5 Things I Learned About Kierkegaard’s Life from Stephen Backhouse
I hate to admit it, but not only did I skimp on Kierkegaard during my ThM in historical theology, Robert Bretall’s anthology of Kierkegaard’s works about did me in. Thankfully, I’m not alone in my struggle to grasp and appreciate the man and his ideas.
In his new book Kierkegaard: A Single Life Stephen Backhouse says, “It is not just theologians who find the influence of Kierkegaard hovering behind much of their work, only to find the life and thought of the man himself hard to get to know” (11)
Backhouse was spurred to write this book after a learned friend said the Kierkegaard he met in a book on his life and thought “seemed dense, distant, and unappealing.” (11) So he wanted to introduce this towering cultural influence in prose so compelling it read like a novel. He succeeded.
Reading it taught me five things about Kierkegaard that gives me a greater appreciation for our Dane’s enigmatic life.
1) Widespread Influence
First, Kierkegaard’s life is remarkable for its widespread influence. Backhouse reveals that his “influence seems to transcend any one of the spheres in which he is encountered.” (11) From modernists to postmodern thinkers, religious people to secular atheists, liberals to conservatives—all were influenced at some level, whether positively or negatively.
“Whatever your take on modern life,” Backhouse writes, “there are two things that can be said about Kierkegaard: his influence on our various modes of thought is widespread, and the exact nature of that influence is difficult to articulate.” (12)
2) Widespread Appreciation
Not only did Kierkegaard attain widespread influence, he also garnered widespread appreciation. Backhouse explains:
Poets and playwrights admired the man who wrote provocative fiction. Philosophers read him for his statements on the nature of time, existence, and the meaning of life. Conservatives liked Søren for his opposition to democracy and revolution. Liberals liked Søren for his championing of the individual and the common man against the forces of inherited tradition. Atheists loved his attacks on the clergy and official religion of Christendom. Reformers, longing for a renewal of Christianity in the land, also loved his attacks on the clergy and official religion of Christendom. (19)
I’d wager few Christians have been as appreciated by such a wide range of constituencies.
3) Widespread Reaction
And yet, his life wasn’t entirely celebrated. The same folks who appreciated him also despised him at some level.
Modernists are suspicious he sounds too postmodern; postmoderns think him mad for his adherence to big “T” Truth. Religious people suspect him to be a secular atheist; secular atheists run the other direction at his “leap of faith” conjectures. Liberals bristle at his critique of the notion of historical progress; conservatives are annoyed he finds Christian culture to be the enemy of individual liberty.
Backhouse is right: “Clearly, this was a man of sharp contradictions and puzzling paradoxes.” (19)
4) Lived as Fremmed
Perhaps the reason why he was so contradictory and paradoxical is because from boyhood he was, as the Danes say, fremmed. A foreigner.
“Søren was an alien, a refugee,” Backhouse explains. “He moved through his world like a stranger exiled to a strange land.” As a boy he displayed a bitting wit and superior intellect and attitude that alienated him from peers. He was also quiet and aloof, all characteristics he’d carry with him into adulthood. Such foreigner sensibilities marked a particularly conflicting period when he sought to parse whether it would be better to live as a loner or lover, thanks to a one Regine Olson.
“‘Fremmed’ pops up a lot, which might explain the idiosyncratic memoirs. The pen portraits are inconsistent in minor details, but all agree that Søren struck an odd figure.” (37)
5) Influenced by Moravians
As a child, Kierkegaard said he “acquired an anxiety about Christianity and yet felt powerfully attracted to it.” This acquisition and attraction probably stemmed from the Moravian Church, a life detail I hadn't know about.
Their emphasis on the tortured and crucified Christ had a particularly strong influence on Kierkegaard’s spirituality via his father. “His Christianity was serious and suffering, not joyful or graceful” (56) As a result, “Søren would recall how he was brought up to believe with a firm conviction that in this base and corrupt world, everything that was Right and True would be spat upon.” (57)
Contemplating this childhood spiritual influence, Kierkegaard would later comment, “No wonder, then, that there were times when Christianity seemed to me the most inhumane cruelty, although I never, even when I was further away from it, gave up my veneration for it.”
Stanley Hauerwas says Backhouse’s work is “An extremely useful book that makes Kierkegaard accessible to those just beginning to know him. Backhouse’s account of Kierkegaard’s life is exemplary.”
Engage this account yourself to understand why “Kierkegaard stands as an influence on some of the most important, life-giving, and controversial developments in the modern age.” (13)
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