Do you think it’s important to walk the talk? Are you wary of mob rule? Do you think there’s a difference between authentic and nominal Christianity? Have you ever taken a leap of faith?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’ve been affected by 19th-century Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard: part theologian, part poet, part performance artist and all-round rabble-rouser.
Søren (SOO-ren) Kierkegaard’s (KEER-ka-gor) stated aim was to “reintroduce Christianity into Christendom”. Along the way, this deeply Christ-centred endeavour changed the way philosophers think about time and identity; how politicians, authors and artists talk about the importance of the individual; and how theologians talk about the difference between God and everything else.
Søren was born on the 5th May 1813, in Copenhagen. His father, Michael, was a successful wool merchant from peasant stock. His mother, Anne, was a kindly fusspot, probably illiterate and Michael’s former maid.
Søren had six siblings. By 1834, five of them were dead, as was his mother.
Søren described his upbringing as “crazy”. Michael was a stern pietist; constantly aware of sin. He saw the deaths of his children as evidence of divine wrath and was convinced that Søren and Peter would also be taken. Michael prized learning, reading and, above all, disputing. The result was a religious, gloomy and querulous family.
As a young man, Søren rebelled against his pious father and argumentative brother, spending more time and money on cigars and clothes than on the theology he was supposed to be studying at university. Publicly, he appeared to be a frivolous dandy. Yet privately, Søren was desperately searching for meaning.
In 1837, Søren met Regine Olsen at a garden party. She was intelligent and beautiful. He was sensitive and witty. They soon got engaged. Almost immediately, Søren began to regret
the decision. Not because there was anything wrong with Regine; far from it! Instead, Søren felt that his oppressive family was no place for someone like her. What’s more, Søren suspected that his life’s vocation was leading him away from the social respectability that came with marriage. Marrying him would be a curse rather than a blessing, he felt.
In an effort to end the engagement without breaking Regine’s heart, Søren decided that she needed to willingly end the relationship with him. He feigned cool indifference and cultivated the impression that he was a scoundrel. We know from his memoirs that he thought his scheme had worked. We know from hers that it had not.
In His Own Words
“What matters is to find my purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth that is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.”
“The public is all and nothing, the most dangerous of all powers and the most meaningless.”
“Although an outsider, I have at least understood this much, that the only unforgivable high treason against Christianity is the single individual’s taking his relation to it for granted.”
“So let there be light on this matter, let it become clear to people what the New Testament understands by being a Christian, so that everyone can choose whether he wants to be a Christian or whether he honestly, plainly, forthrightly does not want to be that.”
“If you cannot bear contemporaneity…then you are not essentially Christian."
“The invitation stands at the crossroad…come here, you are so close to [Christ]; one single step onto the other way and you are so infinitely far away from him...Oh, turn around and come here, here is rest!”
In the end, Regine eventually allowed Søren to have his way and returned his engagement ring. She never stopped loving him, however, and spoke highly of him to the end of her days. For his part, Søren had the ring's jewels refashioned into the shape of a cross and wore it on a chain around his neck until he died.
Søren knew full well that renouncing Regine was also a rejection of middle-class Danish Christendom. Along with shunning the life of a respectable family man, Søren gave up his expected career as a priest in the established Lutheran Church. Søren understood that a life that took Christianity seriously was a life that would inevitably be brought into a collision course with the common expectations of one’s culture. Even if – especially if – that culture already thought of itself as “Christian”.
For Søren, Christendom meant more than just an established national Church. Christendom also describes the cultural situation where Christianity has become commonplace. Christendom happens when the majority of the population think they are Christian because they are part of a certain ethnic group or civilisation. The result is that Christianity becomes equated not with the quality of someone’s faith and relationship with Jesus Christ, but instead with the quantity of people who belong to a cultural group. In such a context, Søren observed, people assume that becoming a Christian is as easy as being born and, in so doing, do away with Christianity altogether. Because of this, Soren thought someone needed to make becoming a Christian more difficult.
CHRISTIANITY IS NOT ABOUT KNOCKDOWN ARGUMENTS
THE LEAP OF FAITH
Over a period of 16 years, Søren wrote thousands of pages of journals and articles, and more than 25 books, many of which were dedicated to “the Single Individual”, his code name for Regine. For the most part, he is not an easy read. He didn’t want to be. Like a commentator on the internet who writes under more than one on-screen identity, Søren devised a complex network of pseudonyms.
Reading Kierkegaard is like listening to many voices in a play and figuring out which ones are on to something and which ones are spouting rubbish. The pseudonyms represent different types of characters found in Christendom and they do not always agree with each other. Most of the pseudonyms do not claim to be Christian, but they are all interested in what Christianity actually is. Søren and his characters insist that Christianity is not something that can be handed to someone whole, like a waiter lifting the lid off a serving dish. No! Christianity is not about knockdown arguments, persuasive rhetoric or common sense morality. And it is certainly not about following a denomination or popular leader en masse.
It is from Søren’s English translators that “the leap of faith” concept entered the popular imagination. Søren never used this actual phrase, and he would have been appalled to think that most people think of the leap as a jump into the dark, away from reason. Instead, for Søren and his most Christian pseudonyms, the leap is existential; that is, it has to do with how individuals exist. It is a jump in time; a hurdle over the barriers and baggage of historical, cultural Christendom. Only when an individual lives in the present before Christ can they be said to be in the place where faith in Christ might occur. Without the leap, people only have faith in a crowd, church or country.
Søren enjoyed some success in his lifetime, but his positive reception was overshadowed by the primarily negative response. A popular magazine called The Corsair (a 19th-century Danish version of Heat) waged a campaign against him, printing satires and cruel caricatures that ensured the name of Kierkegaard was a laughing stock among the very people he was trying to reach. Playwrights named their idiot characters ‘Søren’. Nannies counselled their children not to dress like him. Unsurprisingly, the established Danish Lutheran Church did not take kindly to being told they had betrayed Christianity and the bishops treated Søren with stony silence.
The final straw came when, at the Bishop of Denmark’s funeral, the genial old duffer was lauded alongside the martyrs as a true witness to the faith. Kierkegaard published a stinging rejoinder in a newspaper, pointing out that the bishop had never suffered for his version of civilised, anaemic Christianity. The piece caused widespread offence
and launched what has come to be known as Kierkegaard’s “Attack upon Christendom”. For months he continued to publish letters and articles, eschewing pseudonymity in favour of funny, angry and scathingly honest lines all attributed to ‘S Kierkegaard’.
Never a man of robust health, Søren collapsed on the street and was admitted to hospital. He died on 11th November 1855, at the age of 42. It wasn’t until many decades later that his words started to trickle into the outside world. Theologians such as Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer found in Kierkegaard a way to answer the Christianised nationalism of Germany under the Nazis. Similarly, Martin Luther King, Jr credited Kierkegaard as an inspiration in his struggle against the American form of Christian nationalism. Writers as diverse as Henrick Ibsen, Flannery O’Connor and Dorothy L Sayers recognised a fellow outsider concerned with authentic identity. Even Arcade Fire’s latest album, Reflektor, was named after Kierkegaard’s critique of an age prone to reflective narcissism. A lot of this impact is due to Charles Williams, a friend of CS Lewis and fellow Inkling who, while working for Oxford University Press, oversaw the translation and dissemination of Kierkegaard's work. He correctly predicted that Kierkegaard’s sayings “will be so moderated in our minds that they will soon become not his sayings but ours”.
STEPHEN BACKHOUSE is a lecturer in social and political theology at St Mellitus College, London. His new biography, Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Zondervan), is out now