"Dont be a Soren!", Danish parents admonish their children to this day, "Soren" being
synonymous with a ridiculousness so pronounced as to be both laughable and contemptible.
Nevertheless my friend and former philosophy professor, Emil Fackenheim, himself a
world-renowned thinker, casually mentioned to me that Kierkegaard is the greatest thinker
to arise in Christendom.
Really? What about giants like Augustine, Aquinas, Luther? While
I pondered Fackenheims remark I found Ludwig Wittgenstein, a leading philosopher in
our century, saying the same thing: no Christian thinker has surpassed the physically
grotesque man with the inimitable mind.
Soren Kierkegaard was the youngest of seven children born to
Michael and Ane, the illiterate household servant he impregnated and subsequently married.
Five of their children wouldnt live past 34, leaving Peter, the eldest son, and
their "Benjamin". (Soren spoke agonisingly of himself as his fathers
"Isaac.") Years later, while Peter supported himself as a clergyman,
Sorens ten years at the University of Copenhagen and his work as an author at
one point he produced fourteen books in two years would be funded out of the
residues of his fathers business career as cloth merchant, hosier and wholesale
While Soren excelled in Latin, Greek, history, mathematics and
science, his mastery of philosophy was stunning. With laser-like penetration he saw that
the philosophers metaphysical systems were just that: systems in thinking;
or, as he preferred to speak of them, protracted "thought-experiments." While
admiring the logic whereby philosophers integrated and advanced their comprehension of
every facet of human history and every dimension of human understanding, he insisted that
all such systems confused the realm of thought with the realm of existence. Glad to
acknowledge that scholarly objectivity requires personal detachment, he none the less
insisted that ultimate Truth calls for radical commitment. Truth is to be embraced
in impassioned "inwardness." His "Truth is subjectivity" soon had the
intellectual and ecclesiastical worlds buzzing.
Of course Kierkegaard never meant that truth is subjectivism.
Subjectivism is nothing more than fantasy or self-indulgence, even the silly notion that
our preferences or pleasures constitute reality. Reality, rather, is the God who looms
before us yet rises above us in an "infinite qualitative difference." Quite
simply, Kierkegaard knew that existence could never be reduced to thought. The more he
read Hegel, Europes leading philosopher, the more convinced he was that being
schooled in a philosophical system was "like reading out of a cookbook to a man who
Kierkegaard disagreed most vehemently with Hegels notion
that Christianity was merely a pictorial representation in concrete, colourful images of a
truth that the philosopher could apprehend by means of rising to the standpoint of the
Absolute through pure thought. Kierkegaard disagreed that from this exalted perspective
the philosopher could grasp that "God" and man had been brought together in a
higher unity, and therein grasp that "God" was nothing more than the essence of
humankind. He rejected the notion that religious consciousness was to philosophical
consciousness as illustrations are to argument. Sadly, he understood why other
philosophers were soon saying that "God" was no more than humankinds
self-projection now hugely inflated, that theology had been exposed as anthropology.
Kierkegaard knew better. The living, lordly, holy One is.
The "infinite qualitative difference" between him and us can never be eliminated
through thought. Since no "thought-experiment" can ascend to him, he must
descend to us. This he has done in the Incarnate One. And this one can be known only in
faith, with all the risks that attend upon faith "lying out upon 70,000
fathoms of water." The self-abandoned self "leapt" in faith to embrace
God-Incarnate, and therein learned that "being a Christian" wasnt the
indifferent shallowness of the state church wherein, said Kierkegaard, "Everyone is a
Christian. What else?" To become a Christian is properly to exist. To exist,
his Greek studies reminded him, is ex-stare, to stand out: stand out from the
crowd, stand out from public opinion, stand out from the Spirit-less religion of soulless
conformity. So far from the disinterest of "thought-experimenters", Kierkegaard
espoused the "interest" of faith. Inter-est, his Latin studies reminded
him, is to be "between." Its in the "between" of God and us;
its in the relationship that Truth, embraced in impassioned inwardness, is held in
Not surprisingly, his philosophical perception and his spiritual
profundity issued in a stinging denunciation of a lumbering churchs
"Christianity." At the same time his honesty, forthrightness, and love for
simple people (he was always in the streets conversing with common folk) found him writing
newspaper articles that exposed the cruelty and compromises of the socially prominent.
These people retaliated, pillorying Kierkegaard in the press. Thereafter when he went to
church, louts stared at him endlessly, hoping their icy aggression would unnerve him. When
he went on carriage drives in the country (the one relaxation he permitted himself), hired
toughs threatened him. Cartoonists caricatured him, jeering at his clothing and mocking
his bodily deformities. "No one dares to say I", he noted as
so-called individuals hid in the crowd and weakly intoned en masse what they would
never dare to say alone. His society was afflicted with a sort of
"ventriloquism", he liked to say, wherein the individual was merely the
mouthpiece for the mob. "And this", he insisted, "is the specific
immorality of the age."
The day he was walking home with the last of the money his father
had willed him he collapsed in the street and was carried, paralysed, to the hospital. He
died five weeks later. The common people who thronged his funeral were restive to the
point of a near-riot. The clergy, however, absented themselves except for the dean of the
cathedral and Peter, his brother, now a bishop, who publicly "apologised" for
little Sorens "excesses."
The man who addressed his work to "that solitary
individual", the person who resists the crowd, flings himself upon the crucified,
risks all as did Abraham of old ascending Mount Moriah, lives thereafter in the
"between", and appropriates Truth in ever-greater subjectivity; this one had
said of himself years earlier, "I shall never know the security of being like
others." His place is secure in the hearts of those who cherish his intellect and
spirit. Above all, he himself is secure in the grasp of him from whose hand nothing will
ever snatch him. (John 10:29)
Victor Shepherd June 1999