Kierkegaard and von Balthasar on Anxiety

41yorNv6sLL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_My sister-in-law Kelly Foley is a devout Catholic with a growing interest in theology. She has begun reading Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Christian and Anxiety. (Way to jump in at the deep end. My sister-in-law is no intellectual slouch!) She asked me if I were familiar with the book because it begins with a reference to Kierkegaard. I was familiar with von Balthasar, of course, but not with that particular book. This was obviously a significant lacuna in my theological background, so I promptly purchased an ebook version of it and began reading it.

“Schelling, Hegel, and Baader … were the immediate influences” writes von Balthasar in his introduction,

that prompted the Dane to treat this theme as a theologian, even if only in an introductory manner (as he puts it, “psychologically” rather than “dogmatically”). He never could bring himself to write a dogmatic tract, and he deliberately posed his questions within a psychological framework-intending, of course, to let the inquiry lead eventually into inevitable dogmatic truth. As a result, anxiety remains for him a matter of the finite mind horrified by its own limitlessness, and God and Christ are rarely mentioned explicitly in this work, which was in fact meant to be an exclusively Christian book. (31-32).

“[I]f a theologian is to give this topic the treatment that is due to it,” observes von Balthasar he must “continue along more dogmatic lines the work that Kierkegaard began” (34).

“[I]t will become evident,” writes von Balthasar, “whether the biblical approach can be more instructive and more profound than the great-Danish thinker’s “psychological” approach” (38).

My immediate response to this assessment of Kierkegaard’s treatment of anxiety was the judgment that von Balthasar had failed to take into account what is arguably the companion volume to Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety — The Sickness Unto Death. While the former is indeed described by its pseudonymous author as “a simple psychologically orienting deliberation on the dogmatic issue of hereditary sin” (emphasis added), the latter is described as “a christian psychological exposition for upbuilding and awakening” (emphasis added). That is, The Sickness Unto Death involves precisely the dogmatic approach to the psychological phenomenon of despair that von Balthasar faults Kierkegaard for failing to involve in his analysis of anxiety in his eponymous book.

Ah yes, you may be thinking, but anxiety and despair are different psychological phenomena. But are they? “[D]eep deep within the most secret hiding place of happiness,” writes Kierkegaard in The Sickness Unto Death, “there dwells also anxiety, which is despair” (SUD, 25). Some readers might object that the Hongs’ translation of The Sickness Unto Death is the most problematic of all their translations and that the equation of anxiety with despair there may be the result of an error in translation. It isn’t. The Danish for the passage reads: “[I]nderst inde i Lykkens Forborgenhed, der boer ogsaa Angesten, som er Fortvivlesen” (emphasis added). Anxiety and despair are two different phenomenological expressions of the same ontological state — sin. Anxiety is, arguably, despair that refuses to recognize itself as such.

There is, thus, a limit to which anxiety can be understood when approached merely psychologically. Von Balthasar is right about that. It would appear that he fails to appreciate, however, that Kierkegaard was well aware of this. The very last line of The Concept of Anxiety reads: “Here this deliberation ends, where it began. As soon as psychology has finished with anxiety, it is to be delivered to dogmatics” (CA, 162). That is, arguably, precisely what Kierkegaard did five years later in The Sickness Unto Death where he identifies anxiety with despair.

The introduction to The Sickness Unto Death begins with a quotation from The Gospel of John where Christ responds to the news that Lazarus is ill with the declaration that “This sickness is not unto death” (John 11:4). This clearly indicates the dogmatic, as opposed to merely psychological, nature of book’s approach to understanding the experience of sin. Sin, which is to say despair, is the sickness unto death according to Kierkegaard.

“Sin Is Not A Negation But A Position” is the heading that begins chapter three of The Sickness Unto Death. “That this is the case,” continues Kierkegaard,

is something that orthodox dogmatics and orthodoxy on the whole have always contended, and they have rejected as pantheistic any definition of sin that made it out to be something merely negative—weakness, sensuousness, finitude, ignorance, etc. Orthodoxy has perceived very correctly that the battle must be fought here, or as in the preceding portion, here the end must be fashioned very firmly … orthodoxy has correctly perceived that when sin is defined negatively, all Christianity is flabby and spineless. That is why orthodoxy emphasizes that there must be a revelation from God to teach fallen man what sin is, a communication that, quite consistently, must be believed because it is a dogma (SUD, 96.)

So von Balthasar’s claim that Kierkegaard “never could bring himself to write a dogmatic tract” on anxiety and that “[a]s a result, anxiety remains for him a matter of the finite mind horrified by its own limitlessness” is simply false. The Sickness Unto Death is Kierkegaard’s “dogmatic tract” on anxiety. Von Balthasar failed to appreciate this for the simple reason that anxiety is subsumed there under the larger heading of “despair.”

This brief examination of von Balthasar’s criticism of Kierkegaard’s treatment of anxiety is an example of a new philosophical genre known as “flash philosophy.” Flash philosophy takes its name from flash fiction, which is essentially very short short stories. Flash philosophy is thus very short philosophical articles. I’ve created a website, Flash Philosophy, dedicated to publishing such short philosophical articles. I invite interested readers to take a look at the website and to send me any material they have that they think might be appropriate to publish there.