05 May 2010

'I, Too, Was Included in Her Prayer'—Søren Kierkegaard


Today, 5 May, is the birthday of the influential Danish philosopher, Søren Åbye Kierkegård (1813-1855). Constantine Cavarnos numbers Kierkegaard among ‘the modern Western philosophers who were motivated by the love of truth, and not by the love of fame or egotism’ and calls him ‘Christian in spirit.’ [1] He is sometimes regarded as the father of existentialism, but according to C. Steven Evans, this is anachronistic and, likely, inaccurate, if existentialism ‘is defined as the denial that there is such a thing as a human essence of nature’. Evans concludes, ‘In the end he must be seen as his own person, a unique Christian presence with sensibilities that are in many ways Greek and premodern . . . He remains “the individual” he wrote about, and to whom he dedicated many of his works.’ [2] Here is the entry on Kierkegaard in Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia:

Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye (1813-1855) Danish philosopher. The early years of Kierkegaard’s life were dark and cheerless, his home a lonely, gloomy place. Kierkegaard published his first philosophical wokrs under pseudonyms. In contrast to Hegel’s objective philosophy, he proposed, in such works as Stadier paa Livets Vei (Stages on Life’s Way, 1845) and Gjentagelsen (Repetition, 1843), a system based on faith, knowledge, thought, and reality). In Enten Eller (Either-Or, 1843), he discusses the razor-edge decision made by man’s free will, which determines his personal relation to God. In 1846 events in his private life led him to experience a deeper commitment to Christianity and to attack with new vigor orthodox, organized religion. For Kierkegaard the relation with God must be a lonely, agonizing experience of a man’s inner solitude. During his lifetime he was not recognized in Denmark as a genius; a rebel against secure bourgeois morality, he was mocked and reviled for his unorthodox views and for the strange, ungainly figure he cut on the cheerful streets of Copenhagen. The 20th-century revival of Kierkegaard was initiated by the German philosophers Heidegger and Jaspers, and furthered by members of the French existentialist movement, notably Sartre and Camus. [3]

Apart from his intense opposition to Hegel, I know little about the broad contours of Kierkegaard’s philosophy. One point, however, on which I have learned something, albeit largely secondhand, is Kierkegaard’s interpretation of the Patriarch Abraham’s sacrifice as involving a ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’. [4] In Fear & Trembling, ‘Problem I’, the Dane argues that God’s command that the Patriarch Abraham sacrifice his son, Isaac, and the approval of Abraham’s willingness to do so when commanded, demonstrate that there is a level above that of ethical behaviour which a relationship with God requires. One might say that God is above the good, at least insofar as we understand it. Kierkegaard himself typifies the ethical stage by Socrates, [5] and thus Peter Kreeft [6] has aptly contrasted this notion of the ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’ with the central conclusion of Plato’s Euthyphro (11a)—that, in Grube’s somewhat awkward translation, ‘the god-loved and the pious’ are ‘altogether different from each other’. [7] In other words, Socrates concludes that the good is above the gods. But, naturally, he is talking about ‘the gods’ and not ‘God’, since a good deal of the problem arises from the fact that, according to Euthyphro 8a ‘the same things are considered just by some gods and unjust by others’. [8] Thus, Kreeft has suggested that we traditional Christians (from which company I believe he excludes Kierkegaard) solve this dilemma by identifying God Himself with the Good, a view which entails a closer relationship between God and the human conscience. But I don’t believe Kreeft really adequately answers the problem, which still remains, of whether human sacrifice is, then, in keeping with God’s ‘goodness’. [9]

I would also point the reader towards the interesting treatments of Kierkegaard by the Russian émigré philosopher, Lev Shestov, and, more briefly, by Hieromonk Nicholas (Sakharov). In his major work, Kierkegaard & Existential Philosophy, Shestov compares the Danish philosopher directly with Dostoevsky. Citing a passage from the Journal on closeness to God through the ‘shaking’ of man’s being, Shestov writes:

On this point he comes so close to Dostoevsky that without fear of exaggeration we can call Dostoevsky the double of Kierkegaard. Not only their ideas but their methods of searching for truth are perfectly similar and equidistant from the whole content of speculative philosophy. [10]

In his study of the theology of Elder Sophrony, Fr Nicholas looks briefly at convergences and divergences between, on the one hand, Kierkegaard and Karl Barth, and on the other, Nicholas Berdyaev and Elder Sophrony. He argues that the latter ‘(indirectly) support Barth’s and Kierkegaard’s attack on the objective dimension in the knowledge of God’, understanding knowledge of God not as ‘objectification’ but as ‘participation, union with the subject matter and entering into co-operation with it.’ [11] But there is a ‘fundamental difference’ between them in that Elder Sophrony believes firmly in the ‘possibility of the actual immediate experience of the infinite transcended by the finite’, whereas Kierkegaard believes finitum non capax infiniti, and the basis of his and Barth’s ‘theologizing is faith in the scriptural revelation’, in other words, experience mediated through the text. [12]

Unfortunately, I must admit that I have only ever read bits and pieces of Kierkegaard’s work. But one that has always stuck with me is an excerpt I first saw quoted years ago in a book by Tony Campolo. It is from an 1836 entry in Kierkegaard’s Journal:

I have just come back from a party where I was the life and soul. Witticisms flowed from my lips. Everyone laughed and admired me—but, I left, yes, that dash should be as long as the radii of the earth's orbit ——— and wanted to shoot myself. [13]

Kierkegaard would have been about 23 at the time that he wrote this. As stark and full of despair as it seems, the sentiments cannot be so very far from things that all thinking, feeling persons have experienced when for a moment we are, in Thomas Gray’s words, ‘far from the madding crowd’. God be with us then.

Also, commenting on the despair Tolstoy describes in his Confession, David Patterson observes, ‘Tolstoi had contracted what Kierkegaard calls the sickness unto death.’ [14] Not having read the essay of that title, I was a little bit skeptical. It seemed rather unlikely that such a personal problem would just happen to match a description given by a very different philosopher. But I was indeed impressed with the aptness of the comparison when I read the following:

The concept of the sickness unto death must be understood, however, in a peculiar sense. Literally it means a sickness the end and outcome of which is death. Thus one spekas of a mortal sickness as synonymous with a sickness unto death. In this sense despair cannot be called a sickness unto death. But in the Christian understanding of it death itself is a transition unto life. In view of this, there is from the Christian standpoint no earthly, bodily sickness unto death. For death is doubtless the last phase of the sickness, but death is not the last thing. If in the strictest sense we are to speak of a sickness unto death, it must be one in which the last thing is death, and death the last thing. And this precisely is despair.

Yet in another and still more definite sense despair is the sickness unto death. It is indeed very far from being true that, literally understood, one dies of this sickness, or that this sickness ends with bodily death. On the contrary, the torment of despair is precisely this, not to be able to die. So it has much in common with the situation of the moribund when he lies and struggles with death, and cannot die. So to be sick unto death is, not to be able to die—yet not as though there were hope of life; no, the hopelessness in this case is that even the last hope, death, is not available. When death is the greatest danger, one hopes for life; but when one becomes acquainted with an even more dreadful danger, one hopes for death. So when the danger is so great that death has become one’s hope, despair is the disconsolateness of not being able to die.

It is in this last sense that despair is the sickness unto death, this agonizing contradiction, this sickness in the self, everlastingly to die, to die and yet not to die, to
die the death. . . . [15]

Finally, lest it be thought that Kierkegaard is all gloom, here is a charming passage from Either/Or that I’ve only just read:

In our church services the congregation has always failed to make upon me a truly salutary impression. And yet there was one year of my life when I came pretty close to the idealized conception. It was in one of our churches here in the city [Copenhagen]. The church itself attracted me greatly, the clergyman who I heard every Sunday was a right reverend personality, a unique figure, who knew how to bring out old and new from the experiences of an eventful life; he was perfectly in place in the pulpit. As a priest he satisfied completely my soul’s ideal demand, he satisfied it as a figure, satisfied it as an orator. I was glad every Sunday to think that I was to go to hear him. But what increased my joy and made perfect for me the impression of divine worship in this church was another figure, an elderlywoman, who likewise attended every Sunday. She used to come a little before the service began, and I likewise. Her personality was for me an image of the congregation, and thinking of her I forgot the disturbing impression of the parish clerk at the church door. She was a woman of a certain age, apparently about sixty years old, but was still beautiful, her features noble, her look full of a certain humble dignity, her countenance expressive of deep, pure, feminine character. She looked as if she had experienced much, not precisely stormy events, but as a mother who had borne life’s burdens and yet had preserved and attained the ability to rejoice over the world. So when I saw her coming far down the aisle, when the sexton had met her at the church door and now as a servant was deferentially escorting her to her seat, then I knew she would also pass the pew where I sat. So when she went by I always rose and bowed to her. For me there was so much implied in this bow, it was as though I would beg her to include me in her supplications. She entered her pew, giving a kidnly greeting to the sexton, she remained an instant on her feet, she bowed her head, held a handkerchief an instant before her eyes as she prayed—it would take a pithy preacher to makee so strong and salutary an impression as did the solemnity of that venerable woman.

It sometimes came into my mind that perhaps I, too, was included in her prayer, for to woman it belongs essentially to pray for others. [16]

In conclusion, it is interesting to note that while Kierkegaard was not, of course, Orthodox, and as I have suggested, does not always line up with Orthodoxy, according to Wikipedia the Episcopal and some Lutheran church(es) apparently consider him to be some sort of saint, though they commemorate him in the Autumn, and not today. (Note the comment below, however, by Extollager, making it clear that confessional Lutherans do not regard Kierkegaard so highly!)


[1] Constantine Cavarnos, Orthodoxy & Philosophy (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 2003), p. 184.

[2] C. Steven Evans, ‘Kierkegaard, Søren Abye’, The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed., ed. Robert Audi (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 1999), p. 470.

[3] Katherine Baker Siepmann, ed., Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, 3rd ed. (NY: HarperCollins, 1987), pp. 529-30.

[4] Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling & The Sickness Unto Death, tr. Walter Lowrie (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1954), p. 67.

[5] Frederick Copleston, SJ, Modern Philosophy, Part II: Schopenhauer to Nietzsche, Vol. 7 in A History of Philosophy (Garden City, NY: Image, 1965), p. 113.

[6] In his audio course on the history of ethics.

[7] Plato, ‘Euthyphro’, tr. G.M.A. Grube, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, assoc. ed. D.S. Hutchinson (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), pp. 10-1.

[8] Ibid., p. 7.

[9] About this problem, I myself am tempted to say two things. First, it is important to factor in the significance of humility in Abraham’s obedience. The Patriarch did not consider himself such a judge of the good as to know better than God. Second, although this is an extreme example, it really does seem to be in keeping with the widely acknowledged ‘teleological’ orientation of Orthodox ethics. We may not like the idea of a readiness to sacrifice one’s child, but if we are not to deify a list of rules, then theoretically at least it seems to me that we must allow for a situation where God may call for it.

[10] Leon Shestov, ‘Kierkegaard & Dostoevsky’, tr. James M. Edie, Russian Philosophy, Vol. III: Pre-Revolutionary Philosophy & Theology, Philosophers in Exile, Marxists & Communists, ed. James M. Edie, et al. (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1969), p. 243.

[11] Hieromonk Nicholas (Sakharov), I Love Therefore I Am: The Theological Legacy of Archimandrite Sophrony (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2002), pp. 52-3.

[12] Ibid., p. 54.

[13] Copied from a source I’ve forgotten. It is A. Hannay’s translation, noted ‘I A 161’ according to J.C. Lund’s and H.P. Barfod’s system.

[14] David Patterson, ‘The Movement of Faith as Revealed in Tolstoi’s Confession’, Harvard Theological Review 71.3-4 (1978), p. 230.

[15] Kierkegaard, pp. 150-1.

[16] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, Vol. II, tr. Walter Lowrie, rev. Howard A. Johnson (Princeton: Princeton U, 1974), pp. 318-9. The last line reminds me of Solzhenitsyn’s wonderful short story, ‘Matrona’s Home’.

14 comments:

orrologion said...

I know someone who was found to be reading The Sickness Unto Death on location with Beverly Hills 90210 at a mansion in the Hollywood Hills. It was preventative measures for his brain slurming out his ears. It was also a conversation stopper with Tori, I am told. (The same actor was found reading Meyendorff's Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes on the set of Shaft.)

Schizo.

I have always wanted to enjoy reading Kierkegård (maybe I just like saying his name, maybe it's because he was Lutheran), but never have. I'm not sure if that is the quality of his writing, his thought, his translators, or my ever-present desire to understand philosophy butting up against my perennial inability to do so.

aaronandbrighid said...

Is Richard Roundtree secretly an Orthodox intellectual?

I don't know if I'd say I enjoy reading Kierkegaard, but I'm greatly helped in understanding him by consulting secondary texts. Copleston is helpful, as is, more briefly, Alasdair MacIntyre's Short History of Ethics.

orrologion said...

I believe he's Muslim; if he's Sufi that's as close as you can get to Orthodoxy without converting (since one story has it that Sufism is islamicized hesychasm/Orthodoxy). Whatever he is, "Bad MFer" is the very first thing to come to mind when you see him. Or, so I was told.

I'll have to check those out. Howard and Edna Hong's introductions didn't seem to help all that much (and I really wanted them to since they are/were based in my native MN at St. Olaf College - yes, it exists, all you Golden Girls fans, I've been there). I do get the sense that Kierkegård's work has to be taken as the whole of his variously created voices speaking in dialogue with and diatribe against each other, so reading a work here or there rather than his entire corpus would be confusing.

Ariston said...

Orr: "Kierkegaard" is correct; it's how he spelled it. For reference, the title page of The Point of View as an example (or his own signature, which is a little hard to read due to barely-there "g"). Despite the ligature-development of "Å", it doesn't represent the same sound in Danish as double-a, from how I've had it explained by Danes.

I highly recommend Joakim Garff's biography, it's far more interesting for general readers than a selection of his works. It has a tendency towards over-psychologization of the Freudian sort, but I think any astute reader can correct for that readily.

Kreeft's reading of F&T isn't unusual, I should say, but it is rarely made with reference to how Kierkegaard himself viewed the role of Johannes de Silentio in the "authorship" as a whole. I re-read the book last summer, and developed a slightly different view on it than I had been given in the prior reading because of this. In any case, it is best to attribute the views to the pseudonyms themselves as characters, rather than Kgaard proper; this is also why I turn my nose up at "collections" from his works.

Ariston said...

Orr: As for Kierkegaard's Lutheranism, here's a quote from the journals I think this group can all appreciate:

"Oh Luther, Luther! your responsibility is great indeed; for the closer I look the more clearly do I see that you overthrew the Pope––and set the public on the throne."

orrologion said...

Yes, but which pseudonym was that? :)

Khomiakov must have been corresponding with Kierkegaard, too, not just Palmer. :)

Ariston said...

Orr: It was the journal, so it was Kierkegaard himself, but intended for "future consumption". (The Journals were edited and revised, as part of what Kgaard thought of as the future key for the few readers who would wish to understand the whole. One trait he certainly didn't have was an overweening modesty: He was absolutely certain he'd have future readers who would want to read his personal journal.)

David.R said...

"the Dane argues that God’s command that the Patriarch Abraham sacrifice his son, Isaac, and the approval of Abraham’s willingness to do so when commanded, demonstrate that there is a level above that of ethical behaviour which a relationship with God requires. One might say that God is above the good, at least insofar as we understand it."
This is fascinating! It reminds me of the Aquinas Lecture given by Dr Al Plantinga at Marquette University in 1980, and entitled and published as 'Does God Have a Nature?, Milwaukee, Wis.: Marquette University Press, 1980, 146 pp., ISBN 0-87462-145-3. In the Review by Alfred J. Freddoso, University of Notre Dame we read, "In this lecture Alvin Plantinga proposes (p. 9) to discuss three questions: (i) does God have a nature? (ii) if so, is there a conflict between God's sovereignty and his having a nature? and (iii) how is God related to properties (including his nature), propositions, states of affairs, numbers, and other denizens of the Platonic realm of necessarily existing abstract entities? Plantinga's conclusions are straightforward: (i) God has a nature distinct from himself; (ii) the claim that God has a nature, while not incompatible with the belief that God is sovereign, does conflict with a common though mistaken intuition about God's sovereignty;and (iii) in whatever way we are ultimately to conceive of God's relation to his own nature and to other necessarily existing abstract entities, it is at any rate clear that God has no control over either their existence or their essential characteristics"
Of course, the above is not the teaching of Patristic Theology. The Patristic distinction between Essence, Energy and Hypostasis in God is the result of the experience of Theosis. Fr John Romanides in 'Patristic Theology'' p. 154
says, "Their theologians (Western) made distinctions that relied on metaphysics rather than experience". The Western idea that God is bound to act in a particular manner as if constrained by His Nature is the result of the rejection of the Patristic distinction between Essence and Energy in God, and also the rejection of the experience of the Fathers in Theosis. Fr John Romanides in p.53 of his book ''The Ancestral Sin' quotes St Justin's Çhristian Inquiries' addressing specifically the issue of creation (but of course the following applies to all the acts of God in His relation with the world)
"Though God is able to do all that He wills to do, He does not will to do all that He is able to do. To be is not the same as to will ...If God creates in His Being, it is by necessity that He creates whatever He creates
(this is the Western position-emphasis mine) But if it is by His will that He creates, (the Orthodox position-again emphasis mine), He creates out of sovereignty. Creating out of sovereignty , then, He creates as much as He wills, and whatever He wills and whenever He wills. If God creates in His Being, His will serves no purpose and is altogether useless"
In other words God is free and sovereign. The Patristic teaching stands in direct opposition to Thomas Aquinas and his successors. I think it is remarkable that Soren K. seems to have intuitively realized that there is something wrong with the scholastic understanding of God's nature.

Extollager said...

Kierkegaard may be well-regarded in Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) circles. This is the mainline "Lutheran" body, which is in pulpit and altar fellowship with some non-Lutheran denominations such as the United Church of Christ, the Reformed Church of America, etc.

http://www2.elca.org/ecumenical/fullcommunion/Reformed/index.html


Years ago I visited an ELCA church in Willmar, Minnesota, in which the "nave" was constructed on a somewhat circular plan. Around the wall ran an alphabetized list of revered names, which I think included Berdyaev, Boehme, and Kierkegaard; but it is over 20 years since I was there and I didn't write the list down.


"Kierkegaard believes finitum non capax infiniti," according to a statement in this piece. This contradicts the Lutheran Confessions. It is to take the side of the Reformed rather than the Lutheran stance in one of their disputes. On the evidence of the source cited in my first paragraph, this would not be a problem for the ELCA, but it certainly would be for the Confessional Lutheran denominations.


The Lutheran Confessions and the denominations which adhere to them do not canonize people, perhaps because this would be inappropriate given the divided state of Christendom. We may, however, refer to "the Blessed Martin Chemnitz" or to "the sainted Dr. Hermann Sasse."


Again, I have no intention of launching apologetic efforts here! In case anyone looking one would take Kierkegaard as a representative "Lutheran" figure, however, I thought I should speak up. One can say that "Lutheran," like "Christian," is in the eye of the beholder; thus, to non-Christians, even Unitarianism may seem to belong to the family of Christian denominations. I don't think this approach is useful, though, as it obscures important differences; I would contend that Lutheran denominations believe, teach, and publicly confess the faith as expounded in the doctrinal statements of the sixteenth-century Lutheran Confessions (the Augsburg Confession, etc.). These comprise a standard according to which one may determine whether a theologian or a denomination is "Lutheran." I would ask fair-minded readers of this blog either not to refer to Kierkegaard as Lutheran, or to do so with some qualifications, as (at least) a courtesy.

Extollager said...

I wrote, "In case anyone looking one."

Sorry. I meant, "In case anyone looking on."

aaronandbrighid said...

Sorry, Extollager, I didn't mean to mislead or offend. I for one have certainly never considered him at all representative of Lutheranism! At any rate, you will note that I have edited the reference to his alleged 'sainthood' and referred readers to your disclaimer.

River Cocytus said...

A friend from college lost his faith due in part to K'gaard. His problem, I think, was that he was smart enough to read him before he was experienced enough to really be able to put him in context.

Personally, I have little interest in K'gaard; what I have read has not made it seem imperative to read him.

Extollager said...

No need for apology, Aaron. You weren't at fault. The chief fault for confusion about what "Lutheranism" is all about lies with professing "Lutherans" (here in America, also in Europe) who do not adhere to the Lutheran Confessions. This, I suppose, is the majority of "Lutherans." Others often cannot be blamed if they have mistaken ideas about "Lutheranism," given what the majority of "Lutherans" say and do. If "Lutheranism" was what is emitted by the ELCA, I would leave "Lutheran" circles immediately.

Extollager said...

In short (and herewith I conclude), don't think "Kierkegaard" when you think about truly "Lutheran" things. Get out your CDs of the B Minor Mass or the St. Matthew Passion instead. Think Bach. :-)