco Martín, stating his support of the right of the Protestants to assemble and worship. It is said that Unamuno communicated with Franco himself, but the letter from the pastor’s wife brought the news that the pastor was to be executed.1 Unamuno was presiding at the meeting at the university, but it was taken over by Franco’s General Millán-Astray who incited the crowd with Falangist rhetoric. As Unamuno listened, he penned his response on the envelope of the letter from the pastor’s wife. Those remarks included his now famous statement, directed explicitly at Millán-Astray, that “venceréis pero noconvenceréis,” “you will succeed, but you will not convince,” underscoring that neither reason nor moral right was on the side of the Falangists. Unamuno was put under house arrest and died in December of that year.

Protestants in Spain have revered Unamuno ever since for his stand on the separation of church and state and for his courage in supporting the Protestant pastor. As recently as October of 2008, a prominent Evangelical Spanish writer, Juan Antonio Monroy, wrote that Unamuno lived his whole life as a Christian, following St. Paul’s declaration that “For me to live is Christ.”2 Protestants have attributed more faith to Unamuno than has the official Catholic Church in Spain, which put two of his books, The Tragic Sense of Life and The Agony of Christianity, on its index of prohibited books, when it was still in force before 1964. In 1938, just two years after his death, the Archbishop of Salamanca declared that Unamuno was a heretic. Unamuno scholar Felipe Lapuente has done an extensive study of the divergent views on Unamuno’s faith. He says that critics fall into three categories: those who believe that Unamuno was a Catholic all his life, those who believe he completely lost his faith after his religious crisis of 1897, and those who think that Unamuno is better understood as a Lutheran or a liberal Protestant.3 He ends his study by noting the significant number of Unamuno’s friends among the clergy and the fact that the official Catholic Church did not fully know or understand the work of Unamuno. He calls for careful theological study of Unamuno’s admittedly contradictory corpus.4

The purpose of this essay is to ask whether Unamuno can be considered a Christian thinker or whether he remained in the category of the seeker of religious truth. The crucial issue in this discussion will be the role of doubt in the life of faith. Is doubt a necessary part of faith? Are doubt and faith mutually exclusive? Are there dangers in claiming certainty of belief? This issue of doubt is connected closely to two others: the “hiddenness of God” and the nature of reason and its relation to faith.

To help us understand Unamuno’s stance with respect to Christianity, I shall also look at some aspects of the thought of Blaise Pascal and Søren Kierkegaard because Unamuno identifies himself with these Christian writers in many places. Clearly, Unamuno saw himself as allied closely with these decidedly Christian thinkers, and in some respects he is close to them. Nevertheless, there are clear differences between these two thinkers and Unamuno, particularly with respect to the nature of faith and the role played by human uncertainty. Examining those differences will help us understand why Unamuno was unable to commit to the robust faith found in Kierkegaard and Pascal. In a single paper, of course I cannot provide a comprehensive treatment of any of the three thinkers. However, my primary interest is with Unamuno, and thus the treatments of Kierkegaard and Pascal will be very limited, focused on points where similarities or differences with Unamuno will be helpful.

At the end of the first chapter of The Tragic Sense of Life, Unamuno provides a list of thinkers who for him embody such a life. Included in the list are Pascal and Kierkegaard, who are said to be “men who are burdened with wisdom rather than knowledge.”5 For Unamuno, the tragic sense of life is bound up with the question of immortality and the fact that while our heart demands that our individual selves live in some way after death, our head knows better, continually showing us that this life is all we get. Reason shows that we will all die. “Rational truth and life are antithetical . . . Reason, human reason, not only doesn’t prove rationally that the soul is immortal, it rather proves that the individual conscience cannot persist after the death of the corporal organism on which it depends.”6 Of course, Unamuno is equating reason here with natural science and the positivism that he absorbed as a university student in the late nineteenth century. It may appear that my question about whether Unamuno was a Christian thinker can be answered very easily, since orthodox Christianity has always affirmed the hope of the resurrection. However, Unamuno’s views were more complex than they might appear initially. Unamuno does not think that “reason” necessarily has the final word about such matters. We must listen to our “hearts” as well. Unamuno believes that Pascal and Kierkegaard are men of “wisdom” and not “knowledge” precisely because they deal with the same struggles that Unamuno has between his heart and his head. In The Agony of Christianity, Unamuno so identifies with both Pascal and Kierkegaard that he says, “But I have been this person! And I have lived again with Pascal in his century and in his environment, and I have lived again with Kierkegaard in Copenhagen.”7

Pascal is just as passionate as Unamuno in his concern for life after death. Unamuno quotes Pascal when discussing those who are indifferent to the question of immortality:

Like Pascal, I cannot understand the person who self assuredly says that this matter doesn’t concern him a bit, this abandonment of something, “that is about the essence of themselves, of their eternity, of their all, irritates me more than it moves me to pity; it surprises me and frightens me.”8

With Pascal, Unamuno calls those who do not care about their eternal fate “monsters.” Kierkegaard shares Unamuno’s concern about existence and relates all ofour present existence to our eternal happiness. Unamuno calls Kierkegaard his brother and uses a long quote from Concluding Unscientific Postscript to shore up his argument that abstract thought about immortality kills the individual’s sense of existence because what remains is theoretical. “The abstract thinker does not serve me or my immortality, but rather he kills me as an individual singularly existing.”9

So Pascal and Kierkegaard, like Unamuno, have a passionate concern for life after death. Whether they fully shares Unamuno’s perspective remains to be seen, but there is at least a common conviction that this issue involves some degree of uncertainty. This concern for life after death also is linked to belief in God, since in order to believe that there is life after this one, there needs to be a God who is the guarantor of that life. Faith in God makes possible a faith that this life will not be the end of me, my thinking, willing being.

Though Unamuno desperately wants to believe in a God who would be the guarantor of life after death, doubt regularly gets in the way of that faith. Unamuno clearly felt drawn to Pascal and Kierkegaard because of their shared passions. However, though each deals extensively with the possibility of faith as an answer to the question of immortality, Pascal and Kierkegaard do not share wholly Unamuno’s embrace of doubt. In order to understand the differences, it will be helpful to explore how each thinker relates faith to reason and how each reacts to what I will call the hiddenness of God. Ultimately, it is Unamuno’s view of reason that is the source of his inability to make the leap of faith that Kierkegaard and Pascal makes. I will first outline what Unamuno means by “doubt” and then explain his insistence on the foundational nature of doubt for understanding existence and living it.

Since reason tells us objectively that our lives end, and our heart’s desire is for that not to be the case, Unamuno finds hope in a life of doubt. For him, doubt is not just religious doubt; it extends to doubt of what we learn from “the head,” doubt about reason and science. His chapter “In the Depths of the Abyss” maintains that skepticism about the possibility of any life after this one must face the force of our will to live, and recommends that the two—skepticism about life after death and a fervent desire for life after death—“embrace like brothers.”10 The resulting skepticism and uncertainty then form the basis of the hope that counters the desperation of the heart. Doubt brings hope because reason is not allowed the last word about our final end. However, the same doubt is applied to our heart’s desire to live on after death. “Peace between these two powers is impossible, and one must live from their war. And one must make of that war, of war itself, the condition of our spiritual life.”11

Unamuno wants nothing to do with Cartesian doubt. Rene Descartes’ attempt to know by doubting everything seems to Unamuno to be a non-starter. He makes fun of such comic, methodological doubt and called it the “philosophical doubt of the stove.”12 Rather, what Unamuno has in mind is a passionate doubt: “It is the eternal conflict between reason and feeling, between knowledge and life, between logic and the biotic.”13 One must doubt reason because the longing for immortality lies outside of rationality. However, any faith that would allow you to believe in immortality needs the challenge of reason. Unamuno insists that faith and reason need each other but that mutual need is expressed in tension, not in reconciliation or synthesis:

Faith and reason are two enemies that cannot be sustained, the one without the other. That which is irrational demands to be rationalized, and reason can only operate on what is irrational. They have to support each other and associate with each other. But to associate in struggle since struggle is a means of association.14

Unamuno applies doubt equally to both faith and reason, but he describes the two differently. Rationalism or reason is equated with intelligence and the instinct of knowing. Faith is a vitalism that is equated with the will and the instinct of survival. The only thing that is sure is that both absolute doubt (skepticism) and absolute certainty are excluded. Unamuno states that a total skeptic’s life is not possible because then a person would be required to doubt his very existence. Likewise certainty, either that life ends with death or that there is a future existence after death, is unbelievable as well, because there is a still, small voice within us that questions both. Unamuno wants to keep both voices talking to each other; sometimes, in his works, it seemed like they scream at each other. He says, “For my part, I do not want peace between my heart and my head, between my faith and my reason; rather, I want for them to fight each other.”15

What does Unamuno mean when he says that doubt is just as important on the faith side of the equation as on the side of reason? He refers in many places, but particularly in The Tragic Sense of Life, to the story in Mark’s gospel about the father who brought his son who was possessed by demons to be cured by Jesus. The disciples had tried to exorcise the demons and had been unsuccessful. The father was desperate. In his request to Jesus, the father revealed his less than robust faith. He put the request in terms of “if you can do something, please help us.” Jesus called him on his vacillation and said, “‘If you can?’ Everything is possible for him who believes.” To which the father replied, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”16 Unamuno says that the father demonstrated faith based on incertitude. It is the faith that Sancho Panza had for Don Quixote and the faith of Don Quixote himself. “Our lord Don Quixote is the prototype of the vitalist whose faith is based on uncertainty and Sancho is the prototype of the rationalist who doubts his own reason.”17 Unamuno says that the father who wanted his son to be healed demonstrated a faith that he called querer creer, to want to believe, which is a matter of the will, not of reason.

The negative contrast is with the faith of el carbonero, the coal delivery man, who never questions his faith. Unamuno mentions this character in multiple places. This is a person who unthinkingly accepts faith, and when anyone asks a troubling question, el carbonero, along with many who are taught the Catholic catechism, say, “Do not ask me the reason of that, for I am ignorant; Holy Mother church possesses doctors who will know how to answer you.” Unamuno sees this as an evasion, rather than as proper humility, and he would not tolerate it. He calls the coal delivery man’s faith an “absurd” faith—a term he does not mean as a compliment—but his criticism is not limited to the humble, uneducated carbonero. Unamuno also excoriates the incredulity of the intellectual who is equally unable to test his assumptions. He equates the absurd faith of the coal delivery man with the absurd incredulity of the intellectual and considers them both stupid.18 The certainty of el carbonero and the incredulous intellectual is the sort of certainty that is the basis for dogmatism against which Unamuno fought in all its forms for all of his life.

In The Agony of Christianity, the depth of the struggle and the darkness of the doubt seem to be starker. Here Unamuno again appeals to Scripture, this time drawing on Luke 12, where Jesus said that he did not come to bring peace, but rather a sword. Jesus pointed to the fact that to follow him may require normal relationships to be broken, those of a son to his father, a daughter to her mother and even a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law. What Unamuno hears from the Scripture is that you cannot have peace without war and vice versa. Conflict will always be present. He admits that there may be many other passages about the peace that the Gospel is to bring, but he claims to be in the company of St. Paul, St. Augustine and Pascal in his emphasis on the polemical nature of Christianity.

For Unamuno, the center of the polemical nature of Christianity is doubt. “The way to live, to struggle, to struggle for life and to live from the struggle, to live from faith, is to doubt.”19 This is so because even Christ doubted as he said on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”20 Unamuno underscores that the depiction of Christ before which the Spanish believer worships is the agonizing Christ, not the Christ at peace in death or, one might add, the Christ of the resurrection. It is the Christ on the cross who calls out to question God in his own pain and struggle. Always the linguist, Unamuno explains the root of the verb dudar from the Latin dubitare that clarifies the root, duo or two. For Unamuno, “the two” is the equivalent of struggle, and for him that needs to be the essence of existence. He contrasts the poet, the creative part of himself that affirms and believes, with the rational part of himself that denies, disbelieves, and doubts. The part of him that struggles between the two he identifies as Christian, the one with which he tries to make sense of eternity.21 For Unamuno, there is no part that can be left out.

Is Unamuno’s Doubt Shared by Pascal and Kierkegaard?

I shall try to show that Unamuno’s picture of faith differs significantly from the views of Pascal and Kierkegaard, even though he is correct to see that they share his distaste for dogmatism and his recognition of the human condition as one that includes some degree of uncertainty. The differences between Unamuno and the two Christian thinkers center on their views about doubt. However, I shall start with points of agreement. To begin, we can note that Pascal is just as hard on Descartes as Unamuno. It is not Descartes’ sort of doubt that these three authors are interested in. Pascal says, “Descartes. In general one must say: Pointless, uncertain, and arduous. Even if it were true we do not think that the whole of philosophy would be worth an hour’s effort.”22 Kierkegaard is kinder to Descartes but still is critical of the view, one that he attributes to Hegel, that philosophy begins with a kind of doubt—an exhaustive critical reflection.23 In Philosophical Fragments, the author compares Hegelian doubt and Greek skepticism. He says, “We must not lay at his [the Greek’s] door the stupid opinion [referring to the Hegelian] that one doubts by way of necessity, as well as the even more stupid opinion that, if that were the case, doubt could be terminated.”24 Beginning with doubt is dismissed as a viable method of doing philosophy.

Second, as already noted, there is the matter of dogmatism. All three authors bristle at the kind of certainty that gives rise to dogmatism. For Kierkegaard, the dogmatist takes away the dialectical, which in this case means simply the ability to question. In Concluding Unscientific Postscript, his pseudonym Climacus says:

Whether it is a word, a sentence, a book, a man, a society, whatever it is, as soon as it is supposed to be a boundary, so that the boundary itself is not dialectical, it is superstition and narrow-mindedness. In a human being there is always a desire, at once comfortable and concerned, to have something really firm and fixed that can exclude the dialectical, but this is cowardliness and fraudulence toward the divine.25

He says that even in revelation, where one would be claiming a fair amount of certainty if one believes that one has heard a message from God, there is still the possibility of the dialectical in the moment that the person appropriates the revelation.

Pascal has equally harsh things to say about the dogmatist and the skeptic.26 He maintains that the person who says that he is in certain possession of the truth is just as wrong as the skeptic who doubts everything. The key here is the misuse of reason. The dogmatist claims too much for reason and the skeptic not enough. Pascal says: “Instinct, reason. We have an incapacity for proving anything which no amount of dogmatism can overcome. We have an idea of truth which no amount of skepticism can overcome.”27 This view reflects the dual nature of humankind—that the human person is both wonderful and wretched—but recognition of the dual nature is impossible apart from God’s help. For Pascal, human reason as it is used to justify certainty is bound to fail because of our fallen nature. Human reason is flawed by sin. Yes, there is a natural, created capacity to know something of the truth that is God-given, but only in faith can one overcome the flaw and be given the truth about one’s own condition. Therefore Pascal says, “Know then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourself. Be humble, impotent reason! Be silent, feeble nature! Learn that man infinitely transcends man, hear from your master your true condition, which is unknown to you. Listen to God.”28 The proper use of reason is found only through God’s revelation of the true human situation.

It is not surprising that Unamuno, Kierkegaard and Pascal share a dim view of the so-called proofs for God’s existence, given their suspicion of claims to certainty, but their objections to the proofs differ. Unamuno says that he lost his faith while trying to rationalize it, as the classical proofs for God’s existence attempt to do:

The supposed classical proofs for God’s existence all refer to this God-Idea, to this logical God, to the removed, abstract God, and therefore, strictly speaking, they prove nothing, that is, they don’t prove anything more than the existence of this idea of God.29

His disagreement was with scholastic theology that he says created cristianismo despotencializado, emasculated Christianity, that took away the felt, loving God that guarantees immortality. For Unamuno, Thomistic proofs for the existence of God, though they attempt to use reason, actually make the faith “super-rational” when in fact it is “contrar-ational.”

Unamuno also objects to having to swallow the whole of Catholic theology that has been developed over centuries by the same “doctors of the Church.” He does not think that the proofs work, and he resents having to believe that they do. He says that the Church considers the biggest sin that of heresy, of thinking for oneself, and that is what he declared that he would do. So, Unamuno’s objections to the proofs for God’s existence are rooted in the Church’s assumption that reason does demonstrate the existence of God, and that the proofs are therefore compelling. The proofs demand that any reasonable person will agree that God exists. Unamuno considers himself a reasonable person and was not persuaded.

Certainly there are some similarities between this reaction on the part of Unamuno to rational apologetics and Kierkegaard’s aversion to rational arguments for Christianity. C. Stephen Evans points out that there is evidence of Kierkegaard’s resistance to apologetics in his signed works as well as his pseudonymous ones.30 In Works of Love,Kierkegaard states, “woe to the person who could make the miracler easonable.”31 Evans says that Kierkegaard, “rejects the idea of proving God’s existence, not primarily because the proofs are bad, though he thinks they are less than conclusive, but because they make it appear that something (the existence of God) that should be certain for an individual is doubtful.”32 In Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Johannes Climacus says that it is ridiculous to attempt to prove the existence of someone who is present to the exister, and it is actually an affront.33 In Philosophical Fragments, he makes fun of anyone who would attempt to prove God’s existence saying,

Therefore, anyone who wants to demonstrate the existence of God . . . proves something else instead, at times something that perhaps did not even need demonstrating, and in any case never anything better. For the fool says in his heart that there is no God, but he who says in his heart or to others: Just wait a little and I shall demonstrate it—ah, what a rare wise man he is!34

In addition to Kierkegaard’s objections to proofs of God’s existence, he has objections to proofs of the truth of Christianity and the truth of the incarnation. Climacus speaks of the incarnation as a paradox, that God came to earth and became man, and calls it the essence of Christianity. The human reaction to the paradox is either faith or offense. Climacus worries that an apologetic proof might make believing Christianity more palatable and take away the ability of the paradox to offend.35 When the understanding met the paradox and responded in faith, “the understanding surrendered itself and the paradox gave itself.”36 If reason insists upon understanding the paradox, if it does not surrender itself, then the result would be offense. Climacus’ objection to apologetic proofs stems from his objection to anything that would lessen the need for faith. If reason alone can get the person to believe in the incarnation, what is the use of faith?

In agreement with Kierkegaard, Pascal insists that faith is God’s doing and no amount of reason can get a person to believe that God exists. However, he has more appreciation for the place of proofs in the process toward faith. “Faith is different from proof. One is human and the other a gift from God . . . This is the faith that God himself puts into our hearts, often using proof as the instrument.”37 Pascal is not against using reason for good purpose. “Men despise religion, they hate it and are afraid it might be true. To cure that we have to begin by showing that religion is not contrary to reason.”38 However, showing that religion is not contrary to reason is not the same as conclusive proof.

According to Pascal, one of the reasons that proofs for God’s existence cannot be compelling is that there must be room for the freedom of will. The person must decide for himself or herself; God will not force himself on the person. He says, “The way of God, who disposes all things with gentleness, is to instill religion into our minds with reasoned arguments and into our hearts with grace, but attempting to instill it into hearts and minds with force and threats is to instill not religion but terror.”39 The way of God with us should help us understand how we also should behave—to allow freedom to choose for those whom we try to persuade of his existence. Pascal explains this further: “If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural. If we offend the principles of reason our religion will be absurd and ridiculous.”40 So Pascal sees an important role for reason. It is a necessary component of faith, but it is not sufficient. Kierkegaard would agree. Though many have characterized the Kierkegaardian “leap of faith” as being a leap into the absurd, this is an over simplification. For Kierkegaard, the leap is a matter of choice. It will appear absurd to the person who lacks faith, but not so for the person of faith. Offense is not more rational than faith. Both are passionate responses to an encounter with the paradox.41

So far, we have looked mainly at areas where there is broad agreement between Unamuno, Pascal, and Kierkegaard, an agreement that makes understandable Unamuno’s sense of spiritual kinship with these two thinkers. We have seen that none of the three thinkers bought into Cartesian skepticism and all are wary of anyone who claimed to have absolute certainty. Therefore they stand stridently against dogmatism of any kind. Their shared suspicion of proofs for God’s existence is not a surprise, then, but in the reasons for their rejection of the proofs we begin to see some basic differences between Unamuno and the other two philosophers. For Kierkegaard and Pascal, those differences have as much to do with the limits of reason as they do with the appreciation of the work of providence in faith. Unamuno wants to keep doubt and faith in continual tension. Certainty, dogmatism and the proofs of God’s existence are intellectual matters that all three authors address, but Kierkegaard and Pascal do not share fully Unamuno’s angst about the inability to know conclusively. All three authors are persons who embrace the importance of the matters of the heart. However, Unamuno’s embrace of the life of pain and conflict sounds a somewhat different note than can be found in Pascal and Kierkegaard.

In the section of The Agony of Christianity discussed above, Unamuno claims that the doubt of which he speaks is agonic, polemic and Pascalian. Is he justified in such a claim? Already we have noted Pascal’s disgust at the person who is indifferent to the question of immortality or the person who lives a life so diverted by pleasure that he has not stopped to consider the importance of the matter. But is the search for an answer to the question of immortality as problematic for Pascal? It seems so in the following quote: “I condemn equally those who choose to praise man, those who choose to condemn him, and those who choose to divert themselves, and I can only approve of those who seek with groans.”42 Pascal is rejecting both the optimists and the pessimists about human nature and along with those who avoid the difficulty by enjoying life and not thinking. He only endorses those who are searching for truth and admits that it is an agonizing process. However, unlike Unamuno, Pascal does not glorify the agonizing process itself; he holds out hope that one can overcome the agony.

To be sure, it seems likely that Pascal has experienced some of the same struggle that Unamuno displays when he says, “I look around in every direction and all I see is darkness. Nature has nothing to offer me that does not give rise to doubt and anxiety.”43 He goes on to say that Nature does not give conclusive evidence for or against the existence of God, though he would like for God to have displayed himself more clearly so that he would know the course he should take. He concludes this Pensée by saying:

Instead of that, in the state in which I am, not knowing what I am nor what I ought to do, I know neither my condition nor my duty. My whole heart strains to know what the true good is in order to pursue it: no price would be too high to pay for eternity.44

It is fair to say that Pascal experienced doubt and had great compassion for those who faced it daily, but to say that Pascal is caught up in a life-struggle like Unamuno’s would not do justice to the rest of the Pensées. They reveal a Pascal who thought that if nature proved God, then we would not have to seek him with our hearts. For Pascal, there is a clear source of Truth and that is Christ, but finding this truth requires passionate searching that depends on the heart and on the will, not just the mind that might be persuaded by nature. Much later in the Pensées, Pascal says: “It is good to be tired and weary from fruitlessly seeking the true good, so that one can stretch out one’s arms to the Redeemer.”45

Pascal could come to this conclusion because his view of reason is different from Unamuno’s and is based on a different view of the human person. While Unamuno identifies “reason” in a positivistic way with what could be known by science, Pascal has a richer conception of reason. For Pascal, reason could take on different qualities, depending on the character of the reasoner. There is a duality that Pascal sees in the human personality that cannot be escaped. We are wonderfully made in the image of God with God-like capacities, and we are also wretched folk whose capacity to do harm to others and ourselves is limitless. Our ability to reason is subject to the same duality. It can be used for good, and it can also be horribly flawed. Pascal recognizes both when he says:

One must know when it is right to doubt, to affirm, to submit. Anyone who does otherwise does not understand the force of reason. Some men run counter to these three principles, either affirming that everything can be proved, because they know nothing about proof, or doubting everything, because they do not know when to submit, or always submitting, because they do not know when judgment is called for.46

Unamuno sees the danger in affirming that everything can be proved, as the dogmatist does, and the danger in always submitting, as in the faith of el carbonero. But he does not seem to be able to judge when to submit, because he does not embrace Pascal’s belief that reason can be flawed, that there are limits to our ability to know. Pascal says: “Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it. It is merely feeble if it does not go as far as to realize that. If natural things are beyond it, what are we to say about supernatural things?”47 Unamuno says that he recognizes that the question of immortality lay outside the bounds of reason, as we will see shortly, but he does not accept happily any limits on his ability to know about the existence of God or the end of this life.

What about Kierkegaard’s view of doubt? We have noted already that Unamuno considered Kierkegaard a person who knew and lived the “tragic sense of life.” In an essay entitled “Ibsen y Kierkegaard,” Unamuno states that Kierkegaard was a person full of “resignación desesperada,” desperate resignation.48 Kierkegaard shares with Unamuno a concern about authentic existence that is concrete, which matters both now and for eternity. In The Tragic Sense of Life, Unamuno quotes Kierkegaard’s Climacus to underscore his contention that the question of the immortality of the soul lies outside of reason, because reason, abstract thought, refuses to take the question seriously. The quote from Concluding Unscientific Postscript is worth reproducing, in part, here:

The dubiousness of abstraction manifests itself precisely in the connection with all existential questions, from which abstraction removed the difficulty by omitting it and then boasts of having explained everything. It explains immortality in general, and see, it goes splendidly, inasmuch as immortality becomes identical with eternity, with the eternity that is essentially the medium of thought. But abstraction does not care about whether a particular existing human being is immortal, and just that is the difficulty. It is disinterested, but the difficulty of existence is the existing person’s interest, and the existing person is infinitely interested in existing. Thus abstract thinking helps me with my immortality by killing me as a particular existing individual and then making me immortal and therefore helps somewhat as in Holberg the doctor took the patient’s life with his medicine—but also drove out the fever.49

Yes, Kierkegaard was concerned with immortality, and he also shared Unamuno’s distrust in the power of reason to dispel the uncertainty about the end of life. But Kierkegaard’s anxiety is not caused simply by not knowing what would happen when he dies. Rather, Kierkegaard’s anxiety is rooted in the human condition which includes the terrible freedom to have a relationship with God or to fail to do so. His book, The Concept of Anxiety, is about sin as it stems from anxiety and destroys a proper relationship between the infinite and the finite.

At this point it is important to counter a popular misconception about Kierkegaard’s view of doubt and faith. Kierkegaard would not agree with Unamuno’s claim that “Faith that does not doubt is dead faith.”50 The doubt that Unamuno champions is equally applied to reason and faith. The life based on doubt will be a life of struggle, as quoted above: “The way to live, to struggle, to struggle for life and to live from the struggle, to live from faith, is to doubt.”51 While Kierkegaard eschews the kind of certainty that leads to dogmatism, he is far from promoting doubt as a way of life. Rather, Kierkegaard sees the need to act, even when there are known risks involved. In Fragments, Climacus says, “When belief resolves to believe, it runs the risk that it was an error, but nevertheless it wills to believe. One never believes in any other way; if one wants to avoid risk, then one wants to know with certainty that one can swim before going into the water.”52 Though faith and doubt can exist in the same person for Kierkegaard—and thus are not mutually exclusive—they are “opposite passions.”

Belief53 is the opposite of doubt. Belief and doubt are not two kinds of knowledge that can be defined in continuity with each other, for neither of them is a cognitive act, and they are opposite passions. Belief is a sense for coming into existence, and doubt is a protest against any conclusion that wants to go beyond immediate sensation and immediate knowledge.The doubter, for example, does not deny his own existence, but he draws no conclusions, for he does not want to be deceived.54

Resolution is called for, even in the presence of risk. The Kierkegaardian leap is truly a leap and not just a matter of querer creer or wanting to believe. “The conclusion of belief is no conclusion [Slutning] but a resolution [Beslutning], and thusdoubt is excluded.”55 Again, the opposite passion of doubt is faith. What is excluded is not uncertainty because that is part and parcel of faith. Rather, what is excluded, from Kierkegaard’s point of view, is vacillation and mistrust. Although faith is a response to uncertainty, it is not an embrace of that uncertainty. To choose faith is to choose not to doubt. To illustrate the importance of this difference between Kierkegaard and Unamuno, let us look at each of their reactions to an issue already noted in the discussion of Pascal, that of the hiddenness of God.

The Hiddenness of God

The chapter of The Tragic Sense of Life entitled “In the Depths of the Abyss,” contains Unamuno’s sonnet “The Prayer of the Atheist,” while emphasizing the “torturing doubts” of August Hermann Francke. The poem serves as a poignant complaint to a God who is hidden, conceived as a prayer to a God who does not exist. Just the last terceto is quoted in the text:

Sufro a tu costa,
Dios no existente, pues si Tú existieras
Existiría yo también de veras.

I suffer at your cost,
Non-existent God, for if you were to exist
I would also exist in reality.56

Within the poem the greatness of God is diminished as the deity becomes nothing more than an Idea. The poetic voice decries this God who is the cause of his suffering, a God who, if he had made himself more evident, would guarantee the existence of the poet as well.

Unamuno also reveals his frustration with a God who will not allow his face to be seen in his multiple references to the fact that Moses was denied the chance to see God’s face. One of them is found in a play called, La venda, a story about a formerly blind woman, María, who refuses to take off the bandage that keeps her from seeing her father, whom she has only known through relationship and insight, not through sight. There is much to be mined from this play as it reveals the playwright’s attitudes toward faith and reason, but our focus here is on the introduction to the action given by the characters Don Pedro and Don Juan.

Don Pedro and Don Juan represent the two warring factions in Unamuno’s worldview, reason and faith respectively. They are discussing living according to truth or according to illusion—living according to reason or according to faith. Don Pedro maintains that one must live according to the truth, while Don Juan counters that to do so is to die, and to live by illusion engenders life. Don Juan then refers to the Old Testament story about Moses desiring to see God and God refusing to let Moses see his face, because if he were to see the face of God, he would die.57 When Don Juan intimates that the same thing might happen to us if we were allowed to see God, Don Pedro replies: “What a beautiful death! To die as a result of having seen the truth! Can you want anything else? . . . reason reveals to us the secret of the world; reason makes us work.”58 One has the sense that Unamuno, though showing us the extremes of the views, agrees with Don Pedro. For him, truth should not be hidden. Man should know the secret of the world; it should not be denied him. By hiding himself, God denies us the truth.

There are, of course, other ways to read the text from Exodus. One can read God’s refusal to let his face be seen as a mercy, as a kindness. Later in the biblical text, we find that God tells Moses that he will show him proofs of his kindness and he will allow him to know his name. And when God passes by, he mercifully covers Moses’ eyes, protecting him from death, but he allows Moses to see his back. God allows Moses to see and to know what he is capable of knowing. Unamuno would not be content with such an explanation. He wants to know it all, and he believes that he should be able to know it all. He is offended by a God who would not let him see his face.

Why does God not dazzle us with his brilliance and make himself known, so that there would be no question about his existence? Many have asked the same question and Kierkegaard partially answers it in Concluding Unscientific Postscript. There he argues that God would not be revealing his true nature if he were to do such a thing as appear to us as “a rare, enormously large green bird with a red beak, that perched in a tree on the embankment and perhaps even whistled in an unprecedented manner.”59 The person who would be convinced by such a tawdry display might be impressed, but impressed with what? In Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard answers the question more positively by emphasizing that what God desires in revealing himself to us is a relationship, a relationship that is based on freedom and trust. Kierkegaard illustrates his point by telling the story of the king who loved a humble maiden and wanted to woo her. Though he most certainly could have her as his wife by revealing his status, his riches and power, and all those around him would have told him that the girl would be fortunate for having been chosen, he did not want to coerce her or manipulate her into loving him. Rather, he came to her disguised as a humble servant so that the relationship would be one of equality, not rank. Likewise, for God to reveal himself to humankind requires a kind of hiddenness. The incarnation is the way God accomplishes this.

For Kierkegaard, God is hidden to some and partially hidden to others. The ability to see and know God has to do with certain characteristics of the person which he termed “inwardness,” or “subjectivity.”

Nature, the totality of creation, is God’s work, and yet God is not there, but within the individual human being there is a possibility (he is spirit according to his possibility) that in inwardness is awakened to a God-relationship, and then it is possible to see God everywhere.60

Knowledge of God is linked with spiritual development.61 That is not to say that knowledge of God is linked with education or intelligence. Spiritual development must be available to all persons, educated or not. It has more to do with moral development as one is aware of the good that one should do and one’s inability to do the good without God’s help. This is important because “linking the knowledge of God to the development of subjectivity ensures that coming to know God will be a process whereby I grow and flourish as a person.”62 The crucial element here is humility and submitting to the authority of God. It is the ability to say that God may have good reason to remain hidden from me at any one moment, and the fact that I do not know God is due to my finitude and possibly my sinfulness, not to the fact that God is not there.

We have noted already that Pascal did experience the “dark night of the soul,” knowing personally the despair of the hiddenness of God. At other points in the Pensées,he speaks to the issue in ways that are consistent with his general view of the human condition and the proper relationship of the individual with God, given that condition. Once again, his general view of the human condition is: by nature we have two sides, one that is glorious because it is made in the image of God and one that is terribly flawed by the presence of sin. God reveals himself in ways that are consistent with our nature and his.

If there were no obscurity man would not feel his corruption: if there were no light man could not hope for a cure. Thus it is not only right but useful for us that God should be partly concealed and partly revealed, since it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his own wretchedness as to know his wretchedness without knowing God.63

Pascal noted also that in the case of God incarnate, the coming of Jesus to earth, it was predicted clearly that his divinity would be hidden, even to some of those who saw him face to face. “What do the prophets say about Jesus Christ? That he will plainly be God? No, but that he is a truly hidden God, that he will be not recognized, that people will not believe that it is he, that he will be a stumbling-block on which many will fall.”64 So, what determined who would see Christ as God and who would not? Pascal says what the New Testament does, that those who have ears to hear, hear. Jesus came to heal the sick, to call sinners to repentance while those who feel they are righteous and those who are rich will go away empty. Centuries after the fact, the divinity of Christ is perceived according to the heart of the person, just as it was when Jesus was first on earth. Pascal concludes:

Thus wishing to appear openly to those who seek him with all their heart and hidden from those who shun him with all their heart, he has qualified our knowledge of him by giving signs which can be seen by those who seek him and not by those who do not. There is enough light for those who desire only to see and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition.65

The response of our three authors to the hiddenness of God allows us to bring into focus why it is that Unamuno was unable to make the leap of faith that Kierkegaard and Pascal made. The clear difference between Unamuno and the others is his view of reason and what it should be able to accomplish. Unamuno is offended by a God who would not allow him to see his face. In “The Prayer of the Atheist,” we see an angry poet who is affronted by a God who does not make his existence known plainly. Both Kierkegaard and Pascal are wholly aware of the hiddenness of God, but see the individual as needing to learn something through it. They see human reason as limited and flawed and in need of revelation and grace. If for a moment we can equate the hiddenness of God with the paradox, we can say that Kierkegaard actually predicted Unamuno’s response to the paradox when he pointed out in Postscript that the only true responses to the paradox are faith and offense. Unamuo is offended by the hiddenness of God because he sees no need for his ability to know to be challenged by revelation or changed by grace. Therefore he is unable to make the leap of faith. Unamuno is left, rather, with querer creer and with the agony of doubt and faith held in perpetual tension.


We began with Unamuno’s claim that Kierkegaard and Pascal embodied the tragic sense of life. It is true that Unamuno resonated with parts of their authorship and believed that they shared the essence of his agonic life. But it is hard to characterize Unamuno as a Christian thinker, as is the case with Pascal and Kierkegaard. As I have shown, if one looks at how each author dealt with the critical relationship between doubt and faith, significant differences come to light that mitigate against Unamuno’s assertion that Kierkegaard and Pascal share his tragic sense of life. It is true that all three philosophers see real danger in claims of certainty that lead to dogmatism. None of the three sees much usefulness for logical proofs for God’s existence. They all see limits to reason, but for Kierkegaard and Pascal, the limits are imbedded in the human condition of being fallen and finite. They all acknowledge the existence and importance of uncertainty in relationship to faith, but for Kierkegaard and Pascal, uncertainty is not the same as doubt.

The doubt that Unamuno wants to apply equally to reason and to faith, which he sees as the life force keeping the two in tension, becomes paralyzing for him with regard to faith. Unamuno recognizes the inability of reason to decide matters like the existence of God or the knowledge of a life beyond this one. But, in truth, he chafes at that inability and believes that he should be able to know. This is demonstrated in his response of offense to the hiddenness of God as contrasted with the response of Kierkegaard and Pascal. Kierkegaard believes seeing God is a matter of inwardness and that God shows as much of himself to the person as the person is able to profitably grasp as he matures spiritually. Pascal cried out against a God who is hidden from him at times, but in the end, he sees his inability to know God as a result of his finitude and his own need of God’s revelation and grace. With Martín Gelabert, I see no room for revelation in Unamuno’s view.66

Rather than being characterized as a Christian thinker, Unamuno should beseen as a seeker of religious truth because of his insistence on his doctrine of querer creer, to want to believe, as his definition of faith. Querer creer allows him to continue to doubt and not to commit. Unamuno is content with wanting to believe,rather than making the leap of faith. Though he says that faith is a matter of the will, wanting to believe is enough for him, and therefore Unamuno is kept from embracing the faith of Kierkegaard and Pascal by retaining a doubt that privileges the struggle between reason and faith above faith itself.

Cite this article
Jan E. Evans, “Does Miguel de Unamuno’s Doubt Keep Him from Faith? Some Considerations with Glances to Pascal and Kierkegaard”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:1 , 59-76


  1. As recently as January of 2009, Atilano Coco was honored by the Salamanca Association for Memory and Justice as a man who was dedicated to democracy and tolerance. For further details, see: Ac-cessed January 24, 2009.
  2. Accessed October 14, 2008.
  3. Felipe Lapuente, “Unamuno y la Iglesia Católica: Reacción y crítica,” in Actas de X Congresode la Asociación Internacional de Hispanistas; Barcelona, 21-26 de agosto de 1989 (Barcelona: PPU,1992), 33.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Miguel de Unamuno, Del sentimiento trágico de la vida, in Obras completas vol. 7, M. GarciaBlanco, ed. (Madrid: Escelicer, 1967), 120. Translations of the Spanish are mine.
  6. Ibid., Del sentimiento trágico de la vida, 7:171.
  7. Ibid., La agonía de crisitianismo, 7:314.
  8. Ibid., Del sentimiento trágico de la vida, 7:133.
  9. Ibid., 174.
  10. Ibid., 172.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., 173.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., 175.
  15. Ibid., 180.
  16. Mark 9:23-24, NIV.
  17. Unamuno, Del sentimiento trágico de la vida, in Obras completas, 7:180-81.
  18. Ibid., 181.
  19. Unamuno, La agonía de cristianismo, in Obras completas, 7:311.
  20. Mark 15:34, NIV.
  21. Ibid., 311.
  22. Blaise Pascal, Pascal Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (Middlesex, England and Baltimore,MD: Penguin Books, 1966), 84:52. This and all subsequent passages from Pascal will be noted throughout by first quoting the number of the fragment and then the page on which it can be found in this edition.
  23. See the somewhat surprising remarks about Descartes in Fear and Trembling where Descartesis praised as a thinker who “did what he said and said what he did” and who did not recommend doubt with respect to matters of faith. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Repetition, eds.and trans. Howard and Edna Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 6-7.
  24. Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, eds. and trans. Howard and Edna Hong(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 82.
  25. Ibid., Concluding Unscientific Postscript, vol. 1, eds. and trans. Howard and Edna Hong(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 35n.
  26. I am indebted to Peter Kreeft and his book Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensees (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), for his insights into Pascal’s work.
  27. Pascal, Pensées, 406:147.
  28. Ibid., 131:65.
  29. Unamuno, Del sentimiento trágico de la vida, in Obras Completas, 7:204.
  30. C. Stephen Evans, “Apologetic Arguments in Philosophical Fragments,” in Kierkegaard on Faith and the Self (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2006), 133.
  31. Kierkegaard, Works of Love, eds. and trans. Howard and Edna Hong (Princeton: PrincetonUniversity Press, 1995), 200.
  32. Evans, “Can God Be Hidden and Evident at the Same Time? Some Kierkegaardian Reflections,” Faith and Philosophy 40.3 (2006): 241.
  33. Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 545.
  34. Ibid., Philosophical Fragments, 43.
  35. Evans, “Apologetic Arguments,” 141.
  36. Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, 54.
  37. Pascal, Pensées, 7:34.
  38. Ibid., 12:34.
  39. Ibid., 172:83.
  40. Ibid., 173:83.
  41. See Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments, 59, where the pseudonymous author Johannes Climacus insists that faith and offense are opposite passions, alternative ways of responding to the Incarnation, but that offense is no more rational than faith, which is a “happy encounter” with the incarnation. For a fuller argument for this, see C. Stephen Evans, “Is Kierkegaardan Irrationalist?” in Kierkegaard on Faith and the Self (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2006), particularly 129-30.
  42. Pascal, Pensées, 405, 146-7.
  43. Ibid., 429:162.
  44. Ibid., 429:163.
  45. Ibid., 631:237.
  46. Ibid., 170:83.
  47. Ibid., 188:85.
  48. Unamuno, “Ibsen y Kierkegaard,” in Obras completas, 3:289.
  49. Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 302.
  50. Unamuno, La agonía de cristianismo, in Obras completas, 7:311.
  51. Ibid.
  52. Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, 83.
  53. The Danish word tro can be translated either “belief” or “faith.” The Hongs have chosen“belief” here, but it could just as correctly be rendered “faith.”
  54. Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, 84.
  55. Ibid.
  56. Unamuno, Del sentimiento trágico de la vida, in Obras completas, 7:181. The entire poem can be found in 6:359.
  57. Exodus 33:17-23.
  58. Unamuno, La venda, in Obras completas 5:224.
  59. Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 245.
  60. Ibid., 246.
  61. See Evans, “Can God Be Hidden?,” 245.
  62. Ibid.
  63. Pascal, Pensées, 446:167.
  64. Ibid., 228:101.
  65. Ibid., 149:80.
  66. See Martín Gelabert, “Dios, exigencia y pregunta del hombre según Unamuno,” Razon y fe213 (1986): 170, where he said that given Unamuno’s presuppositions, “No hay sitio para larevelación en Unamuno,” “There is no place for revelation in Unamuno.”

Jan E. Evans

Baylor University
Ms. Evans is Associate Professor of Spanish at Baylor University.