THE philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) lived all his life in Copenhagen, where he diagnosed a spiritual complacency masking the anxiety and despair which, he argued, all human beings experience.
Baptised as an infant in the Lutheran Church, he was raised in an austerely devout household, and spent ten years studying theology and philosophy at the University of Copenhagen. During the 1840s, writings poured from his pen, challenging contemporary Christianity while also seeking a more authentic form of religious life.
Although he drew deeply on the Bible, the Desert Fathers, medieval mystics, devotional writers, Luther, and Lutheran pietism, Kierkegaard’s profound works reach beyond Christianity. His contemporaries described him as a “philosopher of the heart” because he focused on the inner life. He is now best known for his bold philosophical innovations; but his deep spiritual insights have also touched generations of readers, of all faiths and none.
Kierkegaard modelled his style on Socrates, the eccentric philosopher of ancient Athens. Socrates posed a peculiar question: What does it mean to be a human being?
“Socrates doubted that one is a human being by birth; to become human or to learn what it means to be human does not come that easily,” Kierkegaard wrote in his journal in 1854 — shortly before he launched a searing attack on the Danish State Church, and, in particular, its unctuous, ambitious leader, Bishop Martensen.
Following Socrates, Kierkegaard provoked and baffled his fellow Christians in inventive, challenging works such as Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, The Concept of Anxiety, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, and The Sickness Unto Death. He wanted to awaken his readers to the question how to be human — and he distrusted academics and church leaders who peddled ready-made answers to this question.
Yet Kierkegaard does offer some kind of answer. Like more traditional theologians such as St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas, he believed that all human beings have a need and desire for God. Living an authentic human life involves becoming conscious of this desire, and finding ways to express it in the world.
A deep desire for God can be painful, if it arises as a longing for an elusive, ungraspable presence. Yet Kierkegaard felt that covering up this longing was more painful still.
If we clench our minds and hearts against suffering, we also refuse God’s grace.
Kierkegaard saw Jesus’s life as exemplary in this respect. Jesus was open to his own suffering, and, before he healed other people, he welcomed them into the community as they were, wounded in different ways.
“The closer to God, the more suffering,” Kierkegaard wrote in his later years. This may not sound appealing (it wasn’t supposed to be), but his view that anxiety and despair are inescapable features of the human condition can be curiously comforting. He did not celebrate misery, and he believed that God wanted people to be happy; he also believed that true peace and joy arise from the depths of the human heart, which can be reached only by contending with life’s uncertainties. His readers feel encouraged to confront their suffering, instead of avoiding it.
ONE reason why Kierkegaard’s works feel so relevant today is that he, like us, lived through intense social change. In the mid-19th century, new technologies — railways, the telegraph, mass printing — were making life easier, at least for affluent people like himself. Kierkegaard thought that spiritual life had also become too comfortable, however, and emphasised his Church’s radical, disruptive origins.
Despite the similarities between our century and his, it is now far less easy to follow a religious path, at least in our own increasingly secular society. Claiming to be a Christian is no longer a matter of going with the flow of mainstream culture — and perhaps Kierkegaard would have welcomed this.
Kierkegaard’s works can be daunting for non-specialists. A good place to start is his “Three Godly Discourses” on the lily of the field and the bird of the air, those exemplars of carefree devotion which Jesus cited in his Sermon on the Mount. Kierkegaard’s intense self-consciousness inflects these beautiful discourses with irony: he knew better than anyone that being human is never as easy as opening one’s petals or stretching one’s wings.
His discourses on the lilies and birds are, in fact, about the difficulty of being human, and they begin with this prayer: “Father in Heaven! That which we in the company of other people, especially in the throng of humanity, have such difficulty learning, and which, if we have learned it elsewhere, is so easily forgotten in the company of other people — what it is to be a human being and what, from a godly standpoint, is the requirement for being a human being — would that we might learn it, or, if it has been forgotten, that we might learn it anew from the lily and the bird; would that we might learn it, if not all at once, then learn at least something of it, little by little — would that on this occasion we might from the lily and the bird learn silence, obedience, joy!”
Dr Clare Carlisle is Reader in Philosophy and Theology at King’s College London. Her latest book Philosopher of the Heart: The restless life of Søren Kierkegaard is published by Allen Lane at £25 (CT Bookshop £22.50).