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Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855)


Soren Kierkegaard

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1813 – 1855

“Don’t be a Soren!”, Danish parents admonish their children to this day, “Soren” being synonymous with a ridiculousness so pronounced as to be both laughable and contemptible. Nevertheless my friend and former philosophy professor, Emil Fackenheim, himself a world-renowned thinker, casually mentioned to me that Kierkegaard is the greatest thinker to arise in Christendom.

Really? What about giants like Augustine, Aquinas, Luther? While I pondered Fackenheim’s remark I found Ludwig Wittgenstein, a leading philosopher in our century, saying the same thing: no Christian thinker has surpassed the physically grotesque man with the inimitable mind.

Soren Kierkegaard was the youngest of seven children born to Michael and Ane, the illiterate household servant he impregnated and subsequently married. Five of their children wouldn’t live past 34, leaving Peter, the eldest son, and their “Benjamin”. (Soren spoke agonisingly of himself as his father’s “Isaac.”) Years later, while Peter supported himself as a clergyman, Soren’s ten years at the University of Copenhagen and his work as an author – at one point he produced fourteen books in two years – would be funded out of the residues of his father’s business career as cloth merchant, hosier and wholesale grocer.

While Soren excelled in Latin, Greek, history, mathematics and science, his mastery of philosophy was stunning. With laser-like penetration he saw that the philosophers’ metaphysical systems were just that: systems in thinking; or, as he preferred to speak of them, protracted “thought-experiments.” While admiring the logic whereby philosophers integrated and advanced their comprehension of every facet of human history and every dimension of human understanding, he insisted that all such systems confused the realm of thought with the realm of existence. Glad to acknowledge that scholarly objectivity requires personal detachment, he none the less insisted that ultimate Truth calls for radical commitment. Truth is to be embraced in impassioned “inwardness.” His “Truth is subjectivity” soon had the intellectual and ecclesiastical worlds buzzing.

Of course Kierkegaard never meant that truth is subjectivism. Subjectivism is nothing more than fantasy or self-indulgence, even the silly notion that our preferences or pleasures constitute reality. Reality, rather, is the God who looms before us yet rises above us in an “infinite qualitative difference.” Quite simply, Kierkegaard knew that existence could never be reduced to thought. The more he read Hegel, Europe’s leading philosopher, the more convinced he was that being schooled in a philosophical system was “like reading out of a cookbook to a man who is hungry.”

Kierkegaard disagreed most vehemently with Hegel’s notion that Christianity was merely a pictorial representation in concrete, colourful images of a truth that the philosopher could apprehend by means of rising to the standpoint of the Absolute through pure thought. Kierkegaard disagreed that from this exalted perspective the philosopher could grasp that “God” and man had been brought together in a higher unity, and therein grasp that “God” was nothing more than the essence of humankind. He rejected the notion that religious consciousness was to philosophical consciousness as illustrations are to argument. Sadly, he understood why other philosophers were soon saying that “God” was no more than humankind’s self-projection now hugely inflated, that theology had been exposed as anthropology.

Kierkegaard knew better. The living, lordly, holy One is. The “infinite qualitative difference” between him and us can never be eliminated through thought. Since no “thought-experiment” can ascend to him, he must descend to us. This he has done in the Incarnate One. And this one can be known only in faith, with all the risks that attend upon faith – “lying out upon 70,000 fathoms of water.” The self-abandoned self “leapt” in faith to embrace God-Incarnate, and therein learned that “being a Christian” wasn’t the indifferent shallowness of the state church wherein, said Kierkegaard, “Everyone is a Christian. What else?” To become a Christian is properly to exist. To exist, his Greek studies reminded him, is ex-stare, to stand out: stand out from the crowd, stand out from public opinion, stand out from the Spirit-less religion of soulless conformity. So far from the disinterest of “thought-experimenters”, Kierkegaard espoused the “interest” of faith. Inter-est, his Latin studies reminded him, is to be “between.” It’s in the “between” of God and us; it’s in the relationship that Truth, embraced in impassioned inwardness, is held in utmost subjectivity.

Not surprisingly, his philosophical perception and his spiritual profundity issued in a stinging denunciation of a lumbering church’s “Christianity.” At the same time his honesty, forthrightness, and love for simple people (he was always in the streets conversing with common folk) found him writing newspaper articles that exposed the cruelty and compromises of the socially prominent. These people retaliated, pillorying Kierkegaard in the press. Thereafter when he went to church, louts stared at him endlessly, hoping their icy aggression would unnerve him. When he went on carriage drives in the country (the one relaxation he permitted himself), hired toughs threatened him. Cartoonists caricatured him, jeering at his clothing and mocking his bodily deformities. “No one dares to say ‘I’”, he noted as so-called individuals hid in the crowd and weakly intoned en masse what they would never dare to say alone. His society was afflicted with a sort of “ventriloquism”, he liked to say, wherein the individual was merely the mouthpiece for the mob. “And this”, he insisted, “is the specific immorality of the age.”

The day he was walking home with the last of the money his father had willed him he collapsed in the street and was carried, paralysed, to the hospital. He died five weeks later. The common people who thronged his funeral were restive to the point of a near-riot. The clergy, however, absented themselves except for the dean of the cathedral and Peter, his brother, now a bishop, who publicly “apologised” for little Soren’s “excesses.”

The man who addressed his work to “that solitary individual”, the person who resists the crowd, flings himself upon the crucified, risks all as did Abraham of old ascending Mount Moriah, lives thereafter in the “between”, and appropriates Truth in ever-greater subjectivity; this one had said of himself years earlier, “I shall never know the security of being like others.” His place is secure in the hearts of those who cherish his intellect and spirit. Above all, he himself is secure in the grasp of him from whose hand nothing will ever snatch him. (John 10:29)

Victor Shepherd June 1999