Thoughts on Reading Kierkegaard

In a previous post, I argued that Kierkegaard was not an irrationalist, as he is commonly viewed. In this post I want to address a few more issues in reading and interpreting Kierkegaard.

Why study Kierkegaard at all?

If nothing else, understanding Kierkegaard helps us understand modern cultural phenomena better, especially postmodern epistemology, existentialism, and many issues related to the emerging church. In addition, many of Kierkegaard’s religious works, such as his Edifying Discourses, Works of Love, and Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing have (in my opinion) great devotional value. Those of us who are evangelicals can learn much from his radical critique on nominal Christendom, and his critique of Hegel is important within the historical development of Western philosophy. His writings also raise important issues such as the relationship between the individual and “the crowd,” the nature of sin and its relationship to despair and anxiety, the place of paradox within Christianity, the radical nature of Christian discipleship and New Testament ethics, and the nature of faith and its relation to systematic thought, free speculation, and historical analysis. Also, his writing style, with all his emphasis on indirect communication, is fascinating and unique. His biographies reveal a man of great passion, authenticity, and complexity. Though I don’t think we should read Kierkegaard uncritically, I do think he makes a great conversation partner, and if you give him a chance, you will be personally stretched from the effort, even if you end up disagreeing with much of what he said.

Tips on Reading Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard, however, is one of the most misunderstood intellectuals of all time, and his writings are not easy to penetrate. In the interests of encouraging more thoughtful reading of Kierkegaard, I offer three tips on how to approach his writings.

1) First, we must make a distinction between Kierkegaard’s signed (religious) works and his pseudonymous (philsophical/ethical) works. Before the publication of Concluding Unscientific Postscript in February 1846, Kierkegaard used pseudonyms to write many of his books. Either/Or (1843) was written by Victor Eremita, Fear and Trembling was written by Johannes de silentio, Repetition was written by Constantine Constantius, Philosophical Fragments was written by Johannes Climacus, and so on. These pseudonyms all represent variously different points of view. Some even denied that they were Christians. Its hilarious to see how they pick fights with each other in their respective books! Its also funny to consider how Kierkegaard wrote a short article about a week after Either/Or by yet another pseudonym, called simply A.F., entitled “Who is the Author of Either/Or?” These pseudonymous works were Kierkegaard’s attempt to undermine aesthetic and ethical points of view from within their own presuppositions, and were thus very philosophical in nature. At the same time that Kierkegaard was writing these pseudonymous works, however, he was also publishing works under his own name of a more theological and devotional nature, such as his Upbuilding Discourses. At the end of Concluding Unscientific Postscript (also written by Climacus), Kierkegaard attached “A First and Last Declaration” in which he revealed himself to be the author of his pseudonymous works and said the following:

“My pseudonymity or polyonymity has not had an accidental basis in my person…but an essential basis in the production itself…. What has been written, then, is mine, but only insofar as I, by means of audible lines, have placed the life-view of the creating, poetically actual individuality in his mouth, for my relation is even more remote than that of a poet, who poetizes characters and yet in the preface is himself the author. That is, I am impersonally or personally in the third person as a prompter who has poetically produced the authors, whose prefaces in turn are their productions, as their names are also. Thus in the pseudonymous books there is not a single word by me. I have no opinion about them except as a third party, no knowledge of their meaning except as a reader, not the remotest private relation to them, since it is impossible to have that to a doubly reflected communication…. My role is the joint role of being the secretary and, quite ironically, the dialectically reduplicated author of the author or the authors…. My wish, my prayer, is that, if it might occur to anyone to quote a particular saying from the books, he would do me the favor to cite the name of the respective pseudonymous author…. But on the other hand I am very literally and directly the author of, for example, the upbuilding discourses and of every word in them….”

In his published Journals, Kierkegaard wrote:

“As is well known, my authorship has two parts: one pseudonymous and the other signed. The pseudonymous writers are poetized personalities, poetically maintained so that everything they say is in character with their poetized individualities; sometimes I have carefully explained in a signed preface my own interpretation of what the pseudonym said. Anyone with just a fragment of common sense will perceive that it would be ludicrously confusing to attribute to me everything the poetized characters say.”

Sadly, despite these warnings to the contrary, Kierkegaard’s interpreters often fail to grasp the dual nature of his authorship and thus confuse Kierkegaard’s view with the view of his pseudonyms, despite some of the obvious differences between them, such as the fact that many of his pseudonyms claimed to not be Christians, whereas Kierkegaard was training to be a pastor and regularly preaching. If we are to read and understand Kierkegaard well, we must make distinctions between those books which he wrote from his own view, and those which he wrote from an imaginary perspective for the purpose of indirect communication.

2) Second, we must give priority to his signed (religious) works over and against his pseudonymous (philosophical) works in discerning Kierkegaard’s thought. In his book Point of View for My Work as Author, Kierkegaard wrote, “I am a religious author. Supposing that such a reader understands perfectly and appraises critically the individual aesthetic productions, he will nevertheless totally misunderstand me, inasmuch as he does not understand the religious totality in my work as a whole. Suppose, then, that another reader understands my works in the totality of their religious reference, but does not understand a single of the aesthetic productions contained in them – I would say that this lack of understanding is not an essential lack.”

Sadly, Kierkegaard has become famous for books like Fear and Trembling, while his religious works have often been completely neglected. As Kierkegaard put it in his journals, “with my right hand I held out the Upbuilding Discourses, with my left the aesthetic works — and all grasped with the right hand what I held in my left.” If we are to read and interpret Kierkegaard well, we must lean most heavily on books like Works of Love and Practice in Christianity, not his “aesthetic productions.

3) Third, we must view Kierkegaard not merely as a philosopher, but also as a theologian. Kierkegaard’s formal training was in theology, not philosophy. The degree he pursued for ten years (often wastefully) at the University of Copenhagen was in theology, and he planned to be a pastor. He preached many sermons in his life. If it had not been for the Corsair Affair, he allegedly would have stopped writing and entered the pastorate after Concluding Unscientific Postscript. With regard to his writings, his theological and exegetical works are as numerous as his philosophical work, and more essential to his thought according to Kierkegaard himself. And however fierce was his attack on Hegelian philosophy, his attack on nominal Christendom was equally so. According to Kierkegaard, the central problem with which his whole authorship is concerned is not a philosophical one but a religious one, namely, the problem of “how to become a Christian in Christendom” (i.e., in my words, how to arrive at true faith, which is radical and inward, in the midst of nominal state Christianity, which is complacent and safe). Therefore, if we are to read and understand Kierkegaard well, we must consider him not merely as a philosopher, but also as a theologian.

I will close this post with several quotations from Kierkegaard’s religious works, in order to give the reader a feel for this side of Kierkegaard. Any fair assessment of Kierkegaard must consider the Kierkegaard of these statements (and the works from which they are drawn) alongside the Kierkegaard of Fear and Trembling.

His Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing opens thus:

“Father in heaven! What is a man without Thee! What is all that he knows, vast accumulation though it be, but a chipped fragment if he does not know Thee! What is all his striving, could it even encompass a world, but a half-finished work if he does not know Thee: Thee the One, who art one thing and who art all! So may Thou give to the intellect, wisdom to comprehend that one thing; to the heart, sincerity to receive this understanding; to the will, purity that wills only one thing. In prosperity may Thou grant perseverance to will one thing; amid distractions, collectedness to will one thing; in suffering, patience to will one thing. Oh, Thou that giveth both the beginning and the completion, may Thou early, at the dawn of day, give to the young man the resolution to will one thing. As the day wanes, may Thou give to the old man a renewed remembrance of his first resolution, that the first may be like the last, the last like the first, in possession of a life that has willed only one thing.”

From Works of Love:

“No, Christianity is certainly the highest and the supremely highest, but, mark well, to the natural man it is an offense. He who in describing Christianity as the highest omits the middle term, offense, sins against it: he commits an effrontery…. Christianity is in itself too profound, in its movements too serious for dancing and skipping in such free-wheeling frivolity of talk about the higher, the highest, the supremely highest. Through offense goes the way to Christianity. By this is not meant that the approach to Christianity should make one offended by Christianity — this would be another way of hindering oneself from grasping Christianity — but offense guards the approach to Christianity. Blessed is he who is not offended by it.”

From his published Journals:

“Let someone, properly aware that he is a sinner, have martyred himself by all along only being able to imagine Christ as the Holy, so that all he can do is tremble before him, though continuing to hold on to him—what a change when it dawns on him that Christ is the Saviour, is like a doctor one calls upon in one’s weakest moment, whereas before, on the contrary, it was only in one’s best moments that one dared to turn to the Holy.”

From The Lily of the Field, the Bird of the Air:

What then does this either/or signify? What does God demand? For either/or is a demand — as indeed the lovers demand love when ones says to the other, Either/or. But God is not related to thee as a lover, neither art thou related to Him as a lover. The relationship is a different one: that of the creature to the Creator. What then does he demand by this either/or? He demands obedience, unconditional obedience.

From an 1851 sermon entitled “The Changelessness of God”:

“It is not so with well-springs of earth, for they are to be found only in special places. And besides — overwhelming security! — Thou dost not remain, like the spring, in a single place, but Thou dost follow the traveler on his way…. And whenever any human being comes to Thee, of whatever age, at whatever time of day, in whatever state: if he comes in sincerity he always finds Thy love equally warm, like the spring’s unchanged coolness, O Thou who art changeless! Amen!”

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  1. Wow, great post, Gav – you really put a lot of work into that one. I too have found Kierkegaard pastorally most helpful; he talks about issues we all have, but almost no-one else talks about. I remember a very famous pastor once (you would know his name if I said it) talking about the blessings of moments of self-forgetfulness, and I remember, without disagreeing, that the point was not to achieve moments of self-forgetfulness (from which we fall back into self-concern), but a true blessed deliverance from self by the loss of self before God in the cross – by losing one’s self, only to take it up again in faith. I’ve never gotten over that Kierkegaardian theme, and it has been a profound blessing to me. Thanks!

  2. Gavin,

    Thoughtful and penetrating post. I came across your blog thru your recent article at TGC. Question: If I was to begin reading Kierkegaard, what work(s) would you suggest I start with?

    I believe Kierkegaard would be very helpful for me right now during this spiritual season as I think through my own faith and life. Thanks!

  3. Hi JT,

    thanks for the comment. I recommend Concluding Unscientific Postscript (at least the first few dozen pages) for the most clear representation of his thought. Fear and Trembling and The Sickness unto Death are both great samples, and Purity of Heart is to Will one Thing is a great devotional (signed) piece. Also his sermons are great! Hope this helps.


    1. Thanks, Gavin. Will certainly check these out. Through various tertiary readings, I previously had the impression that Kierkegaard was an irrationalist. Plus, I recently had a conversation with a friend (a confessing Christian-turned-confessing atheist) who believed that all faith of the Christian kind is blind or “Kierkegaardian.” So I’m eager to delve into the primary sources themselves for light on the path.

      1. Hope they are helpful! On the issue of irrationalism, see my previous post on that subject, or read his The Point of View of my Work as an Author. They might also help!

  4. Thank you for this post. I just started reading “Purity of heart” and I am amazed but wanted to make sure on what grounds I was stepping. This post really helped me. God bless you.