- The Catholic Thing - https://www.thecatholicthing.org -

Inconclusive Postscript

Comparing two of the greatest religious thinkers of the nineteenth century, David Swenson wrote: “Newman was looking for the objectively true church so that he might join it. Kierkegaard was seeking so to live that those who lived as he did would constitute with him the true church.”

David Swenson taught at the University of Minnesota and one day, in a used book store in Dinkytown, he came upon a Danish work by an author of whom he had never heard, Søren Kierkegaard, with a title that fascinated him: Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments. Swenson bought the book, became absorbed in it, eventually translated it into English and thus helped initiate American interest in the Danish writer. All this took place before the midpoint of the last century.

The well turned phrase of comparison came later, but it is in the main accurate. What every reader of Kierkegaard becomes aware of is the emphasis on subjectivity. His major problem was how to relate properly to Christianity, how to be a Christian in Christendom. Kierkegaard mocked those who considered Christianity an invitation to scholarship, to an objective appraisal of its claims. This would make the What of Christianity more important than the How of our relating to it. The truth of Christianity is not to be sought in its objective content. Rather, it is to be found in the personal response. Subjectivity is the truth; the truth is subjectivity. As critics were to say, it is as if Christianity is made true by our subjective relation to it.

The Catholic will of course distinguish two meanings of “faith”: the set of truths to which response is invited, the deposit of faith, on the one hand; and, on the other, the virtue whereby we are able to accept that content. We must be doers of the word and not hearers only, but until something is told us – fides ex auditu – there is no object for the subjective response.

Obviously, a brilliant man like Kierkegaard did not adopt his increasingly radical views of Christianity without reasons. He lived at a time when, under the influence of the Enlightenment, Christianity had come to be regarded as an ethical doctrine that any sound thinker would hit upon, naturally. There was nothing supernatural about it, no need for revelation nor, horrors, miracles. It was a philosophical theory like any other, subject to the common criteria of reasonableness.

A Danish Jesuit named Heinrich Roos wrote about what he regarded as the great distance between Kierkegaard and Catholicism. Cornelio Fabro, the great Italian Thomist, who learned Danish to read Kierkegaard and translated many of his works into Italian, disagreed. In the one-hundred-plus page preface to his Italian edition of Kierkegaard’s Journal, there are several lengthy sections dealing with Kiekegaard and Catholicism. As a graduate student, I could make out that much, and I was prompted to teach myself Italian in order to read what Fabro had written. In Fabro’s judgment, there is far more affinity between Catholicism and Kierkegaard than Roos allowed for.

Perhaps. Of course Fabro was speaking of tendencies in Kierkegaard, which he thought would converge on a similarity. One is more struck by the differences than that suggests. For example, Kierkegaard rejected all natural knowledge of God, what has come to be called Natural Theology. He took this to be a presumptuous effort to bridge the gap between sinful man and God Almighty.

One can, to repeat, find exculpating motives for this rejection in the regnant positions of Kierkegaard’s day. But these scarcely ease the stark difference between his view and the Catholic one.

When one considers the contrast Swenson drew between Newman and Kierkegaard, it would be perhaps too much to say that it makes Kiekegaard the paradigm of the Christian, likeness to whom is the key to being a Christian. This is not so much a novel conception of church, but a rejection of it. What comes through in the Kiekegaardian vision is isolation, autonomy, the ultimate revenge of the principle of private interpretation.

Kierkegaard ended his life with a vast, intemperate attack on the Danish Lutheran Church. Articles and pamphlets poured from his pen, increasingly vitriolic. They were spurred by a remark in a funeral oration for a bishop calling him a witness to the truth. Kierkegaard claimed that there was absolutely no relation between the Danish church and the Christianity of the New Testament. One senses in this attack, the suppressed awareness that he alone is the ultimate arbiter in such matters. But then so is everyone else.

His death is sad to read about. Of course he refused such consolations as the Danish church could offer him. He died an enigma, one of those fascinating figures who draws us back to him again and again. I have come to see him as a victim of the Reformation.

Ralph McInerny (1929-2010) was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.