200th Anniversary of Soren Kierkegaard: Was he also a prophetic voice?
by Borge Schantz
What made Soren Aaby Kierkegaard (1813-1855) one of the great Danes? He is regarded as the father of existentialism (defined as a philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe, regards human existence as unexplainable, and stresses freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one's acts). His theological work focusses on Christian ethics, the calling of the church, the differences between purely objective proofs of Christianity and the individual subjective relationship to Jesus. Kierkegaard wrote in a Danish language 200 years ago only spoken by less than one million people. His books and articles are in a style with long complicated phrases often difficult to understand. He could write sentences of more than 120 words. Often, you have to very slowly read a sentence several times to understand what he wanted to say. Fortunately, a number of authors in Danish, English and German have shared their research and summaries of Kierkegaard's academic contribution and outstanding works on the many topics he addressed.
Soren Aaby Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen in 1813 as the youngest of seven children. His father had a humble background, but became a great merchant and real estate speculator. At his death he left Soren funds that made it possible for him to devote his entire life to writing. Soren matriculated from High School in 1830 and began theological studies at the University of Copenhagen, where he received his degree in theology in 1840. However, although he was a theologian, he was never ordained as a pastor in the Danish Lutheran State Church.
As a religious writer and Christian philosopher Kierkegaard became known as one of the world's original and leading existentialist. His work is clearly based on the Lutheran biblical positions on areas such as sin, repentance, confession and forgiveness and is in this way permeated with his characteristic understanding of the Gospel. The center of the Christian message is also the core of Kierkegaard messages. Faith requires that you walk in the footsteps of Jesus, and being a Christian involves personal involvement, even sufferings. No doubt martyrdom is reserved for Christ and the apostles. But as Jesus Christ lived and died in shame and disgrace, that must also be the fate of the followers. This view reveals a marked difference between the triumphant, well-established Danish State Church and the picture of the struggling "biblical" church.
Kierkegaard defines a significant difference between the subjective (inner emotional) and the objective (external rational, impersonal). In the Christian belief the difference between objective, which is focusing on ethics, the church as an institution and evidence of Christianity's rationality, is in some ways in contrast to the simple, subjective faith which is a relationship with Christ that leads to a Christian life and practice of charity.
Events marking his lifework
Kierkegaard's responsible and emotional beliefs were strongly influenced by four major and diversified happenings in his life. The influence of these events can be traced in his comprehensive authorship.
1. His father had told the family that he was a shepherd boy on the Jutland heath. His life was marked by poverty, hunger and exhaustion which led him to climb a small hill and curse God. Furthermore as a well-to-do business man he seduced and made the housemaid pregnant. He felt that with these two sinful acts he had sinned against the Holy Spirit. It is believed that these two incidents, together with the loss of his father who died in 1838 made a lasting impression on Soren. His father was a melancholic personality, intelligent but also a religious doubter. Soren, no doubt, inherited the father´s intelligence and imagination but also his melancholic dispositions.
2. In 1840, Soren (27 years old) met the cheerful, 17-year-old Regine Olsen. They were engaged the following year. He hoped she would help him in his melancholy. However, as Soren thought about the engagement, he asked himself, could he make her happy? Would Regine’s life with him be tolerable? He came to the conclsuion that the relationship would become a lifelong burden for her. The engagement was dissolved a year later at Soren's request. This made him more closed and shut off from human relationships. Regine later married the governor of the Danish West Indies and lived until 1904. But Soren never married and he loved her until his death.
3. A literary feud with a satirical Copenhagen magazine Corsair, that Kierkegaard actually began, ended up seriously humiliating him. The fairly extensive controversy between Corsair where Kierkegaard was ridiculed in both words and caricatures stopped when the editor backed off. However, Kierkegaard was deeply hurt. Cartoons in connection with articles depicted him as a “street philosopher” with physical infirmities, such as a hunchback with thin legs and trousers legs of unequal length. This wounded Kierkegaard to such a degree that he from then on was reluctant to walk on the Copenhagen lanes and became even more reclusive.
4. In his later years, Kierkegaard became a fierce critic of the bishops and priests in the Lutheran State Church. His criticisms focused on the observation that they were theologically correct in their interpretations of Scripture as revealed in their Sunday sermons, but did not practice what they preached in their daily lives. Kierkegaard never revealed any major disagreements with Lutheran theology. However, his admonition to let private praxis be in accordance with the words in Sunday sermons was an implicit critique of the clergy. To Kierkegaard the established was not a "Christian" church. He made a distinction between “Christianity” and “Christendom” and made the point that the clergy had left Christianity and was practicing Christendom.
Kierkegaard's use of words, often in complex and knotty phrases, betrays a subtle logic, great learning but still a simple description of what he understood by God. He could even write in an enjoyable way and use simple and graceful sentences. He has been aptly described as "a writer who prostrated himself in the dust to what is sacred, but was not impressed by anything else." Passion and simple-minded talk, humor and irony were often Kierkegaard's main method of communication. As a strategy in dialogues, where he dealt with both philosophical and theological themes, Kierkegaard used pseudonyms. He could use his rich imagination to describe fictional rivals in debate with each other in magazines, as a unique strategy to get people to think. But he often ended the debate by writing under his own name, thereby getting his Christian views into focus.
It is impossible to survey Kierkegaard's diverse and outstanding contributions in a short article. One way, however, to get a glimpse of his fundamental thesis of existentialism is to look at the categories of people based on how aware each individual is of his or her own existence.
Philistine. The smug and ignorant person with no understanding of artistic and cultural values lives in an established social framework and believes that things are all right as they are. Kierkegaard believed that humans were separated from animals and plants by having a self, a consciousness, a spirit. This awareness gives them the ability to relate to themselves and make choices about life, but it does not necessarily require them to do so. The philistines have not become self-aware and exist in dull uniformity and habit.
Aesthetic. Sooner or later the philistine will one way or another be forced to relate to his or her self. However, there are those who resist self-awareness by trying to escape from his/her own existence, for example, by pleasures, consumption and wastefulness.
Ethical. This is the stage with honest responsibility. The person has started to exist and does not deny his/her self-awareness. However, there is still a lack of meaning to life with the result that he/she is obsessed by existential anxiety.
Religious Phase. This is the last stage listed by Kierkegaard, who classifies it in two kinds. (1) Religiosity A: The conformable Christian who faithfully attends church, has evening prayers, but does so more by routine than choice. To Kierkegaard this kind of religiosity is not acceptable as it is not by one's own personal choice but controlled by religion as an institution. This was part of Kierkegaard’s critique of the State Church. (2) Religiosity B: The passionate and spiritually demanding faith is the ultimate stage where the person realizes the paradox and absurdity of the Christian concept of God: that God is born as a man (Jesus) to die on the cross and rise again so that humanity may be saved from their sins.
Kierkegaard believed that the Christian does not as a matter of course gradually move from stage to stage. It is a personal choice by leaps in faith.
In terms of theological and philosophical reflection, the book Fear and Trembling (1843) includes the celebrated section where Kierkegaard develops variations on the story of Abraham, who was told by God to sacrifice his own son Isaac. This story is for Kierkegaard precisely the expression of the Christian faith as a "leap out of the 70,000 fathoms of water." Kierkegaard's description of the thoughts of both Abraham and Isaac seeks to show how a totally reckless act (murder of his own son) will be disregarded and the religious issue becomes more important than ethical requirements. God has his own ethics. Abraham became a "hero of faith" because he without understanding or justifying God's command, simply was obedient.
Kierkegaard as Chastiser
In his last period, Kierkegaard directly chastised the existing Lutheran church, which he bluntly stated was immoral and un-Christian, the enemy of true Christianity. It had for generations watered down and tampered with the Christian faith to such a degree that very little was left. The priests, who on Sundays could deliver good sermons, in their personal Christian life were far from living up to what the church stood for. Without hesitation they by baptisms and confirmations made all kinds of people “Christians” without asking any questions.
Without a doubt, he spent his last years embittered about Christianity as expressed in his intense and comprehensive attack on both the church and the clergy. Interestingly, the 200 year anniversary of Kierkegaard is today celebrated by the Danish National Evangelical Lutheran Church. It is a paradox, because in his last years he labeled the church an enemy of true Christianity. Even on his deathbed Soren Kierkegaard refused the visit of a clergyman.
Over a period of 12 years, Kierkegaard produced about 40 books and numerous newspaper articles. He, like his contemporary, Hans Christian Andersen, put Denmark's name on the world map, but not the world of fairy tales. In particular, he has been instrumental in that various forms of existentialism globally use his theories. This is reflected in the translations of his writings into many languages such as German, French, English, Spanish, Hebrew, Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, Japanese and Chinese. There are today Kierkegaard scholars who study the Danish language in order to be able read his original works. Among them there are, together with Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and scholars adherent to other religions.
Global Missionary Influence
That interreligious fact could be a hidden, but interesting "mission project." Kierkegaard is considered to be the first existentialist philosopher in the world. His extensive writings are considered the basics of existentialism. However, Kierkegaard can only be understood when one has a thorough knowledge of the Lutheran/Christian worldview upon which all of his authorships are built.
It is, however, a sad fact today that emphasis is placed on his thought on the topic of existentialism. His "prophetic messages" are sidetracked. His evangelical call to complete surrender to God and living a life based on Christian principles, which is actually the basis for his philosophical ideas, has cunningly been classified as being of less importance.
Soren Kierkegaard after 200 years also has a message for Seventh-day Adventists, both leadership and church members. We still, after 150 years of existence, should hold the balance between the objective tasks of maintaining beliefs, practices, administrations and organization, while at the same time emphasizing the subjective measures that are present in the individual spiritual journey with Christ and daily living the Christian life.