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Notes on a Christian Seeker: Søren Kierkegaard, Father of Existentialism

One of the most remarkable, versatile, and intriguing modern writers is Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, social critic, and satirist, whose voluminous works are a colorful patchwork of books published with serious titles under his own name and books published with fanciful or teasing titles under a bewildering variety of pseudonyms (including Judge William, Constantine Constantius, Young Man, Nicolaus Notabene, Hilarius Bookbinder, Inter et Inter, and Anti-Climacus). He was a sworn lifelong enemy of German abstract-idealist philosophy (Hegel above all) and a passionate preacher of the truth of Christianity—though, by his own admission, a decidedly personal, individual form of faith, with little time for what he saw as the bourgeois compromises of the institutional church.

For Kierkegaard, Christianity challenges us to believe without proofs and to love without self-interest; it provokes one to reexamine constantly one’s motives and one’s position in light of God and eternity. For this and many other reasons, Kierkegaard is often spoken of as the “father of existentialism,” and has never ceased to exercise a fascination over those who are discontented with the status quo in either practical or speculative life, who are searching for a radical point of departure. I fell under his spell in graduate school and read many, many volumes of his writings, which infused me with a certain spirit of seriousness and urgency about Christian faith, as well as a taste for literary playfulness. I was always aware of his limitations with regard to theology and the Church—he does not seem especially well-informed about Catholicism, since the Danish national Lutheran church forms the backdrop to his work—but found so much profit in his insights that I regard him with gratitude as a true intellectual benefactor. 

Here I will describe some of my favorite works of this author and quote as much as I can of his own words—the sheer delight of his writing has few parallels in the Western corpus. All the books are published by Princeton University Press as part of their complete set of Kierkegaard’s Writings (KW).

Christian Discourses; Without Authority

Among the pseudonymous and acknowledged works published during Kierkegaard’s lifetime, the various sets of Christian discourses occupy a decisive place. These two volumes (KW XVII & XVIII) share many themes—for example, the lessons taught by the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, or the right dispositions for receiving holy communion. Kierkegaard frequently comes back to certain dangers: the collapse of earnest Christian faith, the infiltration of theology by corrupt modern currents (philosophical word-games, cultural pretensions, egalitarian social movements), a secular environment in which basic virtues become increasingly rare. “We have omitted and abolished the most important view of existence; what we preach is worldly wisdom and a philistine-bourgeois gospel especially inspiring to lottery-players” (WA 208). “Christianity or the Gospel has become trivial to people because they have known it so long and learned it by rote” (WA 233). “If there is anything we in these times have forgotten, it is to wonder, and therefore also to believe and to hope and to love. The highest is proclaimed, the most marvelous, but no one wonders” (CD 107). To combat this trivialization, Kierkegaard composed discourses which he referred to in his notes as “an assault by thoughts” (CD 379), “a temple-cleansing celebration” (CD 402); “their role is that of guerrillas” (WA 217).

But Christianity’s collapse in the world and growing indifference to the Gospel are not Kierkegaard’s primary concern. Enclosing and suffusing the critical-polemical elements are light, joy, and hope. Few speak as movingly of the consolations of faith, the nobility of the Christian message, the riches of God’s mercy. As if addressing readers no longer familiar with even its foundations, he takes pains to clarify the essence of Christianity, showing how it differs completely from all other ways of living and thinking. Confronted by a worldly “Christian” society, Kierkegaard seeks to recover the “essentially Christian”; and instead of recovering it cheaply by downplaying its paradoxes and smoothing over its demands, he brings these things directly to the fore: “the religious, the essentially Christian, is seen to its very best advantage in such disturbed times, when, instead of becoming mild, it jacks up the price still more” (WA 217).

One prominent theme is that philosophy shows itself again and again to be inadequate to answering ultimate questions of meaning, motive, principle, and destiny. Far from being mere pious exercises, his scriptural exegeses are the distillation and defense of the Christian view of reality and the distinctively Christian answer to the conundrums posed by philosophy at its wit’s end. The Kierkegaardian critique of Hegelianism which occasionally surfaces in these volumes thus has a much more universal scope. It is not just Hegel or his Danish followers that Kierkegaard targets; it is Promethean man, the would-be creator of self-sufficient rational systems culminating in a glorification of nothing, of man’s nothingness and the naught of his restless cogitation. Our modern penchant for over-analyzing leads to a situation in which “what is a task for action has been turned into a question for thought” (CD 205), in this way stripped of its potency for personal transformation. The model of demonstration which has crept into the inner precincts of philosophy makes things unreal, the sport of uncommitted debaters. By reductively rationalizing the fundamental human task, faith in God, one places oneself in the presumptuous position of superiority in regard to truth; I judge it, it no longer judges me.

In the confrontation of philosophy and religion, the latter emerges triumphant not by descending into the sphere of philosophy but by pointing out a higher way, a way to get free from the otherwise inescapable contradictions of thought and life, freedom and duty, existential loneliness and healing love. Kierkegaard shows that the inescapable philosophical question—what is man, what is the meaning of human existence—is frustratingly insoluble without faith, without God’s grace, without standing in the presence of God. Responding ahead of time to Nietzsche, Kierkegaard writes: “To slay God is the most dreadful suicide; utterly to forget God is a human being’s deepest fall—a beast cannot fall that deep” (CD 67). “The fundamental derangement at the root of modern times…actually consists in this: that the qualitative chasmic abyss in the difference between God and human beings has been obliterated” (CD 384). What is needed is a return to faith: “I must continually go to school to God, who, when necessary, starts me all over again at the beginning to make me understand what I am, what a human being is, before him” (CD 385). “What is required of the human being…is that he shall lose himself in wonder over God” (CD 131).

Works of Love

Kierkegaard wrote much on the subject of love, but few of his treatments are as eloquent as this series of “disputations” built around texts of sacred scripture (KW XVI). His lucid analysis of the parallelism and divergency of worldly and Christian love make this book a fine place to begin reading Kierkegaard if one has not had the pleasure of his acquaintance. As with other works of the author, one finds here the same unique combination of sportiveness, impassioned argument, rapt storytelling, and aphoristic wisdom. It is often impossible to say whether Kierkegaard is speaking philosophically, theologically, poetically, or autobiographically. A large part of the mesmerizing beauty of his prose comes from the impossibility of categorizing what he is doing.

First appearing in 1847, Works of Love interweaves themes of traditional Christian preaching with the kind of cultural provocation and phenomenological dissection for which Kierkegaard is admired. The author wends his way through the characteristics of Christian love (Kjerlighed), contrasting it sharply with erotic love (Elskov) in a dialectic of revelation and worldliness, principled duty and emotional inclination, Biblical clarity and the pleasing ambiguity of the poets.

The first series of discourses (1–204) opens with a broad consideration of the essence of genuine love, the way in which love is a matter of works, and the selflessness demanded by love of the neighbor. Kierkegaard takes opportunities to speak sharply about ‘the poets,’ with whom (like Plato) he has a less-than-warm rapport, and sees the realm of the worldly man, for whom the poet is spokesman, as one of endless vanity and prolixity. Standing against the idolatry and mutability of mere human love is the eternally binding, eternally rewarding ideal of Christian love expressed in the simple commandment “You shall love your neighbor,” and in Romans 13:10, “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” Kierkegaard elucidates the deeper meaning of these verses by looking at conscience, debt, offense, enemy, and equality.

Like authors to whom he has been compared, such as Augustine, Pascal, and Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard draws forth from the treasure house of Christianity many insights old and new, leaving no path unfollowed, no possibility unexplored. His meditations on time and worldliness resonate with Augustinian overtones, and his scrutiny of the inner nature of human experience puts one in awe of his powers of description. Throughout, one discerns the melancholy voice of a man painfully aware of the darkness of human history (a long record of ingratitude) and the downfall of Christian faith in modernity; yet never is Kierkegaard’s hopeful ardor lacking, even in the bleakest prognosis.

In the second series of discourses (205–386), Kierkegaard focuses more closely on certain properties or elements of Christian love: fidelity, hopefulness, persistence, compassion, conciliation, etc. As he examines the sides of love like a jeweller carefully studying the facets of a gem, Kierkegaard discusses self-revelation (what it means to disclose oneself or to hide oneself); belief and infidelity, hope and despair as metaphysical variations on the same psychological data; deception as an analogue of madness; the tight relationship of “yours” and “mine”—topics too numerous to name, all of which he treats with rigor and finesse, sometimes in a puckish spirit, but always brutally candid.

Kierkegaard pleads with us, perhaps better than anyone else, that speculation for its own sake is pagan and unworthy: one should scorn the vanity of “knowledge for knowledge’s sake.” Active love is the beginning and the end of truth; there can be no luxury of imagining “what it would be like to love.” For Kierkegaard, to understand one’s position before the infinite eternal God and before one’s fellow man is at the same time to be pressed into service—the service of love and love’s God.

Prefaces; Writing Sampler

“I believe that I would do philosophers a great service if they were to adopt a category which I myself have discovered and utilized with great profit and success to exhaust and dry up a multitude of relations and qualifications that have so far been unwilling to resolve themselves—it is the category of higher lunacy.”

These words could be the motto for Kierkegaard’s brash enterprise in Prefaces and Writing Sampler (KW IX). Here we find eight prefaces to books that will never be written because the wife of their author—one Nicolaus Notabene—refuses to let him be unfaithful to her by romancing his own ideas. The target of Kierkegaard’s satire is ever shifting: Hegelians and their pretentious encyclopedias, journalists and their self-glorifying arbitration of public taste (“The journalist’s profession…is indeed so onerous that only the consciousness of what one is achieving in the service of truth for the ennobling of mankind can provide the strength to persevere”), book reviewers and their pseudo-omniscience (“The reviewers…are the highly trusted minions of the most esteemed public, its cupbearers and privy councilors”), the cultivated public which thinks so unspeakably highly of itself, progressive Christians who feel that religion has finally reached maturity in their urbane relativism.

Taking a stab at modern philosophers who churn out one gigantic volume after another, the author of Preface I proclaims:

Therefore I vow: as soon as possible to realize a plan envisaged for thirty years, to publish a logical system, as soon as possible to fulfill my promise, made ten years ago, of an esthetic system; furthermore, I promise an ethical and dogmatic system, and finally the system. As soon as this has appeared, generations to come will not even need to learn to write, because there will be nothing more to write, but only to read—the system. (14)

In Preface VIII, Nicolaus proposes to start up a journal devoted to seeking explanations for the Hegelian philosophy which he in his innocent obtuseness just cannot comprehend. The unfortunate Notabene comments: “when I, despite every effort, was unable to ascend to the dizzying thought of doubting everything, I decided, in order nevertheless to doubt something, to concentrate my soul on the more human task of doubting whether all the philosophers understood what they said and what was said” (49). Notabene patiently establishes his credentials as a dull plain man who still feels beckoned by philosophy into the great thought-solution promised by the Danish philosophers to whom the metaphysical secrets of the dialectic of being and nothingness have been vouchsafed. “If this philosophy, after having explained everything, now advances and explains itself, what a splendid prospect” (56).

Kierkegaard also does not hesitate to lambaste what he perceives as the degeneration of scholarship into meaningless repetition and minutiae: “To write a book is the easiest of all things in our time, if, as is customary, one takes ten older works on the same subject and out of them puts together an eleventh on the same subject” (35). The result is that “even if scholarship in our day has finished with everything, it nevertheless has unfortunately forgotten the point of the whole thing” (43).

Throughout, he has nothing good to say about journalism either, with its crowd-pleasing servility, its magnification of the irrelevant, its tireless propounding of shallow views. “What wonder is it, after all, that the significant is the significant? But to make the intrinsically insignificant more significant than the most significant—that surely is still a task” (28). His scornful remarks about the culture fostered by journalism are especially timely: “it may already be assumed that boys of 8 to 10 normally read their newspapers… What enormous progress in comparison with the patriarchal-bourgeois era when they read only their lessons” (87). Nowadays I suppose we should have to say “normally watch their phones.”

The Book on Adler 

“I dare to guarantee [the reader] that from this book he will acquire a clarity about and a deft drilling in individual dogmatic concepts that usually are perhaps not so easily obtained” (KW XXIV, 3), writes Kierkegaard at the beginning of this fascinating inquiry into the character of Adolph Peter Adler (1817–1869), a rural pastor and advocate of Hegelian philosophy who asserted in 1843 that he had received a special revelation from Christ but later contradicted himself in a flurry of intellectual prevarication. As Kierkegaard notes, the supposed revelation looks suspiciously like Hegelian metaphysics confusedly combined with half-understood Christian concepts, and the “clarifications” Adler later sent to an ecclesiastical investigator are “evasions” (56), a way of changing essentially what he had earlier reported.

Adler’s ever-changing story about who or what he is, his comical back-and-forth between the incompatible roles of apostle and man of letters, reveals a rootless soul that does not know itself: “he is a private, confused lyrical genius who casually exegetes incidental Bible verses ‘accordingly as these appeal to him’” (81). Having laid claim to a revelation, however, Adler must be called to account: either he must return to this revelation-fact with the simplicity and fervor of faith, or he must renounce his pretensions and revoke his original statement.

For many years Kierkegaard labored over different versions of the book before he abandoned plans for its publication. One can understand his hesitancy. The finished product demolishes Adler’s position with the fury of a worked-up pugilist who keeps hitting his opponent after the knock-out bell has rung. He felt sorry for Adler and feared that his withering critique would “have too strong an effect on him” (xiii).

It is remarkable how well this book stands up to the passage of 150 years. One might think that an extensive inquiry into an obscure Danish pastor and his pseudo-revelations would have little to say to us today, but as anyone familiar with Kierkegaard could have guessed, it is quite otherwise. “I have chosen my task in such a way that the treatment, because of its more universal and more ideal character, will be able to be read in every age” (27). The Book on Adler is above all an extended commentary on the philosophical-linguistic-religious disorientation of the modern age, wherein “there has been a confusion of the spheres: profundity has been mistaken—for authority; the intellectual—for the ethical; being a genius—for being an apostle” (5).

The title of Chapter IV encapsulates the movement of the work as a whole: “A Psychological View of Adler as a Phenomenon and as a Satire on Hegelian Philosophy and the Present Age.” Here one discovers important elements of Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegelianism as an ethically sterile and self-deifying system, his polemic against modern biblical criticism, and his assessment of the modern world as trapped in a vicious cycle of amusement and meaninglessness: “many people’s lives go on in such a way that they have premises for living but do not arrive at any conclusion” (7); “the more the age of movement and the many individuals lack a conclusion, the more actively people seem to multiply the premises” (9).

What troubles Kierkegaard is the sight of contemporaries of his whose lives display a total lack of responsibility, a thoughtlessness, towards God and fellow men. Along with other Hegelians and scriptural exegetes, Adler makes a mockery of revelation by immanentizing it, sowing doubts about the supernatural dialectic proper to Christianity. “That the eternal once came into existence in time is not a truth that must stand up to the test of time, is not something that must be tested by human beings but is the paradox by which human beings must be tested” (37–38).

Looking back over his works in 1849, Kierkegaard discerned a progression “from ‘the poet,’ from the esthetic—from the philosopher, from the speculative—to the intimation of the most inward interpretation of the essentially Christian” (WA xii). It seems that his vocation in human history is to continue to help readers to move from the poetic/esthetic to the philosophical/speculative to the essentially Christian, which does not leave these earlier phases behind but gives them their concrete context and ultimate purpose.

Banner image: Arne ListKierkegaard 20090502-DSCF1492CC BY-SA 3.0

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