To philosophers, and a certain breed of theologians, Kierkegaard is foundational to thinking about the very merits of faith and even just “being,” or existing, with an individual purpose. Yet to the average person in my pews or readers of my blogs, they likely have never read him, and all but a few likely have ever heard of him. For me, as a Pastor, this is a tragedy! However, it is a tragedy beautifully rectified by Stephen Backhouse and his brilliant Biography of Søren Kierkegaard entitled “Kierkegaard: A Single Life.”
Backhouse’s stated reason for writing this book is that most works on Kierkegaard are too “dense, distant, and unappealing,”[i] for people looking to break into Kierkegaard for the first time. He speaks of his friend Lincoln, who is clergy and a trained theologian, who still struggled. Backhouse delivers extremely well in rectifying that problem with a warm, insightful, page-turner, that grips the reader, throws them into 19th Danish Culture and quickly attaches readers to the quirky, controversial Kierkegaard. From Preface to Notes, he creates a fascinating characterization that steals your soul and makes it impossible to turn your head away. I read all 291 pages in two sittings, I just could not put it down!
I realize this will not be a widely read blog, but true to Kierkegaard, I write it because life is not about being accepted by the masses but about being called out from them to “A Single Life,” lived for Christ and the truth in Him. Kierkegaard is one of the best minds, in western thought, and the rightful father of whole schools of philosophies, worldviews, and ways to consider psychology. Yet more importantly, to me, his fingerprints are all over the way I choose to live a life of Faith in the public square of pastoral work. I must not fold into the crowd, go with the flow, be synchronized and sanitized by the populace, or swept away into blind denominationalism. Rather I must stand as a single life, and lead by the truth of Christ in me, forever upholding my faith and denomination to God’s ideals, not the “System’s.” Secondly, I hope this blog, while likely less popular than most of my works, still leads some honest minds out there to both Kierkegaard and Backhouse.
There is so much that I would want to tell you about Kierkegaard, but I will start with saying if you are a first-time reader, or an attempted and failed reader, Backhouse’s “A Single Life” is the ideal place to start so that you will be able to properly piece together key intersections of Kierkegaard’s life, philosophy, and theology. For me the beauty of this book is its simple and practical layout:
A Controversial Life
An Armed and Neutral Life
A Life Concluded
A Life Continued
Overviews of the Works of Søren Kierkegaard
The overviews of his works, in my opinion, is worth the price the book itself. It provides the titles, dates, pseudonyms used, and a brief summary of all the key points made in that publication. It, literally, is an in brief literary roadmap to Kierkegaard that helps the reader jump right into the work without feeling lost in the stream of his work. However, when you combine that overview with a compelling, page-turner biography that bleeds context into to those books and their overviews, you have the perfect Kierkegaard kit at your fingertips.
I found Backhouse’s book, at times, had me laughing out loud, other times cheering or shouting aloud in agreement at presumptions now proven, and sadly with pity moved for Søren and Regine and even Peter. Søren and Peter, his brother, had a near classic, real-life prodigal son vs elder son relationship going on; Søren playing the wasteful, floundering son off living it up, while Peter was the dutiful, hardworking elder son who achieved his academics as expected of his Father. Tensions are wound ever tighter when Peter goes to work for the Danish National Church as an Ordained Minister which was also the expectation of Søren, which he stalls out on and eventually rejects. Ultimately, Peter’s vocation and the Danish Church will become Kierkegaard’s target in his war on the faithless faith of the masses defined by the cultural “Christendom” of the era. Added to the drama is a real-life Romeo and Juliet relationship of Søren Kierkegaard and Regine Olsen and now you have all the makings of a what could one day be a whole Netflix/Amazon Soapy Drama series in the making (they seriously should make his life into a Drama series).
In my own opinion, If ever two people were in true love their whole life long it would be first Adam and Eve and secondly Søren Kierkegaard and Regine Olsen. Their love is a tragedy worth the combined creative power of every Greek poet that ever lived! Søren, is the lost, brooding melancholy under-achiever of a wealthy family, steeped in a life of bitter loss and strife, repeated sibling death, and the inability to find himself like Peter his achieving elder brother. And suddenly he becomes hopelessly and utterly smitten by the calm, quiet, soft, gentle love of his beautiful Regine. A chance meeting, a super painfully awkward suitorship by a fumbling Søren, and a mutual infatuation that would last a lifetime of separation from each other makes her the perfect muse that calms the beast and sets his mind afire for a life of existing with purpose. Having now felt the power of love in the world Kierkegaard feels the pull of the love giver from above on his life ever more strongly. The shadows are lifted by the light flooding into his life as James 1:17 becomes his and Regine’s shared engagement verse as they see each other as “Every good and perfect gift is from above coming down from the Father of lights.” Alas, Søren sacrifices human love for a higher calling to be, “a single life,” free from the control of the masses, seeking to restore true faith to a faithless charade of cultural Christianity. He knows, he loves her enough to release her from the pain and despair of his higher calling. He knows he must hurt her a little now to save her from a life of shame and ridicule of the cross he must now start to bear. And yet, their love, despite his rejection and abandonment, still lasts their full lifetimes; through Regine’s happy, healthy and love-filled marriage to another, and Søren’s one-man war against the church. A nod on the street here, a glance across the pews at a chance sermon on the couple’s favorite bible verse there, and the hidden coded messages in the works of Søren; all seem to be enough to remain in love for life, and yet for both still to move on with life without the other. Tragically, attached and dis-attached throughout eternity, it is a love not bound to need of presence. It is love that sets each other free!
For me, the core of life of Kierkegaard comes down to this: through a painful upbringing, a life of romantic love he could never give into without self-defined sin, the rise to celebrity status as an author, the object of political and public shaming as a mere caricature of himself in the media,[ii] to his failed attempts to reform Bishop Mynster through unreturned friendship, and never having fully been understood by his brother Peter or his own father Michael; there emerges a single clear and clarified Søren with one lone wish in his war on the church: that his People would come to know Christ, and not just the shadow of Christ, in the culturally acceptable Dutch Reform Church.
People can and will, and should, wax on about the Philosophy and intellectualism of Søren Kierkegaard, for being the father of Existentialism and for the brilliancy of his Philosophical contributions of to the world. But they all miss the point if they do not see him, first and foremost, as a theologian with one, and only one, singular purpose in this matured life; namely to call the masses of his country back to an individual, personal relationship with the Christ of the New Testament. His war on the state-sanctioned Danish Lutheran Church was to simply seek to lead it to repentance for becoming the Papacy it had once escaped from. All Philosophical merit in Kierkegaard is simply abstracted from this central concept Jesus and the Cross. The philosophy of Kierkegaard is but a mere shadow of the Theology of Søren.
As for me, what might I say of his impact on my work? Oddly, I have chosen a career path of Peter Kierkegaard[iii], not Søren Kierkegaard.[iv] May God ever permit me to practice the career of Peter with the heart, mind, and soul of Søren. May I always call people, first, to an individual relationship with the Christ of the New Testament[v] and secondly to real, authentic community and not of the mass control of the crowd. May I forever lead people to be true individuals in Christ, making up the community of faith at large, rather than mere puppets without hearts, souls, and minds connected to the Divine. May those I minister to be submitted first and foremost to the Trinity, via Christ, and then to the community as partners, never settling for being mere drones of the “Bishop” at hand.
Meet Stephen Blackhouse
 Postmodernism (likely a grandfather figure), Existentialism, and in my humble opinion finding your of Faith in the community, but not enslaved by the community.