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By Lee C. Barrett III
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The Problem of Reading Kierkegaard Theologically
Inevitably, any body of literature as demanding as Kierkegaard's corpus would invite a spectrum of divergent interpretations. The intense vigor and bitter vitriol with which the debate among interpreters is conducted is testimony to the elusive character of his writing. The story of the interpretation of Kierkegaard's work reflects the recent history of theological and cultural fads. Little-known beyond Denmark during his own lifetime, in the late 1800s he was discovered by German literati. Kierkegaard had anticipated becoming a subject for scholarly research and had penned insulting notes to future professors who would build careers expositing his thoughts. After World War I he was appropriated by "neo-orthodox" theologians who resonated with Kierkegaard's suggestion that all human values are relativized by the transcendence of God. By the 1940s Kierkegaard was also being hailed as the precursor to the existentialists because of his demand for authenticity in the face of an absurd universe. Interest in Kierkegaard waned in the 1960s as the enthusiasm for both existentialism and neo-orthodoxy declined, and attention shifted to the pursuit of social justice. As liberation theology captured the imaginations of progressives in the church, Kierkegaard was often dismissed as a proponent of a type of religious individualism that undercut the solidarity necessary for social action. But Kierkegaard once again became trendy in the late 1980s as many cutting-edge thinkers hailed him as a harbinger of postmodernism. A new generation of scholars saw Kierkegaard as the champion of the fracturing of textual meaning, the prophet of the deconstruction of all totalizing ideologies, and the quintessential enemy of all tidy closures. This saga of the vicissitudes of Kierkegaard interpretation should leave the reader wondering if Kierkegaard was a proto-Barthian, an existentialist born a century too soon, or a premature postmodernist. Surely an author whose body of writing can sustain so many divergent interpretations has succeeded in making reading him difficult.
Profound disputes rage not only about the meaning of Kierkegaard's works but also about the proper way to search for their meaning. Some scholars insist upon interpreting Kierkegaard in the light of his own peculiar psychodynamics. These biographically-oriented expositors usually unearth a troubled, conflicted individual whose writing was a form of self-creation. Others reject that approach as a failure to recognize that the meaning of text is independent of the intentionality of its author. Some of these interpreters shift attention to the way that the texts express the broader social, cultural, and intellectual tensions of Europe in the nineteenth century. Others, insisting that texts transcend the context of their production, look for themes that are taken to be objective properties of the texts themselves. Some of these text-oriented interpreters focus on the literary strategies in the volumes and treat them as a kind of poetic production. Others concentrate on the epistemological and ethical arguments that Kierkegaard develops and see him as a philosopher. Others treat Kierkegaard as a theologian, whose primary intention was to advocate for specific doctrinal positions. To add to the interpretive cacophony, these days some readers have even denied that there is any singular meaning in his texts at all; perhaps the writings are simply provocations rather than the communication of any message. Each of these approaches employs a different set of interpretive tools and therefore uncovers a different range of meanings in Kierkegaard's strange literature.
These divergent approaches also argue clamorously about the proper way to handle the different genres of literature that constitute Kierkegaard's corpus. Kierkegaard's work includes at least three different categories of writing: journals and drafts, signed works, and pseudonymous texts. The signed works themselves comprise of a variety of genres, including sermons, edifying and Christian discourses, literary reviews, and aphoristic cultural commentary. His pseudonymous writings include such radically different genres as first-person novellas, treatises on music, lengthy epistles, and philosophical treatises. To complicate interpretive matters, often the same theme can thread its way through all his genres, appearing in different and sometimes contradictory guises in different works. As a result, it is difficult to determine what sort of weight to give to a certain theme in a specific context. For some expositors of Kierkegaard, the pseudonyms are taken as articulating Kierkegaard's own coherent worldview, unless the divergence from the historical Kierkegaard is pronounced. According to others, even the pseudonyms who sound like Kierkegaard may not be articulating his own viewpoint at all but rather are presenting a welter of perspectives that force the reader to construct some kind of significance out of their discrepancies. For yet other interpreters, not even Kierkegaard's signed literature, or even his voluminous journals, should be taken as expressions of his allegedly direct meaning. Perhaps even the writings under his own name are so replete with countervailing voices and so thick with irony that nothing he wrote can be taken as a direct statement of purpose. Even Kierkegaard's journals may contain highly fictionalized embellishments of his own experience. The most exhaustive recent biographer of Kierkegaard argues that Kierkegaard reworked his personal experiences in his journals as a form of auto- therapy, transmuting trauma into art, so that not even his seemingly most candid journal entries can be taken at face value.
The sharp disagreements among Kierkegaard scholars should fill any would-be interpreter with trepidation, as should Kierkegaard's own contemptuous remarks about pathetic scholars who would research him because they had no living thoughts of their own. To add to the interpretive fear and trembling, the fact that Kierkegaard's rhetorical performance contributes to the meaning of his texts guarantees that any straightforward paraphrase of his words would be a gross distortion. He did not simply want to convey information to the reader; rather, he sought to create the possibility that the reader might be transformed through the act of reading. Accordingly, his pages are full of jolting images and fragmentary stories that open up multiple interpretative possibilities, compelling readers to make their own interpretive decisions. If interpretation is the effort to make a text's meaning more transparent and accessible, then any effort to impose an interpretive scheme on Kierkegaard's writings would seem to rob the reader of the opportunity for personal growth. Kierkegaard himself warned, "what I have to say may not be taught; by being taught it turns into something entirely different." Perhaps Kierkegaard's works should not be summarized or interpreted at all but simply read.
In spite of these significant caveats, I shall damn all these interpretive torpedoes and enter the fray. The purpose of an introduction to Kierkegaard should not be to paraphrase his thoughts but rather to coach the reader in appropriate ways to engage the books so that these works will not be totally mystifying. Ideally this can be done without overdetermining his meanings and precluding the need to wrestle with Kierkegaard's literature for one's own self. Because Kierkegaard's texts demand that interpreters assume responsibility for their interpretive decisions, I must confess without apology that I shall present Kierkegaard's works as an example of Christian theological reflection. I will not attempt to demonstrate that this is the best way to read Kierkegaard but only that it is a plausible way to make sense of these diverse volumes, supported by certain features of his authorship. The way in which Kierkegaard discusses almost any matter is usually saturated with the vocabulary of the Christian faith, and traditional doctrinal themes are never far from the surface of his books. If theology is conceived as the effort to reflect intentionally, critically, and imaginatively on the appropriate ways to live out the Christian faith, then Kierkegaard can be regarded as a consummate theologian.
Even if we decide to read Kierkegaard theologically, it must be admitted that he was a theologian of a very curious sort. If theology is thought of as a system of straightforward descriptions of transcendent realities, employing univocal, stable concepts, then Kierkegaard would seem to be a poor candidate for the title of "theologian." His work is so peppered with elusive metaphors, broken narratives, unexpected images, and strange disjunctions that its very form raises the suspicion that theological instruction could not possibly have been one of his purposes. It is understandable that some interpreters would conclude that the plurality of potential meanings in his writings precludes the possibility that his corpus could function as a clarification of theological themes. Louis Mackey urged Kierkegaard's readers to avoid the temptation to paraphrase him, for his literary tropes should not be treated as "devices for the expression of a content independently intelligible." Perhaps Kierkegaard's presentation of Christianity is too fluid, shifting, and fractured to satisfy the common expectation that theology should be cohesive, unified, and clear.
The insights of the critics who have drawn attention to the ways in which Kierkegaard's literary strategies resist closure and easy appropriation must be heeded. His texts do not invite theological interpreters to try to make things easy for readers by squeezing predigested nuggets of Christian truth out of his pages. The resistance to a straightforward statement of Christian truths is fully in accord with Kierkegaard's understanding of the nature of Christianity. The paradoxical, elusive nature of God's revelation suggests that God wants individuals to grapple with the question of the significance of Christianity for their own lives, for this personal struggle is essential for growth in the Christian life. In his journals Kierkegaard warned, "There are many people who reach their conclusions about life like schoolboys; they cheat their master by copying the answer out of a book without having worked out the sum for themselves." The process of struggling with the texts in order to grow spiritually cannot be replaced by a catalogue of doctrinal results. In light of this, a theological interpretation of Kierkegaard might seem like a betrayal of the very religious purpose of his literature.
However, a modest kind of theologically informed interpretative enterprise may still be warranted. Kierkegaard employed a dazzling array of literary techniques to goad the reader to wrestle with the irreducible paradoxes that inform the life of faith, using his considerable gifts as a poet to explore what Christian concepts might mean. Consequently, the interpreter can point to the recurrent themes and dynamics in his texts that have theological significance and attempt to illumine their rhetorical force. Of course, the object of such an enterprise is not to produce a Kierkegaardian theological "system" but to prod the reader to engage personally the theological issues that Kierkegaard's texts raise. How the reader tries to integrate, modify, resist, or ignore these various theological motifs is the business of the reader and should be worked out between the reader, the text, and God.
Theology for Kierkegaard is first and foremost something to be lived. As Kierkegaard famously remarked in an early journal entry, "Of what use would it be for me to be able to formulate the meaning of Christianity, to be able to explain many specific points—if it had no deeper meaning for me and for my life?" Because his writings are designed to challenge the reader to live more deeply and honestly, their possible meanings can only be appreciated through a sustained attention not only to what Kierkegaard said but also to the way in which he said it. The theological content of his texts cannot be abstracted from their rhetorical form. Consequently, this introduction to Kierkegaard the theologian will always endeavor to keep Kierkegaard the poet in view.
Kierkegaard's theological project remains vital for us. The situation that Kierkegaard addressed in the nineteenth century is by no means alien to us; his problems are still our problems. Christianity continues to be deformed and co-opted in a variety of ways. The cultural accommodation of the church has by no means disappeared, but rather has assumed a multitude of protean forms. Christianity continues to be conflated with generic spirituality, nationalism, and common standards of decent behavior. Our own hearts remain too anemically worldly, settling for trivial comforts and satisfactions. The equation of faith with cognitive assent to propositions continues unabated as fundamentalists search for archaeological evidence of Noah's flood and rationalists ingeniously correlate belief in the Creator with new theories of cosmogenesis. As in Kierkegaard's day, the pervasive erosion of old metaphysical certainties produces disorientation and paralysis. The unavoidable encounter with drastically divergent perspectives continues to produce existential vertigo and ideological warfare. Definitions of justice are contested, ideals are questioned, and authoritarianism vies with nihilism. Just as Kierkegaard struggled against the deadening influences of cavalier relativism, stultifying dogmatism, and mindless collectivism, so must we.CHAPTER 2
Kierkegaard's Paradoxical Life
Kierkegaard's life was brief, stretching only from 1813 to 1855, and, at least on the surface, rather pedestrian. Most of his life was spent in Copenhagen and its environs, punctuated by a few brief forays to Berlin. He never became ordained, never became a professor, never married, and almost never held any sort of job. Nevertheless, his inner life was tumultuous, variegated, and expansive. Viewed unsympathetically, his life has been described as a morass of religious morbidity, introspective narcissism, eccentricity, and even madness. Viewed sympathetically, his life has been hailed as the saga of a genius who heroically grappled with the profound depths of human life. He has been appreciated as the analyst of modernity's deepest ills and dismissed as a symptom of modernity's deepest dysfunctions. He has been portrayed as a philosophical/theological luminary, as a life-negating depressive, and as a paradoxical combination of both.
Given the complexity of Kierkegaard's psychology, many of his expositors have been tempted to locate the real meaning of his writings in his emotional struggles. Kierkegaard's works invite this approach, for they are replete with overt and veiled references to occurrences in his own life. Kierkegaard himself repeatedly drew attention to his own psyche and even teased his readers with tantalizing allusions to a dark secret about himself that they would never be able to uncover. He admitted that he had felt like an old man all his life and had always been prone to melancholy. His biographers have diligently sought to unearth the exact nature of his emotional distress, some finding it in a physiognomic irregularity, such as a deformity of the spine, others in his ambivalent relation with his father, others in his sexually repressed upbringing, and some in a congenital proclivity to depression. Even the possibility of a variety of temporal lobe epilepsy has been proposed.
Whatever the particular nature of Kierkegaard's affliction, his works continue to draw attention to issues that have significance far beyond the psycho-history of an eccentric personality. His authorship resists reduction to a set of unfortunate childhood traumas or antiquated cultural phobias. Nevertheless, his work is very historically specific, filled with references to the particular places, people, and events that constituted the framework of his life. A brief consideration of his life and context may illumine some of the more obscure or jolting aspects of his literature.
Excerpted from Kierkegaard by Lee C. Barrett III. Copyright © 2010 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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