The Wisdom of Kierkegaard 1

Clifford Williams
Department of Philosophy
Wheaton College
Wheaton, Illinois 60187

Cornerstone Festival
Bushnell, Illinois
July 1, 2005

 
Soren Kierkegaard lived in Denmark from 1813-1855. The aim of his books, he said, was to “reintroduce Christianity—into Christendom.” People in the Danish church were living in an illusion, he claimed; they thought they were Christians but it was plain to Kierkegaard that they were not. The task Kierkegaard set for his life’s work was to explain how to become a Christian to people who already thought they were. His books were a call to the Danish church to restore itself to New Testament Christianity. They also contained numerous astute psychological and spiritual insights. In what follows, I present some of these insights, some of which are connected to the idea of illusory faith and some of which deal with the Christian life in general. Along the way, I shall ask questions that these insights provoke.

Illusion: “When Christianity came into the world the task was simply to proclaim Christianity. . . .
In ‘Christendom’ the situation is a different one. What we have before us is not Christianity but a prodigious illusion, and the people are not pagans but live in the blissful conceit that they are Christians. So if in this situation Christianity is to be introduced, first of all the illusion must be disposed of” (Attack upon “Christendom”, 97).

Sly and subtle: “The apostasy from Christianity will not come about openly by everybody renouncing Christianity; no, but slyly, cunningly, knavishly, by everybody assuming the name of being Christian, thinking that in this way all were most secured against . . . Christianity, the Christianity of the New Testament, which people are afraid of” (Attack upon “Christendom”, 46-47).

Playing the game of Christianity: “Where all are Christians, the situation is this: to call oneself a Christian is the means whereby one secures oneself against all sorts of inconveniences and discomforts. . . . And orthodoxy flourishes in the land, no heresy, no schism, orthodoxy everywhere, the orthodoxy that consists in playing the game of Christianity” (Attack upon “Christendom”, 27-28).

Using the crowd to hide from God: “The most pernicious of all evasions is—hidden in the crowd, to want, as it were, to avoid God’s inspection of oneself as a single individual, avoid hearing God’s voice as a single individual, as Adam once did when his bad conscience fooled him into thinking that he could hide among the trees” (Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, 128).

What does it mean to be an individual? Being an individual is “the decisive Christian category.” With this category, “the cause of Christianity stands or falls” (The Point of View, 133, 134). 

 “In eternity each shall render account as an individual” (Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, 185).

Salvation: “Every person has heaven’s salvation only by the grace and mercy of God” (Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, 271).

Grace: “The grace of God is indeed the most glorious of all. We certainly shall not dispute about that, since basically this is every human being’s deepest and most blessed conviction. But very seldom does he think about it. . . . If he were to think the thought in its eternal validity, it would promptly aim a fatal blow at all his worldly thinking, aspiring, and pursuing, turn everything upside down for him, and this he cannot long endure” (Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, 300).

Faith: “Faith is the highest passion in a person” (Fear and Trembling, 122). 

“No one has the right to lead others to believe that faith is something inferior or that it is an easy matter, since on the contrary it is the greatest and most difficult of all” (Fear and Trembling, 52).

Gaining faith: “In the last judgment, the question will surely be: have you employed life to test whether you have faith or not, in order then to gain it?” (Journals and Papers, III, 539).

Longing for God: “The wind blows where it will; you are aware of its soughing, but no one knows whence it comes or whither it goes. So also with longing, the longing for God and the eternal, the longing for our Savior and Redeemer. Comprehend it you cannot, nor should you; indeed, you dare not even want to attempt—but you are to use the longing. Would the merchant be responsible if he does not use the opportune moment; would the sailor be responsible if he does not use the favorable winds—how much more, then, is the one who does not use the occasion of longing when it is offered” (Christian Discourses, 253).

Lust: “There is something very profound in the stories about the Mount of Venus, that the person who went there was not able to find the way back. It is always difficult to find the way back from lust” (Journals and Papers, IV, 289).

Evasion: “All this interpreting and interpreting and scholarly research and new scholarly research that is produced on the solemn and serious principle that it is in order to understand God’s Word properly—look more closely and you will see that it is in order to defend oneself against God’s Word. It is only all too easy to understand the requirement contained in God’s Word” (For Self-Examination, 34).

Meaning: “If a human being did not have an eternal consciousness, if underlying everything there were only a wild, fermenting power that writhing in dark passions produced everything, be it significant or insignificant, if a vast, never appeased emptiness hid beneath everything, what would life be then but despair?” (Fear and Trembling, 15).

Going dead: “In one’s youth a person has plenty of expectation and possibility; they develop by themselves in the youth just like the precious myrrh that drips down from the trees of Arabia. But when a person has become older, his life usually remains what it has now become, a dull repetition and paraphrasing of the same old thing; no possibility awakeningly frightens; no possibility rejuvenatingly enlivens. Hope becomes something that belongs nowhere, and possibility something just as rare as green in winter” (Works of Love, 250-251).

Living in the present: “A life of a human being begins with the illusion that a long, long time and a whole world lie before him in the distance, begins with the foolhardy delusion that he has such ample time for his many claims. The poet is the eloquent and enthusiastic confidant of this foolhardy but beautiful delusion. But when a person in the infinite transformation discovers the eternal itself so close to life that there is not the distance of one single claim, of one single evasion, of one single excuse, of one single moment of time from what he in this instant, in this second, in this holy moment shall do—then he is on the way to becoming a Christian” (Works of Love, 90).

Traitor: “Oh, there is a lot of talk in the world about treachery and faithlessness, and, God help us, it is unfortunately all too true, but still let us never because of this forget that the most dangerous traitor of all is the one every person has within himself” (Works of Love, 23).

Infinite burden: “It seems to me that being known by God makes life infinitely burdensome.  Wherever he is by, each half hour becomes infinitely important. No one can stand living like that for 60 years” (Diary, 21).

Terror and upbuilding: “Where there is nothing terrifying whatever and no terror whatever, there is nothing that builds up either, no upbuilding whatever. There is forgiveness of sin—that is upbuilding. The terrifying is that there is sin, and the magnitude of the terror in the inwardness of guilt-consciousness is proportionate to the dimension of the upbuilding. There is healing for all pain, victory in all strife, rescue in all danger—that is upbuilding. The terrifying is that there is pain, strife, danger; and the magnitude of the terrifying and the terror is proportionate to what builds up and to the upbuilding” (Christian Discourses, 96).

Two wills: “Everyone in despair has two wills, one that he futilely wants to follow entirely, and one that he futilely wants to get rid of entirely” (Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, 30). 

 “Just as a person, despite all his defiance, does not have the power to tear himself away completely from the good, because it is the stronger, he also does not even have the power to will it completely” (Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, 33).
 
Translations of Kierkegaard’s works are by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton University Press), except for Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing (trans. Douglas Steere, 1956).

For a book containing 250 short quotations from Kierkegaard, see Clifford Williams, The Wisdom of Kierkegaard: A Collection of Quotations on Faith and Life (Wipf & Stock, 2009)
 
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