Thursday, May 07, 2009

Autobiographical, Bibliographical Remembrance

Please indulge me only a brief autobiographical reflection on a singularly impressive work of Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death.

I was assigned this book in the spring of 1976 for a History of Modern Philosophy course at the University of Northern Colorado. Having cut my philosophical teeth on Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, and being in the heady environment of the state university (albeit not a distinguished one), I had, in a protracted fit of post-adolescent pseudo-intellectualism, thrown of the light religion of my youth and was endeavoring to embrace atheism. Thank God, I would eventually fail in this Promethean task.

I wrote a short essay against SK for my class, but had not taken on this formidable volume, relying only on secondary sources. But then one night, after a bizarre dream that covertly indicated my alienation from God, I picked up the book and began reading--not at the beginning, but at a random place. Then the book began to read me. It explained my "despair" as form of rebellion against God. "Defiant despair" is what SK called it: despair that finds its meaning in being miserable in its rebellion against God. He called it the most "potentiated" (or full-bloodied) form of despair.

I saw myself in the dense and psychologically thick description. SK read my soul in Christian terms, and it disarmed and alarmed me. This marked a turning point; about a month later, I gave up this despair and instead embraced the Christian message. A few years later I taught through this demanding and rewarding book in a class at the University of Oregon--the only time I have done so in all my years of teaching.

I must part company with SK's rejection of rational apologetics (natural theology and historical evidences for Christianity); however, his divination of the soul, his art of uncovering the soul's escape mechanisms, his ability to bring one before God through this uncanny. Call it subjective apologetics. Call it brilliant.


Mac said...

Any tips on reading SK if one has never read him before or read much in philosophy? Thanks.

D. A. Armstrong said...

There is something about SK that just relates well to many people. In fact, I would say that he rings true to people today as he did to you 30 years ago. One of my own professors has often said that SK would be perfect pulpit material (assuming that many churches preach as much or more philosophy, psychology and self help than they do exposit the scriptures). I have also found his understanding of Rationalism and the Modernist enterprise insightful.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

SK wrote some cogent devotional works, including "Purity of Heart." He wrote a huge corpus in a short time. I do not accept his fideism. For an introduction, see the collection called, "Provocations," ed. by Charles Moore, which features some salient social criticisms that still rings true today. I hope it is still in print.

SK said...

Nice post, Doug. I have never bought Schaeffer's claim that SK is the father of existentialism, but do, like you, reject his fideism. "Sickness Unto Death," of all of SK's Pseudonymous works, has always struck me as the one closest to his own thinking. Though the language and translation make it a tough read in spots, it's worth the effort.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

One wonders who "the father of existentialism" may be. Of course, it depends on how you define "existentialism"--notoriously difficult, that. A rejection of philosophical systems and abstract thinking is part of it.

Nietzsche, who usually makes the short list, rejected systems and embraced, ultimately, incoherence, albeit passionately held: deep feeling in the void.

SK wanted to shock pseudo-Christians out of a notional orthodoxy (mindlessly reciting the creeds) and instead to really live out the radical nature of Christianity. However, he did believe the historic creeds and the Bible. He was a realist, if a fideist. The two are logically compatible, if not palatable.