Soren Kierkegaard: The First Emergent Thinker? (Part One)

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For the past fifteen years the “Emerging Church” has been a source of refuge for a large contingent of disenfranchised Christians. Many of whom are evangelicals who found themselves questioning important aspects of their faith and found little to no support from their local churches.

When I first encountered the Emerging Church roughly ten years ago, I believed most of the caricatures I heard regarding this “heretical” movement. And, like most, the reason I believed these distortions was because I was too lazy to read emergent literature myself. Instead, I chose, as many still do, to believe several “yahoo’s” (this is the technical term for evangelical know-it-alls) who had also not read the literature, but felt the need to comment as though they had. And, given their celebrity and influence, they largely became the reason why many still today misunderstand the Emerging Church.

It was during this time where I entered a very long season of discontentment and discouragement at which time I became emboldened to pick up a book from a “heretic” by the name of Brian McLaren. (Yes…he actually has a name other than heretic.) As I began reading I became somewhat “astounded” mixed in with a little “perplexed”. I was confused because I did not understand why Brian and the others commonly associated with the Emerging Church Movement were so hated (not just disliked, but literally hated). Not only did Brian have a way of elegantly (and humbly) articulating his position, but many of the feelings he expressed, I too felt towards the church.

It turned out that The Emerging Church Movement did not exist simply to get rid of truth, take away scripture, and swear (*he shakes his head with a sign of haughty derision*). At that time, the main motivation for emergence was the lack of an authentic gospel-centered faith, which strongly focused on the cultural-social aspects of Christ’s ministry. Overall, it emphasized a practical Gospel message instead of theological/metaphysical one. This not only sounded pretty good to me, it didn’t sound much different than the messages I heard on Sunday morning. I could not understand why Christians (mainly evangelicals) hated a movement that was attempting authentically-motivated ministry. It was not long before I realized the reason was not social, but theological.

Emergent thinkers were not just challenging traditional cultural customs within the Church, but they were also challenging the predominate systems put in place by a zealous Evangelicalism. If their innovative insights into theology and culture were true, then it would flip Christianity on its head.

Ultimately this not only confirmed the problem of systematic theology (the problem of doctrinal entailments created by systematic methodologies), but also created a gaping hole in what Evangelicalism had prided itself in for hundreds of years. Specifically, the essence of truth. And, for evangelicals, if you question truth, then you also question Scripture. Coincidently, I found this very tension within myself.

Enter Soren Kierkegaard (and whichever fancy entrance music you prefer here)

The renaissance of faith I experienced with emergence was small in comparison to the impact Soren Kierkegaard (hereafter SK) had on me intellectually. If the Emergent Church was responsible for helping me articulate my feelings and frustrations, then it could be said that SK was responsible for helping me articulate and clarify my thinking.
soren kierkegaard

I love SK. He is what I would call a kindred spirit. Most people know of SK, but few actually know anything about his writings. There are several reasons for this, but one in particular is because subsequent generations of philosophers and theologians have not been kind to SK thus perpetuating a way of thinking about him that is not only unfair, but inaccurate.

Philosophers are generally divided between those who have disregarded his thought as not being “up to par” and those who misunderstand him, and as a result overemphasize unnecessary aspects of his thought. There is a small contingent of people in the middle (mainly religious philosophers/theologians) who have a better grasp of his message, but they often disagree on the relevance/importance of his thinking today.

In opposition to what I would call modern methods of higher literary criticism, the key to understanding SK is in understanding his life. (Most literary scholars would argue that an author’s work should be able to stand on its own apart from the predisposition created by the author’s context.) However, SK’s life influenced his thought (as it should) and his culture fueled his passion. SK was as close to a modern-day Socrates than had been seen before or since. He fully embraced his philosophy as part of his “lived existence”. One of the last true philosophers, he cared so deeply for Christ that despite giving up everything (including earthly love), he was unable to rise to his own religious standards.

SK was rejected by the Church, his colleagues, and his fellow Danes simply because he sought to rid each of their individual misconceptions. As one desperate to exemplify what was real (as opposed to what was True) and to free Christianity from the stranglehold of falsehood, he alienated himself to the point of being utterly alone, even unto death. Sound familiar? Outside of Christ himself, there has hardly been a better example of authenticity and passion toward the faith than was demonstrated by SK.

It is my hope to make SK more accessible to people. In no way do I want to diminish his thought by diluting it, but I do think he has a lot to say about much of our current religious situation. This is what I hope to carry forward in this series.

 

The Legend, The Myth, The Man: A Very Brief Introduction

SK was born in Denmark to a moderately wealthy family in 1815. His father’s wealth was self-made. (He was a shepherd when he was a child.) However, his father suffered from severe depression and believed he was cursed – a plight that would haunt SK his entire life. Due to his father’s money, SK did not need to work. Instead, he committed himself to walks, writing, and “being human”.

I had real Christian satisfaction in the thought that, if there were no other, there was definitely one man in Copenhagen whom every poor person could freely accost and converse with on the street; that, if there were no other, there was one man who, whatever the society he most commonly frequented, did not shun contact with the poor, but greeted every maidservant he was acquainted with, every manservant, every common laborer.

– SK, “The Point of View of My Work as an Author”

Regine olsen

In 1840 at 25-years-old SK proposed and became engaged to the beautiful Regine Olsen (18-years-old) whom he had known for about four years and was completely in love with. However, within a year he realized he had made a terrible mistake and, in Shakespearian fashion, broke off the engagement. SK realized that marrying Regine would be terribly selfish on his part. For he struggled deeply with depression and poor health. Additionally, he knew that his calling would require a dedication that would not be suitable for a marriage.

Much of SK’s life was characterized by fighting philosophers in the universities and theologians in the church with his profound words of insight. SK fought with the same discipline and fervor as one going into battle. He shed much ink in his battle for the hearts and minds of God’s people.

It could be argued that his most powerful weapons were his words. But this would be a mistake; for these were not the ordinary words of endless chatter or meaningless discourse. No…they were words that could only be expressed in a life of one who lived them every single day!

His example inspires me to live a life that seeks wisdom instead of knowledge; to appreciate the humanity we all have in common; and to understand that hope is not the possibility of some future event, but can be realized in the everyday.

For now, I leave you with a poem I wrote last year on the anniversary of his death.

 

In Memoriam: S.K.

It was a cold lifeless day
As a life was laid to rest;
And the hollow air swelled and swayed
Upon the empty hour of death;

His soul wept and ached in despair
As he lay in the silent unknown;
For his thoughts were only of her
As his heart died alone.

But, not a tear dare fall upon her soft cheek
As he lay in quiet rest.
No solace would she seek
For him who gave his life, so she could live.

Barely had breath leapt from his broken body;
And the fight for life came to an end;
Nor had the night succumbed to melancholy;
Before church bells began singing songs of celebration.

But he did not go quiet into the lonely night.
His last breath sent a song into the air.
A song still sung today;
In a poem one can still hear.

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