Sunday, November 10, 2013

Remembering Søren Kierkegaard

He was an odd guy in many ways. He was out of step with, and way ahead of, the times in which he lived. And he was a constant irritation to the religious establishment of Denmark, the country in which he lived his entire life.
Søren Kierkegaard is the one of whom I am writing. He was born two hundred years ago, in February 1813, and died at the young age of 42, on November 11, 1855. (This is third month in a row to write about a significant Christian thinker/doer of the past; in September I wrote about Albert Schweitzer, and last month it was Jonathan Edwards.)

When I was a junior at William Jewell College I remember hearing about Kierkegaard for the first time. My interest in him grew over the next several years—so much so that my doctoral dissertation was titled “The Meaning of ‘Paradox’: A Study of the Use of the Word ‘Paradox’ in Contemporary Theological and Philosophical Writings with Special Reference to Søren Kierkegaard.”
When I was writing my dissertation, I was mainly interested in Kierkegaard’s brilliant thinking. But soon after beginning my teaching career in 1968 I read the (to me) captivating book “Kierkegaard and Radical Discipleship: A New Perspective” (1968) by Vernard Eller, the outstanding Church of the Brethren scholar. (That stimulating book can be found online here.)
Reading Eller’s book led me to read again Kierkegaard’s last writings, collected in a book entitled “Kierkegaard’s Attack Upon ‘Christendom' 1854-1855” (1944; new edition, 1968). That volume is a hard hitting collection of criticism not of Christianity but of Christendom, institutionalized Christianity as seen in the state church of Denmark (and, by implication, elsewhere).
In the year he died, Kierkegaard expressed his opposition to Christendom like this: “The religious situation in the land is:
“Christianity (that is, the Christianity of the New Testament—and everything else is indeed not Christianity, least of all by calling itself that), Christianity does not exist at all . . . .”
So in a sense Kierkegaard was a fundamentalist—but not in the sense of emphasizing the sine qua non doctrines of Christianity as did the fundamentalist movement in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Rather, he emphasized that real Christianity must include “radical discipleship,” to use Eller’s words.
Kierkegaard’s writings included philosophical/theological works such as “Philosophical Fragments” (1844) and “Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments” (1846), psychological/theological books such as “Fear and Trembling” (1843) and “The Sickness unto Death” (1847), and devotional/theological writings such as “Works of Love” (1847) and “Practice in Christianity” (1850).
For you who would like to read more of Kierkegaard’s challenging thinking, I highly recommend the excellent book “Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Søren Kierkegaard,” which is available as a free ebook at this link.
The first half of that book, selected and edited by Charles E. Moore, is a summary of SK’s key ideas, and then roughly the last half is a collection of excerpts and aphorisms arranged topically. Reading “Provocations” greatly helps us to understand Kierkegaard better. But more importantly, it helps us to grasp more fully what it means to be a true Christian.
Long before Bonhoeffer wrote his noted book about Christian discipleship, Kierkegaard stressed the necessity for Christians to follow Jesus faithfully. In his words, “Christ comes to the world as the example, constantly enjoining: Imitate me. We humans prefer to adore him instead” (Kindle, loc. 3426).
Even though he died 158 years ago, not only is Søren Kierkegaard still well worth remembering, his thought-provoking writings are worth reading, pondering, and embracing.


  1. Today's first response is from a Thinking Friend who lives in Japan but is back in Missouri briefly:

    "That is a good quote about our Lord Jesus wanting us to imitate him, while we are often content simply to adore him. Good food for thought this morning."

  2. The notion of radical discipleship seems to fit well with Mennonite Anabaptism.

    I first encountered Kierkegaard in college, as well. I found in him a kindred spirit whose distaste for the established Church paralleled my own. While I am no longer the anti-Church fanatic that I once was, I still find Kierkegaard's existentialism helpful in creating a sort of theological bedrock from which any constructive theology should begin. Thank you for this thought-provoking post.

    1. Joshua, thanks for reading and responding to this blog posting.

      Yes, it was the linking of Kierkegaard to Anabaptism that I found compelling in Eller's book. Although he was writing from the perspective of the Church of the Brethren, there are many parallels with Mennonites.

      I encourage you, and others who are interested in the Anabaptists as well as Kierkegaard, to take a look at Eller's work.

  3. That's a great quote:

    “Christ comes to the world as the example, constantly enjoining: Imitate me. We humans prefer to adore him instead”

    I always have, and always will, associate Søren Kierkegaard with you, Dad! :)

    1. Thanks, Karen!

      While I am very glad not to be like Kierkegaard in some ways (such as his breaking his engagement to Regina and never marrying), I am honored to be thought of in association with him in other ways.

  4. Thanks, Leroy, for the piece on Kierkegaard. I think Kierkegaard was a very strange man; perhaps that very strangeness allowed him to craft those existential critiques of Christianity. I remember, when studying existentialism while attending a Baptist college, wondering whether the existentialist philosophy couldn't be useful in getting church members to be more honest with themselves, and thus also perhaps weeding out hypocrites from the church. That was, of course, a moment of supreme arrogance and self-righteousness on my part. While philosophically and theologically, I'm more comfortable with Kierkegaard than C.S. Lewis, the latter's grace is more endearing and maybe even a better example. (Lewis wrote, in response to those who pointed out Christian hypocrisy, that we should try to imagine how bad Christians would be if they weren't Christians! He was also able to allow himself to love a woman.) Kierkegaard's revulsion with Christendom may also reflect an other-worldly disregard for this world, not an attractive or fruitful element in Christianity, or so it seems to me.

    Regarding following Christ's example: While I found Bonhoeffer's work very inspiring and used it frequently in my own studies, meditations, preaching, etc. At least two things make the idea of Imitatio Christi problematic. One is simply the very great and complicating difference between living as a modern person in a postmodern world. How does a contemporary American in an advanced, post-industrial world power imitate a Jewish peasant and sage/revolutionary/prophet of the first century? Second, modern scholarship about Jesus has brought much historical and biographical uncertainty about what Jesus taught or even who he was precisely. We're no longer fundamentalists who can take the biblical accounts at face value or easily decipher what "following Christ" would mean in the circumstances of our postmodern lives. All this, I think, makes necessary some rethinking and re-evaluating of the whole idea of following Christ. Which I still think might be a good thing to do -- at least for other people. :)

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Anton.

      It is quite evident, I think, that I have a much more positive view about Kierkegaard than you do, although his thought as well as his manner of living were not without lingering problems. Still, I believe his existentialism as well as his understanding of what it means to be (or try to be) a Christian are both intellectually and spiritually challenging and fruitful.

      As to the "Imatatio Christi" theme, again I think the problems you point out are real and have to be seriously considered. Still, I believe we can know enough about the basic teachings and actions of Jesus to give considerable guidance for knowing how we should live much more constructively than most of us do now.

  5. I well remember my first reading of Attack upon Christendom in the early '80s. It's critique exactly fit my take on the Religious Right's idolatry of Ronald Reagan and the "Reagan is Taking us Back" bumper sticker.

    After watching his first presidential nomination acceptance speech, I was horrified when all those preachers - and one rabbi - fell all over themselves praising Reagan as a "fine Christian man" just after his speech - about 2/3 of which was in direct conflict with what Israel's prophets called for and what Jesus exemplified. That was likely my first awareness of the rising power of the Religious Right.

    American "Christendom" has become ever more blatant as high sounding window dressing for the unbridled greed of the very rich and their lust for completely (ethically) unrestrained capitalism; as well as a fantasy memory of the "good old days" when men - mostly White - dominated all aspects of American life, or so they believed!

    I suspect Kierkegaard would be just, of not more, revolted by American Christendom-nationalism as he experienced in his life.

    I was introduced to SK in the Intro to Philosophy class, and your classes Leroy, the very same spring semester ('72) at SWBC. That marks the serious beginning of my questioning of all the presuppositions about the Bible - taught as absolutes - by a fundamentalist pastor in '70-'71. I began to find that the plain reading of Scripture (Especially Scriptures NOT among the proof-texts loved by Fundamentalists.) flies in the face of many beliefs about God, Christ, and the Bible that fundamentalism demands, a priori, to personal/experiential faith in the Living Christ.

    Thanks for the potent reminder of such a potent observer of The Faith - and its counterfeits!

    1. Thanks so much, Larry, for your helpful and insightful comments. I wish all the students at SWBC in 1972 had been as perceptive as you!

  6. Dr. G. Temp Sparkman, a local Thinking Friend, sent the following comment by email:

    "While many of us were unsure whether anyone with a name like Soren Kierkegaard could have anything of use to say, Leroy was reading, understanding, and appreciating him. I am wondering why the people whose criticism of the institutional church informed my thinking seemed unaware of his thought."

    1. Thanks, Temp.

      It is a real shame, I think, that more people have not had a fuller, and more accurate, understanding of Kierkegaard.

  7. Eric Dollard, another local Thinking Friend, sent these comments, which I am happy to post here.

    "I have been reading 'The Mountain of Silence,' which we will discuss on Wednesday at Vital Conversations. It says much about Orthodox spirituality and ritual, which I find fascinating and intriguing. One interesting aspect of Orthodoxy is its disinterest in formal proofs of God's existence; we cannot prove God's existence through science or logic, instead, we find God through the mystical experience of his presence. My atheist friends say that they will give up their atheism if God reveals himself in some dramatic fashion, but that is not going to happen. God, if he exists and he is involved in human life, reveals himself within each individual."

    "There is an interesting connection, then, between Orthodox spirituality and Kierkegaard, who disdained the formality and shallowness of Christendom. I do not know enough about Kierkegaard to know whether or not he was a mystic; perhaps you have some thoughts about that."

    1. Thanks for your pertinent comments, Eric.

      Kierkegaard was also dismissive, and even somewhat scornful, of attempts to prove God's existence by the intellect. He said the way to prove God's existence is through worship.

      The word "mystic" has different meanings or nuances, but in a real sense I think that Kierkegaard was certainly a mystic. He thought that the primary way to know God was through faith, not through reason. And faith was a commitment of one's heart/will to God that brought about communion with God.

  8. Here are comments from a third local Thinking Friend, Dr. Will Adams, a retired professor of political science:

    "I had heard of Kierkegaard, of course, but knew little about him. Thank you for your informative blog.

    "One sentence jumped out at me: '“Christ comes to the world as the example, constantly enjoining: Imitate me. We humans prefer to adore him instead.' I think that beautifully sums up the main things wrong with what passes for Christianity today. If we would love our enemies, return good for evil, turn the other cheek, go the second mile, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the sick and the prisoners, and bless the peace makers, instead of worrying about who does and doesn't believe in the virgin birth, the miracles, and the ascension, the world would be a fantastically better place."

    1. Thanks, Dr. Adams, for your valuable comments. I think you are exactly right: being a Christian, as Kierkegaard saw, is far more living a life of obedience to Christ's teachings than intellectually affirming belief in various doctrines.