Kierkegaard and the Contemporary Crisis
ALICE VON HILDEBRAND
March 14, 1968
A perusal of Kierkegaard’s works is bound to strike the contemporary man with wonder: not only did the great Danish thinker pre-live the fears and anxieties torturing our society, but his genius enabled him to foresee to a great extent the nature of the crisis menacing Christianity today.
After a youth characterized by a tragically stern religiosity, Kierkegaard reacted to his “crazy upbringing” by severing all contact with the “Established Church” and giving himself up to a life of pleasure and enjoyment.
After a while, however, conscious of the fact that pleasure leads to boredom and, ultimately, to despair, Kierkegaard came back to Christianity which, from this moment on, he sharply distinguished from “Christendom”—that is Christianity as lived and practiced by the so-called “good Christians.”
Kierkegaard’s conversion took place in full awareness of the demands that Christianity makes upon man: “It is a radical cure,” he wrote, “one puts it off as long as possible.”
Simultaneously, he was convinced of the fact that time cannot quench the “eternal” in man. He had tried the “aesthetic life,” the life of pleasure based upon the enjoyment of the instant, and discovered that “if the instant is everything, the instant is nothing”; as soon as it is born, it dies.
The discovery of the “eternal” in man went hand in hand with a rediscovery of Christianity, a Christianity no longer merely inherited from his father, but fully and freely accepted. It now became for Kierkegaard, “a truth for which he could live and die.”
Kierkegaard’s religious crisis was characterized (as is always the case) by a period of intense doubt, uncertainty, and confusion. The paradoxical character of Christianity— a religion “that has never entered a man’s head,” in which God becomes man, in which a man’s eternal fate depends upon his acquiescence to historical facts, in which man’s attitude in time determines his eternal fate— tortured Kierkegaard to such an extent that he solved the difficulty by installing doubt and uncertainty at the very core of faith.
Reacting—and rightly so—against a conception of Christian faith that made of it an insurance policy taken out in time for maturity in eternity, Kierkegaard decided to make of faith a leap, a risk, a bold acceptance of what is rationally unknown.
In a country like Denmark, in which Protestantism was the official religion, it was both safe and honorable to be a Christian and to be viewed as such. But Kierkegaard’s experiences taught him that this social acceptance of Christianity is also the most shameful betrayal of it, for it allowed men “to live as pagans beneath the convenient shelter of the respectability of the Christian name.”
Far from being an insurance company for both this world and the next, Christianity— Kierkegaard tells us—is a religion that demands everything in a heroic leap of faith.
It should be obvious at first sight that his position, couched as it is in paradoxical language, is open to serious criticism. But our purpose here is not to examine whether or not we can give Kierkegaard total assent. Our aim in this brief note is rather to understand his explication of religious doubt and to relate it to the contemporary scene.
It is clear that Kierkegaard knew religious doubt. Not only did he know it, but he suffered from doubts to such an extent that his Journals repeatedly echo this anguish: “Do I truly have faith?”
We can assume that, given the stature of Kierkegaard’s mind, he knew a dimension of doubt that will remain forever closed to the mediocrity of the professional doubter or to the merely conventional Christian. Kierkegaard’s powerful reason battled against his deep faith as long as he lived, and one may marvel at the fact that he managed to live to the age of forty-two while in such a fearful state of conflict.
Though we know that Kierkegaard was plagued by doubt, what these doubts were remains to a large extent, part and parcel of his secret, for, “his respect for religion was such that he never passed his doubts to others.”
It is not certain as yet whether the twentieth century has succeeded in producing many men of Kierkegaard’s stature. But the twentieth century clearly has the doubtful “merit” of having produced a legion of doubters. Contemporary newspapers and magazines are full of confessions of doubt and uncertainty. As a matter of fact, our society tries to make us believe that to have faith actually means to put everything in doubt: to question the existence of the Holy Trinity, the virginal birth of Christ, and the immortality of the soul as acclaimed as the expression of a “dynamic” faith. Professors at Catholic universities actually say that modern man should never endorse everything that his reason alone does apprehend.
One can have no quarrel with the fact that men have religious doubts. Kierkegaard is right in claiming that faith can know moments of anxiety and uneasiness; but he adds: “These moments are terrible.” The very fact that Kierkegaard suffered so intensely from his doubts (as opposed to some of our contemporaries who seem to relish doubts as one relishes a good wine) sheds light on the TYPE of doubts Kierkegaard was subject to.
For there is a type of doubt that is so to speak, the shadow of faith, and can be experienced by men of great faith; but there is another type of doubt directed against faith itself, and Kierkegaard calls this latter type “demonic.”