I’ve had the pleasure over the past few months of reading two books on Soren Kierkegaard: Stephen Backhouse’s Kierkegaard, A Single Life and Mark Tietjen’s Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians.* Both of these books are well-written, informative, and very much worth your time.
Backhouse’s A Single Life is primarily about Kierkegaard’s life and writings. He provides both an engaging biography that is just a delight to read and a useful survey of each of Kierkegaard’s publications. His blending of Kierkegaard’s authorial life with his personal life shows us how the two shaped and fed off of each other. We can also see that the key actions of his life are not necessarily commendable (Kierkegaard’s treatment of his fiancée is particularly despicable), however closely they’re tied to his thought.
Tietjen’s A Christian Missionary to Christians is primarily about Kierkegaard’s ideas, and is presented in a roughly systematic way. He begins with a chapter surveying Kierkegaard’s reception through the years by Christians, scholars, and Christian scholars. The next four chapters discuss Kierkegaard’s view of Christ, man, Christian witness, and the Christian life. Tietjen ends with a brief summary of Kierkegaard’s basic ideas and explanation of why they matter for us today.
In both of these books, we see that Kierkegaard’s primary concern is the reestablishment of authentic Christianity as the personal encounter with God through the life and death of Christ over and against the moribund state-sponsored religious formalism of his own time. Kierkegaard is writing for Christians and calling for the revival of the spiritual life and experience of the individual. He wants us to have a deeply-felt relationship with God that is based on a true experience of Divinity, rather than relying on a cultural and traditional association with a institutional church governed by a system of cold orthodoxy. Though not all of his later fans and fellow-travelers would agree, Kierkegaard himself is insistent that this experience/spiritual life comes only through Christ. For all his anti-clerical polemics (and given the things that I’m going to disagree with below), it is important to remember that Kierkegaard himself holds to an orthodox soteriology.
What’s more, in his own time philosophy (and to a lesser extent the popular culture) had come to be dominated by the thought of Hegel. We don’t need to go into what all that entailed here, just know that the followers of Hegel far more often imitated his method of subjecting all things to careful rationalistic and systematic process than they did his concern for getting at the truth. (Though I’m no Hegellian—I do believe he should be challenged for his own beliefs and methods, rather than for the use to which those methods were put by those who followed him.) In response to the spread of cold formalism, Kierkegaard called for a return to the internal experience of the authentic spiritual life. Rather than walking us through fifteen intellectual defenses of the existence of God and the truth of Scripture, Kierkegaard appeals to the basic internal experience of communion with God through work and person of Christ as expressed in Scripture. Backhouse and Tietjen do an excellent job of explaining how Kierkegaard’s ideas developed in response to the culture of his day and how they might apply to our own time.
With all that said, and despite the fact that both of these both of these books are excellent, I’m still not convinced that Kierkegaard is the man for our moment. We see something of why this is the case in his interactions with Bishop Mynster. Kierkegaard repeatedly and publicly demanded that Mynster admit that he has misled the Danish people and failed to teach true Christianity—that Mynster has not been “a witness to the truth.” (A Single Life, 169) Instead of preaching the true Gospel, Mynster has merely worked to uphold Christendom:
“Christendom is what happens when people presume they are Christians as a matter of inherited tradition, as a matter of nationality, or because they agree with a number of common-sense propositions and Christianized moral guidelines. Kierkegaard sees Christendom as a process by which groups adopt, absorb, and neuter Christianity into oblivion, all the while assuming they are still Christian.” (A Single Life, 172)
And I think, based on reading these two books, Kierkegaard was probably right. I’m no scholar of Danish church history, but it does sound like the church in Denmark had fallen on hard times and devolved into a shallow formalism that carried no substance. It apparently required little from its adherents and was more concerned with keeping its own power than with holding up the good news of a crucified Savior before a hostile world.
And yet, that’s not the same thing as saying that our particular moment needs to hear what Kierkegaard has to say. It’s true that at times Christianity has become too cold and formalized. We have on occasion been more interested in ritual and formality than with a vibrant spiritual life. Yet that is not the temptation of early 21st century Evangelicals. If anything, our problem is an excess of Kierkegaardian thought and attitudes. We’re not stuck in a rut of tradition and formality, we’re stuck in an obsession with authentic expression seeking pure close relationships. Consequently we don’t need more or better Kierkegaard, just as we don’t need more Christians authentically expressing the deepest desires of their soul. What we need are people who, instead of being in love with themselves and gazing at their own navels, are in love with God and His church and express that love by participating in its life. That means at the very least joining a faithful local church, but it also means more. It means being concerned with church polity, with structure and order in the service and in the congregation, and with orderly worship in general. Today we don’t need more Christians ‘being real’, we need more Christians being holy in the church before the world. Maybe another way to say this is that Kierkegaard has done his work for now and that what we need is a good systematizer.
I am not saying that you shouldn’t read Backhouse’s or Tietjen’s books—both are excellent and you certainly should read them. I’m not even saying that you shouldn’t read Soren Kierkegaard. I am saying that the lessons you take from Kierkegaard aren’t as relevant now as they were in, say, the 1970s or 80s. If you want to read someone from the 19th century who does speak to the needs of our time, let me recommend five theologians from different backgrounds who deal with different areas of Christian life (but all of whom are more relevant to Evangelicals in the early 21st century):
No doubt someday the wheel will again turn and we’ll need to dust off the message Kierkegaard has for the church. We’re just not there yet.
*Technically I might even have read three books, if you count my slow plodding through David Walsh’s The Modern Philosophical Revolution, which includes a lengthy chapter on Kierkegaard.
Dr. Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and co-host of the City of Man Podcast.