Kierkegaard, MacDonald, and Universalism

SK Universalism quote

I wrote earlier about how I had recently discovered a thinker, George MacDonald (1824-1905), whose views were very similar to Kierkegaard’s. What I don’t know is whether MacDonald was familiar with Kierkegaard’s work, and if so, to what extent. My post on Kierkegaard’s early reception in Germany provides evidence to support that MacDonald likely had at least some exposure to Kierkegaard’s works, both in German translation and via reviews and responses to those translations in German theological journals. 

I still haven’t had time to do any research on the extent of MacDonald’s exposure to Kierkegaard. That would require tracking down which books MacDonald personally owned, which books and periodicals would have been available to him in the libraries he used, and going through all his correspondence in search of any mention of Kierkegaard. I did, however, stumble across a reference in the second volume of MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons that I believe provides further support for the view that MacDonald may have been influenced by Kierkegaard. The sermon in question is entitled “The Word of Jesus on Prayer.” “Convince me,” protests MacDonald’s imaginary interlocutor, “that prayer is heard, and I shall know. Why should the question admit of doubt? Why should it require to be reasoned about? We know that the wind blows: why should we not know that God answers prayer?’ 

MacDonald replies, “What if God does not care to have you know it at second hand?”

Kierkegaard scholars will immediately recognize not merely the expression, “at second hand,” but also the precise sense in which MacDonald uses it here, as identical to Kierkegaard’s use of it in Philosophical Crumbs and the Concluding Unscientific Postscript.  

My first thought, actually, was that this philosophical-theological use of the expression “at second hand” might actually have a biblical origin. I did a word search on both the King James Version and the Revised Version (to which MacDonald makes frequent reference in his writings) of the Bible, but could not find it in either version. That doesn’t preclude, of course, that both Kierkegaard and MacDonald got the expression from some third source independently of each other, so if any reader knows of such a source, I would be very much in your debt if you would share it with me. 

The question of the relation between Kierkegaard and MacDonald raises another interesting issue. MacDonald was a universalist. Was Kierkegaard? I don’t mean to suggest that MacDonald would have gotten his universalism from Kierkegaard, because if Kierkegaard was a universalist, that is far from obvious. There are scholars who appear to think he was, and there are places in Kierkegaard’s works that suggest he may have had universalist leanings. Kierkegaard famously says, for example, in Crumbs that if a person did not receive the condition for understanding the truth from the god (i.e., Christ) in this life, “[i]f they met each other in another life, this teacher would again be able to give the condition” (Crumbs, p. 95). Since the “condition” in question is faith, the implication is that those who lack faith, for whatever reason, are not damned to hell for eternity, but will have multiple chances to attain it. Kierkegaard may even have believed that the faithless would continue to be presented with such chances until, finally, they did receive it.

The difficulty with this interpretation, apart from its apparent reliance on the doctrine of reincarnation, is that the passage in question continues “[b]ut one who had once received it [but lost it again] would be a stranger to him,” because “[t]he condition was something entrusted, for which the receiver would always be required to give an account” (Crumbs, p. 95). That doesn’t mean that someone who had not had faith in this life would be damned to hell, but it does have ominous implications for those who had faith in this life and then lost it. 

There are multiple references to hell in Kierkegaard’s writings (though, interestingly, exponentially more references to hell in the commentaries on Kierkegaard’s writings in the new Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter than in the writings themselves). Even that doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that Kierkegaard believed in eternal damnation because MacDonald also refers occasionally to hell, though as a place of corrective rather than retributive punishment. 

A casual search I did on the online edition of Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter was not encouraging for those of us who would like to think of Kierkegaard as a universalist. 

I discovered a place in Kierkegaard’s journals where he says: “The NT [i.e., New Testament] is clearly based on the view that there is eternal damnation” (JN vol. 9, p. 262).

It’s possible, of course, to argue that Kierkegaard did not feel compelled to agree with everything in the New Testament.

“In an article in Nordisk Kirketidende,” Kierkegaard writes, “Fenger from Slotsbjergbye wrote affirming the eternity of punishment in hell and scoffing at the Christians who imagine themselves to be Christian without having heaven-hell. From a Christian point of view he is right” (JN vol. 11: Part 2, p. 345, emphasis added.)

The rest of the entry goes on to argue that there is insufficient concern among Christians for the situation of those who may be damned to hell for eternity and that Fenger was himself among those whose concern seemed insufficient. It is conceivable, of course, that Kierkegaard was simply pointing out that, if there were a hell to which God damned anyone eternally, as so many Christians believe, then Christians should be far more concerned with the spiritual situation of their fellow man then they tend to be.

I’m sympathetic to such attempts to preserve the possibility that Kierkegaard was a universalist. It’s not only more morally appealing than the view that some people would be damned to hell forever, it actually seems to cohere better with the basic tenets of Christianity. I’m inclined to agree with Keith DeRose, Allison Foundation Professor of Philosophy at Yale who writes 

Universalism is far from a mere doctrine of barren theology; many, like Paul, find great joy in the belief. Part of the joy some find is in the thought that not only they, but their fellow humans, will, eventually at least, experience everlasting life with Christ. But, like Paul, you may find the joy is focused rather on God, and on how wondrous and complete a victory will be won by the God “who desires everyone to be saved” (I Timothy 2:4). And, on the other side, the non-universalist picture may come to look strangely dim, not exclusively because of the awful fate that awaits some of your fellows on this picture, but because God is deprived of such a complete victory, and, in winning only a partial victory, his desire that everyone be saved will ultimately be frustrated.

(“Universalism and The Bible”).

That is, not only does the idea of eternal damnation fail, I would argue, to cohere with the idea that God is love, it also fails to cohere with the idea that God is omnipotent. God desires that everyone should be saved, but then everyone isn’t saved? So God doesn’t get what God wants? If God truly desires that everyone should be saved as I Timothy 2:4 (among other biblical passages) suggests, but everyone isn’t saved, then God is outright defeated, which suggests that he isn’t omnipotent. 

But if Kierkegaard was a universalist what is one to make of passages such as the two above, as well as the one in Works of Love where Kierkegaard asserts that Christianity “discovered” (opdagede) what the world found ludicrous — the idea of “eternal damnation” (evig Fortabelse)”? Is it possible that such passages were simply hyperbole? Kierkegaard was always concerned with the effect his writings would have on others. Is it possible that he thought the idea of universal salvation just wouldn’t be very helpful to people in that it would incline them to take Christianity less seriously if they felt everyone would eventually be saved? 

There is an intriguing passage in the Hongs’ translation of Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers that suggests that may in fact have been the motivation for his references to eternal damnation (though the fact that some of these references are in his journals and papers poses problems for such a thesis). The passage in question makes a pretty unequivocal statement in favor of the idea of universal salvation. It reads: 

“[W]at the old bishop once said to me is not true — namely, that I spoke as if others were going to hell. No, if I can be said to speak at all of going to hell, then I am going along with them. But I do not believe that; on the contrary, I believe that we will all be saved, I too, and this awakens my deepest wonder” (JP vol. 6, p. 557).

The problem is, I could not find this passage in the new Journals and Notebooks (2007-2019). Nor could I find it in the new Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter (1997-2013) I did find it, however, in Vol. 11, Tome 3, p. 57 of the purportedly superseded Søren Kierkegaards Papirer (1909-1948). Since that provided me with the actual wording of the original Danish I plugged the wording into the search function of the online edition of SKS.


I will leave open the question of whether the omission of what appears to be an absolutely essential passage from Kierkegaard’s papers from both the new Danish and English editions of Kierkegaard’s journals and papers, editions that purport to be complete, is part of a conspiracy to conceal from the public that Kierkegaard subscribed to a doctrine that most denominations of Christianity (and the Danish Lutheran Church in particular) consider heretical.

One thing is clear, however, both the new Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter and the new Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks are deeply flawed, as one might guess by comparing how few years were put into their production relative to how many years were put into the production of the older Papirer The new Skrifter was produced in only 16 years and the  Journals and Notebooks, which was based on the Skrifter, was cranked out in only 12 years, as opposed to almost forty years that was put into the production of the Papirer. 

Serious Kierkegaard scholars will need to continue to use the earlier Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers and Søren Kierkegaards Papirer. Fortunately, it is still possible to get your hands on these invaluable works. I found a copy of the Journals and Papers on Ebay for $125.00 for the whole set, and another on for $495.00. I also found a set of the Papirer for 660 euros, and sets do occasionally appear for sale by Danish antiquarians. Both the Journals and Papers and the Papirer will become increasingly hard to find, though, so if you are serious about Kierkegaard scholarship and you do not already own these works, I urge you to buy them now!

The Forgotten Prayers of Kierkegaard

md30488481705The day I posted “The Decline of Editing,” Kierkegaard scholar Katherine Schuessler of St. Andrews in the UK discovered another discrepancy between the online edition of Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter, or SKS, and the new Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks, or KJN. Katherine wrote me such a detailed and information email about it that I asked her if she would mind if I turned that email into a guest post. What follows is Katherine’s post. Be sure to check all the links because a pdf of the prayers referred to in the title of this post can be found by clicking on one of the links!

A side project of mine is to document where every prayer Kierkegaard wrote is, including where the different English translations of those prayers are. In looking to trace down a prayer that Perry LeFevre’s collection includes (Pap VII 1 A 131), I found that the SKS’s online Danish version comes from H. P. Barfod’s edition of Kierkegaard’s journals, Søren Kierkegaards Efterladte Papirer (1869-81), .

Barfod has been widely criticized for his lack of editing skills. He edited the first three volumes of the Efterladte Papirer and It appears he included everything from Kierkegaard’s papers that appeared to have been written between 1833 an 1847. Not all of this material, made it into the later Søren Kierkegaards Papirer (1909-38). The KJN editors chose to translate Kierkegaard’s Journal JJ as it was in 2015 (or so), before what was judged to be missing material was restored, rather than stitch translations of those missing pages back in.

It’s important for English readers to note that the KJN is not an exact replica of the SKS, insofar as the SKS carries no scruples in cross-referencing to previous editions of Kierkegaard’s journals.

My question is, if the editors of SKS thought the evidence sufficient to establish that the pages in question had originally been part of Kierkegaard’s journals (i.e., confidently of Kierkegaard’s hand) why didn’t the editors of KJN think so too?

If you enjoyed this, stay tuned because Katherine is going to do another guest post!

Kierkegaard’s Early Reception in Germany

url.jsonA reader of this blog informed me that Walter Lowrie’s translation of Repetition from 1941 contained an essay at the back on all the translations of Kierkegaard into English up to that point. That was actually one of the few older translations of Kierkegaard’s works that I did not have, so I hastily hunted one down on 

The essay is very interesting. There aren’t any revelations in it for people familiar with the older translations, but there is lots of other interesting information. Lowrie recounts, for example, how he was impressed by “the importance the name of Kierkegaard had acquired throughout the Continent, especially in Germany” immediately following WWI (p. 184). I was aware, of course, that the Germans learned of Kierkegaard’s work even while he was still alive, to say nothing of the period after his death. I’d assumed, however, perhaps partly as a result of Georg Brandes’ attempts in the late 1880s to introduce Kierkegaard to Nietzsche, that Kierkegaard’s work was not actually all that well known among German-speaking intellectuals. That is, I’d assumed that if Kierkegaard had become well known in Germany, that, as an intellectual, Nietzsche, would already have been aware of him. When I learned he wasn’t, I like so many other scholars, assumed that Kierkegaard was a marginal figure in German intellectual history. 

I couldn’t have been more wrong. “I could hardly pick up a serious book,” Lowrie continues, “without finding his [i.e., Kierkegaard’s] name in it. Every writer who claimed to be abreast of modern thought had something to say about him, and every reputable publisher had to bring out something. S.K. had already taken the place of Nietzsche as the literary vogue in higher circles” (p. 184). 

That was revelation to me. Kierkegaard had displaced Nietzsche in early twentieth-century German thought? Of course the popularity of Kierkegaard in Germany in the post WWI period is compatible with his relative obscurity at the end of the nineteenth century. I’m not the only scholar, however, who believed Kierkegaard was a marginal figure in German intellectual history. 

It would have been helpful if Lowrie had included some references to specific works. Unfortunately, he didn’t. Fortunately, we have Heiko Schulz’s excellent essay on Kierkegaard’s early reception in the German-speaking world in Kierkegaard’s International Reception, Tome I: Northern and Western Europe. The essay is entitled “Germany and Austria: A Modest Head Start: The German Reception of Kierkegaard.” Schulz appears to have tracked down every reference to Kierkegaard in the last part of the nineteenth century, to say nothing of the early part of the twentieth century, and includes references to specific article titles as well as helpful summaries of their contents. Most of the early German references to Kierkegaard appeared, predictably, in theological journals. 

There were early translations as well, Schulz explains however, including Einladung und Ärgernis. Biblische Darstellung und christliche Begriffsbestimmung von Søren Kierkegaard [Invitation and offense. Kierkegaard’s presentation of the Bible and Christian concepts], trans. and ed. by Albert Bärthold, manuscript (Halberstadt, 1872); Sören Kierkegaard. Eine Verfasser-Existenz eigner Art. Aus seinen Mittheilungen zusammengestellt [Søren Kierkegaard. A unique authorial existence. Compiled from his own communications] trans. and ed. by Albert Bärthold (Halberstadt: Frantz, 1873); Aus und über Søren Kierkegaard. Früchte und Blätter [From and about Søren Kierkegaard. Fruits and leaves], trans. and ed. by Albert Bärthold (Halberstadt: Frantz’sche Buchhandlung, 1874); Zwölf Reden [Twelve discourses], trans. and ed. by Albert Bärthold (Halle: J. Fricke, 1875); Von den Lilien auf dem Felde und den Vögeln unter dem Himmel. Drei Reden Søren Kierkegaards [The lilies of the field and the birds of the air. Three discourses of Søren Kierkegaard], trans. and ed. by Albert Bärthold (Halberstadt: H. Meyer, 1876) ; Lessing und die objective Wahrheit. Aus Søren Kierkegaards Schriften [Lessing and objective truth. From Søren Kierkegaard’s writings], trans. and ed. by Albert Bärthold (Halle: J. Fricke, 1877); Die Lilien auf dem Felde und die Vögel unter dem Himmel. Drei fromme Reden.—Hoherpriester—Zöllner—Sünderin. Drei Beichtreden von Søren Kierkegaard [The lilies of the field and the birds of the air. Three religious  discourses—The high priest—The tax collector—The woman who was a sinner], trans. and ed. by Albert Bärthold (Halle: J. Fricke, 1877); Søren Kierkegaard. Ausgewählt und bevorwortet [Søren Kierkegaard. A selection with prefaces], trans. and ed. by Albert Bärthold (Hamburg: Agentur des rauhen Hauses, 1906) (These references are all taken from p. 387 ofSchulz’s essay, though the English translations of the titles are my own).

“In addition,” Schulz continues, “Bärthold translated three complete pseudonymous works: Einübung im Christentum [Practice in Christianity], trans. and ed. by Albert Bärthold (Halle: J. Fricke, 1878); Die Krankheit zum Tode. Eine christliche psychologische Entwicklung zur Erbauung und Erweckung [The sickness unto death. A Christian psychological exposition for edification and awakening], trans. and ed. by Albert Bärthold (Halle: J. Fricke, 1881); Stadien auf dem Lebenswege. Studien von Verschiedenen. Zusammengebracht, zum Druck befördert und hrsg. von Hilarius Buchbinder [Stages on life’s way. Collected, presented to the press, and published by Hilarious Bookbinder]; trans. and ed. by Albert Bärthold (Leipzig: J. Lehmann, 1886) (These references, like those above, are all taken from p. 387 of Schulz’s essay, with the English translations supplied by me).

I’ve always been interested in Kierkegaard’s early reception in Germany because I believe that reception had a strong influence on his reception in the rest of the world. I’ve become more interested in it recently, however, as a result of my interest in George MacDonald. MacDonald’s thought is remarkably similar to Kierkegaard’s. I can find no evidence, however, that MacDonald could read Danish and the earliest English translations of Kierkegaard did not appear until after MacDonald’s death. MacDonald appears to have had an excellent command of German, however, as did most English-speaking intellectuals around the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, and it seems likely that at least some of his reading would have included German theological journals and possibly even early German translations of Kierkegaard. I haven’t had any time yet to research this. That would require tracking down both what books he personally owned, what books and periodicals would have been available to him in the libraries he used, and going through all his correspondence in search of any mention of Kierkegaard’s name.

That said, MacDonald is himself a profoundly original thinker and if his view of human existence and Christianity is remarkably similar to Kierkegaard’s it is not necessarily because he was influenced by Kierkegaard but very possibly because he and Kierkegaard were similar in other ways, and that they understood easily things that the rest of us have to struggle to understand.