Korrektiv Summer Reading Klub: Stages on Life’s Way

Walker Percy said in an interview one time (if memory serves) that he liked the presentation of Kierkegaard’s three “stages” (the esthetic, the ethical, the religious) in Concluding Unscientfic Postscript better than in Stages itself. I did, too, but then I never did get around to actually reading the latter tome. Over the past fifteen years or so, it has continuously been in and out of my bedside pile of unread books. Every couple of months I carry that sad accumulated pile of unfulfilled readerly desires down to the basement to be redistributed among my shelves, and every few months, it seems, Stages makes its way back bedside. To be used as a doorstop, to be dropped on spiders, to be stood upon on tiptoe to change a lightbulb. But never to be read.

Until now.

Watch this space for my meager musings, join me in commentland, read along for fun.


  1. Anonymous says

    Count me in!

  2. Quin Finnegan says

    Me too! I’ve posted the following over at my QQ site, including this quotation from B16, found in ‘Salt of the Earth’:

    (Seewald) “Christianity was never so widespread around the world as it is today. But the salvation of the world doesn’t automatically go along with the expansion.”

    (Ratzinger) “In point of fact, the quantitative expansion of Christianity, which, after all, is measured by the number of professing Christians, doesn’t automatically imply the improvement of the world, because not all who call themselves Christians really are Christians. Christianity works only indirectly, through men, through their freedom, on the shaping of the world. It is not itself already the establishment of a new political and social system, which would banish calamity.”

    I think this quotation is instructive for a number of reasons. The first is that I think it fits in with Kierkegaard’s conception of one of the chief problems of ‘Christendom’, and the chief task of one who would profess himself a Christian in such a culture. And certainly the idea that “Christianity works only indirectly, through men, through their freedom” is an idea to which Kierkegaard would be sympathetic. Though not, I don’t think, in complete agreement. One of Ratzinger’s chief concerns is, of course, ‘Christianity’ but I think Kierkegaard would substitute the word – the actual person – ‘Christ’ in adapting the above quotation. I’m also reminded of Auden (himself a very careful reader of Kierkegaard) and his comment that nobody but Christ himself and perhaps the saints are really worthy of being called ‘Christians’. Come to think of it, I’m not sure how comfortable Kierkegaard would have been with ‘the salvation of the world’, so concerned was he with the salvation of ‘the individual’. And there, it seems to me, is the rub.

    A second reason is that I’ve always harbored the suspicion (which I can’t really support) that Kierkegaard was secretly, perhaps even unbeknownst to himself, working towards the Roman Catholic Church, based mainly on my understanding (admittedly pretty fuzzy) of his attitudes towards state-sponsored Christianity. I also wonder whether his problems vis-à-vis marriage aren’t somehow connected to a call to celibacy, to which of course the Roman Catholic Church has been such a steadfast witness. I think that others have suggested this is at least possible as well. I realize there are good reasons to doubt either of these assertions to be true, but perhaps it’s worth throwing out in just this sort of brainstorming session.

    Here’s a question for Kierkegaard scholars: what were Kierkegaard’s reflections (if any) on the doctrine of the Trinity? Or of Christ considered in light of Christological developments by theologians in the ancient church? Did he concern himself with contemporary views of Christological issues? I guess that’s several questions.

  3. Søren Kierkegaard says

    Luther–the Reformation (1855)

    Luther is the direct opposite of “the apostle.”

    “The apostle” expounds Christianity in the interests of God; he comes with authority from God and in his errand.

    Luther expounds Christianity in the interests of man, actually the reaction of the human side to the Christian side representing God’s interest. So that is why Luther’s formula is: “I cannot do otherwise,” which in no wise is that of an apostle.

    Just look at the confusion thus wrought by making Luther an apostle.

    Altogether, what Christianity has always lacked is a diagnostician for its ailments, and then a dialectician.

    [The Diary of Soren Kierkegaard, NY: Philosophical Library, 1960, p. 172]

  4. Søren Kierkegaard says

    Protestantism (1854)

    is completely untenable. It is a revolution brought about by proclaiming “the Apostle” (Paul) at the expense of the Master (Christ).

    As a corrective at a given time in given circumstances it may have had its importance.

    Otherwise, if Protestantism is to be maintained at all, it would have to be done like this: We admit that this teaching represents a mitigation of Christianity which we humans have permitted ourselves, and we must ask God if he is willing to accept it.

    But instead Protestantism is trumpeted about as an advance in Christianity! It is not; perhaps it is the most marked concession ever made to the Numerical, this Numerical which is Christianity’s hereditary enemy, which pretends to be Christian, but wants to eliminate or reduce ideality and is defiant by dint of its great numbers.

    [The Diary of Soren Kierkegaard, NY: Philosophical Library, 1960, p. 172]

  5. Søren Kierkegaard says

    The Retreat (1854)

    We are now about to make a withdrawal of a special kind.

    The problems must be taken back to the convent from which Luther broke away — that, I believe, will probably be the truth. That is not to say, however, that the Pope will triumph now, nor will it be papal gendarmes who will have to take the problem back to the convent.

    What was wrong with convents was not their ascetic aspect, celibacy, etc.; no, what was wrong was that they had been permitted to become lax about Christianity by letting the cloistered ones come to be regarded as extra-ordinary Christians — and purely secular rubbish as extra-ordinary Christianity.

    No, asceticism and everything pertaining to it is merely the beginning, the preliminary condition for being able to bear witness to the Truth.

    So Luther’s veering was wrong; it was not a question of slackening the Christian demands, but of tightening them.

    That is why I have always wondered whether God really was on the Lutheran side, for wherever God is present progress will be recognizable by mounting demands, by the cause becoming harder. On the other hand, the human way is always recognizable by matters being made easier; and that is called progress.

    So what was wrong in the Middle Ages were not convents and asceticism; what was wrong was that worldliness actually achieved supremacy when monks were made to parade as extra-ordinary Christians.

    No, first be an ascetic, which means gymnastics; then bear witness to the Truth, which quite simply means being a Christian — and good night, you millions, trillions and quadrillions.

    Luther should have veered that way, or he should have made it clear that by the turn he took the Christian claim was cut down even further owing to the prevailing, ever more rampant, wretchedness of the human race.

    [The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard, NY: Philosophical Library, 1960, p. 170-1]

  6. Jonathan Potter says

    Q’s comments reminded me of these passages from the journals, so I went and found them and posted them above. These entries from the last couple of years of SK’s life would seem to support the claim that his thoughts were leading him down a road that might have ended up in Rome.

    I wonder if it was SK’s emphasis on asceticism in the religious phase modeled in Stages on Life’s Way (not that I’ve read it yet) that might have turned off Percy somewhat. (Getting back to Percy’s statement that he preferred the Postscript’s treatment of the three stages or spheres.) Percy cited SK’s distinction between the apostle (with a message to deliver) and the genius (with insight into reality) as having greased his (Percy’s) slide into the Church. But where SK dwells so heavily (at least in these passages) on the ascetic quality of genuine Xianity, Percy (and the Church .. and Christ, come to think of it) meet us in the mundane confusion of our everyday circumstances. SK sees marriage as an examplar of the ethical sphere whereas the Church sees it as a sacrament and channel of sanctifying grace. I wonder how SK’s sense of “ideality” might have been knocked sideways by a real engagement with the magisterial writings of the Church. But now I’m wandering into areas where I don’t really know what I’m talking about

  7. Richard John Neuhaus says

    Catholic thinkers, when they have engaged him at all, have been ambivalent about Kierkegaard. This is not surprising, since he seems to be hyper-Protestant in his relentless individualism and antipathy to ecclesiastical authority, even if, in Denmark, it was to Protestant ecclesiastical authority. One Catholic who took Kierkegaard very seriously was Hans Urs von Balthasar, probably one of the two most influential Catholic theologians of the past century. (The other being Karol Wojtyla, later to be John Paul II, who also wrote insightfully about Kierkegaard.)


    Although it may seem surprising, some have entered the Catholic Church under the influence of Kierkegaard. After Kierkegaard succeeds in demolishing the false securities of every form of Christendom, one’s only resort is to a church that is unqualifiedly and without remainder the Church. In his 1963 study Kierkegaard as Theologian, the Catholic philosopher Louis Dupré argued that these converts to Catholicism misunderstood Kierkegaard. “He is a person who kept protesting, who could never accept a church which had become established, even if on the basis of protest itself. The Protestant principle has been abandoned as soon as it has developed itself to the point of becoming a church. [Kierkegaard] protested against everything, even against the protest itself. Therefore his attitude was not purely negative but [dialectically] made itself positive again.” It is very different for the Catholic, says Dupré, “for the Catholic Church cannot accept the dialectical principle except in her own bosom.” Kierkegaard could never be content with a dialectic operating within an ambiance of rest, with a dialectic that had found its home, and therefore, says Dupré, Kierkegaard’s own relation to Catholicism was always one of “an antipathetic sympathy and a sympathetic antipathy.” I am not convinced Dupré is right and therefore have greater sympathy for those who have found Catholicism on the far side of Kierkegaard. From long and hard wrestling with Kierkegaard, one may come to see the ways in which the Church is “Christ the contemporary,” but that is a reflection for another time.

  8. Jonathan Potter says

    Q: Regarding whether SK reflected on the theology of the Trinity or on christology — it seems to me that if he did reflect on these it was primarily in terms of paradox and the absurd and the radical leap required of the believer (as well as, possibly, on the other hand, the magnificence and grandeur of God).

    This passage from D. Anthony Storm may be instructive:

    “As evidence that Kierkegaard was not interested in speculative knowledge in religious matters, his favorite book of the New Testament appeared to be James. It has the weakest christology of any New Testament book, mentioning Christ only twice, yet it is the most practical of books, since it outlines the Christian walk. Moreover, The Letter of James contains that great passage on faith versus doublemindedness, which is the focus of “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing” …”


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