Risking Kierkegaard


by Josiah Thompson
Knopf, 286 pp., $8.95

Sören Kierkegaard
Sören Kierkegaard; drawing by David Levine

To write a book on Kierkegaard is to take a fearful risk. Either one will take Kierkegaard’s own sense of his work seriously—and this is on the whole what Lowrie did in his great and quite properly unseductive life—or one will produce a work that is aesthetic in the sense in which Kierkegaard uses the word. The latter may well be exciting, as a fine study of Plato or John of the Cross may be; indeed, it would have to be very incompetently done not to be exciting, given the interconnections of dialectic and life and attentive reader of Kierkegaard can tease out; but by choosing this approach to the task of writing Kierkegaard’s intellectual biography one would be discarding Kierkegaard’s own criteria for dealing with philosophical and religious topics.

We can imagine Kierkegaard’s comment on any attempt to portray him as an extraordinarily interesting man who becomes the father by adoption and by intellectual affiliation of the schools of existentialism represented by Jaspers and Sartre. He would have said he wasn’t surprised but that this treatment of his work simply confirmed his diagnosis of the present age. For Kierkegaard didn’t try to “make a contribution”—he simply sought the attention of “that individual whom with love and gratitude I call my reader.” It would be presumptuous of any man to claim to be this reader. Not that Kierkegaard is talking about an ideal reader: nothing could be more remote from his meaning. Such a reader would be “not a bit better than the others,” as Kierkegaard said of himself on his deathbed. But he would read Kierkegaard with a responding love and gratitude; and he would share Kierkegaard’s concern for what it is to be a witness to the truth.

In asking for a unique reader Kierkegaard is not asking for a man who would simply endorse his own philosophical and theological positions. Indeed, it seems right to say that what he lacked in his own day was a loving and critical reader. This, together with his repeated insistence that what he writes he writes as a “corrective,” accounts for much in his writing that may strike anyone today as savage beyond the bounds of decency. It is, of course, one of the strangenesses that Kierkegaard finds his reader, if he does, outside Denmark and in the twentieth century. Two readers may be mentioned honoris causa: Theodor Haecker and Walter Lowrie. These two, and David Swenson and Alexander Dru should also be mentioned, are among the scholarly readers of an age now passing who gave much of their energy to the task of simply making Kierkegaard more available. If we ask, though, who through Kierkegaard and with Kierkegaard has done most to shake the structure of theology in the spirit of Kierkegaard, then only one answer is possible: Karl Barth.

It is interesting, and tells us much about Professor Thompson’s…

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