Rob Sturdy: An Introduction to Soren Kierkegaard

19 12 2011

I delivered the following introduction to Soren Kierkegaard at St. Paul’s Theological Center, hosted by St. Andrew’s Mount Pleasant on March 10th, 2010 as part of the “Great Theologians” series.  Read more about it here.

“What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, excerpt insofar as knowledge must precede every act.  What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die…what use would it be to me to be able to formulate the meaning of Christianity, to be able to explain many specific points- if it had no deeper meaning for my life?…I certainly do not deny that I still accept an imperative of knowledge and that through it men may be influenced, but then it must come alive in me, and this is what I now recognize as the most important of all.  This is what my soul thirsts for as the African deserts thirst for water.”[1]

This excerpt, taken from Kierkegaard’s journal entry dated August 1, 1835, in many ways sums up the man and his thought and is a fine argument for why it is well worth our time to spend an evening on Kierkegaard.  I would like to point out a few things from the journal entry to prepare you to listen for specific themes and styles that I will keep drawing us back to throughout our time together.

First, notice Kierkegaard’s earnestness.  It should be evident from the quote above that the search for truth and meaning is not a casual affair for Kierkegaard.  Rather than pursuing thought for thought’s sake, Kierkegaard is searching for an idea not only worth dying for, but also worth living for.

Second, notice that for Kierkegaard the aim of thought is to produce action in life.  If you understand this point you will understand his earnestness.  Kierkegaard’s question is not so much “what should we think about…,” but rather “how should we live?”  Our modern concerns will no doubt misunderstand Kierkegaard’s point on this issue.  The modern refrain is “it is not important what we believe, but how we act.”  If this is how you understand the quote then you have failed to read it properly.  Let us focus on one sentence from the excerpt to draw out this very important point.  “I certainly do not deny that I still accept an imperative of knowledge and that through it men may be influenced…”  What is being said here?  What is being said is that knowledge, that is what you believe, is of supreme importance.  But this knowledge must translate to concrete behavior in our actual lives.  This is what Kierkegaard mean’s by “it must come alive in me.”  The thoughts of the mind must take on flesh, arms, legs, eyes, ears etc. and move and act and have consequences in the real world.

Third, notice that unlike many philosophers today, Kierkegaard takes for granted that the truth he is so desperately searching for is bound up within the will of God.  “What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do.”  Kierkegaard is not looking for universal principles that could exist without God.  In fact, as we shall see momentarily, Kierkegaard believed such universal principles could be suspended if God demanded.  Rather, for Kierkegaard “What matters” is ultimately determined by the command of God and its appropriation by the human will.

And finally, notice that Kierkegaard is a poet.  We will not be studying a dry, distant, dizzyingly complex philosopher/ theologian tonight.  We will be studying a philosophy/ theologian who wraps every thought in a beautiful parable.  “This is what my soul thirsts for as the African deserts thirst for water.” Read the rest of this entry »

Kierkegaard: A Parable of a King and a Maiden

19 12 2011

Below is an excerpt from Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments. It is a famous section with a well known parable. I have placed an enormous amount of text on this post. Simply click through to read it all. It reaches an emotional crescendo in the final few paragraphs and is quite moving. This is a stunning piece of philosophical devotion to the Lord Jesus.  This excerpt I think will be a joy to anyone who reads it.  Don’t worry if you get lost from time to time.  It’s worth pushing through to the finish.  The greatest Kierkegaard junkie to the guy who says “who’s Kierkegaard?” will reap great rewards for spending time in these few paragraphs.  Enjoy.

Suppose then a king who loved a humble maiden. The heart of the king was not polluted by the wisdom that is loudly enough proclaimed; he knew nothing of the difficulties that the understanding discovers in order to ensnare the heart, which keep the poets so busy, and make their magic formulas necessary. It was easy to realize his purpose. Every statesman feared his wrath and dared not breathe a word of displeasure; every foreign state trembled before his power, and dared not omit sending ambassadors with congratulations for the nuptials; no courtier groveling in the dust dared wound him, lest his own head be crushed. Then let the harp be tuned, let the songs of the poets begin to sound, and let all be festive while love celebrates its triumph. For love is exultant when it unites equals, but it is triumphant when it makes that which was unequal equal in love. — Then there awoke in the heart of the king an anxious thought; who but a king who thinks kingly thoughts would have dreamed of it! He spoke to no one about his anxiety; for if he had, each courtier would doubtless have said: “Your majesty is about to confer a favor upon the maiden, for which she can never be sufficiently grateful her whole life long.” This speech would have moved the king to wrath, so that he would have commanded the execution of the courtier for high treason against the beloved, and thus he would in still another way have found his grief increased. So he wrestled with his troubled thoughts alone. Would she be happy in the life at his side? Would she be able to summon confidence enough never to remember what the king wished only to forget, that he was king and she had been a humble maiden? For if this memory were to waken in her soul, and like a favored lover sometimes steal her thoughts away from the king, luring her reflections into the seclusion of a secret grief; or if this memory sometimes passed through her soul like the shadow of death over the grave: where would then be the glory of their love? Then she would have been happier had she remained in her obscurity, loved by an equal, content in her humble cottage; but confident in her love, and cheerful early and late. What a rich abundance of grief is here laid bare, like ripened grain bent under the weight of its fruitfulness, merely waiting the time of the harvest, when the thought of the king will thresh out all its seed of sorrow! For even if the maiden would be content to become as nothing, this could not satisfy the king, precisely because he loved her, and because it was harder for him to be her benefactor than to lose her. And suppose she could not even understand him? For while we are thus speaking foolishly of human relationships, we may suppose a difference of mind between them such as to render an understanding impossible. What a depth of grief slumbers not in this unhappy love, who dares to rouse it! However, no human being is destined to suffer such grief; him we may refer to Socrates, or to that which in a still more beautiful sense can make the unequal equal. Read the rest of this entry »