TLS “Kierkegaard Kerfluffle” Continued

The debate in the “Letters” section of the TLS concerning my review of Carlisle’s Philosopher of the Heart didn’t stop with my reply to Carlisle’s letter (for this exchange see the previous blog post). Two more letters defending Carlisle, both from U.K. theologians, and riddled with fallacies, appeared in the next issue. The first was from George Pattison and the second from Christopher Insole.

The TLS refused to allow me to respond to these letters, despite the fact that Pattison’s letter misrepresents my criticisms of the book and hence leaves TLS readers with a mistaken impression of the substance of my review. The TLS also declined to print any other letters in support of my review, such as this one by Mark Gaige, which I have included here with his permission.

Finally, the TLS declined to inform readers that Pattison was not a disinterested scholar. Carlisle’s book is actually dedicated to him. That means he more than likely read at least some of it, if not all of it, when it was in draft form. Pattison thus has an interest in deflecting attention from the book’s weaknesses, weaknesses that readers aware of his connection to it would naturally wonder how he could have failed to spot.

Pattison begins his letter with what is effectively a claim that anyone can say anything they want about Kierkegaard with impunity. That is, he says “it is often hard to identify the genuine authorial voice behind the sequence of masks.” The same, he continues, “is true of the man. Everything is eminently interpretable.” Unfortunately, for Pattison, that isn’t true. We have literally thousands of pages of Kierkegaard’s journals and papers that make clear in many, if not all, instances what he was trying to do in his various published works. We also have wealth of information concerning the facts of Kierkegaard’s life. So it is possible to establish many of those facts with relative certainty.

Pattison deftly avoids both these issues in his first paragraph. He gets into conspicuous trouble in the next paragraph, however, when he contradicts his own claim that “everything” about Kierkegaard “is eminently interpretable.” That is, he claims in the second paragraph that Kierkegaard’s ambivalence about Christianity is indisputable. So anything goes in interpretations of Kierkegaard — anything except that Kierkegaard was not ambivalent about Christianity.

Unfortunately, not only is Pattison contradicting himself when he says that Kierkegaard’s purported ambivalence about Christianity is indisputable, what he presents as evidence for this ambivalence supports not that Kierkegaard was ambivalent about Christianity, but that he was ambivalent about Christendom. Pattison observes, for example, that Kierkegaard “was extremely hesitant in going public with his attack on Christendom.” That’s true, but it’s unclear how that’s supposed to support a claim that Kierkegaard was ambivalent about Christianity. What it supports, actually, as anyone familiar with Kierkegaard’s own musings on this issue in his journals will attest, was that he was ambivalent about whether Christendom was completely irredeemable, as well as about whether a direct attack on it would have the proper effect.

Kierkegaard’s criticisms of Christendom go all the way back to the beginning of his authorship and that makes sense given the individualistic, pietist tradition from which his father came and to which he still maintained connections even during later life. These criticisms were always motivated by a deep and unwavering commitment to Christianity. What he could not make up his mind about was just exactly how bad Christendom was, not whether Christianity was true.

Pattison next presents as evidence for Kierkegaard’s purported ambivalence about Christianity the fact that he came increasingly to associate Christianity with suffering. Pattison, a theologian, and hence one can assume familiar with the historical association of the imitation of Christ with suffering, sees Kierkegaard’s views on this as evidence that he was ambivalent about Christianity. “This identification of love and suffering” Pattison observes,

comes to a climax in the very last journal entry that he wrote in which he figures God as obsessed with finding a person who, brought to an extreme condition of suffering, is able to believe both that God is the direct cause of this suffering and that God does it out of love.

“If this is not ambivalence,” asserts Pattison, “I am not sure what is.”

Sadly, it would appear Pattison does not know what ambivalence is because the passage he paraphrases continues

Et saadant Msk. bliver saa en Engel. Og i Himlen, der kan han sagtens lovprise Gud; men Læretiden, Skoletiden er jo ogsaa altid den strengeste Tid.

Such a person becomes an angel. And in heaven he will certainly be able to praise God. The period of instruction, however, of schooling, that is always the most difficult time.

That is, Kierkegaard does not see this suffering as an indictment of God, or of Christianity. Kierkegaard’s association of Christianity with suffering is simply an observation about Christianity, an observation that is, again, not unique in the Christian tradition.

Pattison’s paraphrase of this passage from Kierkegaard’s journals is misleading. The entry, from 25 September 1855, actually begins:

Dette Livs Bestemmelse er: at bringes til den høieste Grad af Livslede

            Den, der saa, bragt til dette Punkt, kan fastholde, eller Den, hvem Gud hjælper til at kunne fastholde, at det er Gud, der af Kjerlighed har bragt ham til dette Punkt: han tager, christeligt, Livets Prøve, er modnet for Evigheden.

The [Christian] determination of this life is: to be brought to the greatest extreme of suffering.

            A person who is brought to this point, [and yet] is able to maintain, or a person who with God’s assistance, is able to maintain, that it is God, who out of love has brought him to this point: he takes life’s test, Christianly understood, [and] is ripe for eternity.

This association of Christianity with suffering may be disturbing to contemporary readers, but it is as old as Christianity itself. Kierkegaard is not citing it as an indictment of Christianity. The emphasis Kierkegaard increasingly placed on what he saw as the relation between Christianity and suffering was likely his attempt to make sense of his own suffering in what he believed was service to Christianity.

In fact, Kierkegaard suffered much more than had previously been thought because the “public humiliation” Carlisle describes him as suffering at the hands of the satirical newspaper The Corsair was not confined, as she claims, to 1846, but began in 1846 and continued, as Peter Tudvad revealed in his book Kierkegaards København (Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen), on and off from 1846 until Kierkegaard’s death in 1855.

Kierkegaard’s first book-length publication, From the Papers of One Still Living, appeared in 1838. Many scholars consider, however, that his literary career really began in 1843 with the publication of Either-Or. Either way, Kierkegaard was subjected to deliberate public humiliation for the majority of his professional life. That isn’t an insignificant fact about him. It’s enormously important. As the years passed, and his suffering increased, his view of Christianity, to which he remained unwaveringly committed, became understandably darker.

Pattison next takes me to task for criticizing Carlisle for inventing thoughts she attributes to Kierkegaard without qualifying them as speculations. “[I]t is quite clear to any sensitive reader,” asserts Pattison, that Carlisle is not claiming to have direct and demonstrable insight into the undocumented workings of Kierkegaard’s mind.” Carlisle uses “these acknowledged fictionalized episodes,” he continues, “to conjure forth a sense of Kierkegaard as a living ‘restless’ human being.”

If Carlise has “acknowledged” the thoughts she attributes to Kierkegaard as “fictionalized,” why must the reader be “sensitive” in order to appreciate that Carlisle is “not claiming to have direct and demonstrable insight into the undocumented workings of Kierkegaard’s mind”? The answer, of course, is that Carlisle has not acknowledged the thoughts she attributes to Kierkegaard are fictionalized. Pattison just made that up, made it up, apparently, without even realizing, that he is once again contradicting himself in saying both that that the reader has to be sensitive to appreciate that the thoughts Carlisle attributes to Kierkegaard are fictionalized and that she “acknowledges” that these thoughts are fictionalized.

“If a biography is intended to bring us closer to the life of its subject,” continues Pattison, then imagination is sometimes as effective a tool as an assemblage of facts. In missing the element of imagination, Piety is in this case, missing the whole.”

But that’s a straw man argument, designed, again to deflect attention from my real criticisms of the book. I never said Carlisle should not have speculated about what Kierkegaard might have been thinking or feeling at a particular point in his life. I said she should have qualified her speculations as such. Without such a qualification, readers might well think that these purported “workings of Kierkegaard’s mind” had actually been documented. That was my first thought, anyway, when I read Carlisle’s account of Kierkegaard’s thoughts on his journey home from Berlin in 1843. I assumed that Kierkegaard had written down what he’d been thinking on that trip in his journal and that that was how she’d known about it.

It was actually my effort to find the source of that material that initiated my investigation into the book’s haphazard documentation. I was fascinated to think that I might discover something new from Kierkegaard’s journals that I had clearly missed on my many earlier readings of them. But when I checked the reference I discovered that while it was to one of the volumes of the new edition of Kierkegaard’s journals and notebooks and hence gave the impression that it was to something Kierkegaard had written, it wasn’t actually to anything Kierkegaard had written, but merely to a note by the editors explaining the various conveyances Kierkegaard had used on his trip.

Pattison closes, finally, with another straw man argument. I had mentioned in the letter I wrote in response to Carlisle’s that in fact, more criticisms could be advanced against the book than I had done in the review. “How is it possible,” I observed, “to write a biography of Kierkegaard after the revelations of Peter Tudvad’s Stadier på antisemitismens vej (stages on the way of antisemitism) without saying anything about Kierkegaard’s views on Jews and Judaism?”

Instead of answering that question, Pattison launches into a sadly ineffectual defense of Kierkegaard against the charge that he was anti-semitic. The defense is ineffectual in that it boils down, basically, to the claim that Kierkegaard was not more antisemitic “than other early to mid-nineteenth-century theological writers” which is faint praise if ever there was any. It amounts, in fact, to the conspicuously fallacious:

All nineteenth-century theological writers were antisemitic.

Kierkegaard was a nineteenth century theological writer.


Therefore, Kierkegaard was not antisemitic.

This unfortunate effort to rescue Kierkegaard from the charge that he was antisemitic is beside the point, however, because I didn’t fault Carlisle for failing to address the issue of Kierkegaard’s purported antisemitism. I faulted her for failing to look at Kierkegaard’s views on Jews and Judaism.

I’d like to think Kierkegaard was not antisemitic, but he says some truly offensive things about Jews and Judaism and why he does this, and does it with increasing frequency and ferocity toward the end of his life, given that his own father was arguably philosemitic, ought to be addressed in any biography that purports to “conjure forth a sense of Kierkegaard as living ‘restless’ human being, thinking, feeling, and reacting to experiences and events in ways that other human beings do.” What was it about Kierkegaard’s experiences that led him to have such negative views of Jews and Judaism, views that were unquestionably more negative than those of many “other human beings,” if not all other human beings, of his day?

“It is not even obvious,” concludes Pattison, “that this was a main theme in his work at all.” I agree. What Pattison has done here is present yet another straw man argument because I never said this was a main theme in Kierkegaard’s work, but simply that it was an issue that any biographer of Kierkegaard ought to address.

Pattison clearly put his letter together in haste. It is self contradictory, riddled with straw man arguments, casts doubt on his grasp of the history of Christianity, as well as on his understanding of the term “ambivalent,” and contains a conspicuously fallacious argument that is offensive not only to reason but to morals.

Write in haste, repent at leisure.

Pattison’s, as I mentioned, was not the only defense of Carlisle’s biography to appear in that issue’s “Letters” section. Christopher Insole stepped up as well. I’ll look at his much shorter, and more humorous, defense in another post.






Mr. McBeevee

The Andy Griffith Show” is one of my favorite televisions shows. It isn’t just that it’s well written and well acted, it’s that it’s life affirming. It sends consistently positive messages about people’s potential for goodness. I’ve heard it characterized as saccharine. It isn’t though. The peace of Mayberry, the little town of which widower Andy Griffith is the sheriff, is repeatedly disturbed by drunkards, con men, and even violent criminals, to say nothing of jealousy, pettiness, and mistrust. Even Andy succumbs occasionally to mistrust.

There is an episode in the first season where Andy mistakenly assumes his son Opie’s reluctance to contribute to a charity to which all the other children in his school have given generously stems from selfishness, only to find out in the end that Opie has been saving his money to buy his girlfriend a coat because her family is too poor to buy one for her. There’s another episode where Andy assumes that Opie’s claim that he did not start a fire in the barn of a local farmer is a lie, only to find out later that Opie had been telling the truth, that the farmer had started the fire himself.

My favorite episode, and the one that has occasioned this post, is the first one from the third season. The episode is entitled “Mr. McBeevee.” The opening scene is of Opie riding his imaginary horse, Blackie. Later Opie tells his father that he can’t help him clean the Sheriff’s office because he has to help his new friend Mr. McBeevee, a man who, he explains, wears a shiny silver hat, walks about in the treetops, jingles as if he were wearing bells, and can blow smoke out of his ears.

Both Andy and his faithful sidekick Deputy Barney Fife assume, from this description, that Mr. McBeevee is as imaginary as was Opie’s horse Blackie. Opie insists, however, that Mr. McBeevee is real.

The plot takes a dark turn when Opie shows his father a quarter he claims Mr. McBeevee gave him. Where can that have quarter come from? Andy informs his Aunt Bee, who serves as his housekeeper and surrogate mother to Opie, that if Opie will not admit that Mr. McBeevee isn’t real, he’s going to have to “get a whipping.”

Andy makes his way up to Opie’s room and explains to him that he won’t punish him if he will admit that Mr. McBeevee isn’t real.

“Opie,” he says, “there comes a time when you have to stop the play acting and tell the truth, and that time is now, right now. Opie, I want you to be man enough to tell me that Mr. McBeevee is just make believe. That’s all you have to say and it will all be forgotten. But if you don’t, then something else is going to happen. I believe you know what I mean, don’t you.”

“Yes, Pa,” Opie mumbles without looking up.

“Alright,” says Andy, “I want you to say that Mr. McBeevee is just make believe.”

But Opie can’t do it. He tries, but he stops before he can complete the sentence.

“I can’t Pa,” he says trembling and looking directly into his father’s eyes. “Mr. McBeevee isn’t make believe. He’s real.”

Andy shakes his head sadly.

“Don’t you believe me Pa? Opie asks pleadingly, ”don’t you Pa?”

Opie, lower lip trembling, is on the verge of tears. Andy stares disappointedly into his son’s face. Then suddenly his expression changes. There’s a brief look of incredulity, not at what his son is saying, but at something else, something at which the viewer can only guess. He sighs resignedly, smiles slightly, and responds:

“I believe you.”

When Andy comes downstairs again to Barney and Aunt Bee, he informs them that he has not spanked Opie after all.

“Well that’s good,” says Barney with obvious relief. “He learned his lesson. A good talking to is the best thing. Making him stay in his room…”

“I didn’t do that either,” says Andy, lighting a cigarette.

“Well what did you do?” asks Barney.

“I told him I believed him,” responds Andy.

“You told him you BELIEVED him,” Barney blurts out. “But Andy, what he told you is impossible!”

“Well,” Andy explains, “a whole lot of times I’ve asked him to believe things that to his mind must have seemed just as impossible.”

“But Andy, the silver hat, the jingling, the smoke from his ears, what about all that?”

“Well,” says Andy, “I guess at a time like this, when you’re asked to believe something that just doesn’t seem possible, that’s a moment that decides whether you’ve got faith in somebody or not.”

“Well how can you explain it all?” asks Barney.

“I can’t,” responds Andy.

“But you do believe in Mr. McBeevie?”

“No,” responds Andy. ”But I believe in Opie.”

You can hardly get a more Kierkegaardian picture of faith than that! It’s not faith in Christ, of course, but it is faith in all its improbabilistic glory. I wouldn’t go so far as to try to argue that Andy Griffith, or the show’s writers, must have read Kierkegaard. There is an Andy Griffith-Kierkegaard connection, however, that may surprise readers. Griffith had originally planed to become a Moravian minister before he turned to music and acting.

The Moravian Church, also known as the Bohemian Brethren, or the Unitas Fratrum (Unity of Brethren), dates from very early in the fifteenth century and is thus the oldest protestant denomination, predating even Martin Luther’s break with the Church of Rome. A group of Bohemian Brethren established a village called Herrnhut in Berthelsdorf, Germany and hence became known as the Herrnhuters.

Kierkegaard’s father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, was a member of the Herrnhut sect. Its view of Christianity had a profound influence on his own and hence on the view of Christianity with which Kierkegaard was raised.

The Moravian Church, interestingly, has no official doctrine.

“Just as the Holy Scripture does not contain any doctrinal system, so the Unitas Fratrum also has not developed any of its own because it knows that the mystery of Jesus Christ, which is attested to in the Bible, cannot be comprehended completely by any human mind or expressed completely in any human statement,” its Ground of the Unity document states.

That is probably partly why Kierkegaard’s own view on the importance of doctrine is so minimalistic. Personal faith was emphasized over doctrine in the pietistic tradition of the Herrnhuters.

Back to Andy Griffith… After his talk with Opie, Andy takes a walk in the woods where Opie claimed to have been helping Mr. McBeevee.

“Mr. McBeeving” he blurts out in exasperation as he swats at the grass with a stick.

“Hello,” replies a voice from the treetops. “Somebody call?”

Andy looks up to see a telephone repair man descending one of the tree trunks, or what at least appeared to be a tree trunk, the tools dangling from his belt jingling like bells.

“McBeevee at your service,” he says when he finally reaches the ground. “What can I do for you?”

“You walk around in the trees,” Andy says grinning incredulously. “You’ve got a silver hat, and you jingle. You can make smoke come out of your ears, can’t you!” he says. (This, it turns out, is a trick Mr. McBeevee showed Opie where he exhales cigarette smoke into his cupped hand and then releases it after moving the hand to his ear.)

“I sure am glad to meet you!” says Andy, who then proceeds to shake Mr. McBeevee’s hand with a vigor that threatens to remove his entire arm from its socket.

So Andy’s faith in his son was justified. He couldn’t have known this, though, when he chose to believe his son, or when he realized that he did believe his son, despite the apparently fantastical nature of his story. Griffith would have realized, of course, that faith is rarely justified in a manner that is demonstrable to others. I think that was the message of the show, that love and faith are inexorably intertwined and that we must hold fast to them – especially when life makes that difficult.