Was Søren Kierkegaard a Poet, a Prophet, a Philosopher, or What? (Thoughts Sparked by a New Biography of the “Melancholy Dane”)
I was recently in Grand Rapids, Michigan and spent some time at one of my publishers—Zondervan (a division of HarperCollins). (I recorded a video course based on my most recent book Essentials of Christian Thought which is published by Zondervan.) During lunch with friend Stan Gundry, chief editor of Zondervan, he gave me a copy of a new Zondervan publication: Kierkegaard: A Single Life by Stephen Backhouse. Stan knows my penchant for Kierkegaard. I mentioned to him that I had recently read a massive, exhaustive biography of the “melancholy Dane” by Joakim Garff entitled Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography (Princeton University Press). The latter biography is 867 pages long! Trying to read and absorb it was like drinking out of a firehose. Just way too much material, too many details—not only about Kierkegaard but also about Danish culture during K’s (which is how I will refer to him henceforth) lifetime (and before and afterwards).
Stephen Backhouse admits (in Kierkegaard: A Single Life which is only 300 pages long) that his is no match for Garff’s exhaustive treatment of the life and times of K. However, I can say I enjoyed reading Backhouse’s briefer biography more than Garff’s. (But I’m glad I read both.)
If you have any interest in the life, thought, contribution, enigma and reception of K, I highly recommend Backhouse’s new biography (2016). If you already know much about K and want to know much more, read Garff’s biography.
Why my interest in K? Well, that’s not an easy question to answer—even to myself. Some of my reasons will be the same as others’. K was by all accounts a singular man, enigmatic and impossible to categorize or pigeonhole. He was a Christian, even one strongly influenced by Pietism, but he was no “type of Christian.” He was a contrarian, a controversialist, probably mentally and emotionally challenged in certain ways. (I’m no expert, but my “armchair diagnosis” would be “borderline personality disorder.”) But most of all, he was a radical Christian who could not find true Christianity in his time and place. I wonder if he could have found his version of “true Christianity” anywhere except among Jesus and his disciples?
What did K want? What did he seek? What did he call for? According to Backhouse, K wanted “honesty.” He wanted the “Christians” of his time and place to admit that they had created something other than authentic Christianity called “Christendom.” One famous quote (quoted here from memory so paraphrasing) is that in a country where everyone is a Christian by birth [true] Christianity does not exist. After reading his essays collected and published under the general title Against Christendom one has to wonder what K would say about “American Christianity.”
Although people often categorize K as a philosopher and a poet, I think of him as primarily and above all a Christian prophet. I think that was his self-understanding as well. For him, authentic Christianity is New Testament Christianity and that means not a religion accommodated to culture but a way of life devoted entirely to self-sacrificing love as modeled by Jesus Christ. We hear that language often, but K thought most such talk was just that—mere talk without intentionality.
One of the great enigmas of K’s life—always discussed by biographers and others who think they know something about K—was his breakup of his engagement to marry Regine Olsen. By all accounts it was cruel to her and cost him dearly—in terms of his reputation in polite Danish society. Also by all accounts K loved Regine to the day he died. There are many theories about why K broke off the engagement—a very serious act in those days and in that place. I think it was because he felt called to become a martyr and didn’t want her to suffer with him and because of him. His martyrdom, of course, was not literal but figurative. And it was partly brought on K by himself—through his writings which were sometimes intended to provoke his being treated by Danish society as a pariah.
As I finished Backhouse’s biography I mused in my own mind about my own relationship with K. When did his influence on me begin and how and why? Why have I always considered him the most important Christian influence on me—indirectly—outside of the prophets and apostles? (I don’t mention Jesus here because I don’t consider Jesus to have been a “Christian.”)
I grew up in a form of Christian life that attempted, perhaps pretended, to draw a clear line of demarcation between “us” and “them” with “them” referring to “nominal Christians”—those who pretended, even to themselves, that they were Christians but were not really so. To us, true, authentic Christianity was a life of martyrdom—in the sense meant by K about himself. Our heroes, however, were literal martyrs—missionaries who died in “foreign lands” for the sake of the gospel. I tried to live up to my family’s and our church’s and denomination’s expectations in this regard. I provoked persecution by fellow students in school by doing things like clumsily witnessing to them and telling them that the so-called Christianity they claimed was false.
Sometime during high school I was introduced by someone to K. I don’t recall the details. I must have been regarded as a pretty serious student by some others for anyone to recommend that I read K at age 16 or 17. (My grades weren’t all that good, but I was a voracious reader and talked a lot about things I was reading and learning—much to the annoyance, I’m sure, of my fellow students and teachers.)
I began to attempt to read K but found his own writing too difficult to understand. So I read secondary sources about him. There weren’t many in any library or bookstore in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in the 1960s—except in the libraries and bookstores of the two liberal arts colleges there (one Baptist and one Lutheran). Sometime during my high school years I began to “hang out” in those places—browsing and reading. I would go into the Augustana College campus store (just blocks from where I lived) and spend hours reading books about existentialism. I couldn’t afford to buy them and I couldn’t check them out of the college libraries. So I would just park myself somewhere in the bookstore or library and read as much as my free time (which wasn’t much) would allow.
I found a lot about atheist existentialists Sartre and Camus and, in fact, we read some things by them in certain high school classes. (I was privileged to attend a really excellent high school that was brand new and populated by mostly very good teachers who encouraged my intellectual curiosity.) I found K’s books in the Augustana library but, as I said, found him difficult to understand. But I persevered and kept picking up his books and trying. Somehow I knew he was someone I was looking for—an intellectual Christian. But I had to keep that search somewhat secret. Both at school and at home that phrase was considered by most people in my circle of friends, mentors and acquaintances an oxymoron. But I somehow suspected K was one and that intrigued me.
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Now some will no doubt say (if they know me well at all) that my penchant for K was partly biological and cultural. Even as a teenager I was also a “melancholy Dane.” My father was half Danish and half Norwegian; his mother (my paternal grandmother) was a Danish immigrant who spoke fluent Danish. I grew up having to eat lutefisk at family reunions and especially Christmas, but that was probably more due to my grandfather’s influence. (He was a Norwegian immigrant.)
But I really think my early penchant for K had more to do with his quest for authentic Christianity in a culture that thought it was Christian but wasn’t. As a teenager I was trying to be a serious, authentic Christian, but had few guides and mentors on that path that I trusted. I innately knew, somehow, that even our radical Christianity was inauthentic in many ways. Our peculiar form of inauthenticity was self-righteousness—a deep dishonesty about ourselves as sinners. We, or at least our leaders and heroes, has the Holy Spirit, so….
I remember that sometime during my senior year in high school I was with my father, a Pentecostal preacher and pastor, in a Lutheran-owned “book and Bible store” in downtown Sioux Falls. The only reason we were there was to pick up blank “church bulletins” to take next door to the printers for Sunday morning. While my father was busy at the counter with the owners I searched the shelves for anything by or about K and found a book about him and his philosophy and theology. I wanted to buy it but didn’t have the money. My dad took it out of my hand and said (paraphrasing because I don’t remember his exact words) “No, son, you don’t need that. He [K] was not a real Christian.” By then I knew enough to know he was wrong, but you didn’t argue with my dad—especially about that subject (viz., “true Christianity”).
Later, when I had saved up some money, I went back to that Lutheran bookstore and surreptitiously bought the book and kept it hidden from my father and everyone else. It was my first owned book about K. Now I don’t even remember the author’s name or the book’s title. But it guided me to K’s own works and helped me know which of them to read first and later. Later, during seminary, I read Either-Or, Sickness unto Death and K’s journals. I tried to read Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript but struggled with them a lot. Eventually, though, I did read them both and most of K’s other works translated into English. (No, in spite of my Danish-ness I never learned to read that language.)
Throughout my life K has remained my “distant” philosophical-theological inspiration and mentor. I admit, though, that I always felt the need to have a somewhat more systematized version of K’s basic ideas—put into a more specifically theological form. During seminary I found that in Swiss theologian Emil Brunner’s Dogmatics. Clearly, although he only mentions K a few times, K was one of his main conversation partners and inspirations.
Back to Backhouse’s biography. It sparkles with marvelous paragraphs about other subjects than just K’s life. For example, the best one paragraph description of Hegel’s philosophy of religion I have ever encountered is on pages 66-67. Henceforth, when attempting to explain Hegel’s idea of God as “Absolute Spirit” to students I will include reading those paragraphs from Backhouse’s K biography. Also, the very best, pithy description of what K meant by “Christendom” is to be found on page 172. For K it meant much more than simply the melding of church and state; it was any accommodation of New Testament Christianity to culture that “pulled the teeth” out of it.
So what was K? A poet? A prophet? A philosopher? A theologian? He was all those things but thought of himself as a writer and martyr. Without doubt he was as contrarian. I consider him a prophet—to Christians of all times and places. And his main message to us was to beware and repent of adapting and taming New Testament Christianity in order to make it respectable.
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