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Still troubling after 200 years

03 May 2013

Kierkegaard challenges complacency now as much as ever, says John Saxbee


Not valued in his own country? A statue of Kierkegaard in Copenhagen

Not valued in his own country? A statue of Kierkegaard in Copenhagen

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 appropriate.

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 philosophical system.

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".

KIERKEGAARD's life-story 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.

Certainly, his 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 life.

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 of faith.

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 Christ.

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 admiration.

KIERKEGAARD troubled 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.

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