Reading philosophy is not at all like riding a bicycle. If you get out of practice, you may not have to start again from scratch, but you sure can’t pick up where you left off. At least that’s what I found when reading this anthology of writings by Søren Kierkegaard.
I never formally studied philosophy in college. It just seemed so abstract and useless—like a lot of words to state the obvious. But when I was in seminary, I had to take a couple of courses in philosophy, and I loved them. Sometimes we did use a lot of words to state the obvious, but sometimes those words had such different meanings from the usual dictionary definitions that they didn’t say what they seemed to say. Philosophy has its own vocabulary, and once you learn some of the rules and follow some of the streams of thought, it can be fascinating. But having stepped out of the stream, I found it was not so easy to step back in.
I read this anthology as part of my daily Lenten discipline because I wanted to immerse myself in some spiritual writing that required serious concentration. I’ve been feeling scatter-brained lately, and I felt that some mental discipline was in order. Plus, I’m interested in Kierkegaard, and we didn’t spend as much time on him as I would have liked in my seminary classes. The format of this anthology, edited by Robert Bretall, appealed to me very much because it includes excerpts from several of his writings, which would give me a greater sense of his thought than I might get just from reading Fear and Trembling or Either/Or in isolation. Bretall provides a short introduction to each selection that puts the work in context, and these helped me to orient my thinking and know what ideas I should be looking for as I read.
Bretall is not stingy with the excerpts. He includes lengthy selections from Either/Or, Works of Love, The Sickness Unto Death, and the Attack Upon Christendom, just to name a few. They’re generally organized in chronological order, so you can get a sense of how Kierkegaard’s thinking developed over time. It’s a good approach. But do I feel that I understand Kierkegaard better for reading it? I’m not sure. Having not read philosophy for a while, I’ve lost the knack for it. Thanks to Bretall’s introduction, I knew that Either/Or is in some respect a critique of Hegel, and I remember a bit about Hegel and the dialectical view of history, but my understanding is too limited for me to see how Kierkegaard is critiquing him. I could look it up, but when it came down to it, I realized I couldn’t be bothered. I’m a lazy philosopher—or too lazy to be a philosopher.
One thing I did realize, however, is that a lot of Kierkegaard’s more complex thought is within my grasp. A few times, I working through Fear and Trembling, the Philosophical Fragments, or the Postscript, I felt like with a little concentration, I would be able to wrap my mind around little bits, and sometimes large chunks, of his thought. Sometimes I did take the time to unravel bits of it to my satisfaction. But when I started to realize how long I would need to spend untangling the language, pulling apart the threads, digging into supplementary material, I realized that I just didn’t care enough to dig deeply into all of it. Bits and pieces would have to do. Does that make me an intellectual slouch? Perhaps. I prefer, however, to acknowledge that I have a limited capacity for complex thought. Right now, at this point in my life, heavy philosophy is not where I want to expend my energies.
That’s not to say that reading Kierkegaard has been a total loss. These struggles really only apply to some of the selections, and sometimes only parts of those selections. I loved his pieces that mulled over different biblical passages. The discussion of love as a duty in Works of Love was thought-provoking and moving. Kierkegaard talks about how eager we often are to discover sins in others; even when there are no sins to , we find them. But love does the opposite:
Imagine, to mention the supreme example, imagine Christ at the moment when He was silent before the Counsel: imagine the infuriated mob, imagine the group of dignitaries—and then imagine how many a glance they directed towards Him, their eyes upon Him, only waiting for Him to look at them so that their glance might convey their mockery, their contempt, their pity, their insults, to the accused! But He discovered nothing, lovingly He concealed the multitude of their sins. Imagine how many an abusive epithet, how many insults, how many taunts were shouted at Him—and each participant was so terribly insistent that his voice should be heard, so that, above all, it might not seem that he had been so indescribably stupid as to have missed the opportunity, as not to have been there participating in common with everyone else, hence as the true instrument of public opinion, in insulting, in injuring, in mistreating an innocent man! But he discovered nothing; lovingly He hid the multitude of their sins—by discovering nothing.
Kierkegaard talks about the problem of trying to apply rational arguments to spiritual truths—that if something can be rationally proved, then faith is not required. He often has harsh criticism for the church of his day, and much of his criticism could apply just as well today. He doesn’t have much use at all for a Christianity in which Jesus is just a great man, rather than God incarnate. Part of the problem in his mind was that the 19th-century Denmark in which he lived was part of “Christendom,” a culture in which most people call themselves Christian as a matter of course, not because they have faith in Jesus Christ. When everyone claims to be a Christian, what does being a Christian even mean? In Training in Christianity, he says that “one must try again to introduce Christianity into Christendom.” The Attack Upon Christendom goes even further and makes sharply pointed arguments against the church’s practice of baptism and confirmation, all with an aim of getting the church to be honest about its own failings.
It’s clear that Kierkegaard’s criticism is aimed at the church, rather than at God. That distinction is one that I wish more critics of the church would be clear about. When Kierkegaard talks about God, he is clear that God is love and forgiveness and loyalty and all good things. His Discources at Communion are especially beautiful. Here, instead of being obscure and philosophical, Kierkegaard turns poetic and his words sing of the love of God. The benefit of reading a collection like this is that I got to see both aspects of Kierkegaard’s writing.
As frustrating as I found a lot of the material in this collection, I’m glad I read it. It was good for helping me accept my own limitations and to decide that I just don’t have to understand everything. It’s OK to decide that something of value is not worth my time right now. And the parts that I did understand, even if only a little, kept clicking in my brain. I’ve been noticing bits of Kierkegaardian thought all around me, and I’m sure I’ll continue to do so. I suspect my subconscious has continued to work on some of the bits I didn’t understand, and they may just gel a bit without my noticing. Just flipping through the book to write this has helped me put more thoughts together. But I’m glad to be finished. I’ll be finishing Lent with readings from Henri Nouwen and Parker Palmer. They’re challenging as well, but in a different way.