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To goad clerics into honesty

28 September 2012

This, above all, was Kierkegaard's aim, says John Saxbee

A Vexing Gadfly: The late Kierkegaard on economic matters
Eliseo Pérez-Álvarez
James Clarke & Co. £20.25
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WHEN IT comes to liberation theologians, it takes one to know one.

An immense literature has grown up around Søren Kierkegaard's contribution to modern philosophy, theology, psychology, ethics, and aesthetics, but relatively little attention has been paid to his socio-political views in general, and his approach to wealth and poverty in particular. Perhaps Professor Enrique Dussel in his foreword to this ground-breaking essay is right in his judgement that "only an Hispanic theologian could have uncovered such previously unknown aspects of Søren Kierkegaard".

In any event, Eliseo Pérez-Álvarez really has brought to light a rich seam of Kierkegaardian wit and wisdom on economic matters which has been only implicit in the work of, for example, Bruce Kirmmse.

Against the image of Kierkegaard as a bourgois intellectual of independent means and idiosyncratic tastes, Pérez-Álvarez portrays a man passionate about the poor, allying himself with the "ordinary man", and scathing in his attack on wealth and privilege. But this is no proto-Marxist manifesto. What scandalises Kierkegaard is that the prevailing culture is coated with the veneer of Christian respectability to the extent that the Christianity of Jesus and the Apostles has been reduced to mere Christendom. Christendom is the political, cultural, and ecclesiastical Establishment baptised by well-paid bishops and clergy, whom Kierkegaard mercilessly attacks in his final fusillade of acerbic newspaper articles and pamphlets.

Pérez-Álvarez argues that Kierkegaard moved from a position of conventional conservatism, through a transitional period of increasing interest in economic affairs, and on to a final, thorough-going radicalisation of his socio-economic rhetoric. Imitation of Christ entails a bias to the poor, and no one who benefits financially from proclaiming Christ can claim to be a "witness to the truth".

It was the cosseted complacency of Golden Age Denmark, and the failure of the mid-19th-century revolutionary spirit to deliver real change which stirred Kierkegaard into radical action. But the author sees parallels with our own time, as the Establishment colonises Christianity in a new incarnation of Christendom, and the Church seeks social status and state funding to sustain a thoroughly unchristian lifestyle. While Pérez-Álvarez draws extensively on Kierkegaard's published writings, he uses his own translations of Kierkegaard's neglected Journals to bolster his case and give it real sparkle and urgency.

The book is in three sections. First of all, he sets the philosophical, economic, and social context. The second section focuses specifically on the years 1846-52, when Kierkegaard moved from pseudonymity to an open assault on the contradictions of Christendom. The third chronicles the years up to his death in 1855. During these, he orchestrated his assault on the gospel of the prosperous, and pulled no punches when it came to berating the bishops, clergy, and all who benefit financially from proclaiming Christ to their own advantage.

There are flaws in the argument. Kierkegaard's later views are more to the fore in his earlier authorship than Pérez-Álvarez allows. Also, no mention is made of Kierkegaard's calls for an "admission" from the bishops and others of how far they fell short of New Testament Christianity. If such an admission had been made, he would have called off his attack. It was honesty that he wanted rather than to be over-concerned about lifestyle changes - and it is this that makes him less of a liberation theologian than is claimed here.

There is no index, and the book reads too much like the doctoral dissertation from which i t emerged. But it is an important contribution to Kierkegaardian scholarship, and will challenge many students of "the melancholy Dane" to think again.

The Rt Revd Dr Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

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