Mark Tietjen serves as director of religious life and Grace Palmer Johnston Chair of Bible at Stony Brook School. His latest book, Kierkegaard: a Christian Missionary to Christians framed this interview.
The interview was conducted by David George Moore. Dave blogs at www.twocities.org.
Moore: Your title will pique the interest of those not familiar with Kierkegaard. How is he a “Christian missionary to Christians”?
Tietjen: Kierkegaard’s context is 19th century Europe, i.e. Christendom, and thus he’s addressing an audience that would regard itself as Christian, simply by virtue of their being European. He felt strongly, however, that there was little Christianity in Christendom, hence the description of his work as missionary work. I think what Kierkegaard offers is along the lines of what any number of Christian thinkers offer when they point us closer toward the Gospel of Jesus Christ and in doing so challenge those beliefs, prejudices, behaviors, attitudes, and feelings that we take to be ‘Christian,’ but which in fact are not. And the process of discovering that is painful, but good. Reading Kierkegaard can be painful, but good.
Moore: As a young Christian growing up the 1980s the writings of Francis Schaeffer were extremely influential. I vividly recall Schaeffer’s critique of Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith.” A college professor who described Kierkegaard as the father of existentialism added another inaccurate component to my understanding of Kierkegaard. How did both of them get Kierkegaard wrong?
Tietjen: “Leap of faith” is a phrase that never appears in Kierkegaard’s published work. What critics pick up on in his use of the term leap is the idea that the most important decisions humans make in their lives are passional decisions, decisions where reason can help but is not necessarily decisive, and instead, our deepest commitments—our cares and passions—direct us. If that’s true, then we need to cultivate virtuous cares and passions, and Kierkegaard is devoted to thinking deeply on that. These critics would suggest that when it comes to faith Kierkegaard promotes a kind of irrationalism which, at the end of the day, says that to believe in God is something one does blindly, without any evidence. Kierkegaard is hardly an irrationalist. However, he is a very strong critic of rationality because he recognizes that all conceptions of rationality have some angle, some set of assumptions, that often serve to justify oneself, one’s nation, one’s ethnic group, one’s prejudices, etc. Kierkegaard is also aware that while Christianity has its own logic (Jesus is the logos, after all), to those who do not share that faith, Christianity seems irrational. That does not scare Kierkegaard, precisely because he refuses to deify and human conception of rationality.
Concerning existentialism, classical existentialism claims that humans more or less determine who they are by their choices, but Kierkegaard thinks this sort of thinking is actually despair. Kierkegaard believes humans are image-bearers of God who will all experience despair until they ‘rest transparently’ in God. He is far more Augustinian than existentialist.
Moore: On the positive side of the ledger, I’ve noticed that many “conservative” Christians now refer to Kierkegaard with great enthusiasm. What has changed the minds of many in a more favorable direction?
Tietjen: This is a good question. Perhaps one explanation is the overall increase in Christian philosophy that has occurred since the 1970s. There are quite literally hundreds of more Christian philosophers working than there were 50 or more years ago, and thus more scholars who’ve studied Kierkegaard at a high level and recognize his contributions to Christian philosophy, psychology, and theology. I also think that when popular Christian writers like Philip Yancey and Timothy Keller speak approvingly of their debt to Kierkegaard, that moves the needle in the right direction.
Moore: Over the years, I’ve led several book clubs through various classics of the Christian faith. Kierkegaard’s Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing is one of the readings. There are a number of things which have stuck with me from reading that incisive work, but I want to ask you to unpack Kierkegaard’s suspicion over the crowd or what we today call “groupthink.”
Tietjen: Simone Weil, a kind of kindred spirit of Kierkegaard’s, once bravely admitted that she could imagine getting sucked into the group energy of Nazi rally songs—that there is a kind of seduction to following the mob that lullabies one to sleep. Kierkegaard felt that Christianity was primarily a category of individuality, meaning that God created each human uniquely and relates to each human individually, and thus oftentimes our involvement in the masses, including the public and even the church, can distract us from standing before God as individuals who have obligations to God and specific callings from God. To say I’m a Christian because I’m a European (or a Southerner) is precisely to make out of faith a group identification rather than a personal relation to God.
Moore: Kierkegaard had some very pointed things to say about the clergy of his day. As you point out, even on his deathbed he refused communion because the clergy of the State church would have to administer it. He makes Eugene Peterson’s critiques of modern pastoral professionalism look mild! How did those ministers who ended up in Kierkegaard’s spiritual crosshairs respond to him?
Tietjen: Kierkegaard’s critique of the church and its clergy was at times challenged by the clergy, and at other times simply dismissed because he was not taken seriously after a while. To this day many in Denmark don’t know what to do with Kierkegaard. He was a public agitator, and that bad taste has never gone away. On the other hand, he’s arguably one of the three most famous Danes the world has ever known, and so there’s reason to take pride in him.
Moore: Kierkegaard liked to use irony, story-telling, and even sarcastic humor to get his points across. Was his intention similar to the famous lines of Emily Dickinson where she says, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant”? In other words, conveying the truth via direct communication may not always be the most effective.
Tietjen: Telling someone who identifies as a Christian that his or her life does not reflect Christ or Christianity is a hard sell and likely to get you in trouble. So Kierkegaard tries to ‘deceive into the truth,’ to use his phrase (one he attributes to Socrates). Beyond that, however, he felt like Christianity is more than affirming true doctrine, but rather it contains truth (or the Truth) to which one must personally relate. For example, to be a Christian is not to believe in the doctrine of sin, but to recognize in one’s heart, mind, and actions—“I am a sinner.” But the best way to communicate this, Kierkegaard felt, was not simply through saying as much, but through irony, through humor, through characters, etc.
Moore: What kind of person would derive the most benefit from reading your book? What would you hope that type of person would learn from your book?
Tietjen: I can think of a number of different kinds of people who might benefit from the book, but I imagine the person in need of a spiritual jolt or in need of encouragement in faith might benefit from the book. The book covers a lot of ground—who Jesus is, what it means to be human, what a life of Christian love looks like, and how we’re to think about ourselves as witnesses of faith. Thus, it is geared toward those inclined toward self-examination, those interested in thinking about their faith, but also those wondering what Christian faith means for me beyond beliefs—in the realm of religious emotions, Christian action, and care for those around me.