This is the third part in a three-part interview that I did with my coworker Dean who is completing his thesis on Kierkegaard. If you’re interested in the other parts you can find part one here and part two here. At the end of part two Dean mentioned his engagement to his fiancé Emily. That is what prompted my next question. (For further reader, including some free resources, see Dean’s answer to my final question.)
Louis: Since you mentioned Emily it reminded me that Kierkegaard was engaged at one point in his life to a young Regine Olsen. Though he was deeply in love with her he broke off the engagement and, as far as I know, never was involved with anyone after her. Tell us a little about this relationship and what affect it had, if any, on his thinking. Is it true that though they never spoke much after the break up he left her everything when he died?
Dean: The relationship between Regine and Kierkegaard had a profound influence on Kierkegaard’s thought and life as a whole. The story is perhaps one of the most tragic among those in the history of philosophical biographies. Though space does not permit a possibly necessary explanation of Kierkegaard’s complicated personal life (including his adulterous father who cursed God, his variety of siblings, his deep struggles with depression and suicidal tendencies, his promiscuous college years, his childhood nickname “Fork,” etc.), any reading of Kierkegaard will depend on a basic understanding of his relation to Regine. At 27, Kierkegaard became engaged to his long-time infatuation Regine, then 18. Kierkegaard began to have doubts, however, springing from a belief that he was too melancholic to marry and a certain sense of purpose. Growing intentionally more distant from her, he finally ended the engagement, throwing Regine into threats of suicide (the 1800s were passionate times, it seems). Kierkegaard attempted to convince her that he was a horrible and immoral wretch and a seducer, but Regine did not believe him. He left for Germany, where he would attend the same lectures on Hegel’s philosophy as Friedrich Engels, co-author of The Communist Manifesto. During this time, he wrote Either/Or, which is laden with autobiographical material under pseudonymous interpretations (scholars still debate what is really true and what was meant to alienate Regine). Though Kierkegaard remained in love with Regine, she married her former tutor, Johan Frederik Schlegel, who would later become the governor of the Danish West-Indies. Kierkegaard and Regine remained, however, in Copenhagen together for a considerable amount of time, often passing each other in the streets and silently acknowledging one another but forbidden by Schlegel to speak. When Kierkegaard died, he left what was left of his estate (he squandered much of his inheritance from his father) to Regine. After her husband’s death (Kierkegaard had already died), Regine was interviewed about her relation to Kierkegaard, though its publication did not yield much new information.
Philosophically, this event haunts Kierkegaard’s works palpably. Either/Or is the most obvious example, but one finds shadows of it even in Fear and Trembling, where one wonders if Kierkegaard himself may have believed that God would deliver Regine, his Isaac, back to him because of his faith. He also oscillates back and forth between support for marriage and devotion to celibacy, but in the end Kierkegaard remains a highly romantic figure, often writing short doxologies to young love. This may also be the reason for his refusal to become involved with another woman–his love for Regine could never be resolved, much like the theodicies that so permeate his writings. The events of this relationship have also flowed into popular culture, even being recounted by an American band called the Receptionists in their song, “Søren loved Regine.”
Emily has already made me promise not to do the same to her, and after reading Kierkegaard’s own thoughts I think it is quite safe to say one can be married and remain the “single individual” (indeed, this is perhaps Kierkegaard’s ultimate point). But, of course, that is a whole separate dialogue. Needless to say, I am quite content to remain with my Regine (and as far as I know she is content to remain with her Kierkegaard, despite my ramblings).
Louis: After reading Vardy I got the impression that Kierkegaard was not all that concerned with theological doctrine. He writes, “The question for faith is, effectively, ‘Is God at the centre of your life? Are you in a love-relationship to God?’ You cannot answer the question by reciting theological doctrines or by pointing to the books you have read or the objective truths you say you believe.” (31) If this is true what did Kierkegaard think of the early church’s efforts to squelch heresy and the role of creeds? By the way this reminds me of the slogan often heard today “I love Jesus but not the church.”
Dean: It is very true that Kierkegaard viewed much of theological discourse as a distraction from actually being a Christian. He is also a primary influence of Karl Barth (along with Franz Overbeck, who says many of the same things about theology as Kierkegaard). There is a great anthology for free on the web called Provocations. In it, there is a section called “Doctrine and Theology” which I think is very helpful (the editor compiles full references to the primary texts in the back, so one could go deeper that way). Your question reminded me of this comment from that volume:
“Take Christianity, for example. It came in as life, sheer daring that risked everything for the faith. The change began when Christianity came to be regarded as doctrine. This is the theory; it was about that which was lived. But there still existed some vitality, and therefore at times life-and-death disputes were carried on over “doctrine” and doctrinal formulations. Nevertheless doctrine became more and more the distinctive mark of being a Christian. Everything then became objective. This is Christianity’s theory. Then followed a period in which the intention was to produce life by means of the theory; this is the period of the system, the parody. Now this process has ended. Christianity must begin anew as life.”
So, Kierkegaard views the history of Christianity in stages: First, there is action and life–this is Christianity. Second, there was theory about that life (which, as long as it is done in vitality, is worth doing–this would be the early church). Third, doctrine replaced life as the primary mark of being a Christian. Fourth, Christians attempted to derive life and action from theoretical systems (he has Hegel in mind here, no doubt). Thus, Kierkegaard clearly has a place for theory (he spends a lot of ink doing it himself), but theory is only done with the interest of spurring believers on to service. If there is no service, there is no Christianity. In response to the slogan you mention, it is indeed a quite Kierkegaardian one, that is, Kierkegaard takes the radical Protestant stance of making Jesus take precedence over the Church. But though many accuse Kierkegaard of offering no basis for ecclesiology, I wonder if those critiques come from a lack of knowledge about texts like Works of Love, wherein he is clearly not against communal expressions of the faith. That said, however, Kierkegaard did not leave us a formal ecclesiology. That task he left to us, informed by his work on the appropriate understanding of God, individuals, and communities.
Louis:Did Kierkegaard believe in salvation by works? Vardy writes, “If it is possible that Christianity is true” (there’s that doubt again, “if”) “if it is possible that one day there will be a judgement, then the judgement will not be on what doctrines have been accepted but on how each individual has subjectively ‘taken on board’ and lived out his or her faith. (33)
Dean: In terms of soteriology, Kierkegaard appears to have been generally orthodox (though some have argued that he is actually a universalist, a claim I find difficult to maintain, but a claim nonetheless supported by scholars more researched than me). He does, however, challenge many of the binaries we usually consider (objective/subjective, for example), and faith and works would be one of those. For Kierkegaard, any understanding of faith can only be understood through the work done as a result of that faith (there is James again), and any good work done by a Christian can only be understood through seeing that Christian’s faith-commitment. In thinking of Kierkegaard and the judgment, Christ’s words in Matthew 25 are probably closest to encapsulating his views–“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'” And of course, conversely, those who fail to do this go away to eternal punishment.
Louis If someone wanted to start reading Kierkegaard where would you recommend he/she start?
Dean: Because Kierkegaard is such an exotic and wide-ranging thinker, I usually recommend that people get a hold of an anthology. Provocations, which I mentioned earlier, is good, and it happens to be free, which is better. I was introduced to his thought by Robert Bretall’s A Kierkegaard Anthology. His primary translators in English, Howard and Edna Hong, also put together an extensive anthology with great introductions called The Essential Kierkegaard, which is probably the most authoritative anthology. If one wishes to read just a book or so, Fear and Trembling is easily is most famous and controversial work. There are also some great introductions out there. John D. Caputo’s How to Read Kierkegaard is excellent and brief. C. Stephen Evans has published Kierkegaard on Faith and the Self which relate Kierkegaard’s thought to thinkers like Alvin Plantinga. Though I disagree with much of his interpretation, that may be more familiar and interesting to your audience, as Kierkegaard is usually picked up in continental philosophical circles. Finally, Merold Westphal has a great book called Kierkegaard’s Critique of Reason and Society, which has some accessible articles dealing with themes like Kierkegaard’s political, social, and Christian thought (I found it very helpful for my thesis).
One might also scour the web for resources. M. G. Piety, whose work on Kierkegaard’s “pluralist” epistemology is absolutely stunning, keeps a fascinating blog recording the more esoteric branches of Kierkegaard scholarship happening in Denmark and elsewhere. D. Anthony Storm, a layperson interested in Kierkegaard’s thought, has provided an ambitious and incredible online resource outlining Kierkegaard’s authorship and key issues in his work–this is an excellent resource, as it is written by an adequate and rigorous, yet non-threatening and non-professional, thinker. There are countless blogs and databases for Kierkegaard’s works and scholarship surrounding his thought, as many Kierkegaard scholars are not formally in the academy (this should come as no surprise). The two I have listed present two sides of the spectrum, and, in my opinion, play their parts better than anyone else.
Thanks again, Louis, for your interest! It is such a pleasure to work with individuals at Baker who are interested in cross-pollination and critical thinking. It has been a pleasure to answer these questions and I look forward to more of our dialogues.