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A Review of
Existing Before God: Søren Kierkegaard and the Human Venture
Paperback: Fortress Press, 2017
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Reviewed by Brandon Pierce
Kierkegaard is one of those figures with a certain amount of theological sex appeal. Perhaps it is on account of his “existential” approach to faith or his almost prophetic invective against Christendom that still resonates today. The problem is that he’s a writer that takes a long time to really get to know. It is easier to know a few things about his work than to have actually read any of it. There are reasons for this.
First he writes in the grammar of 19th century Germanic philosophical prose. This makes Kierkegaard less than suitable for casual bedtime reading. His writing is dense, tangential, and full of either highly technical terminology, or terminology that seems straightforward, but which he means in a very specific sort of way. Sometimes I think his books would be great for punishing children.
Second, the better portion of the books for which he is most well-known—Fear and Trembling, Stages on Life’s Way, Concluding Unscientific Postscript—are what Kierkegaard called “indirect communication,” not intended to be direct representations of his thought. His whole notion of indirect communication makes an already convoluted writer all the more difficult to untangle.
Finally, Kierkegaard has been more widely recognized as a philosopher, appropriated by philosophical schools of thoughts and communities, and plundered to suit an agenda that estranges him from the average Christian reader. This is why it is much easier to Google his name for iconoclastic quotes than to bother reading him at length or getting a strong bearing on his thought. This is also the reason why introductions to Kierkegaard’s thought are as important as they are regularly produced.
Paul Sponheim’s book, Existing Before God, is a novel contribution to that body of introductory literature. The book is a part of a new series called “Mapping the Tradition” edited by Paul Rorem. This series aims to produce “brief, compact guides to pivotal thinkers in Christian history” (vii), introducing readers to the thinker’s work through an analysis of a central writing and an overview of their reception history and legacy. And so it goes with Sponheim’s contribution to the series. It begins with a brief biographical sketch that serves as an introduction. Part I is an analysis of one of Kierkegaard’s seminal works: Sickness Unto Death (SUD). Part II traces Kierkegaard’s reception history specifically among theologians, with some attention to his influence on philosophers like Heidegger or Sartre.
The book is intended for a broad audience including, according to Sponheim, everyone from curious intellectuals to college students and pastors (xii). It is on this point of a broad intended audience, however, that some qualifications ought to be inserted, which I will explain later.
To better contextualize my comments and set the limits of my perspective I will help the reader by putting my cards on the table and describe where I am coming from as a reviewer of this book. My educational background is academic, with a master’s degree in theology. Most of my scholarly work focuses on Kierkegaard. My vocation, however, is as a minister of a local church. So I read this book familiar with Kierkegaard’s writings and the secondary literature, curious about what might be different about this new book, and how one of my church members, for instance, might benefit from reading this book.
The first thing that makes this book worthwhile is the choice to analyze SUD as the representative work. As I mentioned above, Kierkegaard has been too closely associated with Fear and Trembling and its classic “teleological suspension of the ethical” or with his theory of stages or spheres: aesthetic, ethical, and religious, or with the notion that “subjectivity is truth” developed in Concluding Unscientific Postscript. These books and quotes are not only notoriously easy to manipulate and malign, they are all written under pseudonyms which, for Kierkegaard at least, represent a certain pattern of thought and not necessarily his own. SUD, however, represents a work that more closely communicates Kierkegaard’s mature view of Christianity. Sponheim’s book ought to receive praise if just for the choice of SUD.
The biographical introduction is a great way to approach Kierkegaard, a man whose biography has always been inseparable from his writing. Sponheim covers the essential parts of Kierkegaard’s narrative, especially including reference to Kierkegaard’s Moravian, Pietistic background via his father Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard. The biographical section also careens into an extended meditation on one of the more idiosyncratic aspects of Kierkegaard’s authorship: his use and function of pseudonyms. I found Sponheim’s explication of the issues involved with Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms and his notion of “indirect communication” to be clear and helpful, which is remarkable given the confusion this issue often renders.
Part II constitutes the real gem of this book. Sponheim lucidly covers 150 years of the reception and influence of Kierkegaard’s work that spans across a wide-ranging geographical and theological space. Kierkegaard is known as the “father of existentialism” but it is more likely, after Sponheim’s helpful purview, that Kierkegaard is the father of 20th century theology, given his powerful influence on the pantheon of modern theologians from Barth to Niebuhr to John Caputo, and almost everywhere in between. Students of Kierkegaard will find this section especially helpful as they become oriented to the context and nature of Kierkegaard’s influence on theology, and the extensive ways in which scholars have appropriated his writings.
Among the book’s other good qualities is the expertise of Sponheim himself, who writes as a seasoned theologian and Kierkegaardian scholar. He provides excellent reference to secondary works, even though he does tend to favor older volumes and Kierkegaard scholars. More importantly, Sponheim is a theologian who reads Kierkegaard as a theologian—a fact that is often overshadowed given Kierkegaard’s apparent disdain for Christendom and the influence he has had on existentialist philosophy. Here Sponheim offers a helpful corrective to the introductory literature by unapologetically reading Kierkegaard as a theologian who is concerned with the categories of Christian thought, the purpose and corruption of the church, and leading his readers to relate themselves to the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
I have small quibbles with some parts of the book, such as construing the work of Lee Barrett and C. Stephen Evans as “pastoral” readings of Kierkegaard, and Sponheim’s Lutheran reading of Kierkegaard which in many ways obscures the more profound heterodox originality of this thought. My biggest complaint, however, is with Sponheim’s analysis of SUD in part I, though my criticism has more to do with how Sponheim goes about the analysis rather than with his interpretation of the book itself.
According to the plan of the book, the analysis of this major work is supposed to function also as an entryway into the author’s thought. This, in itself, is a novel idea for an introduction, seeing as how introductions tend to focus on big picture themes rather than take one particular work as representative of the author as a whole. Perhaps, however, it is this innovative approach that creates difficulties for Sponheim.
In essence, the analysis suffers from a lack of focus. Sponheim often jumps from an idea in SUD into a related thought in other Kierkegaardian texts. While this strategy allows the reader to get a taste of the breadth of Kierkegaard’s thought, it undermines a clear explanation of the text at hand. This tangential approach is problematic because SUD is such a complex text in itself. The opening lines of SUD says it all:
A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself.
The grammar alone is dizzying, making SUD a text that requires careful, focused, and accessible explanation. One wonders, however, if such a task can be accomplished in the short span of seventy pages. Sponheim faces an either/or: either provide a sustained analysis of SUD or provide a broader foray into Kierkegaard’s oeuvre. The introductory nature of this book demands the latter and Sponheim navigates the difficulties as well as anyone could. Yet it seems like this may be a better way of introducing Kierkegaard to people who already know him a little bit.
It is not unlike the way we tend to operate with meeting people in general. We get to know people at a certain, surface level the first time we meet them: what is your name, where are you from, what is your job, what do you care about? Second and third meetings yield more detailed information about their history, motivations, and critical thoughts on subjects that matter to them. Sponheim here introduces us to Søren Kierkegaard—but it is more along the lines of a second or third interaction. We find ourselves listening, sometimes mystified, but always intriguingly drawn to the way that Kierkegaard has his hand on the pulse of the human struggle towards authenticity found in the transparent rest in the God who made us.
Sponheim’s book works to faithfully introduce us to the real Kierkegaard. SUD is the right text even if it is a difficult one to parse, and Sponheim handles its complexity with enough nuance and clarity not to lose the patient reader. In that respect, this book achieves its goal as an introduction to Kierkegaard, but for whom? As I think about how someone unfamiliar with Kierkegaard, one of my parishioners for instance, might benefit from this text I think it will be a beneficial but also highly challenging exercise requiring slow, patient reading and a basic comprehension of modern theology.
As an introduction this book feels more like a third date than a first date. It is better suited for those who know a bit about Kierkegaard, but have not read him extensively, or for advanced students looking for something more (and more accurate) than what is typically offered as an overview of Kierkegaard.
Kierkegaard remains an important thinker a little over two centuries after his birth. One may even suggest he has become a vital thinker for our age—and a thinker that ought to be read just as much by ordinary people of faith as by scholars and professional theologians. Kierkegaard would probably prefer it that way anyway. As difficult as Kierkegaard can be to read and comprehend, Sponheim provides a useful guide not only in making his thought more accessible, but in doing what good guides do: pointing readers in the right directions and explaining the lay of the theological land from the perspective of someone who has been through these trails many times over.