Søren Kierkegaard – Subjectivity, Irony and the Crisis of Modernity

Coursera kierkegaard 2014-page-001[This essay was written as part of a free online course I took with ‘Cousera’ of the same title. It addresses the question: What did Kierkegaard learn from his study of Socrates? Why is this connection between Socrates and Kierkegaard still relevant in the world today? For what I think of MOOCs, see here. At the time of submission, this essay was incomplete,  I have subsequently made additions and amendments]
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Soren Kierkegaard is not an Existentialist, Post-modernist or even a Christian if to be one is to be part of the Danish bourgeois culture. He is however simply put, a man of his time that has maybe found relevance again in the current state of affairs in our world. His idea(s) can be immediately applied to the realm of Education, Politics, Narcissistic tendencies of social media and religious life. Note that I have used the designation ‘life’ rather than Religion proper -meaning a set of agreed propositions- which he was against.

His idea, to which he was willing to live and die, was from a Christian worldview though mediated by an unrelenting, obsessive preoccupation with the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates. Obviously the one major idea he took from this ancient wise man is that of the ‘Aporia’, which must first be understood historically in its original setting before it can be seen through the eyes of Kierkegaard.

This Aporetic weapon was dutifully wielded against what was a major concern to him – the unchristian Danish church & society for the one was to him essentially the other. Of secondary concern or means for tackling this problem then was to defend the autonomy and uniqueness of the individual by pushing back on the swallowing up of the person into a homogeneous wider society. In other words the age old question of the one versus/or the many.

I aim to discuss the past instance of Kierkegaard’s critique of culture and then apply the same technique to the present. There is a particular focus on the task of Christian Apologetics then and now. Although, I ultimately disagree with His (S.K) method, one cannot doubt the genius, his linguistic brilliance, single-mindedness in purpose. He is a man as flawed as he is excellent.

The task he set out to accomplish was to establish the subjective as king. This meant deposing the typically systematic philosophy symbolised by the figure of Hegel and the Danish established church. To do this he had to borrow a lot from Socrates who he saw as the perfect model with his insisting on his ‘daemon’ ruling all of his decision making, even ethical questions. This inner voice was particularly useful in terms of restoring true Christianity in the Danish souls. They merely baptised their children into the faith, yet it wasn’t particularly clear whether the children themselves were baptised which led to a shoddy carrying on of tradition – they were dunked but yet remained dry. Most, if any actually believed any of the Dogma spewed from the pulpits of the Martensens and Mynsters of his age. The truth was not owned by the audience of these speakers, Socratic learning was desperately needed.

If the beliefs of S.K himself can be considered orthodox though will depend on whom the question is posed to or on how orthodoxy is defined. If by orthodoxy, what is meant is biblical faithfulness, the answer has to be in the affirmative, but if the leaders of his age were asked or Christ followers of our age, the answer will be either an outright No or a caveated affirmative. His adherence to the teachings of the biblical Jesus can be seen in this statement:

Would that we might see you as you are and were and will be until your second coming in glory, as the sign of offence and the object of faith, the lowly man, yet the Saviour and Redeemer of the human race, who out of love came to earth to seek the lost, to suffer and die, and yet, alas, every step you took on earth, every time you called to the straying, every time you reached out your hand to do signs and wonders, and every time you defencelessly suffered the opposition of people Without raising a hand [1]

He wanted and demanded desperately that the Christian truth be appropriated by his fellow Danes, they didn’t, he died but was not forgotten, for ‘appropriate’ the next generation did do and he (S.K) inadvertently gave birth to Existentialism and in turn Postmodernism – its Truth denying son. Whether or not S.K will disown them, we cannot know for sure and even if he did, they (Derrida, Sartre and co) have the Birth Certificate to prove their legitimacy.

Despite his unrelenting emphasis on the subjective however, he did believe that there was such thing as objective Truth which Postmodernist deny even exists. Yet he insisted that even the scientific kind had to be appropriated by the individual. He even goes as far as to mention it (Truth) by name – the figure of Christ himself – and he accused Mynster of not proclaiming this when he said:

Thus, when the New Testament is placed alongside, Bishop Mynster’s proclamation of Christianity was, especially for a truth-witness, a dubious proclamation of Christianity. But there was, I thought, this truth in him, that he was willing, I am fully convinced, to confess before God and to himself that he was not at all, not at all, a truth-witness-in my view, precisely this confession was the truth. [2]

Now that he (S.K) has exonerated himself of the charges of denying the existence of absolute truth, the next is the matter of rationality in the matters of faith. If your beliefs are purely subjective, a paradox that only you and your daemon get, it poses a problem to Christian proselytization, which relies on presenting Christ to the mind and soul of your neighbour.

If we are to follow Socrates as Soren did, Faith is made somewhat indefensible and Christians should blacken out 1Peter3:15 [3] from their scriptures, throw their arms in the air and shuffle off to play peek-a-boo on sand dunes, which indeed they seem to be doing a lot of, of recent. The charges of Fideism levelled against him sticks with his own words in ‘Fear and Trembling’ as evidence:

Faith is just this paradox that the single individual as the particular is higher than the universal, is justified before the latter, not as subordinate but superior, though in such a way, be it noted, that it is the single individual who, having been subordinate to the universal as the particular, now by means of the universal becomes that individual who, as the particular, stands in an absolute relation to the absolute.[4]

Another historical figure similarly charged, is that of Blaise Pascal, particularly in his ‘wager’ argument. His, is of a different kind though, the modern day resemblance is borne by Francis Spufford’s defense of Faith in his unapologetic apologia. A description of the book in the Author’s words is appropriate:

This is a defence of Christian emotions – of their intelligibility, of their grown-up dignity. The book is called unapologetic because it isn’t giving an apologia, the technical term for a defence of the ideas. And also because I’m not sorry [5]

These authors together admit to an apparent impasse, to this Pascal however injects the witness of special revelation by playing down the efficiency of natural revelation in bringing any human to faith in a ‘Christian God’. He says in the posthumously published Pensees:

“The strongest of the scriptures argument, to say nothing of minor point, is that we cannot be sure that these principles are true (Faith and revelation apart) except through some natural intuition. Now this natural intuition affords no convincing proof that they are true. There is no certainty apart from faith, as to whether man was created by a good God, an evil demon or just by chance, and so it is a matter of doubt, depending on our origin, whether these innate principles are true, false or uncertain” [6]

To Pascaal, in the words of the Christian Philosopher – Alvin Platinga – the best (Or worst) position one can arrive at if questions of ‘Faith’ is to be rationally approached is Agnosticism.

Kierkegaard too recognises this impasse, but in his day was not dealing with an Atheist who is so sure of the non-existence of God and is willing to vehemently defend his unbelief. This then brings us to our present day situation and the question of how we should do apologetics in light of Kierkegaard? Is there anything we can learn from him?

To successfully jolt his brethren up from their lackadaisical slumber, he felt it necessary to emphasize the inner living aspect of Christianity, but in so doing ends up throwing the rational babe away with her bathing liquid. The Atheist has a vested interest in the non-existence of God yet is unwilling to admit this. In oft quoted words of the philosopher, Thomas Nagel :

“It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time” [7]

From a biblical point of view however, all of this comes as no surprise whatsoever, faith only becomes a requirement for knowing one’s maker after the fall. God is heard lamenting the spiritual deadness of humanity:

Then the Lord said “my spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh” [8]

Paul also comments later:

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked…but God, being rich in mercy because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” [9]

Yet, man despite, his deadness, slumber and separation from God retains something of Him:

If Agnosticism however is rationally honourable position, it does however has a lazy cousin. Some do not know not because they have rationally and rigorously wrestled with the questions the existence of God poses to the Human but do not know because in the words of a popular T.V series ‘can’t be bovvered’ [11]. To these, Socrates and Kierkegaard will shout:

The unexamined life is not worth living.

Entertainment, particularly in the form of social media only exacerbates the problem of my generation’s death in perpetual slumber. ‘Breaking Bad’ is 5 series long. The 7 episodes in Series 1 come in at total of 375 minutes. At just over 6 hours long, it is not unusual to hear that the modern day individual especially the young can watch this is just 1 day. This fact in itself is not something to be scolded for, but in competition will engagement in asking the ultimate questions, the former will always take precedence in their lives. Add to that 5 more hours of mindless Twitter-ing, Facebook-ing, instragram-ing, bebo-ing, HiFive-ing, Myspace-ing…everybody is talking but nobody is saying anything. This is a world the politician will not only survive in but will thrive.

If the statquo has remained largely unquestioned, its because there has been no reason to question it. This is a world where a hodge-podge of ideas can co-exist without cancelling each other though to clearly be in opposition. It has allowed diverse cultures to exist in almost complete isolation from the rest of a society and allowed to do so without the necessity of active participation. Multiculturalism, fears ever having to confront the new peoples entering its societies about current values they hold that might be Wrong, for to say that is a taboo – the new orthodoxy.

Intolerance is no longer the prerogative of overt racists and other bigots – it is state-sanctioned. It is no longer the case that the authorities are impartial on matters of belief, and will intervene to protect the interests and heritage of the weak. When it comes to crushing the rights of those who dissent from the new orthodoxy, politicians and bureaucrats alike are in the forefront of the attacks, not the defence. [11]

The market place questioning of orthodoxy was actively practised by Kierkegaard as encouraged by Socrates. A healthy dose of this is desperately needed, though we must be careful not to fall prey of  the dishonest questioning aspect of the Socratic dialogues, for this is incompatible with Christian Apologetics.

Notes and References

  1. Kierkegaards’s writing, XX:Practice in Christianity – Søren Kierkegaard Pages 9 & 10. Princeton University Press.
  2. Søren Kierkegaard in ‘The Moment and Later writings’. The Essential Kierkegaard, Princeton University Press, page 425.
  3. The Apologist’ manifesto – “…but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you”.
  4. Fear and Trembling – Søren Kierkegaard, Page 64. Translated by Alastair Hannay, Penguin Books.
  5. Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense, Page 23.
  6. Pascal Pensees 131 Page 62, Translated by A.J. Krailsheimer, Penguin Books 1966.
  7. The Last Word – Thomas Nagel Page 130. Oxford University Press.
  8. Genesis 6:3, ESV.
  9. Ephesians 2:1-5, ESV.
  10. This a catchphrase of Lauren Cooper, a character from ‘the Catherine Tate Show’.
  11. Will Liberals regret pushing Christians out of Public Life – Cristina Odone, New Republic January 18 2014. Article appeared earlier on The New Statesman.
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