“High on a hill was a lonely goatherd”
If existentialism as a movement is somewhat perplexing to you, it would not surprise me if the thinkers within it are nearly foreign to your mind. That doesn’t mean, of course, that their ideas haven’t shaped our world. This week we begin diving deeper into their lives and positions. I will do my best to make complex concepts understandable.
Soren Kierkegaard might be one of two that you have heard of. While not at all popular in his day, Kierkegaard’s voluminous output of writing has patterned a way of thinking that has become, in some ways, the ordinary language of the day. Both within the walls of the church and without.
I find it helpful (and so do my students) to look at a thinker’s life to understand better where they are coming from. There is, however, a critical maxim to consider. Correlation does not equal causation or identity. This means that just because there is a relationship between things does not mean that those things are the actual cause of an event. An example would be if my brain were being analyzed when I was asked to think of red things, and certain regions light up, it does not mean my brain is thinking of red things. I do my thinking with my mind (immaterial). Yes, there is a correlation between brain activity and thought, but that does not follow that one is identical to the other.1 I will be exploring the background of a few thinkers, but please remember that it is a frame of reference.
Kierkegaard is popularly known for living a life of anxiety and angst. A simple (if that’s even possible) reading of his texts will reveal that he was unsettled and questioning. There always seems to be a dark cloud that hovers over him. He is kind of like Charlie Brown’s Pigpen of philosophy. One of the correlations stems from his childhood.
Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1813, young Soren had some early life experiences that would haunt him for his short 42 years. His father, Michael, worked as a shepherd and cursed God in a moment of extreme hunger and suffering.2 This reminds me of the scene in Forest Gump when Lt. Dan dares God to strike him down during a terrible storm on a shrimp boat in the Gulf of Mexico. One might be sympathetic to a Vietnam veteran that lost his legs and whose character thought his destiny was to die on the battlefield. But for a pious Lutheran, this is very bad juju. Michael shouldered that guilt for the rest of his life. It did not go unnoticed by his son.
Michael Kierkegaard became a successful businessman, but that was not before he sired a child with an unmarried member of the household staff. He did go on to marry this woman, but this also added to the family anxiety.
Regine Olson met Soren in 1837, and after a three-year relationship, they became engaged. Kierkegaard ended their marriage plans because he did not want to draw her into his melancholy. He felt that he could not accomplish his calling as a religious writer and a husband and father. We are free to imagine the experiences that shaped his life and contributed to this decision.
Kierkegaard aims to awaken Christendom to the difficulty of being a Christian.3 He is speaking into the heart of a European culture that would be somewhat akin to a caricature of the deep American south; everyone’s a Christian! His view is that Christianity had lost its passion, and merely identifying with the “right doctrine” made you a good person. Kierkegaard held that being a Christian should be dangerous and dynamic, not a status quo. He desired to shake them from a spiritual malaise. Incidentally, we shall soon see that Friedrich Nietzsche was too. But for Kierkegaard, his mission was to be accomplished by addressing three arch-nemeses that would be filed under two of the 5 Key Elements of Existentialism: Humanness/Authenticity and Ethical concerns.
- We Don’t Need No Education – The Popular Press
I will get into more detail next week. Still, for now, Kierkegaard held that the default position of all people was to be a member of the herd and that being an individual was indeed an accomplishment, not a given because “modern” society pulls the person toward conformity and uniformity. No one could think for themselves.
The main contributing factor was the 19th century’s version of social media: Newspapers (remember those?). Kierkegaard thought that people would simply open their papers to ascertain what they were to think on any given day. The stagnation of culture was mired in an inability to get beyond groupthink. I think he was on to something. Just log on to your favorite social media – like we ever log out – to see a contemporary comparison. A few swipes and scrolls will quickly demonstrate that there is one way to think, and compliance is expected if not demanded.
Kierkegaard presents faith and reason in tension, but his focus here is on the individual regaining the faculties to make decisions (which will be very important later) for themselves. For the Christian, breaking away from the herd could be, and should be, a perilous journey.
2. Papa, Don’t Preach! – The State Church
If the social media of his day thought for the people, the state church of Denmark, Lutheranism, did its believing for the people. He saw the church as taking the place of an individual’s necessity for choice-making.
In Hulu’s adaption of Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, Mormon fundamentalists are depicted as being encouraged to “put their doubt on the shelf.” The characters in the murder drama are not to question the authority of the LDS. Period. I do not have the space to exegete the role of the Christian church’s authority in the lives of believers or speak into issues when abusive leadership should be questioned, other than to say it is a real and biblical issue!4 Kierkegaard’s problem is that his fellow Lutherans were content with a version of, “My pastor says so!” Again, leaning into the idea of authenticity, Kierkegaard believed “Christians” were living as passionless shadows in an existence that demands choice.
3. I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing – Friedrich Hegel d. 1831
A good bet is that any attempt to understand European philosophers whose name begins with “H” – Husserl, Heidegger, Hegel – might leave you feeling as dumb as a concussed sheep. That being said, unlike Kierkegaard, Friedrich Hegel was vaunted in his day. Hegel invested his time in arguing that the basis of all things is rational. The ancient Stoics held a similar view, but Hegel attempted to reduce everything to a synthesis of ideas that, in the end, could be accessed by reason. There was no longer any space “in-between” the positive and negative – they are synthesized, or to use his word, “sublated.”
This is where Kierkegaard’s concern for the ethical comes into play. He wants to get into that “in-between” space. He thought that Hegel made “faith” – to use the term generously – had become too neat and tidy. If all we need is reason, then faith acts are unnecessary. This would eliminate the danger and evolving aspect of Kierkegaard’s Christianity. He began the move away from what can know propositionally to emphasize the importance of what we regard as mystery, or what morphs into a special kind of knowledge that is found via a divine-human encounter. For Kierkegaard, truths about God are too sublime to be accessed via reason.
God is transcendent, wholly other, and infinite. We cannot know everything about him. But that does not change the fact that faith is acting on what we can know. I would invite you to read Hebrews to demonstrate that a Christian’s faith must be substantive or simply start with Romans 1:20.
Next week I will be writing about Kierkegaard’s Stages On Life’s Way to show the mashup of an authentic person and the ethical and how these ideas have shaped our world. Join me?
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Andy Giessman is the Executive Director and founder of Addison’s Walk. He is available to speak at your church, retreat, school, or camp for pulpit supply, missions conferences, and full weekend seminars. firstname.lastname@example.org
- For more on mind/brain issue I would suggest The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why It Matters. by J.P. Moreland Moody Publishers, 2014.
- Wilkens, Steve, and Alan G. Padgett. Christianity and Western Thought, a History of Philosophers, Ideas and Movements. Vol. 2, Intervarsity Press, 2009 154.
- Wilkens and Padgett, Christianity and Western Thought, 158.
- A simple reading of New Testament epistles demonstrates the authority of the church.