Today in New Zealand, we remember the end of the first World War and commemorate the sacrifices of members of the armed forces in that period of awful history. Today, however, is also the day that in 1855, Soren Kierkegaard, one of the most influential thinkers of the nineteenth century, died. This overlap is ironic, for it was only after the first World War ended that Kierkegaard’s influence began to play such a formative and decisive role in the emergence of existentialist philosophy. His impact, however, is not limited to the thought of writers such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. Even now, in the twenty-first century, the Danish author continues to stimulate writers from fields as diverse as literary criticism and psychology.
He may often be more known to some Christians as the poster boy of fideism and subjectivism, but it is all too easy to miss the context in which he wrote and the adversaries he set his sights upon. Confronting a sterile Hegelian rationalism that had dissolved the importance of individual existence and advocated what Kierkegaard saw as pure ‘thought without a thinker’, the Danish philosopher sought to destroy the notion of impersonal, morally neutral knowledge. Against a Denmark church that had fallen asleep to the radical demands of Christ, Kierkegaard attempted to emphasize the idea that in judging a person’s life, what counted was not the objective truth of the person’s beliefs but the way those beliefs have taken hold and transformed the knower (“When all are Christians, Christianity eo ipso [by that very fact] does not exist,” he once wrote).
The shortcomings of Kierkegaard’s philosophy are not hard to find. And debate will no doubt continue about the exact nature of his thoughts, given the vast library of his work and the fact that many of his books were written under a variety of pseudonyms, but Kierkegaard still has important things to say about faith, the despair of the aesthetic life, epistemic risk, and the nature of love.