According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

Monday, May 20, 2013

Was Kierkegaard an evangelical? Parts 1-3

 
 
 
Was Kierkegaard an evangelical? Part 1
 
by Roger Olson
 
 
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Was Kierkegaard an evangelical–Part 2
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2011/08/was-kierkegaard-an-evangelical-part-2/
 
by Roger Olson
August 31, 2011
Comments
 
In Part 1 I raised the question whether Soren Kierkegaard should be regarded as a forerunner and ally of modern/contemporary evangelicalism.
 
This isn’t a new discussion, but I haven’t heard it lately among evangelicals.  With exceptions, of course, it seems like conservative evangelicals have developed a consensus that K. was not an evangelical or an ally of evangelicals but, as Francis Schaeffer claimed, a pernicious influence on modern/contemporary theology.  For Schaeffer and his crew, K.’s main theological influence was on neo-orthodoxy which is, of course, bad.
 
Let me offer an example of what I’m talking about that provides evidence that evangelicals need to rediscover the real K. and stop misrepresenting him.
 
Of course, John MacArthur doesn’t represent all evangelicals.  (Who does?)  But he is influential within especially Reformed evangelical circles.  His article (or is it as sermon?) “The War against Reason” may be found at Forgotten Word Ministries at www.forgottenword.org/johnmacarthur2.html.  I don’t see a publication date there.  According to a note at the end of the article, it is an excerpt from MacArthur’s book Reckless Faith: When the Church Loses Its Will to Discern (1994).  Someone named Robert Wise, apparently the director of Forgotten Word Ministries, posts a note at the end of the on line version of the article/chapter (whatever it is) saying “We do pray this article has blessed you in some way.  Our prayer is that you will use this message to better understand what is happening in our churches today.”
 
Hardly.
 
MacArthur’s article contains many paragraphs on K. under the heading “Adrift on a sea of subjectivity.”  Here’s a typical statement–almost a thesis statement of the article: “…in his reaction against the lifeless state church, Kierkegaard set up a false antithesis.  He decided that objectivity and truth were incompatible. … Kierkegaard devised an approach to religion that was pure passion, altogether subjective.  Faith, he suggested, means the rejection of reason and the exaltation of feeling and personal experience.”  MacArthur goes on to describe K. as a relativist who reveled in subjectivism and denied truth except “my truth” and “your truth.”  Although he quotes K. a few times, I have to wonder if he really read any whole book by K. or just picked a few quotes out of context.  Anyone who has really read K. KNOWS he did not believe in subjectivism (“ISM”) but in passionate inwardness which he called subjectivity.
 
Of course, there’s lots of room for debate over exactly what K. meant by truth as subjectivity, but no serious K. scholar thinks he was endorsing the old “my truth is my truth and your truth is your truth” (and both are equally valid because there’s really no such thing as truth anyway).  K. was reacting against the overly objectified “faith” of Hegel and his followers which set aside passion and inwardness in favor of a sterile, rationalistic religious philosophy.
 
MacArthur makes the common mistake of confusing “subjectivity” (especially K. style) with “subjectivism” (popular culture style).  He agrees with Schaeffer’s critique that K. “fell below the line of despair” and opened the door to modern denials of truth.  (Of course, Schaeffer also traced this modern denial of what he called “True truth” to Thomas Aquinas and I won’t even get into all that here.  But I have to mention the Christianity Today quote published soon after Schaeffer’s death in which Schaeffer, wearing Lederhosen and with his characteristic goatee, is standing at the gates of heaven talking with St. Peter.  St. Peter looks at his book and says ‘Francis Schaeffer, Francis Schaeffer.  Oh, yes.  Saint Thomas would like a word with you.”  In my opinion, the cartoon would have carried more “punch” for evangelicals if it has St. Peter saying “Oh, yes.  Soren Kierkegaard would like a word with you.”)
 
I can say with confidence that MacArthur and Schaeffer were both wrong about K.  There is no hint in K’s writings that he denied the “True truth” of God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ and the gospel.  He simply didn’t think this truth is amenable to rational or empirical proof and that trying to prove it undermines it because this particular truth, by its very nature, requires personal commitment.  It cannot be known apart from involvement.  And, by its very nature, this “involvement” means suffering.  Not necessarily physical suffering, but the suffering of self-sacrifice and total self-giving to God.  Apart from repentance, faith, risk, involvement, commitment and suffering one cannot truly know God.  Even then, in this life, at least, “knowing God” is never a matter of mastering God; the God-human relationship is ALWAYS a crisis and never a matter of harmony.
 
How can anyone read K. and come away thinking he denied truth?  Why would he be so passionate if he didn’t think what he was writing was true?  But, of course, what MacArthur is assuming (contrary even to Calvin) is that rational apologetics MUST be valid and get one at least partway to Christian faith OR ELSE faith is a totally subjective, blind leap in the dark.  EVEN CALVIN underscored the absolute necessity of the “inner testimony of the Holy Spirit” for knowing the truth of scripture.  Apart from that, according to Calvin, the human mind is nothing but a factory of idols.  Why doesn’t MacArthur attack Calvin or Luther (who called reason the great seducer)?
 
In fact, contrary to the typical evangelical polemic against K., I think his whole work constitutes a kind of apologetic.  Certainly not the kind evangelicals like (whether evidentialism or presuppositionalism), but an indirect argument for the truth of Christianity from the human condition.   It’s ironic that Schaeffer and others would say K. fell below the “line of despair” because he would agree with them!  But not in the way they meant it.  For him, despair is the inevitable human condition apart from faith in God (meaning the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and not the God of the philosophers).  But also, despair can be a step toward faith insofar as one recognizes it and looks beyond it to Jesus Christ.  K. was very Christocentric.  His version of Christianity was Jesus-centered and cross-centered.  Yes, sometimes he overstated his case as when he suggested that all we REALLY need to know about Jesus is that he was crucified.  But one MUST NOT take such statements out of context and one must recognize hyperbole when he or she encounters it.
 
In brief, then, I think K.’s bad reputation among evangelicals is a bad rap; it’s wholly undeserved.  That doesn’t mean we should embrace K.  He didn’t want to be embraced.  He wanted to make people of his day, including Christians, uncomfortable.  And it doesn’t mean agreeing with everything K. wrote.  But it’s simply dishonest to represent K. as a total subjectivist IN THE CONTEMPORARY sense of “subjective.”  Today most people understand “subjective” to mean truth is relative to the individual; there is no true Truth beyond what individuals (or perhaps cultures) believe.  Anyone who accuses K. of that is simply ignorant.
 
Have any evangelicals discovered the “real K.?”  Yes.  Unfortunately, they haven’t been listened to–at least not enough to alter the common evangelical disdain for K.
 
My colleague C. Stephen Evans is well-known as a K. scholar and has published several books about K. and numerous articles about him and his thought.  Way back in 1984 Steve wrote an article defending K. and his philosophy/theology.  The article was entitled “A Misunderstood Reformer” and was published in Christianity Today (September 21, 1984, pp. 26-29).  I wish everyone even slightly interested in K. could read it.  Unfortunately, I have not found it on line.  But any good Christian college, university or seminary library will have it and you can probably order it through your local library’s interlibrary loans service.
 
Steve writes “Strangely, almost the only group that does not admire and revere Kierkegaard is the one group with whom I believe he had the strongest degree of spiritual kinship: evangelical Christians.”  My point exactly.  And Steve goes on for two pages (triple columns!) explaining why evangelicals are wrong about K.  He says that the main reason evangelicals have such a low opinion of K. is simple: “We have not read his books.”  Steve also rightly says “Poor Kierkegaard has suffered more than any author I know of from a generation of evangelical ignorance.”  He notes exceptions–E. J. Carnell, Kenneth Hamilton, Vernard Eller and Vernon Grounds.  But overall and in general especially American evangelicals have been trained to think of K. as the fountainhead of existentialism which is, of course, very bad because it leads to atheism.
 
In his article Steve writes “I believe that the common interpretation of Kierkegaard as an irrationalist or subjectivist is wrong.”  Steve should know; he’s a world renowned expert on K. and a man of strong evangelical faith who has taught at Wheaton, Calvin and Bethel (among other evangelical schools) and was the curator of the Kierkegaard library at St. Olaf College.
 
I especially agree with Steve’s conclusion that “Kierkegaard, more than anyone I know, can help remind evangelicals that Christianity is a manner of being, a way of existing, not merely an affirmation of doctrine.  But he can remind us of this in a way that will not precipitate a slide back into the contempt for reason and the life of the mind that has sometimes infected evangelicalism and fundamentalism.”
 
So was K. an evangelical?  I wouldn’t want to saddle him with that label according to what it means to most people (especially journalists) today!  However, in his own way he was an evangelical in the best sense–a lover of Jesus Christ and the gospel and a person determined to suffer for the cause of Christ in the world.  He was a prophet to Christendom then and now.  I suspect much of the disdain for K. in evangelical circles comes from the fact that he regarded Christianity as a way of life more than a creed.  He never denied any cardinal tenet of orthodoxy, but, like the Pietists, he thought dead orthodoxy is a greater danger than heresy.
 
In my next installment (Part 3) I want to discuss K.’s evangelical beliefs–especially his belief in conversion.  I also want to discuss his synergism of salvation and his Pietism.  I won’t call him an Arminian, but his soteriology was quite compatible with Arminianism.
 
 
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Kierkegaard as evangelical–Part 3 (final)
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2011/09/kierkegaard-as-evangelical-part-3-final/
 
by Roger Olson
September 2, 2011
Comments
 
As we have seen here (in my posts and the comments), one can make K. into almost anything.  He wrote much and sometimes seemed to contradict himself.  His goal was not so much to produce a system (in fact that was no goal at all!) but to make people think–to shake them out of complacency both about their own lives and about Christianity.
 
My own reading of K. has led me to believe he was what I consider an evangelical–a person of passionate faith in Jesus Christ–even if not a typical one by contemporary North American standards.  (This reminds me of the old story, possibly apocryphal, that a leading American fundamentalist traveled to England to have a conversation with C. S. Lewis.  Upon returning he said that he concluded Lewis was a Christian even though he smoked a pipe and drank sherry.)
 
What made K. an evangelical?  His absolute determination to find and live authentically according to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Now, for those who define “evangelical” in terms of doctrinal orthodoxy, K. never (to the best of my knowledge) denied any tenet of orthodox Christianity.  He did try to show that they are beyond comprehension and are paradoxes–as a sign of God’s transcendence and humans’ sinfulness.  He perhaps over reacted to the dead orthodoxy and rationalistic religious philosophies (especially Hegel’s) of his day.  But that doesn’t make him non-evangelical in my opinion.
 
One of the books that has helped me understand K. as an evangelical is Kierkegaard as Theologian: The Dialectic of Christian Existence by Louis Dupre (1963).  Admittedly it’s an older book, but that doesn’t disqualify it from having something valuable to say about someone who lived a century earlier.  It is also written by a Catholic scholar and published by a Catholic publisher (Sheed & Ward).  So what?  I’m not into judging a book by its author (necessarily or categorically) or its publisher.
 
Dupre’s treatment of K. is very sympathetic while at the same time critical.  He treats K. as a theologian more than as a philosopher while admitting that K. didn’t fit the typical profile of a theologian (viz., producer of tomes of systematic theology or even monographs on doctrines).  Most of his criticisms come at the end of the book and are what you would expect from a Catholic–K. was too Protestant.  (Dupre does an excellent job of debunking the occasional claims that K. was a closet Catholic and would have joined the RCC if he had lived longer.)
 
One thing Dupre tackles is the old canard that K. was a complete irrationalist.  He demonstrates from K.’s own statements that he did not disdain every use of reason in theology.  Dupre admits (of course) that for K. coming to faith in Jesus Christ cannot be a smooth process of reasoning as if authentic faith would arrive at the end of a syllogism.  And the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob cannot be proven to exist by philosophy.  Yes, true faith requires a “leap” by which he meant a choice.  So what? Luther said the same in various ways.  What K. added to Luther was the corrective that the choice of faith cannot be made FOR another (e.g., a child).  (K. ended up arguing that infant baptism is a mistake.)
 
But K. was not an irrationalist about Christianity.  True, like Tertullian, he sometimes referred to what Christians believe (e.g., the incarnation) as absurd, but he MEANT by secular standards of rationality.  He obvious did not think that believing Christianly requires a sacrifice of the intellect UNLESS “intellect” MEANS Hegelian-type dialectical reasoning (arriving at a smooth synthesis through sublation of the tension between opposites).
 
Dupre does an excellent job of showing, from K. himself, that K. actually valued reflection in faith.  Reflection won’t get you TO faith, but once faith is found, reflection has value.  On faith and reason Dupre says rightly “His [K.'s] entire work should be regarded as an effort, by means of a more profound meditation on the experience of modern man, to rediscover the commensurability of faith with reflective thought.” (142)
 
What about the charge that K. was against the church?  That he reveled in individualism and rejected the communal dimension of Christianity?  Again, Dupre debunks this.  For example, K. wrote that “The individual is first related to God and only secondarily to the community: the first relation is the highest, although he must not despise the second.” (192)  His objection was to the common notion that faith can somehow be handed down within the church (e.g., Bushnell’s “Christian nurture”).  What is this other than another way of saying that “God has no grandchildren”–an old evangelical axiom?
 
K. wrote much about the church and most of it was negative.  That was not because he disdained church but because the only church he knew (in his context) was the Danish Lutheran (state) Church.  When he outlined his vision for church he said it should be a “small group of outlaws” (Dupre’s paraphrase of K. on this point) banded together for resistance to the world.  (H. Richard Niebuhr uses K. as an example of his “Christ and culture in tension” model of Christ and culture.  If Dupre is right, as I think he is, K. was rather a Christ against culture Christian.)  But the point is that K. did NOT reject church in favor of a totally atomistic understanding of Christianity.  What he rejected was Christendom–the church as synthesized with society such that belonging to the society made one a Christian and vice versa.
 
K.’s pietism appears not in a mystical approach to faith as union with God but in his strong emphasis on the personal relationship with God.  But for him, this personal relationship with God is NOT one of smooth acceptance because of one’s goodness or worthiness.  Rather, it begins AND REMAINS a consciousness of sin before God.  K. wrote: “If you are not conscious of your sinfulness to the extent that, in the most terrible anxiety of conscience, you dare not act otherwise than to cleave to Christ, you will never be a Christian.  Only the torture of the consciousness of sin could account for a man’s subjecting himself to this radical cure.  To become a Christian is, among all, all, the most terrible operation.  No more than a man who feels slightly indisposed would ever get the idea of subjecting himself to the most painful operation, would it ever enter one’s head to concern himself with Christianity, if sin did not infinitely torture him.” (90)  Yet, that was not the final word; K. always went on (eventually) to pronounce grace and forgiveness for those who are tortured by their sinfulness and cleave to Christ with faith: “‘Thy sins are forgiven thee’ (Luke 7, 49), that is the cry of encouragement of the Christians to one another; with this cry Christianity spreads all over the world, by these words it is recognized as a race apart, a separate nation.” (95)
 
I suspect that one reason especially Reformed evangelicals are uncomfortable with K. and wish to turn people away from him is that he was no Calvinist.  He didn’t even agree with Luther about the bondage of the will.  I wouldn’t call him an Arminian, but that’s only because he was Lutheran.  (There’s something odd and unfitting about calling a Lutheran an Arminian as Arminianism is part of the Reformed tradition–historically and sociologically speaking.)  Dupre spends pages proving that K. believed grace can never be compelled and that true, saving faith is always a free choice enabled by grace.  But here is a quote from K. on the subject: “From every point of view the concept of predestination may be considered as an abortion, for having unquestionably arisen in order to relate freedom and God’s omnipotence, it solves teh riddle by denying one of the concepts and consequently explains nothing.” (107-108)  K. called Luther’s and Calvin’s ideas of grace “fatalistic” but WITHOUT embracing Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism.  As Dupre notes, for K. “All the initiative [in salvation] rests with God.” (109)  Without naming it as such, K. clearly believed in prevenient grace as the ground a power of conversion, but he also believed the human person plays a role in his or her conversion.  But that role is only to assent to grace; it has nothing to do with merit.
 
What about the Bible?  One reason some evangelicals have rejected K. is that he supposedly elevated individual experience over Scripture.  That’s simply false.  It’s a misinterpretation of K.’s attitude toward the Bible.  For him the Bible IS authoritative FOR THE CHRISTIAN, but faith is not founded on the Bible but the Bible’s authority is founded on faith.  K’s view is nothing other than Calvin’s view of the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit.  A person without faith will never recognize the Bible as God’s Word and a person with faith always will.  But “proof” is not possible in spiritual matters.
 
I think K. was thinking along the same lines I have mentioned as Scot McKnight’s and mine (and, of course, many others’).  I do not believe in God and Jesus Christ because I FIRST (in order of priority) believe in the Bible as if the Bible had some intrinsic authority over and above God and Jesus Christ.  I accept the Bible as God’s Word because (as Luther said) it is the “cradle that carries Christ.”  In and through the Bible’s words I am encountered by Jesus and brought into relationship with him, but the Bible’s inspiration and authority are not self-evidence or based on historical proofs.  They are based on my and the church’s relationship with God revealed in Jesus Christ and the gospel.  K.’s view (and mine and McKnights and Luther’s!) relativizes the Bible IN COMPARISON with Jesus Christ; Christianity is Christ and faith in him (what K. called “cleaving to Christ”) and is a matter of passionate inwardness (subjectivity) and not of objective reasoning including some kind of presuppositionalist apologetics.  But K. never denied the inspiration of Scripture or its authority for Christian doctrine.  What he did, however, was make the typical Pietist move of subordinating doctrine to Jesus Christ and having a personal relationship with him.  The essence of faith is not belief in the Bible or doctrine but (in Dupre’s words paraphrasing K.) “a Person to Whom I entrust myself without reserve.” (137)
 
In conclusion, when I read K., I hear loud echoes of the evangelical faith of my childhood and youth and early education among the German Pietist Baptists.  All the evangelical critiques of K. sound to me like rationalism and dogmatism (what Brunner called “theologismus”–faith in doctrines and theology).  Yes, K. was a kind of fideist; so what?  One can certainly argue against that, but one cannot argue that fideism is foreign to evangelical faith.  Luther was a fideist as was Calvin!  (Anyone who doubts that about Calvin needs to go back and read (or re-read) the first chapters of the Institutes where Calvin absolutely dismisses every form of natural theology and calls the mind of the unconverted person a “factory of idols” and bases everything on the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit.  Somehow or other, “mainstream” evangelicals have become enamored with rational apologetics  often to the detriment of true faith.  The “Four Spiritual Laws” booklet contained the illustration of a train with the engine being “facts” and “faith” the coal car and “feelings” the caboose!
 
Why am I passionate about this matter of K.’s reputation?  Because I think it illustrates a deep problem in modern evangelicalism’s DNA.  Too many evangelicals simply accept the word of their favorite Christian speaker or writer, be it Francis Schaeffer or John MacArthur, and don’t exercise the least bit of skepticism when they bash someone like K.  And they do.  As I have pointed out here before, a pathos of modern evangelicalism is that it rewards those in its ranks who are the first to point out heresy where nobody has yet recognized it which then results in continuous heresy hunting even among themselves!  Finger pointing and half-baked (or completely raw) accusations of heresy are the norm among conservative evangelicals.  Their treatment of K. is a good example.  We need to speak out against this habit of the evangelical mind and my little contribution is to assert that K. was NOT what Schaeffer and MacArthur said (along with many other evangelicals) and even where they were right about K., those characteristics have always been part of the evangelical movement and do not make one non-evangelical.
 
 
 

Soren Kierkegaard's Postmodernistic Relevance for Today

Happy (Belated) Birthday Kierkegaard
 
by Scot McKnight
May 13, 2013

From Julian Baggini, on Kierkegaard’s 200th birthday (May 5) and his continuing appeal:
Discovering that your childhood idols are now virtually ancient is usually a disturbing reminder of your own mortality. But for me, realising that 5th May 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of Søren Kierkegaard’s birth was more of a reminder of his immortality. It’s a strange word to use for a thinker who lived with a presentiment of his own death and didn’t reach his 43rd birthday. Kierkegaard was the master of irony and paradox before both became debased by careless overuse. He was an existentialist a century before Jean-Paul Sarte, more rigorously post-modern than postmodernism, and a theist whose attacks on religion bit far deeper than many of those of today’s new atheists. Kierkegaard is not so much a thinker for our time but a timeless thinker, whose work is pertinent for all ages yet destined to be fully attuned to none…. 
If Kierkegaard is your benchmark, then you judge any philosophy not just on the basis of how cogent its arguments are, but on whether it speaks to the fundamental needs of human beings trying to make sense of the world. Philosophy prides itself on challenging all assumptions but, oddly enough, in the 20th century it forgot to question why it asked the questions it did. Problems were simply inherited from previous generations and treated as puzzles to be solved. Kierkegaard is inoculation against such empty scholasticism. As he put it in his journal in 1835: 
What would be the use of discovering so-called objective truth, of working through all the systems of philosophy and of being able, if required, to review them all and show up the inconsistencies within each system … what good would it do me if truth stood before me, cold and naked, not caring whether I recognised her or not, and producing in me a shudder of fear rather than a trusting devotion? 
When, for example, I became fascinated by the philosophical problem of personal identity, I also became dismayed by the unwillingness or inability of many writers on the subject to address the question of just why the problem should concern us at all. Rather than being an existential problem, it often became simply a logical or metaphysical one, a technical exercise in specifying the necessary and sufficient conditions for identifying one person as the same object at two different points in time. 

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Illustration by Stephen Collins
 
I still love Kierkegaard
 
May 6, 2013
 
"He is the dramatic thunderstorm at the heart of philosophy
 and his provocation is more valuable than ever."


I fell for Søren Kierkegaard as a teenager, and he has accompanied me on my intellectual travels ever since, not so much side by side as always a few steps ahead or lurking out of sight just behind me. Perhaps that’s because he does not mix well with the other companions I’ve kept. I studied in the Anglo-American analytic tradition of philosophy, where the literary flourishes and wilful paradoxes of continental existentialists are viewed with anything from suspicion to outright disdain. In Paris, Roland Barthes might have proclaimed the death of the author, but in London the philosopher had been lifeless for years, as anonymous as possible so that the arguments could speak for themselves.
 
Discovering that your childhood idols are now virtually ancient is usually a disturbing reminder of your own mortality. But for me, realising that 5th May 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of Søren Kierkegaard's birth was more of a reminder of his immortality. It's a strange word to use for a thinker who lived with a presentiment of his own death and didn't reach his 43rd birthday. Kierkegaard was the master of irony and paradox before both became debased by careless overuse. He was an existentialist a century before Jean-Paul Sarte, more rigorously post-modern than postmodernism, and a theist whose attacks on religion bit far deeper than many of those of today’s new atheists. Kierkegaard is not so much a thinker for our time but a timeless thinker, whose work is pertinent for all ages yet destined to be fully attuned to none.
 
It’s easy enough to see why I fell in love with Kierkegaard. Before years of academic training does its work of desiccation, young men and women are drawn to philosophy and the humanities by the excitement of ideas and new horizons of understanding. This youthful zeal, however, is often slapped down by mature sobriety. I remember dipping into the tiny philosophy section of my school library, for example, and finding Stephan Körner’s 1955 Pelican introduction to Kant. I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. Strangely, this did not put me off philosophy, the idea of which remained more alluring than the little bit of reality I had encountered.
 
Kierkegaard was not so much an oasis in this desert as a dramatic, torrential thunderstorm at the heart of it. Discovering him as a 17-year-old suddenly made philosophy and religion human and exciting, not arid and abstract. In part that’s because he was a complex personality with a tumultuous biography. Even his name emanates romantic darkness. ‘Søren’ is the Danish version of the Latin severus, meaning ‘severe’, ‘serious’ or ‘strict’, while ‘Kierkegaard’ means churchyard, with its traditional associations of the graveyard.
 
He knew intense love, and was engaged to Regine Olsen, whom he describes in his journals as ‘sovereign queen of my heart’. Yet in 1841, after four years of courtship, he called the engagement off, apparently because he did not believe he could give the marriage the commitment it deserved. He took love, God and philosophy so seriously that he did not see how he could allow himself all three.
 
He was a romantic iconoclast, who lived fast and died young, but on a rollercoaster of words and ideas rather than sex and booze. During the 1840s, books poured from his pen. In 1843 alone, he published three masterpieces, Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, and Repetition.
Kierkegaard achieved the necessary condition of any great romantic intellectual figure, which is rejection by his own time and society
All of this, however, was under the shadow of a deep melancholy. Five of his seven siblings died, three in the space of the same two years that claimed his mother. These tragedies fuelled the bleak religiosity of his father, who believed he had been punished for cursing God on a Jutland heath for His apparent indifference to the hard, wretched life of the young sheep farmer. When his father told Søren about this, it seems that the son adopted the curse, along with his father’s youthful sins.
 
Yet alongside this melancholy was a mischievous, satirical wit. Kierkegaard was a scathing critic of the Denmark of his time, and he paid the price when in 1846 The Corsair, a satirical paper, launched a series of character attacks on him, ridiculing his gait (he had a badly curved spine) and his rasping voice. Kierkegaard achieved the necessary condition of any great romantic intellectual figure, which is rejection by his own time and society. His biographer, Walter Lowrie, goes so far as to suggest that he was single-handedly responsible for the decline of Søren as a popular first name. Such was the ridicule cast upon him that Danish parents would tell their children ‘don’t be a Søren’. Today, Sorensen — son of Søren — is still the eighth most common surname in Denmark, while as a first name Søren itself doesn’t even make the top 50. It is as though Britain were full of Johnsons but no Johns.
 
All this was more than enough to draw my open but largely empty 17-year-old mind to him. In the battle for intellectual affections, how could the likes of A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic (1936) or Willard Van Orman Quine’s Word and Object (1960) compete with Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death (1849) or Stages on Life’s Way (1845)? What is more interesting, however, is why the intellectual affair lasted even as I became a (hopefully) less impressionable, older atheist.
 
If Kierkegaard is your benchmark, then you judge any philosophy not just on the basis of how cogent its arguments are, but on whether it speaks to the fundamental needs of human beings trying to make sense of the world. Philosophy prides itself on challenging all assumptions but, oddly enough, in the 20th century it forgot to question why it asked the questions it did. Problems were simply inherited from previous generations and treated as puzzles to be solved. Kierkegaard is inoculation against such empty scholasticism. As he put it in his journal in 1835:
 
"What would be the use of discovering so-called objective truth, of working through
all the systems of philosophy and of being able, if required, to review them all and show
up the inconsistencies within each system ... what good would it do me if truth stood
before me, cold and naked, not caring whether I recognised her or not, and producing
in me a shudder of fear rather than a trusting devotion?" - SK
 
When, for example, I became fascinated by the philosophical problem of personal identity, I also became dismayed by the unwillingness or inability of many writers on the subject to address the question of just why the problem should concern us at all. Rather than being an existential problem, it often became simply a logical or metaphysical one, a technical exercise in specifying the necessary and sufficient conditions for identifying one person as the same object at two different points in time.
 
So even as I worked on a PhD on the subject, located within the Anglo-American analytic tradition, I sneaked Kierkegaard in through the back door. For me, Kierkegaard defined the problem more clearly than anyone else. Human beings are caught, he said, between two modes or ‘spheres’ of existence. The ‘aesthetic’ is the world of immediacy, of here and now. The ‘ethical’ is the transcendent, eternal world. We can’t live in both, but neither fulfils all our needs since ‘the self is composed of infinitude and finitude’, perhaps a hyperbolic way of saying that we exist across time, in the past and future, but we are also inescapably trapped in the present moment.
 
The limitations of the ‘ethical’ are perhaps most obvious to the modern mind. The life of eternity is just an illusion, for we are all-too mortal, flesh-and-blood creatures. To believe we belong there is to live in denial of our animality. So the world has increasingly embraced the ‘aesthetic’. But this fails to satisfy us, too. If the moment is all we have, then all we can do is pursue pleasurable moments, ones that dissolve as swiftly as they appear, leaving us always running on empty, grasping at fleeting experiences that pass. The materialistic world offers innumerable opportunities for instant gratification without enduring satisfaction and so life becomes a series of diversions. No wonder there is still so much vague spiritual yearning in the West: people long for the ethical [(spiritual or eternal) - res] but cannot see beyond the aesthetic.
 
In evocative aphorisms, Kierkegaard captured this sense of being lost, whichever world we choose: ‘Infinitude’s despair is to lack finitude, finitude’s despair is to lack infinitude.’ Kierkegaard thus defined what I take to be the central puzzle of human existence: how to live in such a way that does justice both to our aesthetic and our ethical natures.
Kierkegaard showed that taking religion seriously is compatible with being against religion in almost all its actual forms.
His solution to this paradox was to embrace it — too eagerly in my view. He thought that the figure of Christ — a man-made God [per the Kierkegaard's sentiments, not mine own; though, in its earthly version of religion would in some sense be true, but not in its divine version of spirituality emanating from the personage or being of God - res], wholly finite and wholly infinite at the same time — was the only way to make sense of the human condition, not because it explains away life’s central paradox but because it embodies it. To become a Christian requires a ‘leap of faith’ without the safety net of reason or evidence.
 
Kierkegaard’s greatest illustration of this is his retelling of the story of Abraham and Isaac in Fear and Trembling (1843). Abraham is often held up as a paradigm of faith because he trusted God so much he was prepared to sacrifice his only son on his command. Kierkegaard makes us realise that Abraham acted on faith not because he obeyed a difficult order but because lifting the knife over his son defied all morality and reason. No reasonable man would have done what Abraham did. If this was a test, then surely the way to pass was to show God that you would not commit murder on command, even if that risked inviting divine wrath. If you heard God’s voice commanding you to kill, surely it would be more rational to conclude you were insane or tricked by demons than it would to follow the order. So when Abraham took his leap of faith, he took leave of reason and morality.

*Under the section of "Violence in the OT" such biblical passages are being examined with a pre-conclusion that the standard enlightenment/modernized interpretations such as these above are inexact and bereft of their Ancient Near-Eastern (ANE) settings unreflected by our philosophies and theologies of today. Hence, the interpretation as given above is rejected and its conclusions must be based on something more solid than a common literal understanding ripped out-of-context to its ancient past. - res
 
How insipid the modern version of faith appears in comparison. Religious apologists today might mumble about the power of faith and the limits of reason, yet they are the first to protest when it is suggested that faith and reason might be in tension. Far from seeing religious faith as a special, bold kind of trust, religious apologists are now more likely to see atheism as requiring as much faith as religion. Kierkegaard saw clearly that that faith is not a kind of epistemic Polyfilla that closes the small cracks left by reason, but a mad leap across a chasm devoid of all reason.

*This is a common understanding that has been explored ad naseum within religion and philosophy. For the man or woman of faith, the life of faith is both reasonable and unreasonable, and the spiritual life of faith is one of spiritual connectivity to all things human, mundane, eternal, and divine. As a tissue is connective to a larger membrane of tissues so is the life of faith connective to all things God in the lifeblood of sight and sound. - res
 
That is not because Kierkegaard was guilty of an anarchic irrationalism or relativistic subjectivism. It is only because he was so rigorous with his application of reason that he was able to push it to its limits. He went beyond reason only when reason could go no further, leaving logic behind only when logic refused to go on.
In a pluralist world, there is no hope of understanding people who live according to different values if we only judge them from the outside.
*As has been observed within Relevancy22 countless times, our explorations of faith - and especially of one's theology of God behind the life of faith - has shown that our ideas of the bible, biblical teachings, and even of God Himself is oft times  bound by our finite assumptions and mislead beliefs about each. That our beliefs are so bounded by our religion, our religious views, or our limiting personal philosophies, that we misapprehend the truer pictures of theology when borne aright by less limiting theological persuasions as we have pursued here since inception. However, this is to deconstruct one's self and religion, which can be threatening if not altogether leading to a personal bankruptcy of belief. And yet, if led of the Spirit of God, can be holistically reconstructive in the life of the believer willing to cast off his/her's personal past to a larger, more expansive view of God, the bible, and the life of Spirit-filled faith. - res

This was powerful stuff for a teenager such as me who was losing his religious belief [(cf. sidebars re Peter Rollins, Deconstruction as additional explorations in this regard - res)]. What Kierkegaard showed was that the only serious alternative to atheism or agnosticism was not what generally passes for religion but a much deeper commitment that left ordinary standards of proof and evidence completely behind. Perhaps that’s why so many of Kierkegaard’s present-day admirers are atheists. He was a Christian who nonetheless despised ‘Christendom’. To be a Christian was to stake one’s life on the absurdity of the risen Christ, to commit to an ethical standard no human can reach. [(*as expressed in pre-postmodernistic terms - res)]. This is a constant and in some ways hopeless effort at perpetually becoming what you can never fully be. Nothing could be more different from the conventional view of what being a Christian means: being born and baptised into a religion, dutifully going to Church and partaking in the sacraments. Institutionalised Christianity is an oxymoron, given that the Jesus of the Gospels spent so much time criticising the clerics of his day and never established any alternative structures [(for myself, the reason was simple, Jesus left the interpretation of faith's life within a community open for plurality's sake. - res)]. Kierkegaard showed that taking religion seriously is compatible with being against religion in almost all its actual forms, something that present-day atheists and believers should note [AMEN! - res].

Kierkegaard would undoubtedly have been both amused and appalled at what passes for debate about religion today. He would see how both sides move in herds, adhering to a collectively formed opinion, unwilling to depart from the local consensus. Too many Christians defend what happens to pass for Christianity in the culture at the time, when they should be far more sceptical that their churches really represent the teachings of their founder [Jesus]. Too many atheists are just as guilty of rallying around totems such as Charles Darwin and the scientific method, as though these were the pillars of the secular outlook rather than merely the current foci of its attention.
 
Kierkegaard’s views on religion are not the only way in which his critique of ‘the present age’ is strangely timely for us, and likely to be the same for future readers. ‘Our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection, without passion, momentarily bursting into enthusiasm,’ he wrote in 1846, ‘and shrewdly lapsing into repose.’ Passion in this sense is about bringing one’s whole self to what one does, including reasoning. What is much more common today is either a sentimental subjectivity, in which everything becomes about your own feelings or personal story; or a detached objectivity in which the motivations and interests of the researchers are deemed irrelevant. Kierkegaard insisted on going beyond this objective/subjective choice, recognising that honest intellectual work requires a sincere attempt to see things as they are and an authentic recognition of how one’s own nature, beliefs and biases inevitably shape one’s perceptions.
 
This central insight is nowhere more developed than in his pseudonymous works. Many of Kierkegaard’s most important books do not bear his name. On the Concept of Irony (1841) is written by Johannes Climacus; Fear and Trembling (1843) by Johannes de Silentio; Repetition (1843) by Constantin Constantius; while Either/Or (1843) is edited by Victor Eremita. This is not just some ludic, post-modern jape. What Kierkegaard understood clearly was that there is no neutral ‘objective’ point of view from which alternative ways of living and understanding the world can be judged. Rather, you need to get inside a philosophy to really see its attractions and limitations. So, for example, to see why the everyday ‘aesthetic’ life is not enough to satisfy us, you need to see how unsatisfying it is for those who live it. That’s why Kierkegaard writes from the point of view of people who live for the moment to show how empty that leaves them. Likewise, if you want to understand the impossibility of living on the eternal plane in finite human life, see the world from the point of view of someone trying to live the ethical life.
 
This approach makes many of Kierkegaard’s books genuine pleasures to read, as literary as they are philosophical. More importantly, the pseudonymous method enables Kierkegaard to achieve a remarkable synthesis of objectivity and subjectivity. We see how things are from a subjective point of view, and because they really are that way, a form of objectivity is achieved. This is a lesson that our present age needs to learn again. The most complete, objective point of view is not one that is abstracted from the subjective: it is one that incorporates as many subjective points of view as are relevant and needed.

*The reason this method works today is that postmodernism requires story telling from a subjective, personal narrative. As an era, postmodernism has reject the abstract, cold, detached systematic statements of theology or other disciplines. To be meaningful, and to be meaningfully expressed, today's writer/thinker/speaker must express their thoughts in narrative form. - res
 
This also provides the link between imagination and rationality. A detached reason that cannot enter into the viewpoints of others cannot be fully objective because it cannot access whole areas of the real world of human experience. Kierkegaard taught me the importance of attending to the internal logic of positions, not just how they stand up to outside scrutiny.
 
This is arguably even more vital today than it was in Kierkegaard’s time. In a pluralist world, there is no hope of understanding people who live according to different values if we only judge them from the outside, from what we imagine to be an objective point of view [(that is, our own view - res)] but is really one infused with our own subjectivity. Atheists need to know what it really means to be religious, not simply to run through arguments against the existence of God that are not the bedrock of belief anyway. No one can hope to understand emerging nations such as China, India or Brazil unless they try to see how the world looks from inside those countries.
 
But perhaps Kierkegaard’s most provocative message is that both work on the self and on understanding the world requires your whole being and cannot be just a compartmentalised, academic pursuit. His life and work both have a deep ethical seriousness, as well as plenty of playful, ironic elements. This has been lost today, where it seems we are afraid of taking ourselves too seriously. For Kierkegaard, irony was the means by which we could engage in serious self-examination without hubris or arrogance: ‘what doubt is to science, irony is to personal life’. Today, irony is a way of avoiding serious self-examination by believing one is above such things, a form of superiority masquerading as modesty. It might be spotty, angst-filled adolescents who are most attracted to the young Kierkegaard, but it’s us, the supposed adults, who need the 200-year-old version more than ever.

Julian Baggini is a writer and founding editor of The Philosopher’s Magazine. His latest book is The Shrink and the Sage, co-authored with Antonia Macaro.




Supplemental-
 
Was Kierkegaard an evangelical? Parts 1-3