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.

Notes
[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.