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Encircling Lutheranism

20 September 2013

John Saxbee considers Kierkegaard at 200


National figure: a Danish postage stamp marking the centenary in 1955 of Kierkegaard's death. A new stamp was issued this year

National figure: a Danish postage stamp marking the centenary in 1955 of Kierkegaard's death. A new stamp was issued this year

Kierkegaard: Exposition and critique
Daphne Hampson
OUP £25
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Kierkegaard and the Quest for Unambiguous Life
George Pattison
OUP £60
Church Times Bookshop £54  (Use code CT449 )

IN THIS bicentennial year of his birth, here are two very different books on Søren Kierkegaard.

One of the characteristics of Kierkegaard studies is that commentators readily recruit him to support their own agendas and find it relatively easy to do so. Atheists, Catholics, pietists, and politicians of various persuasions have enrolled him into their ranks. But it is odd that the claims of Lutheranism as a key to interpreting his authorship have not been tested to the same extent.

Daphne Hampson, of the University of Oxford, has made a particular study of Lutheranism, and is well placed to explore this theme. After all, Kierkegaard was a cradle Lutheran much influenced by leading Danish bishops, and he would almost certainly have remained at least a semi-detached Lutheran had he lived longer than his 42 years.

Hampson begins by exploring Kierkegaard's cultural and intellectual context, and concludes with a pen-portrait of Kierkegaard the man, and an evaluation of his authorship.

In between, she devotes a chapter to each of seven books from Kierkegaard's voluminous output. These are broadly representative of his authorship, and her exposition and critique is generally judicious and fair. This approach makes a change from more familiar autobiographical and topic-centred introductions, and can be read with profit by established Kierkegaard scholars and newcomers alike.

Hampson summarises Kierkegaard's mission as "to make evident - in the midst of modernity - what it is that Christianity claimed: no more and no less." For example, Kierkegaard's key work Philosophical Fragments wrestles with the relationship between the Christological paradox at the heart of Christianity - God the eternal enters time as a particular person - and the Enlightenment emphasis on scientific reason as determinative of truth in the modern world. Kierkegaard the Lutheran fights for faith against the hegemony of reason, but Hampson makes it clear that she remains to be convinced. As she says: "One may appreciate much about Kierkegaard's stance without necessarily adhering to his theology."

While we cannot uninvent the Enlightenment, nor compromise the claims of reason in relation to Christian coherence, we should not allow reason to eclipse faith as itself a source of enlightenment. Of course, there is room to differ about the relative epistemological significance of reason and faith, but surely Kierkegaard was right to rehabilitate faith in the face of rationalism's claim to capture Truth without remainder.

Given the brilliance of Kierkegaard's wit, and the profundity of his thought, it is remarkable how so many commentators have produced books about him that are dull and pedestrian. But with her very engaging style, and commitment to honest and open dialogue with subject and reader alike, Hampson is never dull.

Here, Kierkegaard's Lutheranism is reflected through the prism of the Enlightenment. Kierkegaard uses the Enlightenment to finesse his essentially Lutheran perspective, and Hampson uses the Enlightenment to inform her critique of Kierkegaard's essentially pre-Enlightenment assumptions. She applauds Kierkegaard's readiness to accommodate aspects of modernity when it comes to explaining Christianity to his contemporaries, but she still finds him altogether too pre-modern in his treatment of, for example, reason, gender, class, and Christology. Whether this amounts to damning with faint praise or praising with faint damns, readers, as Kierkegaard would say, must judge for themselves.

Meanwhile, George Pattison introduces his latest collection of Kierkegaard studies with a comment that is alert to Hampson's ambivalence about the relationship between modernity and pre-modern Christianity: "there is insight in his writings . . . as to how it may be possible to be faithful both to the religious inheritance and to the realities of modern experience, including the realities of its intellectual demands."

Pattison is Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford, and a leading light in contemporary Kierkegaard studies. He has the happy knack of reaching parts of the authorship other commen- tators seldom reach, and is adept at seeking and seeing connections between Kierkegaard and other stars in the intellectual firmament. In earlier books, he has concen-trated on Kierkegaard the philosopher and theologian, and here he applies himself to Kierke- gaard's cultural context and influence.

In this sequence of elegant and erudite essays, Pattison explores what Kierkegaard believed to be the inevitably ambiguous lives lived other than coram deo - before God. A right relationship with God, predicated on an existential leap of faith, alone satisfies a quest for unambiguous life. But, as so often with Kierkegaard, such a quest is far from clear and straightforward.

The cultural complexities with which Kierkegaard wrestled, and that Pattison here describes and interprets, include the relationship between Romanticism and Modernism, the city and the countryside, carnival and boredom, liberalism and authoritarianism.

The chapter on Kierkegaard and politics is especially stimulating, given the extent to which ideologies of Left, Right, and Centre have sought to enlist him as a fellow-traveller. Pattison prefers Kierkegaard's own account of himself as a latter-day Socrates whose function as a citizen is to be a socio-political irritant or gadfly.

The book mostly comprises revised versions of pieces originally published in a range of academic journals and symposia with seasoned Kierkegaard scholars in mind - and seems to have been priced accordingly.

Dr Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

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