I Dare Not Call Myself a Christian

by Willy Sydenstricker

EARLY LIFE

Søren Kierkegaard 1813-1855. From the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library.

Søren Kierkegaard is one of the most influential theologians of recent memory. By many contemporary academics, he is considered only a philosopher, but he considered himself a theologian. This was, what he saw as, his sole purpose. He has largely shaped the way theologians think today, influencing great minds like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth. He saw himself as someone who wrote in the “service of Christianity”[1]. In this article, I will introduce the reader to the complex life of Søren Kierkegaard and how that resulted in his Theology and attacks on Christendom.

Søren Kierkegaard (S.K.) grew up in Copenhagen in quite the wealthy family, however this did not mean that his life was by any means privileged or without struggle. His relationships with his family were difficult, particularly the one with his father, Michael. His father was hugely influential in his life. Michael Kierkegaard grew up poor, but he worked to become a successful business man in Copenhagen and soon became “one of the wealthiest men in”[2] the city. However, throughout all of S.K.’s life, his father struggled with depression. He was barely into his first marriage when his wife died without the couple yet having children[3]. Not only this, but five out of seven of Michael’s children died early in their lives, as they were sickly from birth[4]. This left only S.K., the youngest, and his eldest brother Peter.

Michael one day early in his life cursed God and was convinced that this was the reason that all these terrible things were happening to him. He felt guilty from this curse, and all that had gone wrong in his life and in turn was very strict and stern. For example, once early in Søren’s life he knocked salt over to which his father “flew into a violent passion, apostrophizing him as a ‘prodigal son’”[5]. Søren remarks that he was “inclined to melancholy, given to irony, [he] recognized that in suffering [he] had been an old man at the age of eight”[6]. This grim environment conditioned Søren into a cynical and witty young boy.

S.K. was mocked in his classes because of his obvious differences from the other boys. He wore the same sorts of clothes which eventually resulted in him being nicknamed “Søren Sock”[7]. It was not just his familial environment that pushed him to be witty and to learn to be mentally tough, but also the classroom. S.K. himself recounts that even when he was just a boy he was aware of his “power of wit and knew that it was [his] strength in conflict with far stronger comrades”[8]. He was an intelligent boy and his father was constantly teaching him, what his father saw as, the most important parts of Christianity. S.K. remarks that he “owe(s) everything to my father. In every way he has made me as unhappy as possible, made my youth incomparable anguish, made me inwardly almost scandalized by Christianity”[9]. Soren was negatively influenced by his father. His father forced him to learn all of these Christian concepts, but he disdained this sort of education because he felt that “Christianity cannot be poured into a child”[10]. Still, his father and him remained close. So close in fact, that S.K. “believed quite literally that his father’s sins had been transmitted to him as well”[11].

Søren Kierkegaard, 1813-1855.The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library.

Nonetheless, S.K. grew up to go to University and study Theology in Copenhagen. He was undoubtedly strongly influenced by his father to do so, and it was thought that eventually he would develop into a priest for the Lutheran Church[12]. This was not the most desirable course for S.K., but because he could not think of an alternative route, he proceeded towards priesthood. It was then in University that his cynical nature began to really develop, and he began to question whether theologians had “done more harm than good to understanding of the New Testament”[13]. He began to question what Christianity actually was, in University, as well as what it means for a person to be Christian. He is famously quoted for saying:

“What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not what I must know, except in the way knowledge must precede all action…of seeing what the Deity really wants me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die”[14].

This exemplifies S.K.’s desire to not just know things, but to act on those internal ideas. It was not enough in his opinion, to simply know, “One must act”[15]. He thought the church should be full of people who were willing to act on their beliefs, instead of simply verbally affirming ideas. It was at this stage of his life that his “critique of Official Christianity and of its proclamation was still germinating”[16]. But then, his life would shift once more with a newfound love, and eventual heartbreak.

ADULT LIFE

On May 8, 1837, Søren Kierkegaard met Regine Olsen, a girl who would go onto have a profound effect on his life. Olsen was 14 at the time of their meeting, while S.K. was already 24. Regine was his “first love”[17], and S.K. has often been characterized as “obsessed”[18] with her, however recent scholarship has raised some skepticism to this. The “evidence for that claim (that he was obsessed) is slim” only “consisting in two journal entries” in which a vague description was given of someone that may not have even been Regine[19]. Even so, in a journal entry later on, he names Regine and states how his affections had developed[20].

Three years later, S.K. asked for her hand in marriage and proposed to her[21]. The next day though, he realized that he had been mistaken. He strongly desired her hand in marriage, however he had an epiphany about his own self. He was terrified at the idea of marriage because he felt “that marriage demanded absolute candor”[22]. Honesty that he was not sure he was capable of producing. S.K. at the time was struggling with severe depression, and he was concerned about these perceived faults that he had[23]. This depression is believed to have ultimately come from his learned behavior of his father[24].

He feared that if he were to marry her that he would have to burden her with his own depression, and he did not want her to be “initiated into [those] terrible things”[25] that he was dealing with. It was for these reasons that S.K. reluctantly broke off the short engagement, and in doing so, broke his own heart. It is said that in this moment, “Kierkegaard suddenly became aware of his sins and their implications for his life”[26]. He did not only think that he should break the engagement off because of his own faults, but also because of a call from God. He says “the decisively religious life…cannot be combined with marriage”[27]. While this is not a widely held belief today, S.K. felt very strongly that this was his calling, and that he could not serve both God and a wife.

Regine did not take well to the break in the relationship and fought to be with S.K. But S.K., to help her move on, tried to make himself out to be a bad man in Copenhagen. However, Regine didn’t take the bait[28]. Even though the relationship had ended, S.K. still “loved Regine deeply”[29] and was haunted by their broken relationship until the end of his life.

AUTHORSHIP

This was the time in his life that he was finally able to focus solely on writing. A series of events resulted in S.K. being able to use all his time to write. The first being the unfortunate death of his father. His father died in 1838 when he was 81 years old, but with this death S.K. was also given a “gift”[30]. This gift was S.K.’s inheritance, which enabled S.K. to devote his time to writing without having to look for any supplemental income[31]. He thought of his writings as a way to honor his father. This, in combination with the break of the engagement with Regine, allowed him to put all of himself into his work, and he did. In those three years he “truly became an author”[32] and had the most productive years of his career.

Kierkegaard then devoted a year to be in the “intellectual capital of Europe”[33], Berlin, so that he could write uninterrupted and take time to study. In just a few months, in 1843, S.K. published his first major work titled, Either/Or. It was published anonymously, under a pseudonym. No one guessed that it was him who wrote this until he admitted to it in 1846 in the Postscript[34].

S.K. wrote many of his early texts under pseudonyms. The reasoning behind this is thought to be influenced largely by his “sin and penitential nature”[35]. He struggled with the idea that people might see him as an example if he used his actual name. He saw his job as helping people see the ideal Christian life, “while recognizing its absence in both his own sinful life and that of the world”[36]. He was not just afraid of being misrepresented by using his name, he also thought there was value in people being forced to grapple with ideas that are not from a well-known writer. He thought people might take ideas more seriously if they did not come with the preconceived notions one might have of a particular author.

S.K. goes so far as to say that when someone reads a book from a pseudonym “that he will do me the kindness of citing the respective pseudonymous author’s name, not mine”[37]. He desires for the reader to “play along”[38] with the ideas of each respective pseudonym in order for the reader to get the most out of each text. He argues that through deception of author, “the strategy is to allow deluded readers to discover for themselves…that their lives express something utterly at odds with the authentic Christian faith”[39]. Some may consider this method unethical because he is not being forthcoming with the identity of who actually wrote this, however, S.K. defends himself by saying he “is not a deceiving person our of the truth but ‘into the truth’”[40]. Throughout all of his authorship though, S.K. never intended to make himself the “ideal”[41] person, he saw himself as more of a message-bearer, rather than an example to follow.

In Either/Or, written under the pseudonym ‘Victor Emirita’, he attempted to clarify what “Christianity involves”[42]. It is this book that initiated S.K.’s pseudonymous authorship, and it marks the beginning of his texts that seek to “make men aware of the essentially Christian”[43]. The book was wildly successful in Denmark because it “puzzled and amazed its readers…no book even remotely like it had ever appeared before”[44]. In this first book of his, he was attempting to reveal what Christianity actually is, but it was more subtle. He was also simultaneously writing overtly Christian texts, which he called “Discourses”[45], of which there are several. He wanted to be sure that people would know that he had been a deeply Christian writer since the beginning of his career. The discourses had to do with the idea that people were living these lives that were at utter odds with the ‘Christian life’[46].

LATER LIFE

Denmark at this time was fully immersed in Christendom and S.K. hated that. He hated the idea that people could become so caught up in cultural Christianity that they might forget, or not even know, what it is they are following. This was just the beginning of the main part of his authorship in which he tried to redirect the Danish church to something that is actually resembling of what he thought real Christianity was.

Before his infamous attack on Christendom is examined though, there was an event that had a tremendous affect on the life of S.K.: The Corsair Affair. The Corsair was a “comic paper”[47] that reached a large population in Denmark, there goal was mainly to “destroy the reputations of Copenhagen citizens of note”[48]. This is where S.K.’s childhood wit comes back into play. There was a scathing review was written about one of his works, so he naturally fired back under one of his pseudonyms. He “published a response designed not only to protest this malicious practice but also to expose a person secretly involved in the whole enterprise”[49]. Then the malicious magazine proceeded to have a “sustained attack that went beyond the boundary of criticism”[50] in which they attacked his “physical appearance, the uneven length of his trousers, his supposed arrogance and many other things…in texts and in cartoons”[51].

Before this event in his life, S.K. was able to walk the streets freely, and able to sustain long conversations with everyday people. But then after these attacks from The Corsair, “it became literally impossible for him to walk around Copenhagen…without jeering onlookers”[52]. This was an intensely difficult time for S.K., it was then that he “gave up the idea of being a country pastor, and decided that he must…continue his activity as a writer in Copenhagen”[53]. He had lost a sense of purpose in life and he did not know what he might do other than writing. This event tore him to pieces because he saw being a priest as a way to honor his father, but that was now stripped from him.

This event was not all negative though, it did produce good things in S.K.’s life eventually. The affair helped him “discover ‘a whole side of Christianity’ not previously recognized”[54]. After this event, he “became exclusively a religious author”[55]. It was then, in 1848, that he felt he must “end suddenly, devastatingly, and in a profound directness towards this ungrateful and corrupt society”[56]. A society that was grossly misinformed about what Christianity was. And a church that was far too intermixed with the Danish government at the time. After this realization that he would not become a pastor in the country, he wrote directly, under his actual name without any pseudonym.

During this transitional time for S.K., Denmark was also undergoing immense change politically. The Government changed from an absolute monarchy, to “a constitutional, parliamentary monarchy in the state of Denmark”[57]. Some relevant changes that happened in this time for S.K. was the shift of the Danish Lutheran Church from the Church of the State, to simply a Church “supported by the state”[58]. This did not radically change much in the way the church operated, it was simply an act of publicity, rather than one that actually made difference. It was this minor change though that triggered S.K. to regard 1848 as a time that was a “’crucial age’ in which ‘history was about to take a turn’ towards the religious”[59]. This was when S.K. really began to rail against the church, not out of animosity, but out of love.

S.K. saw himself as a man who was tasked with “turning the hearts of people towards its (Christianity’s) message”[60]. He saw his job as someone who must fight against Christendom and “reveal Christianity’s total absence from society”[61]. Sometimes it is believed that S.K.’s theology is illegitimate because he is a “falsifier of history”[62], and because he so harshly critiques the church, he is an enemy of it. However, this could not be further from the truth. The Danish Church at the time, according to S.K., “made authentic Christian life difficult and even impossible”[63]. To S.K., the Danish church was its own worst enemy, he believed that suffering was essential to the Christian life, and the Danish church was doing everything they could to maintain their “worldly comforts”[64]. From his point of view, he was doing everything he could to revive the church from the sickly condition that it was in. He was not attacking something that was good, but rather dismantling bad habits that had developed[65].

He argued that the church did not make any difference in anyone’s life. He famously says that “the intention of Christianity was: to change everything”[66], but it didn’t. He detested the idea that people could somehow be born into Christianity, and that it might cost them nothing to be a part of the faith. Above anything else, S.K. believed that “one should live and die for ‘the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord’”[67]. A fundamental aspect of someone coming to believe in Christ for S.K. though was recognition of one’s own fallenness. Part of faith is realizing that we do have a need for that faith, it is not just something that might be enjoyable, no, it is absolutely necessary[68]. But this belief must change a person, because if it does not, then it is not actual belief. Someone does not have good works in order for them to be saved, but rather those good works are an outward display of one’s internal salvation[69]. However, all of these attempts by S.K. to change the church were ignored by the local church leaders, they did not acknowledge that anything was wrong[70].

These attacks on Christendom were not in full effect until Bishop Mynster, who was the priest of S.K.’s father Michael, died in 1854. It was then that his attacks on Christendom took a more “embittered style”[71]. He wished to remain more reserved in his beliefs and opinions on the church while Mynster was alive out of respect for the important Mynster held in his family. Nonetheless, when the time came for Søren Kierkegaard to speak what he felt to be true he spoke in very definite terms, with his thesis being: “’Christianity no longer exists’”[72]. S.K. said this with the knowledge of someone who had seen “the very inside of Christianity”[73]. His punches were even more potent because of this reality. He even says in one of his articles written in this year, that he “dare not call myself a Christian”[74] because of how meaningless the word had become.

CONCLUSION

During these final attacks on Christendom S.K. had reached the end of his life. He was having difficulty walking and on October 2nd, 1855 he was admitted to the hospital where he would die 40 days later[75]. S.K.’s life was full of turmoil that produced one of the greatest theologians of recent memory, someone who fearlessly opposed the “cheapened gospel message”[76]. It is unclear exactly what S.K. thought the church should do exactly, but we can be sure it starts with some sort of action that takes place in the now. He is known for wanting authenticity and for our focus to be “utterly immersed in reality”[77]. In one of his final articles titled, “What do I want?” S.K. simply states: “I want honesty”[78]. He argued that the church should engage with the doubts of its congregation and to not ignore the questions of the community in regard to what Christianity is[79]. We are afraid to reveal what Christianity honestly is, out of fear that people might turn away if fully aware. For S.K. however, this is desirable. He would rather have those people turn away than attempt to participate in something they don’t even begin to understand.

In conclusion, we are blessed to have such a fearless mind who has given us all of this controversy to think about. For the critic and fan alike, S.K. surely pushes any reader to reconsider things they might have taken for granted, and as we consider today how we too might live the Christian life, might we remember his words:

“I believe I dare have the sad joy of encouraging them in their joy in life. O, but it must be told that dying to the world, to be loved by God, means to suffer, and that to love God means to suffer; therefore I must disturb the happiness of all the others, and I cannot have the sad joy of rejoicing in their happiness, the sad joy of being loved by them”[80].

 

NOTES

[1] Murray Rae, Kierkegaard and Theology. (London: T&T Clark International, 2010), 1.
[2] Matthew D. Kirkpatrick, Attacks on Christendom in a World of Age: Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, and the Question of “Religionless Christianity” (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2010), 28.
[3] Forest Baird, The Rationalist Worldview: Readings for Core 250 (Spokane, WA: Whitworth University, 2016), 339.
[4] Sylvia Walsh, Kierkegaard, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 2.
[5] Walter Lowrie, A Short Life of Kierkegaard, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1942), 39.
[6] Gregor Malantscuk, The Controversial Kierkegaard, translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, edited by Alastair McKinnon (Ontario, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1976), 63.
[7] Lowrie, 39.
[8] Lowrie, 42.
[9] Walsh, 3.
[10] Walsh, 3.
[11] Stephen C. Evans, Kierkegaard: An Introduction, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 5.
[12] Rae, 16.
[13] Rae, 16.
[14] Søren Kierkegaard, Journals, I/484 IX A 207, n.d., 1848.
[15] Rae, 17.
[16] Rae, 17.
[17] Lowrie, 114.
[18] Lowrie, 114.
[19] Rae, 25.
[20] Rae, 25.
[21] Walsh, 17.
[22] Lowrie, 114.
[23] Walsh, 17.
[24] Evans, 5.
[25] Kirkpatrick, 38.
[26] Kirkpatrick, 38.
[27] Rae, 27.
[28] Rae, 27.
[29] Evans, 5.
[30] Rae, 22.
[31] Rae, 22.
[32] Evans, 6.
[33] Lowrie, 144.
[34] Lowrie, 148.
[35] Kirkpatrick, 39.
[36] Kirkpatrick, 39.
[37] Walsh, 19.
[38] Rae, 30.
[39] Rae, 31.
[40] Evans, 40.
[41] Rae, 24.
[42] Rae, 28.
[43] Rae, 29.
[44] Lowrie, 149.
[45] Evans, 6.
[46] Rae, 31.
[47] Lowrie, 176.
[48] Walsh, 21.
[49] Walsh, 21.
[50] Evans, 6.
[51] Evans, 6.
[52] Evans, 7.
[53] Evans, 8.
[54] Walsh, 22.
[55] Lowrie, 196.
[56] Kirkpatrick, 39.
[57] Walsh, 22.
[58] Walsh, 23.
[59] Walsh, 23.
[60] Kirkpatrick, 40.
[61] Kirkpatrick, 44.
[62] Kirkpatrick, 24.
[63] Evans, 9.
[64] Rae, 14.
[65] Stephen Blackhouse, Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 23.
[66] Baird, 344.
[67] Rae, 24.
[68] Aaron Edwards, “Life in Kierkegaard’s Imaginary Rural Parish: Preaching, Correctivity, and the Gospel.” Toronto Journal Of Theology 30, no. 2 (September 2014): 235-246. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 26, 2018) 239.
[69] Edwards, 240.
[70] Malantschuk, 66.
[71] Rae, 32.
[72] Lowrie, 239.
[73] Lowrie, 239.
[74] Blakhouse, 180.
[75] Lowrie, 253.
[76] Kirkpatrick, 212.
[77] Edwards, 239.
[78] Joseph L. Rosas, Scripture in the Thought of Soren Kierkegaard, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 21.
[79] Rosas, 21.
[80] Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers. 7 vols. Translated and edited by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, c1967-1978.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Baird, Forest. The Rationalist Worldview: Readings for Core 250. Spokane, WA: Whitworth University, 2016.

Blackhouse, Stephen. Kierkegaard: A Single Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016.

Edwards, Aaron. “Life in Kierkegaard’s Imaginary Rural Parish: Preaching, Correctivity, and the Gospel.” Toronto Journal Of Theology 30, no. 2 (September 2014): 235-246. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 26, 2018).

Evans, Stephen C. Kierkegaard: An Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Kierkegaard, Søren. The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard, edited and translated by Alexander Dru. London: Oxford University Press, 1938. P. 15 [entry from August 1, 1835].

Kierkegaard, Soren. On Authority and Revelation (The Book on Adler, Or a Cycle of Ethico-Religious Essays). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955.

Kierkegaard, Soren. The Essential Kierkegaard. Edited by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling: Repetition. Edited and Translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Kirkpatrick, Matthew D. Attacks on Christendom in a World of Age: Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, and the Question of “Religionless Christianity”. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2010.

Lowrie, Walter. A Short Life of Kierkegaard. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Malantschuk, Gregor. The Controversial Kierkegaard, translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, edited by Alastair McKinnon. Ontario, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1976.

Rae, Murray. Kierkegaard and Theology. London: T&T Clark International, 2010.

Rosas, L. Joseph. Scripture in the Thought of Soren Kierkegaard. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994.

Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers. 7 vols. Translated and edited by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, c1967-1978.

Walsh, Silvia. Kierkegaard. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.