Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on Søren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard was unknown to the world until 100 years after his death. Though his philosophical and theological works finally rose in popularity in the twentieth century, what exactly did he believe and what else did he contribute to Christianity? Here’s your crash course on the life and accomplishments of Søren Kierkegaard—and why he still matters today.

Who Was Søren Kierkegaard?

Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, and was the youngest of seven children. Known as the melancholy Dane for his life of angst and tragedy, he experienced a dramatic conversion to Christianity in his college years that would shape the rest of his life. Nevertheless, being subsequently dissatisfied in love, career, health, and church life, he met an early demise. He died a lonely and frustrated man in obscurity in the middle of the nineteenth century with his many self-published writings virtually unknown. Yet, 100 years later, he would become the most popular philosopher in the entire Western world. His writings became famous and he was designated the “father of existentialism.” The philosophy of existentialism emphasizes individual existence and freedom. It insists that humans must define their own meaning through concrete choices in life. In fact, existentialism became so widespread that a number of leading religious and secular philosophers embraced different variations of it in the twentieth century. Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel was a noted religious existentialist, whereas probably the most influential atheistic existential philosopher of the twentieth century was Jean-Paul Sartre.

CRASH COURSE- KIERKEGAARD

What Did Søren Kierkegaard Write?

Among many works, perhaps Kierkegaard’s two most important philosophical and theological books are The Sickness unto Death and Philosophical Fragments. In the first, he provides a penetrating analysis of the human condition of despair brought on by sin and being alienated from God. Kierkegaard’s cure for this soul sickness is being reconciled to God through God’s grace and mercy found in Jesus Christ. In the second work he attempts to present the Christian faith as it was originally intended. He focuses upon Christ’s incarnation as the great paradox—God in the flesh, God in time, the infinite uncovered in the finite.

 

What Did Søren Kierkegaard Believe?

Christians of various traditions continue to defend several of Kierkegaard’s beliefs. The following are perhaps Kierkegaard’s three most important ideas or arguments for the God of Christianity:

  1. Kierkegaard focused not upon the universal principle but rather upon the particulars of life. Each individual, in contrast to the crowd, must make their own decisions and must stand responsible and accountable to God.
  2. Kierkegaard believed in objective truth, but he scorned the idea that truth is purely objective and can be attained merely through rational inquiry. Rather, he believed that truth must be personally and individually embraced (my truth, true for me). This is not subjectivism but rather the personal application of objective truth to one’s life. He advocated that a person must find truth for which he or she is willing to live and die (the Triune God, the Christian faith).
  3. For Kierkegaard, to achieve proper self-actualization, human beings encounter the “three stages on life’s way”: aesthetic (where one is ruled by pleasure), ethical (where one is ruled by moral obligations), and religious (where one is ruled by faith in God). These stages can be understood in a dialectic fashion (standing in tension or in conflict with one another).

Why Does Søren Kierkegaard Matter Today?

Søren Kierkegaard is criticized for his extreme statements, such as “truth is subjective” and “faith is absurd.” Yet if these statements are understood as reactions or correctives to impersonal objectivity and purely intellectualized beliefs (where ideas are solely abstract with no personal application), then he is far less alarming. Kierkegaard needs to be understood as reacting to philosophy that he perceived to be excessively abstract without appropriate personal application and commitment (like philosopher Georg Hegel’s idealism).

Søren Kierkegaard was unique as a Christian thinker. When evangelicals state that faith is deeper than mere intellectual assent and that trust in God involves the commitment of the whole person, they are touching on theological issues that were critically important to Kierkegaard. Though his life exhibited dysfunction and anxiety, he made extraordinary contributions as a Danish philosopher, theologian, psychologist, poet, social critic, and Christian writer.

Other articles in the Christian Thinkers 101 series: St. Augustine; C. S. Lewis; Blaise Pascal; St. Anselm; St. Athanasius; St. Thomas Aquinas; Jonathan Edwards

Reflections: Your Turn

It seems there are plenty of examples of Christians today overemphasizing their subjective spiritual experience; but is it possible to be overtly objective about one’s faith to the point where it becomes a problem? In other words, is it a problem when one’s faith is merely a bunch of ideas divorced from passionate commitment?

Resources

  • For an exploration of Søren Kierkegaard’s life as well as his philosophical and theological thought, see Søren Kierkegaard’s Christian Psychology by C. Stephen Evans.
  • See also Kierkegaard for Beginners by David Palmer

  One thought on “Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on Søren Kierkegaard

  1. July 8, 2016 at 11:07 am

    Is it a problem when one’s faith is merely a bunch of ideas divorced from passionate commitment?
    The message of the Gospel is truly supernatural and folly to the “rational” mind in its unregenerate state. Even so, declaring belief means nothing to God without turning away from our old self. After all, the devil and his demons admit to our Lord’s nature and power, but will not be saved.
    Entire shelves can be filled by books by great theologians exploring the depths of Scripture’s truths that we are saved from our failures by God’s grace through our faith in Christ which is made alive by works. Maybe it can all be boiled down to this: Do my actions serve myself or my King?
    God continually searches our hearts, and knows our true motives. If that’s scary, get back to the Bible and pray in thanksgiving for what Christ has done, not for emotional re-assurance in the moment which fades away.

    • July 8, 2016 at 1:36 pm

      MFD:

      Thank you for your comments.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

  2. July 12, 2016 at 9:47 am

    To know the truth you have to know all the facts. No human knows all the facts, therefore human reason can only partially inform us. We see through a dark glass dimly. And in spite of this, our culture has made a god out of reason.

    In the end, ALL of us, scientists, theologians, seekers and agnostics do not KNOW what is true, but rather, we choose what we BELIEVE to be true. We make our decisions about what we believe to be true based on reason, personal experience and intuition. To rely solely on reason is to cripple ourselves intellectually and spiritually.

    For the believer, truth is reality as perceived and described by God. The only way humans can KNOW truth is if God reveals it to them and that is, in every case, a highly subjective (personal) experience. True faith is not based on reason alone.

    • July 12, 2016 at 11:56 am

      John:

      Greetings.

      If I understand your points correctly, I think I would differ with a number of the things you said but maybe also agree with others. However, responding would take a lengthy exchange about such topics as belief, knowledge, and truth. So instead of responding I’m going to invite you to read my book A World of Difference. In it, I offer a consensus for how historic Christian theologians and philosophers have understood such critical topics as belief, knowledge, and truth.

      Best regards in Christ.

      Ken Samples

      • July 13, 2016 at 1:36 pm

        Read the book years ago 🙂 A good read. Thanks 🙂

      • July 13, 2016 at 2:36 pm

        Thanks, John.

        Ken Samples

  3. July 13, 2016 at 12:20 pm

    Thank you for continuing this series. I’ve been moving and had spotty internet the last several weeks so I couldn’t comment before. Kierkegaard is, I think, one of the most misunderstood Christian thinkers. I’m glad you noted the context to which he was speaking when he made those statements. I’ve also seen arguments to the effect that Kierkegaard often argued for the opposite of his own position because he felt that would expose the absurdity of many of his opponents beliefs.

    • July 13, 2016 at 12:56 pm

      Hello, JW.

      I agree that Kierkegaard is often misunderstood. Within his life of dysfunction are nonetheless deep insights about life and Christianity. He’s one of my favorites.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

    • July 15, 2016 at 9:38 am

      Thank you, JW.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

  4. November 29, 2016 at 3:21 pm

    Reblogged this on Is Christianity True?.

    • November 29, 2016 at 3:39 pm

      Thanks, Steve.

      Ken Samples

    • February 18, 2017 at 8:13 am

      Thanks for the link.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

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