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).