Right off the bat, I’ll own that this title is pretentious. But I just had this realization, and I think it’s profoundly true. I’ll need to improve my titling skills, because while this post should be broadly relatable, I’m sure the title scared most people away. But not you, dear reader. Thanks for giving me a chance here.
The 19th Century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard is one of the most influential thinkers in history. If that statement surprises you, it’s because his thinking comes to most of us indirectly through many currently-influential voices. He’s the philosopher equivalent of the bands who influenced the Beatles, who in turn influenced every musician you’ve ever enjoyed.
But he doesn’t do much direct influencing of modern readers because it takes a lot of work to dig into. (Follow me on this—I promise it will pay off.) For one thing, he wrote a ton of books, and those books tend to have many hundreds of pages. But to make matters exceedingly irritating, many of Kierkegaard’s books were written under numerous pseudonyms (Victor Eremita, John Climacus, Anti-Climacus, Hilarius Bookbinder, etc. etc. etc.). And some of these works claim to be compilations of writings from still others. Some of these pseudonyms seem to represent more nearly than others what Kierkegaard himself believed, but it’s impossible to be sure.
Kierkegaard would play games with these pseudonyms. He would release two books by two different pseudonyms on the same day, or within a couple of weeks of each other. While he was producing these works, he would be sure to be seen in public frequently so that no one would suspect him of being the author of these works (a bit of theatre that worked for a time, but not for long). These books would offer different points of view on Christianity, philosophy, ethics, and society. Kierkegaard also published several books under his own name, but it still takes a lot of brainpower to untangle the relationship between this Kierkegaard and the pseudonymous authors of Kierkegaard’s other books.
Because of these bizarre methods, there’s no consensus on what Kierkegaard himself actually believed, no universally agreed upon “theology of Soren Kierkegaard.” I’m tempted to think of that as a frustrating loss. But I’m realizing that it’s not. It’s actually a gift.
How can I possibly claim that this quirky, controversial, confusing philosopher could save our world? Because the kind of reading that his books require would make us all better citizens and dismantle our biggest hurdle to mutual understanding.
When I first started reading Kierkegaard’s works, I read them as I read any book. I was in search of “Kierkegaard’s theology.” I wanted to know his views on things. When I do this with any author, I get a feel for their positions, and then I decide whether or not I agree with Calvin or Keller or Wright or Lewis. When I think about it, it’s extremely binary. But this is actually unhealthy. Because I actually agree with and disagree with all of these authors.
What is this pull I feel to identify with some authors over others, as though I need to check [favorite author]’s views before I know what I believe? Wouldn’t it be healthier to learn from each author and pull the most helpful parts from each? Isn’t it most important to walk away with deeper understanding and inwardly transformed as a result of wrestling with an author’s arguments? How does it help me to be able to claim to “agree with John Piper” or whomever, as though it’s all or nothing? Are we not perpetuating the problem by relying on a few individuals to do our thinking for us? Really, it just makes us all that much more divided. Encamped. Partisan.
But Kierkegaard’s bizarre style won’t let us get away with this. You have to think for yourself. When you read Kierkegaard, you have to engage with his actual arguments, because you never really know what it means to “agree with Kierkegaard.” You have to decide, to “judge for yourself,” to use a Kierkegaardian phrase. With each pseudonym; each book; each paragraph, sentence, and argument, you must weigh and decide what you think.
It’s infuriating. And exhausting. And healthy.
Our political climate is so polarized. You’re republican or you’re democrat. You’re pro or anti whomever. You’re pro this or anti that. We deal in sound bites, in memes. And your response has to be instant. You have to be outraged or impressed within seconds, and if you don’t make a social media statement right now then you’re siding for or against someone or something bad or good. IT’S US OR THEM! RIGHT NOW! Our figure head has made this or that statement, so fall in line!
Don’t you hate it? Isn’t it ugly? Don’t you feel in your bones that we need something better, something more sustainable?
What we need, I submit, is a Kierkegaardian way of reading things. Take your time. You’ll have to decide, but don’t simply follow the party line. Do your homework. Weigh each comment, each argument, each moment on its own merits. It’s not about blind adherence, it’s about the journey.
Judge for yourself.
Kierkegaard also rails against indecision, so you do have to make up your mind. Deciding is important, but you’re not allowed to decide by default, by blindly following your tribe’s voting guide or statement of faith. If we could all retrain our habits of engagement in light of Kierkegaard’s infuriatingly inefficient approach, perhaps we’d learn to understand each other better, to renounce the “hot take.” We would then develop wise, patiently-formed, true-to-the-depths-of-our-soul convictions, and we could hold hands and walk away from the echo chambers we’ve been told to pledge allegiance to.
[If you want to give Kierkegaard a try, I recommend starting with this fantastic biography, or this brief but helpful guide to his thought.]