Kierkegaard: Living Theology

I’m going to call a halt on the Psalms – we might come back to them later, but I’m far enough ahead with Kierkegaard now that we can get into it. I started off reading Either/Or, which was a mistake, because it’s long, waffly, and indirect. It’s intelligent, when you step back and look at the big picture of what’s going on, but it’s not a good place to start. I got about 400 pages through 600-ish, and I’ve put it back on the shelf for now. One of the other problems is that a lot of the content isn’t really appropriate for the level of difficulty I want to focus on here. Anyway, I’ve got a couple introductory posts drawing on some of the things I got out of Either/Or, and then we’ll get into Fear and Trembling, which is a much better place to start.  

So one of the big things with Kierkegaard is that he’s against theology as abstracted intellectualised theory. He’s much more interested in theology as something that’s rooted in the individual life – perhaps even in a psychology, if that’s an appropriate term. This hostility towards the intellectual has several implications:

1. It means that he doesn’t have much time for intellectuals.

Which is ironic, really, because he was an intellectual. He’s not against thinking, per se, but he’s against the abstraction that only considers ideas in a hypothetical, rather than personal, light. Kierkegaard’s Christianity is personal, intimate, and not theoretical. In some ways, it’s intentionally portrayed as being outside rational thought.

2. It informs his use of pseudonyms.

Much of Kierkegaard’s writing is pseudonymous. Either/Or is authored ostensibly by an aesthete only known as ‘A’, and the venerable Judge Vilhelm. Fear and Trembling belongs to Johannes de Silentio, Repetition to Constantin Constantius, etc. In each instance, we are not dealing simply with Kierkegaard’s unfiltered thought, but the construction of several characters, who speak their own minds. Kierkegaard’s thought is thus ‘indirect’: rather than communicating his thought directly, he allows these characters speak, and allows us to judge them. The idea is that as readers, we’re not being attacked if we disagree. We might be led to identify with, say, the aesthete in Either/Or, and then when the aesthete is lectured by the judge in the second half, we hear the different point of view as if we were in conversation. It’s also worth noting that the judge writes to the aesthete directly, while the aesthete sort of fritters away with hypothetical abstracted questions. This relates to the previous point – the aesthete is portrayed as inferior, because he only thinks in the abstract, and the judge is superior, because he writes directly to the aesthete about real practical decisions that he’s making in his life. It’s about finding alternatives to the airy fairy flim-flam of the intellectuals. Speaking of…

3. Movement as theme

Part of the thing about the pseudonyms is that they aren’t just different masks – they’re treated as individuals. This allows people to develop and change and grow and generally be subjective and in flux. That’s how real people are, and it’s how Kierkegaard wants to do theology. His focus as a philosopher is on relationships: the relationship between God and the individual, for example. Relationship, Kierkegaard argues, implies movement. It involves change, development. The systematic structure of most philosophy doesn’t allow for this sort of fluidity, this lived subjective experience. That’s Kierkegaard’s criticism of ‘A’: he’s all hot air, but he doesn’t resolve anything, he doesn’t mature, he’s just noisy and hypothetical. It also explains the need for pseudonyms – you can’t attack philosophy for being intellectual and then write a book using those same ‘intellectual structures’. You need to change it somehow, find a different method of communicating your ideas. For Kierkegaard, that’s found in the pseudonyms, these characters who’re put forward with their different points of view.

Kierkegaard also understands the relationship between God and the individual in terms of movement. We make an internal ‘movement’ towards God, one that isn’t intellectual or theoretical. It’s a real, simple, deep movement of faith.

4. The Internal & the Individual

If we had to sum up Kierkegaard’s writing, we might say that it’s about how to live a Christian life – that is, how to live a life focused on that personal relationship with God. When we talk about the internal ‘movement’ towards God, it’s the personal nature of that movement that matters. You aren’t a Christian just because you go to church, or you live in a Christian culture, right – it’s about that personal relationship. Kierkegaard suggests that because our relationship with God is individual and personal, we’re all essentially alone before God. That’s why it’s internal – it’s something inside of us that’s not communicable to anybody else. We’ll come back more to this when we hit Fear & Trembling.

One of the side effects of Kierkegaard’s philosophy is that it’s very individual-focused – for obvious reasons. It’s not really about communities, or the church at large – not like City of God, say. It’s about you, and you as subject, and you as individual before God. That’s a very Protestant sort of idea. It’s anti-Catholic in the sense that it rejects the sort of theology that places power in the hands of the institutional church. The Catholics imbue special powers in their clergy – for example, only Catholic priests are allowed to consecrate the communion. Protestants by and large aren’t too worried about that nonsense – they usually don’t consider the priests to have any particular special powers. You can just get on with your life, because the most important thing about your faith is your direct relationship with God. Things like the church still factor into that, because it’s about individuals in community, but primarily it’s still about those individuals.

I don’t know, but I’d be interested to see whether this idea tied into any thoughts around salvation for Kierkegaard. If an arid, intellectualised Christianity was considered somehow illegitimate – I’m not sure how strongly he’d word it, but if he’d go as far as illegitimate, it might hypothetically impact ideas around salvation. Can you be saved if you just believe intellectually in Christianity? Where is the line for salvation? Further question: if all you need is a personal relationship with God, what role does Christian belief play? Do you even need to be a Christian to have a relationship with God?

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