He was a theologian, a philosopher, a poet, and a public figure. He tried to use his personal experiences as metaphors for the life of Christian faith. He sought to reform Christianity in his homeland, but he ended up confusing both believers and unbelievers. He is called the father of existentialism, although he probably would recognize no relationship between his writings and the existentialists of later generations.
Soren Kierkegaard was born in Denmark in May 1813. By virtue of his birth in Denmark and his baptism, he was officially a Christian citizen of a Christian land. The state church in Denmark was Lutheran, but its schools of theology and philosophy were heavily influenced by the great thinkers of the time, particularly Hegel. Many common Christians reacted against the state church with a movement called Pietism, which stressed an inner, emotional relationship with God. Kierkegaard’s family was drawn toward Pietism and it is reflected in his writings; but Kierkegaard opposed both the philosophic Christianity of the state church and the sometimes shallow and prosaic thinking of the Pietists.
Kierkegaard wrote his Master’s thesis on The Concept of Irony, with regard especially to the person of Socrates. Much of the rest of his writing, both published and private, reflected his interest in irony. Kierkegaard wrote many of his greatest works under pseudonyms, which was not unusual in the nineteenth century—Samuel Clemens wrote as Mark Twain and Charles Dodgson as Lewis Carroll. But Kierkegaard employed a series of pseudonyms, each using a different approach toward communication and toward understanding truth. In this way, he experimented with various ways of dealing with the conflicts within the Christian teachings of his time, without necessarily committing himself to any one approach. If Kierkegaard were alive today, he likely would have six or seven WordPress accounts, each under a different name, each publishing different messages, and probably debating one another in the comments of each blog.
Under his own name, Soren Kierkegaard published “Edifying Discourses” throughout his writing career. These were devotional essays, not in the sense of one or two page reflections on Christian topics, but more as lengthy (twenty pages or more) approaches to faith and Christian living. He wrote in the style of his time, not with short declarative statements, but with complex sentences that enabled him to relate a number of intertwined thoughts and themes. Although his writings are not easy to understand, they are worth the effort to read, for much of what Kierkegaard wrote nearly two hundred years ago applies to faith and Christian life today.
At the same time of his “Edifying Discourses,” Kierkegaard wrote a series of works that were semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical, somewhat philosophical, and somewhat theological. These include Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, Reflections, and Stages on Life’s Way. Kierkegaard’s relationship with Regina Olsen, to whom he was engaged for some weeks, apparently inspired much of his thinking about total commitment to God, renunciation of the world, the meaning of Christian faith, and the power of love—human love and God’s love. Fear and Trembling also marks the first of three great pre-Freudian psychological works, also including the Concept of Anxiety and The Sickness unto Death. In these three books, Kierkegaard explored the meaning of faith in the life of a sinful man, the need for God’s grace to bring, not only forgiveness of sins, but reconciliation to God and discovery of the true self.
Kierkegaard’s towering great works are the Philosophical Fragments and the ironically titled Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, which is several times as long as the work to which it is a postscript. The Fragments was Kierkegaard’s clearest statement of the meaning of Christianity to that time, although it is often overlooked in favor of the Postscript. In these works, Kierkegaard stated that “truth is subjectivity.” This does not mean that truth is relative, or that it is different for each individual. It means that truth is not significantly true if it does not matter to the believer. For example, if you are not Japanese and have no dealings with the government of Japan, the truth that Tokyo is the capital of Japan is probably not significant to you. You know it is true, but you do not treat it as a Truth. Kierkegaard spoke against those writers who contemplated the truths of Christianity without treating them as significant truths, but merely used them as starting points to wander into deep thoughts far removed from Christian Truth.
Kierkegaard did not believe that it is necessary to prove the existence of God. He found every such truth to be evidence of a lack of faith rather than evidence of Christian faith. In so doing, Kierkegaard compared Christian faith to a leap into the unknown, trusting the promises of God without requiring proof as a prelude to faith.
At this point in his career, Kierkegaard became a public figure in Denmark much as the Kardashians are public figures today. People did not understand what he wrote, and they did not try to understand. Instead, the newspapers mocked his posture, his wardrobe, and other aspects of his personal life. Instead of defending himself, Kierkegaard used the experience of public ridicule to expose the problem of what George Orwell would later call “groupthink.” Kierkegaard insisted upon the importance of the individual against the demands of society. This led him to emphasize the Pietistic notion that individual faith matters more than church membership. As a result, Kierkegaard’s later writings constitute attacks on what today would be labeled “organized religion,” although these attacks were interspersed with continued devotional discourses which contain some of the most beautiful and meaningful expressions of faith and Christian living that he ever produced.
Kierkegaard is considered difficult to read today. He used the writing style of his time, and often parodied that style in his effort to undercut the prevalence of Hegelian thinking among the professional writers of his time. At the same time, no reader can understand Kierkegaard without first comprehending the Biblical themes that inspired him, as well as the writings of Martin Luther and of the Lutheran theologians who followed Luther. Kierkegaard’s writings cannot be meaningfully reduced to a sentence-a-day calendar. Many of the quotes of Kierkegaard that appear in later writings are taken out of context, ignoring the approach of the pseudonym under which he was writing, or missing the surrounding context which supplied meaning to the individual statement of a single sentence.
For those interested in starting to learn how Kierkegaard wrote, I recommend two of his shorter works. The first is Fear and Trembling, written during the time that Kierkegaard was obsessed with the Christian significance of his broken engagement. Using the account of Abraham, who was commanded to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice to the Lord, Kierkegaard discussed the significance of doing what would otherwise seem wrong because the Lord commanded it. The second is The Sickness unto Death. Here Kierkegaard discusses the meaning of sin, of redemption, and of faith, all in context of his earlier writings (including the Concept of Anxiety and the Philosophical Fragments), but in a way that successfully stands alone. Read with the presupposition of the truth of Christian teachings, and with confidence in the truth of the books of the Bible, these works express a genuine and deep Christian faith and a thorough understanding of what it means to exist as a Christian in a largely-unbelieving world.
The twentieth-century existential writers considered themselves heirs of Kierkegaard, although he would have disagreed with most of what they wrote. Drawing on the themes of the importance of the individual, and the need for a subjective relationship with the Truth, those writers overlooked the Christian and Lutheran voice in Kierkegaard’s works and largely miss the real meaning of what he was communicating. In one sense, Kierkegaard would feel vindicated by this reaction; he frequently reveled in the knowledge that he was widely misunderstood. On the other hand, Kierkegaard appreciates the “single individual whom I can call my reader,” one who patiently follows Kierkegaard on his winding paths of communication and finds the treasures of Christ’s Gospel hidden in various places along those paths. I hope that, for this title of his reader, I am qualified. J.