Monday, August 22, 2016

Kierkegaard: A Single Life

available here from Zondervan
A few months ago I realized I did not know Kierkegaard well enough. I'd read Fear and Trembling and Works of Love but I kept on picking up other volumes in used bookstores only to regrettably never quite get to them. All along there's been this nagging desire to go back and explore this nineteenth century thinker some more. Kierkegaard always seems to say something you haven't quite thought of that way before.

This brand new biography of Søren Kierkegaard by Stephen Backhouse hit the spot. It came to our door on Friday and I devoured it by Sunday night. It is immensely informative, insightful, and readable.

Rather than duplicate the denser intellectual biographies that already exist (on one hand), or offer up the life's story without reference to it's work (on the other), Backhouse gives us Kierkegaard in two parts: a telling of his story and an overview of his works. The first reads like a gripping novel, the second opens up inviting windows into texts both famous and unknown.

The 211-page 'life of Kierkegaard' which makes up the bulk of the book is nothing short of riveting. (And for those who wish to just do some beach reading, it could be happily left at that). The research that stands behind it is impeccable. Not only does Backhouse have a command of Kierkegaard's thought and of his historical context, he has also scoured the journals of Søren and his peers in order to give us a view of his life from inside-out and outside-in. This is sewn together not like a patchwork quilt or a dry historical treatise but almost like a psychological thriller. (Okay, 'thriller' might be too strong a word, but the drama of Søren's inner and public life is pretty intense).

Kierkegaard seems to have been hounded controversy. Just when it lets up he chases it again. One simultaneously admires his resolve and cringes at the pain he puts himself (and others) through. Backhouse gives a sympathetic account that does not cover up Soren's faults and quirks, but puts them in perspective and (thanks to his journals) reveals in them an intent that is better than many might have guessed. It would be easy to write Kierkegaard off as a controversialist, but through this insightful biography we see him as somewhat restrained given the burning of his conviction, the sincerity of his confession, and the sharpness of his vision.

Even though Backhouse highlights the work Kierkegaard was doing as it occurs in his life, I was thankful for the 54 page overview of his publications which rounds out the book. The pithy summaries have focused my understanding of books I have read, and given me a concise encapsulation of books which (let's face it) I probably never will.

More than that, Backhouse has put some books on my radar which need to go high on the reading list not just because they seem interesting, but because the thoughts expressed in them seem as important and challenging as ever. A few choice quotes (all Backhouse's words) will make this plain:

'The Romantics rightly accuse modernity of trapping people in a slavery of social customs, materialism, and shallow religiosity. Yet the Romantics also condemn people to a slavish devotion to their own subjective passions and immature whims. Irony, urges Kierkegaard, is a necessary moment on the way to exposing a lie.... Significantly, at the end of his life Søren would employ Socratic irony by claiming not to a Christian, thus exposing the Christianity of Christendom as no Christianity at all.' - on Concept of Irony
'The first-hand disciples faced the same challenge as did the second-hand disciples. The incarnation was as offensive to reason one second after it happened as it is thousands of years later.' - on Philosophical Fragments
'In an age overtaken by reflection, talking about doing something important replaces actually doing it. The crowd likes the appearance of decisiveness more than it tolerates the reality of it... Levelling is the process of abstraction, whereby decisive choices are stripped of their power by being morphed into "ideas" or "worldviews," and persons are subsumed into groups... One of the public's most potent weapons in the war to defend itself against individuals taking their existence seriously is an endless stream of celebrity gossip, manufactured ideological conflict, and opinion presented as facts no one owns but everyone has.' - on The Present Age
'In Kierkegaard's view, "discourses" denotes open-ended discussion whereas a "sermon" suggests the speaker is speaking "with authority." The book's four parts ... reflect Søren's deepening mistrust of Christendom's self-satisfaction.' - on Christian Discourses
'Christianity has forgotten this ['Come to me' from Matthew 11:28] is a hard saying, because the citizens of Christendom have forgotten to live in the present with Jesus ever before them.' - on Practice in Christianity
'The reformation betrays itself when it simply allows one form of anaemic cultural Christianity to replace another. Instead, authentic Christianity is ever new, reforming itself with every generation and every individual.' - on For Self-Examination
'The present age thinks the more people rally together about something the truer it is or becomes.' - on The Book on Adler
What comes to life in this book is not just the person of Søren Kierkegaard but the ethos of nineteenth century Copenhagen and its churches as well—an ethos not far off from our own. Read against the vividly painted backdrop of his context, one cannot help but feel Kierkegaard's work coming into clearer focus and still having lots to say.