Kierkegaard the Critic

Kierkegaard is a stimulating writer rather than a safe one. His ideas are not so much a food as a tonic and, taken in too large a dose, they might become a toxin.

That is the verdict of the French theologian Henri de Lubac on the famous Danish existentialist in his book The Drama of Atheist Humanism. The problem is that in reacting against “rationalism”—which is inevitably a subjective pursuit of what certain individuals find “reasonable”—is that he ran “the risk of cutting himself off from all rational life and perhaps from all culture.”

Kierkegaard was a critic, says De Lubac, rather than a teacher. And there is no doubt that in that role he was brilliant. But one finds in many walks of life, not only philosophical, that it is easier to tear down than to build up. It is easier to appear clever as a critic than as a constructive thinker. This is what was behind the genius,  real or apparent, in the works of the atheist existentialist Friedrich Nietzsche who has been justly compared to Kierkegaard for his attacks on “bourgeois” complacency.

De Lubac asks: “Is [Kierkegaard] not in danger of causing those who become his undiscriminating disciples to confuse what, in things of the spirit, is improbable to carnal man with what is simply unreasonable in things that are within the province of reason?” (For for more on the subject of faith and reason, from the point of view of the philosopher Josef Pieper, see The Nature of Belief).

De Lubac wonders why the existential thinker “wished to keep Christians in a state of paradoxical tension that finds no more recommendation in the Gospel than in psychology?” After all, faith is not primarily about polemics—about what we are against; it is what we are for. Ironically it is Kierkegaard who admonishes us that

Preparation for becoming attentive to Christianity does not consist in reading books or in making surveys of world history, but in deeper immersion in existence.

For previous commentary on Kierkegaard, see The Existentialists and Kierkegaard, Boredom and Revolution.

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