Today, we want to draw a portrait of Kierkegaard. And so, let’s begin by thinking like an artist. Edward Hopper said:
“If I could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.”
We are looking at the first chapter in Mark Tietjen’s excellent book, Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians (InterVarsity Press, 2016). Tietjin believes Kierkegaard has lots to say to the church today; but to hear what he (either Kierkegaard or Tietjen) has to say, we have to set Kierkegaard in the right context. So, who was Kierkegaard? As we will see, he was a man of many hats. So, let’s begin our portrait.
Who was Kierkegaard? He was a philosopher. At least, that is how most people think of him. If you want to read something by Kierkegaard, you go to the philosophy section. If you want more specific help, find the sections marked, “existentialism,” or perhaps, “postmodernism.” If you want to read his friends, check out Sartre and/or Camus. At least, that is what most people think. But while there is no doubt that Kierkegaard was a philosopher and thought about things as a philosopher would, many people would argue that he was not a philosopher. For instance, Bertrand Russell would argue that he wasn’t. For proof, look at Russell’s almost 900-page history of Western Philosophy and count the number of times Kierkegaard is mentioned. It is easy to do because Kierkegaard isn’t mentioned at all. Why? Because Russell felt that Kierkegaard fit better in our second category than this one (he’s a theologian or maybe a religious philosopher). Plus, to be a philosopher, according to Russell, one had to be shaped by philosophical ideas, but Kierkegaard’s ideas were all shaped by his Christianity. Hence, Kierkegaard was not a true philosopher. Tietjen writes:
“Nevertheless, it should be emphasized that the rigor with which Kierkegaard thinks about a variety of topics central to human life exhibits a strong commitment both to wisdom and to intellectual excellence.”
And that sounds like philosophy to me! You decide if this quote gives evidence of a philosophy or is it more of a Christian philosophy of life? Kierkegaard wrote:
“It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.”
Henry David Thoreau said:
“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
Who was Kierkegaard? He was a theologian. Kierkegaard was deeply frustrated by Christendom. Over the centuries, something strange had happened: Kierkegaard said that one could become a Christian “without noticing it.” And in regards to living the Christian life, “everything became as simple as pulling on one’s socks.” Kierkegaard felt called to make Christianity more difficult. And he does this by critiquing the church, by wrestling with various Bible passages and by discussing numerous theological topics. But none of this surprises us. We know Kierkegaard is a Christ follower, even if we didn’t realize how much of his writing is devoted to calling the church to live out their faith. But this gives me the opportunity to insert my favorite Kierkegaard quote (which is very apropos here):
“The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.”
Vincent Van Gogh wrote:
“I dream of painting, and then I paint my dream.”
Who was Kierkegaard? He was a psychologist. Now obviously, modern psychology as we know it today did not exist in Kierkegaard’s day, but Kierkegaard was focused on understanding the self. Eric Johnson, a psychologist and Christian theologian, even calls Kierkegaard, “the father of Christian psychology.” We can see why in Kierkegaard’s discussion on what it means to be human, what keeps us from obtaining our overarching purpose in life and what effect sin has on us. Teitjen writes:
“In particular, Kierkegaard discerns the multifarious ways our need and desire for God gets highjacked by our will not to be who God created us to be.”
But it is not only that Kierkegaard discussed these things from a strictly academic position. Hardly. He was caring and nurturing and extremely honest and forthright. Read the following words from Kierkegaard in this light:
“To venture causes anxiety, but not to venture is to lose one’s self. . . . And to venture in the highest is precisely to be conscious of one’s self. . . . Face the facts of being what you are, for that is what changes what you are.”
I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a therapist to me!
Edgar Degas wrote:
“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
Who was Kierkegaard? He was a prophet and a missionary. Now, we usually think of a prophet proclaiming God’s word (usually of repentance) to God’s people, the church (for instance, Jeremiah was called to speak to Judah; Amos was called to address the nation of Israel). Missionaries, on the other hand, speak to unchurched people (think here of the Great Commission and going into all the world). But what do you do when your target audience are the unchurched who are in the church and believe with all of their heart that they belong there? This was Kierkegaard’s dilemma. He is compelled to speak to an audience who did not feel any need whatsoever to listen. And yet, Kierkegaard was a prophet, and as Abraham Heschel said:
“The prophet’s word is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.”
I think it is safe to say that Kierkegaard not only felt, but proclaimed, the blast from heaven as illustrated in this quote:
“The established church is far more dangerous to Christianity than any heresy or schism. We play at Christianity. We use all the orthodox Christian terminology–but everything, everything without character. . . . There is something frightful in the fact that the most dangerous thing of all, playing at Christianity, is never included in the list of heresies or schisms.”
And again: “The apostasy from Christianity will not come about by everybody openly renouncing Christianity; no, but slyly, cunningly, by everybody assuming the name of being Christian.”
This was Kierkegaard, a prophet and a missionary to Christendom.
Claude Monet said:
“Color is my daylong obsession, joy, and torment.
Who was Kierkegaard? He was a poet. Throughout all of his writings, Kierkegaard used his talents to capture not only the mind of his audience through philosophical argument, but their hearts and wills, as well, through poetry and parables and colorful, lyrical speech. His writing is engaging, meaningful and, at times, quite funny. But his charm is not in the beauty of his speech, but in the way he uses this beauty to trap us unawares into the truth. Here’s a great example of his skill:
“The truth is a trap: you cannot get it without it getting you; you cannot get the truth by capturing it, only by its capturing you.”
“The poetic, Kierkegaard believed, could touch deeply the pathos-filled core of the Christian faith better than didactic sermons or classroom lectures.”
I think he was right. Beauty, not argument, will win the day. And while I could argue for this point, it is better to let Kierkegaard speak for himself. He wrote:
“How absurd men are! They never use the liberties they have. Instead, they demand those they do not have. They have freedom of thought; they demand freedom of speech.”
Here’s another which is both profound and fun:
“It is the duty of the human understanding to understand that there are things which it cannot understand…”
And this one which I fear is also true:
“Take away paradox from the thinker and you have a professor.”
But this is my favorite:
“Now, with God’s help, I shall become myself.”
So, who was Kierkegaard? He was a philosopher, a theologian, a psychologist, a prophet and a poet all wrapped into one. This one paragraph from Kierkegaard’s, “The Point of View for My Work as An Author,” puts it all together brilliantly. Kierkegaard writes:
“If One Is Truly to Succeed in Leading a Person to a Specific Place, One Must First and Foremost Take Care to Find Him Where He is and Begin There.
This is the secret in the entire art of helping.
Anyone who cannot do this is himself under a delusion
if he thinks he is able to help someone else.
In order truly to help someone else, I must understand more than he–
but certainly, first and foremost, understand what he understands.
If I do not do that, then my greater understanding does not help him at all.
If I nevertheless want to assert my greater understanding,
then it is because I am vain or proud,
then basically, instead of benefiting him, I really want to be admired by him.
But all true helping begins with a humbling.
The helper must first humble himself under the person he wants to help
and thereby understand that to help is not to dominate but to serve,
that to help is a not to be the most dominating but the most patient,
that to help is a willingness, for the time being, to put up with being in the wrong
and not understanding what the other understands.”
Edgar Degas brilliantly said:
“Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.”
En Garde with Kierkegaard
At the end of every post in this series, I want to drive home a few points by asking a few questions and give you one great Kierkegaard quote to ponder.
- Which of these five designations speaks to your heart most powerfully? Why?
- Which of these five designations do you feel is most needed in our world today? Why?
- Which of Kierkegaard’s five designations surprises you the most?
- In your opinion, should Christ followers be suspicious of philosophy? Why or why not?
- What would be the best way to share God’s truth with someone who did not want to hear it?
- Do you feel there are any examples of a poet today? Who?
- In the long quote from “The Point of View for My Work as An Author,” where do you see the handiwork of the philosopher, the theologian, the psychologist, the prophet and the poet?
And one last quote to ponder:
“Christianity has been made so completely devoid of character that there is really nothing to persecute. The chief trouble with Christians, therefore, is that no one wants to kill them anymore!”
More next week. Thanks for reading.