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At an age of religious turmoil that was the nineteenth century in Northern Europe, and Germany in particular, when liberal theologian David Strauss was denying the divine nature of Christ, having scrutinised it in his 1835 book The Life of Jesus, critically edited; when radical rationalist Bruno Bauer was declaring that “Christianity is stoicism triumphant in a Jewish garb”, and went on to refute the Gospels as literary fiction and Paul’s epistles as forgeries; at an age when the nihilist writer Max Stirner was exalting in his The Ego and its Own the egocentric individual who stands beyond God and morality ― in quiet neighbouring Denmark, a young theologian by the name of Søren Kierkegaard, was penning passionate discourses on the Purity of Heart, the Knight of Hidden Inwardness, the Gospel of Sufferings, and the Single Individual who stands alone and transparent before his Creator.
Today, Kierkegaard’s writings are read by Christians and non-Christians alike, for their profound insights into human nature and the psychology of belief. Against the learned arrogance of his German counterparts, Kierkegaard from “provincial Copenhagen” devoted his short life, not in dissecting the strands of Christianity, but in restoring its integrity in our conscience. “Christianity transforms every relationship into a relationship of conscience” he writes in the Works of Love. To many of his contemporaries he may have appeared utopian and anachronistic, but to my eyes he is a brave, uncompromising spirit, who like his beloved Socrates (the subject of his doctorate thesis) uses his subtle dialectical skills and primitive faith to reach his truth. “What matters is to find a purpose” he writes in his diary in 1835, “to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth that is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. What’s the use of formulating the meaning of Christianity — if it has no deeper meaning for me and for my life?”
Twelve years later he writes: “O, while people deride and ridicule my work, I sit and thank God who grants success to it. Even if everything was taken from me, the best is my original and indestructible blessed thought that God is love. However hopeless things become, I scrape together the thoughts of what a loving, affectionate person is, and say to myself: This is what God is every moment. I hope to awaken similar thoughts in men, so that they stop wasting their lives without ever considering how loving God is.”
One year later, in a spell of graceful lucidity, the 35-year-old philosopher recaps his life: “I want to say Amen, as I am overwhelmed with gratitude for what Governance has done for me; that everything can turn out for a man the way it did. Everything that has happened to me was appropriate to my nature and disposition. I am in want of nothing. I became unhappy in love, [ he refers to his engagement with Regine Olsen that he decided to break] but this unhappiness became my blessing. I am saved by one who is dead, my father, [he was indebted to him for his religious upbringing] but I cannot possibly conceive of any living person being able to save me. I became an author because of and according to my potentialities. I was persecuted, [he refers to the relentless slander of a local newspaper against his person] but without it, my life would not have been my own. Melancholy shadows everything in my life, but that, too, is an indescribable blessing. That is how I became myself, by the indescribable grace and help of God ―I could almost say by his partiality had I not believed that He loves every man the same. I have literally lived with God as one lives with a father. Amen”.
Kierkegaard did not bother to enter into debate with his spirited contemporaries across the border. But I would imagine that the best response to such an invitation would be what he calls “The Principal Rule” in a late diary entry: “Above all, read the New Testament without a commentary. Would it ever occur to a lover to read a letter from his beloved with a commentary? For everything that has a purely personal significance to me, a commentary is a most hazardous meddler. If the letter from the beloved was in a language I don’t understand — I first learn the language, but I don’t read the letter with the aid of commentaries by others. I read it, and since the thought of my beloved is vivid in my mind and my purpose is to will according to her wishes, I understand the letter correctly. It is the same with Scripture. With the help of God, I understand it correctly. Every commentary detracts; he who sits with ten open commentaries to read the Holy Scripture — is probably writing the eleventh”.
Throughout his writings the great existentialist thinker stresses the fact of speaking “without authority”. What does he mean by that? Kierkegaard disliked the pomp and histrionics that goes with a lot of pulpit preaching. In the sermons he listened to, he praises the preachers who use plain words and a modest style to bring their message across, a heart-to-heart communication. He prefers the term “deliberations” for the thought-provoking discourses he pens, and which he addresses to the “single individual whom I consider my reader”, to read them slowly, time and again, in the quiet of solitude.
by Costas Nisiotis
Athens, Greece - firstname.lastname@example.org
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