Kierkegaard on the Limits of the State I: Religious Background

This is based on a reading of polemical  texts from the end of Kierkegaard’s life (he died on the 11th November 1855) collected in the Princeton University Press volume The Moment and Late Writings (1998). This is from work in progress on Kierkegaard and political community, but won’t necessarily appear later in anything like its present for. I have found it necessary to write at least two posts, this one deals with some of Kierkegaard’s attitudes towards Christianity and why he got into debate with leaders of the Danish state church. The second will look at how those criticisms of Bishops, and of the state church clergy, have political aspects.

Kierkegaard’s position on the relation between state and church is a strong attack on state involvement in religion, and a remarkably radical attack when we consider that e belonged to a Lutheran tradition in Denmark, and elsewhere, which assumed that state authority would be in charge of the church. Similar remarks apply to the relationship between nation and religion, while remembering that the nation is not the state in Kierkegaard’s discussion. He is much more concerned with religion than with politics, but a lot of politics comes up with regard to national identity, state power and the nature of individuality. Kierkegaard partly expresses his views on religion, and connected political themes, through an attack on the head of the Danish church (beneath the monarch), Jacob Mynster and his successor Hans Martensen. Kierkegaard had some personal contact with Bishop Mynster and Mynster had been a minister to Kierkegaard’s father. Mynster was also a kindly mild mannered individual and Kierkegaard avoided public criticism before his death in 1854. Martensen was a prominent philosopher-theologian of the time, with a European reputation, and possessed of a much more aggressive personality.

A conflict began between Kierkegaard and Martensen with regard to Mynster, who Martensen described on his death a witness to truth. Kierkegaard condemned and ridiculed such a description, which he thought could only be properly applied to those who suffered, invited suffering and embraced it, in order to explain Christian truth, but most significantly to show that Christianity is about the truth of something higher than worldly life by despising it. Kierkegaard believed that Mynster while deserving of respect as a person had made no attempt at all to witness truth other than the words used in preaching. Martensen accused Kierkegaard of trying to reserve the term ‘witness to truth’ for martyrs who had died, probably through torture, for refusing to renounce Christianity. Kierkegaard’s clarification was that witnessing did not require martyrdom, but it did require renunciation of worldly comfort. Despite his own intellectual claims, Martensen could not respond to Kierkegaard except in rather personal and dismissive terms, which did not show any comprehension of the depth of Kierkegaard’s thought.  The personal aspects of this are intensified if we remember that Kierkegaard’s older brother Michael was a Minister in the state church, and that Kierkegaard attacked the whole idea of a state clergy.

Kierkegaard himself was qualified to be a minister and sometimes preached in church, writing sermons which shows his intellectual and literary gifts, though in manner aimed at the general church congregation. He lived as an independent scholar on his inheritance, which was apparently running out at the time of his death. He lived in firmly middle class style, which might make you wonder about his attack on any idea that Mynster was a ‘witness to truth’. Of course Kierkegaard  made no claim to be a witness of this kind, but it is likely that he believed that he was closer to such a state than Mynster of Martensen. Both Mybster and Martensen married, and Martensen remarried after becoming widowed, though he had argued in print that the ideal for a Christian is to be married only once, even if the marriage is ended by the death of the other person. This kind of failure to live up to even one’s own words on the life of a Christian, was deplorable for Kierkegaard. He had renounced the possibility of marriage to his fiancée, though he had the deepest of feelings for her, and though he lived as a scholar rather than as preacher bereft of worldly goods, it was a life of scholarly asceticism. Though Kierkegaard was sociable away from him, his home life was completely private, and he spent most of his time at home, writing obsessively and constantly, with little concern for routine or comforts. Writing was a religious practice for Kierkegaard, and though many of the texts, particularly those best known to later philosophers claim to be written from the point of view of someone lacking Christian faith, they all added up to a complete life time project of explaining and encouraging Christianity, using a vast array of voices, styles, genres and argument, to convince readers of the value and truth of Christianity, and to feel some sense in their passions of the passions which move a Christian.

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