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Expert Comment: Kierkegaard's 200th Birthday

Simon Podmore Tuesday 7 May 2013

Dr Simon Podmore, British Academy Post Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Religious Studies at Hope, on the 200th birthday of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.

For those who don’t already have this date in their diaries, May 5th 2013 is the 200th birthday of the celebrated ‘melancholy Dane’ Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). Yet this common designation of Kierkegaard as gloomy and despondent only tells part of the story. The label ‘the melancholy Dane’ comes from P. T. Forsythe’s 1910 book The Work of Christ in which Kierkegaard is referred to, more faithfully, as ‘the great and melancholy Dane in whom Hamlet was mastered by Christ.’

It is symptomatic of public perception that the second aspect of Forsythe’s description is less well-known. Although he himself did not live to witness even a glimpse of the impact his thought would have, Kierkegaard is today venerated, and sometimes denigrated, as a theologian, a philosopher, an ironist, as well as a literary virtuoso. Yet he himself directed some fairly acidic rebukes against the theology and philosophy of his own day, particularly with reference to the depersonalised and grandiose abstractions through which theologians and philosophers spoke about the relationships between humanity and divinity. As such, it is testament to the manner in which Kierkegaard’s critiques have helped to redefine the modern and postmodern landscapes of theology and philosophy that he himself can now be recognised as belonging to both. Theology and philosophy have both responded to Kierkegaard in such a way that the existential re-orientation which he strove to evoke continues to haunt the consciences of both subjects.

Whether or not the appellation of ‘the father of existentialism’ is any more apt than ‘the melancholy Dane’, few of us in the west are immune to the effects of Kierkegaard’s life and thought, whether we know it or not. When we speak or hear of a ‘leap of faith’ we evoke a hidden debt to Kierkegaard – ironically, in spite of the fact that this term never appears in his published writings. Yet Kierkegaard’s bicentenary also provides opportunities to reflect on the present and future as well as the past.

What is perhaps more profound than Kierkegaard’s historical influence is the way in which he continues to captivate, inspire, and even frustrate, new generations of the young-at-heart and the old-of-soul. For those of us blessed enough to teach, it is perhaps humbling to remember that as a student Kierkegaard’s behaviour was often less than exemplary. He was enjoying the luxury of ‘finding himself’. Or so he thought, until life itself came cascading in on him and forced him to ‘choose himself’. Here at Liverpool Hope University, the Kierkegaardian flame is kept burning by Dr Steven Shakespeare (author of Kierkegaard, Language and the Reality of God) and by Dr Andrew Cheatle – who possess an enviable fluency in that most esoteric of north-western European languages, Danish.

Kierkegaard remains an inspiration to my own life and thought and, as such, he has a lot to answer for. It began for me as an 18 year old picking up a copy of the dread-inducing Fear and Trembling in a bookshop. The title was captivating enough but the content completely unsettled and inspired at the same. Anyone who tries to tell you ‘absolutely’ and ‘definitively’ what this book is ‘really all about’ is perhaps not to be trusted. Having said that, I say it is a poem to faith, crafted in the language of life’s longing, hope, mystery, and the loving struggle to realise a secret divine presence. However, I could be wrong – and that is, after all, one of the most valuable lessons which Kierkegaard reminds us of. In the end, Kierkegaard himself might say, to invoke the title of one of his many other works, ‘Judge for yourself!’

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