Kierkegaard and Christianity
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Kierkegaard and Christianity

I ran across some of these tidbits over recent months that I thought worth passing along, and it’s a fitting time to do so at noon, typically the lunch hour. The first two are taken from an article by Martin J. Heinecken, “Kierkegaard as Christian,” Journal of Religion 37, no. 1 (Jan. 1957): 20–30. Heinecken was a professor of systematic theology at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.

He writes of Kierkegaard’s critical project against the state church of Denmark:

To be sure, he insisted that the true Christian must sooner or later in a hostile world suffer for the sake of the Lord. This is precisely what he found wrong with the Christianity of his day when everyone was a Christian as a matter of course, viz., that it required no suffering. Something was topsy-turvy when it required more inconvenience not to be a Christian than to be one (28).

A bit earlier Heinecken passed on a colorful anecdote that describes the nature of Christian suffering:

This suffering of the Christian is therefore by no means to be equated with the chance misfortunes of life that fall upon the just and the unjust. I shall not soon forget the Australian divine who gorged himself on good, old, solid, Australian beef, garnished with a few thick slices of mutton, plus all the assorted vegetables in season, and then finished this off with some concoction, euphemistically called “trifle,” which, as nearly as I could figure out, consisted of a considerable base of rich pastry topped with thick, syrupy fruit of various kinds—apples, peaches, pears, dates, nuts, etc.—and then was smothered in a thick covering of pure cream, not whipped into a froth like our insipid “Dairy Maid” concoctions, but the solid stuff, straight from the cow with all the air and water taken out and nothing left but the cream. This concoction is served on top of the meal in a sort of soup tureen and is eaten, not with a dainty little dessert spoon, but is literally “shoveled in” with the aid of two utensils, the soup spoon on the left hand and the fork serving as a sort of hay loader on the right. So this German-Australian divine, after a long communion service, after which he heaved a sigh of relief and said, “Nun is die ganze Herde wieder einmal gefüttert und getränkt” (“Now the whole herd has been once again fed and watered”), sat down and devoured the above-described little meal—just a token really of what a real man would do, for, after all, a parson is only half a man. There he sits now after the meal, all bloated with gas, and more and more he is convulsed in the most excruciating agony, more acute even than that of childbirth; he says, “Dies is mein Kreuz, dass der Herr mir aufgelegt had, das ich willig tragen muss” (“This is the cross the Lord has laid upon me which I must bear patiently”). This most certainly is not the suffering Kierkegaard had in mind (27).

And in connection with that striking portrait, here’s Kierkegaard’s description of his philosophical project, as appears through the person of Johannes Climacus in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript:

When a man has filled his mouth so full of food that for this reason he cannot eat and it must end with his dying of hunger, does communicating food to him consist in stuffing his mouth even more or, instead, in taking away a little so that he can eat? Similarly, when a man is very knowledgeable but his knowledge is meaningless or virtually meaningless to him, does sensible communication consist in giving him more to know, even if he loudly proclaims that this is what he needs, or does it consist, instead, in taking something away from him? When a communicator takes a portion of the copious knowledge that the very knowledgeable man knows and communicates it to him in a form that makes it strange to him, the communicated is, as it were, taking away his knowledge, at least until the knower manages to assimilate the knowledge by overcoming the resistance of the form.

I’ll pass along my provisional conclusion regarding the philosophy of Kierkegaard. Heinecken notes the observation of an anonymous German divine on Kierkegaard: “He is all right when you need a laxative, but not when you need good solid, nourishing food” (24).

But taking Kierkegaard’s own image of having a mouth full of food a bit further, his anti-Hegelian program could also be characterized as a sort of emetic philosophy: perfect for the expulsion of dangerous elements, and necessary perhaps in particular contexts as preparation for healthy intake. But it should not be confused with either milk or solid food itself (see 1 Cor. 3:2).

As is so often the case with reactive intellectual movements, Kierkegaard’s philosophy in his Philosophical Fragments is not immune to overcompensation. So while we might appreciate Kierkegaard’s motive and the extent of his success in undermining the Hegelian philosophical program, we should also exercise a measure of caution with respect to the agreeability of his philosophy with Christian theology.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.