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Introduction to Kierkegaard

So, here's a not-entirely-unbiased-and-sometimes-probably-less-than-entirely-accurate introduction to the life and thought of Kierkegaard that I typed up for a couple friends.

I think this is a must-read for all Christians**.

First of all, I will try to outline a few of Kierkegaard’s major targets and opponents—only by properly understanding his historical context and what he was endeavoring to critique can we form any clear notion of what his arguments were.

First of all, above all, his opponent was Hegelianism, or what he calls “The System” in the Preface to Fear and Trembling. This was the prevailing philosophy of the day, the product of Georg W.F. Hegel's philosophy developed in the first years of the 1800s.
Hegel's philosophy was semi-pantheistic, as well as strongly rationalistic. The Divine, for Hegel, was the Absolute Mind, which was manifested in the world throughout history. The supernatural, for Hegel, could be reduced to and analyzed in the natural. Furthermore, history, as an unfolding of the divine, could be viewed as a predictable process, following a necessary development, and more importantly, Christianity could be fit into this scheme, so as to give the Church a sense of complacency and a rational justification for its faith. Moreover, in the Hegelian system, pantheist as it was, the individual was reduced to merely a cipher in the great stream of history. The individual became unimportant--the unified mass was what was important. (Note that Marx was a prominent Hegelian thinker) Kierkegaard, as a young student, was thoroughly

The orthodox Christianity of the day did not of course accept this unbiblical system whole-hog, however, like any very prominent intellectual movement, the Church assimilated many of its major teachings into its theological outlook. So there was an increasing tendency to naturalize Christianity--it was simply the natural outworking of history, it embodied universal principles of ethics, it was thoroughly rational and sensible... The Hegelian scheme of history was adopted to suit Christian purposes, and the Hegelian de-emphasis on the individual undermined the importance of individual faith.

Moreover, the Church in that time in Denmark was the Lutheran Establishment Church dating back to the Reformation. It was complacent, lukewarm, and pervasive. Everyone was a Christian, which meant, in many important ways, no one was. I insert the following parable from Kierkegaard's journals to illustrate:
The Domestic Goose
A Moral Tale
“Try to imagine for a moment that geese could talk—that they had so arranged things that they too had their divine worship and their church-going.
“Every Sunday they would meet together and a gander would preach.
“The sermon was essentially the same each time—it told of the glorious destiny of geese, of the noble end for which their maker had created them—and every time his name was mentioned all the geese curtsied and all the ganders bowed their heads. They were to use their wings to fly away to the distant pastures to which they really belonged; for they were only pilgrims on this earth.
“The same thing happened each Sunday. Thereupon the meeting broke up and they all waddled home, only to meet again next Sunday for divine worship and waddle off home again—but that was as far as they ever got. They throve and grew fat, plump and delicious—and at Michaelmas they were eaten—and that was as far as they ever got. It never came to anything. For while their conversation on Sundays was high-sounding, on Mondays they would tell each other what had happened to the goose who had taken the end set before them quite seriously, and in spite of many tribulations had tried to use the wings its creator had bestowed upon it.
“All that was indeed common knowledge among the geese, but of course no one mentioned the subject on Sundays, for as they observed, it would then have been obvious that to attend divine service would have been to fool both God and themselves.
“Among the geese were several who looked ill and wan, and all the other geese said—there, you see what comes of taking flying seriously. It is all because they go about meditating on flying that they get thin and wan and are not blessed by the grace of God as we are; for that is why we grow fat, plump and delicious.
“And so next Sunday off they went to divine service, and the old gander preached of the glorious end for which their Maker (and at that point all the geese curtsied and the ganders bowed their heads) had created them, and of why they were given wings.
“And the same is true of divine worship in Christianity.”

Notice that part of the problem was an imbalance of natural and supernatural, or, as Kierkegaard would phrase it throughout his works, finite and infinite. Full-blown Hegelians tended toward a complete naturalization of religion; for the orthodox churches, the supernatural was not done away with, it was just comfortably transported to another realm. Most of life was to be lived in the natural world, and the Christian could comfortably carry on there without his Christianity being too heavily involved--his faith related only to the hereafter. With Christian distinctives thus made wholly otherworldly, the average Christian life was free to be lived without passion or any particular distinction.

Many of the bishops, with their Hegelianized postmillenialism, were just making the problem worse, Kierkegaard thought. So he set out to shake the Danish church out of its complacency. As he wrote in one place in his journals, “It is high time that Christianity was taken away from men in order to teach them to appreciate it a little.”

It is also important to understand just a bit of Kierkegaard's life to understand his works. He was born into a wealthy and important Danish family in 1813. His father was a significant and highly respected personage, and educated Soren thoroughly. Unfortunately, his father was a somewhat messed-up individual. While outwardly he had everything together, inwardly he struggled with guilt and depression. His wife was not Soren's actual mother--that wife had died right after Soren and his brother were born, and the father had then quickly married a maidservant with whom he'd been having an affair. The father had struggled with the guilt of this all his life, and when Soren learned of it, in his early 20s, he was devastated and disillusioned. The Christian faith he had been raised on no longer seemed as firm a foundation, and Soren began to struggle with guilt of his own. He was tormented over his purpose in life, at times feeling that he was cursed, or that he was chosen by God for some high and lonely calling...or some combination of both. A normal existence he knew he could never lead...his mind and soul were too uniquely constituted.

For these reasons, he broke off his engagement with the woman he madly loved (and who madly loved him), Regine Olsen. He wanted to spare her from sharing his fate in life, which did not, he think, admit of sharing with another. So he pretended not to love her, leaving a scar on his own soul which never fully healed, and allusions to her of various sorts appear in his writings. All this time, he was a student of philosophy at the University of Copenhagen. Shortly afterward, though, he went to Berlin to study under the great Hegelians there. Soon, he'd had all he could take, though, and returned to Denmark. There, between 1843 and 1845, he embarked on his first great barrage of writing. At this time, he was still a very tormented individual, sure he was a Christian but uncertain of how to relate to God. His profoundest philosophical works, in which he attacked Hegelianism and its crippling effects on Christianity head-on, date from this period: Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, Philosophical Fragments, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, etc. He stirred up a fair amount of controversy in Denmark with these works (all written pseudonymously), but nothing compared to what was to come later. In 1848, Kierkegaard underwent a sort of second conversion experience, in which he finally felt clearly God's grace upon him and was filled with much greater peace and confidence than ever before. The next few years saw him put out more writings in the form of psychological, spiritual, or ethical expositions, or more pastoral sorts of works (though he was not himself a pastor, being convinced that the Established Church would never accept him nor could he accept it). Important works of this second period are The Sickness Unto Death, Works of Love, and Training in Christianity. In them, many of the same themes as before show up, but oriented for a somewhat different purpose.
During all this time, though, the chasm between him and the Established Church was continuing to grow, though he tried to remain as peacable as possible as long as Bishop Mynster, a close family friend, remained head of the Danish Church. When he died and was succeeded in 1854, though, by Martensen, Kierkegaard launched a full-scale attack on the evils of the Church in Denmark (later published as the Attack on Christendom) until his sudden death in 1855. When he died, he was at last at peace with God, but not, in general, with the world around him.

So what did Kierkegaard argue for?

One of his greatest concerns was that Christians strive for an intensely personal faith. Christians had learn to put their trust in forms and externals so much that faith seemed effortless--your Christian faith just leaned on a whole bunch of external helps and other people, that you didn't have to work for it at all. In Fear and Trembling, as in a number of other works, Kierkegaard sought to portray faith as something which, in its truest form, was extremely rare and precious. This faith was an intensely personal faith, based on a close relationship with God himself, rather than a rather abstract and vague allegiance to a religion. To have it required that one first recognize that God could take everything away from you, everything that you relied upon for your faith, and you would still be called upon to trust in Him completely, to trust in Him for his sake alone and not because of any of the crutches upon which you ordinarily rely. Moreover, this faith, as Kierkegaard emphasized in his knight of faith analogy in Fear and Trembling, could not merely be a resignation to God's will--natural religion could go that far. The supernatural element came when one took the next step and said, "No, I trust that God is with me and he will be gracious to me, not merely in the life to come, but in the here and now." (Note, it was this kind of faith which Kierkegaard struggled so hard for himself, and had not perhaps yet attained to when he wrote Fear and Trembling.) Note also another factor here--Kierkegaard was an opponent of a very otherworldly Christianity. Christians should not be content to put their faith only in a reward to come in the afterlife; Christianity had to be lived, with passion, every day, in this world, in this life. The true man of faith had his feet firmly on the ground, had faith in God for this life, lived every day in His presence.

This sort of living with passion, this absolute relation to God, characterized Kierkegaard's existentialism. He is often considered the founder of existentialism, and grouped together with folks like Nietzsche and Sartre. While this is fair to an extent, such comparisons usually neglect the radical difference that Kierkegaard's Christianity. While Kierkegaard too insists that the individual must learn to live authentically, in a true relation to himself, and that he must find meaning for himself and live passionately for it, this is all found in the individual's relationship with God. For a secular existentialist like Sartre, ultimate meaning and authenticity is impossible and reduces to subjectivism. Kierkegaard's notion of authenticity is well-exhibited in this quote from his journals: “Everyone would like to have lived at the same time as great men and great events: God knows how many really live at the same time as themselves. To do that (and so neither in hope or fear of the future, nor in the past) is to understand oneself and be at peace, and that is only possible through one’s relation to God, or it is one’s relation to God.”

One of the corollaries to this notion of faith was a redefinition of the Christian's relation to other areas of life, such as ethics. Hegelianism had taught Christians to naturalize and universalize ethics. Ethical codes were the universal rational manifestation of how man should live. Religion, ethics, faith…all of it was universalized, naturalized, depersonalized. Kierkegaard wanted to bring it back to the source--God himself. What defines right? Not some abstract ethical code. What God commands. The believer is not to see himself as preeminently loyal to some standard, but as loyal to God personally. God himself requires of us a full dependence on him, an absolute relationship with him (hence the "absolute relation to the absolute" in Fear and Trembling); the commands he gives us are in the context of that loyalty, that relationship, and they should not be abstracted from it. For that reason, God can sometimes, as with Abraham, ask us to act in ways contrary to what we normally ought to, to show us that what is most important is our faith in Him, our relationship with Him. This is what is meant by "teleological suspension of the ethical." It is not relativism. It is not the assertion that we can dispense with the Bible's commandments whenever we think we have a special mission from God. I doubt Kierkegaard would think that the average person should ever expect such an exception to actually apply to him; however, this doctrine is nevertheless important and necessary in order that we rightly understand the nature of our ethical obligations, and do not abstract them from our relationship to God.

Kierkegaard was also concerned with Hegelianism's insistence on explaining and understanding everything, including Christianity. Supposedly, it sought to defend Christianity--providing scientific and rational proof for it. But by rationalizing it thus, it killed it. It made something supernatural into something merely natural. Kierkegaard insisted on protecting Christianity from such "defense"--it was beyond "defense," beyond "understanding." Modernity, he felt, was obsessed with understanding everything, and that simply couldn't be done.
Again, from his journals: “Until now, people have always expressed themselves in the following way: the knowledge that one cannot understand this or the other thing does not satisfy science, the aim of which is to understand. Here is the mistake; people ought to say the very opposite: if human science refuses to understand that there is something which it cannot understand, or better still, that there is something about which it clearly understands that it cannot understand it—then all is confusion. For it is the duty of the human understanding to understand that there are things which it cannot understand, and what those things are.”

He said, famously, in Fear and Trembling, that "faith begins at the very point where understanding leaves off." As long as we believe in something on the basis of certain arguments or proofs, our beliefs can only be as strong as those arguments or proofs, and none of these are ultimately strong enough to justify the kind of belief that God requires of us. Or, as Kierkegaard puts it in Philosophical Fragments, no finite proof can serve as a sufficient condition for an infinite belief--some kind of leap must be made. This is the famous Kierkegaard "leap of faith"--you follow understanding to the point where it can go no further, and then by faith you commitment yourself to a belief that defies reason and understanding--on the strength of the absurd.

Kierkegaard puts the problem this way:
“A man says to himself: here is an historical fact which teaches me that in regard to my eternal happiness I must have recourse to Jesus Christ. Now I must certainly preserve myself from taking the wrong turning into scientific enquiry and research, as to whether it is quite certainly historical; for it is historical right enough: and if it were ten times as certain in all its details it would still be no help: for directly I cannot be helped.
“and so I say to myself: I choose; that historical fact means so much to me that I decide to stake my whole life upon that if. Then he lives; lives entirely full of the idea, risking his life for it: and his life is the proof that he believes. He did not have a few proofs, and so believed and then began to life. No, the very reverse.
“That is called risking; and without risk faith is an impossibility.”

A final issue, related to this, which appears over and over in Training in Christianity, as well as other places, is the issue of Christianity and history. Christians, partly on account of Hegelianism, partly based just on a blind trust in their traditions, allowed history to make them comfortable in their faith and soften the offense of the gospel. In Training in Christianity, Kierkegaard over and over comes back to the declaration, "Blessed is he who is not offended in me." All throughout the gospels, he says, is this possibility of offense, and the fact that most did take offense at Jesus. We, by viewing Christ through the lens of history, and with the benefit of hindsight and the success of Christianity, and resting comfortably upon the declarations of the Church, wouldn't dream of taking offense. We have removed the offense! Of course Christ is God and man. Of course he taught that the only way to the Father was through Him. Yes, yes, we know it all. And of course it's all true--history has vindicated it. But Kierkegaard challenges his readers not to take all this for granted, but to imagine Christ as he might have appeared to a first-century Jew, to see the magnitude of the offense, the ridiculousness of Christ's message, and still believe--not because it was obvious, but because it was absurd. Kierkegaard challenged the Christians of his day to encounter Christ as he came in all his lowliness, in all his paradoxical shockingness, in the 1st century, not as he appeared rich, comfortable, and well-dressed in the churches of Christendom.

These are a few of the key points in Kierkegaard's thought. Obviously I have left out much, and obviously I have slanted a great deal to fit my particular perception. There are many more philosophical concerns in Kierkegaard's thought that I have not touched on, that most scholars would consider preeminent. While these are important, however, I believe from my reading that almost all of Kierkegaard's animating beliefs were preeminently theological--who is God and how do we relate to Him? How are we to live in the light of His existence, and His presence in our lives?

Of course, it is also important to remember that Kierkegaard was very individualistic, and opposed to many things about the Church and Sacraments that we value very highly. However, I do not think this is reason to neglect the truth of so much of what he had to say, or to fail to let his admonitions challenge us when we become too comfortable.

**With the exception of those who have less than 168 hours a week in leisure time.


Wow, the completed and humungouus introduction to Kierkegaard. How honored I feel. Although, it is in need of editing. There are some half-sentences which I would have liked to see the endings of.

This was helpful-- it gave me some information I had actually been planning on finding, particularly about Kierkegaard's early life, and about the details of Hegelianism. You have saved me a dig through the encyclopedia, and for this I thank you.

Would you be completely offended if I thought Kierkegaard seems to show Romantic influences?

June 25, 2007 at 5:18 AM  

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