Monday, November 11, 2013

Søren Kierkegaard: The Philosopher's Theologian

“If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what then would life be but despair? If it were thus, if there were no sacred bond uniting mankind, if one generation rose up after another like the leaves of the forest, if one generation succeeded the other as the songs of birds in the woods, if the human race passed through the world as a ship through the sea or the wind through the desert, a thoughtless and fruitless whim, if an eternal oblivion always lurked hungrily for its prey and there were no power strong enough to wrest it from its clutches – how empty and devoid of comfort would life be!”
Søren Kierkegaard, “Fear and Trembling”

When one thinks of church reformation, one is likely to think of Germany in the 16th century. When thinking of reformers, one thinks, naturally, of Martin Luther, dramatically nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. There have been other reformations, of course, but these are certainly the most famous, and the one whose reverberations are still most broadly felt today. Certainly, when considering church reformation, one is hardly likely to think of the Danish church of the 19th century, and one certainly is not likely to consider Søren Kierkegaard among the great reformers.

He is rarely counted among the theologians, and only rarely would he be counted among those whose lives have made a real impact upon the spiritual health of the world.

“Of all of God’s spies,” opines Malcolm Muggeridge, “Kierkegaard is surely one of the weirdest. Interminably wandering about the streets of Copenhagen, one trouser leg shorter than the other, he had the people in the cafes nudging one another and exchanging significant nods and winks as he passed by.”

Born in 1813, Kierkegaard seems to have gotten some of his stranger qualities from his father, who, as one biographer writes was a “melancholy, eccentric and increasingly reclusive father, who lavished attention – if not affection – on his youngest, cleverest son... By the time Søren was seven years old, his father was teaching him logic by engaging him in conversation and then subjecting his responses to rigorous, critical analysis... Reflecting on his upbringing towards the end of his life, Kierkegaard writes that his father’s fault ‘consisted not in a lack of love but in mistaking a child for an old man.’”

Kierkegaard began by studying theology at the University of Copenhagen, hoping to become a Lutheran minister, but eventually abandoned his theological studies in favor of philosophy, for which he had a natural gifting, though he grew frustrated when philosophy grew too academic—he considered that the pursuit of philosophy ought to be no mere intellectual pursuit; it ought to teach one how to live life.

Though raised in the church, and taught to revere Christianity from an early age, Kierkegaard experienced some sort of religious breakthrough in 1838 (at the age of 25), just before the death of his father. Soon after, he met his life’s love, Regine Olsen, though after the two were engaged, he decided to break off the engagement (“perhaps,” writes his biographer, “because he thought it was incompatible with his spiritual aspirations, perhaps because he feared emotional and sexual intimacy, perhaps because he was too depressive to be a good husband.”)

Much of Kierkegaard’s writing was shaped, at least in some sense, by these events. He had experienced lost love and he had decided that faith was a thing that he ought to take seriously.

As an adult, Kierkegaard seemed to greatly enjoy time spent alone—he would have considered himself a recluse—and hardly cared what others thought of him. His voice, which was a great, booming voice, speaking endlessly on the condition of the human heart when taking the form of words on paper, could not be heard from behind a pulpit, nor from a street corner or upon a stage. He was no preacher—he was a writer. His influence has survived because it came through his words. Countless words. Journal entries that cover decades; newspaper clippings; articles; papers, and, of course, books.

For better or for worse, this is surely why I have found myself relating so easily to Kierkegaard—he was never more at home than when putting pen to paper, his words and ideas flowed easily enough when they could be uttered at his own pace. He was a private, aloof figure, willing to comment on society but rarely willing to engage it. He was more than willing to speak his mind on paper, but he would hardly have been willing to speak of his ideas publically. He hardly would have found any ability as a preacher or as a professor. So he wrote and he published and, through the written word, he offered both enlightenment and inspiration to his readers, many of whom surely knew nothing at all of his personal eccentricities.

Today, Kierkegaard is remembered, first and foremost, as a philosopher—one of the founding fathers of Existentialism. He wrote endlessly on philosophical matters, commenting on modern philosophy using classical philosophy, reinventing philosophical ideas to make them applicable to how one truly lives life... he wrote and wrote. He wrote himself, quite literally, to death at the age of forty-two, having produced, not merely more words than most of us will ever find time to read, but words of a higher quality than ought to be expected from anyone so prolific.

Having by no means exaggerated the scope of Kierkegaard’s outpouring, it goes without saying that I should hardly begin to scratch the surface on his philosophy here. He was a thinker, I think it is generally well-accepted, of unique depth of insight. His philosophy is seen as valuable (in some sense or another) even from the perspective of a secular student of philosophy. At the very least, he remains a figure in the philosophical tradition that cannot simply be ignored. Either/Or is considered one of the great philosophical works, as is his Philosophical Fragments.

But here I only mention his more purely philosophical works in passing, as my own appreciation for Kierkegaard came not directly through his philosophy (though I have found it interesting, as far as philosophy goes), but through his so-called “Edifying” works. That is, the vast body of work that is intended to be read by Christians, so building them up in the body of Christ. Even here, though, Kierkegaard does not exactly make things very easy on his reader (“The task has to be made difficult,” Kierkegaard said, “for only the difficult inspires the noble-hearted”). His writing can be dense and monotonous, filled with repetition of the most important ideas.

Among 19th century Christian writing, I consider almost no work greater than Kierkegaard’s 1847 masterpiece, Works of Love. While even here Kierkegaard does not make for the easiest reading, it is nevertheless easy to be inspired by the boldness with which he denounces a human conception of love while declaring, again and again, the eternal truth of love—that is, love from the perspective of God rather than the perspective of man; a love that he beautifully describes in his opening prayer:

“How could love be rightly discussed if You were forgotten, O God of Love, source of all love in heaven and on earth, You who spared nothing but gave all in love, You who are love, so that one who loves is what he is only by being in You! How could love properly be discussed if You were forgotten, You who made manifest what love is, You, our Saviour and Redeemer, who gave Yourself to save all! How could love be rightly discussed if You were forgotten, O spirit of Love, You who take nothing for Your own but remind us of that sacrifice of love, remind the believer to love as he is loved, and his neighbor as himself! O Eternal Love, You who are everywhere present and never without witness wherever You are called upon, be not without witness in what is said here about love or about the works of love. There are only a few acts which human language specifically and narrowly calls works of love, but heaven is such that no act can be pleasing there unless it is an act of love—sincere in self-renunciation, impelled by love itself, and for this very reason claiming no compensation.”

Kierkegaard’s religious philosophy divided the spiritual life into three stages: First there is the aesthetic, which is the stage to which all men are in some sense inclined. This is the stage of sensuality and pleasure; it is the stage dominated by pure reason, where one is driven by stimuli, propelled toward desires and driven by greed, hunger and lust. One may, in whole or in part, move out of this stage and into the next: The ethical. This is the stage dominated, in part, by a common grace, where man recognizes that he ought to be doing good; where he does good works and strives to be a better person. It is also, in a sense, the realm of the Pharisees, where doing good is considered interchangeable with Godliness and one may actively work his way to greatness. It is in the ethical stage that all human conceptions of love reside.

The church, as well, is often mired in the ethical stage of spiritual life. This is the disease Kierkegaard saw eating away at the Danish church. He saw that the church (which was, ironically, the Lutheran Church—one wonders how Luther might have reacted when he discovered that his own namesake denomination would require its own reformation so very soon) had become, essentially, a replacement for God. At the very least, the church acted as a mediating presence between man and God. Denmark was a Christian nation, not because the Danish people believed in God, but because everyone born there was born, in a sense, into the church. They attended regularly, they tithed, they did all of those things that were required of them... and Kierkegaard understood that they had fallen into the same fateful trap that had stifled real Christianity for so long.  

Thus, the heart of Kierkegaard’s philosophy—a message that cannot help but continue to resonate, as this progression is a struggle for us all—is that every Christian, individually (for reformation of the individual must precede reformation of the church), must make the “leap” from the ethical stage to the religious stage. Of course, he did not mean “religious” in the same sense that it is used today (for we see religion, generally, as a negative word for an organization); he did not mean it the same was as Christ did, who spoke openly against the dangers of religion. He meant it as a sort of word transcendence. By passing from the ethical stage into the religious stage one is turning his gaze to God, rather than man.

Kierkegaard’s most famous example of this great leap to the religious stage is, of course, in the person of Abraham, who is the focus of Kierkegaard’s most famous work, Fear and Trembling. “My hearer!” Kierkegaard writes of the terrible thing God required of Abraham—that he sacrifice his own son: “Many a father has felt the loss of his child as the loss of the dearest thing he has in the world, to be bereft of every hope for the future; yet no son was the child of promise in the sense that Isaac was for Abraham. Many a father has lost his child, but then it was God, the unchangeable and inscrutable will of the Almighty, it was his hand that took it. Not so with Abraham. For him a harder trial was reserved; along with the knife the fate of Isaac was put into Abraham’s own hand.”

From an ethical standpoint, what was Abraham to do? That is simple enough. He was to refuse. By every human standard of morality and decency, he ought to have cursed God for his demand. To murder a child? That is not morally questionable, it is morally repugnant! By every conceivable human standard, Christopher Hitchens is right when he damns the Bible for, “honoring Abraham’s willingness to make a human sacrifice of his son... There is no softening the plain meaning of this frightful story.”

But Abraham did not refuse. He made the journey to Mt. Moriah. He raised the knife over his son and intended to kill him. Was this, then, an immoral act? It certainly was, by every human standard. But, Kierkegaard argues, it was a religious act. It was an act that cared more about the relationship with God than with the relationship with man. What was required of Abraham was something Kierkegaard called a teleological suspension of the moral. “It is not to save a nation, not to uphold the idea of the State, that Abraham did it, not to appease angry gods. If there was any question of the deity’s being angry, it could only have been Abraham he was angry with, and Abraham’s whole action stands in no relation to the universal, it is a purely private undertaking... Then why does Abraham do it? For God’s sake, and what is exactly the same, for his own. He does it for the sake of God because God demands this proof of his faith; he does it for his own sake in order to be able to produce the proof...”

The heart of Christian living involves this leap from the ethical to the religious, and it is on the tension between these two stages that he bases much of his work.

Kierkegaard continues to speak to me, continues to inspire me, not merely because he raises interesting philosophical questions (which he does)—for there are plenty of philosophers out there asking plenty of interesting questions. Nor is it merely that he writes with occasional eloquence about God—there are plenty of preachers and theologians who do that. No, there is something intangible in Kierkegaard that inspires me; something about how his ideas and his beliefs and his priorities come together and form a complete whole. It is the fact that the ideas that he presents are absolutely fundamental; they speak to almost every question a Christian could have, and they absolutely demand a response. And it is also, I suppose, that he presents enormous, weighty truths and offers extraordinarily difficult challenges, and he does so with absolute boldness, unwavering in his assertion that one must give all of themselves in order to follow God. The demands he makes of his readers, especially in works like Purity of the Heart is to Will One Thing, is not unlike the demand Christ made of the Rich Young Ruler: Go, sell everything and give to the poor. The demands are bold, but nothing is impossible with God.

I truly cannot conceive of anyone reading and understanding Works of Love and not being immediately driven to love both God and others better; I cannot conceive of anyone reading Purity of the Heart is to Will One Thing and not immediately going away and trying to root out their own double-mindedness. The entire religious edifice around Kierkegaard had become a mediator between man and God, severing the God/man relationship, and Kierkegaard devoted his entire life—to the very day of his death—to seeing to it that the relationship was mended.

That devotion is something awesome. It is something inspiring. It is enough, certainly, to make one overlook a little oddness.

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