An Earnest Buffoon in Christendom: Kierkegaard’s Irony by Peter Kline

[The following is an excerpt from Peter Kline’s forthcoming book, Passion for Nothing: Kierkegaard’s Apophatic Theology]Kierkegaard by Peter Kline

Writing with apophatic desire within Christendom is what leads Kierkegaard to adopt what is perhaps his most basic and pervasive literary form, namely, irony.[1] Writing with passion requires the indirection of irony because Christendom has confined theological speech within what Kierkegaard calls a “dreadful illusion.”[2] Coming late in a theological and religious tradition that had formed itself into a body of social institutions and patterns of speech in which one was a Christian automatically, simply by being born into a Christian society, Kierkegaard was disturbed with what he regarded as Christendom’s ability to deceive people into the belief they were living a Christian life when in truth what surrounded them was a self-deluded caricature of Christian speech and action.

The reason such “reduced circumstances,”[3] as Kierkegaard names them, call for irony, as apposed to a direct form of speech, has to do with what makes Christendom’s illusion dreadful. It is crucial not to underestimate or caricature Christendom, even if one’s judgment is that Christendom is itself a caricature of Christianity. For Kierkegaard, what made Christendom’s illusion about itself dreadful was not that it was false in relation to an objectively measurable and presentable understanding of Christianity’s truth. Christendom is not a doctrinal error. Nor is it simply an ethical error, a failure to live up to an objective Christian ideal. What is dreadful about Christendom is not any easily identifiable lapse or hypocrisy but rather its profound intellectual and emotional sophistication. Such sophistication has the capacity to embed one in an illusion from which it is nearly impossible to extricate oneself, at least by any straightforward means. Christendom includes earnest debates about doctrine and ethics, intentional divisions into denominations each of which defends the truth of its perspective, thoughtful reflections on the history and mission of the church, etc. For Kierkegaard, therefore, the way to approach truth and break through illusion is not to step back and “reflect” objectively on one’s situation and the ideals, values, and doctrines one is striving to embody. Such a move simply places one squarely within Christendom, no matter how “radical” such reflections are.

Rather than produce a dogmatics or a system of doctrine, Kierkegaard sought to write theological truth by cultivating in himself and in his reader what Jonathan Lear calls “anxious, disruptive experiences of irony.”[4] Irony as Kierkegaard sought to cultivate it, however, has nothing to do with apathetic detachment or a refusal of commitment. For Johannes Climacus, “the presence of irony does not necessarily mean that the earnestness is excluded. Only assistant professors assume that.”[5] Kierkegaard, like Socrates, deploys irony for ethical-religious purposes, as a way to deepen commitment and intensify earnestness. He assumes on the part of his reader a basic commitment to and familiarity with Christian identity, that is, he assumes Christendom. Yet he also assumes that a truly earnest pursuit of Christian truth under the “reduced circumstances” of Christendom will involve an “awakening” to how modern familiarity with Christian identity has reduced Christian speech to a species of “chatter,” even (or perhaps especially) when it is most sophisticated. Kierkegaard writes, “every Christian term, which remaining in its own sphere is a qualitative category, now, in reduced circumstances, can do service as a clever expression which may signify pretty much everything.”[6] A “qualitative category” is one that withdraws from conscription into quantitative projects of identity and power, projects to which Christendom’s bishops are wholly committed in Kierkegaard’s view. Categories such as “revelation,” “God,” “Christ,” “salvation,” etc. are for Kierkegaard categories of self-dispossessing action that have “no relation to survival as evidence of [their] truth.”[7] Christendom, however, has turned such categories into terms for leveraging its own power, that is, ensuring its own survival on the condition of reducing Christian categories to place holders for whatever powers and identities are in vogue. As Mark Jordan puts it, such categories become “terms used by everyone for everything—say, in churches, used by the weak for dictated testimony and by the powerful for repeated judgment in the name of ‘tradition.’”[8] Christian speech has in modernity lost touch with its “own sphere.” It has surrendered its own capacity for disturbing speech, for passion, in order to ensure its own survival.

To cultivate passion for truth in such reduced circumstance requires exposing the familiarity with which one assumes Christian identity and speech to disturbance and disruption. Such disruption generates experiences of irony insofar as I am led to experience my once familiar pursuit of Christian identity and speech as suddenly strange and difficult. I experience irony when I experience my own earnest attachment and performance of Christian speech as a form of chatter, uncannily hallow and bereft of truth, caught up in the interests of power, domination, and clever evasions of truth-telling. This is not because I am able to glimpse objectively the distance between chatter and “authentic” Christian speech—the fantasy of Christendom’s bishops, theologians, and self-assured converts—but because I longer know or have an objective sense of how to speak or live Christianly. My Christian identity has become a problem, a difficulty, an open question.

For Kierkegaard, the passion of Christian living is sustained by keeping the problem and difficulty of Christian speech and action open rather than closed. The truthfulness of a Christian life is conditioned upon it never ceasing to be an ironic existence, ever disruptive of a settled Christian identity, ever responsive to a voice from another sphere that withdraws from the objectifying patterns of speech that ensure Christendom’s survival. As Jordan puts it, “we restore weight to the old Christian terms by realizing that we have never been able to carry them or use them skillfully.”[9] There is that within the Christian categories to which I am committed, what is “qualitative” in them, that breaks my own understanding and use of them apart, that never allows me to handle them with authority, as grounds for cultivating an easily adopted identity. Such dis-possession, again, does not entail a deflation of earnestness. It is the condition of an ever-deepening engagement with and commitment to an infinitely difficult truth. It is the possibility of a passion for truth-telling that does not “fall down before the golden calf of whichever System or Anti-System happens to be in vogue.”[10] This is a passion that must “adopt despised speech,”[11] speech that refuses the interests of easily assumed and cultivated identity.

Kierkegaard’s authorship multiplies and performs various forms of despised speech, speech without authority, ironic speech that withdraws from any certainty about itself. Perhaps its most ironic gesture, or the one that gathers together all its preceding ironic gestures, is Kierkegaard’s final word as a Christian author in which he unsays even his own name as he declares, “I am not a Christian.”[12] This declaration occurs in the middle of his “attack on Christendom,” an attack on the familiarity of Christian identity and speech that is animated, as Jordan puts it, by “his hope that the ‘specific weight’ of Christian words might be felt on the other side of a satire that would devour Christendom, of an indirectness that displaces his own authorship, making even his own name the ironic token of missing voices from the other sphere.”[13] Søren Kierkegaard, that author who gave up every attachment in order to devote himself to the task of writing out what is entailed in “becoming a Christian,” declares at the end of his life that he has not, finally, become a Christian. “Christian” is not an identity that he can adopt, in part because becoming a Christian is not about assuming an identity but about undertaking a living response to a voice that calls him out of even his own name. Kierkegaard does not yet know how to respond to the voice that calls him, that calls him to give up everything, to become nothing. Yet, ironically, this not-knowing is what keeps him in proximity to this voice, straining to let it be heard, not least by himself.

Kierkegaard’s straining to hear and respond to the divine voice within the reduced circumstances of Christendom shows itself in his experimentations with form, his experiments with writing otherwise than as doctrinal exposition or self-assured moralizing. What is characteristic of Kierkegaard’s ironic writing experiments, for Jordan, is that they are “nearer burlesque than austere irony.”[14] The forms of the authorship perform their own distance from reassuring objectivity by way of passionate caricature that re-stages theological and philosophical characters and themes at slant, with a wink, with “histrionic gestures and fantastic scenes.”[15] Jordan: “read him as re-staging fans’ passions for Hegel, for Father Abraham, for Greek lyric and versions of Don Juan, for fairy tales and drunken speeches, even for the endless scribbling of the despised Adler.”[16] Even at its most Christianly religious, Kierkegaard’s writing does not settle down into measured and calculated forms “since any theology of God incarnate as a poor man executed for blasphemy must speak in the mode of ridiculous passion for an object otherwise despised.”[17] And within Christendom such ridiculous passion “requires choices both of institutional affiliation and devices of writing that are more exaggerated, like the choices of a bad actor or a buffoon. Kierkegaard makes such choices when he writes polemic in his own name against the memory of Bishop Mynster and his Christendom.”[18] Such earnest buffoonery offers itself as “a parodic invocation, a bit of camping, an artifice of fantastic desire.”[19]

Kierkegaard’s irony is apophasis under the conditions of modernity, apophasis when negation no longer prepares the heart for praise but drives the logic of “the system.” It is apophasis as an act of mourning the loss of forms appropriate for praising a God who will not be made the guarantor of the church’s survival at the hands of the state. Irony negates performatively by letting an un-masterable difference into its speech, the infinite qualitative difference between an identity and the self becoming nothing before God.

[1] For my reading of Kierkegaard’s irony, I am helped by Jonathan Lear, A Case for Irony (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).
[2] Kierkegaard, The Point of View for My Work as an Author (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 41-4.
[3] Kierkegaard, The Book on Adler (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 146. Hereafter BA.
[4] Jonathan Lear, Wisdom Won From Illness: Essays in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), ch. 4.
[5] Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 277n.
[6] BA, 146.
[7] BA, 36.
[8] Mark Jordan, “The Modernity of Christian Theology or Writing Kierkegaard Again for the First Time,” Modern Theology 27:3 July 2011, 445.
[9] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 449-50.
[10] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 444.
[11] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 450.
[12] Kierkegaard, ‘The Moment’ and Late Writings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 340.
[13] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 445.
[14] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 449.
[15] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 449.
[16] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 449.
[17] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 449.
[18] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 448.
[19] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 443.

Passion for Nothing: Kierkegaard’s Apophatic Theology

The following is a guest post by Peter Kline. Peter is an Ph.D. candidate at Vanderbilt University in Theology and Philosophy. In addition to Kierkegaard and apophatic thought, Peter has interests in psychoanalysis, mysticism, art, and aesthetics. He is also a practicing artist, and his work can be found at: by Peter Kline

This is one of the pieces of art that I plan on submitting as part of my dissertation, “Passion for Nothing: Kierkegaard’s Apophatic Theology.” And here is an excerpt from the dissertation that can be read as a bit of commentary on the painting. I’m interested in exploring what it would mean to inhabit a space between the word and the image, painting and writing toward “nothing,” toward the apophatic space and time that keeps everything in motion, that releases the word, the image, the self with its projects off itself into a temporality timed by the rhythm, the “repetition,” of eternity.


Like Foucault, Kierkegaard “writes in order to have no face.”[1] He writes in order to face the “divine nothing” and in that (de)facing he yearns to become nothing, nothing to be hawked by theory retailers or put to use by purveyors of any Christendom, old or new. What marks apophatic discourses as apophatic is their limitless self-critique, their willingness to take back and negate everything that is given in speech, even negations, or to take back as the manner of giving. This breathes into discourse an elusiveness, often quite subtle, that the commentator must become attuned to, with a patience, humility, and artistic ear that work against the scientific desire to “master” texts.

The simultaneity of giving and taking back is what Kierkegaard practices as “indirect communication” and “double-reflection.”[2] This simultaneity, which requires that one write at a slant or with a swerve, is how he lets discourse perform the paradoxical simultaneity of time and eternity—Øieblikket [“the instant,” or “the glance of the eye”]—in which time is thrown off center, off itself, forward. Kierkegaard’s authorship throws language off center, off itself. It lets the outside of speech into speech and so writes itself around and toward what cannot be named or gathered into definitive and stabilized meanings. Kierkegaard writes in the tension of passion between time and eternity, with one eye looking into time, the other looking into eternity. He winks at his reader, disrupting his own discourse even as he writes it, the way a wink disrupts the gaze even as it performs it. This is exactly the sense of Øieblikket, the glance of the eye, in which eternity approaches and withdraws in the same instant, opening time forward. An approach that withdraws as it approaches is one that makes room. Kierkegaard writes in order to make room for his reader, to release the reader forward into the roominess of eternity, rather than suffocate them with a smothering, tightly determined discourse.

Kierkegaard writes beyond the concept, beyond even his own concepts, or he allows a beyond, a rupture, a fragmenting, into the writing of concepts. He writes to release and revitalize an energy, a passion, a sense, an anger, a tenderness, a sorrow, a joy, a laughter that concepts cannot allow to burst forth. Hiin Enkelte, “that single individual,” is the limit concept of Kierkegaard’s writing, the limit of the concept, the stumbling block on which every concept trips and falls, or else learns to dance, to get off itself. Hiin—“that”—pushes Enkelte beyond the concept, beyond the abstraction of “the” individual to that one, right here—hello! Hiin indicates the movement of an address—“My dear reader!”—an address that is already a response to what opens, to what is given, prior to thought and prior to speech, the sheer thatness of that other, the shock of relation and responsibility that elicits a joy (and terror) that arrives before language and outlasts it. One might think of the joy of babies (in-fants, non-speakies) who learn to smile in the presence of the other before they learn to speak, who beam with the joy (and terror) of existence before learning the “ambiguous art”[3] of language. Kierkegaard writes in order to return his reader to, to repeat forward, this smile older (and newer) than speech:

Thus the upbuilding address is fighting in many ways for the eternal to be victorious in a person, but in the appropriate place and with the aid of the lily and the bird, it does not forget first and foremost to relax into a smile. Relax, you struggling one! One can forget how to laugh, but God keep a person from ever forgetting how to smile![4]

Kierkegaard’s wink always comes with a smile, an apophatic smile, with the joy of relating and communicating outside of, beyond, prior to, along the edge of, or simply without the concept. Academics, as a rule, are trained to forget how to smile, especially in their writing. To read Kierkegaard well, however, one must be able to smile, and wink, and dance—to let the outside in.


[1] Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge

[2] Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 73ff.

[3] Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, 231.

[4] Kierkegaard, Christian Discourses, 12.

Book Plug: Situating Existentialism. Key Texts in Context

Situating ExistentialismSituating Existentialism. Key Texts in Context, edited by Jonathan Judaken and Robert Bernasconi, is an excellent addition to the current literature on existentialism. The book not only situates existentialism historically and culturally, but it also takes a multidisciplinary approach, engaging philosophical, religious, and literary expressions of existentialism in its various Russian, Latin American, African, and European instantiations. The book is divided into three parts: (trans)national contexts, existentialism and religion, and migrations. The essays in part one focus on the various national contexts where existentialism appeared as a site of cultural exchange. It includes chapters on Russian existentialism by Val Vinokur, German existentialism by Peter Gordon, French existentialism by Jonathan Judaken, and Hispanic and Latin American existentialisms by Eduardo Mendieta. The essays in part two are devoted to existentialism and religion and include chapters on Kierkegaard and Christian existentialism by George Pattison, Jewish existentialism by Paul Mendes-Flohr, and Camus and unbelieving existentialism by Ronald Aronson. The essays in part three analyze the “national and religious borderlines that were crossed as existentialism was consolidated and canonized” (15). Here we have several noteworthy chapters such as Charles Bambach’s, “Rethinking the ‘Existential’ Nietzsche in Germany: Lowith, Jaspers, Heidegger,” Robert Bernasconi’s, “Situating Franz Fanon’s Account of Black Experience,” and Debra Bergoffen’s, “Simone de Beauvoir in Her Times and Ours: The Second Sex and Its Legacy in French Feminist Thought” to name a few.

As Judaken emphasizes in his helpful introduction to the volume, although the book is a genealogy of “the process of systematizing and canonizing existentialism as a movement of thought,” the establishment of existentialism as a distinctive mode of interrogating the human condition was assembled “only in hindsight” (2). In other words, existentialism by nature is not an –ism, not a system of thought like Hegel’s philosophy; yet retrospectively, we can recognize shared questions and concerns among its leading figures. Part of existentialism’s resistance to systemization and categorization results from the diverse and even conflicting views of its advocates. In other words, while its forerunners and major proponents share a common set of questions and concerns regarding political, religious, and ethical life, they disagree profoundly in their answers. Camus, for example, held that whether or not God exists was irrelevant to the persistent matters of our human condition. In stark contrast, Kierkegaard held that God’s existence and our relation to him was paramount to a proper understanding of ourselves, the world, and others. On the topic of politics, Kierkegaard was highly critical of “collective movements, insisting that where the crowd goes, untruth reigns” (3). Such a position is seemingly incompatible with Sartre’s stress on the necessity of political action and his call for a revolutionary politics. In the area of ethics, we have similar conflicting views. On the one hand, Sartre views human relations as fundamentally antagonistic. On the other hand, Marcel, Jaspers, and Buber hold a more positive view of relationships. For these thinkers, relationships are essential for one’s true ethical development, as they provide concrete occasions for the possibility of transforming our human tendency to reduce others to mere objects (3).

Whether one reads Simone de Beauvoir’s interrogations of gender norms, Fanon’s critique of the oppressive white gaze, Kierkegaard’s struggles with faith, or Heidegger’s description of anxiety, one encounters thinkers wrestling with fundamental questions and concerns of the human condition in its various historical and cultural inflections. As Judaken observes, “existentialists addressed the most fundamental concerns of human existence: suffering, loneliness, dread, guilt, conflict, spiritual emptiness, the absence of absolute values or universals, the fallibility of human reason, and the tragic impasses of the human condition” (6). Such common questions and shared themes—even though addressed and answered in incompatible ways—morphed into a powerful critique of modern life and thought. That is, existentialist philosophers were concerned about the rapid modernization of life fueled by its technological drives and ever-expanding bureaucratization of daily life. Along with other thinkers, artists, and activists unable to remain silent about colonization, technology and warfare, and the oppression of women, existentialists joined the chorus of critical voices revealing the violence and vacuity of modernity’s “progress” narratives. As Judaken puts it, “[e]xistentialism thus limned modernity and exposed its hollowness, revealing that it rested on a void. In reflecting this nothingness, existentialists pulled up the anchors that ostensibly undergirded the European culture of high modernity” (11).

Situating Existentialism provides not only an excellent historical introduction to existentialism, but it also shows how the deeply human cries of existentialist philosophers continue to resonate with 21st century concerns.

Part II: Kierkegaard’s Socratic Task

A guest post by Eric Lee, Doctoral Student of Theology, University of Nottingham

In my previous post, I focussed on the importance of Socrates for Søren Kierkegaard, emphasizing the privileged place he held in his thought not only at the beginning (Concept of Irony) of his thought, but also just before Kierkegaard died (“My Task,” The Moment 10). In the remainder of “My Task,” Kierkegaard claims that ” ‘Christendom’ lies in an abyss of sophistry that is even much, much worse than when the Sophists flourished in Greece.”[1] The pastors and assistant professors he knows are exactly like the sophists of Greece, pawning off false knowledge as if it were real, but in their case they are “making those who understand nothing believe something and then making this human number the authority for what the truth is, for what Christianity is.”[2]

Earlier that year in a news paper article, Kierkegaard said, “everyone must be able to see that official Christianity is not the Christianity of the New Testament, resembles it no more than the square resembles the circle, no more than enjoying resembles suffering,” etc.[3] But still, the ones assured of their Christianity in this state want Kierkegaard to loudly proclaim his Christianity, to wear it on his sleeve, as it were. In response to these requests, Kierkegaard calls upon Socrates once again:

O Socrates! If with kettledrums and trumpets you had proclaimed yourself to be the one who knew the most, the Sophists would soon have been finished with you. No, you were the ignorant one; but you also had the confounded capacity of being able (also by means of being yourself the ignorant one) to make it manifest that the others knew even less than you-they did not even know that they were ignorant.[4]

Socrates’ behavior thereby angered the Sophists because of his gadfly-like manner of revealing the latter’s unwitting ignorance. Likewise, Kierkegaard provokes rage against himself by pointing out that even though he is not a Christian, others calling themselves such-like the Sophists in light of Socrates’ acknowledged ignorance-are even less so.  “I am not a Christian; and it is rash to conclude that because I can show that the others are not Christians, then I myself must be one, just as rash as to conclude, for example, that someone who is one-fourth of a foot taller than others is, ergo, twelve feet tall.”[5]

Kierkegaard ends his last brief treatise with a summation of his entire project: “My task is to audit the definition: Christian.”[6] If the form this takes is Socratic, the content and form taken together (which can never ultimately be pried apart I would argue) are for Kierkegaard wholly unique: “In Christendom’s eighteen hundred years there is absolutely nothing comparable, no analogy to my task; it is the first time in ‘Christendom’.”[7] One supposes one could very well compare him with Hamann, that “Magus of the North” whom Kierkegaard called “the greatest humorist in Christianity.”[8] Hamann also saw himself as a Christian Socrates before Kierkegaard did.[9] But Kierkegaard here is still correct: what he is dealing with is a new beast on par with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would later describe as “cheap grace” (albeit due to over-determined speculation vis-à-vis Hegelianism), whereas Hamann’s struggles were with the so-called pure reason of the Enlightenment. In this sense then, Kierkegaard is perhaps in a unique position within Christianity.

In auditing the definition of ‘Christian’, Kierkegaard’s hope is to remind people that Christ’s invitation is not easy, indeed it is the ultimate sacrifice:

[W]hen it comes down to brass tacks and it must be certain what it is that Christ invites them to (in imitation to become a sacrifice), and this is not turned into something that pleases everybody-then it will be manifest, just as in contemporaneity with Christ, that all will most decidedly decline this with ‘Thanks for nothing’ and that only exceptionally does a very rare individual follow the invitation, and of these individuals in turn only a rare individual follows the invitation in such a way that he holds firm that it is an infinite, an indescribable grace that is shown him: to be sacrificed. … It would indeed be almost nauseating, stifling, oppressive, embarrassing that to be loved by God and to dare to love him should spiritlessly and idiotically be saddled with having the idea that one would have profit from it![10]

Kierkegaard’s tone remains Socratic, constantly questioning the ability to (Sophistically) ‘profit’ from following Christ. Instead, one must do the opposite of profiting: “to be sacrificed.”  In Cynthia’s previous post entitled “A Redemptive Historical Biblical ‘Postscript’ to Fear and Trembling,” Cynthia rightly points out that the story of the (non-)sacrifice of Isaac only truly makes sense in the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ upon the cross, the former of which in Cynthia’s words “was itself a sign pointing beyond itself, a sign pointing to that future Christ-event in which ultimate existential expression of both suffering and love was displayed.” Kierkegaard here (like Saint Paul and many others after him)[11] is calling us to follow this same cruciform path. Like Saint Johannes Climacus reminds us,[12] not only do we climb up the ladder to Christ, but Christ himself is that ladder[13] and thus helps us along the way as he himself is that way, beginning and ending in love.[14]

Kierkegaard ends “My Task” with this exhortation:

You common man! I do not keep it a secret from you that, according to my concepts, to be a Christian is something so infinitely high that there are always only few who attain it (which both Christ’s life affirms if one pays attention to his contemporaries and his proclamation suggests if one takes it strictly)-yet it is possible for all. But one thing I beseech you for God in heaven’s sake and by all that is holy: avoid the pastors, avoid them, those abominations whose job is to hinder you in even becoming aware of what true Christianity is and thereby to turn you, muddled by gibberish and illusion, into what they understand by a true Christian, a contributing member of the state Church, the national Church, and the like. Avoid them; only see to it that you willingly and promptly pay them the money they are to have. One must at no price have money differences with someone one scorns, lest it be said that one was avoiding them in order to get out of paying. No, pay them double so that your disagreement with them can become obvious: that what concerns them does not concern you at all, money, and that, on the contrary, what does not concern them concerns you infinitely, Christianity.[15]

Kierkegaard here singles out more Sophists, it seems: the pastors, and the state Church. In his final exhortation, these concern him even more than the “associate professors,” his usual whipping boys. Like the Sophists of Socrates day, these are the figures who ultimately demand money and moreover profit for their services. Beyond this, Socrates wanders around poor and barefoot, acting as a midwife to learning, not charging anything for his ‘services’. The only analogy that Kierkegaard himself has before him is Socrates, and so Kierkegaard’s own task is to, beyond those who seek profit, exhort his readers to be infinitely concerned with Christ and Christianity.

Next week  I will conclude with a post reflecting on the themes of these last two posts in light of his earlier writings.


[1] Kierkegaard, The Moment and Late Writings, p. 341.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Would It Be Best Now to ‘Stop ‘Ringing the Alarm’?”, published April 7, 1855, in ibid., p. 52.

[4] Ibid., p. 342.

[5] Ibid., p. 343.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 344.

[8] Journals and Papers II 1681 (II A 75 n.d., 1837).

[9] For example, Kierkegaard makes the same parallel of Hamann’s relationship to his contemporaries that he ultimately does with himself in “My Task”: “Hamann’s relationship to his contemporaries-Socrates’ to the Sophists (who could say something about everything)” (Journals and Papers II 1547 [III B 17 n.d., 1840-41]). On Hamann’s own works, see Johann Georg Hamann, Socratic Memorabilia: A Translation and Commentary, trans. and with an introduction by James C. O’Flaherty (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins Press, 1967) and “Part I: The Making of a Christian Socrates” in John R. Betz, After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J. G. Hamann (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2009), pp. 23-87. On Hamann’s influence upon Kierkegaard, see John R. Betz, “Hamann Before Kierkegaard: A Systematic Theological Oversight,” Pro Ecclesia 16, no. 3 (Summer 2007): 299-333.

[10] Kierkegaard, The Moment and Late Writings, pp. 345-6.

[11] Romans 12:1. Cf. Hebrews 13:15; 1 Peter 2:4-5.

[12] After whom, of course, Kierkegaard named his pseudonym who wrote Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments.

[13] Jesus identifies himself with Jacob’s ladder in John 1:51.

[14] See John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982). On similarities between The Ladder of Divine Ascent and Johannes Climacus’ Philosophical Fragments see Jacob Howland, Kierkegaard and Socrates: A Study in Philosophy and Faith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 12.

[15] Kierkegaard, The Moment and Late Writings, pp. 346-7. Also, for Kierkegaard’s affinity for the “common man” see Jørgen Bukdahl, Søren Kierkegaard and the Common Man, trans. and ed. Bruce H. Kirmmse (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001).

Part I: Kierkegaard’s Socratic Task

A guest post by Eric Lee, Doctoral Student of Theology, University of Nottingham

A warm thanks to Cynthia for inviting me to write a series of guest posts on Søren Kierkegaard. It is a welcome opportunity to serve as a kind of ‘midwife’[1] to a Kierkegaardian text that usually does not receive very much attention.[2] I want to blog through a piece entitled “My Task” which was the last piece of writing that Kierkegaard intended to publish in the series of writings known as The Moment. I will have two posts which work through the piece itself and then a final, third post which will attempt to show how these insights can be reflected back on Kierkegaard’s prior authorship in its pseudonymous guises.

While many familiar with Kierkegaard will know the phrase “the moment” (Øieblikket in old Danish, augenblick in German)[3] from his Philosophical Fragments[4] to define that moment of decision at which something absolutely new enters the picture such that it changes everything for the reception of a moment of transformation-Kierkegaard’s series by the same name of The Moment[5] signify a collection of writings in newspaper article and pamphlet form that intended to be a kind of ‘attack’ upon the Christendom of Copenhagen generally.  Specifically, they arose from his feud with Professor Hans Lassen Martensen.[6]

The religious climate of Kierkegaard’s time was such: because everyone was a Christian, baptised a Lutheran at birth, combined with a watered-down Christianity that used Hegelian terms to direct discourse and action (and not, say, the other way around)-the end result is that nobody in Copenhagen is thus a Christian.  Those familiar with Philosophical Fragments, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, and Practice in Christianity will be well-versed with Kierkegaard’s emphasis on the paradox of faith-the God-Man of Jesus Christ-and his concommitant bemoaning of the ‘slackening’ of this paradox such that the Christian faith is lived with no difficulty whatsoever. In fact, it is as simple as putting on one’s socks in the morning![7]

In light of this situation, Kierkegaard saw himself as a modern-day Socrates. He spells the form of this comparison in his The Point of View for My Work as an Author,[8] but in “My Task,” Kierkegaard goes into more depth concerning the comparison itself regarding both the person of Socrates as a distant echo of Kierkegaard as well as the culture of Athens and its own Sophistical leanings as an antecedent of Copenhagen’s Christians, especially Copenhagen’s “associate professors.”

To begin, Kierkegaard starts out with the following provocative declaration:

‘I do not call myself a Christian; I do not speak of myself as a Christian.’ It is this that I must continually repeat; anyone who wants to understand my very special task must concentrate on being able to hold this firm.[9]

Kierkegaard’s situation is that his entire culture has declared itself Christian, but in doing so, and in the way in which it has (among other things) forgotten the offense of the Cross,[10] it has put itself into a situation where they have abolished Christianity. So, if this is what Christianity has become, and if these are who the Christians are, then how can Kierkegaard call himself a Christian?[11] It is here where Kierkegaard makes the Socratic comparison, culminating into a paean to Socrates himself!

The only analogy I have before me is Socrates; my task is a Socratic task, to audit the definition of what it is to be a Christian-I do not call myself a Christian (keeping the ideal free), but I can make it manifest that the others are that even less.

You, antiquity’s noble soul, you, the only human being I admiringly acknowledge as a thinker: there is only a little preserved about you, of all people the only true martyr of intellectuality, just as great qua character as qua thinker; but how exceedingly much this little is! Even though over the centuries there have lived in Christendom a few isolated significant thinkers-how I long to be able to speak with you for only a half hour, far away from these battalions of thinkers that ‘Christiendom’ places in the field under the name of Christian thinkers![12]

And in his Journals and Papers, Kierkegaard says:

I have the deepest respect for Luther-but was he a Socrates? No, no, far from that. When I talk purely and simply about man I say: Of all men old Socrates is the greatest-Socrates, the hero and martyr of intellectuality. Only you understood what it is to be a reformer, understood what it meant for you yourself to be that, and were that.[13]

And later on in his Journals, Kierkegaard compares the martyrdom of Socrates to Christ:

Socrates is the only one, is “the martyr” in the eminent sense, the greatest man; whereas Christ is “the truth,” and it would be blasphemous to call him a “martyr.”

Why cannot Christ be called a martyr? Because he was not a witness to truth but was “the truth,” and his death was not martyrdom but the Atonement.[14]

If it was not already apparent through Kierkegaard’s continual use of irony and masks throughout his pseudonymous works-and even though Kierkegaard declares Socrates a “hero” in his Concept of Irony[15] dissertation before beginning his official authorship with Either/Or-Kierkegaard reminds us at the end of his life in The Moment and in his journals of the utmost importance of the person of Socrates for his work.  Socrates is not only the one thinker worth spending time with contra the Christian “thinkers” of his age, but Socrates himself, more than Luther and the Reformers and all their passionate writings (Kierkegaard himself a Lutheran!), is the only true and proper martyr to the intellect. Socrates, more than “a few isolated significant thinkers” in Christendom, is worth mentioning as “great” in both character and thought.

Why is this so? Aside from the fact that most philosophers in the 18th and 19th centuries held Socrates in extremely high regard,[16] it seems that Kierkegaard sees in Socrates a kindred spirit who is experiencing similar conflicts with his present age and dealt with these problems in a way most admirably in Kierkegaard’s eyes. In my next post, I will continue working through “My Task” in The Moment and thereby explore these themes further in Kierkegaard’s comparison of Christendom with a kind of Sophistry.


[1] Cf. Plato’s Theaetetus 150b-151d.

[2] There are a few exceptions, notably the recent essay by Paul Muench based on his PhD dissertation, see Paul Muench, “Kierkegaard’s Socratic Point of View,” in A Companion to Socrates (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2009), pp. 389-405. For his dissertation, see Paul Muench, “Kierkegaard’s Socratic Task” (PhD Dissertation: University of Pittsburgh, 2006). Accessed online, Major studies that tend to overlook these final “moments” are Benjamin Daise, Kierkegaard’s Socratic Art (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2000) and Jacob Howland’s otherwise extremely excellent Kierkegaard and Socrates: A Study in Philosophy and Faith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[3] Augenblick subsequently had prominent use in Nietzsche’s, Jaspers’, and Heidegger’s philosophies, although it is arguable that Nietzsche only had secondary familiarity with Kierkegaard’s work. On this, see Thomas H. Brobjer,  “Nietzsche’s Knowledge of Kierkegaard,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 40, no. 4 (2002): 251-63.

[4] See Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments / Johannes Climacus, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985. Also, for an important new translation of this text, see Søren Kierkegaard, Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs, trans. M. G. Piety (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). I have not read this yet but it looks hopeful!

[5] Previously, these writings were available in a collection entitled Attack Upon “Christendom, trans. Walter Lowrie (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944; 1968).

[6] For an in-depth and impressively exhaustive look at this life-long feud with Martensen (among other local Danish Hegelian targets), see Jon Stewart, Kierkegaard’s Relations to Hegel Reconsidered (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[7] See Søren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 35.

[8] Søren Kierkegaard, The Point of View, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

[9] Søren Kierkegaard, The Moment and Late Writings, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), p. 340.

[10] Cf. Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity, pp. 69-144

[11] Although he does not argue it here, Kierkegaard makes the case in The Point of View that the whole of his authorship poses the issue of “becoming a Christian” (pp. 55, 78, 93-4). It could thus be argued that the reason Kierkegaard cannot ever call himself a “Christian” is because ultimately he is only ever on the way to becoming one, and is never in a final state of “having arrived,” contra his fellow Danish Hegelians.

[12] Kierkegaard, The Moment and Late Writings, p. 341, emphasis in original.

[13] Søren Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers 2514, 3.80 (X2 A 559 n.d., 1850).

[14] Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers 2651-2, 3.160 (X.1 A 119-20).

[15] Søren Kierkegaard, Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 211: “At this point, I trust that two things are apparent-namely, that irony has a world-historical validity and that Socrates is not depreciated by my interpretation of him but really becomes a hero, so that he is seen going about his business, so that he becomes visible to the one who has eyes to see, audible to the one who has ears to hear.” C.f. Matthew 11:15 and Mark 8:18.

[16] One notable exception is Nietzsche, but even this picture is not as straightforward as Walter Kaufmann makes it out to be in his Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Anti-Christ, 4th edition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974). On this see Werner Dannhauser, Nietzsche’s View of Socrates (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974) and Paul Harrison, The Disenchantment of Reason: The Problem of Socrates in Modernity (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994), pp. 121-76.

Climacus on Christianity as an Existence-Communication

In his work, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Johannes Climacus discusses what he calls the dialectical aspects of Christianity or those aspects of Christian belief that one might call intellectual.   Climacus of course do not think that Christianity is merely a set of doctrines to which one must assent.  Rather, Christianity is a way of existence-as Climacus says, “Christianity is not a doctrine,” but is “an existence-communication” (VII, 328-29; pp. 379-380).[1] As C. Stephen Evans observes, this statement has been misunderstood often.  Climacus himself anticipated the potential misunderstanding and gives a lengthy footnote to clarify his meaning.  Here he explains,

Surely a philosophical theory that is to be comprehended and speculatively understood is one thing, and a doctrine that is to be actualized in existence is something else. If there is to be any question of understanding with regard to this latter doctrine, then this understanding must be:  to understand that it is to be existed in, to understand the difficulty of existing in it, what a prodigious existence-task [Existents-Opgave] this doctrine assigns to the learner (VII, 329; p. 379).

Because the Christianity of Climacus’ day had become overly speculative, he purposely distances himself from the word “doctrine,” as he fears that by employing the word, Christianity will continue to be categorized and understood as a philosophical theory instead of way of existence.  Thus, he comes up with a new term, “existence-communication.”  In no way is Climacus denying that Christianity has intellectual content; rather, he wants to make sure that this content is set forth in such a way that the uniqueness of Christianity as a transcendent (as opposed to an immanent) religion is upheld.  As Climacus explains,

If Christianity were a doctrine, it would eo ipso not constitute the opposite of speculative thought but would be an element within it.  Christianity pertains to existence, to existing, but existence and existing are the very opposite of speculation.  The Eleatic doctrine, for example, is not related to existing but to speculation; therefore it must be assigned its place within speculation.  Precisely because Christianity is not a doctrine, it holds true, as developed previously, that there is an enormous difference between knowing what Christianity is and being a Christian.  With regard to a doctrine, this distinction is unthinkable, because the doctrine is not related to existing.  I cannot help it that our age has reversed the relation and changed Christianity into a philosophical theory that is to be comprehended and being a Christian into something negligible.  Furthermore, to say that Christianity is empty of content because it is not a doctrine is only chicanery.  When a believer exists in faith, his existence has enormous content, but not in the sense of a yield in the paragraphs (VII, 329; p. 380).

The content of Christianity is dialectical; it is the “absolute paradox” and as such, it differentiates Christianity from immanent religions in which in principle all doctrines can be penetrated rationally, making revelation superfluous.  Climacus is firmly committed to what the orthodox Christian tradition calls the “mysteries of the faith”-the Incarnation, the Trinity and other doctrines which are both central to the Christian faith and can only be known through revelation.  In addition and related to the previous passage, Climacus believes that the content of Christianity has the potential to actually transform a person’s existence, giving him/her a new passion-“it is relating to the pathos-filled as an impetus for a new pathos” (VII, 488; p. 559).  Christian belief then is intimated related to action.  As Evans explains,

Climacus understands Christian belief as not merely accompanied by action but as essentially expressing itself in action.  Because of this he attempts to rethink the nature of that belief in such a way that it does not exclude belief as an intellectual act but does exclude even the possibility of belief being only an intellectual act.  This conception of Christian belief is itself demanded by “existential appropriation” that is Christianity and the content of Christianity, which is the absolute paradox, can be seen to correspond exactly to each other [VII, 532; pp. 610-611].  Both the content of Christianity and the appropriation of Christianity become “specifically different” from everything else (Kierkegaard’s Fragments and Postscript, p. 210).

[1] All citations are from the Hong translation.