A Memorial Tribute to Søren Kierkegaard
The eleventh of this month will mark the one hundredth anniversary of the death of Søren Kierkegaard, one of Denmark’s outstanding contributions to the world of thought and letters. To mark this anniversary, theologians, philosophers, and literary critics will examine his significance in the history of their disciplines, and will assess the blessings yet to be expected from his writings. There will, no doubt, be several books about Kierkegaard on the occasion of the anniversary. There should be. As one who has perpetrated one or two on this subject himself, I firmly believe that he continues to have a word to say to the theological, intellectual, and cultural life of our time and clime.
But as the little wreath I want to lay at his tomb, I propose this time to emphasize another, perhaps even an opposite aspect of his importance. Though it may properly be said of Kierkegaard, as it was of Lincoln, that “he belongs to the ages,” this is only because his career as a writer was not devoted to the ages at all, but what he called the “immediacy” of the moment. Other writers of the church, like St. Thomas Aquinas, wrote for the eyes of the generations yet unborn; but Kierkegaard wrote for the very moment in which he stood, to the greater glory of God. He is therefore, simply not in the same class with these architectonic writers. He called himself a “journalist.” They wrote tomes though some of them were brief: He wrote pamphlets, though some of them were very long. He was the Lord’s hack.
Because he was a hack to the greater glory of God, S. K. had the courage— or, more precisely, he had the faith—to make mistakes. Anyone who writes for the ages constantly runs the danger of supposing that he will be justified by the ages, and that if they vindicate the correctness of his judgments he will be saved. That danger was a reality among some of Kierkegaard’s contemporaries, whom Hegelian philosophy had beguiled into supposing that history would justify them, together with their systems. But Kierkegaard believed in justification by faith and by grace. He therefore realized that the purposes of God in human history did not depend upon his being right every time. While some believed in reserving their judgment for fear of being mistaken, Kierkegaard took the risk of being wrong. As a student of the history of theology, I suggest that timidity has often been a besetting sin of theologians, especially of those whose thought is dominated by tradition or by some other external authority. There are times in lives of men and of churches when it is better to take a chance on being mistaken than to be silent; for in stewards it is required that a man be found faithful, not necessarily that he be found successful.
As a faithful servant of the God who is the Lord of the awesome Now, Kierkegaard was also willing to become involved in the overemphasis such service occasionally seemed to require. As he said, when a ship is tip ping over because all its passengers have run to one side, it does not help to stand squarely in the middle and counsel moderation; the only way is to run to the other side and to take enough people with you, in the hope of balancing the ship. Believing that he had been called to be such an extremist amid all the stuffy moderation of the nineteenth century, Kierkegaard ran all the way to the other side of many important issues, and sometimes he went overboard. His unimaginative critics then and now have thus been able to point out inconsistencies and contradictions in his thought, plenty of them. So what?! He wrote and said what the moment required. If this was inconsistency, the Hegelians could make the most of it.
Such a writer is an exasperating one to read, especially for a philosopher or theologian. As the Cambridge professor admitted, it is very hard to tell the difference between a contradiction that is just plain nonsense and one that expresses a profound truth. There are times when even his most devoted echo,—and this includes some very devoted echoes!—must acknowledge that his criticisms were almost libelous and his affirmations quite irresponsible. He was in some ways an incurably romantic adolescent among the theologians. In what John Mackay has aptly called the battle between “order and ardor,” Kierkegaard had relatively little feeling for the necessity of order as the only framework within which ardor is possible without anarchy. He thus carried to their logical if extreme consequences some of the anarchist ideas about the church and about theology that have marked so many Protestants. If Kierkegaard were all we had, theology might be in rather sad shape.
But without pushing the parallel beyond the point of comparison, one could also say that if the Epistle to the Galatians were all we had of the New Testament, Biblical theology might also be distorted. The point is not that Galatians is too extreme (or in current psychological jargon, too “defensive”) a document for mature Christians. The point is rather that like the Paul who wrote Galatians, S. K. knew that every heresy had to be battled as it arose, not by closing ranks but by a frontal att ack. And the heresy against which Kierkegaard wrote, like that against which Paul wrote to the Galatians, was a perennial one in Christendom —if indeed the two heresies are not ultimately one heresy. The effort to take God captive in a system of ideas and thus to control Him with doctrine and theology, this is what Kierkegaard saw in the theologians of his day. His answer was a violent repudiation of the effort, with extremes of position and formulation which almost no one is willing to appropriate altogether.
Yet the history of thought in the century since the death of Kierkegaard tends to “justify” the correctness of his judgment. All the more ironic is this in view of the fact that he did not care whether history justified him or not. But as Abraham had to sacrifice Isaac before he could really have him, so Kierkegaard had to disavow any influences upon the centuries in order to become one of the most influential Christian thinkers since Schleiermacher. For him, the problem was ever how he was to go about becoming a Christian. Those who think they know all the answers to this problem will read him with profit, if not with satisfaction. For if, as Archbishop Temple once said, it is the task of the Christian proclamation to comfort the trouble and to trouble the comfortable, Søren Kierkegaard discerned the signs of his times and decided to be one of those who troubled Israel.
And he is troubling it still.
Requiescat in pace, et lux aeterna luceat ei!