Makes sense from inside

Soren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique, Daphne Hampson, Oxford University Press

If all the books about Kierkegaard were laid end to end they would probably reach across Denmark. And still they come, though Daphne Hampson’s book claims to be the first to go into Kierkegaard’s Lutheran heritage with such depth. Kierkegaard’s famous concept of the “leap of faith” can be traced to Luther, yet there is, for example, no mention of Luther in the index of Stephen Evans’ recent, otherwise terrific introduction. More astonishingly, the same goes for Joakim Garff’s massive 2005 biography. Yet students of philosophy need to understand Luther to understand Kierkegaard. And for Lutherans, an understanding of Kierkegaard can deepen our understanding of Lutheranism. Immersion in Hampson’s sometimes conceptually dense material is, therefore, a worthy exercise.

Christians have been wary of Kierkegaard. He attacked the Danish Lutheran Church of his day, and greatly influenced (atheist) existentialist followers such as Sartre and Camus (who focused more on his methods – Kierkegaard would be horrified to see their abandonment of much of his content). On the other hand, secular critics, such as literary theorist James Wood, describe him as dangerous because of his elevation of passion over reason.

Kierkegaard was not exactly against reason; he just felt it shouldn’t be the ultimate authority. He actually encouraged deep thinking, and criticised Enlightenment philosophers for wasting time on inconsequential thinking and for coming to conclusions too easily. He cautioned against thinking that reason would lead us to God, or that it could replace God. He knew that when one claims to grasp God through thought alone, it is not really God. With Luther, he was sceptical of the value of speculation about God. Although the leap of faith is beyond, not against, reason, Kierkegaard nevertheless recognised the logical absurdity of Christianity and the difficulty of fitting it, as the Enlightenment philosophers tried to, into the natural progression of history.

Wisely, Kierkegaard said that when we use reason, we always bring prejudices and presuppositions. When we think about something, we think about it from somewhere. This is why he saw as hubris the Enlightenment idea that we could get away from our bodies and history and simply be “minds”. (Not to mention the fact that most Enlightenment philosophers were wealthy, white males who had the luxury of assuming they were free to just sit and think.) He is very modern in understanding that, contrary to Descartes, it is not autonomous thinking that makes us a “self”, but relating to others, particularly God. And he knows that in this relating is another way of gaining knowledge. (He also demonstrates, in Lutheran fashion, that the self is something that is remade, or redefined, every day.)

Hampson describes Kierkegaard and Luther as “deeply Hebraic” in their understanding of God; in other words, involved in a passionate relationship. This can be seen in Kierkegaard’s treatment of the story of Abraham being called to sacrifice Isaac. In the cold light of philosophy this is an appalling story. Who could commend a God who makes this demand? It is not only beyond reason, but beyond any normal ethical standard. But according to Kierkegaard, we can only understand it in retrospect and when we have a trusting relationship with God, who we both fear and love, in the words of Luther. We cannot understand it from the outside. In Luther’s theology, Christianity is not concerned with the God, but my God. As others have observed, it’s no use talking of God in the abstract to a man who felt God’s life-changing presence with the force of a lightning bolt.

With Luther, Kierkegaard goes further: We don’t act morally from a position of neutrality. We are not free to make a choice. Rather, if God is not helping us to do good, we will naturally do wrong. (Secularists might be reminded that this is not wholly foreign to the line of thought of someone such as Freud.) In contrast to Catholic theology, which suggests God refines our nature, Lutheran theology says God reorients it 180 degrees. For both Kierkegaard and Luther, freedom is being rescued from where we don’t belong.

The dramatic way Kierkegaard describes his theology has been usually translated as “passion”, though he has sometimes been misunderstood here. He did not say that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are passionate. But passion is at the heart of his criticism of what he terms “Christendom” (essentially, the Danish state church, which he contrasts with true Christianity), a critique that is alarmingly relevant still today. The church of his day, he felt, promoted Christianity as the comfort of an old blanket, and an icing on the cake of everyday bourgeois life, rather than what it should be – something we leap into wholeheartedly, even to the point of martyrdom. Like Luther, he thought Christianity should be a seven-days-a-week affair.

For Kierkegaard the contrast is not so much works versus grace, but reason versus living. (Though Luther would agree that reasoning our way to God is just as much a “work”.) Christianity only makes sense as it is lived. Kierkegaard loved talking to all and sundry on the street, and there is a sense in his theology, as in Luther’s, that Christianity must be relevant to this, and not just an academic exercise. Which, along with his all-or-nothing approach, is why, unsurprisingly, Kierkegaard was not popular with the elite (even if he ostensibly was one of them) and why he felt so cut off when the ridicule he received from the popular press turned him into a recluse. But although he was little read in his day, he knew that his writings were for the ages. Like Luther’s, his writings would come to be appreciated for the light they shed on everyday existence (even if his nineteenth century prose takes some getting used to). And he knew he was in the right. Like Luther, he felt compelled to say, “Here I stand”.

Hampson is not uncritical of Kierkegaard, complaining that he places too much emphasis on mystery. While Christianity may not make sense for modern people who think all is ordered, for Kierkegaard there is no order at all – everything is random. Yet Hampson herself is possessed by the spirit of Kierkegaard. She sees things as either/or – science or reason. She perhaps goes too far when claiming that the traditional core of Christianity is completely against a modern understanding of the universe. The point of miracles, after-all, is not that they show proof of a random universe, but that they are rare exceptions to normality. But despite her “critiques” (see book title), she sees in Kierkegaard more than simply a throwback to medieval ways of thinking. She is full of praise for the ways in which Kierkegaard asks us to think deeply about how we experience our lives.


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