Friday, September 20, 2013

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

Søren Kierkegaard was born on May 5, 1813, in Copenhagen, into a middle-class family. His father prospered as a wool merchant and retired at 40 to devote himself to understanding the truth. He regularly invited professors, pastors, and writers to his house for lively intellectual discussions. Søren's brother Peter, older by seven years, later became a Lutheran bishop.

As a youth, Søren studied Latin, philosophy, and history at a private high school. He enjoyed taking long walks through the warren of narrow streets surrounding his house. He also delighted in greeting everyone he knew, regardless of social class, by name. Except for four trips to Berlin and one to Sweden, Søren remained his whole life in Copenhagen.

As his father wished, Søren studied theology at the University of Copenhagen beginning in 1830.  Søren's wish was less to gain new information than to know the truth and live it. He wanted to learn how to faithfully witness to Christ in the context of Christendom. For this reason, he rejected the expectation of his times: to become a thinker similar to Johann von Goethe and Georg Hegel. Unlike them, he did not believe that human beings were basically good and that the opinion of a majority was the best test of truth and guide to faithful witnessing.

In 1834 his mother died. He started keeping a journal. By the time of his death, he had written about all facets of his relationship with God, others, and himself, as well as about society, culture, and personality, in over 7,000 handwritten pages.

In May 1837, aged 24, Søren met Regine Olsen. For both of them it was love at first sight.

His father died in August 1838. He left Søren enough money to be independently wealthy. Søren published From the Papers of One Still Living. In it he criticized the novel Only a Fiddler by fellow Dane Hans Christian Andersen. Søren claimed that both the author and his main character lacked a meaningful understanding of life and consequently failed to live meaningful lives.

Søren proposed marriage to Regine in September 1840 and she agreed. Almost immediately he began to have second thoughts.

In 1841 Søren broke off his engagement with Regine. Although he loved her more than he ever loved another, he did not believe he could be the unique person God called him to be and a good husband to her as well.

That year Søren also defended his thesis on irony. He had asked and received permission from the ruler of Denmark to write his thesis in Danish instead of the usual Latin. While his examiners thought his writing lacked seriousness in tone, they did grant him his doctoral degree.

With that degree, he could easily have become a priest in the Church of Denmark or a professor of theology at the University of Copenhagen. Instead, he chose to publish persistently and to question increasingly the conventional thought of both Church and university.

With his commitments to Regine and university ended, Søren traveled to Berlin to hear the lectures of Friedrich Schelling. Strangely enough, Friedrich Engels, Jacob Burckhardt, and Mikhail Bakunin were all present at those same lectures. Not surprisingly, those same lectures meant something different to each of them.

Beginning in 1843, Søren devoted himself to writing until his untimely death 12 years later. He published Either/Or, edited by “Victor Eremita” (“Victorious Hermit”), in February 1843. He wrote it while taking notes on Friedrich Schelling's philosophy of revelation.

That year he also published Two Edifying Discourses under his own name. Søren liked to start all his edifying discourses, or talks intended to build up his reader in love, with a dedication to that reader as a single individual. By doing so he wished to encourage each of us to live as the unique, precious, and irreplaceable witness that God created us to be. He didn't want us to remain conformists living conventional lives indistinguishable from the crowd or public.

In the first talk, “The Expectancy of Faith” (based on Galatians 3:23-29), Søren reminds us that each one of us struggles to be either Olympian or Christian. To be Olympian is to devote ourselves to the six conventional Olympian gods of politics, war, technology, sex, money, and consumption. To be Christian is to devote ourselves to the one odd god of truth, freedom, love, and vitality embodied by Jesus. If Olympian, then we compete with others for scarce goods and grieve their loss. If Christian, we share with others God's boundless truth, freedom, love, and vitality and celebrate their multiplication.

He published Fear and Trembling by “Johannes de Silentio” (“John the Silent”) in October 1843. This book centers on the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis (22:1-19). In that story, Yahweh asks Abraham to take his son, his only son, whom he loves, Isaac, and sacrifice him in the land of Moriah. Just as Abraham is about to do so, an angel intervenes, a goat is sacrificed instead, and Yahweh promises to bless Abraham, and all nations through Abraham, for his faithfulness.

Søren retells this story in four slightly different ways. He does so to illustrate the differences between disobedience, resignation, and faithfulness. More keenly, he contrasts obeying God because one should with trusting in God who can do the impossible. That trust, though, involves embracing paradox, anxiety, and risk. Because Abraham did so, he walked away with Isaac and blessings.

This was followed by Three Edifying Discourses (1843) by Søren Kierkegaard. First, “Love Will Hide a Multitude of Sins” (1 Peter 4:7-12). We each have an Olympian and a Christian personality. Søren reminds us that they understand the world differently. Our Olympian personality detects the smallest sin in others and magnifies it; in contrast, our Christian personality strengthens the good in another as it hides and starves the evil of their Olympian personality.

Then came Repetition (October 1843) by “Constantin Constantius” (“Constantly Constant”). A young man consults a psychologist (Constantin) because he suffers anxiety about having to sacrifice his love for a woman to God.

Other books published by Søren include Four Edifying Discourses (October 1843), Two Edifying Discourses (1844), Three Edifying Discourses (1844), Philosophical Fragments (1844) by Johannes Climacus (“published” by Søren Kierkegaard), Prefaces: Light Reading for Certain Classes as the Occasion May Require (1844) by Nicolaus Notabene, The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically-Oriented Reflection on the Dogmatic Problem of Original Sin (1844) by “Vigilius Haufniensus” (“The Watchman”), and Stages on Life's Way (1845) published by Hilarius Bookbinder.

In Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments (1846) by Johannes Climacus, Søren refutes the Hegelian understanding of truth as objective knowledge obtained through direct communication. Hegel believed that teachers talk about a subject; students hear and understand it. Instead, Søren asserts that truth is subjective knowledge gained through indirect communication. In other words, truth is primarily relational and something we love our way into. It changes who we are.

Edifying Discourses in Diverse Spirits (1847) included “Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing.” Søren speaks against double-mindedness: our desire to live as Christians while reaping the rewards of Olympians. In “Works of Love,” he distinguishes between erotic love, the preferential love one has toward one's family and friends, and the unconditional love which God has toward us and enables us to share with others.

Other books include Christian Discourses (1848), The Crisis and a Crisis in the Life of an Actress (1848) by Inter et Inter, and The Point of View of My Work as an Author (written 1848, published 1859).

In 1849 Søren published The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Edification and Awakening by Anti-Climacus. The meaning of life is to develop one's Christian personality in relation to God, others, and oneself. To do so is to become one's true self. If one instead repudiates the one odd god and affirms one's false Olympian self, then one experiences a state of despair or spiritual death.

In Training in Christianity (1850), written by Anti-Climacus, Søren reminds us that God transcends our limited human means for understanding him. Consequently, we can never prove that God exists nor that the biblical witness to God is true. God is not the object of intellectual propositions we affirm as true. He is the subject of a relationship whom we may learn to know and love only as he allows and enables us to.

Judge for Yourselves! (1852): Being a faithful witness to Jesus means imitating his life and death in ours. The more clearly the Church speaks and practices this truth, the less popular and smaller it will be.

Attack upon Christendom (1854-1855): Søren first published these attacks in a series of articles and pamphlets. He had waited to publicly attack the established Church of Denmark until his father and his father's good friend Bishop Mynster were dead and he had established himself as a credible theologian.

In these articles and pamphlets, Søren bemoaned:
(1) The gradual subversion of Christianity from a dynamic witness to the one odd god of truth, freedom, love, and vitality into a dull variation of Olympianity.
(2) The belief that simply being born in a state with an established Church automatically makes one a Christian.
(3) The Olympian corruption of Church leadership by power and wealth.
(4) The Church serving as the biggest barrier to people coming to Christ.
(5) The emptiness of sacramental practice.
(6) Sunday worship being reduced to a form of weekly entertainment.
(7) Christian practice being reduced to participation in Sunday worship.

In 1855 Søren suffered a stroke and died in the hospital a month later on November 11, 1855. He was 42.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.