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!

Kierkegaard and Existential Psychotherapy

cropped-sketch_1840_regineknippelsbro_iii_a-1.jpgMuch has been written about Kierkegaard and psychotherapy. That makes sense, given that Kierkegaard had a profound understanding of human psychology. 

Irvin Yalom, an existential psychiatrist, discusses Kierkegaard at length in Existential Psychotherapy (Basic Books, 1980). Several more recent works have appeared on Kierkegaard and psychotherapy, including Everyday Mysteries: A Handbook of Existential Psychotherapy (Routledge, 1997), Psychology and the Other (Oxford, 2015), and Therapy and the Counter-tradition: The Edge of Philosophy (Routledge, 2016). 

Anthony Stadlen, an existential psychotherapist working in London has been running a series of international, interdisciplinary “Inner Circle Seminars” for many years. This year he has two seminar series that focus on Kierkegaard. The first series, which focuses on Fear and Trembling, is already underway. The fourth seminar in that series will be given by John Lippitt this May. 

Stadlen has arranged a second “satellite” series to supplement the Fear and Trembling series. This series will examine two other works, Repetition and Three Upbuilding Discourses. The reason for this additional series of seminars is that these two works were published the same day Fear and Trembling appeared, October 16, 1843. Stadlen’s assumption is that the three works should be understood together and that a careful reading of all three could help to make Kierkegaard’s purpose in the notoriously opaque Fear and Trembling a little easier to divine. 

I am very excited to be invited to be part of this seminar because I have a keen interest in the psychotherapeutic potential of philosophy and of Kierkegaard’s thought in particular. I’m actually a certified philosophical counselor and member of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association. The series looks like it will be excellent. The seminar leaders, in addition to myself, are George Pattison, C. Stephen Evans, Jerome (Yehuda) Gellman and Mariam Al-Attar. I won’t describe the seminars or the presenters in any detail here because Stadlen has posted an announcement about them that contains all the detail one would want, including his contact information. It will suffice here to say that 

— Pattison’s seminar will focus on Kierkegaard’s edifying discourses. 

— My seminar will focus on Repetition. 

— Evans will talk about “divine command theory” as it relates to Fear and Trembling and Works of Love. 

— Lippitt, who gave the first two seminars in the main seminar series on Fear and Trembling, will focus on the questions of whether there is a “teleological suspension of the ethical” and whether there is “an absolute duty to God.” 

— Gellman will focus on Hasidic interpretations of the Akedah and the light these can cast on Kierkegaard’s treatment of it. 

— Finally, al-Attar will look at “divine command theory” in the Islamic tradition and it’s relation to Fear and Trembling.

More information on the seminars can be found on Stadlen’s blog.

Getting Kierkegaard Wrong

I think of scholarship as egalitarian. I don’t know about all disciplines, but most academic journals in the field of philosophy do what’s called “blind” reviewing. Scholars send articles to journal editors. The editors then send those articles along to experts in the relevant fields (e.g., Plato, Kant, contemporary ethics, the philosophy of mind) without identifying the author of the article. The people vetting the articles don’t know who wrote them. They don’t know whether the author is already a recognized authority in the relevant field or a complete newcomer. They don’t even know whether the author has an academic appointment, is an “independent scholar,” or even a lowly graduate student. All they have is the article, so they are more or less forced to evaluate it on its own merits. The system isn’t perfect, of course. Unconventional or iconoclastic work is not always evaluated fairly, and the work of the more prominent scholars in given fields can sometimes be identified even without their names being attached.

Still, blind reviewing goes a long way toward ensuring that good work gets recognized and promoted. Unfortunately, book publishing is not so egalitarian. Some publishers do blind reviewing, but many do not. Once a scholar has attained a name for him or herself in a given field, that is, once a scholar has become what one might call an academic celebrity, they are given a wide berth in terms of their perceived authority. Big name scholars can often get away with speaking, and sometimes even writing books, on subjects outside their area of expertise.

Daphne Hampson’s new book on Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique (Oxford, 2013) is a case in point. Hampson is a prominent U.K. theologian, not a Kierkegaard scholar. She gives the impression that she is a Kierkegaard scholar by throwing around a few Danish terms. She refers, for example to Kierkegaard’s book The Concept of Anxiety as The Concept Angst. When I saw that I immediately did a Google search to see if there were a new English translation of this work of which I was unaware. There isn’t. Hampsen’s substitution of the Danish Angst for “Anxiety” in the title of this work is simply an affectation.

Kierkegaard is one of the few philosophers who are beloved by people who are not themselves scholars; hence reviews of new editions of his works, and occasionally even of new scholarly books on his thought, sometimes appear in the illustrious New York Review of Books. The Nov. 10th edition, in fact, contains a review of Hampson’s book entitled “Kierkegaard’s Rebellion.” The reviewer is a Peter Gordon, Amabel B. James Professor of History at Havard and the author of Adorno and Existence (Harvard, 2016)

It isn’t all that clear why the NYRB decided to review Hampson’s book, or why they chose Gordon to review it. While both Hampson and Gordon have a certain familiarity with Kierkegaard because of their respective areas of scholarly expertise (Hampson’s in the history of theological thought and Gordon’s in modern European intellectual history), neither is a Kierkegaard scholar. The book is riddled with problems, problems that will be conspicuous to most Kierkegaard scholars, but which Gordon failed to spot. Hampson gets Kierkegaard’s epistemology wrong. She claims erroneously that Kierkegaard “has very little hold on the idea that there is a regularity to nature” (p 29). She falsely accuses him of being unfamiliar with David Strauss’s ground breaking book on the historical Jesus, Das Leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet (The Life of Jesus Critically Examined) (1835).

These are just a few of the problems with Hampson’s book, problems to which Gordon fails to alert prospective readers. In fact, Gordon says very little about the content of the book, but restricts himself to giving a general overview of Kierkegaard’s works and his place, or presumed place, in the history of thought that has little directly to do with Hampson’s treatment of Kierkegaard.

It’s generally dangerous to venture to write a book on a thinker, as well as to review a book on a thinker, on whose thought you do not specialize. And, to quote Kierkegaard, “what is worse for those brave souls who nevertheless dare to undertake such a project, the difficulty is not one that will confer celebrity on those who preoccupy themselves with it” (Philosophical Crumbs, p. 113). Unfortunately, Hampson’s book is so off base, at least in its chapter on Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Crumbs, that it amounts to a caricature of scholarship.

A single example will suffice to make this point. Hampson accuses Kierkegaard scholars of failing to appreciate a crucial fact about his view of the natural world. Kierkegaard, she charges, “thinks the world a kind of random place in which just about anything can happen.” Kierkegaard, she continues, lacks any sense for “the regularity of nature” or that natural events are subject to natural law (p. 92).

Unfortunately for Hampson, Kierkegaard scholars have not missed this aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought because this isn’t an aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought. Kierkegaard did believe in the existence of laws of nature. Hampson rightly observes that Kierkegaard “picks up the distinction in Aristotle between a ‘change’ which consists in a coming into existence (kinesis) and a change which presupposes existence (alloiosis) (what we might call a change taking place within the causal nexus),” but she fails to appreciate the significance of this distinction for Kierkegaard.

Hampson even goes so far as to remark that it is “strange” that Kierkegaard “does not appreciate that there is any real distinction between the two kinds of ‘change’“ (p. 91) identified by Aristotle, given that he refers to them himself when speaking about the change of coming to be. She chastises Kierkegaard for writing “150 years after Newton,” and yet failing to have any “sense of the regularity with which change takes place in predetermined fashion within a causal nexus” (91).

It would be pretty weird if Kierkegaard failed to have any sense for what one could call the “regularity of nature.” As most Kierkegaard scholars know, however, Kierkegaard does have such a sense, as is easily seen by anyone who pays careful attention to the portion of the Crumbs from which Hampson gets this strange impression. After Kierkegaard explains that “[e]verything that has come to be is eo ispo historical, he goes on to say that

That thing, the becoming of which is a simultaneous becoming (Nebeneinander, Space), has no other history than this, but even seen in this way (en masse), independently of what an ingenious consideration in a more specific sense calls the history of nature, nature has a history.

…. How can one say that nature, despite being immediately present, is historical, if one does not view it from this ingenious perspective? The difficulty comes from the fact that nature is too abstract to have a dialectical relationship, in the stricter sense, with time. Nature’s imperfection is that it has no history in any other sense, and its perfection is that it has the intimation of a history (namely that it has come to be, which is the past; and that it is, the present) (p. 143, emphasis added).

That is, nature’s whole “history” is that it came to be at some point. After that, the “changes” that characterize nature do not represent change in Aristotle’s sense of kinesis but only in his sense of alloiosis. Kierkegaard takes pains to be clear on this point. Purely natural events are changes in something (i.e., nature) that already exists. They do not come about freely, but are subject to natural law. That’s why nature “has no history.” It has only an “intimation of a history” in that it came to be at some point. Mountain ranges do not become mature in the same sense that people do. Human beings have choices. Human events are not like plate tectonics.

How could Hampson miss that? It’s right there in the text. That’s why the purported fact of Kierkegaard’s failure to appreciate “the regularity of nature” has been given what Hampson calls “scant recognition” by Kierkegaard scholars. They don’t recognize it because it isn’t there. It is hard to imagine a more spectacularly erroneous interpretation of Kierkegaard than Hampson’s on this point.

How could Hampson have gotten Kierkegaard so wrong? My guess is that it is because her reading of Kierkegaard is driven by her political agenda. She appears determined to see Kierkegaard as a kind of throwback to a “premodern” view of reality.

Good thing readers of the NYRB have Gordon to alert them to this gross error in Hampson’s book! Except that Gordon doesn’t do that. Indeed, there are a host of problems his misses.

Like Hampson, Gordon isn’t a Kierkegaard scholar, so he doesn’t know enough about Kierkegaard to be able to identify when Hampson’s reading goes awry. He seems, in fact, to have a somewhat caricatured view of Kierkegaard himself. He’s correct, for example, in his claim that, according to Kierkegaard, there’s “an absolute chasm between God and humanity,” but not in his claim that that chasm makes God “wholly other” from human beings.

“[I]f God is absolutely different from human beings,” observes Kierkegaard in Philosophical Crumbs, “this cannot have its basis in what human beings owe to God (for to this extent they are related [beslægtet, literally “related” as in part of the same family])(119). According to Kierkegaard, the difference between human beings and God is sin. Sin keeps people from being able to see the likeness between themselves and God. The likeness is there, Kierkegaard believes, however, and can be appreciated, to some extent anyway, through the eyes of faith.

Kierkegaard did not, as Gordon claims, have a “disabling contempt for the public good.” His attack on the Danish Lutheran Church just before he died was motivated in part by his outrage over the church’s own contempt for the public good, at least in the spiritual sense. Kierkegaard’s concern for the public good was not restricted, however, to this sense. The Danish scholar Peter Tudvad demonstrated in his meticulously documented watershed book, Kierkegaards København (Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen) (Politiken, 2004) that Kierkegaard not only gave considerable sums of money to the poor (pp. 370-377), but that he even went so far as to share his lodgings with a destitute family for several years (pp. 348-354).

Gordon attributes the recent resurgence of interest in Kierkegaard’s thought to the bicentennial of his birth in 2013, as well as to the publication of Garff’s biography of Kierkegaard in 2000. He is undoubtedly correct about the bicentennial. What caused Kierkegaard’s name to remain in the headlines of Danish newspapers from 2000 until 2005, however, was not so much the publication of Garff’s biography as it was Tudvad’s revelations that the biography was riddled with factual errors and passages plagiarized from earlier Danish biographies of Kierkegaard, as well as the revelation that Garff had failed to fix these problems before the book was translated into English. Tudvad’s book, not Garff’s, is what gave scholars a fresh, and more accurate, impression of Kierkegaard’s life and thought.

But then it’s unlikely that Gordon would have known any of this, since he isn’t a Kierkegaard scholar. His book on Adorno touches on Kierkegaard, but that isn’t enough to make him a Kierkegaard scholar, so why did the NYRB have him review Hampson’s book? Could the answer be so straightforward as that Gordon teaches at Harvard? Talk about being “premodern,” is the NYRB so conservative that it’s actually resurrecting “the argument from authority,” the darling of medieval scholastics, so that the primary credential one needs to review a book for them is that one teaches at an ivy league school? A glance at the “contributors” section of the Nov. 10 edition in which Gordon’s review of Hampson’s book appears seems to support such a view. Three other reviews in that edition are by people from Harvard, three by people from Columbia, one by someone from Princeton and another by someone from Yale.

I’ll confess that I’m an avid reader of the NYRB and generally enjoy the articles it contains. I read it, in part, because I don’t have time to read every scholarly book that’s published in a given year (or even in a given week). I know that not everything that’s published is good, so I count on the NYRB and its stable of what I had hitherto assumed to be expert reviewers to sort through this material for me, to point out to me what is worth reading and what isn’t, to summarize for me some of the works that I’d ideally like to read, but probably won’t have time to read, so that I’ll be able to keep up with the latest developments in scholarship outside of my tiny field.

I don’t mean to suggest that all the reviews in the New York Review of Books are as misleading as is Gordon’s review of Hampson’s book. I’m sure they’re not. I’m sure most of them are as good as them seem. But how do I know which reviews are reliable and which are not?

I’m plagued now by a certain, you know, angst.

(This piece appeared originally under the title “The Angst of Scholarship at the NYRB: Getting Kierkegaard Wrong, Twice,” in the 8 November issue of Counterpunch. )