Was Kierkegaard an evangelical? Part 1

Was Kierkegaard an evangelical? Part 1 August 29, 2011

Perhaps a better way of asking the question is–should contemporary evangelicals regard Kierkegaard (henceforth “K”) as a forerunner and historical ally?  Of course, I’m addressing this question not to the average evangelical in the pews (or in front of their television sets, reading the latest popular “Christian fiction” from the Christian bookstore) but to educated pastors, lay people and scholars.  In my experience, most books about evangelicalism neglect or ignore K.  Those that trace evangelicalism’s roots tend to focus on the Reformers (of course), the Puritans, the Pietists, Wesley and Edwards, the Princeton Reformed theologians, Finney, Moody, the Holiness and Pentecostal movements, Fundamentalism, etc.  I don’t recall ever having read about K. in such a book–especially not as part of that “great cloud of witnesses” evangelicals like to look back to–our heroes and spiritual ancestors.  But why not?

Recently I’ve been revisiting K.–reading recent biographies and books about his thought old and new.  (It’s for a writing project but also to refresh my own knowledge of K. and expand it.)  I spent many hours reading the massive Soren Kierkegaard: A Biography by Joakim Garff, translated from the Danish by Bruce H. Kirmmse (Princeton University Press, 2005).  It’s 813 pages not including the various appendices.  One of the most detailed biographies I’ve ever read and in places very boring.  And, I think, Garff had some axes to grind against K. when he wrote this.  It doesn’t put K. in a very flattering light.  However, even if half of what Garff says is true (and I’m sure much more than that is true, but perhaps a lot of it is somewhat distorted) K. was not a very likeable fellow.  He was extremely intense, isolated, somewhat bitter, resentful, elusive, prone to angry outbursts, obsessive-compulsive, etc.  Not a pretty picture.  Still, many great geniuses have terrible personality flaws and emotional problems.  Garff really plays up K.’s treatment of his fiance Regine Olsen with whom he broke up without any real explanation.  The reasons for it are still a matter of speculation even though K. himself gave many in his journals and to friends.  He also focuses much on K.’s battle with the journal The Corsair and says K. started it and didn’t handle it well.  He had a tendency to take even the slightest slights very personally and over react.

Nevertheless, in spite of these personal flaws and failures, what always shines through is K.’s insightfulness into the human condition and his commitment to finding true Christianity and living it out to the greatest extent possible–which accounts for many things his contemporaries and biographers regard as great failings on his part.  K. came to regard the salon society of his day (of which he had been a part) as effete and artificial.  He came to disdain it and most of “high society” of Denmark and Europe in general as false, pretentious and far from true Christianity.  The dominant religion he saw as completely accommodated to middle class and upper class values and to the rationalism of Hegel and the reduction of Christianity to ethics by Kant.  He abhorred Schleiermacher’s emphasis on feelings.  Everywhere he looked (especially post-1848) he saw nothing but inauthenticity–especially in religious life.

My own “history” with K. goes back to high school.  I had a friend who considered himself an”existentialist,” so I set out to find out what that meant.  The only book on the subject in our high school library was What Is Existentialism? by William Barrett.  My friend had read it, so what he meant by existentialism was whatever Barrett meant.  As I recall, I didn’t really understand the book, but I plowed through it anyway.  Somewhere in it, as I recall, was a discussion of K. as the real father of existentialism, so I went to the only Christian bookstore in town and bought the only book it had on K.–Hermann Diem’s Kierkegaard’s Dialectic of Existence.  Not the best choice.  I tried to read it and maybe I got something out of it, but I doubt that I understood much.  I was only 17!  I recall asking my father, who was also my pastor, whether K. was a Christian (in our sense of “Christian” which meant “evangelical”–others not being really Christian, of course!).  He said no.  I don’t think he knew much about K., but I believed him and so shelved K. for a long time.

Much later, during my seminary days, I revisited K. because I came to know of his influence on my favorite theologian–Emil Brunner.  (Back in those wonderful days North American Baptist Seminary, like many evangelical seminaries, used Brunner’s Dogmatics as the basic textbook(s) for systematic theology.  They knew and taught us that Brunner was not exactly an evangelical in our North American sense, but that his pietism made him worthy of study even if we had to be wary of some of his views.  They weren’t afraid to expose us to non-evangelical theologies.)  Then I read Either/Or–again, not a particularly good choice if you’re looking for K.’s evangelicalism!  And I read Fear and Trembling and Sickness Unto Death and some other of K.’s books.  I remember being fascinated by him but finding him too opaque for my taste.  But I could tell he was passionate about discovering authentic Christian faith and he swam against the stream–something I was experiencing then.  He was also a contrarian and I’ve always been something of one.

Later, of course, during my doctoral studies and then teaching theology to undergraduates, I encountered K. a lot and read IN him (as opposed to reading whole books by him or studying him in any depth or detail).  I included him in my courses on Christian history and theology but never quite figured out where to place him in the story.  Clearly he was a Protestant.  Yes.  Definitely (in spite of some of his criticisms of Luther).  He was THE existentialist.  Certainly.  Whatever that means.  But he was always tainted in my thinking, like most evangelicals’, by the uses made of him by the likes of Bultmann and secular existentialists.   All that is to say, I felt a certain ambivalence toward him–as far as whether I could actually embrace him as a spiritual ancestor and hero.  He was always a little out of focus for me.

That came out clearly in Stan Grenz’s and my neglect of K. in 20th Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age (IVP, 1992).  There we relegated him to the introduction to the section on neo-orthodoxy and only talked about him as an inspiration to the early Barth and to Brunner, Niebuhr and Bultmann.  I now think he deserved a chapter of his own–alongside Kant and Hegel if not Schleiermacher.

One issue always complicating discussion of K. is whether he was a philosopher or a theologian.  He claimed to be neither and heaped scorn and disdain on both professions (even though he held a doctoral degree in theology).  He was independently wealthy and didn’t work other than writing.  He considered himself a “writer” and clearly (although he never said so directly) a social prophet.  Today he might fall best into the category of social commentator, but his writings were filled with philosophical and theological concepts and issues.  I have come recently to think of him more as a theologian than a philosopher even though his own hero was Socrates.  K.’s main concerns were theological in nature and he had no use for dispassionate, uninvolved reasoning about religion.  For him true religion IS authentic Christianity and its source is revelation.

One thing I’ve learned from my recent studies is that K.’s father (with whom he had a tumultuous relationship–like mine with my father) was a member of a Pietist conventicle.  Actually, it was more than just a conventicle; it was a temple.  It couldn’t be called a “church” by law.  Only the Danish Lutheran Church could be called “church” in Denmark then.  But there was in Copenhagen a thriving Brethren Community (Gemeinde) in the early 1700s and K.’s father attended there weekly.  He also attended the state church, but it seems his real commitment was to the Pietists.  K.’s relationship with Pietism was always tense.  On the one hand he respected their passion and inwardness; on the other hand he disdained their sentimentality and emphasis on feelings.  There’s no evidence that K. continued his father’s habit of attending the Pietist gatherings, but their influence lived on in his own religious life and theology.  I think that influence has been downplayed by K. scholars; it needs to be explored more.

So, what am I coming to think about K. and evangelicalism?  Well, OF COURSE he was no “evangelical” in the contemporary North American sense AS THAT IS DEFINED by the popular media.  I’m certain he would have no use for television evangelists, the Religious Right, “Christian” bookstores full of holy hardware, etc.  But, when I talk about evangelicalism I rarely mean that!  By evangelical, as I have explained before, I mean a certain Christian and primarily Protestant form of life that stems from the Reformers (including the Anabaptists) and was shaped by the Pietists, Puritans and Revivalists of the 18th and 19th centuries.  It is a Christian form of life that emphasizes personal conversion and relationship with God through Jesus Christ, the Bible as God’s Word written, the cross as the center of Christian devotion, preaching and life and transformative action through missions and social change (but focusing primarily on individual transformation and social change only secondarily).

To be sure, K. would probably not even fit that profile comfortably.  In fact, he steadfastly resisted fitting ANY category comfortably.  One gets the sense that K. was extremely uncomfortable in his own skin and certainly in his own society.

So what evidence is there that could justify calling K. an evangelical in any sense (other than the strictly formal one of being a member of the Protestant state church)?  I think there’s a lot of it, even though I also recognize and acknowledge that it would be both anachr0nistic and unfitting to call him an evangelical without qualification.  Still, I am going to argue (in Part 2) that evangelicals ought to rediscover K. (in a similar way to how they have adopted C. S. Lewis who also should not be considered an “evangelical” in the usual sense as I have outlined it above) and add him to their list of heroes and forerunners.  There were certain aspects of his thought that “fit” the evangelical profile even if he would want to challenge any actual existing structures of evangelicalism as falling short of being TRULY evangelical as he understood that.

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