Why We Study Kierkegaard
By Dr. Brian T. Kelly (’88)
Note: The following remarks are adapted from Dean Brian T. Kelly’s report to the Board of Governors at its November, 2013, retreat. They are part of an ongoing series of talks in which Dr. Kelly explains why the College includes certain authors in its curriculum.
In these waning days of the Year of Faith, I would like to say a few words about Søren Kierkegaard. Though he was not Catholic, he was a passionate promoter of the Christian Faith. At Thomas Aquinas College our seniors read two of Kierkegaard’s books, Fear and Trembling and Philosophical Fragments. We also read him in our High School Summer Program. I will speak a little bit about his stature and his story, and then I will attempt to give a little flavor of the man by focusing on his famous treatment of the story of Abraham and Isaac.
Kierkegaard’s influence has been deeply felt but in wildly disparate ways. On the one hand, he is considered the father of modern existentialism and modern self-doubt. On the other hand, he has been an inspiration to numerous Christian philosophers. A recent book by Jack Mulder tracks Kierkegaard’s influence in Catholic circles (see also this review from the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly), and he even makes an appearance in Bl. John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio. Ralph McInerny claimed that Kierkegaard’s was “one of the most intensely intellectual and religious lives of the 19th century,” while Judith Thurman of The New Yorker described him as a “dandy and an esthete.”
The list of those swayed by his work is an odd jumble; Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, Henrik Ibsen, Franz Kafka, Walker Percy, Karol Wojtyla, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Martin Heidegger, Woody Allen, among others. There is even a famous boxing instructor whose philosophy of coaching is inspired by his study of Kierkegaard. And Chelsea Clinton recently named her terrier Søren because “she was so contemplative as a puppy.” I could go on.
So Kierkegaard is one of the giants; but initially it was not clear that he would have any lasting impact. In part this might be because he wrote in Danish. His works were not translated into the major European languages until the 20th century. It is noteworthy that he was not included in the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s original Great Books set published in 1952, but was added when Mortimer Adler revised the set in 1990. His impact has grown over the last 60 years or so.
Even though Kierkegaard is viewed so differently, all seem to agree that he is very difficult to understand. Ludwig Wittgenstein threw his hands up and said, “He is too deep for me.” One reason for this may be that he wrote so many books under pseudonyms, meant to represent really different characters and perspectives. This was not incidental to Kierkegaard’s project. He deliberately chose to speak through characters so as to undercut his own authority. He dreaded swaying his audience to accept something on his say so. He saw himself not as a teacher making abstract arguments, but more like a midwife helping his reader to give birth to thoughts and ideas and sentiments that would foster the choice to live rightly. He wanted his reader to make this choice, not on someone else’s authority. He wanted his readers to invest themselves in their own ongoing, here and now, ethical existence.
Kierkegaard grounded his works in persons and stories. Like Socrates he was desperate to move us to care more for virtue than for pleasure. Like Socrates Kierkegaard often avoided taking a determinate position, speaking rather in poetic images or raising questions. This approach, so appropriately described by Ralph McInerny as “weird and wonderful,” is one of the reasons so many have found him in turns frustrating, intriguing, and always somewhat elusive. In his journal Kierkegaard once complained, “People understand me so little that they do not even understand when I complain of being misunderstood.”
The Man Behind the Masks
But who was Kierkegaard, the man behind the masks? He was born in Copenhagen 200 years ago last May in a rich literary era in Denmark. He was a contemporary, and critic, of Hans Christian Andersen. His father, Michael, was a shepherd who struck it rich as a merchant. As a youth Michael had cursed God, a sin that he always considered unforgivable. Shortly after his first wife’s death he married the family housemaid, then pregnant with Søren’s oldest brother. Of the seven children produced by this union, only Søren and one brother survived. They were raised in the shadow of his father’s aura of guilt and depression or what Søren called “heaviness of spirit.”
After a youthful crisis of faith, Kierkegaard pursued degrees in theology and philosophy at the University of Copenhagen. He studied Hegelian philosophy deeply and became a sharp critic. He asked Regina Olsen to marry him, but broke off the engagement after three years. This affair made a big impression on the young author, and on his death he tried to leave his estate to Regina even though she had eventually married. She politely declined.
Disappointed in love he committed himself to writing; over the next 13 years his output was impressive in its variety and volume. He wrote treatises and novels and a long list of editorials and articles for the newspaper. He engaged in a bitter controversy with the Corsair, a satirical journal that proceeded to lampoon him mercilessly. Unfortunately Kierkegaard had somewhat thin skin and he found this treatment humiliating. He toyed with the idea of becoming a country pastor, but shortly before he died at the young age of 42, he launched a harsh polemic against the Danish Lutheran Church. (He was especially critical of its incorporation in 1848 as an arm of the newly restructured state.) He died in 1855 in the midst of this firestorm.
Abraham and Isaac
So what was Kierkegaard all about? In all of his works, he was profoundly focused on the reality of our being as an ethical existence. At every moment we are faced with the great question, “Am I living as I ought?” In his journals he said, “The thing is to understand myself … to find the idea for which I can live and die.” Ultimately, for him, this idea was Christianity.
Kierkegaard viewed the modes of human existence under three categories: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. For him it was natural that we ascend from one to the other. The aesthete lives for pleasure alone and is stifled by this narrowness. He is liberated by recognizing that he must subject himself and his behavior to ethical norms. But this is not enough; the individual can attain spiritual maturity by submitting entirely to the divine. It is worth noting that these three stages are not in every way opposed. When the aesthetic man becomes ethical he does not leave aside his love of beauty; rather he comes to view his life as an artistic work; by living well he crafts a unified and harmonious masterpiece. This fits with Kierkegaard’s statement that faith is “a task for a whole lifetime” (Fear and Trembling), and obviously the religious man does not let go of his ethical moorings. There is an ascent of perfection and not of loss.
Rather than attempt a summary of the whole sweep of Kierkegaard’s literary output I will focus on the very beginning of Fear and Trembling, which he published at the age of 30. This beginning section, which focuses on the story of Abraham and Isaac, is read both by our Seniors and our high school students in the Summer Program.
Here Kierkegaard’s indirect mode of communication is on display. The book is written under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio, who begins the work with an account of a simple man reflecting on the story of Abraham being tested by God from Genesis 22. So Kierkegaard (person 1) speaks in the voice of Silentio (person 2) about a man (person 3) meditating on Abraham (person 4). There are many layers in the narrative.
In the “exordium” we hear about a man with a lifelong fascination for the story of Abraham and Isaac. As this unnamed man grows older he finds the story harder to understand but more and more marvelous. He is drawn to the terror of the test and wishes he could be present with Abraham on the journey to Mount Moriah to witness Abraham’s demeanor in the face of the “shuddering thought” that he must sacrifice his son, the child of the promise. This man was not a thinker or an exegete, but a simple man fully aware that, in passing this great test, Abraham achieved transcendent greatness as the “Father of Faith.”
This story is one of the most well known in all of the world’s literature. When Abraham was relatively young, God promised him offspring as numerous as the stars. But as Abraham and Sarah continued childless, the promise began to seem less and less likely. To help God along Sarah suggested that Abraham impregnate her maidservant, Hagar. Abraham obliged. But it turned out that this child, Ishmael, was not the child of promise. God intended to give Abraham offspring through Sarah. But Sarah was barren, and years passed by until the possibility of Sarah producing a child was laughable. And yet this was God’s assurance, that Sarah, at the age of 90, would produce the long-awaited child. And she did. After so many years the promise was improbably, one might say impossibly, fulfilled.
And what did God do next? He told Abraham to kill the child, “to offer him as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” Before, when God had revealed that Sodom and Gomorrah were to be destroyed, Abraham seemed to want to talk about it, to see if there was any flexibility in God’s intention. But here, in the face of this dread command, he did not hesitate. He immediately and almost cheerfully acted. Notice that he left “early in the morning.” He trusted that “God will provide himself a lamb.” He built the altar and settled the wood. He bound Isaac and placed him on the wood. He put forth his hand to kill his son and the Lord’s angel intervened. This was a test, and Abraham had passed; in his cheerful obedience he showed forth his piety and fear of the Lord.
But, with the simple man, we might wonder how Abraham could have behaved in this way. How could a loving father cheerfully go to kill his son? How could he trust God in killing off the child of promise, while at the same time trusting God to fulfill the promise that must come through Isaac? It seems like a terrible dilemma or at least a consummate riddle, and we can appreciate why the story stayed with the simple man.
In attempting to solve the riddle the man meditates on the story in different ways. We are presented with four enigmatic versions of the story, all of which depart from Genesis in some crucial way.
In the first story Abraham is silent and thoughtful on the journey to Moriah. He decides to explain the whole business to Isaac, trusting that he can make his son understand why he must die. But Isaac doesn’t understand and pleads for his life. Abraham finally turns on Isaac and wildly declares that he is not obeying God’s command, but is an idolater acting on his own desire. Isaac calls on God for salvation. It pleases Abraham to think that he has preserved Isaac’s faith in God, even though Isaac now believes that his father is a monster.
In the second story Abraham fulfills God’s command in all obedience, but in a sorrowful and slavish manner. Everything is fulfilled, but Abraham’s eye is darkened and his happiness is destroyed. Even after the angel stops him from completing the sacrifice, Abraham cannot forgive God for having tested him in this horrifying way.
In the third story Abraham willingly sets out to sacrifice Isaac. His thoughts wander back to Ishmael, possibly imagining that the promised offspring might come through Hagar’s child. But it is revealed to him that his willingness to kill Isaac is itself a sin. He is haunted by the contradiction. He would have sinned if he had been unwilling to sacrifice his son, but he did sin in being willing to sacrifice his son.
In the fourth story Abraham fulfills God’s command, but with evident despair. When he sees his father trembling with the knife Isaac’s faith is lost.
After these and other like meditations on the test of Abraham, our simple man can only throw up his hands and say, “No one was as great as Abraham. Who is able to understand him?”
I think these four approaches help us to think more clearly about the real story. They represent different ways that Abraham could have fallen short of complete faith while still exhibiting greatness. In each story he fails to trust God in some way, though he acts in obedience. When he pretends to be an idolater in the first story, he is trying to fix something broken in God’s plan. When he is dragged down in sorrow and in despair in the second and fourth stories, he shows that he does not trust that God is all good. When he thinks on Ishmael in the third story, he takes hold of the dilemma by only one of its horns. God commanded him to sacrifice Isaac, yes, but he also promised offspring as the stars through Isaac. He was commanded to let go of Isaac, but perfect faith also demanded that he cling to Isaac as his hope.
In Genesis Abraham passes the test because he does all of this perfectly. He acts immediately and cheerfully with confidence that the Lord would provide a due outcome. He trusts that the all-good God, who cares for and loves the just, intends some good in demanding this act. He also trusts that the Lord will fulfill his promise of offspring through Isaac, who is now to be killed. Kierkegaard (or the man, or Johannes Silentio — it is hard to tell) even goes so far as to say that Abraham “believed the preposterous” (“Eulogy,” p. 20). In this view Abraham solved the riddle by accepting two incompatible truths.
Stepping outside of the Silentio treatment we might suggest that St. Paul proposes a more rational answer to the riddle in Hebrews 11 when he says that Abraham “considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead.”
Someone might give a different account of these stories and the veils that Kierkegaard interposes between himself as author and the reader. Is it possible that he is at pains to separate himself from Faith by putting up these veils? Is it possible that he is holding up the Faith of Abraham as ridiculous or repugnant. I find it unthinkable that Kierkegaard the author is trying to do anything other than to draw us into sharing the simple man’s sense of wonder and admiration. Stained as we are by our love of pleasure and our worldly wisdom, it is difficult to read this short work without glimpsing something of the greatness of Abraham and being drawn to at least a spark of desire for the Faith he exemplifies.