Søren Kierkegaard as the Creator of Existentialism

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Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) was the father of existentialism, a philosophy that focuses primarily on the individual and rejects pure abstract thought in favor of subjective thought and subjective truth. Six themes characterize existentialism.[EM1] First is anti-essentialism, which emphasizes the individual in the act of existing over against the detached reflection upon ideal forms or essences of things found in Plato and Hegel. Second, an emphasis is placed on the individual instead of the crowd, as each individual thing has meaning independently of anything else. Third, existence is viewed as becoming. Existence is therefore dynamic, not static. Fourth, freedom is the basis for human becoming. A good part of what it means to be human is to be free. Radical freedom to become whatever is possible within the range of humanity is a great value, but it also includes risk. Still, it is better to choose than not choose, for at least one then exists. Fifth, estrangement, anguish, and death constitute the stimuli for becoming.

By estrangement Kierkegaard meant that each person is thrown into the world by being born and is involuntarily estranged from the world. We are estranged from the natural order (as no harmony exists in this order) and from other human beings (as we do not naturally form relationships). Thus we must courageously use freedom to overcome estrangement. For Kierkegaard, anguish is the irrational and unexplainable feeling caused when the human being confronts nothingness, coming face to face with finitude, death, and potentially ceasing to exist. While anguish is very stressful, it has creative significance. Death is the final step into potential nothingness, and each person must consider the way they live in terms of their upcoming death. One must take death seriously to be an authentic human being. Sixth, truth is relational rather than cognitive or pure, e.g., rational, scientific, or mathematical thought, as pure thinking tells an individual nothing about their individual existence and provides no personal relationship with the facts known. Major Events in Kierkegaard’s Life Kierkegaard was born on May 5, 1813 in Copenhagen. From 1830 to 1834, Kierkegaard’s mother, brother, and two of his sisters died, thus provoking a pessimism and melancholy with which he would approach life. 1835 saw the occurrence of an event Kierkegaard described in his journal as the Great Earthquake. This earthquake comprised Kierkegaard’s breach with his father when he learned of his father’s deep, dark secrets down the path to perdition.

Despite that Kierkegaard’s father raised him with a strict moral upbringing and the harshest requirements of Christianity, his father was prone to sensuality, as his mother was already pregnant at the time of their marriage. Moreover, early in life his father cursed God for letting him suffer as a shepherd and thus may have committed the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit. Kierkegaard feared that God had cursed his family for the acts of his father, which would explain the deaths of his family members and his sustained melancholy. But in 1838, Kierkegaard experienced what he dubbed the Indescribable Joy, a profound conversion experience to personally become a disciple of Christ. From 1840 to 1841, Kierkegaard experienced a tempestuous relationship with Regina Olsen which strongly colored his theology. Kierkegaard was deeply in love with and became engaged to Regina, but afterwards broke the engagement so that he would not burden her with his melancholy or cause her to be cursed with the sins of his family. Displaying deep introspection, Kierkegaard viewed his separation from Regina as renouncing marriage in terms of the greater good. In 1846 Kierkegaard was lampooned for his appearance, voice, and habits in The Corsair, a weekly satirical paper that ridiculed people of repute and was therefore read surreptitiously by many. The so-called Corsair Affair began after P. L. Møller published a careless yet opportunistic critique of Kierkegaard’s Stages on Life’s Way on December 22, 1845. Møller’s opportunism was a double-sided coin. He was seeking a chair at the University of Copenhagen even while secretly editing The Corsair. In response to Møller, Kierkegaard wrote two small pieces, The Activity of a Traveling Esthetician and Dialectical Result of a Literary Police Action.

The former insulted Møller’s integrity and publicly outed him as the editor of The Corsair, while the latter criticized the journalistic quality and reputation of The Corsair.[TM2] Not surprisingly, The Corsair retaliated with illustrated cartoons caricaturing Kierkegaard, causing this very public individual to become a laughing stock among his countrymen. But in the 1848 “Metamorphosis” entry of his journal, Kierkegaard declared that he had found peace with himself and could therefore do exactly what God wanted. But what did God want from Kierkegaard? Kierkegaard believed that God wanted him to attack the state church of Denmark because biblical Christianity no longer existed in the church. For people believed that they were Christians merely because they had been baptized as infants and raised in a nominally Christian nation. From 1849 to 1855, Kierkegaard launched his literary attack on the Danish established church in an attempt to restore biblical Christianity and salvation to Denmark. Amidst this controversy with the established church, Kierkegaard died on November 11, 1855. Key Ideas in Kierkegaard’s Major Works Kierkegaard’s first major work was Either/Or (1843), a repudiation of the Hegelian dialectical method and a presentation of the three stages of human lifestyle. Kierkegaard’s basic complaint against Hegelian philosophy was that this allegedly all-comprehensive system left out the two most important ingredients of metaphysics, namely, human existence and authentic humanness. These ingredients never received consideration because each emerged only from an “either/or” choice between one of two contradictory notions.

Such a choice was ruled out by Hegel’s “both/and” synthesis of two contradictory notions into a higher sphere of reality which preserves their full contradictoriness. The three stages of lifestyle enumerated by Kierkegaard are the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. The aesthetic stage is the level of pleasure and perdition, where one merely feels rather than decides. The individual lives based on their instincts for new and pleasurable sensations but makes only insignificant choices. Kierkegaard poignantly disclosed the futility of living at the aesthetic level through his so-called rotation method, which shows how get the most out of the aesthetic life while minimizing boredom. As the name suggests, if a person slightly rotates what they do, eat, listen to, and so forth each day, then the possibilities are almost limitless. For example, a person could eat pepperoni pizza one night, pepperoni and ham pizza the next night, pepperoni and sausage pizza the next night, and so forth, just as a farmer rotates crops from one field to another. The rotation method avoids hope and cultivates a proper type of remembering and forgetting, the key to which is having many experiences rather than intense experiences. By demonstrating that living at the aesthetic level is ultimately bankrupt and meaningless, Kierkegaard hoped to cause the reader to jump to the ethical level, where they can make significant choices and thus exist. The ethical stage is the level of deciding, where one is controlled by rules and universal norms.

One creates an authentic self by confronting and making significant decisions in matters of good and evil. But mere rules cannot empower a person to do the right thing. Therefore, the only way to act out one’s choices and so possess a personal identity is by making a paradoxical leap of faith to the religious level. While repentance of sin does not save, it brings a person to the end of their rope so that the will make the leap of faith which saves. Displaying anti-Hegelianism, Kierkegaard refused to view faith as a facet in our system of thought to be negated and transcended, but rather as the highest good which could never be transcended. The religious stage is the level of most authentic existence, where one is living for God rather than deciding for him. This stage is God-centered, not rule-centered, and if the universal norm commands one thing and God says another, one must follow God. However, if God tells one to follow the rule, one does it for the sake of obeying God rather than simply out of ethical obligation. Kierkegaard asserted that the way to live most authentically is to choose the Judeo-Christian God. Kierkegaard further distinguished between life lived at the ethical stage and life lived at the religious stage in his next major work, Fear and Trembling (1843). Here Kierkegaard told the surface story of Abraham and Isaac at Mount Moriah, where Abraham’s experience is paradigmatic of life at the religious stage and of conflict between the ethical and religious stages. Sometimes the moral law will contradict the moral Lawgiver, God, which is part of what it means to live at the religious level instead of just the ethical level.

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Abraham was commanded by God to sacrifice Isaac on the altar, while the moral law commanded him not to murder his own son. Because Abraham lived at the religious level, he chose to obey God by sacrificing Isaac, even though it violated the very law God gave to humanity. Kierkegaard explained that living by faith is the highest life one could possibly obtain, while most people never come to real Christian faith. Thus, he compared the knight of resignation, i.e., the moral or tragic hero, with the knight of faith, who attaches directly to God. Kierkegaard related the narrative of Abraham and Isaac to his experience with Regina, for in order to serve the higher principle, he had to give up Regina just as Abraham had to give up Isaac. Ironically, Kierkegaard depicted himself as only the knight of resignation and not the knight of faith, because he did not hold his wish fast after giving it up like Abraham did. According to Kierkegaard, the knight of resignation is a person who sees his duty, is resigned to it, and gives up what he has to give up, never expecting it back. However, the knight of faith sees his duty, is resigned to it, gives up what he has to give up, and trusts that God will give him back what he has resigned not to have. Such trust, Kierkegaard observed, is totally irrational, but the knight of faith trusts God anyway, as Kierkegaard defined the movement from resignation to faith as believing in the absurd. Kierkegaard explored the above issues in further detail in the section entitled “Panegyric on Abraham.” For Kierkegaard, Abraham was such a great man because he both gave up his wish to have Isaac alive and held fast his wish after giving it up. Kierkegaard claimed that it is great to give up one’s wish, but greater to hold it fast after giving it up; likewise, it is great to hold fast the eternal, but greater to hold fast to the temporal after giving it up. Hence, Abraham was great in proportion to his expectation, for he expected the impossible (i.e., Isaac alive after he was sacrificed) which is greater than all, rather than the possible which is great or the eternal which is greater. Abraham never abandoned his wish; if he had, he would have saved many, but since he did not, he became the father of faith, which would have otherwise been impossible. Following the “Panegyric on Abraham,” Kierkegaard raised three “Problemata” raised by the account of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac.

First, Kierkegaard asked if there is such a thing as a teleological suspension of the ethical. In other words, can the universal ethical norm be suspended for God’s purposes? Kierkegaard’s answer is yes, since a suspension of the ethical rule is allowable for a person to exercise faith. This yields the paradox that the particular is higher than the universal, by which Kierkegaard can assert that the person in relationship to God is higher than the universal rule. Second, Kierkegaard queried if there is such a thing as an absolute duty toward God. His answer is yes, for this absolute duty is the religious duty, not the ethical which can be suspended and is not absolute. The absolute duty is relationship to God and always obeying what God says. For example, one who lives at the religious level follows the rule “You shall not murder” because God tells him to obey it, while one who lives at the ethical level obeys this rule since the rule itself imposes force on the person’s consciousness. Third, Kierkegaard inquired whether Abraham was ethically defensible in keeping silent about his purpose to sacrifice Isaac before Sarah, Eleazar, and Isaac. He answered that from an ethical standpoint, Abraham was indefensible. But if Abraham had told Sarah, Eleazar, and Isaac that God had commanded him to slay Isaac, the commandment would no longer have been particular, but a universal rule to obey God against the moral law. From a religious standpoint, not only was Abraham justified in keeping silent, but he had to keep silent for the commandment to be a test of personal faith which was not turned into a universal rule. Strongly influenced by the dissolution of his engagement to Regina Olsen, Kierkegaard’s Stages on Life’s Way (1845) employs his three stages of lifestyle to evaluate love and marriage. In part one, “The Banquet, Aesthetic Perspectives on Love,” five different fictional characters at a banquet make speeches giving their aesthetic opinions on love, from a higher to a lower level. First, a young man expresses his indecision concerning womanhood. Second, Constantine gives an experience-hardened understanding of womanhood. Third, Victor claims that love is an ironic experience. Fourth, Taylor evinces a demonic despair toward love. Fifth, Johannes the Seducer shows a cold-blooded and evil approach to love.

By their obsession with meaningless relations with women, all five men avoid living at the ethical level. The basic point of this parody of Plato’s Symposium is that aesthetic perspectives on love all avoid ethical choices by wrongfully focusing on relations with women. In part two, “The Judge Williams Part,” Kierkegaard discussed ethical reflections on marriage through the character of a judge seated with his wife at breakfast. Strongly protesting against the banquet speeches, Judge Williams proffers a positive view of marriage, exalting it as a vehicle for bringing the infinite into the temporal since the bride and groom pledge themselves to one another for infinity. Judge Williams concludes that marriage should be the rule or norm for most people, except for those who live fully at the religious level for God. They should not marry but still respect marriage as an institution. Part three, “Quidam’s Diary,” is a chronicle of Kierkegaard’s personal struggle, which asks if a melancholy person should marry and thus inflict melancholy on their spouse. Kierkegaard compared this quandary to a soldier who marries but dies in war. Kierkegaard explained his own thinking as to why he did not marry Regina by presenting three alternatives to the quandary: the melancholy person should tell his fiancée about his melancholy; the melancholy person should marry his fiancée anyway with the hope of absolving the melancholy; or the melancholy person should so humiliate himself that his fiancée would reject him. Kierkegaard posited that the third alternative is the correct one. In 1846 Kierkegaard published his Philosophical Fragments and its sequel Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

Here Kierkegaard asserted that any genuine Christian must become a contemporaneous disciple of Christ. This meant gaining spiritual contemporaneity, not historical contemporaneity, with Christ. It occurs in the instant of personal encounter, when Christ discloses himself and the individual responds to Christ by making a subjective leap of faith. For Kierkegaard, there are no secondhand disciples. The only advantages possessed by Jesus’ first-century disciples were historical in nature: the ability to know more facts about Jesus, the opportunity to obtain better Socratic self-knowledge, and the direct transmission of information with little chance for the message to be distorted. But they possessed no spiritual advantage over today’s disciples, for discipleship is based solely on a relationship with God through Christ received in personal encounter and not on historical facts. Kierkegaard asserted that knowledge of historical truths about Christ, even if one had been an eyewitness, would not make one a disciple, and even that learning all of Christ’s doctrine would not make one a disciple. Historicity only gives temporal significance, not eternal consequence. The Bible only provides an occasion for one to encounter God and to respond to God through the faith that he gives.

According to Kierkegaard, the Scriptures are historical documents which contain the historical record of what Christ said and did, and provide only an approximation of these facts. Thus, they can never be the basis for eternal happiness, and neither defending nor attacking the accuracy of the Bible has any bearing on eternal happiness, for inerrancy is unimportant. He maintained that no one has ever acquired faith by having the Bible defended, and that no one with faith will ever be bothered by an errant Bible, since genuine faith does not rest on historicity anyway. Christianity is inward and subjective, while Scripture is external and objective and hence gives no basis for faith. Even more radical was Kierkegaard’s position on faith and reason. Kierkegaard alleged that the role of reason in coming to genuine faith is to show a person that reason cannot get them to God. Reason shows a person just how irrational the leap of faith is that they must make in order to encounter God. Kierkegaard defined faith as “the objective uncertainty due to the repulsion of the absurd held fast by the passion of inwardness, which in this instance is intensified to the utmost degree.”1 However, Christianity is neither logically inconsistent nor according to reason nor against reason. But it is above and beyond reason, for the point where reason can go no further is where Christian truth resides. Thus, reason distinguishes between nonsense and paradox, as Christianity is not nonsense but paradoxical, and it prepares one for the point where God breaks through. Kierkegaard identified Jesus as the ultimate paradox, as both God and man, the revealer and hider of God at the same time. Since Christ’s humanity was real, it is paradoxical to think of Christ as the God-man.

On Kierkegaard’s reckoning, faith in God cannot be rationally or empirically grounded, as God by nature is trans-empirical. Moreover, the evidence at best shows Jesus to be a virtuous and honorable man, but not a God-man. Reason comprehends that this paradox cannot be comprehended. At this point, there are three ways that one’s intellect can respond to Christianity: by being offended; by not being offended at all, in which case there is no chance of becoming a Christian; and by knowing the possibility of offense but not being offended, in which case one becomes a Christian. Not surprisingly, Kierkegaard stipulated that “truth is subjectivity,”2 by which he meant that subjectivity is a condition for religious truth and that objective truth cannot make one a Christian. Christian truth is not in the mind but appropriated by the will, for “truth as subjectivity” is the truth that comes through committing one’s will rather than logical contemplation. All theological truth is subjective, but there is objective truth in other disciplines like the natural and physical sciences (e.g., mathematics, biology, chemistry, and physics) and the social sciences (e.g., history, political science, and sociology). Hence genuine disciples have no objective grounds for believing what they do. It is indeed absurd to be a Christian—there is no evidence to support it and evidence may very well refute it. Faith therefore demands a leap that is based not on anything objective but on the passion of inwardness that God gives to a person. For Kierkegaard, there are four steps in gaining subjective truth. First, one must reject an outward, objective orientation to things and therefore move beyond the aesthetic level. Second, one must develop a responsible inwardness of duty and so embrace the ethical level. Third, one must cultivate a passionate concern for eternal blessedness which surpasses anything else in life, thus approaching the religious level. Fourth, one must receive the paradoxical revelation of God in Christ, which is disturbingly subjective, and consequently live at the religious level.

At the height of his attack on the Danish established church, Kierkegaard wrote Training in Christianity (1850). Kierkegaard protested bitterly against basing one’s faith on “the upshot,”3 by which he meant the tangible results of Jesus’ earthly life throughout 1800 years of church history. Kierkegaard’s complaint is that one who tries to become a Christian due to the upshot is basing their belief on evidence, which is only approximate to the truth and can never bring eternal happiness. Thus one cannot even become a Christian through rationality, while the genuine Christian becomes spiritually contemporaneous with Christ by grasping faith beyond reason and experiencing the divine encounter. Kierkegaard asserted that we can know nothing about Christ from history, which is extremely radical since he did not make the distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Displaying amazing historical skepticism, Kierkegaard literally taught that history tells us nothing about either Christ as a man or Christ as God. Because the life of Christ is more important than the historical results of his life, any purported historical evidence is meaningless, for one must become a contemporary of Christ spiritually to find salvation. Kierkegaard illustrated his point with the illustration of six first-century figures—a wise and prudent man, a clergyman, a philosopher, a statesman, a solid citizen, and a mocker—who all became offended at Christ. Accordingly, historical contemporaneity with Jesus does nothing to make someone his disciple. Conclusion We conclude by reflecting on Kierkegaard’s theological program in its historical context.

Kierkegaard was horrified at what he considered an utter subversion of biblical Christianity to cultural Christendom in his native Denmark. Kierkegaard blamed this predicament on Hegel’s enormously influential philosophy, which he regarded as a counterfeit of true Christianity that threatened to destroy it. For Kierkegaard, Christianity is not a philosophy—much less an objective and speculative one like Hegel’s—and existence is not amenable to total rational comprehension. Truth, especially about God and the divine-human relationship, is not objective correspondence between thought and reality. Due to the “infinite qualitative difference”4 between the infinite God and finite, fallen humans, truth itself must be embraced in passionate inwardness through decision, a leap of faith that cannot be reduced to logical contemplation. In short, knowing God entails faith, and faith entails risk. Apart from that risk, an individual can have an ethical religion but not biblical Christianity.

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