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Soren Kierkegaard

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Copyright Teach-Me, Aust.1997.

In the middle of the nineteenth century Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the Danish philosopher and theologian, initiated a school of thought known as Theistic Existent ialism, which was to have a major impact on nearly every facet of society including the considered "boundaries of philosophy, theology, psychology, literary criticism, devotional literature and fiction." His philosophy majored on faith and commitment, but failed to take into consideration the views of theological and religious leaders of his day. Kierkegaard believed that people should not settle for a "watered-down gospel of morality and works" but should seek spiritual development through levels of personal belief.

Kierkegaard’s unusual philosophic concepts and perceptions about life began to be formed during the early stages of his upbringing. The personal relationships within his life further developed his view of reality, humanity, ethics and other key worldview issues, which in turn "significantly shaped" his writings . Motivated by a desire to satisfy the deepest needs and questions of the society of his day, Kierkegaard sought to "illuminate a new way of living for people;" a way which he believed could only be fulfilled by individuals renewing their Christian faith. Although much of his writing was "written with diverse logic from that of traditional philosophers of the time," Kierkegaard’s ideas did not greatly influence Western philosophy and theology for more than a hundred years after his death. Since then, however existentialism has greatly developed and changed to leave God entirely out of the picture.

After effectively withdrawing from all social life "Kierkegaard took it upon himself to change, [not the reasonability of Christianity itself, but] ... the conception of Christianity ... that is, what it is to be a Christian.". . Kierkegaard’s writings were primarily a response to "the impersonalism and formalism" of ninteenth century Christianity and the philosophy of rationalism being expressed by G.W.F. Hegel . It was these factors that led Kierkegaard to seclusion. Kierkegaard’s mission became built around his desire to re-focus the beliefs of Christianity away from the "crowd" to the individual Christian.

Kierkegaard’s existentialism was vastly different to the perception of existentialism today. He believed that existentialism was based on the presupposition that "God is infinite and personal,…transcendent and immanent, omniscient, sovereign and good . Kierkegaard argued "that God existed [and]... became incarnate in Jesus Christ and [that] this fact was the most important fact for every human being." Although many of his philosophical beliefs were expressed in terms borrowed from orthodox Christian beliefs, most had been redefined by Kierkegaard’s personal worldview. One aspect of Kierkegaard’s existentialism which set him apart from the Christian doctrines of his day was his belief that man was "very much an individual [who had] ... the inalienable right to be himself." .

In an effort to move away from the highly objective approach of rationalism, toward a more subjective, emotive view of life, Kierkegaard developed the argument that subjective feelings should be considered to be deeper than mere momentary sensations. They should be taken seriously, believed with conviction and accepted as truth. Kierkegaard believed that it was only when individuals accepted their own feelings with a "passion", that they would be able to become "an authentic human being." . This, Kierkegaard saw as a necessary and appropriate "leap of faith" toward a higher purpose for living, although he did admit that individuals needed to take this "leap" for themselves.

While man had always been looking for a view or knowledge that would provide a comprehensive picture for all of reality, Kierkegaard’s existentialism provided a different split between the objective (gives no sense of meaning) and subjective (unreliable, search to find some type of meaning) realms (Appendix A).

Kierkegaard’s existentialism provided a choice whereby individuals could be either objective in their reasoning and therefore totally pessimistic about life, or subjective in their assessments, and therefore emotionally positive, but with no hope. Although he believed that individuals should take a more subjective approach to life, he did not deny the possibility of the objective realm. He did however, think of objective facts as senseless unless they actually took on a meaning to the individual. This resulted in Existentialism being a split worldview with faith and reason opposing each other. For Kierkegaard it was only possible for an individual to believe in one or the other, but never both. A negative result of Existentialism, has been the willingness of people to adopt religious beliefs as a matter of faith on the basis of not having to address the issue rationally.

Kierkegaard, believed "that God was absolute and could only be discovered by giving him absolute obedience." This concept was seen to be the fundamental hope for all of humanity which could only be achieved by taking a "leap of faith" that is, by individuals searching being pepared for, and deciding to accept a ‘higher calling’. Kierkegaard saw this decision as the responsibility of each individual to take control of his/her spiritual lives, and believed that it was only by objective, rational control that anyone could discover the true meaning to life .

Kierkegaard viewed his life and work as "autobiographical, showing his own dialectical growth through … three stages." He considered these three spheres of existence as potenial stages through which all individuals might pass in their life times. Kierkegaard identified these stages as aesthetic, ethical and religious. However, the last stage might not be reached by all people. According to Kierkegaard each of these spheres or stages each have their own unique set of values which cannot be defined or reasoned. Because there is "no rational way of life," one person's idea of what is rational may be considered by another to be irrational. No one can claim that either view is correct or that either view is incorrect. While an atheistic existentialist might hold the belief that "existence precedes essence" that is, that individuals must firstly exist before they can begin to develop meaning to their life, theistic existentialists take this view further believing in the possibility of a transcendent realm.

This aesthetic sphere of existence is known most commonly as a stage in which life is engaged in a sensual way, and is lived solely for short term pleasure. This stage is known for its avoidance of commitment and responsibility, the main concern is for immediate satisfaction, "with whatever is arbitrarily chosen as an object of immediate concern." Aesthetics are not able to be reflective or rational, nether do they possess an ability to demonstrate any "moral principles. There is no good and no evil, [moral or spiritual depth], only satisfaction and dissatisfaction, fulfilment and frustration." Resulting from these foundational perspectives aesthetics consider that at any one moment in time no thought needs to be given to what may be the consequence of their actions. The prime motivation for the aesthetic sphere was to transform the boring into something interesting.

When studying this sphere of existence, it becomes apparent that there would be nothing worse for an aesthete than for repetitions to occur in their lives. They constantly engage in an inner battle to escape this potential. Their battle is futile, for eventually "this boredom turns to despair" and at some point they must make an "either/or" decision. They must choose either "to lose oneself in the crowd" or they continue their individuality and commit to a higher ethical stage.

The Ethical stage is a time of developing individual and personal ethical codes of conduct. Life here is given some hope or meaning by the making of a commitment. It does not matter that the "commitment is to some arbitrary absolute, the ordering of [an individual’s] life around that commitment, brings one out of the aesthetic and into the ethical stage." There are numerous ethical codes to which an individual may pledge allegiance including a Christian code, Sailor’s code or a Doctor’s code just to name a few. However, a key feature to the ethical sphere of existence is that it does not necessarily matter what code of conduct to which an individual is committed. What is important is that the individual is prepared to commit and live according to the chosen code, even if it is in opposition to the standards of society. The most important feature of the ethical sphere is "universality (rationality) and a necessary condition for a set of principles to be ethical principles" and everything else is "subservient to the demands of that principle."

This ethical view is the second stage of Kierkegaard's existentialism (see Appendix A). It goes beyond both egoistical and momentary satisfaction. It is a "long-range project to be organised according to rational principles. [These principles are that of self-interest and morality.]" To live within this sphere requires "reflection and self-appraisal … [so that] one can appraise the meaningfulness of his life."

In some of the examples which Kierkegaard discusses in order to explain this sphere of existence, his view tends to agree closely with that of Kant. Even in some situations there tends to be confusion in Kierkegaard’s theory in that the ethical sphere is only a transitional stage to the religious sphere. However, on the other hand, it is important to realise that "Kierkegaard never claims that the reasons he gives for the transaction are logically sufficient conditions and denies therefore, that the transactions [from one stage to the next] are" logical. To this point, atheistic existentialists are in general agreement with this line of thought, however, Kierkegaard took his belief one step further stating that there was yet another level; the religious sphere.

Kierkegaard considered the religious stage to be the "stage where man finally finds contentment." He considered it to be the highest way of living because it required faith. As in the second stage individuals must find fulfilment, and be prepared to commit themselves to such a belief. However, the religious stage moves one closer to being able to be committed to God and be completely satisfied. "Selfhood cannot be achieved ultimately and completely within the self. The self must be committed to the One beyond, to God." This third sphere of existence is unique in that it is self sacrificing, while the other two spheres may be considered to be more self-indulgent. This stage requires devotion to a calling even if another individual may believe it to be an irrational calling. This stage requires "true religious choice, no automatic, rational decision-procedure can be employed, but rather a ‘leap of faith’" can provide any ground for the decision. Thus in Fear and Trembling (one of Kierkegaard’s written works) Kierkegaard retold the story of Abraham’s dilemma in such a way as to present the two alternatives of an abstract ethical universal (the abstract rule that one should not kill one’s child) and a concrete religious commitment (the unjustifiable but undeniable command of God to Abraham that he should slay Issac).

Theistic existentialists may argue that Jesus Christ reached the third sphere of existence. They would claim that Christ believed that he had a ‘higher calling’ to save the world from sin, and that this was a cause which he believed and was committed to so strongly that he was willing to go to the cross and die. While to another individual that such an extreme action as dieing for a cause may have appeared to be totally irrational, this course of action was completely logical to Jesus. For Jesus and for any individual at this religious stage "Christianity is not a set of doctrines, but a way of life, a set of values" worth dying for.

Kierkegaard saw Christianity in two lights which produce dualistic line of thought. He saw God as a God of love, goodness and justice yet at the same time he saw God as something which should be feared and dreaded . Kierkegaard’s solution to this dilemma was to simply forget any questions, doubts or any form of rational thought and just "exist in the presence of God." This line of logic can be seen largely in society today, in that when it comes to having a belief, people are more than ready to embrace it because it requires no logical or rationale, only a subjective faith.

Kierkegaard’s discussion of these three stages is sometimes confusing because at times he "treats the ethical and religious sphere not as incompatible but as a single system to be contrasted only with the aesthetic sphere" , while at other times there is a clear logical progression from one sphere to the next. Kierkegaard views the three spheres to be in some way the "’right’ way of life," and that the progression will always exist, moving the individual from the "aesthetic sphere [which] leads to despair… to the ethical sphere, which also ends in despair…[finally] to the religious sphere."

While Kierkegaard’s ideas may appear to be sound in theory, in reality did not work. Although Kierkegaard created his philosophy out of pure motives, existentialism was taken a step further to the point of becoming known as atheistic existentialism. This involved taking all value away from God and placing value on individual. By placing the subjective individual as the centre of all importance, self-centred and selfishness began to develop. The emphasis became "I" and the concern became what fulfils ‘my’ wants and desires. If every individual fully adopted such an attitude, the results would bring disaster upon society. Even though existentialism is claimed to be a dying worldview, the attitudes which many members of society exhibit today demonstrate that some of the key beliefs of existentialism are very much alive.

"Although he [Kierkegaard] was a Christian thinker, he nonetheless opened the door to relativism by claiming that a man’s highest duty (to God) sometimes transcends all ethical laws." He was however, correct in his view that it is impossible to escape a subjective view point. Every individual is biased and is subjective in any and every given situation. It may be proposed that Kierkegaard’s theory was an attempt to even the disequilibrium which had occurred during his time, however his beliefs have continued to impact through to today’s society.

Kierkegaard’s philosophy did not offer a textbook containing "how to" techniques, rather it offered a viewpoint, a lens, a way of picturing individuals and the world in which they live. It did not offer a cure-all. It was Kierkegaard’s belief that the Christian philosophy should not make "the Word of God easier to assimilate, but to establish more clearly the absolute distance that separates human beings from God." Little did Kierkegaard know that his thoughts and writings would not only be modified but misinterpreted and affect society for decades to come.


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