Cherry Picking Kierkegaard

The Coffee Gathering Pombo

“La tertulia del café de Pombo” by José Gutiérrez Solana, 1920

Generally I’m more apt to hang out with grill-in-the-driveway, figure-it-out-yourself, change-your-own-oil, workaday kind of guys than intellectuals. When I was younger and thought I knew what was important, I developed an anti-intellectual prejudice that continues to the present day. But as Tim Keller says, “You cannot be a Christian without using your brain to its uttermost,” so game on.

Many of us have a tendency to read Bible passages simplistically, without empathizing or thinking beyond the sacred page. Teachers like Michael Card encourage reading “at the level of our imaginations,” but that takes time and work.

Take the story of the testing of Abraham in Genesis 22 for example.  Danish philosopher, theologian, and Lutheran ethicist Søren Kierkegaard thought about the anguish that Abraham felt while walking for three days to Mount Moriah to sacrifice Isaac.  To Kierkegaard this is not a simple story to be read dryly or mechanically from one punctuation mark to the next.  Kierkegaard thought about the huge weight being placed upon Abraham’s conscience, and posited ideas about the teleological suspension of the ethical.  This isn’t (actually) a post about Kierkegaard, but just to help set the background, here are a few of his quotes:

  • The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.
  • Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
  • Once you label me, you negate me.
  • When you read God’s Word, you must constantly be saying to yourself, “It is talking to me, and about me.”
  • Our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts.
  • You cannot have the truth in such a way that you catch it, but only in such a way that it catches you.
  • People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.
  • Faith is the highest passion in a human being. Many in every generation may not come that far, but none comes further.
  • The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins.
  • It is so hard to believe because it is so hard to obey.
  • The self-assured believer is a greater sinner in the eyes of God than the troubled disbeliever.

Søren Kierkegaard, 1813-1855

Kierkegaard used the testing of Abraham as the subject for his work, Fear and Trembling (1843).  When you read the Bible like this, Christianity is—as Ellen Vaughn says—“Alive, dangerous, and exciting.”  Fear and Trembling was praised as the lynchpin of the existentialist movement, and Kierkegaard is recognized as the first existentialist philosopher.  Actually I find that to be a bit ironic in that the starting point for existentialism is the individual, and the essence of Christianity is subrogation of the individual for the benefit of others.  That a theologian would be the father of existentialism seems absurd.  Those philosophers and writers who followed—whether they accepted the existentialist label or not (Kierkegaard never heard the word ‘existentialism’)—were largely self-absorbed and cynical.

Not that I have any credentials to argue the points, but I prefer the hard-hitting, crisp analytic philosophy of a William Lane Craig to the continental philosophy of the existentialists.  (Apologies for making such a pretentious statement, I do change my own oil.)  But…we don’t have to agree with everything that someone else believes to find really good material to support our personal discipleship.

Kierkegaard was constantly at odds with the church, relentlessly criticizing the effects of ‘Christendom’ on Christianity.  He argued that, “The idea of congregations keeps individuals as children since Christians are disinclined from taking the initiative to take responsibility for their own relation to God.”[1]  While I’m all for congregations (more importantly congregations were modeled for us throughout the New Testament), I do get what Kierkegaard was fighting against—and for.

“Kierkegaard perceived among his fellow Christians a kind of complacency, an assumption that faith was something easy—it was something that one is simply born into, really, by virtue of growing up in a nominally Christian society and perhaps going to church and going through the motions of being a Christian.  And Kierkegaard wants to challenge that kind of complacency—the assumption that people had that they were already Christians—because Kierkegaard thinks that assumption is something that blocks the project of becoming a Christian.  If you think you’re one already you don’t think it’s something that’s any kind of existential task.  So Kierkegaard is trying to unsettle people who might have had a fairly uncritical, unquestioning acceptance of the story of Abraham.”
Claire Carlisle on Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling

To write Kierkegaard off as a sour, ax-grinding philosopher and theologian would be to miss some great thinking about the value of personal discipleship (the actual subject of this post).  At the risk of cherry picking his work, we could all benefit from working a little harder at imagining what is really happening in the verses that span the pages of our Bible.  Or as the Apostle Paul wrote, we are called to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.  It involves work, and it’s not merely a run-on suggestion.  Enjoy!

HT: Travis Simone

About John Paine

This blog is topical and devotional--we post whatever interests us, whenever. If you want to follow in an orderly fashion, please see our Kaqexeß page. View all posts by John Paine

6 responses to “Cherry Picking Kierkegaard

  • dwwork

    Great post, I do know where Kierkegaard comes from as I grew up in a liturgical church. This can cause one to go through the motions as the service is essentially the same week in and week out. This caused me to just go through the motions rather than worship God. For those like me we have to break away from the congregation and grow. Many others are able to grow in that environment, just not me. I only really started to grow when I was challenged to read the Bible for myself and then I found a richness I have never dreamed was there. David


    • John Paine

      Thanks David, I totally agree about the richness. For me the starting point wasn’t liturgy, it was lethargy. I heard great sermons in a very comfortable worship service, and went home with enough sound bites to last for a week. It wasn’t the church’s fault by any means, but my spiritual walk took on a whole new vitality and joy when I took responsibility for my own personal discipleship. If there was just one thing I could leave with people it would be the joy of discovering how valuable and reliable the Scriptures are, and what they are ultimately about–a personal relationship with our loving God.


  • John Paine

    Also, because several of you have asked me…

    The painting is a scene from The Old Coffee & Botilleria of Pombo–one of the best known local gathering spots in Madrid in the first third of the twentieth century. There, in 1912, the writer Ramon Gomez de la Serna decided to found his literary gathering on Saturday, extending until one in the morning. The gathering was called “The Holy Crypt Pombo” and brought together some of the intellectual young talent of the time.

    I just thought it was a beautiful image of intellectuals, that captured some of the solemnity of the existential movement (although that’s just my exegetical interpretation of the painting). You can read more here.



  • Jon Gleason

    Hello, John, interesting thoughts.

    I’m pretty strong on the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture, which probably wasn’t a favourite of Kierkegaard’s. I’m not sure we really need to be imagining about what isn’t said.

    And yet….

    We don’t really understand what is said unless we see the people involved as real people — and that may take some imagination. So there is definitely a point there.

    But we can’t really know for sure what they were thinking unless Scripture tells us (I don’t even know what my wife is thinking a lot of the time :)), and if Scripture doesn’t tell us, do we really need to know? Maybe not. Maybe Abraham’s mindset isn’t the point of the account, and isn’t one of the lessons we are supposed to take from it.

    And yet again….

    We’re reading accounts written in and for a different time, place, and people. If we don’t engage our imagination to some extent, we’ll filter it all through our own worldview / environment, and miss what is really written.

    Thought-provoking. Which was your purpose. Thanks for the post.


    • John Paine

      Thanks Jon for the comment. There’s a lot of doctrine that I would disagree with Kierkegaard about, but he definitely had empathy for biblical persons–to the degree that he wrings one thought after another too much so. I really like Michael Card’s teaching, and the way that he uses imagination in interpreting Scripture–it’s not imaginary, it’s just the discipline of using a heightened sense of discernment in connecting the dots and being aware of how the text fits on the ground, with the rest of Scripture, and in the context of the special revelation that it provides. Reading like that takes a lot more work and studying than just plowing through the words, but it is so much more rewarding. What I was really getting at is the value of personal discipleship. More on that to come. Again, thanks for such a thoughtful comment.


  • Jon Gleason

    Thanks, John. I realise my comment was somewhat tangential to your main point on the value and effort of discipleship, which is excellent.

    Blessings to you.


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