Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Truth as Subjectivity in the Theology of Kierkegaard: Part 1

*For the next few days I'll be posting a paper I wrote on Soren Kierkegaard in short, readable sections. I originally thought I wouldn't post this here, but I think Kierkegaard's thought may actually be very relevant for Christianity today. I have added a few hyperlinks here for those who need a little more info on key people, events, or concepts that I gloss over.


“Was it Kierkegaard or Dick Van Patten who said ‘If you label me, you negate me?’”
-Wayne Campbell (Mike Myers)
My introduction to the thought of Kierkegaard was in 2001, in a subtitled quote of a joke in the movie Wayne’s World. Now, after having studied Kierkegaard, this seems oddly appropriate. Kierkegaard’s body of work is a bit intimidating, as he frequently hides his theology behind satire, and pseudonyms. Moreover, his pseudonyms are sometimes less pseudonyms and more full blown characters. At times he has one character discover the work of another character and offer commentary on it. I think he does this not so much to distance himself from his work, as to create dialogue. In many ways, it seems to me that he was to the theology (and philosophy) of his day what Stephen Colbert is to American politics in ours. Additionally, it seems to me that he may have created his pseudonymous “characters” because he believed that truth could only be expressed subjectively, and therefore he needed to create entire personalities to express (a) what he was not yet willing to attach his own name to and/or (b) positions that he did not personally hold, at least in the form presented (though at times they represented positions that he had held in the past, or the “pure” form of a position that was part of his thinking). Kierkegaard lays out his controlling idea in no uncertain terms in the character of Johannes Climacus in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, when he says, “Subjectivity is truth, subjectivity is reality.” Though this statement is made “in character”, it is in a character that Kierkegaard clearly identifies with and it is just as clearly characteristic of his entire theological scheme.

Kierkegaard must be read and interpreted against the backdrop of the Enlightenment, and particularly the philosophy of Hegel. In Kierkegaard’s view, Hegel had basically reduced God and Faith to a system. Caputo explains,

“…every time that Hegel said that Christianity painted a beautiful religious ‘picture’ of which he was delivering the hard-core ‘conceptual truth,’ that his philosophy was ‘Christianity’ raised up to the level of Reason, Kierkegaard howled in pain.”

Kierkegaard devoted much of his writing (particularly his pseudonymous writing) to countering Hegel’s thought and indeed the entire direction that the Enlightenment had led philosophy and theology. Indeed, Kierkegaard seems almost fixated on Hegel at times. Though he explicitly attacks Hegel’s thought, even ridiculing it at times, he also seemed to hold a great deal of respect for the man. He brings this dissonance into the light when he says:

“If Hegel had completed his logic and then said in the preface that the entire thing was merely an experiment in thought, where he had even made a number of unwarranted assumptions, then he would definitely have been the greatest thinker of all time. As it is, he is merely a joke.”

Additionally, one must consider Kierkegaard’s rather bizarre family situation, as well as his on-and-off romantic relationship with Regine Olsen. His father was the dominant influence in his life, and this influence was not altogether positive. His father had led a difficult life of poor circumstance, and at one point, in deep despair and frustration, had apparently overtly “cursed God” in some manner. Because of this, the senior Kierkegaard carried a deep sense of guilt and believed himself and his son to be cursed (a belief that Soren shared for some time). Further, the senior Kierkegaard apparently delivered the news of his blasphemy in a seiries of earth-shattering confessions to Soren. It is speculated that these confessions also included an affair with a maid while Soren’s mother was on her death-bed (the maid eventually became the Father’s second wife), and a visit to a bordello. In the wake of these confessions, S. Kierkegaard seemed to distance himself from his father and everything he held dear, including theology and religion. In the place of these pursuits, Soren dove into philosophy, hence his obsession w/ Hegel.
Regine Olsen also profoundly influenced Kierkegaard, or more accurately, his relationship with her influenced him. He coyly courted her, though in his own mind he probably also saw it as a form of training. He gave her specially selected books for her to read and then would engage her in discussion about the various topics. This relationship was probably doomed from the start due to the negative influence of Kierkegaard’s father and the very warped version of love he learned from him. His relationship to Regine eerily mirrors his relationship with his father in reverse. Eventually they became engaged, but Kierkegaard broke it off, seeing himself as being called to a life of study, writing and celibacy. Regine protested vigorously, but her cries seemed to fall on deaf ears and she eventually married another. Even so, Kierkegaard seemed to hold onto an odd hope that they would eventually be reunited in some kind of “spiritual bond”.

No comments: