Appealing to conservatives and atheists

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard can appeal to conservatives, atheists, fervent believers and critics of the church. He is claimed as a Lutheran and an existentialist. He influenced Karl Barth, Martin Luther King and Bonhoeffer, but also Albert Camus and Franz Kafka. Equally, he could offend anyone, in his own life and beyond, as his critical gaze takes in most of human folly. He was precocious and aloof but also physically impaired. He treated his ex-fiancee dreadfully but also saw and responded to the humanity in all the people with whom he talked in the streets of Copenhagen.

Summaries of his thought and his life can be daunting, which makes Stephen Backhouse’s Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Zondervan) a feat, even though, admits Backhouse, Kierkegaard himself deplored such reductionism. The subtitle, ‘A Single Life’ refers to the ‘single individual’, Kierkegaard’s term for the individual who stands with authenticity apart from the crowd, something that Kierkegaard increasingly came to embody, as he became mired in slanging matches in the press and ultimately became a figure of public ridicule, so much so that he could no longer take his daily walks in the city. Backhouse outlines the scandals and trials, and also, fascinatingly, how Kierkegaard’s thought disseminated across the globe until he reached his place in the pantheon of the greatest of Western philosophers.


The cliff face


Since our society avoids talking about death, Katie Roiphe’s The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End (Virago) may initially be confronting reading, but it soon becomes fascinating. Roiphe’s way of understanding death is to investigate six prominent writers – Susan Sontag, Maurice Sendak, Dylan Thomas (above), Sigmund Freud, James Salter and John Updike – their final months and days, and the manner of their dying. We speak of death as like a curtain, but really it is a cliff face, and in our society its presence is removed from the centre of society, despite its ubiquity in films and the media, sealed off hermetically in hospital rooms. Roiphe suggests that this remoteness does enhance its fascination, while at the same time its unfamiliarity breeds discomfort. She says that her investigation is less about ‘wisdom’ and more simply about confronting a fear of death.

Updike is the only one here with a conventional religious faith, if we can put it that way, growing up Lutheran and spending most of his life as an Episcopalian. Roiphe, while not antagonistic, admits she simply doesn’t get religion and finds it hard to understand Updike’s approach to death, which he calls an ‘adventure’ (a description echoed by Maurice Sendak, below) and about which he writes a final book of poems after learning of a fatal diagnosis. Roiphe is honest about her puzzlement over Updike’s mix of sincerity and irony towards his faith, a mix that many of faith will recognise (even though those without religious faith may find this at odds with a simplistic picture of what faith entails) and that is also to be found in one of Updike’s favourite writers, Kierkegaard.


Roiphe shows how these writers tended to confront death in their works and contrasts Sontag, who clung desperately to life, with Sigmund Freud, who calmly documents his demise as he would a patient’s, and Updike, who tells his wife emphatically that he is ready to go. Then there is Dylan Thomas who although, famously, in his poetry, was to ‘rage against the dying of the light’, seemed to rush headlong towards it via his drinking. Roiphe decides that his marital problems had a lot to do with it, and she opines that in the midst of such woes, sometimes ‘death does not seem like an unsensible solution’. Roiphe is sceptical that we can properly prepare for death, and that may be true, but some of the writers here show that we can go a certain way towards it.

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.

A mistaken enterprise?


Paul in the Grip of the Philosophers, edited by Peter Frick, (published by Fortress Press), is concerned with the perhaps surprising contemporary phenomenon of otherwise atheist philosophers’ interest in the apostle Paul. Most of these philosophers would be placed on the “left”, although Frick points out in his introduction that simple left-right polarisations are not very helpful because they can block out potential lessons to be learned on both sides. The chapters cover what may be the usual suspects – Nietzsche, Derrida, etc. – while describing how Paul’s position within his society stimulates their thinking, even if many philosophers dismiss the content of his message. A final chapter encourages us within the churches to be not so precious with Paul and to accept as prompts the alternative viewpoint these philosophers present.

To take a couple of examples, the chapter on Alain Badiou (above) begins by noting that postmodernity is characterised by both pluralism and homogenisation. We have endless choice, but there is a sameness about it all, meaning true novelty is hard to find. And truth is seen as merely a matter of opinion. Badiou’s political problem is finding truth that is not so abstract as to be meaningless, but that is grounded in something more than a particular moment that is of interest to only a select few. And he finds in Paul an example of someone, even if in Badiou’s view what Paul is preaching about is nonsense, whose method treads this middle ground – applying a particular event (the resurrection) in a wider context.

Similarly, Slavoj Zizek, that frowning giant of European philosophy, finds inspiration in Paul’s proclamation of what seems a “scandal” to reason. For Zizek, Paul proves that radical change must come not from within the “horizon” of “common sense”, but must be sparked by something analogous to Kierkegaard’s (and Luther’s) leap of faith. Zizek claims then that his radical political philosophy is a far closer descendant of Paul than the theology of the mainstream churches. In other words, it is Paul’s radical method, and not his content, that is the most important thing. Now, Zizek may be saying this tongue in cheek (it’s hard to tell with Zizek, and he might say it is beside the point), and it certainly is contrary to the mainstream views in the churches, but for Zizek we live in a different world, and the sort of continuity with the early church we seek in the contemporary churches, in theological rather than political terms, would be for him a mistaken enterprise.