Kierkegaard and the Refusal of Transcendence
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Catholic Theology after Kierkegaard
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MAHLER believed that a symphony should contain the whole world and, likewise, the works of a few great philosophers and theologians seem to embrace the widest possible range of ideas, experiences, and emotions. Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth come to mind, and we must also include Søren Kierkegaard (SK) whose extraordinary authorship continues to generate inspiration, controversy, and radically diverse interpretations. These latest additions to Kierkegaardiana very clearly demonstrate how he continues to be recruited to serve very different agendas.
Steven Shakespeare teaches at Liverpool Hope University and has established himself as a passionate advocate for theology in the marketplace of ideas in our so-called secular society. Indeed, it is the essentially immanentist thrust of SK’s authorship that Shakespeare seeks to expose and endorse. This, of course, runs counter to mainstream interpretations that major on the infinite qualitative difference between divine transcendence and human existence in SK, so that only the paradoxical incarnation of the God-Man Jesus Christ can make knowledge of God possible at all.
Shakespeare’s contention is that, whatever SK himself may have intended, the case that he makes for transcendence relies on philosophies of being and knowing (ontology and epistemology) which are ultimately earth-bound and contingent. This is not a reason to jettison SK’s theological insights — quite the contrary. What it demonstrates is that his account of existence and faith can be immanently appropriated and authenticated without resort to categories of transcendence.
Successive chapters deal with key Kierkegaardian themes to show that they refuse rather than require transcendence. The most intriguing chapter plays on the connections between “monsters, monstrances and demonstrations” as ways of articulating paradox at the heart of SK’s work. Shakespeare interacts with many interlocutors on the way, and he is clearly mining a rich seam of radical creativity.
This is the latest addition to the Radical Theologies series, which “is dedicated to redefining the very terms of theology as a concept and practice”. It is principally concerned to keep alive the spirit of Death of God theologies with immanence rather than transcendence very much to the fore.
Many will be surprised or even scandalised to find SK identified with this movement. But he was much given to thought experiments, and, as such, this exercise in deconstructing him by reading with him and against him is legitimate because Shakespeare is confessedly “not trying to deliver the one true interpretation of his work”.
Shakespeare has challenged one popular interpretation of SK’s thought, and Joshua Furnal challenges another. Most commentators take SK’s Lutheranism as a given, so that his theological anthropology is assumed to endorse the imparting rather than imputation of saving grace. This, in its turn, is seen as distancing him from Catholic teaching and practice.
Furnal, however, takes a different view. He traces the reception of SK by RC scholars between the two Vatican Councils, and especially those associated with the ressourcement movement. These appealed to patristic and biblical texts as a resource for the reform and renewal of RC theology. He especially focuses on Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Cornelio Fabro, among many others, including Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
These influential figures endorse SK as another voice from the past offering guidance for the future. Consequently, SK not only lent weight to the “new theology” endorsed by the decrees of Vatican II, but also, we might add, to ecumenical dialogues pursued by ARCIC.
Furnal does not embroil himself in oft-rehearsed speculation about whether SK would himself have become a Roman Catholic. He contents himself with describing how SK’s writings have been disseminated and appropriated by RC thinkers. This takes us into very different territory from that scouted by Shakespeare, but it is important, because it re-affirms SK’s trans-denominational and trans-confessional significance.
On balance, the general reader will find Furnal most accessible but probably of more interest to RCs than Anglicans. On the other hand, Shakespeare offers us a more demanding but positive insight into how such an iconic theologian can be creatively filtered through the prism of “radical theology”.
The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.