Kierkegaard as Liberal Theologian
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.) The refusal to be overawed by tradition or authority when strong objections to a belief or a practice are raised.
2.) A dislike of any formal links between church and state.
3.) A general scepticism of claims that are not backed up by appeals to reason or experience.
4.) A tolerant attitude to those who disagree, including an appeal to reason rather than coercion.
5.) 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), and “[e]very attempt to establish a Christian state and a Christian people is eo ipso unchristian” (Papir 493 1854; my translation).
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.
. 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.
. 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.