The Biblical Foundations of Kierkegaard’s Monarchism

There’s been much discussion recently of Kierkegaard’s political views. There was even a panel on this subject at the most recent annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. The panel was organized to honor the work of the late Robert L. Perkins, a giant in Kierkegaard scholarship and an early proponent of the view that Kierkegaard’s thought has positive social implications. I was honored to be a part of this panel. My paper was entitled “Kierkegaard’s Apocryphal Politics: Separating the Wheat from the Chaff.” The other participants were John Davenport, whose paper was entitled “The Crowd and Populism: Was Kierkegaard Correct that All Politics is Profane?,” C. Stephen Evans, whose paper was entitled “Kierkegaard on Putting the Modern State in its Place,” George Pattison, whose paper was entitled “Stepping Forward in Character — But onto what Stage? Arendtian on Kierkegaardian Anti-politics,” and Lee Barrett, whose paper was entitled “Can Love Be Political?” There was also a respondent, Christopher Nelson, who did a wonderful job of bringing all the papers together in his response. The papers were excellent and the discussion afterward was enormously stimulating. It was one of the best sessions I have ever been a part of. You don’t have to take my word for that, though, Mercer University Press, for whom Bob Perkins worked for many years as the editor of the International Kierkegaard Commentary series is publishing a volume of the papers.

The occasion of this post is not simply to advertise that volume, but to develop one of the points I made in the paper that will appear there in more detail than I made in the paper itself. It is well known that Kierkegaard was a monarchist. “Government [by] royal power is representative,” he writes in a journal entry from 1847, “and to this extent Christian (monarchy)[.] The dialectic of monarchy is world-historically both well-established and unchanging.”

This is an odd assertion for a thinker who insists on a sharp distinction between what he calls “worldliness” and Christianity. It seems likely that it is an allusion to Romans 13:1-7 where Paul asserts that “[e]veryone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God” (New Living Translation). That is, Paul appears to be saying that a monarch represents God, however imperfectly, in his or her role of governing a people in that the authority a monarch has over his or her people is analogous to the authority God has over all people.

The qualification “however imperfectly” is important, however, because there is no reason to suppose that Paul thought all “governing authorities” were equally good. The meaning of Romans 13:1-7 is more likely, as David Papineau has argued, that any government is better than no government in that it is a force for order, order without which human flourishing is impossible.

“Even a bad state,” observes Papineau,

is much better than none at all. When the hated regimes of Eastern Europe and South Africa collapsed at the end of the last century, their populations had the good sense to carry on recognizing the existing police, courts, and other state institutions until new constitutional arrangements could be made. By contrast, the misguided disbanding of the defeated Iraqi army and police by the US authorities in 2003 created a vacuum for mob rule, and is viewed by many commentators as the main source of the subsequent chaos in the Middle East. (David Papineau, Knowing the Score [Basic Books, 2017] 58.)

Paul reputedly twice escaped imprisonment, torture, and possibly even death by asserting his Roman citizenship (Acts 16:35-40 and Acts 22:24-29). That is, it was the authority of Roman law that enabled him, in those instances, to escape incarceration and hence to continue his ministry. If these accounts are true, they explain, at least in part, why Paul would have had the view of temporal authority that he did and, I believe, by extension why Kierkegaard would have held a similar view.

The view that temporal authority has a divine source commits neither Paul nor Kierkegaard to the view that all temporal authorities are equally good. But the positive role that almost any authority has in establishing the order necessary for human flourishing makes the respect for authority that each of them had make at least a certain amount of sense.

Kierkegaard at the American Academy of Religion

IMG_2770There are sessions devoted to Kierkegaard at both the American Philosophical Association and the American Academy of Religion. There’s usually only one session devoted to Kierkegaard at the APA meeting, though, whereas there are nearly always three or even four sessions devoted to Kierkegaard at the AAR meeting. This is due to the tireless activity of the Kierkegaard, Religion, and Culture Group, one of the many groups affiliated with the AAR. This year, the KRC group sponsored three sessions: a book session on the late David Kangas’s Errant Affirmations (Bloomsbury, 2018), a session entitled “Where is God? Kierkegaard and the Denigration of Public Discourse, and another session entitled “Kierkegaard and Cinema.”

In addition to these three sessions, Søren Kierkegaard Society put on its annual banquet on the evening of the first official day of the conference. Joakim Garff was the banquet speaker. He gave a talk entitled “Expectation: Temporality and Rhetoric in Kierkegaard’s Edifying Discourses.” I heard from people who were able to make the banquet that the talk was good. Unfortunately, I was not able to make the banquet. I missed my flight. I was able to get a later flight at no extra charge, but the flight arrived too late for me to be able to make the banquet.

The SKS also sponsored a session entitled “Truth is Subjectivity: Kierkegaard and Political Theology: A Symposium in Honor of Robert Perkins.” Bob was a true giant of Kierkegaard scholarship. His editorship of the International Kierkegaard Commentary series from Mercer University Press, along with his other tireless scholarly activities earned him, in my mind anyway, the status of the unofficial father of contemporary Kierkegaard studies in English. The session, fittingly, was one of the best of have been to in many years. I was somewhat apprehensive about it because there were five speakers and a respondent scheduled for a session that was only two and a half hours long. That’s a lot of speakers! Fortunately, most of the presentations were short, so there was even a little time for discussion afterward.

The speakers were John Davenport, myself, C. Stephen Evans, George Pattison, and Lee Barrett, and the respondent was Christopher Nelson. Davenport’s paper was “The Crowd and Populism,” mine was “Kierkegaard’s Apocryphal Politics,” Evans’s was “Kierkegaard on Putting the Modern State in its Place,” Pattison’s was “Stepping Forward in Character — But onto what Stage? Arendtian Reflections on Kierkegaardian Anti-politics,” and Barrett’s was “Can Love Be Political?” All the papers were good and the discussion was even better. Sylvia Walsh Perkins was so pleased with the event that she immediately contacted Mercer and arranged for the papers to be published in a volume commemorating Bob. I was honored to have been part of the event and I look forward to the appearance of the volume!

The book exhibit is always one of my favorite parts of the AAR meeting. There was a period, when the AAR did not meet together with the Society of Biblical Literature, when the book exhibit was substantially diminished. The AAR and SBL are back together again, though, and the book exhibit is back to its old robust self!

I made an interesting discovery at the meeting. Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralistic Epistemology is out in a paperback version! You can see it to the right of Steve Evans’s two excellent books in the photo above. That’s good news. One of the things I like about Baylor is that its books are reasonably priced. Sadly, I have not yet been able to justify spending what it would cost to purchase Kangas’s book. Even discounted, it is almost $80.

Scholarly books are expensive to produce, there’s no question about that, and Baylor’s production process is second to none. They do a truly beautiful job with their books, both in terms of the editing and in terms of the aesthetics. Yet despite this, Ways of Knowing was originally only around $50! Unfortunately, the new paperback version appears to be nearly as much. It is an important work, though, if I say so myself, and it’s good to see that it is still available. (I’ve seen paperback’s from other publishers go for more than $100. I’m not naming any names, but I suspect many readers will know the publishers I’m talking about)

It occurred to me that scholars who have not yet purchased the book might like to learn more about it before deciding whether they want to purchase it, so I have extracted a few pages from the penultimate version of the second chapter and attached it here. Check it out!

 

New Translation of Kierkegaard’s Edifying Discourses

Harper Collins has issued a new translation of some of Kierkegaard’s edifying discourses under their imprint Harper Perennial (Harper, 2010). It was with some trepidation that I awaited this new translation. Many of Kierkegaard’s works deserve better translations than they have yet received, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone could improve on the Swensons’ translation from 1943. The translator of this new edition is George Pattison, the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford. The good news is that Pattison’s translation is better than the Hongs’. The bad news is that that’s damning with faint praise. Pattison’s translation is still a long way from being as good as the Swensons’ translation.

A blog is not the place to do a full-blown review, so I am going to look here only at the first discourse “Every Good and Every Perfect Gift is from Above.” Here are just a few of the problems with Pattison’s translation. First, he omits both the prayer and the passage from James that precede the discourse in Kierkegaard’s original edition, as well as in both the Swensons’ and the Hongs’ translations. Second, he interpolates section headings without indicating that they are interpolations. Third, despite the fact that he asserts in “A Note on the Translation” that he is not going to use a standard English language translation of the Bible (xxix), he uses a translation of James 1:17 that by contemporary standards is so awkward that although he repeats it verbatim where Kierkegaard uses it as section headings, he cannot himself stick to the wording in the body of the text.  The wording of the headings is “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the father of lights, in whom is no change or shadow of turning.” The problem, of course, is that contemporary readers expect a “there” between “whom” and “is no.” That expectation is so strong that Pattison inserts one himself when he quotes the passage in the body of the text at the top of page 13.

This awkward wording is undoubtedly from some recognized translation of the New Testament. Unfortunately, the reader doesn’t know which because Pattison doesn’t include a reference. Since he explains in his note on the translation that he’s not going to use a standard translation of the Bible, why didn’t he just edit this passage from James to make it more idiomatic?

Even more pressing is the question of why he didn’t use the wording from the King James translation. He explains that he wants to avoid archaic language and that is certainly laudable, but this passage from the King James translation is not particularly archaic and is more elegant than any later translation. It’s still missing the “there,” but that, again, could simply be interpolated. Its advantage over other translations is its use of “variableness” instead of “change.” The passage is difficult to translate from the Danish because the expressions Pattison translates as “change” and “turning,” “Forandring” and “Omskiftelse” respectively, both mean “change.” The translator thus has to be inventive to avoid a text that is awkwardly redundant. Pattison appears to have understood this and thus to have taken “turning” from some recognized translation of the Bible. Why not take “variableness” as well? It may be a less literal translation of “Forandring,” but it more accurately conveys the sense of Kierkegaard’s rendering of this passage from James.

Pattison has rather bizarre loyalties as a translator. He doesn’t want to violate the feeling of Kierkegaard’s original text by inserting archaisms where they do not appear in the original, but feels obliged to bring the text as much as possible into conformity with contemporary guidelines for the nonsexist use of language. Not only does this do at least as much violence to the text as would the insertion of archaisms, it occasionally renders it ungrammatical as is the case on the very first page where Pattison’s rendering of Kierkegaard’s text reads “These words are so beautiful, so eloquent, and so moving that it is certainly not their fault if the listener does not attend to them or they find no echo in our hearts.” The reader may wonder how “we” came in here. Well, “we” didn’t. The passage should read “if the listener does not attend to them or if they find no echo in his heart.” Pattison explains he’s going to substitute plural pronouns for singular ones in order to avoid the sexist use of language. He acknowledges that some readers may find this “inelegant” or even “barbaric” (xxxi). If by “barbaric” he means ungrammatical, then I am one of those readers and I suspect I am not alone.

If Pattison is, by his own account “somewhat free in adapting Kierkegaard’s often exclusive language to contemporary gender-inclusive usage” (xxx-xxxi), he is otherwise sometimes too literal as when he translates “suge Trøstens rige Næring af dem” as “suck the rich nourishment of comfort from them,” where “them” is understood to be the words of the aforementioned passage from James. Pattison’s translation is correct, but jarringly anatomical. Danish has fewer words than English so anatomical metaphors are not unusual in Danish. We have more choices in English, however, so we tend to have fewer overtly anatomical metaphors. Something along the lines of “draw from them the rich sustenance of consolation” would, I think, have been preferable.

Something similar happens with Pattison’s translation of “usund og skadelig Tilsætning” as “harmful additives.” “Tilsætning” is actually singular, so it should be “harmful additive.” Even if one corrects for that, however, the result is too pharmacological for my tastes. The Swensons’ “unsound and injurious decay” is less literal, but more elegant and hence more in keeping with the tone of the original.

Finally, Pattison’s translation of “al Guds Skabning er god” as “[a]ll God’s creatures are good” (14) is simply incorrect. “Skabing” is “creature” in the singular, but it can also be translated as “creation,” (see Ferrall-Repp. “Skabning”) and is properly so translated by the Swensons. The plural of “Skabning”–that is, “creatures”–is not “Skabning,” but “Skabninger.”

I could go on, but the rest of the problems I’ve found are similar to those listed above. There are good things, though, about the translation. It reads, for the most part, very naturally and the problems, at least in the first discourse, are all minor.  It is definitely an improvement on the Hongs’ translation and it is less expensive. My advice, however, if you do not yet have an English translation of Kierkegaard’s edifying discourses, is that you hunt down the Swensons’ translation on Abebooks–lots of copies are still available and for less even than the new Harper edition.