The Reception Of Kierkegaard

Because Kierkegaard's writings had to be translated into other languages before they could become widely available outside Denmark, the initial reception of Kierkegaard in the seventy-odd years following his death was slow in coming.23 When it did come, it was quite mixed and often coloured by partisan reviews, misconceptions, and a lack of access to his writings other than The Moment, which was the first to be translated. This had the deleterious, off-putting effect of making Kierkegaard seem like a religious

23 For a detailed account see Malik (1997).

fanatic or even anti-Christian in his uncompromising critique of Christendom. When the cart is put before the horse in this manner, severing the critique from its context in the authorship as a whole, it is no wonder that the religious establishment gave him a cold shoulder. Beyond Scandinavia, where Kierkegaard's reputation as a literary writer was helped along by his influence on the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) and his Swedish counterpart August Strindberg (1849-1912), the initial interest in him was theological rather than literary or philosophical.24 The leader in the dissemination of Kierkegaard's theology in Germany was Johann Tobias Beck (1804-78), a professor of systematic theology at Tübingen for whom, according to Barth, Kierkegaard 'was the only distinguished theologian of the time of whom Beck had a good opinion'.25 Although Beck's impact on German theology was minimal, the introduction of Kierkegaard's writings to Germany was adversely affected by one of Beck's former students, Christoph Schrempf (1860-1944), a Lutheran pastor who was the general editor of the first German edition of Kierkegaard's works. While this translation had the merit of making Kierkegaard's works widely available in German, it was notorious for its errors, editorial excesses, and biased commentary by the disaffected editor, who resigned his pastorate and left the church upon reading the Dane.26 This disservice to Kierkegaard's legacy was counteracted by the translation of excerpts from some of Kierkegaard's writings by the Catholic writer and cultural critic Theodor Haecker (1879-1945) in the Austrian cultural periodical DerBrenner, which was widely read and respected by German-speaking intellectuals before and after the First World War, including Kafka, Heidegger, Husserl, Jaspers, and Wittgenstein.27 Acquaintance with Kierkegaard's writings in the rest of Europe was gained largely through these and other German translations and scholarship of the early twentieth century.28

Among the excerpts from Kierkegaard's writings translated by Haecker was 'The Present Age' in Two Ages, the second instalment of which appeared in Der Brenner just two weeks before the First World War broke out in 1914.29 It was thus at a time of great political crisis that the serious reception of Kierkegaard in Europe was taking place in modern theology, philosophy, and literature. This crisis was soon followed by a second one with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Protestant theologians who felt Kierkegaard's influence during these critical times included Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer,

24 Malik(199 7: 22 0). 25 Barth (1972: 618). 26 Malik(1997: 311-15, 332-8).

28 Malik (1997: 353). See also Thulstrup and Thulstrup (1981b, 1987).

Friedrich Gogarten, P. T. Forsyth, and Reinhold Niebuhr, among others. Catholic thinkers such as Erich Przywara, Romano Guardini, Cornelio Fabro, Hans Urs von Balthazar, and Henri de Lubac felt his impact as well.30 While many German theologians opposed the Nazi regime, some, such as Gogarten (briefly) and the distinguished Kierkegaard scholar Emmanuel Hirsch, supported National Socialism and its Protestant and Catholic sympathizers, thereby perhaps contributing to a misperception of Kierkegaard in some quarters.31 I cannot at this stage enter into an extensive discussion of Kierkegaard's contributions to twentieth-century theology, but a few words about his reception by some of these thinkers will at least give an indication of the kind of impact he had.

Although perhaps not as decisive an influence upon Karl Barth (18861968) as once generally believed, Kierkegaard clearly made a strong impact on the 'theology of crisis' or dialectical theology introduced in the 2nd edition of Barth's The Epistle to the Romans (192 2).32 Barth admitted as much in an address delivered in Copenhagen in 1963 in which he states that Kierkegaard 'was for us one of the cocks whose crowing seemed to proclaim from near and far the dawn of a really new day' and that he had 'remained faithful to Kierkegaard's reveille' throughout his theological life.33 Not only does Barth appropriate key Kierkegaardian terminology and concepts in his commentary on Romans, he asserts that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is a paradox that 'is not, and never will be, a self-evident truth' because it is inaccessible to historical and psychological experience, sense perception, imagination, and contemplation and therefore must be believed in faith, which is accessible to all, regardless of education, intelligence, temper of mind and heart, and economic status.34 Barth thus rejects all forms of natural religion and theology, especially post-Enlightenment liberal theologies of the nineteenth century, in the conviction that there is no way from humanity to a knowledge of God but only the way from God to humanity via the special revelation of God in Christ. But Barth later repudiated his association with Kierkegaard, concluding that the Dane 'was bound more closely to the nineteenth century than we at that time wanted to believe' inasmuch as the 'new anthropocentric system' he announced was, in Barth's revised judgement, a continuation of the liberal programme of Schleiermacher.35 Adopting the Anselmian

30 Thulstrup and Thulstrup (1981b); Roos (1954).

31 See Ericksen (1985); Law (2002); Gorringe (1999: 117-23, 129-30); Shiner (1966: 204-16).

32 McCormack (1995 : 2 1 6-17, 23 5-40). 33 Barth (1965: 5).

35 Barth(1965: 6). Barth's reading ofKierkegaard was apparently quite limited, as he owned only an abridged edn. of Kierkegaard's journals, Practice in Christianity, and the Schrempf translation of The Moment (see McCormack 1995: 235-6). There is no evidence that he read principle of 'faith seeking understanding' in his Church Dogmatics, Barth also identifies Christian faith with a rational knowledge of God, reverting to the sort of objective theology that Kierkegaard had contested.36 The most mystifying thing about Barth's later rejection of Kierkegaard, however, is that he is not included in Barth's great historical work, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century. This exclusion was certainly not justified and, given Barth's enormous status as a theologian, may well have had an adverse effect on the reception of Kierkegaard as a theological thinker in the twentieth century. In the foreword to the English translation of this work Barth warns that the reader 'will find all sorts of gaps that I would not leave open today'.37 Presumably Kierkegaard was one of those gaps, inasmuch as in his Copenhagen address Barth states: 'I consider him to be a teacher into whose school every theologian must go once. Woe to him who has missed it! So long as he does not remain in or return to it!'38

Emil Brunner (1889-1966), a close associate of Barth until a sharp controversy erupted between them over the relation of religion and natural theology to Christian faith, continued to reflect a Kierkegaardian perspective in his understanding of faith as a personal encounter with the revelation of God in Christ.39 Like Barth, Brunner denies the ability of natural theology to arrive at a genuine knowledge ofGod, but he distinguishes natural theology from the general revelation of God given in the creation of humanity in the image of God, which in his view provides a point of contact between God and humanity that is perverted but not erased by sin.40 For Brunner, therefore, theological anthropology in the form of an eristic or polemical theology against natural theology is a legitimate propaedeutic to dogmatic theology in that it compels one to abandon a theoretical or speculative attitude towards one's existence in the realization that true self-knowledge is attained only when one understands oneself 'in the light of faith in the Creator revealed in Christ'.41 Brunner views Kierkegaard as having devoted his intellectual genius to the relation between Christian and non-Christian thought. Calling him 'the greatest Christian thinker of modern times', Brunner credits Kierkegaard and, under his influence, dialectical theology with bringing about a dissolution of the classical synthesis

Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript, the two most important texts relating to the question of whether there is an anthropological or immanent point of contact between human beings and God, which Schleiermacher affirms but Kierkegaard denies on the basis of original sin.

36 Barth (1949: 22-7); cf. Gouwens (1996: 20). 37 Barth (1972: 11).

39 Brunner (1946: 9, 399). See also McGrath (1994: 148-53); Nicholls (1969: 139-44).

41 Brunner (1952: 72); see also McCormack (1995: 403-4).

between philosophy and theology, reason and revelation, but he rightly points out that Kierkegaard did not intend 'to discredit the use of reason' in opposing reason and faith.42 On the contrary, Brunner maintains that 'Kierkegaard himself is an example of a truly great thinker who was a Christian, and, indeed, a very great Christian who was a thinker, and not only a theological but a philosophical thinker... who used his great philosophical powers in the service of his faith.'43

Unlike Barth, Paul Tillich (1886-1965) includes Kierkegaard in his Perspectives on Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Protestant Theology and refers to him sporadically in his systematic theology and other writings. For Tillich, Kierkegaard's importance lies in his critique of Hegel's theology of mediation and in his analyses of anxiety, despair, the stages of life, and the dialectic between Religiousness A (the coincidence of the infinite and the finite in every human being) and Religiousness B (the revelation of the gap between the divine and human due to sin or estrangement in Christianity).44 Tillich identifies this dialectic as being important in his own theology, which contains an existentialist analysis of the estrangement between God and human beings that is indebted to Kierkegaard's analysis of the human condition.45 Tillich also embraces the notion of paradox with reference to Jesus as the Christ but rejects the traditional understanding of the incarnation as God becoming man, which in his view is nonsensical and pagan in connotation.46 For Tillich Christ is the 'New Being' who is the bearer of essential humanity or the re-established unity of God and man in the form of an 'Eternal God-Manhood', which is precisely what Kierkegaard opposed in his critique of the Hegelian Christologies of his day.47 Tillich's method of correlation, in which the content of the Christian faith is explained theologically by correlating the existential questions implied in the human situation with the ontological answers implied in divine revelation, may also be seen from a Kierkegaardian perspective as another version of the Hegelian attempt to translate Christian concepts into another conceptual framework in order to make them more understandable and digestible to modern culture.48

Focusing on the problem of the historical Jesus in relation to the existential decision of faith, Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) developed a full-fledged existentialist theology of the New Testament that owes much to Kierkegaard but also differs from him in some important respects.49 Bultmann was introduced to Kierkegaard through the dialectical theology

42 Brunner (1946: 310, 376). 43 Ibid. 3 77. 44 Tillich (1967: 162-80).

45 Tillich (1951-63: ii. 19-78; 1952: 86-154). 46 Tillich (1951-63: ii. 90-5).

47 Ibid. 94-5, 148-9; see also Nicholls (1969: 254).

48 Tillich (1951-63: i. 59-66); see also Gouwens (1996: 11-12).

49 See Wolf (1965: 61-92), for a comparative study of Barth, but the Dane's influence upon him was also mediated through the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, whose analysis of the structure of human existence is deeply indebted to Kierkegaard. Seeking to demythologize or reinterpret the New Testament kerygma (proclamation of Christ) in Heideggerian existentialist terms that supposedly clarify its anthropological meaning and open up the possibility of authentic existence for modern individuals through an existential encounter with Christ in the kerygma, Bultmann is subject to the same charge of philosophical mediation and cultural accommodation as Tillich.50 In the spirit of Kierkegaard, however, Bultmann rejects the objectification of the kerygma in theology because in his view it distorts the gospel for contemporary hearers by presenting existential truths in objectivist terms that allow them to evade the existential decision of faith.51

Of all the twentieth-century theologians influenced by Kierkegaard, none embraced and embodied his view of Christian discipleship and martyrdom as did Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45). Although Barth was the leader of the German Confessing Church's theological opposition to the Nazi political regime, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and executed for his involvement in the German resistance movement.52 Kierkegaard's influence on Bonhoeffer is most evident in Discipleship (Nachfolge), in which Bonhoeffer, reminiscent of Kierkegaard's attack on Christendom, indicts the 'cheap grace' offered by the secularized, bourgeois church of his time in contrast to the 'costly grace' of the incarnation and Christian discipleship, which involves obedience, suffering, rejection, and bearing one's cross in likeness to Christ.53 Like Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer believes that the only way to follow Jesus is by living in the world—a view that is radicalized in his prison writings as he reflects on who Christ is for us today, namely the man for others in a world come of age that has no need of an omnipotent, transcendent God in the form of a false and other-worldly deus ex machina (mechanical god) who comes when called. 54 Just before his death Bonhoeffer began working out a secular interpretation of biblical concepts in the form of a religionless Christianity and non-metaphysical view of God as a this-worldly transcendence encountered in the weakness, humiliation, suffering, and cross

50 See Gouwens (1996: 11-12), contra Wolf (1965: 67). 51 Nicholls (1969: 179-81).

52 On Barth's role in the struggle against fascism see Gorringe (1999: 117-23, 158-63). See also Nicholls (1969: 109-16 on Barth and 202-12 on Bonhoeffer).

53 Bonhoeffer (2001). Bonhoeffer used an anthology of selections from Kierkegaard's later journals and notebooks—incorrectly identified in the new English edn. as a 'book' by Kierkegaard titled Der Einzelne und die Kirche: Über Luther und den Protestantismus (The Individual and the Church: On Luther and Protestantism)—as a source for this work, previously translated under the title The Cost of Discipleship.

54 Bonhoeffer (1997: 281-2, 286, 325-7, 341, 360-1).

of Christ.55 Although Bonhoeffer's embrace of secularism runs the danger of collapsing into the very autonomy, immanence, and aesthetic forms of worldliness that Kierkegaard opposed, he appeals to a 'secret discipline' that presumably will preserve and protect the spiritual content of Christianity until it can be reinterpreted in an idiom that speaks to a godless age.56

Like Tillich and Bultmann, Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), the foremost American political theologian of the twentieth century, reflects Kierkegaard's analysis of anxiety, sin, human freedom, and selfhood in his theological anthropology. In his magnum opus, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Niebuhr unabashedly claims that 'Kierkegaard's analysis of the relation of anxiety to sin is the profoundest in Christian thought'.57 Placing his focus primarily on the social and political existence of human beings, Niebuhr takes aim at secular and Christian liberalism in America, countering the sociopolitical optimism and utopianism of the social gospel of the 1930s with a dialectical analysis of the biblical account of original sin in the individual and society which in his view provides a more realistic assessment of the human condition and the prospects for love and justice in human history.

Among Catholic theologians influenced by Kierkegaard, Erich Przy-wara, SJ (1889-1972) stands out for his classic study of Kierkegaard's relationship to Catholicism, Das Geheimnis Kierkegaards (The Mystery of Kierkegaard, 1929), in which Kierkegaard is seen as transcending Lutheranism in the direction of Catholicism in his emphasis upon authority and ordination and in his mystical affinity with St John of the Cross concerning 'the abandonment of Christ and the uncertainty of life's darkness'.58 Przywara also finds in Kierkegaard's life, if not also in his writings, an appreciation of women and the feminine that anticipates a positive interpretation of Kierkegaard's view of women in some contemporary Catholic feminist studies.59

It is too early to determine how the theology of Kierkegaard will be received in the present century, although he is already being hailed in some quarters as a proto-postmodernist whose ethical and religious insights are being appropriated for the purpose of deconstructing traditional metaphysics or ontotheology and negative or apophatic theology in the name of difference or the tout autre (absolutely other or the impossible) that presumably makes possible a 'demystified, deconstructed' Christianity.60 But if we are to think theologically or Christianly in an existential manner

55 Ibid. 279-81, 2 85-6, 3 6 0-1, 381-2 . 56 Ibid. 281, 286.

57 Niebuhr (1951: 182). 58 Roos (1954: p. xii); O'Meara (2002: 127-8).

60 Caputo (1995: 233; 1997); see also Derrida (1995); Dooley (2001); Westphal (1997);

Cupitt (1997).

as Kierkegaard enjoins us to do, it is important to read his works first of all on their own terms, that is, as indirect communications to the reader, 'that single individual', for the sake of personal appropriation, rather than as theological fodder that must be translated into some other conceptual framework in order to have contemporary relevance. Only then will Kierkegaard be truly read for the first time, even though we may have read him many times previously.

Transcend the Power of Words

Transcend the Power of Words

Finally, The Secrets Of Affirmations Unrevealed... Who Else Wants The Ultimate Guide To Affirmations And Witness Its Magic To Change Your Life Forever? Discover How Ordinary People Can Live Extraordinary Lives Through Affirmations!

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment