Friday Mailbag: Kierkegaard in a Nutshell

The following message from a high school teacher lapsed Lutheran friend of mine landed in my inbox this morning:

Hey! I have a question for you. In my senior English class we got on a tangent about nihilism, existentialism, and other happy thoughts, and I mentioned that some Christian theologians were influenced by and responded to these intellectual movements. However, I skipped Big K and others, and I was wondering if you could give me some insight into the nature of their thought.

In other words, I’m too damn lazy to go to the library and actually read him . . .

Well. I’ve read a fair amount of Kierkegaard, so I could try. Other relevant figures (I know a lot less about) are Gabriel Marcel, Karl Jaspers, Heidegger, Buber. I think they were all more or less theists. Marcel was a Catholic convert, Buber was a Zionist of sorts, Heidegger was a Nazi, unfortunately, and I guess it’s debatable whether his concept of Being is of a piece with theism.

Kierkegaard is the big one, obviously, and could kick everyone’s ass from here to eternity, in my opinion. He was also a pretty cagey writer and a hard one to pin down, writing under multiple pseudonyms and points of view that were not precisely his own. He considered these his “aesthetic” works and they were often published in conjunction with shorter works (under his own name) of a more straightforward theological or edifying nature. Part of the impetus behind the aesthetic works was his notion of indirect communication as a way of seducing the reader forward towards the ethical and the religious spheres. The three spheres–aesthetic, ethical and religious–form a basic structure in his work, with the faith of the individual in a direct one-on-one connection with God (the leap of faith) being the highest, most severe, thorniest, and ultimate sphere of existence–characterized chiefly by suffering but also perhaps (simultaneously? paradoxically?) losing and gaining everything. He was pissed at Hegel for putting the intellect and the ethical above faith (and so misplacing faith in the realm of the aesthetic, i.e. a school girl sort of innocence, which is not the stunning piercing thing that is real faith); and he was pissed at “Christendom” for misplacing faith by taming it and making of it a sort of socially acceptable Rotary Club mockery of true faith. So he aimed some pretty sharp blows at Hegel and Christendom and in the process became the father of Existentialism–focusing on the individual existence. Hegel, said Kierkegaard, built a grand palace, his philosophical system, but there was no place for Hegel himself as a man to live and die there. He lived, as it were, in a shack outside the gates of his own system. Walker Percy, the 20th Century Catholic novelist (who was led to Catholicism via Kierkegaard) applied the same critique to the scientism of our own times. When science has explained everything, the individual human life, and how to get through a Wednesday afternoon, is left out. The scientist is a left-over from his own science. Ultimately, according to Kierkegaard, the individual cannot arrive at the truth that is of ultimate concern to him through intellect or logic or science but must make a subjective leap of faith. The act of leaping, of committing oneself in passion, is more important than the intellectual content of that faith. On the other hand, Kierkegaard believed that there was specific content delivered to humanity authoritatively via Christ primarily and the Apostles secondarily. He made this clear in an essay called, “On the Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle.” The genius knows all about the mechanics of the world, but the apostle has been given a message to deliver with authority that speaks to us in our existential predicament and could not have been figured out by logic or intellectual prowess or science. This view of authority vs. intellect is a side-note for K, but an important one, and it accounts for why some have been led to Catholicism by K. The protestant theologian Karl Barth (also hugely influenced by K) thought K would have become a Catholic had he lived longer.

That’s a mess of a paragraph, sorry. Let me know if that sorts anything out for you. Like I said, K is hard to pin down, impossible to summarize, really. If you want to read a primary text that’s not too daunting and gives you a good flavor of the whole range of Kierkegaard’s writings, Fear and Trembling is a good one to grab. Don’t let the title put you off. It is a beautiful little book, and fairly accessible. If you’re more ambitious, The Concluding Unscientific Postscript would be the next one to grab. Go for it! Summer reading!

Here’s a pretty good intro that expands on some of what I’ve touched on here: Kierkegaard for Grownups.

Good luck to you and your students. I’ll pray for you.


  1. Thanks very much for that. I remember reading about Kierkegaard years ago and reading Walker Percy too during my Christian-ish phase. But when I started teaching politics, I lost the interest in Christianity and the time to read, and what I had read was displaced in my poor brain by other stuff.

    Hegel is a very exciting writer, though, from the very little I know about him. And I think he placed himself inside his philosophy in the sense that history had come to an end with him and his ideas! Also, Kierkegaard shouldn’t be credited with with having started the attack on rationalism, which can be traced back to Burke, and all those late eighteenth and early nineteenth century thinkers whose names I usually can’t remember, but didn’t Fichte come before Kierkegaard, and what about Schopenhauer – but I get very tangled up in the reason-innate ideas-empiricism and reason-will-faith distinctions!

Speak Your Mind