Louis: Kierkegaard has been called the father of existentialism. What do you think of that assessment?
Dean: Walter Kaufmann does a great job explaining this strange relationship in a series of lectures he did on the topic, which can be accessed for free at Archive.org. In some ways the title makes sense. Kierkegaard famously attacks G. W. F. Hegel for abstracting human beings out of what he literally calls existential reality, and those who are responsible for creating the existential tradition (particularly Jean-Paul Sartre) are certainly interested in similar themes as Kierkegaard (like anxiety, death, passion, etc.). Kaufmann thinks of it as a family–each member has certain resemblances but is ultimately a unique individual with his or her own peculiarities. I prefer not to think of him this way, however, as it seems to me that his primary concern is not the concerns of the existentialists but an attempt to be faithful to Christ. Some are fond of trying to wrench Kierkegaard’s faith from his philosophical contributions. That method not only ignores Kierkegaard’s own words but does a disservice to those interested in Kierkegaard on his own terms.
Louis: In Peter Vardy’s book, An Introduction to Kierkegaard, he begins by saying, “At one level, Kierkegaard’s aim is straightforward: to strip you, the reader, naked at two in the morning, to sit you in front of a mirror and to force you to think about your life.” Your thoughts?
Dean: Though I have not read Vardy’s book myself, I think that quotation is right on. Kierkegaard explicitly puts himself in the tradition of Socrates, who famously says in Plato’s Apology that “An unexamined life is not worth living.” And Vardy does a great job capturing the added vulnerability that Kierkegaard places in this process; reading Kierkegaard, one often feels exposed and sleep-deprived (and Kierkegaard’s own struggles with depression lend to that). Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Father Taciturn provides the best explanation of Christianity I have heard. He says in Stages on Life’s Way: “Spiritual existence, especially the religious, is not easy; the believer continually lies out on the deep, has 70,000 fathoms of water beneath him. However long he lies out there, this still does not mean that he will gradually end up lying and relaxing on shore.” Reading Kierkegaard is a lot like reading Nietzsche. Both force you to confront what seems to be meaningless in the world. Kierkegaard is sometimes charged with being the conservative here, in that he gives us God back in the end. I actually want to suggest that Kierkegaard is more radical and more frightening. At such a frightening depth, it is easy to throw up one’s hands and curse God or deny him altogether. What is more difficult at that point is to pray.
Louis: I’ve heard that Kierkegaard was reacting to the state of the church in Denmark. Vardy writes that Kierkegaard felt the church “fell far short of” true Christianity. But he also writes that “Kierkegaard did not believe that there were any outward signs of whether someone was or was not genuinely living in a God-relationship.” If there are no outward signs how can anyone know if the church is falling short?
Dean: You are absolutely right to say Kierkegaard’s context, 19th Century Danish Christianity, had considerable impact on his thought. This environment and its thinkers, were particularly taken by Hegel’s philosophy. This movement included Kierkegaard’s own brother, Peter, who was a great Hegelian philosopher and theologian in his own right. It is important, then, to understand Hegel in order to understand Kierkegaard (though I will admit I have a lot more work to do on that front). For Hegel, an individual finds the greatest fulfillment in filling his or her role in society. The “shorthand” for this is Hegel’s term Sittlichkeit, a German word meant to encapsulate the cultural norms, values, ethics, and institutions of a society. In many ways, Hegel’s philosophy is centered on this externality–one finds one’s liberation in a commitment to the order of the nation-state, the family, etc. Kierkegaard finds the biblical narrative at odds with this sort of view. If we think back to Fear and Trembling, we find that Abraham is the perfect example of one who appears to have acted in the face of all rational Sittlichkeit. He is called out from his nation, his family, his paganism, and even his own love for his son. As such, Kierkegaard roots true Christianity in one’s individual relationship with God, and that is a very fair point to make.
It is not, however, the case that Kierkegaard leaves us there. If this quote is as simple as it seems, Vardy actually commits exactly the error that my thesis hopes to demolish: to relegate Kierkegaard into a resource for inner transformation only. I find Kierkegaard quite concerned about institutions, communities, and individuals that outwardly manifest the love of Christ (these are most clearly found in Two Ages, Works of Love, and Practice in Christianity, respectively). Perhaps a more helpful relation here would be to compare Kierkegaard to Karl Marx, if only generally (I will ignore some subtleties of Marx here, so let that be a qualification). Marx, as a good Hegelian, assumes that the outward social forces surrounding individuals will turn them into particular individuals. People are bad because capitalism encourages them to be bad. If we lived in a society where everyone shared and was not concerned about capital, people would be good. I prefer Kierkegaard to Marx in terms of ideology critique. For Marx, people are unjust because particular structures and historical forces (class struggle) make them that way. For Kierkegaard, a radical Augustinian, people are unjust because people are unjust. Thus, Marx solves his problem by changing societal structures and assuming people will be determined by them differently. Kierkegaard solves his problem by proposing an appeal to receive a new kind of self from a relation to the Incarnation of God in Christ.
So: While it’s clear that we ought to change societal structures that institutionalize oppression (no problems there, and based on Kierkegaard’s critique of the Church in Attack Upon Christendom I assume he has no problems with that either), we should never assume that these are the only things causing injustice. We are unjust because we are human. Oppressors need the liberating power of Christ just as much as the poor, and this attitude can only come from an inner transformation that sees everyone as a neighbor (Works of Love). I of course grant that God works through the poor to appeal to the rich, but I find that often times would-be revolutionaries are not concerned with the redemption of all people but only a certain segment of humanity. That, if anything, is the complete antithesis of Christianity as far as I see it, and I think such a concern for all people can only come by way of the God-relationship.
Louis: While reading Vardy I was struck at how often he would remind the reader that for Kierkegaard there was no way to prove God exists or that Christianity is true. He quotes him as saying, “The supreme paradox of all thought is the attempt to discover something that thought cannot think.” (Philosophical Fragments, 46) Vardy continues, “for Kierkegaard, faith requires individuals to stake their lives on a claim (the incarnation) that may or may not be true. Faith, therefore, is an existential act.” (25) Explain this.
Dean: This concept actually has a lot of personal importance for me, so I am glad you asked. When I was a freshman in college, I took several bible courses with professors on the more “liberal” end of the interpretive scale. Finding myself convinced by many of their arguments, I began to question my faith pretty significantly. Indeed, I felt many of the anxieties Kierkegaard bears witness to in his corpus, which is what really drew me to his work. This concept of his, a response to the problem called “Lessing’s Ditch,” was truly liberating for me. Gotthald Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) was a German thinker whose attempts to read the Bible in an age dominated by the Enlightenment and Protestantism led him down some very troubling paths. With historical criticism on the rise, Lessing found himself in a bind: if we cannot historically prove that miracles occurred, how, then, can we make metaphysical claims about them? Though Lessing did not lose his faith, the problem agonized him and many others. This problem creates a ditch–how can one cross the chasm of faith and history? It was to this question that Kierkegaard turned, and it was here that he crafted his famous “leap of faith.” This idea gets worked out extensively in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, where Climacus suggests one cannot ever actually prove anything beyond a shadow of a doubt (and when I was younger, that radical skepticism really appealed to me–it still does). Instead, one must eventually commit to something, as all attempts to prove things are actually just approximations. The most helpful metaphor I have come across for this is marriage, which Dr. Lee Hardy helped explain to me recently at Calvin College. If one meets a potential spouse and begins to wonder “is this person ‘the one’?” then such wondering will never cease. One might question the pronouncement infinitely, weighing this particular candidate against every other candidate, wondering about future contingencies, whether one or both individuals might change, etc. In the end, when one gets married, such an act is done purely by faith. As someone engaged to be married this summer, I find this bit particularly true–when I think of Emily, I realize that she is the one. Not because I can prove this logically, empirically, or whatever, but because this is the reality I am committed to. And as our relationship progresses, experiences emerge that confirm that this is indeed the right choice–this person, and no one else, is irreducibly the one. This is what Kierkegaard means. This is not to lapse into a relativism. Indeed, there are plenty of people in the world that I would never be compatible with, so not everyone can be the one, in the same way that not everything can be the true God. The point, however, is the commitment–the leap over the ditch of uncertainty. Only such a commitment makes one a true believer (it may come as no surprise that James is a book Kierkegaard spends much time with in his writing–I find James 2:19 particularly helpful).
Part Three Coming Soon.
Part one is here.