THIS is an innovative and significant book written by one of the leading authorities on Kierkegaard today. Its innovation lies in bringing together biography and theology. Many chapters begin with a first-person account of events in Kierkegaard’s life, and the rest of the chapters then unpack the significance of these events on his philosophic thinking.
As a work of biography, it is comprehensive, and provides an excellent understanding of the complexities of Kierkegaard’s struggles and the relationship of these to events in his outer world, including his crucial break-up with the young girl, Regine Olsen, with whom he remained in love for the rest of his life, and whose influence on his thought is hard to over-estimate. Many other outward events affected his thinking, including his repudiation and/or misunderstanding by many leading figures in the Danish state Church and Danish society, including Heiberg, Mynster, Martensen, Grundtvig, and even Hans Christian Andersen.
His relationship with his father was both complex and difficult, and he had few people who were close to him and even fewer who understood him. Kierkegaard was driven to a rich, hard, suffering inner journey, and Carlisle’s book makes clear the links between his approach to Christianity and these events.
Carlisle rightly recognises that Kierkegaard is preoccupied with the twin questions what it means to be human and what it means to love; and these questions underpin his whole authorship. His faith in God and the relation of God to these ultimately human questions tortured him, but also drove him to new, brilliant, and relevant insights for today. He came to see the newspapers of his time (today he would refer to the media) as a “form of evil” and a symptom of a demoralised, disintegrating society full of envy, caprice, and pettiness. In many ways, Kierkegaard was and would be today an enemy of popular culture.
He came to recognise that the Christianity of the Danish State Church was largely empty and a considerable distance from the incredibly harsh and yet liberating demands that Christianity makes on the individual. He saw his task as to re-introduce Christianity into a culture that considered itself Christian but had almost entirely lost sight of what this meant: as Carlisle quotes Constantin Hansen as saying, “The question” is not “What sort of person was SK?” but “Am I a Christian?” This challenge is no less relevant in the modern Western world than it was in the 19th century.
What would Kierkegaard make of Carlisle’s book? At times, he might find it uncomfortable, and might have resisted the links between his biography and his intellectual struggles (the same might apply to many of us); but he would probably have come to recognise the validity of many of the links. Perhaps his main reservation might be that he would have wanted modern commentators not to understand why he wrote and thought what he did, but to be personally challenged to transform their lives: understanding and transformation are not the same. Carlisle recognises this, but the former can sometimes obscure the importance of the latter.
For this reviewer, the most significant chapter was the last, in which Carlisle shows how Kierkegaard has disturbingly affected her biography. This is exactly as Kierkegaard would have wished and perhaps shows, more than anything else, why her insights are to be taken seriously.
Dr Peter Vardy is a former Vice-Principal of Heythrop College, University of London.
Philosopher of the Heart: The restless life of Søren Kierkegaard
Allen Lane £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50