Twentieth Century Theology

Kierkegaard's multiple influences on theology

Kierkegaard's intense personality and complex work has been the occasion of many awakenings of Christian authenticity in great Protestant and Catholic authors, and has shed light on an enormous number of subjects. 

Juan Luis Lorda-December 21, 2021-Reading time: 7 minutes

Text in Italian here

There are three 19th century Christian thinkers who fascinate 20th century theology: Newman, Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard. Curiously, they arrive by almost common channels to Germany and France, and to the Christian universe as a whole. All three have "dramatic" biographies, or parts of them. In Newman, his conversion. In Dostoyevsky, his whole life. In Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the second part and especially the end of his short life (1846-1855), when he fully assumes what he considers his mission: to make Christians Christians who are not Christians. 

A dramatic life

Only his (long) stay at the university has, in general, a carefree and youthful tone, where he enjoys life, friends, beer and opera (and courses). Although always threatened by "melancholy" (depression) and with the imprint of a serious Lutheran upbringing and the death of five brothers. 

The period of falling in love with Regina Olsen, also quite dramatic, gives way to the mission. Even breaking up with her is his way of burning the ships and starting his mission, partly inspired by Socrates and partly by Christ. Like Socrates, he feels called to challenge his fellow Danes with irony to make them realize that they are not Christians. He goes ahead and wants to be "Christian" and work for Christ, and he knows that this path leads to the cross. He experiences it in the contradictions and difficulties he suffers until he dies physically, psychically and economically exhausted. 

A conflict of interpretations

Of course, all this made his life and personality increasingly intense. He was very conscious of being "intense". And this, while admiring us, is a barrier to understanding him, because most of us are not like that. Moreover, he made it difficult. As part of the exercise of his Socratic irony (the reason for his doctoral thesis), he wrote under different pseudonyms in his early works. It is not a mere game, they really want to represent different positions, in which he seems to place himself perfectly, but the critics do not. 

His work has generated a "conflict of interpretations". Attracted by his opposition to Hegel, by his uncompromising defense of the personality of the "individual" and by his concept of "anguish" (existential), he is considered to be the inspiration for the existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre. But this would have surprised and disappointed Kierkegaard. Because, for Heidegger or Sartre, existentialism is to assume that there is no God and, therefore, that one has to get by in existence without expecting anything. And for Kierkegaard it is the opposite: the true realization of the existence of the individual is when he places himself before God, when he overcomes the aesthetic stage (living in search of tastes) and the ethical stage (trying to be moral or decent on his own) to recognize himself as a sinner and needy before God (religious stage). Thus he finds himself (resolves his anguish), thus he becomes an individual and thus he becomes a Christian.

Influence on personalism 

Instead, he would have been thrilled to learn that his defense of the individual had a direct effect on the "philosophers of dialogue." For Ebner, and later for Buber, it was a spiritual revival, an intellectual and personal conversion. Both explicitly acknowledge this. For Martin Buber it was also a great inspiration for his social thought, to oppose fascist and communist totalitarianism, which in some way follow Hegel, where the individual becomes only a piece or a moment in the construction of society, which is the true end and subject of politics. With Ebner, the influence of Kierkegaard enters into the set of personalist ferments that renew Catholic morality and, with Buber, also into Christian anthropology. 

On the other hand, it would be unfair not to recognize here the role that the convert and intellectual Theodor Haecker played in the reception of Kierkegaard in the German-speaking world. He immediately grasped the power of his message, translated it and introduced it. Through him, many German-speaking thinkers encountered Søren Kierkegaard. Moreover, Haecker wrote remarkable essays about him, such as Kierkegaard's hump

The renewal of Protestantism 

Kierkegaard saw that the Christians in Denmark were perfectly well off and called themselves Christians because they registered their names in the civil registry, because they participated sporadically in ceremonies and because they tried to live with standards of public decency. Everything was Christian by inertia, but without any tension, without any drama, without any cross. At one time that society had been transformed by Christianity, but then everything went the other way around: Welfare had transformed Christianity into a harmless decoration. 

It was precisely this critique that provoked the awakening of the conscience of many Protestant theologians, especially Karl Barth. Liberal Protestant theology had done precisely what Kierkegaard criticized: it had ironed out all the uncomfortable aspects of Christianity to make it acceptable to an affluent society, turning it into a vague openness to "the divine" and an inspiration of solidarity (Schleiermacher) for people who sought to be upright citizens. 

Reading Kierkegaard, Barth realized the dissolution that this entailed. It is not reason with the culture of each epoch that must judge faith (because it dissolves it). On the contrary: it is faith, revelation, that will judge all epochs and everything human, in order to convert them into Christians. This is Barth's famous change between the first and second editions of his commentary on the Letter to the Romans. Although, later on, the mature Barth would not feel so close to Kierkegaard, as his ecclesial awareness increased. Kierkegaard, in the end, turns out to be quite individualistic. We will see this later.

Kierkegaard's Christianity

Between the difficulty of interpreting Kierkegaard and the intellectual tics of the histories of philosophy, one can find presentations where it is omitted that he is a Christian or mentioned as a secondary feature, or even drawn as an anti-Christian, more or less close to Nietzsche, because of his criticism of the established church. 

There is a small book published by Aguilar (My point of view1988), with a translation (probably from Italian) by the poet José Miguel Velloso. In passing it must be said that the history of Spanish translations of Kierkegaard is "endless". And it is obligatory to mention Unamuno, who wanted to learn Danish in order to read him directly and imitated him as much as he could. Velloso's translation (despite its Italian debt) has some advantages: first, it reads very well; second, it brings together three key writings of Kierkegaard where he states how he feels Christian and how he understands his mission. The longest one, My point of viewThe text, dated 1846, was edited posthumously by his brother (bishop of the Church of Denmark). In addition, the brief text This individualin which he argues that to become fully an individual is also to become a Christian. Then, very briefly as well, About my work as a writer (1849) y My position as a religious writer (1850). These writings, signed by him without a pseudonym, leave no doubt about the intensity with which Kierkegaard wanted to be and bear Christian witness. They are like his intellectual testament. 

Kierkegaard and Christ 

Of course, Kierkegaard is not a conventional Christian. It was precisely his mission to oppose turning Christianity into a social convention. He had received an intensely Christian and pious upbringing from his father, although this point is sometimes exaggerated. He kept it in his heart all his life. 

The most exciting thing is that one can observe a kind of growing identification with Christ, especially in his last period. In this he is very reminiscent of Dostoyevsky. He not only admires the figure of Christ and moves his devotion, he also identifies with him when he suffers the misunderstandings that his mission leads him to.

When I consulted José García Martín, a Spanish specialist in Kierkegaard, he wrote to me: "Regarding her adhesion to Christ, I must say that it was total and existentially committed from her spiritual conversion, although without reaching a 'blood martyrdom', although she did sacrifice her life and fortune. In fact, we can consider her the most significant and determining figure in her life and work".

By the way, this author has a remarkable essay on the reception of Kierkegaard in Latin America. Many articles that can be found online, and, among them, an excellent Introduction to the Reading of Søren Kierkegaard

Cornelio Fabro, the Diaries and the Exercise

To access Kierkegaard's soul there are, certainly, those little works that we have mentioned in My point of view. And there are their Diaries. Only a selection is available in Spanish. 

In this field and in that of the general Christian interpretation of Kierkegaard, the Thomistic philosopher Cornelio Fabro has played a very important role. He made a very meritorious Italian translation in many volumes, as well as many studies and an excellent introduction to the diaries, which occupies an entire volume of the Italian edition and gives a clear-sighted overview of his life and work. There is an interesting recorded interview, which can be found online. Fabro also made an Italian edition of his Exercising Christianity

The exercise of Christianity (1848) is one of Kierkegaard's great Christian works. It was published under the pseudonym Anticlimacus. As we have said, pseudonyms in Kierkegaard's work often introduce difficult changes of perspective. But here he uses the pseudonym because, as it were, he does not see himself up to speaking in his own name. In the preface he clarifies: "In this writing [...] the demand: to be a Christian, is forced by the pseudonym to the highest degree of ideality [...]. The demand is to be heard; and I understand what is said as said only to myself - that I should learn not only to seek shelter in 'grace,' but to trust in it with regard to the use I make of 'grace'". I quote from the first volume of Guadarrama's meritorious translation of several of his works (1961).

Ecumenical Kierkegaard 

Observing these mentions of 'grace', as well as his criticism of the established Protestant church, some understood him to be close to Catholicism. 

The question is complex. Perhaps it would be better to say that Kierkegaard is an "ecumenical" character, not quite fitting in with anyone, although he has a message for everyone, because he touches on some authentic and central aspects of Christianity: a passionate love of Christ, an awareness of the need for God in the human being, and a longing for his salvation. 

Kierkegaard failed to perceive the beauty of the liturgy and its profound relationship to the being of the Church. That experience did not belong to his world. He saw an established church that blended with traditional Danish society and whose most authentic center was preaching. 

He had prepared himself at the university to become a pastor; it was his father's dream, and, at different times, he strongly desired it and took steps. He was also attracted to and exercised preaching in various ways, leaving a curious and complex legacy of "edifying sermons". But he soon realized that his mission was much more solitary and Socratic Christian. It was not from within the system, but rather from outside, from where he had to challenge and die for the cause. 


One of the most surprising things in the immense bibliography on Kierkegaard is the work of the American philosopher Jon Stewart. In addition to several monographs written by him, he has directed a very large series of collaborations on the influence of Kierkegaard in all aspects of thought, including theology (3 volumes). From the Catholic point of view, we have mentioned Cornelius Faber, and the classic essays of Régis Jolivet should also be mentioned. In philosophy, Mariano Fazio has a Guide to Kierkegaard's thoughtwhich can be consulted online, and the corresponding voice in the online encyclopedia Philosohica. And Sellés, a study on the anthropology of Kierkegaard. 

Of course, there is much more. Kierkegaard is an author who needs introductions in order not to get lost in the labyrinths that he himself set up and in those set up by his commentators. Without ever forgetting that My point of viewwith its extensions, is really his point of view.

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