M.G. Piety

Kierkegaard as Liberal Theologian

In Conference news, Uncategorized on July 2, 2018 at 2:24 pm


I’m giving a paper at a conference on liberal theology at Ludwig-Maximilians Universität in Munich later this month. I’m a philosopher by training rather than a theologian, so I’ve been doing some reading in preparation for the conference. One of the books I’ve been reading is Michael J. Langford’s A Liberal Theology for the Twenty-First Century. Langford lists, in his introduction, what he asserts are the basic characteristics of liberal theology. The two most fundamental characteristics, according to Langford, are (a) “The desire to use rational methods, including those of the empirical sciences, as far as they can be taken,” (b) The confident “pursuit of truth” from the perspective of belief “in a God who is active in the world, and who is the source of all that is” (22-23).

From these two characteristics, Langford derives five more:

  1. c) The refusal to be overawed by tradition or authority when strong objections to a belief or a practice are raised.

  2. d) A dislike of any formal links between church and state.

  3. e) A general scepticism of claims that are not backed up by appeals to reason or experience.

  4. f) A tolerant attitude to those who disagree, including an appeal to reason rather than coercion.

  5. g) A stress on the importance of the individual that rejects the relevance of distinctions based on nationality, race, religion, social standing and gender, except when these things can be shown to be relevant for the issue being considered. Respect for the individual includes encouraging each person to develop their own rationality and their own conscience, rather than being reliant on authority.

Much has traditionally been made of Kierkegaard’s purported conservatism. It struck me, however, as I read through this list, that Kierkegaard’s thought had every single one of these characteristics. Given Kierkegaard’s reputation as an irrationalist, people who are only superficially acquainted with Kierkegaard may be surprised to learn that he had (a) “a desire to use rational methods.” In fact, Kierkegaard prided himself on the rigor of his thought (see, for example, Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks [hereafter: KJN] vol. 7, pp. 182-183), and most specialists know that Kierkegaard was a very rigorous and systematic thinker (see, for example, the preface to C. Stephen Evans’ Passionate Reason, as well as the first chapter of Alastair Hannay’s Kierkegaard in Routledge’s Arguments of the Philosophers series).

Another way Langford describes the second characteristic of liberal theology is that it involves “a conviction that [God] is to be found wherever the human mind can reach” (23). This one is a little trickier because Kierkegaard is adamant that God is never found directly in the world, but only indirectly, when the world is seen through the eyes of faith (see, for example Philosophical Crumbs, 114-116). If we return to Langford, however, we see that such faith is precisely the foundation of the liberal theologian’s pursuit of truth. If seeing God in the world is the end of the liberal theologian’s pursuit of truth, faith that God is to be found there is also his starting point. And that is precisely Kierkegaard’s position. One will never find God, according to Kierkegaard, through, for example, the simple contemplation of nature, but one can find God in nature if one sees nature through the eyes of faith, as his discourse entitled “What We Learn from the Lillies of the Field and From the Birds of the Air” (from Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits) makes clear.

Now to the more specific characteristics of liberal theology. Far from being “overawed by tradition or authority,” Kierkegaard is constantly critical of it (c). He criticizes Luther repeatedly (see, for example, KJN vol. 4, pp. 373-375; 410; 427, and The Moment and Late Writings, 39). He even goes so far as to criticize the apostles (see, for example KJN vol. 10, pp. 12, 18, 41, 107). He was vehemently opposed to “any formal links between church and state” (d) as is apparent in his observations that “a State Church is made possible only by deceptively conjuring forth the impression that everyone is Christian” (KJN vol. 9, pp. 331),[1] and “[e]very attempt to establish a Christian state and a Christian people is eo ipso unchristian” (Papir 493 1854; my translation).[2]

Kierkegaard’s “scepticism of claims that are not backed up by appeals to reason or experience” was the foundation of his antipathy for “pure thought” (e), and his definition of faith as “an objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation process of the most passionate inwardness” (CUP [Swenson-Lowrie], 182) makes clear that faith could never be coerced (f).

Finally, everyone knows that Kierkegaard emphasized the importance of the individual. He may have been personally sexist, racist, and even antisemitic, at least toward the end of his life, but there is nothing in his works that would support the view that we are not all equal in the eyes of God, and equally capable, or incapable, of establishing the proper relation to God through relentless, passionate, conscientious self examination. (I added the qualification “incapable” because establishing the proper relation to God is something, according to Kierkegaard, with respect to which we all need God’s help.)

Kierkegaard was politically conservative not because he lacked sympathy for the common man, and not because he had any particular faith in the social and economic elite. If anything, he had even less faith in the latter than in the former. He believed that elites tended to “to base the state on a substratum of people whom [they] totally ignore[d], denying all kinship with them” (KJN vol. 6, p. 219), and that this was “unchristian and ungodly.”

Kierkegaard was politically conservative because he had an inherent distrust of collectives (a distrust which history appears to vindicate) and because the model of monarchy with which he was most familiar, as I argued earlier, was exceptionally benevolent.

There is no question that Kierkegaard was politically conservative. I hope it is clear now, however, that theologically, he is solidly in the liberal tradition.


[1]. I have altered the translation here because while the text of KJN is not technically incorrect (apart from the fact that “only” is in the wrong position), it is so awkward that it significantly misrepresents the character of the original.

[2]. I’m unable to give the  reference for this quotation because it is in volume 10 and that volume is not yet available in Drexel’s library. I have included a link, however, to the online version of the Danish text.


Report from the Pacific APA

In Conference news, Uncategorized on April 18, 2018 at 12:53 pm

I chaired a session on practical reasoning at the annual meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association last month. The session was great. The presenter, Ting Cho Lau, was a very sharp graduate student from Notre Dame. His paper was entitled “Tough Choices, Reasons, and Practical Reasoning,” and his argument was that none of the dominant theories of why “tough choices” are tough either adequately explains the phenomenon of toughness or holds out much promise of providing agents with guidance for making such choices.

I won’t go into Lau’s specific criticisms of each of the dominant theories. What will be of interest to Kierkegaard scholars is that Lau argues none of those theories adequately acknowledges that tough choices, such as what career to choose, often involve the shaping of a person’s identity and so among the many considerations that must be looked at is what kind of person it is possible for one to become. Not everyone can, for example, become a great opera star. Even those who are excellent singers by most standards may have to accept at some point that their talents will likely limit them to more minor roles. That kind of self-examination is very difficult and that does indeed go a long way to explaining why at least some tough choices are so tough.

Lau’s paper was clearly presented and well argued. It was also ambitious, though, in that he proposed not simply to give a more adequate account of why tough choices were tough, but also to provide agents with guidance for making them less tough. It seems to me, however, that knowing that a choice is so “tough” because it involves figuring out just who exactly one is and who one is capable of becoming isn’t necessarily going to make the choice any less difficult. It seems entirely possible, in fact, that it might make the choice even more difficult.

The situation is even more complex, I would argue, than Lau presented it as being because the issue is not simply that of determining what kind of person one is capable of becoming, but also of determining what kind of person one wants to become. Usually, we are pulled in various directions with respect to that issue. As difficult as it may be to acknowledge that we may want to become someone (a famous opera singer, for example) that we simply don’t have the talent to become, it is even harder, Kierkegaard would argue, to determine who we really want to become. We want to become good people, people pleasing to God (or, if we are not religious, at least pleasing to our neighbors, or to those in our culture more generally), and yet, and yet, we are also drawn toward decisions that would make us into quite another sort of person.

There is, as Kant would say, a corruption in the subjective determining ground of our will. Or, as Kierkegaard would put it, we are “double-minded.” Arguably, that is the real reason why at least some choices are so “tough.” It isn’t all that difficult, generally, to decide on a career, or on whom to marry. Many people, in fact, would describe these choices as having been made for them, in a sense, by inclinations that were so strong they didn’t really seem like choices. Other sorts of choice, however, are not so easy. Deciding, for example, whether to stick up for a colleague who is being bullied and harassed when doing so might expose one to the same treatment––now that can be difficult!

The session was great, though, and Lau’s paper is a work-in-progress that even in light of the above criticism is better than many a paper I’ve seen published in peer-reviewed journals. The commentator, Susan Vineberg, from Wayne State University was also excellent, and the session as a whole was exceptionally well run. I’m not tooting my own horn there. I was only one of three chairs for three separate papers and actually the weakest link in that chain in that I mistakenly assumed the respondent had the same length of time to present her remarks as had the presenter. Each presenter got twenty minutes and each respondent got ten, so even though the entire session was three hours long, it went by in a stimulating flash.

My favorite session, however, was one of two sessions put on by The Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love. The topic of the session was love and “attachment.” Each of the three speakers was good. The highlight of the session for me, however, was the last speaker, Monique Wonderly of Princeton. Her paper was entitled “Love, Caring, and the Value of Attachment.” Wonderly argued, in terms such as I had used in the speech I gave at my father’s memorial service, that “[a]ttachment figures help to shape our senses of self, imbue us with self-confidence, and can serve as a source of emotional regulation and support even in their absence.”

I am really happy to have discovered The Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love. I knew about its existence before, of course, but for some reason I had assumed it was more about sex than it was about love, or that when it treated love that it was only sexual, or romantic love. I was wrong. The session was wonderful and would have been of enormous interest to Kierkegaard scholars.

There was one session on Kierkegaard. It was sort of a stealth session because Kierkegaard was not mentioned in the title of the session. The title was simply “Political Theology Group.” All the papers were on Kierkegaard, though. Unfortunately, the session was not well run. There were four speakers and a respondent for a two-hour session! It wasn’t clear how much time had been allotted to each speaker or whether any of them ran over that time. There was no time for questions, however, none. Hence there was no discussion whatever and there really should have been because some of the presenters appeared to be laboring under the erroneous view that Kierkegaard was generally contemptuous of the plight of the poor and the downtrodden and that there really wasn’t much in Kierkegaard that would provide a foundation for a positive political philosophy. I won’t rehash that tired argument or my response to it here. Go back and look at the earlier posts on this blog relating to Daphne Hampson’s book and Peter Gordon’s review of it for my comments on that view. Actually, one kind reader of this blog sent me a long list of quotations from Kierkegaard’s works that support his concern for the poor and downtrodden. I am going to use that list in a future post––with proper attribution, of course.

Just as an aside, I should alert readers to the fact that there is going to be a session at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion in November the theme of which will be “Truth is Subjectivity: Kierkegaard and Political Theology. A Symposium in Honor of Robert Perkins.” I know some of the speakers already and I can tell you that it promises to be a very good session indeed. Bob Perkins, about whom I will write more later, deserves nothing less. He was a true giant in Kierkegaard scholarship and he will be sorely missed.

There were lots of other great sessions at the Pacific APA meeting, including Onora O’Neill’s Berggruen Prize lecture that included comments from Andrew Chignell of Princeton and Eric Watkins of U.C. San Diego. Yes, that’s right, Andrew Chignell appears to have moved already from Penn to Princeton. And I was so happy and excited to have him here in Philly. That guy is really smart, and, as I learned from that session, a fantastic speaker.

Remembering the Dead

In Translation issues, Uncategorized on March 19, 2018 at 11:52 am

9d1af61698cd834326cd38729144efaa--mourning-jewelry-opalineI’m on sabbatical now. My plan had been to use this time to finish Fear and Dissembling, the book I have been working on for many years. I’d conceived that plan, however, before my father died, and since his death I’ve found it hard to get back to that project. I’ve actually found it hard to do anything constructive. I need to do something, though, to occupy my time until my powers of concentration have returned, something worthwhile, so I have hit upon a project that I have so far found very therapeutic. I am translating the chapter from Works of Love entitled “The Work of Love of Remembering the Dead.” My plan is to find a publisher for this little book so that it can be available as a comfort to people who have recently lost someone they love. It will be a very slim volume because the chapter is only ten pages or so long, so even with the original Danish text on facing pages, a translator’s introduction, a preface, and very wide margins, it should come in well under a hundred pages.

I think it should have very wide margins because wide margins make for a more attractive page. The volume I am envisioning will be small and thin and beautiful, something that the bereaved can carry around with them, like a breast-pocket New Testament; something they can find comfort in, not merely because of the words, but because of the beauty of the object itself. There is something comforting about beauty. People realize this at an instinctive level. That’s the reason, or at least part of the reason, for mourning jewelry. That’s also part of the reason, I believe, why there is so much work on the relation between aesthetics and religion.

I have pasted the first two pages of my translation below. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I favor what is known in translation theory as “semantic translation,” or translation that endeavors to preserve the sense of the original, or “source,” text but which tends to be freer than “literal” or “faithful” translation (see Peter Newmark, A Textbook of Translation). Hence I have taken a few liberties in the text below. The term “graveyard” (i.e., Kirkegaard) does not appear in the original. Where I have “go out to a graveyard,” in the second paragraph, the text actually reads “gaae ud til de Døde” ––i.e., “go out to the dead.” My husband thought, however, when I gave him the text to read, that this might be a little disorienting to the reader, so he suggested that for at least this first reference to “de Døde,” I substitute “graveyard” for “the dead.” That seemed to me a good suggestion, so I have taken it.

I have also added, at my husband’s suggestion, more paragraph divisions than exist in the original. The entire text below is only two long paragraphs in the original, and that is also, I fear, a little disorienting.

I used both the Swensons’ translation from 1946 and the older Hongs’ translation from 1962 as guides. The Swensons’ translation is, unsurprisingly, generally superior to the Hongs’, but even it is not without problems as I will explain in detail in the eventual “Translator’s Introduction.” For now, the only translation issue I want to draw your attention to, in addition to the aforementioned one, is my choice of “reduced circumstances” for Kierkegaard’s “indskrænke sig.” That, I hope you will agree, is a clear improvement on both the Hongs’ “cut back,” and even the Swensons’ “restrict itself.”

But read the text and judge for yourself.

When, for some reason or other, a person fears he will be unable to maintain a general grasp of something complicated and complex, he tries to make, or to acquire, a brief summarizing concept of the whole –– to help him maintain his grasp. Death, in this way, is the shortest summary of life, or life reduced to its shortest form. That’s why it has always been so important to those who reflect on the meaning of life, frequently to test what they have understood about it by means of this short summary. For no thinker has such a command of life as death has, that powerful thinker, who is able not merely to think through every illusion, but to grasp it in its parts and as a whole, to think it to nothingness.

If then, you become confused when you consider the many and various paths life can take, go out to a graveyard, there “where all paths meet” –– then the grasp becomes easy. If your head swims from constantly observing and hearing about life’s diversities, then go out to the dead; there you have control of the differences; there in “Muldets Frænder,” “the fellowship of mold,” there are no differences, only close kinship. That all human beings are blood relations, that is, of one blood, this consanguinity is often denied in life, but that they are of one mold, are related through mortality, cannot be denied.

Yes, go again out among the dead, so that you can, from there, get a view of life. This is what a sharpshooter does. He seeks a place where the enemy can’t hit him but from which he can hit the enemy, and where he can have the requisite calm for taking aim. Don’t choose the evening for your visit because the stillness of the evening, of an evening spent among the dead, is often not far from a certain exaltation of mood which strains and “fills one with restlessness,” creating new mysteries instead of solving the old ones.

No, go there early in the morning when the sun peeps between the branches, alternating light with shadow, when the beauty and friendliness of the sea, when the singing of the birds and the multitudinous life everywhere almost allows you to forget that you are among the dead. It will seem to you as if you have arrived in a foreign country, a place unfamiliar with the distinctions and confusion of life, a childlike place, consisting entirely of small families. Here is attained what is sought vainly in life: equality. Each family has a little plot of land for itself, of approximately equal size. Each has more or less the same “view.” The sun can easily shine equally over them all; no building rises so high that it cuts off the sun’s rays, or the nourishment of the rain, or the wind’s fresh breezes, or the songs of the birds, from a neighbor. No, here everyone is equal.

It happens sometimes in life that a family that has enjoyed wealth and abundance must accept reduced circumstances, but in death, everyone must accept reduced circumstances. There may be minor differences, perhaps six inches in the size of a plot, or that one family has a tree, which another inhabitant does not, on its plot. Why do you think there are these small differences? It is to remind you, by means of a profound jest, of how great the difference was. How loving death is! For it is certainly loving of death to use these small differences to remind us, through edifying humor, of just how great the difference was. Death does not say “there is absolutely no difference”; it says “you see there how great the difference was: six inches.”

If there were not these small differences, neither would death’s grasp be completely reliable. Life returns, in this way, in death, to childishness. Whether one owned a tree, a flower, a rock, made a great deal of difference in childhood. And the difference hinted at what later in life would appear on a very different scale. Now life is over and this little hint of a difference among the dead remains to soften, through humor, the memory of how things were.