A BANK now occupies the
site in Copenhagen where Søren Kierkegaard was born on 5 May 1813;
and the hospital where he died is a design museum. Both are
Kierkegaard was born in a
year of national bankruptcy, when, as he put it, "many a dud note
was put into circulation." Also, the Danish approach to design
captures rather well the essence of Kierkegaard's theology as form
following function: Christianity as a way of life rather than a
He was far from
universally popular in his lifetime, and even now Copenhagen seems
to be ambivalent about him. He is the only person to have a room to
himself in the city's museum - but the stone marking his birthplace
is inaccurate, and a statue in an eponymous square came as an
afterthought. Few locals seem to know much about him.
This might be because he
was an unusual man, and his idiosyncratic lifestyle was magnified
by the small-town character of a country basking in the glow of an
artistic and literary "Golden Age", but which was still marginal to
mainstream European culture. He interpreted his eccentricities in
terms of being called by God to a life of self-denial for the sake
of "being the truth".
and literary output interact more than is usual. His adoption of
pseudonymity as a function of his commitment to Socratic forms of
indirect communication enabled him to use his day-to-day existence
as grist to his philosophical mill, while his overtly religious
discourses were published in his own name.
Those few contemporaries
who read and understood his philosophical writings found him by
turns brilliantly perceptive and frustratingly opaque. Few would
have believed that he would come to be lauded as one of the
greatest Christian thinkers of the 19th century.
philosophical and psychological writings were never going to be
easily assimilated. Whereas the fashionable speculative
philosophers were about standing back in order to take stock of the
world, he was more about getting his readers to stand back and take
stock of themselves - that is, to learn how to relate themselves to
themselves, so that they could live honestly and authentically
through the aesthetic, ethical, and religious dimensions of
Yes, this would mean
living with anxiety and some uncertainty, but this must be better
than failing to get beyond the "sickness unto death" that living
inauthentically entailed. A self-centred consumerist society is
never going to welcome a mirror held up to reveal lives that are
long on distraction, but short on that passionate inwardness and
self-awareness that can be found only on the other side of a leap
YET, while professors,
the press, and posturing politicians all felt the force of his
withering wit, it was his more accessible critique of established
Christianity that attracted notoriety.
His argument went
something like this. At the heart of Christianity is the paradox of
the God-man, Jesus Christ, who bridges the deep qualitative chasm
between the human and the divine. Orthodox Christology cannot be
contained by a set of rational propositions: it is a faith
commitment, undertaken by individuals in the midst of their
day-to-day existence. So, in this sense, truth is subjectively
appropriated in "fear and trembling" rather than objectively
affirmed as the end point of a logical argument.
Also, it is all or
nothing. You cannot be a Christian "to a certain extent". The cost
of discipleship can be, or even must be, as high as the price paid
by the first Apostles, whose contemporaneity with the crucified
Christ is something we share, because salvation cannot be a matter
of historical contingency.
We, too, are called to
imitate Jesus, and we cannot settle for a less costly path of
discipleship, lest the existentially convenient and conventional
Christianity of Christendom make a mockery of the truth.
When the bishops of the
State Church refused to admit how far they fell short of this
ideal, Kierkegaard attacked them mercilessly in a series of
hard-hitting articles in the popular press. Clergy were accused of
furthering their careers as "cannibals", growing fat on the body of
In the midst of this
attack, Kierkegaard collapsed in the street, and was rushed to
hospital, where he died on 11 November 1855. Only a very few
supporters were found to speak up for him at his funeral, even
though a large congregation gathered out of curiosity, or sneaking
people then, and he continues to trouble people now, because it is
not easy to avoid his challenge to have faith in Christ, or else to
reject him utterly. Grace can be called in to help only when our
feebleness as disciples of Christ is honestly confessed; priority
is given to God's claim on all stages of life's way; and love of
neighbour characterises all our relationships as reflecting our
relationship to God.
When it comes to matters
of faith, the Kierkegaard of Training in Christianity,
written on the eve of his final attack on Christendom, continues to
command attention. This was the stage at which he reaffirmed the
priority of the individual's relationship to God, and the need to
give that priority existential expression.
Our relationship to God
is one predicated on God's grace, as being vital to achieving an
authentic Christian existence, so that giving priority to other
cultural or political "idols" on the one hand, or resorting to
grace as a substitute for effort on the other, must be avoided.
For Kierkegaard, the
opposite of faith is not doubt, but sin. To sin is to give priority
to interests above one's relationship to God, for which faith is
the only medium of access. This is a timeless prospectus when it
comes to being a Christian rather than simply
believing Christian doctrine.
Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.