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!


IMG_4407Two of my biggest supporters throughout my career have been the late Robert L. Perkins and Sylvia Walsh Perkins. I met them both at the very first Kierkegaard conference I attended at the College of Wooster, when I was still only a graduate student. One of my professors, George L. Kline learned I planned to attend the conference and suggested that I should try to make contact there with Bob Perkins. Perkins’ work on Kierkegaard, George explained, was very good, so it would be good for me to get to know him. 

I didn’t know anyone at that conference, so I was happy to have something of an information introduction to Bob. I approached him during one of the breaks early in the conference. I liked him immediately. Despite being one of the top people in Kierkegaard studies in the world, he was very warm and modest and self effacing. When I mentioned to him how his work had been recommended to me by George Kline, he seemed pleased, but immediately changed the subject. “You should read Sylvia Walsh’s work,” he exclaimed with enthusiasm. “Now there is a scholar who is really good!”

I’m paraphrasing, of course, because that first meeting was so long ago that I don’t remember exactly what Bob said. In fact, that first meeting was so long ago that Bob and Sylvia weren’t even married yet. I followed Bob’s advice and sought out Sylvia at that same conference. I quickly became friends with both of them, and not because they were the first Kierkegaard scholars I met, but because they were both truly lovely people, passionate and gifted scholars, warm, kind, and socially conscious. Bob and Sylvia supported me throughout my career. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that without the support of Bob, Sylvia, and C. Stephen Evans, I wouldn’t have a career. 

I was therefore deeply moved when Sylvia contacted me recently to ask whether I would be interested in any of the books she was planning to get rid of. She said she was winding down her scholarly activity and hence unlikely to need all the books in the large library she and Bob has amassed over the years. Among the books Sylvia offered me was a complete set of the new Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter, the most recent edition of Kierkegaard’s collected works in Danish, as well as a complete set of the new Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks, the English translation of Kierkegaard’s journals and papers that is based on the new SKS. 

Sylvia was also getting rid of the old Hongs’ translation of the journals and papers that they had done for Indiana University Press. I’m not a huge fan of the Hongs’ translations, as readers of this blog are likely aware. The earlier translations tend to be better than the later ones, though, and their translations of the journals and papers are very early. Also, while the new Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks is far more comprehensive than the old Hongs’ translation that went under the title Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, the actual translations in the new edition are often no better, and sometimes even worse, than those in the older edition. The thing I like best about the Hongs’ translation of the journals and papers, though, is that it is organized thematically rather than chronologically. That makes it a pleasure simply to sit and read. 

I’d wanted a set of the Hongs’ Journals and Papers for years. It is still available through Indiana, as well as It’s quite expensive, though, to get a complete set, even used. Given that I already had a complete set of the Papirer (which I had also earlier gotten from Bob and Sylvia), and given that Princeton had come out with the new Journals and Notebooks, it seemed extravagant to lay out money for the now obsolete Hongs’ translation. 

But then, out of nowhere, or so it seemed, I got an email from Sylvia, whom I had come to regard as sort of my scholarly guardian angel, asking me if I wanted a collection of books that included this set. Of course the Journals and Papers are not the most important of the works Sylvia has so generously given me. They are the books, however, for which I had nurtured a secret longing. After all SKS is available online, and KJN is disappointing in some respects.  

And now I have my very own set of Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers! Thank you, Sylvia!

It seemed wrong to pick and choose books from the list Sylvia sent me, so I told her just to send them all and that I would find homes for any books I already had. Hence the title of this post. I’ve created a list of the duplicates and will send them to anyone who is willing to pay for the postage. Just write me and let me know which books you would like and why. The reason I would like you to explain why you want the book, or books, in question is in case several people write at the same time that they want the same book, or books. Basically, I will distribute the books based on a first come, first served basis, but if two or more people request the same books at the same time, an explanation of why each wants the book, or books, will help me to decide who should get them. I will let you know what it will cost to ship them and will not ship them until I hear that you are okay with that cost. 

Again, I’ve attached a list of the books I am giving away. Some highlights are a complete third edition of Kierkegaard’s collected works in Danish, selected volumes of both SKS and KJN. Check out the attached list, though, for exciting finds!

Kierkegaard on the Danish fear of Germany

I was reviewing some of Kierkegaard’s remarks on Germans and Germany recently, when I came across a passage I thought it might be interesting to try re-translating. Neither of the existing translation is a disaster, but each could stand some improvement. The translation below appropriates language from both but improves upon them in some important respects. The language of the Hongs’ translation is surprisingly lyrical with lots of alliteration and so I have preserved much of it in my own translation below. It’s not necessarily better in the sense of being more accurate than is the new English translation, but it reads better and in that sense is, at least in places, superior to the new translation the language of which is more formal than was the language of the original.  The following paragraph is my translation of the passage, which comes from Pap. VIII1 A 531.

All this fear of Germany is fantastical, it’s a game, a new attempt to flatter national vanity.  One million people who honestly admitted that they were a small nation, with each person resolving before God to want to be what he is, would be an immense force; there’s no danger at all in that. No, the calamity is something else entirely; the calamity is that this little nation is demoralized, divided in itself, each man nauseatingly envious of the other, unruly toward everyone who is supposed to rule, petty toward everyone who achieves anything, impertinent and undisciplined, riled up to a kind of rabble tyranny. This creates a bad conscience; therefore people fear the Germans. But no one dares to say what’s the source of the problem [hvor Ulykken stikker]–so one flatters all these unhealthy passions and becomes self-important by polemicizing against the Germans.

Okay, now where are the changes and why have I made them. I’m not going to address every change, but only the ones that merit examination. Many of the changes, such as my “fantastical” instead of the Hongs’ “hallucination” or the new “fantasy,” are purely stylistic (and mine is actually less literal in that the original, en Indbildning, is a noun not an adjective). Some of the changes do merit examination though.The new translation does a better job, I think, than the Hongs’ with the sentence that begins “One million people…” but regrettably uses the abbreviation “1 mill. ppl.” for the original “1 Mill. Msk.”  Kierkegaard often used abbreviations, but to try to preserve them everywhere is not only, as I argue in my review of the first volume of the new Journals and Papers in the Scottish Journal of Theology, an affectation, it’s occasionally even confusing to the reader.

The new translation has “problem” where I, following the Hongs, have “calamity.” The Danish is Ulykken (and later Ulykke without the definite article). Ulykke, according to Ferrall and Repp’s A Danish-English Dictionary (Copenhagen, 1845) is properly translated as “misfortune,” “calamity,” or “disaster.” There is a Danish word for “problem”; it’s “problem,” or in Kierkegaard’s time “Problem.”  “Problem” isn’t a disastrous translation (I couldn’t resist that!), but it’s isn’t a very good one either because it obscures the tone of the original. “Problem” is more neutral in tone than “misfortune,” “calamity,” or “disaster,” and hence takes some of the bite out of the piece, some of the bite that was in the original.

Both the Hongs and the new translation have also inexplicably stuck “root” in the text when it does not appear in the original. The Hongs have “the root of the calamity” and the new translation has “the root of the problem” for “hvor Ulykken stikker.” “Stikker” according to Ferrall-Repp, however, means to “poke,” or “prod,” or “jab,” or “stab.” “Root” works in both translations. The reason I pointed it out is that is illustrates how heavily later translations tend to be influenced by earlier translations.

My complaints with the new translation are generally minor ones that have to do with similar points of style. There’s only one place where I’d argue there’s a serious problem. The new translation leaves out an entire phrase that is actually very important. Where I have “petty toward everyone who achieves anything,” the new translation has simply “petty toward everyone.” “Petty” is better than the Hongs’ “malicious” (at least according to Ferrall-Repp), but the new translation omits any reference to the phrase “der er Noget.” That is, the original reads “smaalig mod Enhver, der er Noget.” The whole phrase translates literally as “petty toward anyone who is anything.” I used a bit of license in translating “er” as “achieves.” I think it makes the meaning of the passage clearer though. There is an important difference between “petty toward everyone,” as the new translation reads, and “petty toward everyone who achieves anything.” In that sense, the new translation is actually inferior to the earlier one. Let’s hope that’s corrected in subsequent printings.