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!

Pulling Ourselves Together

I gave a paper entitled “Pulling Ourselves Together: Kierkegaard and the Catechesis of Contagion” at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion last month. Several people told me I should try to publish the paper, but I fear that might be difficult because it is not a traditional academic paper, but actually contains edifying elements. So I decided that rather than racking my brains trying to think of an appropriate journal, I would simply post it to this blog. I haven’t posted the whole paper, though, because while it is short, at ten pages, it is still considerably longer than the average post to this blog. What I’ve done instead is simply posted the first part and then provided a link to the pdf of the entire paper at the end in case you are sufficiently intrigued by the beginning and decide you would like to read all the way to the end.

Vær så god!

“You may have heard,” writes Kierkegaard in “To Preserve One’s Soul In Patience,”

“how someone who had thoughtlessly frittered away his life and never understood anything but wasted the power of his soul in vanities, how he lay on his sick bed and the frightfulness of disease encompassed him and the singularly fearful battle began, how he then, for the first time in his life, understood something, understood that it was death he struggled with, and how he then pulled himself together in a purpose that was powerful enough to move a world, how he attained a marvelous collectedness for wrenching himself out of the sufferings in order to use the last moment to catch up on some of what he had neglected, to bring order to some of the chaos he had caused during a long life, to contrive something for those he would leave behind. You may have heard it from those who were there with him, who with sadness, but also deeply moved, had to confess that in those few hours he had lived more than in all the rest of his life, more than is lived in years and days as people ordinarily live” (Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, p. 181).

Not since the flu pandemic of 1918, which took more lives than WWI, has an illness aroused so much anxiety and fear as the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet this global tragedy is also an opportunity for us to understand, perhaps for the first time, how we struggle with death from the moment we come to understand our mortality, even if we spend most of our lives in denial concerning this struggle. Our current crisis provides us, according to Kierkegaard, with an opportunity to reevaluate our lives, to catch up on what we have neglected, to bring order to some of the chaos we may have caused during our lives, to contrive something for those we will eventually leave behind, to live more than in all the rest of our lives, “more than is lived in years and days as people ordinarily live.”

This paper argues that the confrontation with our mortality that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced upon us can, according to Kierkegaard, be a means of powerful spiritual instruction, instruction on what is truly meaningful in existence and how we may live our lives, however long or short they may be, so fully, so completely enfolded in the embrace of Grace that even the specter of death is no longer frightening.

Pulling Ourselves Together,” delivered at the 2021 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion.

Haverford Kierkegaard Seminar

Duck Pond, Haverford College
The Duck Pond, Haverford College

I had one of the best teaching experiences of my career last term. I taught an upper-level Kierkegaard seminar at Haverford College. Haverford, for those of you who do not know, is one of the best small liberal arts colleges in the country. It’s ranked number twelve on U.S. News and World Report’s list of 239 “National Liberal Arts Colleges in the U.S.

Haverford is a college based in the Quaker tradition. “The Quaker religion,” observes William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, “is impossible to overpraise.” There’s always been a strong connection between Quakers and Kierkegaard because both emphasize the importance of the individual’s relation to God. My undergraduate professor and mentor, Bob Horn, the man who introduced me to Kierkegaard, taught briefly at Haverford before settling, finally, at Earlham College, another excellent Quaker institution, and the one from which I received my undergraduate degree.

Bob is a Kierkegaard scholar, and one of the most knowledgable people on Kierkegaard whom I have ever met. His Positivity and Dialectic, an examination of the thought of Hans Lassen Martensen, one of Kierkegaard’s teachers, is an essential resource for Kierkegaard scholars. Bob was succeeded at Haverford by Josiah Tompson, another Kierkegaard scholar. Thompson published The Lonely Labyrinth, an examination of Kierkegaard pseudonymous works, and Kierkegaard: A Collection of Critical Essays.

I knew first hand how intellectually stimulating is the environment of a small liberal arts college. A college with a Quaker history is even more inspiring, however, because there the emphasis is not merely on the development of the mind, but also of the spirit. I also knew of the Haverford-Kierkegaard connection, hence I was very excited when I was offered the opportunity to become, even if only briefly, a part of that tradition.

Jerry Miller, author of the critically acclaimed Stain Removal: Ethics and Race, and the chair of Haverford’s philosophy department, went out of his way to make me feel welcome, as did Kathleen Wright, a tenured full professor at Haverford and a specialist on German idealism and Heidegger, who generously allowed me to share her office.

I could not have had a better group of students. We did a series of short essays in preparation for the term paper. Those essays were mostly summaries of various portions of the texts we were reading at the time they were assigned. This, I explained to them, was to help them become familiar with the practice of providing background for one’s argument before making the argument itself.

They were all good writers. Where they really shone, however, was in their term papers. Each one chose a challenging and important topic, and each did such a good job with the topic that I think their papers could actually be helpful to scholars wrestling with the same issues, so I asked them if I could post their papers to this blog. The students whose papers are mentioned below generously agreed to allow me to do that and to include their names. What follows is a short summary of each paper, along with a link to a pdf of the paper.

I’m going to present the papers in alphabetical order based on the student’s last name. First is Courtney Ahmed’s paper. Courtney’s paper, “Love in Philosophical Crumbs,” examines an issue that has always been of particular interest to me: the relation between human love and divine love. Here is the intro to Courtney’s paper. Remember, this is an undergraduate paper!

In Philosophical Crumbs, Søren Kierkegaard asserts the idea that Christian faith rests on the unequivocal acceptance that the eternal God’s temporal appearance in lowest human form was purely an act of love. Acceptance of this fact has the power to transform those who are able to both grasp and set aside its sheer implausibility. Is it possible, however, for one to understand and accept God’s love— the fundamental premise of Christianity— and thereby effect the transformation of faith without experiencing human love as a precursor? I will argue through the lens of Kierkegaard that no, it is impossible to know what it means to be loved by God unless one has experienced love manifested in human relationships.

Ian Andolsek was a senior philosophy major who actually wrote his senior thesis on Kierkegaard. Andolsek’s paper, “Towards a Deontic Kierkegaardian Virtue Ethics,” is not only well written, it displays an impressive grasp of the breadth of theoretical ethics. The following paragraph is extracted from early in the paper. I chose to post it, rather than the intro because I think it contains more information concerning the substance of Andolsek’s paper.

Kierkegaard’s ethical project is motivated by his strongly held the conviction that the purpose of ethics has been nearly universally misunderstood, from the Ancients, to Kant, to most notably, Hegel. My picture will present Kierkegaard as an analytically rigorous ethical philosopher who extends a cogent and compelling critique of Hegel’s ethical view in the Philosophy of Right to construct a positive ethical framework.

John Chip’s paper, “The Role of Aesthetics in Soren Kierkegaard’s Ethics and Beyond,” addresses an issue that could not be more important to those of use who love Kierkegaard not merely for the substance of his thought, but for the beauty of his prose style. Here is Chip’s intro:

Soren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher active in the 19th century. In this paper, I will explore Kierkegaard’s concept of aesthetics and its relation to ethics and religion and argue that, contrary to Kierkegaard’s claims, aesthetics can have a positive role in an ethical-religious life. First, I will discuss Kierkegaard’s primary concerns and summarize Kierkegaard’s views on how the conception of aesthetics functions in the ethical and religious life. Then, I will identify passages in which it is possible to understand aesthetics playing a positive role in an ethical-religious life.

Kevin Connolly’s paper “The Search for Eternal Happiness – Can Individual_s Subjects Assist One Another?” does just what it says. It examines the extent to which people can help one another in coming to understand eternal, unchanging truth. This is a hugely important topic in Kierkegaard scholarship because Kierkegaard often speaks as if he thinks people can have no role in helping one another to come to understand this truth. But if he really does believe this, then why, Connolly asks, did he write? Here is Connolly’s introduction.

In his Philosophical Crumbs and Concluding Unscientific Postscript, the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard describes the pursuit of an “eternal happiness” as being an essentially individual enterprise rooted in ethical-religious development. Although some readers may be inclined to interpret Kierkegaard as claiming that individual subjects can do nothing to assist one another in making ethical-religious progress, such a view is incommensurate with several other positions Kierkegaard takes throughout these works. Specifically, this paper will show this viewpoint to be incongruous with the many remarks Kierkegaard makes concerning a subject’s decision-making and relationship with God, an understanding of how interpersonal communication works, and his commentary pertaining to religious addresses. It will thereafter be clear that Kierkegaard believes that subjects can indirectly assist others by inducing them to act and forge their own way toward ethical-religious development, but cannot themselves guide them along a pre-charted path to ethical-religious development.

Leonor Suarez’s paper, “How Does One Learn that They are Outside of the Truth_?” looks at the issue of whether it is possible to come to know one is outside the truth without God’s help, which is to say that it looks at the relation between what Kierkegaard calls “guilt consciousness” and “sin consciousness.” Suarez’s intro is so short that rather than present it here, I’ll just direct you to the paper. You will not be disappointed!


My Kierkegaard seminar at Haverford was something special. It’s an experience I hope I will be able to repeat someday.