Home > Christianity, History, Philology > Kierkegaard on Faith and the Self: Collected Essays

Kierkegaard on Faith and the Self: Collected Essays

Baylor University Press (2006) | English | ISBN 193279235X | 404 pages | PDF

Kierkegaard on Faith and the Self represents a rich collection of studies that allow Soren Kierkegaard to speak directly to the questions of contemporary readers. Evans analyzes Kierkegaard as a philosopher, his perspectives on faith, reason, and epistemology, his ethics, and Kierkegaard’s view of the self. Evans makes a strong case that Kierkegaard has something crucial to say to the Christian church as a philosopher and something equally crucial to say to the philosophical world as a Christian believer.

There are almost as many ways of reading Kierkegaard as there are readers of Kierkegaard. Bursting onto the English-speaking intellectual world in the forties and fifties of the twentieth century like a long-delayed time bomb, Kierkegaard was first read as the “father of existentialism,” the inspirer of Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, and Unamuno. In the contemporary intellectual world, philosophers such as John Caputo and Merold Westphal see Kierkegaard as a proto-postmodernist. The “multivocity” that is displayed in the panoply of pseudonymous “characters” that Kierkegaard employed makes such a reading understandable. Another large group of Kierkegaard interpreters see him as linked to Wittgenstein. Some, such as James Conant, are enamored with the early Wittgenstein, and see a strong similarity between Wittgenstein’s distinction between what can be said and what can only be shown and Kierkegaard’s reflections on the limits of human thinking. Others, such as Robert Roberts, are more drawn to the later Wittgenstein, with his detailed attention to “language games” and attempts to discern the “deep grammar” embedded in our linguistic practices. They see a parallel with Kierkegaard’s attempts to distinguish carefully between the “grammar” of authentically Christian ways of talking about the ethical and the self and the forms of thought characteristic of paganism and “Christendom,” that confused form of paganism.

All of these ways of reading Kierkegaard have led to illuminating discoveries. Perhaps it is one sign of the greatness of Kierkegaard that he seems to have something to say to almost everyone. Secular existentialists and postmodernists, neo-orthodox or dialectical Christian theologians, Catholics and Anabaptists—all have found Kierkegaard to be a “spiritual brother.” Without in any way denying or minimizing Kierkegaard’s genius, which continues to produce amazement and awe in me after reading him for forty years, I am convinced that the heart of Kierkegaard’s thought lies in the “mere Christianity” that lay so close to his own heart. Kierkegaard himself found it ironical that he should be the object of interest because of his aesthetic and philosophical brilliance, when in reality this aesthetic brilliance was merely an appearance in which “the religious author hid himself”.

Kierkegaard saw himself as one who was “duty-bound to the service of Christianity” and whose task as an author was to “set forth this simple issue: to become a Christian” (PV 93–94). What he really wanted to communicate was “the old, well-known text, handed down by the fathers”.

Part of Kierkegaard’s genius is his ability to see and dramatize the power and relevance of ancient ways of thinking. Some of his inspiration surely came from the Greeks, particularly the figure of Socrates, but anyone who notices the massively Biblical content of his writings will recognize that the Christianity he learned from his father was by far the preeminent influence. If this is correct, then the vitality of Kierkegaard’s thought is testimony to the power still present in the Christian message.

The second message, directed primarily at the secular world, concerns the causes for the post-Enlightenment decline of Christian faith. As Kierkegaard saw things, the common diagnoses of this decline are wrong- headed. Christian belief has not declined because people have become more rational or more scientific, or because philosophers such as Hume and Kant attacked the philosophical arguments for theism. If faith has ebbed, it is not because people are generally more enlightened, but because they have become more impoverished in their grasp of what human life is about and why it should be lived. Rather than seeing contemporary Europeans as intellectual giants in relation to their forebears, Kierkegaard saw them as people who were imaginative midgets, lacking the capacity for the deep “passions” that make human life worth living.

These are important messages indeed, and in my own work on Kierkegaard I have seen it as my primary task to help my readers hear Kierkegaard speak to them directly. One might think that such work on my part, however humble, would be superfluous. After all, Kierkegaard has been translated, and in the case of many of his books, more than once. However, I believe that for some Kierkegaard’s voice has not been heard clearly, primarily because of deeply rooted traditions of misinterpretation. These readers of Kierkegaard do not really understand him because they approach the text with the illusion that they already understand him. This is true for both secular and religious readers.

A classic example of this kind of misreading is found in the work of theologian and Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer. However, before criticizing Schaeffer’s reading of Kierkegaard, I first want to express a word of appreciation. I myself heard Schaeffer give several series of lectures during my years as an undergraduate, the contents of which later appeared as Escape from Reason and The God Who Is There.4 Those lectures were electrifying.

Like many young Christian intellectuals of my era, I was excited by Schaeffer’s attempt to understand the crisis of Western civilization as spiritually rooted. Having grown up in a family of modest intellectual ambitions, it was transfixing to see a Christian mind engaged with philosophy, art, science, and culture at large. I am sure that I owe to Schaeffer some of my own interests in doing philosophy as a Christian.

Ironically, however, the Christian philosopher who has come to mean the most to me was portrayed by Schaeffer as one of the villains in his grand story of how Western culture turned away from orthodox Christian belief.

As Schaeffer told the story, Western culture bifurcated faith from reason, leaving reason to go its autonomous way. In moving away from a Christian worldview, reason gradually moved towards a mechanistic perspective that left no room for meaningful and purposeful human existence. Unable to live in such a mechanistic, meaningless world, modern humans have themselves embraced the irrational, with a bifurcated worldview. Symbolizing this bifurcation with a horizontal “line of despair,” Schaeffer claimed that below this line modern humans embrace a scientistic, mechanistic world that offers no moral values and no reason for living. Above the line, in the “upper story,” modern humans have embraced a variety of spiritual options, such as “new age” religion and Western versions of Eastern religions. These upper-story commitments have no rational backing; they are grounded in an irrational leap of faith, motivated by the need for meaning and the inability to accept a mechanistic world.

For Schaeffer, Søren Kierkegaard was the first thinker to recognize the bankruptcy of the mechanistic worldview and posit “the leap of faith.” It is true that Kierkegaard’s leap was to Christian faith and not some new age substitute, and Schaeffer recognized Kierkegaard’s Christianity and even praised some of Kierkegaard’s devotional writings. However, as Schaeffer saw things, Kierkegaard tried to ground Christianity in an irrational leap of faith; he was the author of the bifurcated universe that has become the home of the modern intellectual.

As a result of Schaeffer’s treatment of Kierkegaard, several generations of evangelical Christians have been taught that Kierkegaard is part of the problem rather than the solution. In teaching these students, at institutions such as Wheaton College and Calvin College, I have had to first help them unlearn what they “knew” about Kierkegaard. When I get these students to read Kierkegaard with fresh eyes, they invariably see that Schaeffer’s reading of Kierkegaard is flawed. The irony is that at certain points Kierkegaard’s reading of the history of Western culture parallels Schaeffer’s own view. Certainly, a serious encounter with Kierkegaard could have deepened Schaeffer’s understanding, both of the problems and the cure.

It would be a mistake to lay too much blame at Schaeffer’s feet, however. In many ways Schaeffer simply reflects the popular view of Kierkegaard, one that is derived largely from Albert Camus, and which I am confident Schaeffer encountered in the young intellectuals influenced by existentialism from Europe and American who showed up at L’Abri (Schaeffer’s intellectual mission) in Switzerland in the 1950s and 1960s. As Camus tells the tale, Kierkegaard was the first to recognize the absurdity of human existence, the incongruity between human beings who demand meaning and purpose and a world that offers none.5 Camus accuses Kierkegaard of embracing “the leap” because of an inability to face this absurd universe. Camus himself wants to live life “without appeal,” courageously recognizing the absurdity of existence, but continuing stubbornly to struggle and revolt, like his absurd hero Sisyphus, endlessly pushing his rock up the mountain only to see it return to the bottom after every struggle to reach the heights.

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