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Aug 8 Soren Kierkegaard's Leap of Faith

The father of Soren Kierkergaard died today age 82. Kierkegaard wrote in his diary: "My father died on Wednesday (the 8th) at 2:00 a.m. I so deeply desired that he might have lived a few years more... Right now I feel there is only one with whom I can really talk about him. He was a 'faithful friend.'

Kierkegaard, is now seen by many as the founder of existentialism and massively influential on Protestant theology in the 20th century. He attacked the literary, philosophical, and ecclesiastical establishments of his day for misrepresenting the highest task of human existence—namely, becoming oneself in an ethical and religious sense.


While a student at the university, Kierkegaard explored the literary figures of Don Juan, the wandering Jew, and especially Faust, looking for existential models for his own life. He had been estranged from his father and from the faith in which he had been brought up, and he moved out of the family home. But by 1838, just before his father’s death, he was reconciled both to his father and to the Christian faith; the latter became the idea for which he would live and die. His father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, had grown up poor in the countryside, moved to Copenhagen to become a merchant, and ended up as one of the city’s richest men. Michael Pedersen raised his seven children, of whom Søren was the youngest, under strict religious discipline, instilling a sense of fear and guilt that never left them. “Oh, how frightful it is when for a moment I think of the dark background of my life, right from the earliest days!” Kierkegaard recalled. “The anxiety with which my father filled my soul, his own frightful melancholy.” This rigorously introspective Protestantism would drive his philosophical investigations.

He attended the University of Copenhagen to prepare for Lutheran ministry, but it took him ten years to earn his degree, and he never was ordained. He also became engaged to Regine Olsen, but suffering from crippling feelings of despair and guilt, inherited from his strict upbringing, he broke off the engagement, though he admitted he was still deeply in love. His sudden conviction was that he was incapable of marriage and would only make her miserable and he would never be able to communicate to Regine. This is nit a surprise as Martin Luther himself had a profoundly pessimistic view of humanity. In one of the first psychobiography's of a famous historical figure. Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History by the psychologist Erik Erikson, published in 1958 a hundred years after Kierkegaard's death. Erikson found in Martin Luther a good model for his ideas around "the identity crisis". It seems that brought up in that culture Kierkegaard's crisis lead to some profound philosophical writing.

According to Erikson, Luther suffered through an environment that fomented crisis, and succeeded in a healthy resolution, and in the end, Luther chose the obedient, provincial leadership path his father had wished for him, but only after Luther had disobeyed and suffered many years in an identity crisis. Sadly Kierkegaard jettisoned his soul mate during his crisis, he wrote in his diary: "I was a thousand years too old for her." Years later he compared that painful decision with Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac, and some of his books were written "because of her." He locked himself up in his apartment, where a kind of graphomania compelled him to stay up all night writing at a frantic pace. His activity is so relentless that, in a few short years, he has accumulated many volumes’ worth of manuscripts.

These were published as philosophical works, now considered classics: Fear and Trembling (1843), The Concept of Dread (1844). A historian of Philosophy would notice that he was reacting to Hegel, the great philosopher of history and idealism, who was the dominant thinker of the time. Acknowledging Hegel's attempt to systematize all of reality; Kierkegaard felt it left out the most important element of human experience: existence itself. No philosophical ‘system’ could explain the human condition. The experience of reality—the loss of a loved one, the feelings of guilt and dread—was what mattered, not the "idea" of it. The only way to live in this painful existence is through faith. But to Kierkegaard, faith was not a mental conviction about doctrine, nor positive religious feelings, his father had ensured that, but a passionate commitment to God in the face of uncertainty. Faith is a risk (the "leap of faith"), an adventure that requires the denial of oneself. Thus he denied settling down with his love, Regine. To choose faith is what brings authentic human existence. This is the "existentialism" that Kierkegaard is considered the founder of—though later existentialists went a very different direction to his thought.

He saw becoming a Christian as the task of a lifetime. In the last year of his life he wrote, “I dare not call myself a Christian,” however throughout his career it was Christianity that he sought to defend by rescuing it from cultural captivity. His later publications Works of Love (1847), Christian Discourses (1848), and Training in Christianity (1850) when he tried to clarify the true nature of Christianity. The greatest enemy of Christianity, he argued, was "Christendom"—the cultured and respectable Christianity of his day. The tragedy of easy Christianity is that existence has ceased to be an adventure and a constant risk in the presence of God but has become a form of morality and a doctrinal system. Its purpose is to simplify the matter of becoming a Christian. This is just paganism, "cheap" Christianity, with neither cost nor pain, Kierkegaard argued (which would be influential on the thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer see the pods of Apr 8 & July 27 ) . It is like war games, in which armies move and there is a great deal of noise, but there is no real risk or pain—and no real victory. Kierkegaard believed the church of his day was merely "playing at Christianity."

He believed that only by making things difficult—by helping people become aware of the pain, guilt, and feelings of dread that accompany even the life of faith—could he help Christians hear God again: "Affliction is able to drown out every earthly voice … but the voice of eternity within a man it cannot drown. When by the aid of affliction all irrelevant voices are brought to silence, it can be heard, this voice within.". He almost had mystical faith, and his pen could also compose lyrical prayers like these:

"Teach me, O God, not to torture myself, not to make a martyr out of myself through stifling reflection, but rather teach me to breathe deeply in faith."

And "Father in Heaven, when the thought of Thee wakes in our hearts, let it not awaken like a frightened bird that flies about in dismay, but like a child waking from its sleep with a heavenly smile."

His legacy is impressive with many 20th-century philosophers, both theistic and atheistic, inspired by him - the notions of angst, despair, and the importance of the individual gave rise to the existentialist movement. The great Ludwig Wittgenstein was immensely influenced and humbled by Kierkegaard, claiming that "Kierkegaard is far too deep for me, anyhow. He bewilders me without working the good effects which he would in deeper souls" and the great philosopher of science Karl Popper referred to Kierkegaard as "the great reformer of Christian ethics, who exposed the official Christian morality of his day as anti-Christian and anti-humanitarian hypocrisy


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