November 4 – Soren Kierkegaard

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Soren Kierkegaard, Christian thinker

Kierkegaard was at once a devastating critic and a passionate advocate of Christianity. He was a 19th century Danish thinker, who wrote many books – often with very strange titles – in his own distinctive style and who continues to pose challenging questions to Christians today. Because of his intense focus on the individual person, he is often regarded as the ‘father’ of modern existentialism.

Born in 1813, he felt deeply the death of his mother, three siblings and his father within a short span of years. He felt that there was a curse on his family on account of a great ‘sin’ committed by his father. He felt a misfit in the society of his day and is often called ‘the melancholy Dane’. He broke off an engagement because he would not involve his fiancée in his unusual life and on his death-bed he would not receive holy Communion from a (Lutheran) pastor, ‘the king’s official’.

Kierkegaard was fiercely critical of the way Christianity was practised in Denmark, where the Lutheran church was the state church. ‘Even the cows in Denmark are Christian!’ He could not bear to think that people might live in the illusion of being Christian when they merely ‘played’ at Christianity. What matters is actually to be a Christian; it is not a system of thought simply to be given intellectual assent.

Kierkegaard attacked the very idea of explaining Christianity. He vigorously opposed the philo­sophical system of Hegel, both for its grand metaphysical systematising and for offering an explanation of Christianity at a higher level. Kierkegaard’s writing was a loud protest against this in the name of concrete existence; this made him one of the fore-runners of existentialism. Being based on the ‘Absolute Paradox’ (that God became human), Christianity is not to be explained. A person responds to it in faith and trust, staking one’s whole life on it, like ‘swimming in 20,000 fathoms of water’; not by intellectualising it and trying to prove its truth.

Kierkegaard never fails to challenge, even if he is sometimes shockingly over-stated. His style is deeply ironic, often caustic. If he were writing today, he might have said that faith is like bungy-jumping. This doesn’t say everything to be said about faith, but it does identify something essential to it.

Christiaan Mostert