A Review of
Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians
Reviewed by Michial Farmer
If it’s true that we become like what we worship, readers of Søren Kierkegaard must always keep in mind that his God was inscrutable, labyrinthine-minded, confounding, terrifying—but ultimately loving. So, too, is Kierkegaard’s jungle of writings. Producing two or three treatises simultaneously, under different (though equally ridiculous) pseudonyms, he was not afraid of self-contradiction and sought controversy more than agreement. If he could find no one else to disagree with him, he’d do it himself. It’s the rare reader indeed who can open the puzzle box of his thought without an instruction manual. And yet, as Mark Tietjen shows in his latest book, Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians, Kierkegaard wrote what he wrote (and wrote it the way he wrote it) as an act of service.
Tietjen begins with the assumption—probably mostly justified—that Christians, and particularly conservative evangelicals, are wary about claiming Kierkegaard as one of their own. This suspicion has a number of sources: general evangelical skepticism about the value of philosophy plays a role, certainly, but so do the aforementioned difficulty of Kierkegaard’s prose and thought and the company he keeps with the existentialists and poststructuralists of the twentieth century. But when Christians ignore Kierkegaard’s voice, they miss out on an important corrective to the sins and errors of modern life.
Kierkegaard is, as the subtitle of the book puts it, a “Christian missionary to Christians” because of his famous dichotomy between Christianity (the actual tenets, actions, and commands of Jesus Christ) and Christendom (the social structure that has grown up around them, especially in countries where Christianity is a majority or official religion). Kierkegaard believed that Christendom was pointedly lacking in Christianity and made it his mission to wake up the complacent would-be Christians of his native Denmark. But the usual techniques of the missionary wouldn’t work: he couldn’t just tell the Danes to convert to Christianity, because they believed they were already Christians. Thus he had to take an indirect approach.
Tietjen examines this indirect approach to discover what exactly Kierkegaard was trying to do with his voluminous writings. In Philosophical Fragments, for example, “Johannes Climacus” arrives at the historic truths of Christianity not by revelation but by logically assuming the opposite of everything Socrates would say on a subject. The approach is scandalous specifically because Christianity is not something that one can arrive at by reason alone—in presenting this back-door approach, Kierkegaard was trying to shock his complacent Christian readers into recognizing what a life-changing scandal the Gospel really was.
Too much emphasis can be put on Kierkegaard’s indirect communication, however—or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the wrong kind of emphasis can be put on it. Tietjen argues that the flurry of deconstructionist interest in Kierkegaard puts much too much emphasis on his ironic method and not enough on the teleology of that method. The point here is that Kierkegaard is trying to worm his way into his reader’s consciousness. He doesn’t want to destabilize meaning; he wants us to change our lives.
Over the course of five chapters, Tietjen demonstrates that the life Kierkegaard wants his readers to live is a pointedly Christian one. Kierkegaard is often criticized for emphasizing passionate commitment to the near-total exclusion of doctrine (“Subjectivity is truth,” Johannes Climacus famously declares in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript). But Tietjen argues that this criticism is misplaced. Yes, Kierkegaard repeatedly emphasizes passion—but the reason he does so is that his original Danish readers already knew the doctrines. They saw the doctrines as disconnected from their existential existences, and he wished to correct that error, without casting doubt the doctrines themselves.
Thus Tietjen presents Kierkegaard as an essentially orthodox Lutheran, one who affirms the necessity of grace and the uselessness of works (without falling into antinomianism or Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace”). He believes that Jesus Christ is the incarnate God whose resurrection was literal and bodily; he believes that all human beings are born into sin but are still existentially responsible for their own actions; and he believes that a relationship with Jesus Christ is the only way to achieve internal harmony. In all of these positions he sounds very much like a conservative evangelical, and since Tietjen’s goal is to rehabilitate Kierkegaard’s image among that group, he has done an excellent job in connecting his philosophy with their concerns. He says that this book is not an introduction to Kirekegaard’s thought—but really it is: It’s an introduction to Kierkegaard’s major themes, pitched at popular level to a particular group of people. I would recommend it wholeheartedly to any of my students who are uneasy with Kierkegaard’s anti-clerical enthusiasms and emphasis on passion.
I am skeptical, however, of attempts to make Kierkegaard less monstrous than he really is. Whenever I read a book or essay that attempts to domesticate this wild thinker—and I include in that category my own classroom lectures about him—I think of his fantastic disdain for the “assistant professors” of the world. As Walter Kaufmann (whom Tietjen criticizes early on) puts it in From Shakespeare to Existentialism, “that a man who wanted to ‘create difficulties everywhere’ and be an offense should be praised and buried in academic appreciations without offending anybody is tragic.”
Tietjen does take stock of that offensiveness, but he suggests that it is directed at very specific groups of people: non-Christians, of course, but also the complacently orthodox and liberals who have watered down the faith so much as to make it meaningless. It is beyond doubt that his writing, like the Gospel he loved so much, is a scandal to these groups—but it’s also a scandal to those of us on the conservative side of the divide.
Whether he means for them to or not, his writings present a serious case against all but the most essential doctrines of the faith (and because he merely assumes the truth of most of them, his work is hardly a bulwark against criticism). More troublingly, perhaps, his emphasis on passion over reason can foster exactly the sort of anti-intellectualism that Tietjen argues against in this book. (Tietjen helpfully points out, however, that Kierkegaard is by no means an anti-intellectualist or even an irrationalist; instead, he has a Christian understanding of the limits of reason without abandoning reason altogether.)
Even so, I recommend this book for evangelical skeptics of Kierkegaard—it deftly demonstrates, as Tietjen puts it, that Kierkegaard’s orientation is essentially apologetic, that “he aims not to defend Christianity all forms of secular reasoning, but rather to defend it against slipping orthodoxy.” His fourth chapter also provides a very helpful analysis of the connection between faith, hope, and love, grounding the first two terms in the third and pointing out the degree to which Kierkegaard’s work is oriented around love. This is a public service to evangelicals—but I hope that the new fans that Tietjen’s book wins for Kierkegaard will continue to be scandalized and offended by Kierkegaard, as I am.