An Interview on Kierkegaard – Part 1

One of the best parts of my job is the opportunity to work with a wide range of Christians who all come with their own specialities and interests. In the past few months I’ve been talking with one of my coworkers, Dean, who is an avid fan of Søren Kierkegaard. I had to do a paper when I was in seminary on Kierkegaard’s book Fear and Trembling. I started the paper by admitting I had no idea what he was talking about. I don’t remember what I wrote but my professor agreed that I didn’t understand him. Ever since then I’ve had this aversion to anything Kierkegaard. Thankfully, Dean has helped me to understand him a little. I thought I would dedicate a few posts to the topic of Kierkegaard and his life by way of an interview with Dean. I asked around twelve questions of Dean and his answers were very helpful and I hope you find the conversation as compelling as I did. Given the length of some of Dean’s answers (which I have not edited because they were that good) I will do a series of posts featuring a few questions at a time along with his answers. Please feel free to jump in with comments or your own questions regarding Kierkegaard. By way of introduction you should know that most of my questions were based on my recent reading of An Introduction to Kierkegaard by Peter Vardy which Dean had not read. If this series is well received we may do more in the future. I already have one coworker who has expressed an interest in doing an interview on Fredrich Nietzsche which I think could be very interesting. I’ve said enough. Let’s get on with the interview.

Louis: Dean, you just finished your thesis on Kierkegaard. Tell us a little about it.

Dean: I am actually still in the process of finishing up, but my thesis has dealt with mining Kierkegaard as a resource for political philosophy and theology. Traditionally, Kierkegaard has been read as a radically isolated individualist thinker who may be helpful for devotional use or angst-ridden teenagers but not in thinking of a vision for community or political organization. I find this reading highly problematic in my own studies, especially reading Kierkegaard’s book Works of Love, his later authorship (that is, the works by Anti-Climacus and those under his own name), and his mountainous journals and papers. There are also a number of Kierkegaard scholars, especially Americans, who have challenged that traditional reading of Kierkegaard (notably John D. Caputo, Merold Westphal, Robert L. Perkins, and Mark Dooley). In my thesis, I suggest that Kierkegaard is generally concerned with two questions: understanding what it is to be oneself and understanding what it is to be oneself in community (I take these directly from Works of Love). As such, I think it is imperative that we begin to focus more on the second question, especially when the Christian community as of late has been so taken by both political discourse and “community” as a sort of buzz-word.

Louis: Why do you think Kierkegaard is so misunderstood by Christians today?

Dean: Kierkegaard has a nasty habit of taking everything you find yourself comfortable with and shaking it up really hard, only to deliver it back to you in a radically new way. Take his pseudonym Johannes de Silentio’s (John the Silent) reading of Abraham and Isaac in Fear and Trembling, for example. Here, he says that Abraham must suspend all of his ethical commitments in order to be obedient to a very unpredictable and wild God. In Genesis 22, we find a very curious series of events that are often glossed over by many Christians, at least in my experience. Usually, we like to read this story going this way: God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham obeys, God stops Abraham. What we miss, however, is everything in between. The beginning of Fear and Trembling presents four reconstructions of this story analyzing the anxiety that must surely have been present in Abraham’s mind. There must have been questions like “If Isaac dies, how will God grant me his covenant promise of descendants?” “How could God ask me to kill my son?” And for Isaac, the questions obviously multiply, since it was his father and not he who heard the voice of God. With these questions in mind, de Silentio explores the event saying Abraham seems to fully expect that even if he kills Isaac that God would return Isaac back to him. This he draws from Genesis 22:5, wherein Abraham says to the young men who accompany them to the mountain “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you.” Abraham, knowing full well that he is ready to kill his son, believes in the face of all reason and ethics that God will do the impossible; somehow, Isaac will be returned. So Abraham is thrust into this traumatic event, of having to kill his son, but all the while trusting that God is motivated by love, and it is only by knowing that God loves him that Abraham can go through with what we would surely characterize as the actions of a madman.

Most Christians don’t like to think of the Bible that way. That a God of love would require such horrifying actions, only to then deliver shalom once again (and even this “shalom” is suspect). I think it would be fair to  characterize Kierkegaard’s project like that: he wants to suspend everything we know, to get us out of our comfortable places, and have us grasp for things in the dark, only to then have Christianity returned to us looking very different than it did before, only by virtue of the impossible absurd. We have a tendency to domesticate Christianity and view it through the lens of the world, and that, for Kierkegaard, makes us disciples of Judas rather than Jesus.

Louis: You mentioned Kierkegaard used pseudonyms in his writings like Johannes de Silentio. What others did he use and what purpose did they serve?

Dean: The pseudonyms are one of my favorite aspects of Kierkegaard’s writing, and they are what make reading him so frustrating and entertaining at the same time. The most famous pseudonyms are arguably Johannes de Silentio (Fear and Trembling), Johannes Climacus (Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript), and Anti-Climacus  (Sickness Unto Death and Practice in Christianity). Exactly how many he creates are disputed, as some pseudonyms are possibly pseudonyms for pseudonyms (see Johannes the Seducer as a pseudonym for “A” in Either/Or). If you are having flashbacks to the movie Inception, you are probably justified. These pseudonyms serve to create what Kierkegaard called “indirect communication,” a mode he privileges over–you guessed it–”direct communication.” In indirect communication, a truth is revealed through its concealing. Kierkegaard cites Jesus’ parables and many of his teachings as examples of indirect communication. Pseudonymity also removes the author from the work itself, leaving the reader alone with the text, allowing the text to speak for itself in spite of ad hominems or relations to authorial intent (perhaps you can see why figures like Jacques Derrida and Caputo are so taken with Kierkegaard). Kierkegaard, as a Lutheran of some sort, places a high value of importance on an individual’s responsibility to God, him or her self, and others. As such, anything that gets an individual to think more clearly as an individual gets a pass from Kierkegaard, and he finds we are often distracted out of such experiences through our attempts at analyzing texts rather than  wrestling with them (he is not very kind to biblical commentators).

It is also important to note that pseudonymity was not unheard of in his time, and even America has a history of employing pseudonyms (like in the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers at the time of our country’s beginnings). Some claim Kierkegaard is intentionally obscure or slippery as a sophist. I find those critiques to be a matter of being unwilling to do some more homework and exactly the type of attitude Kierkegaard is trying to overcome.

Louis: While I think I may know what the difference is between analyzing a text and wrestling with it, I may be completely off from what Kierkegaard thinks it is. If biblical commentaries are examples of analyzing a text what would wrestling with a text look like?

Dean: While I would never go as far as to say no commentator really wrestles with a text in a Kierkegaardian way, I do think it tends to be a dominant strand in biblical scholarship and is in fact often celebrated. What Kierkegaard means, I think, is apparent in his own exegesis evident in Fear and Trembling, Christian Discourses, Works of Love, and in his journals. In these works, Kierkegaard tries to read and re-read verses and passages in light of different emphases, moods, etc. Furthermore, though it is quite true that Kierkegaard uses texts to try to prove his own points, he has a helpful habit of allowing texts to stand in their apparent uncomfortability and contradiction. We never read that Abraham was or was not haunted by the events of Genesis 22. We never know what goes through Isaac’s head when his father binds him and raises his knife. Kierkegaard wrestles in these cracks in the text (and there are, of course, an unimaginable amount of cracks). It should come as no surprise that Kierkegaard loves Job–a story of conflict for which there is no real resolution other than submission to God.

Kierkegaard is full of alienating and provocative remarks with regard to both the liberal Protestantism pervading his time and place and the conservative responses cropping up to combat it. This is what makes Kierkegaard such an entertaining character; one will always leave offended (is this not the nature of the Gospel itself?). Take this quotation, for example:

“The current emphasis on getting back to the Bible has, sadly, created religiosity out of learning and literalistic chicanery–a sheer diversion. Tragically this kind of knowledge has gradually trickled down to the masses so that no one can read the Bible simply any more. All our Bible learning has become nothing but a fortress of excuses and escapes. When it comes to existence, to obedience there is always something else we have to first take care of. We live under the illusion that we must first have the interpretation right or the belief in perfect form before we can begin to live–that is, we never get around to doing what the Word says.”   (Provocations, 200)

The critique’s relation to our current religious situation is obvious enough. Kierkegaard loves to praise biblical characters like Abraham for their obedience to God in the face of worldly wisdom. He attacks things like misdirected reflection (Two Ages) which drive us to talk about issues more than actually responding to them, and biblical commentators are often guilty of this very crime. I do think, however, there are some popular voices who have led a more Kierkegaardian approach in their projects. Walter Brueggemann strikes me as the most evident, but I would also include Brian Walsh, Sylvia Keesmaat, and Richard Middleton. Other commentators come close, but I find these examples to be particularly illustrative of allowing the biblical text to hash out its arguments on its own terms (or what we might philosophically term “auto-deconstruct” itself).

Part Two Coming Soon.

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20 thoughts on “An Interview on Kierkegaard – Part 1

  1. Louis, thanks for posting this and I’m looking forward to Part 2.

    I didn’t know Kierkegaard cared about community! I’m intrigued by Dean’s remark’s about K.’s pursuit of “what it is to be oneself in community” – certainly an important question for Christians, and perhaps Christians in America especially. Since our culture so values “being oneself,” this topic sounds like fertile ground for adding to the broader, secular discussion of individualism.

    Dean, I challenge you to write your thesis using a pseudonym. You get extra credit if you couch it in parables.

    - Jonas de Regnum Duo

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, Adam!

      Kierkegaard’s concern for community is unfortunately eclipsed by his reputation as an existentialist. I would highly recommend Works of Love, not only to understanding Kierkegaard better but simply because it presents a great reading of the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. Your observation of our culture’s obsession with individuality is actually a major reason I have stuck with Kierkegaard for so long. I can only hope Christians in places like America will look to people like Kierkegaard for guidance on those matters. Perhaps Baker and Zondervan will be able to lead the charge?

      As for pseudonymity, I’m still looking for some obscure monk moniker like Johannes Climacus. My storytelling is a bit rusty, though. I’ve been reading too many political philosophers, I suppose.

      • Dean, thanks for your response and book recommendation. You’re doing good work!

        Have you read the book “The Ethics of Authenticity” by Charles Taylor (Harvard Press)? It’s an insightful probe into the values behind peoples’ pursuit of “authenticity.” http://www.amazon.com/The-Ethics-Authenticity-Charles-Taylor/dp/0674268636

        Like you, I’m all for Baker and the publisher I work for (Zondervan) spearheading a better understanding of this stuff. :-) Our discussion reminded me of a passage about love of self — from a recent Zondervan popular-level book — because the author suggests that loving ourselves = pursuing our God-given desires, which is fuel for loving our neighbor.

        I haven’t formed an opinion on this but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, if you’re interested. I excerpted the passage on Zondervan Blog here: http://zondervan.typepad.com/zondervan/2012/05/love-my-neighbor-as-myself-excerpt-clark-awake.html

        Looking forward to more posts from you, Dean and Louis!
        -Adam

        • Adam, I appreciate the continued dialogue! Thanks for the compliment.

          I have not read that work in particular, though I’m familiar with Taylor as a result of my studies in political philosophy. He has some critiques of Kierkegaard, I’ve heard, but I have not dealt with him. That text is definitely on my long list of things to read. What were your thoughts on his argument? Would you mind giving me a short summary of the driving points?

          I plugged Zondervan as I clicked on your name to find out a bit more about your background. Reading your post is encouraging. Though I think Kierkegaard would emphasize a certain despair as a necessary movement toward self-love and might offer a different understanding of the self before God, I find the end-goal for him at least in some sense resonating with that excerpt. Both seem to want to carve out a space for holy fools to embrace an otherworldly joy. So I suppose I would have to side with my mentor Dr. Kierkegaard on this point, that is, that there is a certain place for experiencing the horrors of sin that I find absent from this particular excerpt, but I would also say that in the end I simply want more people to love more people. Far be it from me to establish a universal path to that result!

          Keep giving those good questions, Adam. Looking forward to reading more.

          • Dean, thanks much for your response.

            Some of Charles Taylor’s driving points in “The Ethics of Authenticity”:

            1) “Authenticity” is an ideal worth reclaiming from the West’s distortions of it.

            2) Our particular distortions of authenticity arise from 3 sources: an individualism that trumps community and moral demands; “the primacy of instrumental reason,” as in capitalism; and the way Western political norms have absorbed the previous two sources.

            3) Our individualism is “anthropocentric” to the point of narcissism, trivializing the demands of God, public moral norms, and social responsibilities to community. This individualism slides to subjectivism.

            4) Our anthropocentric individualism is full of tension. We see relationships as instrumental — tactics for developing ourselves. Yet we measure our self-ness according to the recognition of others.

            5) Our use of technology and city developments reinforce the primacy of instrumental reason.

            6) “How do you fight fragmentation? … What our situation seems to call for is a complex, many-levelled struggle” in the intellectual, spiritual, and political arenas.

            Summarizing is a great mental discipline, thank you for the challenge. :)

            Thank you for contributing your considered response to the excerpt from Joel N. Clark. You make an astute observation that both Clark and Kierkegaard celebrate a “holy fool” mentality, choosing to embrace a God bigger than their understanding. I’m not an expert on either Kierkegaard or Clark, but in some tense I wonder if their tones differ like this: KIERKEGAARD views God as larger than his own moral comprehension, and that’s terrifying, but there’s hope in submitting to God. CLARK views God as larger than his comprehension, and he finds this to be a source of inspiring for joy and service. Although, I agree with your comment that there is value in acknowledging the horrors of sin — I know being freed from sin & death is a central source of joy. [I feel I should note that Clark wouldn't describe himself as a philosoper like K.; I think he'd prefer "filmmaker" and "storyteller."]

            I support your vision of “more people loving more people,” and I can see you’re contributing to this with your studies!

            Peace,
            adam

            • Adam,

              What a wonderful response! Thank you for taking time to provide that summary for me. I find it very helpful and look forward to tackling Taylor’s work sometime in the future (Dr. Bonzo at Cornerstone has been pushing that book on me, but I keep refusing it in the interests of other political philosophers–perhaps I will have to repent).

              As for the comparison between Kierkegaard and Clark, I think you get their overall tones right (from my very limited knowledge of Clark, of course). I would add that Kierkegaard seeks to move from despair to joy, but there is no denying his emphasis on faith’s fear and trembling.

              It’s been a pleasure to speak with you, Adam. It’s good to know there are thinkers like you at Zondervan just like there are thinkers at Baker like Louis. Grand Rapids is lucky to have you both.

              Blessings to you,
              Dean

  2. Thanks a lot for the opportunity, Louis! It’s great to work with people who keep me sharp and encourage my interests. Next we’ll have to work on your aversion to Caputo….

    • Mmmm. Overcome my aversion to Caputo. You’ve got your work cut out for you on that one. Let’s stick with Kierkegaard for now. :) I should also say thank you for taking the time from your schedule to answer these questions. I really, really have enjoyed our talks.

  3. Thanks Louis. Could you ask Dean why so many people take him to be a group salvation?

    • Hello, Chris.

      I actually have not heard of Kierkegaard being charged with “group salvation.” Admittedly, I am a philosopher and not a theologian. Would you mind throwing out a few names or expanding a bit more on what those people might mean?

  4. Pingback: An Interview on Kierkegaard – Part 2 « Baker Book House Church Connection

  5. I think another reason why many Christians misunderstand Kierkegaard is Francis Schaeffer. In The God Who Is There, Schaeffer is quite critical of Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith,” saying that it is a leap away from rationality. I think Schaeffer didn’t get Kierkegaard entirely right, but his reading has been influential for other Christians who may not have a firsthand experience of reading Kierkegaard.

    • Elliot,
      You raise an interesting point regarding Schaeffer which I had forgot about. Schaeffer does write, “I do not think that Kierkegaard would be happy, or would agree, with that which has developed from his thinking in either secular or religious existentialism. But what he wrote gradually led to the absolute separation of the rational and logical from faith.” (The God Who is There, p. 16) Having said that Schaeffer also said Kierkegaard “had not read the Bible carefully enough.” He wrote this with respect to Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. In Escape From Reason Schaeffer says that Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” destroyed any hope of unity between what Schaeffer termed the “line of despair.” He writes, “After Kierkegaard we are left with” Optimism must be nonrational or All rationality = pessimism.

      • (Hopefully Elliot is able to see this if I respond to Louis)

        Schaeffer has been the cause of a few headaches in conversations with many of my evangelical friends. In one sense, Schaeffer is right–Kierkegaard’s existentialism did indeed lead to secular existentialism (I might prefer “humanist” or “nihilist” strands rather than secular, but I’ll keep with Schaeffer’s terms). This is not, however, as Schaeffer notes, Kierkegaard’s fault (which would be much like saying Schaeffer’s own efforts with things like L’Abri have led to Rick Perry’s evangelicalism). This is also the reason I do not like to put Kierkegaard under the existentialist umbrella, just as Martin Heidegger, a famous philosopher of the early 20th century, refused the label once it began to be developed by people like Jean-Paul Sartre.

        As for Kierkegaard’s relation to reason, it appears to me that it is actually quite clear in Kierkegaard that a commitment to what is “Rational” is not a commitment to the Gospel, which is foolishness, a stumbling block, and, more philosophically, seems to be repeatedly disorienting the accepted epistemologies of the day.

        Most broadly, I think Schaeffer has ignored many of the provocative and beautiful nuances in Kierkegaard’s body of work.

        • I get a sense that SK identifies the limits of reason, and the tendency for reason to become fascinated with itself at that limit as reason tries to reason why reason cannot advance any further. Most people (maybe even myself) would like the world to be less mysterious, but that’s not the way it is. *Modus tollens* If the world were logical, then the world would make sense, but the world doesn’t make sense so the world isn’t logical. (~B & (A->B)) -> ~A

          • I think you’re exactly right. As Blaise Pascal said, reason is reason’s undoing. I’m still trying to work out how to move Christians beyond a commitment to Reason as a sort of end-all security measure for theology or the Christian life. Let me know if you can think of anything.

  6. The central issue is, and always has been, this relation between an individual and the society. Great that the author is addressing this issue by studying SK, and looking-forward to any insight!

  7. Pingback: Top 10 Blog Posts for 2012 « Baker Book House Church Connection

  8. Pingback: Links for Upbuilding 5.7.13 [Kierkegaard Special Edition] | Re(-)petitions

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