*** This is a rough transcript of today's show ***
It is the 5th of May 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
Soren Kierkegaard (b. 1813) wrote:
"There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn't true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true."
There are not many people in the Christian church who dealt as much with our capacity to fool ourselves when it comes to the existential truths of the Christian Faith as Kierkegaard.
Kierkegaard can vex, anger, soothe, confuse, and delight. Hence, he is referred to as the Father of Existentialism, as the melancholy Dane, and as a Christian Irrationalist.
He will also help transition us into this new season as we will not be as encyclopedic, but maybe pause to consider some of the most influential people, events, and ideas in the history of the Christian Church.
A few quick things about the man:
His work was unknown during his lifetime outside of his small context of Copenhagen. It wasn't until the 20th century that his works were finally translated, first into German and then into English.
He wrote semi-pseudonymously. That is, he wrote under a variety of different assumed names, often contradicting other things he would write under a different assumed name. This afforded him plausible deniability to some things and a level of ironic distance from some of his radical ideas.
Now, let's break down Soren Kierkegaard's "the Melancholy Dane."
Kierkegaard's life cannot be separated from his work and thought (Although I think this is always true). His seemingly inherited melancholy would lead him to write such cheery titles as "A Sickness Unto Death" and "Fear and Trembling." He had a one-time fiancé, but his existential crises led to them calling off the marriage. He admitted that his preoccupation with her throughout the rest of his life would influence his works (see especially his work on the nature of love).
Now, perhaps hearing that he was a "Christian Irrationalist" might throw you off a little bit. But, on the other hand, possibly calling him the "father of existentialism" makes him sound, to some, like hardly a Christian at all. So let's break this tricky language down.
So much of Kierkegaard's work is an attempt to discredit and dismantle the work of G.W. Hegel. I'm not going to break down Hegel's particulars, but essentially it was, according to Kierkegaard, an attempt to create a comprehensive system of knowledge. Kierkegaard believed that the "rationality" espoused by Hegel and other idealists was fools gold. For Soren, the fact that the eternal Logos has entered human history changed everything. It wasn't that he was "irrational" in the sense of denying that 2+2=4, but instead that he rejected the philosopher's rationality-as-basis-for truth in light of Christian revelation. Thus, Christian Irrationalist.
As far as the father of existentialism goes, I'm going to paint with a broad brush. Existentialism is at its core the centering of human existence, passions, and limitations. Kierkegaard thought that the grand systems of the Hegelians and rationalists left out one crucial aspect: the experience of the individual in the system. This is not the existentialism of Sartre. Jaroslav Pelikan once suggested that Kierkegaard's existentialism is more like Luther's, grounded in human sin and redemption.
Like Immanuel Kant, Kierkegaard was raised in the Lutheran faith and found elements of it wanting. For Kierkegaard, it was the notion of a Danish Lutheran state church that, he believed, treated all citizens as if they were Christian on account of them being Danish.
Kant was especially horrified by the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. He thought it was morally reprehensible for God to request this of Abraham. This story was, for Kant, the end of his faith.
Responding to this argument from Kant, Kierkegaard told the story of Abraham and Isaac as the beginning point of faith. Thus, the temporary suspension of the ethical to act in faith was the model of Abraham for Kierkegaard's Knight of faith.
We'll undoubtedly see him pop up from time to time in modern theology. Today we remember him on his birthday or what he called "Cinco De Mayo."
Let's give the last word to old S.K., the "Melancholy Dane."
"Teach me, O God, not to torture myself, not to make a martyr out of myself through stifling reflection, but rather teach me to breathe deeply in faith."
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 4th of May 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie, whose pseudonym is Donavon Riley. The show is written and read by a man who is always enchanted by the Danish village of Solvang, Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. Remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.