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Theology of Søren Kierkegaard

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Theology of Søren Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard's theology has been a major influence in the development of 20th century theology. Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) was a 19th-century Danish philosopher who has been generally considered the "Father of Existentialism". During his later years (1848–1855), most of his writings shifted from being philosophical in nature to being religious.

Kierkegaard's theology focuses on the single individual in relation to an unprovable, yet known God. Many of his writings were a directed assault against all of Christendom, Christianity as a political and social entity. His target was the Danish State Church, which represented Christendom in Denmark. Christendom, in Kierkegaard's view, made individuals lazy in their religion. Many of the citizens were officially "Christians", without having any idea of what it meant to be a Christian. Kierkegaard attempted to awaken Christians to the need for unconditional religious commitment. However he was also against party spirit in religion as well as other areas of study and system building.


  • Religious background 1
    • Kierkegaard 1.1
    • Denmark and Europe 1.2
  • Kierkegaard's audience 2
  • Themes in his theology 3
    • Faith 3.1
    • Paradox 3.2
    • Despair and sin 3.3
  • Selected religious works 4
  • References 5
  • Sources 6
  • External links 7

Religious background


Søren Kierkegaard was born to a Lutheran Protestant family. His father, Michael Pederson Kierkegaard, was a Lutheran Pietist, but questioned how God could let him suffer so much. One day, he climbed a mountain and cursed God. For this sin, Michael believed that a family curse was placed upon him, that none of his children would live a full life. And indeed, Kierkegaard's family suffered with early deaths of Søren's siblings, ranging from childbirth to the age of 25. Only Søren and his brother Peter survived past 25. His father died in 1838 but before his death, he asked Søren to become a pastor. Søren was deeply influenced by his father's religious experience and life, and felt obligated to fulfill his wish. In 1840, Søren was awarded his theology degree and although Søren was eligible to become a pastor, he decided to pursue a degree in philosophy instead.

He decided not to become a pastor or a professor either because if he had he would have had to write under the authority of the State or the Church. He craved freedom and for that reason he wrote "without authority". He also believed in Christ as the ultimate authority in matters of personal faith. He was against beginning a "new religion", unlike Hegel, the religion of reason, and Schelling, the religion of nature. He always wrote to students of religion as a student of religion. J. Loewenberg of Harvard University described Hegel's God in the following terms in 1913:
as Hegel puts his fundamental idea, “the truth is the whole.” Neither things nor categories, neither histories nor religion, neither sciences nor arts, express or exhaust by themselves the whole essence of the universe. The essence of the universe is the life of the totality of all things, not their sum. As the life of man is not the sum of his bodily and mental functions, the whole man being present in each and all of these, so must the universe be conceived as omnipresent in each of its parts and expressions. This is the significance of Hegel’s conception of the universe as an organism. The [1]
Søren Kierkegaard questioned this evolution of God because if God is evolving in a systematic way then the awe and wonder of religion is replaced with speculations about where God is in relation to the system about God.
What does the task look like in everyday life, for I continually have my favorite theme in mind: whether everything is indeed all right with the craving of our theocentric nineteenth century to go beyond Christianity, the craving to speculate, the craving for continued development, the craving for a new religion or for the abolition of Christianity. As for my own insignificant person, the reader will please recall that I am the one who finds the issue and the task so very difficult, which seems to suggest that I have not carried it out, I, who do not even pretend to be a Christian by going beyond it. But it is always something to point out that it is difficult, even if it is done, as it is here, only in an upbuilding divertissement, which is carried out essentially with the aid of a spy whom I have go out among people on weekdays, and with the support of a few dilettantes who against their will come to join in the game." Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846) p. 466, Hong
This "going beyond faith" for Kierkegaard means the same as going beyond oneself. Philosophers, theologians, historians, and anthropologists tend to go beyond themselves and apply what they learn to the course of world history or national history. In this view we come to a Christian nation or a Christian world but Søren Kierkegaard felt that God comes into the single individual and that's where the place of God is. It's not "out there" somewhere. This point was brought home by Kierkegaard in his 1845 book, Thoughts on Crucial Situations in Human Life and in 1960 by Ronald Gregor Smith in his book, J G Hamann 1730-1788 A Study In Christian Existence,
A poet has indeed said that a sigh without words ascending Godward, is the best prayer, and so one might also believe that the rarest of visits to the sacred place, when one comes from afar, is the best worship, because both help to create an illusion. A sigh without words is the best prayer when the thought of God only sheds a faint glow over existence, like the blue mountains far distant on the horizon; when the lack of clarity in the soul is satisfied by the greatest possible ambiguity in the thought. But if God is present in the soul, then the sigh will find the thought and the thought will find the word-but also the difficulty, which is not dreamed of when God is at a distance. In our day we hear it proclaimed, to the verge of nonsense, that the highest task is not in living in the stillness, where there is no danger-, because the danger exists there quite as much as in the confusion of life, and the great thing, in short, is neither to live in solitude nor amidst the confusion, but the great thing is to overcome the danger. And the most mediocre things is to work oneself weary in considering which is the most difficult; such labor is useless trouble and has no relevance, like the laborer himself who is neither in the solitude nor the confusion, but in the busy absent-mindedness of reflection.
  • Soren Kierkegaard, Thoughts on Crucial Situations in Human Life, Swenson translation p. 10-11 (also called Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions)
It would, I believe, be possible to detect in the writings of Hamann, in embryonic or sibylline form at least, almost all the major concerns of Kierkegaard. The connections between the two will be apparent to any student of Kierkegaard. A typical appraisal of the relative positions of the two men is that of Karlfried Grunder, in the first volume of the splendidly planned commentaries on Hamann’s main works. He writes: "That God in incomprehensible reconciling grace lowers himself (has entered into human life, Dasein, as Kierkegaard says) is central alike for Kierkegaard and for Hamann. For Hamann it is also, and precisely, the world which God enters, but for Kierkegaard the place of this event is solely the individual, who in the decision of his faith, effected by grace, rises above the world, with which the “humorist” [in this case Hamann] continues to identify the “idea of God.” Kierkegaard, in other words, reaches a point beyond the world, the point of religious passion, in which the individual faces God, God alone, in the decision of inwardness, of pure subjectivity."[2]

Denmark and Europe

Kierkegaard accused Christian religious institutions of not being genuinely religious. Intellectual scholarship in Christianity was becoming more and more like Hegelianism, which he called Christian "evolution",[3] rather than Christianity. This made the scholars of religion and philosophy examine the Gospels from a supposedly higher objective standpoint in order to demonstrate how correct reasoning can reveal an objective truth. This was outrageous to Kierkegaard because this presupposed that an infinite God and his infinite wisdom could be grasped by finite human understanding. Kierkegaard believed that Christianity was not a doctrine to be taught, but rather a life to be lived. He considered that many Christians who were relying totally on external proofs of God were missing out a true Christian experience, which is precisely the relationship one individual can have with God.

Kierkegaard's audience

Kierkegaard's primary religious audience was Christian readers, especially those who did not fully grasp what Christianity was all about. It was not his intention to convert non-Christians to Christianity, although much of Kierkegaard's religious writings do appeal to some non-Christian readers. For example, Martin Buber was a Jewish existentialist theologian who critiqued many of Kierkegaard's ideas.

Kierkegaard delivered religious discourses because he didn't become a theologian or a philosopher of religion. His audience was any single individual who is laboring to become what God wants him to become. Striving can be done for the individual goal of becoming famous or just striving to make a living and the hope to have a future. Kierkegaard writes about the "divinely appointed teachers" of what it means to be a human being. And Christ is the prototype for what it means to be a human being from Kierkegaard's point of view. He put it this way in his Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits (1847): He wrote for individuals who struggle with sin and forgiveness and he began this in Either/Or (1843) and continued through 1851 with a repetition of his theme from his three discourse of 1843 Love Will Hide a Multitude of Sins. He sees the spiritual connection between God and the single individual much akin to Luther's idea of the priesthood of all believers.

Themes in his theology


Faith is a hallmark of Kierkegaardian philosophical and religious thought. Two of his key ideas are based on faith: the leap to faith and the knight of faith. Kierkegaard was a Christian Universalist,[6] writing in his journals, "If others go to Hell, I will go too. But I do not believe that; on the contrary, I believe that all will be saved, myself with them—something which arouses my deepest amazement." However, this view is not always consistent with Kierkegaard's own writings. He presupposes the individual who has decided to become a Christian has an interest in becoming that, is interested enough to attempt to develop a relationship with Christ, and has enough faith to believe that the possibility extends to all individuals equally. He wrote the following in his 1846 book, Concluding Unscientific Postscript:

Although an outsider, I have at least understood this much, that the only unforgivable high treason against Christianity is the single individual’s taking his relation to it for granted. I must therefore most respectfully refuse all theocentric helpers and the assistance of helper’s helpers to help me into Christianity in that way. So I prefer to remain where I am, with my infinite interest, with the issue, with the possibility. In other words, it is not impossible that the individual who is infinitely interested in his own eternal happiness can some day become eternally happy; on the other hand, it is certainly impossible that the person who has lost a sense for it (and such a sense can scarcely be anything but an infinite concern) can become eternally happy. Indeed, once lost, it is perhaps impossible to regain it. Page 16
And reinforced the same idea in his 1850 book, Practice in Christianity:

Faith, for Kierkegaard, was more than intellectual understanding. He began his great book Either/Or with a quotation from Edward Young, "Is reason then alone baptized, are the passions pagans?"[7] and later explained what he meant in his Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, which Rollo May called "the declaration of independence for existentialism".[8] Intellect is important but not all inclusive in the realm of religion. "A" in Either/Or wanted to use the arts to teach Christianity. "B" wanted to use the science of ethics to teach Christianity. Both can lead to an intellectual understanding devoid of passionate involvement in the act of becoming a Christian.

Richard McKeon (1900-1985) thought the imitators of Plato had misapplied his ideas and left the passions out of philosophy in favor of intellectualism. He wrote the following in his 1953 book Thought, Action, and Passion: The Young Man in Repetition was mediated by his psychologist, Constantin Constantius, as he tried to solve his problem. They represent the intellectual side of the human being and Abraham in Fear and Trembling represented the passion of inwardness because he was alone with God. Abraham believed in the actuality of God and could say nothing either artistically or ethically about it. Yet neither the Young Man nor Abraham is the prototype for the Christian, because the Christian is to follow Christ as the example.
Even greater than these is the knight of faith who dares to say to the noble one who wants to weep for him: “Do not weep for me, but weep for yourself.” Luke 23:28 Sweet sentimental longing leads us to the goal of our desire, to see Christ walking about in the promised land. We forget the anxiety the distress, the paradox. Was it such a simple thing not to make a mistake? Was it not terrifying that this man walking around among the others was God? Was it not terrifying to sit down to eat with him? Was it such an easy matter to become an apostle? But the result, the eighteen centuries-that helps, that contributes to this mean deception whereby we deceive ourselves and others. I do not wish to be brave enough to be contemporary with events like that, but I do not for that reason severely condemn those who made a mistake, nor do I depreciate those who saw what was right. But I come back to Abraham. During the time before the result, either Abraham was a murderer every minute or we stand before a paradox that is higher than all mediation. The story of Abraham contains, then, a teleological suspension of the ethical. As the single individual he became higher than the universal. This is the paradox, which cannot be mediated. How he entered into it is just as inexplicable as how he remains in it. Faith is a marvel, and yet no human being is excluded from it; for that which unites all human life is passion, and faith is a passion. Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling 1843, Hong p. 66-67
The object of faith is the actuality of another person; its relation is an infinite interestedness. The object of faith is not a doctrine, for then the relation is intellectual, and the point is not to bungle it but to reach the maximum of the intellectual relation. The object of faith is not a teacher who has a doctrine, for when the teacher has a doctrine, then the doctrine is eo ipso more important than the teacher, and the relation is intellectual, in which the point is not to bungle it but to reach the maximum of the intellectual relation. But the object of faith is the actuality of the teacher, that the teacher actually exists. Therefore faith’s answer is absolutely either yes or no. Faith’s answer is not in relation to a doctrine, whether it is true or not, not in relation to a teacher, whether his doctrine is true or not, but is the answer to the question about a fact: Do you accept as fact that he actually existed? Please note that the answer is with infinite passion. In other words, in connection with a human being it is thoughtless to lay so infinitely much weight upon whether he has existed or not. Therefore, if the object of faith is a human being, the whole thing is a prank by a foolish person who has not even grasped the esthetic and the intellectual. The object of faith is therefore the god’s actuality in the sense of existence. But to exist signifies first and foremost to be a particular individual, and this is why thinking must disregard existence, because the particular cannot be thought, but only the universal. The object of faith, then, is the actuality of the god in existence, that is, as a particular individual, that is that the god has existed as an individual human being. Christianity is not a doctrine about the unity of the divine and the human, about subject-object, not to mention the rest of the logical paraphrases of Christianity. In other words, if Christianity were a doctrine, then the relation to it would not be one of faith, since there is only an intellectual relation to a doctrine. Christianity, therefore, is not a doctrine but the fact that the god has existed. Faith, then, is not a lesson for slow learners in the sphere of intellectuality, an asylum for dullards. But faith is a sphere of its own, and the immediate identifying mark of every misunderstanding of Christianity is that it changes it into a doctrine and draws it into the range of intellectuality. What holds as the maximum in the sphere of intellectuality, to remain completely indifferent to the actuality of the teacher, holds in just the opposite way in the sphere of faith-its maximum is the quam maxime [in the greatest degree possible] infinite interestedness of the actuality of the teacher. The individual’s own ethical actuality is the only actuality. That this seems strange to many does not surprise me. To me it seems odd that one has finished with the system and systems without asking about the ethical. Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Vol 1, p. 326-327 Hong


Briefly stated, a paradox is an apparently true statement or group of statements that seems to lead to a contradiction or to a situation that defies intuition. It is said to be resolved when we show that the contradiction is only apparent. Kierkegaard's story of Abraham in Fear and Trembling exhibits such a paradox. Abraham could not prove he had heard the voice of God, yet he believes, and risked his only son based on this belief. The paradox of Abraham is that the believer acts and risks much on less than complete knowledge (incomplete knowledge is not sufficient for faith for Kierkegaard; one must believe by virtue of the absurd, that is to say because something is a contradiction). The god in time is a paradox just as much as the statement that "God is love" is a parody for an individual existing in time. Was it so easy for Abraham, Job, and the Apostle Paul to continue to believe that God is love?

Isaac was "the whole world" to Abraham and God had just introduced Abraham to the notion of "the soul". Was Abraham willing to give up the whole world in order to save his soul? Kierkegaard dealt with this question in Either/Or in this way: "The Bible says: For what would it profit a person if he gained the whole world but damaged his own soul; what would he have in return? Scripture does not state the antithesis to this, but it is implicit in the sentence. The antitheses would read something like this: What damage would there be to a person if he lost the whole world and yet did not damage his soul; what would he need in return?" This question brings Abraham to despair.[10] Abraham was used as a prototype in Fear and Trembling and The Young Man was his counterpoint in Repetition. Abraham followed the inner voice without mediation from his wife, Sarah, his servant, or Isaac. He just heard and obeyed. The Young Man made a promise and wanted to change his mind. He consulted with a psychologist who was engaged in trying to prove the theory of eternal return. Then he appealed to Job and complained not only to the world but also to God himself. Abraham's love of God never changed but The Young Man's love for his fiance was ever changing. Change was the theme of Kierkegaard's Three Upbuilding Discourses of 1843. These three books were published on the same day and should be considered together.

The paradox and the absurd are ultimately related to the Christian relationship with Christ, the God-Man. That God became a single individual and wants to be in a relationship with single individuals, not to the masses, was Kierkegaard's main conflict with the nineteenth century church. The single individual can make and keep a resolution. Those who aren't interested in becoming a Christian claim they can't understand Christianity and quite often they will point to historical events to justify their position. Kierkegaard is against basing Christian belief solely on external events because it leads to doubt since externals are in constant flux. Doubt leads to speculation and this detracts from the single individual making a decision to imitate Christ. He wanted to be known as the philosopher of the internal and was against scientific proofs of Christianity through history, anthropology, and philosophy and the creation of systematic theology. Becoming a Christian is a decision to be made in time, just like becoming good is a decision/resolution made in time, and not just for consideration because the individual offers the "self" to God.

Kierkegaard said Socrates was his teacher and that Christ was his Teacher. (See Philosophical Fragments) This Christian belief in the absurd notion that God became man separates one from the world in such a way that the Christian is estranged from the world. The world believes that reason guides all our actions, or should, and can't accept Christianity and is therefore offended and the Christian can't accept the reason of the world and is therefore offended by the world. Kierkegaard put it this way in his Attack Upon Christendom:

Despair and sin

According to Kierkegaard, the self is freedom. Not simply the freedom to choose, but the freedom to create choices for oneself. Therefore, human beings are fundamentally neither their thoughts nor their feelings but rather they are themselves. The self relates directly to itself and is subject to no one and everyone at the same time. Yet this self is in relation to body and mind and spirit in Kierkegaard's view. The spirit constitutes the relationship of the self to God. In effect, when a person does not come to a full consciousness of himself or herself, then he or she is said to be in despair. Just like a physician might say that no one is completely healthy, it follows that human beings must despair at certain moments in their lives. To be in despair is to reflect upon the self. If someone does not engage in the art of despair, then he or she shall become stuck in a state of inertia with no effective progression or regression and that is the worst state of all.

Kierkegaard calls sickness, the sickness of the spirit. He wrote the following in Concluding Unscientific Postscript in 1846.

Kierkegaard asked sharp questions that can only be answered by the "single individual" him or her self. This is an example from his 1847 book, Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits where he speaks of the third person and the crowd.:

Sin is separation from God but despair over sin is separation again. Kierkegaard said, "The consciousness of sin definitely belongs to the [13] Why would someone sit and reflect on sin to such an extent that an eternal happiness is exchanged for an eternal unhappiness or even a temporal unhappiness? This reflection is done in time but the consequence of the reflection leads one to lose hope in the possibility of any good coming from oneself. Kierkegaard says Christianity invites the single individual to become a partaker not only of the consciousness of sin but also of the consciousness of forgiveness but we seem to concentrate on the former to a remarkable degree. He said the following in Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions (1845) and Practice in Christianity (1850):

Selected religious works


  1. ^ THE GERMAN CLASSICS OF THE NINETEENTH AND TWENTIETH CENTURIES, Volume 7, published 1913, edited by Kuno Francke
  2. ^ (1960) p. 18-19J G Hamann 1730-1788 A Study In Christian ExistenceRonald Gregor Smith,
  3. ^ Concluding Postscript, Hong p, 559
  4. ^ Come unto me, all you who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest. Matthew 28:11
  5. ^ Matthew 8:19-20, Luke 9:57-58 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” ESV
  6. ^ Ludlow, Morwenna (2004), "Universalism in the History of Christianity", in  
  7. ^ Title page Either/Or, Hong
  8. ^ Rollo May, The Discovery of Being, 1983 p. 54
  9. ^ , MckeonThought, Action, and Passion
  10. ^ See Either/Or Part II, 217-227
  11. ^ Attack Upon Christendom, The Instant, No. 7, Søren Kierkegaard, 1854-1855, Walter Lowrie 1944, 1968
  12. ^ See John Chapter 11 The Bible
  13. ^ Concluding Unscientific Postscript Hong p. 524


  • Alexander Dru. The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard, Oxford University Press, 1938.
  • Duncan, Elmer. Søren Kierkegaard: Maker of the Modern Theological Mind, Word Books 1976, ISBN 0-87680-463-6
  • Joakim Garff. Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, Princeton University Press 2005, ISBN 0-691-09165-X.
  • Hannay, Alastair and Gordon Marino (eds). The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard, Cambridge University Press 1997, ISBN 0-521-47719-0
  • Alastair Hannay. Kierkegaard: A Biography, Cambridge University Press, New edition 2003, ISBN 0-521-53181-0.

External links

  • , by Soren Kierkegaard, translated by David F. Swenson, 1958Edifying Discourses
  • Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing Translation of part one of Edifying Discourses in Various Spirits 1938 Douglas V. Steere
  • D. Anthony Storm's Commentary On Kierkegaard
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Søren Kierkegaard
  • Kierkegaard's attack upon "Christendom," 1854-1855 Princeton University Press (1946) Retrieved May 18, 2012
  • "Kierkegaard's Attack on Christendom". House Church. Retrieved February 21, 2006. 
  • Universidad Iberoamericana - Kierkegaard en español
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