SØren Aabye Kierkegaard considered himself a poet and a midwife of sorts, “assisting at the birth of individual subjectivity by forcing his contemporaries to think for themselves” (McDonald, 2009, Kierkegaard’s Rhetoric section, para. 3). He is considered by others to be the founder and father of existentialism, though it was never his intention to set up a system of thought (Arbaugh & Arbaugh, 1967). Kierkegaard’s writings seek to influence the reader to prove their existence by choice, through facing the crisis of freedom. The ultimate choice is that one chooses to believe, rather than be offended by, the Absurd – defined by Kierkegaard as the incarnation of Christ (Arbaugh & Arbaugh, 1967). He has contributed to the fields of philosophy, theology, and psychology and was a thinker ahead of his time. His ideas are especially relevant to our 21st century, culturally Christian society.
Kierkegaard: Witness to the Truth, Knight of Faith
SØren Aabye Kierkegaard was born in 1813 in Copenhagen, Denmark to Mikaël Pederson and Anna SØrensdatter Lund Kierkegaard. He is regarded as the founder of existential philosophy (Arbaugh & Arbaugh, 1967). Kierkegaard was an intellectual genius whose life was committed to addressing the common man through his writings. He saw the public as a people who were not authentically living their lives and sought to awaken their consciences. Kierkegaard’s time in history was marked by a societal shift from feudalism to capitalism (McDonald, 2009). Choice was a novel concept which brought with it a crisis of freedom thrust upon a people learning how to survive in a socially horizontal, rather than hierarchical, society. He posited that existence is not merely living and dying, going about ones daily functions of mindlessly eating, sleeping, and reproducing; rather, existence is living a life of responsible choices and freedoms, marked by a spiritual commitment to God. Co-authors George B. and George E. Arbaugh, in their book Kierkegaard’s Authorship (1967), explain that for Kierkegaard existence is “To seek and acquire the essence which God has in once sense already given” (p. 24).
Much of Kierkegaard’s adult life was lived in solitude, having spent most of his time authoring articles, pamphlets, and books. He was betrothed to a woman named Regine Olsen, but he terminated the relationship, due to his “dreadful secret of melancholy” and feeling compelled to live a life of religious solitude (Jolivet, 1946, p. 19). Kierkegaard authored over 35 works, publishing almost half of them under pseudonyms, including Judge Wilhem, “A”, Johannes de Silento, Johannes Climacus, and Anti-Climacus. Kierkegaard would also publish more than one book in the same day in order to present contrasting opinions and paradoxes to the reader (MacIntyre, 1998). According to William McDonald (2009) in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous authorship presents a progression through the three existential stages.
Upon his death in 1855, he considered himself a martyr for the Christian faith (Jolivet, 1946). Though it seems that he came dangerously close to leaving Christianity, it shall be revealed that Kierkegaard was a witness to the truth and a knight of faith. Kierkegaard’s prolific writings have influenced modern ethical thought through his contributions to philosophy, theology, and psychology. Ahead of his time, yet fitting perfectly into his 19th century existence, Kierkegaard’s ideas are just as relevant and necessary today.
Kierkegaard’s philosophy centers on what he called the three spheres of existence. When Kierkegaard wrote of these spheres, as ultimately achieved in his writing Postscript, but also explained in his earlier works Either/Or and Stages, he did not intend to have the reader understand these spheres as stages which one progresses through, but rather as three different ways of existing (Jolivet, 1946). These spheres include the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious (Arbaugh & Arbaugh, 1967). The first is the aesthetic which concerns itself with what one sees and experiences such as music, art, poetry, and theater. In it one holds a sense of wonder for the natural world, and it is here that our most base passions, such as food and sex, keep us occupied with the present moment. The aesthetic is characterized by desire and spontaneity and holds no to higher moral law or sense of responsibility; it is in a way animalistic.
The second stage is the ethical, where one chooses to lead a life of morality. This would be the sphere of existence where one is concerned with obedience to governing authorities and possesses a sense of duty. Arbaugh and Arbaugh (1967) explain the ethical as “a quasi-religious consciousness of the moral law,” and a “form of godly repentance arising as an acknowledgment of the debacle of the moral endeavor” (p. 28). It is here that one chooses to either remain in a place of self-righteousness marked by morality or realizes the cruel deception of self-righteousness and seeks yet a higher level of being.
Kierkegaard named the ultimate sphere of existence the religious. This is not merely head knowledge of the Absurd, which Kierkegaard would define more precisely as the incarnation of Christ, but a heart knowledge which consisted of devotion to God made through a subjective choice (Arbaugh & Arbaugh, 1967). When one is in the religious sphere of existence, the aesthetic and the ethical are realized and “redeemed so that full human existence is found” (Arbaugh & Arbaugh, 1967, p. 31). Therefore, it can be understood that living a life of authentic Christianity is the ultimate goal of existence.
However, these spheres should not be understood as necessarily progressive in nature. One does not evolve or grow into the next existential state naturally; rather, they are entered into through a cognizant choice to do so. Some remain forever in the aesthetic, concerned only with the here and now, the fleeting pleasures of today. Still, others live their whole lives in the ethical sphere as good upstanding citizens and moral saints. It is only those who choose to believe in the absurdity of the Christian faith that Kierkegaard regards as fulfilling their existence and living essentially for that which they were ultimately created (Jolivet, 1946).
Understanding Kierkegaard’s three spheres, it is then understood that one can only be authentically Christian when one passes to the religious sphere by means of what he called a ‘leap’ of faith (Jolivet, 1946). To Kierkegaard, Christ was the essential paradox where one chooses “either to be offended or to believe” (Jolivet, 1946, p. 54). When one makes the decision to believe, one is living in authentic faith. While Kierkegaard believed that faith is not merited, the decision to believe is authenticated and must be marked by “works of love” (Arbaugh & Arbaugh, 1967, p. 400). A true Christian existence is not merely concerned with the eternal, nor is it characterized by being too focused on the temporal. To put it simply, our earthly life is the place where the stuff of eternal faith is lived out; in this we fulfill our essence.
Kierkegaard challenged the notion of being a Christian-by-proxy, that by being born into Christendom one has a complete, authentic Christian faith. He confronted a cultural Christianity which relied upon knowledge of faith, as opposed to a true, subjective experience of it (Tomkins, 2005). “To find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die” is this subjectivism as defined by Kierkegaard (Tomkins, 2005, p. 212). Rather than finding Christ only by means of the state church, Christianity depends on the individual. One cannot be reasoned into Christianity, by philosophy or science; rather, faith is a gift of God, a supernatural, irrational thing (Jolivet, 1946, p. 55).
Kierkegaard also pointed a stern finger at the state-church, Lutheranism. In Walter Lowrie’s translation of Attack upon “Christendom” (1855/1968), a compilation of Kierkegaard’s writings directed toward the church, his distaste of the relationship between state and church is evident. He warns of “the danger of letting thyself be caught, or that thou are caught, in the monstrous illusion the State and the priest brought about, making men believe that this is Christianity” (Kierkegaard, 1855/1968, p. 60). It is important to note that Kierkegaard was critical of the Lutheran church as an institution, but he was “undoubtedly on Luther’s side” regarding Luther’s theological convictions concerning the nature of sin, justification by faith alone through grace, and the importance of personal communion with God (Jolivet, 1946, p. 207).
A major theme for Kierkegaard was that faith cannot be defined rationally, argued logically, or proved scientifically. This challenged the reigning Hegelian view of rationalism. The incarnation of Jesus Christ is the paradox of the Absurd, that “in the Instant the eternal God entered into time” (Arbaugh & Arbaugh, p. 136). Regis Jolivet (1946) explains in Introduction to Kierkegaard that apologetics was viewed as Kierkegaard as antithetical to faith: “The man who wishes to prove belief has something further to learn, namely that he does not believe” (p. 52).
In Kierkegaard’s famous book Fear and Trembling (1843/1954), written under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio, the ‘knight of faith’ is introduced. As the familiar story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac is retold, Kierkegaard invites the reader to consider “that God demand[ed] a suspension of the ethical,” that is, Abraham’s duty to God was more pressing than his ethical duty to man (McDonald, 2009, Kierkegaard’s Ethics section, para. 6). In this way, Abraham was a ‘knight of faith’ because he was able to suspend ethics, no matter how absurd, in obedience to a Higher Law, that is, God. With Abraham, Kierkegaard also considered the Virgin Mary to be a ‘knight of faith.’ He explained this in Fear and Trembling (1843/1954):
She has no need of worldly admiration, any more than Abraham has need of tears, for she was not a heroine, and he was not a hero, but both of them became greater than such, not at all because they were exempted from distress and torment and paradox, but they became great through these.
Kierkegaard is regarded as the father of existentialism, though it was not his wish to found a new school of thought (Arbaugh & Arbaugh, 1967). He witnessed a society that was changing from feudalism to capitalism and thus required people to become individuals, to make their own choices (McDonald, 2009). The hierarchical system was abolished and social mobility was more fluid and horizontal. This gave Kierkegaard the perfect setting to challenge the public, pushing them toward a kind of existential crisis. His goal in writing was not to give the public definitive answers, but to persuade them to make a choice that would prove their individualism (Jolivet, 1946).
Rollo May, the founder of existential psychotherapy was heavily influenced by the Kierkegaardian themes of freedom, death, and isolation (Hoffman, 2009). Kierkegaard’s dialectic of freedom of choice states that “to exist is to choose” and that we have both the liberty to choose and the necessity to do so (Jolivet, 1946, p. 101). Anxiety arises out of this freedom. Arbaugh and Arbaugh’s (1967) commentary on Kierkegaard’s essay “The Concept of Dread” explains to the reader that to experience dread is “to be anxious over the possibilities of the future” (p. 160). This is a foundational theme in modern existential therapy. Death was also a very important thing to reflect on, in Kierkegaard’s mind, in that it is something that should disturb us (Arbaugh & Arbaugh, 1967). Within modern existential therapy, death is a theme used to encourage people to face the reality of life and to move toward an embracing of the freedom of choice (Hoffman, 2009). Isolation as an existential theme well known to Kierkegaard, as quoted in Jolivet’s (1946) Introduction to Kierkegaard: “The need of solitude is a sign that there is spirit in a man after all, and it is a measure for what spirit there is” (p. 24). Kierkegaard himself illuminates this concept in his book Either/Or (1843/1944):
When around one everything has become silent, solemn as a clear, starlit night, when the soul comes to be alone in the whole world, then before one there appears, not an extraordinary human being, but the eternal power itself, then the heavens open, and the I chooses itself or, more correctly, receives itself.
Another key to understanding Kierkegaard’s psychological influence is his promotion of individuality, or becoming the true self. To become “authentic”, one must differentiate himself from the “public,” or the masses of people who are “enslaved by the ideologies and fashions of the age” (Arbaugh & Arbaugh, 1967, p. 410). Understanding the three stages of existence, it becomes clear that those who are enraptured in the aesthetic stage are among those described as the ‘public,’ being caught up in the temporal and popular. Then it must follow that to reach authenticity, to progress to another stage, one must face the anxiety that accompanies freedom of choice and simply choose. This would be proof to Kierkegaard of authentic existence.
Kierkegaard’s life was lived in a metaphysical solitude; however his ideas and philosophy of being are embraced by a multitude today. Being the father of existentialism, Kierkegaard is one of the most influential authors of the 19th century. His contributions to philosophy, theology, and psychology are abundant, important, and relevant. He was indeed a ‘witness to the truth’ and a ‘knight of faith.’
Jolivet (1946) quotes the man’s own definition of a ‘witness to the truth’ as one who “bears witness to the truth in poverty, in humiliation and contempt, misunderstood, hated, mocked at, despised, ridiculed. A witness to the truth is a martyr” (p. 34). Kierkegaard most certainly fits this definition. In his local paper, The Corsair
, Kierkegaard was attacked, made fun of, and endured “suffering for the cause of righteousness” (Arbaugh & Arbaugh, 1967, p. 228). Kierkegaard defines a ‘knight of faith’ in Fear and Trembling
and points to Abraham and Mary (Jolivet, 1946). It is evident that he fits this description as well, though he probably did not give himself the title. For he too sought a Higher Law, like Abraham, that was over and above ethics. He sacrificed his love for Regine Olsen and his even own life, at least in his mind, to a relentless pursuit of truth, in order to spurn us on toward the upward call of God (Arbaugh & Arbaugh, 1967).
Kierkegaard knew that he would not be understood by his contemporaries or the ‘professors’ to come. In The Point of View (1848/1940) he wrote:
So it is I represent myself. Should it prove that the present age will not understand me—very well then, I belong to history, knowing assuredly that I shall find a place there and what place it will be. Humble as I am before God, I also know this—and at the same time I know it is my duty definitely not to suppress this in silence (pg. 98).
Arbaugh and Arbaugh (1967) posit, “The twentieth century is marked by anxiety and even by anguish, and perhaps no voice speaks to these more pertinently and provocatively than Kierkegaard” (p. 17). As we deal with the crises of life, the meaning of freedom, the plethora of choices that rise before our generation, the philosophy of Kierkegaard is still relevant. God created us for a purpose, this is our essence; to exist is to live that for which we were created. This is the ultimate choice – to exist in acceptance of God’s purpose for us.
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