CHAPTER II: Where Is True Christianity to be Found?

Whatever of true Christianity is to be
found in the course of the centuries must be found
in the sects and their like.

Into what particular church or tradition does S.K.'s religion best fit? Few questions in Kierkegaard scholarship provide quite as much employment as this; perhaps to no other has been proposed such a wide range of solutions. S.K. himself set the stage for the discussion by departing this earth at a moment when the matter of his religious affiliation was somewhat in abeyance. What follows is a survey of the options that are open and which have been argued by various scholars.

A. Atheistic, or at Least Secular, Existentialism

This is a conjecture made from time to time though always as pure conjecture. There are probably two different motives behind it: first, the too-easy assumption that S.K.'s attack on the church actually was (or would have become) an attack upon Christianity itself; and second, the subjective judgment of a thinker who finds S.K.'s "existentialism" appealing but his "Christianity" quite otherwise, who personally feels that the two elements are incompatible, and who thus assumes that eventually S.K. would have dropped his Christianity.2

We call this position "pure conjecture" because, in the first place, it must fly directly in the face of S.K.'s own radically Christian protestations. Second, the position is not (and indeed cannot be) supported with documentary evidence hut only by the "feel" of the critic. And third, modern scholarship generally shows no inclination at all to go this direction. Although no conjecture dare be ruled out as a possibility, this one has little to offer as a perspective from which to view S.K.'s avowedly Christian authorship.

B. Lutheranism, and the Other Reformation "Churches"

Although the question here necessarily devolves on the Danish Lutheran Church of which S.K. was a long-time communicant, this option actually represents the entire "churchly" tradition of Protestantism. No one ever has suggested that S.K. would have been any happier in another established church (i.e. Reformed or Anglican) than he was in Lutheranism. Clearly, S.K. belongs either in Lutheranism or else in an entirely different sort of tradition.

Some of the facts regarding S.K.'s relation to his church should be before us as we consider this alternative:

  1. S.K. was born, reared, and educated (up to the level of Master of Arts--the equivalent of our doctorate in theology) in the Danish Lutheran Church. Although not ordained, he preached from time to time and was well acquainted with many of the clergy, including the highest officials of the church. His attendance at services was very regular.
  2. Beginning far back in his authorship, however, first in his journals and then in his published works, there appeared a stream of criticism ever growing both in quantity and in virulence. This will be traced and analyzed in a later chapter, but suffice it to say that the critique centered on the constitution of the church (particularly as regards its relation to the state and the "world"), on the government of the church (particularly as regards the nature and character of the clerical office), and on the sort of preaching that was prevalent in the church.
  3. Parallel to and a part of this critique was a growing criticism of Martin Luther. Thus S.K. was concerned not only with a "fallen" Lutheranism but traced several of the church's defects back to the Reformer himself.
  4. In 1854-1855 this critical development culminated in an open pamphleteering attack upon the church. The literature (which we read under one cover, Attack upon "Christendom") was as acid as ink can get. The statement that S.K. used as his declaration of intent was published as a separate and independent document, was in formulation for over a year, and continually was quoted from and referred to in S.K.'s subsequent pamphlets. The core of it reads: "Whoever thou art, whatever in other respects thy life may be, my friend, by ceasing to take part (if ordinarily thou dost) in the public worship of God, as it now is (with the claim that it is the Christianity of the New Testament), thou has constantly one guilt the less, and that a great one: thou dost not take part in treating God as a fool by calling that the Christianity of the New Testament which is not the Christianity of the New Testament.3
  5. S.K. followed his own advice; Hans Brohner, a contemporary who was something of a friend, reported "At the time when Søren Kierkegaard began his polemic against the Establishment, and perhaps for some time before, he had ceased to participate in church services."4
  6. Dupre indicates that during the final weeks of his life S.K. actually stopped churchgoers in the street in an attempt to dissuade them from the sin of worshiping in the state church.5 While in the hospital during his final illness S.K. refused a visit from his brother Peter--not because Peter was his brother but because he was a priest6 who had publicly taken the side of the church against S.K.7
  7. Also, in the hospital S.K. refused communion. The circumstances are instructive. The following conversation was recorded by Emil Boesen, S.K.'s friend from childhood, his closest confidant during the final illness, and a priest. Boesen speaks first:8
  8. Do you wish to receive Holy Communion? "Yes, but not from a parson; from a layman." That is difficult. "Then I shall die without it." That is not right! "On that point there can be no argument, I have made my choice, have chosen. The parsons are the King's officials, the King's officials have nothing to do with Christianity."9
  9. After S.K. died and was thus bereft of any means of defending himself, the church decided that decorum could best he served by "forgiving" him; that forgiveness was the last thing S.K. would have accepted from the church seems not to have come into consideration. He was buried with full ecclesiastical honors, the funeral held before a standing-room only crowd in the cathedral church following Sunday services. Brother Peter, the priest whom S.K. had refused to see a few days earlier, delivered the message.10 But even in the face of this history, considerable scholarship has had the effect of joining forces with S.K.'s ecclesiastical undertakers to put him to rest in the Lutheran Church. Some do it with silence; some do it with a word; some do it with extended argument; it can be questioned whether any do it convincingly.11

    In this regard there are two alternative interpretations which should be considered. They both have the net effect of leaving S.K. in the Lutheran fold and thus are subnumbered under the heading above:
    1. The Attack as Aberration
      This suggestion is that in the Attack of 1854-1855 S.K. had lost control of himself and thus fallen into an extremism which cannot be taken as indicative of the real Kierkegaard, i.e. the S.K. who became disaffected with the Lutheran Church was not one who seriously need concern us. It is interesting that one comes across the rebuttal to this argument much more often than the argument itself; the issue is as good as settled. David Swenson's judgment is typical: "There are students of Kierkegaard who although otherwise sympathetic, feel that this attack was the expression of something pathological in his nature. Others interpret it as the beginning of a development which would inevitably have taken place, had he lived, in the direction of a modern non-Christian liberalism, perhaps humanism; still others think he would have become a Catholic. To anyone who has read his journals, all these guesses must seem fantastic."12

      The Attack is not like the peel of an orange that can be torn off and discarded in the process of getting at the Kierkegaardian fruit. Rather, S.K.'s authorship is constructed like a Spanish onion. It is obvious that the outside, yellow, 1855 layer is of a rather different hue than the innermost, white, 1843 layer. But as easy as it is to make the distinction, just that impossible is it to say where the white ends and the yellow begins. The Attack is an integral part of Kierkegaard and must be treated as such--although, on the other hand, the Attack is not the whole of Kierkegaard (not even the whole answer regarding his religious orientation) and must not be treated as such.
    2. The Attack as Corrective
      This proposal, as the foregoing one, solves the problem by eliminating it--but without recourse to as radical a diagnosis as "aberration." It suggests that the Attack is to be understood as a "corrective." Now the evidence that S.K. himself so interpreted the situation--and used the very term--is unimpeachable (for example, S.K.'s statement below). The question, then, is: What does "corrective" connote? Is our understanding of the term the same as S.K.'s? The matter has been made extremely elusive in that it has not been discussed as a question; each scholar has taken his own reading of "corrective" and proceeded to apply it to S.K.

      The general interpretation--more often implied than spoken--is that to call the Attack a corrective means that S.K.'s words and actions had no specific relevance except for Søren Kierkegaard, in 1855, in the nation of Denmark. He had in mind only the staging of a "demonstration" and did not expect or intend that there should result any program of actual reform.13 Neither by directive nor by implication did S.K. mean to propose any sort of norm regarding how other people should live their Christian lives. All he said and did was so exaggerated for the sake of effect that it need not be taken too seriously--or only after having been toned down drastically. Whatever ideas in the Attack seem too radical can be dismissed as "corrective hyperbole." Of course, no proponent of the view states the matter quite this baldly, but the point gets made one way or another.14 But it can be questioned whether S.K.'s understanding of "corrective" was this one. In introducing the pamphlet series that constituted the major thrust of his Attack, S.K. said:
      Yet it is nothing ephemeral I have in mind, any more than it was anything ephemeral I had in mind before; no, it was and is something eternal: on the side of the ideal against illusions."15
      And the fact that he left the church and urged others to do so substantiates his claim to seriousness.

      S.K. explained what he meant by "corrective": "He who must apply a 'corrective' must study accurately and profoundly the weak side of the Establishment, and then vigorously and one-sidedly present the opposite.... If this is true, a presumably clever pate can reprove the corrective for being one-sided. Ye gods! Nothing is easier for him who applies the corrective than to supply the other side; but then it ceases to become the corrective and becomes the established order."16

      To call a corrective "one-sided" is quite different from calling it "exaggerated," "transitory," or "non-normative." According to S.K.'s explanation, the statements and acts of the corrective still would stand as they are, for what they are. The most that might be done is to supplement them with some other statements, but there is no suggestion that they are to be diluted, deemphasized, or ignored.

    Of course, the satire of S.K.'s Attack is to be read as satire, and the humor is to be laughed at (not, laughed off), but the point behind it all is to be taken just as seriously as it was intended--intended by a man who was willing to cut himself off from the fellowship of the church and, on his deathbed, decline its sacraments for the sake of making that point. The Attack must not be allowed to dominate our study, but it must be given its proper weight--which is to suggest that S.K.'s relationship to Lutheranism was at least questionable.

C. Roman Catholicism

The suggestion that S.K. was essentially a Roman Catholic--at least to some degree and in some respects--is one that has had surprising persistence and strength.17 However, it seems evident that a very real factor in this view springs not so much from evidence within S.K. himself as from a dearth of categories on the part of the analysts. In his writings S.K. was highly critical of "Protestantism"; he often used this term in his critique, and his expositors have followed his lead. Of course, the term "Protestantism" immediately suggests the dichotomy Protestantism/Catholicism; and from this it is an easy step to the assumption that "anti-Protestant" is the equivalent of "pro-Catholic." But this is an oversimplification; and the Catholic scholar Louis Dupre senses the non sequitur:

One might be inclined to think that, after this vigorous attack on Lutheranism and even on the principle of the Reformation itself, Kierkegaard was well on the way to becoming a Catholic.... Indeed, the principal points on which this view is based are untenable.... If Kierkegaard's conception of the Church cannot be called the traditional Protestant one, it is even less Catholic. Karl Barth may be right in refusing Kierkegaard a place among the great Reformers of the nineteenth century, but this does not make him a Catholic.18

A close examination will show that in almost every case S.K.'s critique of Protestantism applies directly to the "churchly" tradition within Protestantism but not in the same degree, if at all, to the "sectarian" tradition. If the tertium quid of sectarianism is kept in the picture, and if one keeps alert to the narrower, "churchly" connotation S.K. gave to the word "Protestantism," then his pro-Catholicism simply disappears. Specific instances will come to attention throughout our study.

But when all the evidence is in it is apparent that there are no solid grounds for calling S.K. a Roman Catholic in any sense of the term; and what is more important, to view him from the Catholic perspective contributes little if anything to understanding the core of his witness and work. Dupre's conclusion--though stated in his Introduction--is: "[I have come] to the conclusion that [S.K.'s] Existenzdialektik is perhaps the most consistent application of the Reformation principle that has ever been made.... It is precisely Kierkegaard's fidelity to his fundamentally Protestant convictions which constitutes his value for a dialogue between Catholicism and Reformation."19

D. Spiritual Atomism--The Christian Life Lived Apart from Any Organized Church

To my knowledge no one ever has proposed this as the Kierkegaardian perspective. It should be given consideration, however, if for no other reason than that it actually was the situation in which S.K. stood at the time of his death--i.e., he was a committed, practicing Christian who, as a matter of principle, refused to participate in the life of any organized, institutional church. Nevertheless it is clear that the atomist position does not represent the culmination and trios of S.K.'s religious thought.20

To say this is not so much as even to imply a conjecture about what S.K. would have done regarding his church membership had he lived some years longer; that is a completely impossible and fruitless line of investigation. We are suggesting only that the tenor and weight of S.K.'5 entire witness make it plain that even his leaving of the church was motivated not by the search for a churchless Christianity but for a truly Christian church.

E. Classic Protestant Sectarianism (Radical Discipleship)

This, of course, is the alternative we intend to support. The present chapter is not the place to open the extensive and detailed motif comparison through which we hope to make our case, and so we now offer only a few preliminary, external, and secondary evidences to indicate that the proposal of S.K. as a sectary is not completely preposterous.

I have not found any scholar who deliberately has named sectarianism as the Kierkegaardian perspective; the best we have are oblique hints and pointers. There is, however, one notable exception to this generalization: sectarianism is mentioned explicitly by S.K. himself? The locus of the following quotation is perhaps as significant as its content. This is the next to the last thing S.K. ever wrote; it is a journal entry dated September 23, 1855; his very last entry is dated the next day; he collapsed on the street on October 2 and died November 4. Might this possibly mark S.K.'s culminating insight into the nature and orientation of his own witness?

In the New Testament is the formula for what it is to he a Christian: to fear God more than men. Herein are all the specifically Christian collisions. As soon as one can he a Christian out of fear of men, yea, when out of fear of men one will dare even to let himself be called a Christian, then is Christianity eo ipso come to naught.
One sees therefore what nonsense it is to believe that true Christianity is found in 'the church'--in comparison to which the great number Zero is a more Christian spirit than this which is: human mediocrity, brute-man's faith in ... human numbers. No, whatever of true Christianity is to be found in the course of the centuries must be found in the sects and their like--unless the case is that thus to be a sect, or outside the church, is proof of its being true Christianity. But what is found there [i.e., in true Christianity] may be found in the sects and such, the only thing that resembles the Christianity of the New Testament, that is--a sect, which is what it is also called in the New Testament.21

And this was no sudden conclusion on S.K.'s part; he had expressed similar sentiments at least five years earlier, though not in quite such decisive and absolute terms:

The "Establishment" is on the whole a completely unchristian concept. Thus it is ridiculous to hear the Establishment brag itself up in comparison with the "sects"--because there is infinitely more Christian truth in sectarian delusion than in the Establishment's indolence and drowsiness and inertia. And it is still more ridiculous that the Establishment appeals to the New Testament. Indeed, their Christianity itself was a "sect" (and called such at the time) which had (and here also is its "truth") an Awakening: this is just how legitimate it is to warn people about the sectaries. But now a sect always has the advantage over the Establishment in that it has truth's awakening, i.e., the truth that lies in an "Awakening" even if that which the sects consider to be the truth is error and delusion.22

Now, of course S.K. was neither a cenobite nor a Schwämergeist (as, likewise, the classic sectaries were not), but in the 1855 quotation he solidly aligned himself with sectarian non-conformity as against churchly friendship with the world and, in the 1849 statement, with sectarian "enthusiasm" as against churchly decorum. And even earlier he had made a very revealing judgment concerning one particular sect:

The reformation abolished the monastery. Very well; I am not going to say anything more about the reformation having brought secular politics into existence. But now look at Christendom; where is there any Christianity except among the Moravians. But the Moravians are not, in a decisive sense, Christians; their lives are not in double danger. They are simply a more worldly edition of the monastery; men who look after their business, beget children etc. and then, within themselves, also busy themselves with Christianity, briefly this is the religion of hidden spirituality. But the other danger, suffering for the sake of the faith they avoid entirely, they avoid being led into the really Christian situation. There is much that is beautiful in their lives, but their peace is not really Christianity, not in the profoundest sense; it resembles the view that makes Christianity into a mild doctrine of truth.23

Notice that S.K.'s criticism of the Moravians is not at all that of a man of the "church" but of a brother sectary who accuses them of having deserted the cause and made their peace with the world rather than being out getting themselves burned at the stake as their forefathers did. Taken all together, these statements constitute enough evidence to merit serious investigation.

But although Kierkegaard scholarship has not picked up these clues, there have been some partial and even some inadvertent insights. Walter Kaufmann, completely in passing, while giving a list to show the variety of religious orientations represented by the founding fathers of existentialism, calls S.K. "a Protestant's Protestant."24

He probably meant nothing more than that S.K. was strongly and staunchly Protestant, but the phrase makes an apt epitome of both S.K. and sectarianism. The sectaries, in many respects, do stand in precisely the same relation to mainline Protestantism as Protestantism does to Catholicism; sectarianism is the reformation of the Reformation, as it has been called.

However, it is Dupre who, via this route, has come closest to our view; all he needs is the word "sectarianism." In a statement that shows more insight into both S.K. and Protestantism than most Protestant scholars demonstrate, he says:

[S.K.] is a person who kept protesting, who could never accept a Church which had become established, even if on the basis of protest itself. In most instances, the Protestant principle has been abandoned as soon as it has developed itself to the point of becoming a Church. Kierkegaard's intransigent Protestantism continued to protest; he protested against everything, even against the protest itself.... It is true that Kierkegaard placed himself beyond the pale of the Protestant Church. But he never abandoned the Protestant principle.25

"Protest" may not be the best term to characterize the basic nature either of S.K.'s religious dialectic, "the Protestant principle," or sectarianism, but given such modification, Dupre's analysis points toward what we mean in calling S.K. "a Protestant's Protestant" and also what is implied by Classic Protestant Sectarianism.

A somewhat different approach to S.K.'s sectarian perspective perhaps first was suggested by Emil Brunner, although it has been picked up since by others as well. Brunner--who also calls S.K. the "greatest Christian thinker of modern times"--identifies him as one of the "two great figures of Pietism" of the nineteenth century.26 A recent work which becomes more explicit than anything done earlier is Joachim Seyppel's Schwenckfeld, Knight of Faith. The focus of Seyppel's study is Schwenckfeld rather than S.K., but in the process of comparing the two men he proposes Pietism as the link between them: "Whereas Schwenckfeld prepared Pietism, Kierkegaard was raised under its influence."27 Seyppel then traces the historical path by which German Pietism came into Denmark and into direct contact with S.K.;28 and he makes this very interesting reference to the thesis of E. Peterson:

It is understandable, then, to read in an article on Kierkegaard and Protestantism why some of the Dane's favorite expressions, like, for example, 'existence' and 'reality,' should be inexplicable without a reference to the ideas of Pietism.29

Although any direct personal influence from Schwenckfeld to S.K. would have to have been tenuous indeed, the influence from Pietism was not. In fact, S.K. himself affirmed the connection when he said:

"Certainly Pietism (properly understood, not just in the sense that holds apart from dancing and externalities--no, in the sense of that which hears witness to the truth and suffers for it, that hears with understanding that a Christian is to suffer in this world and that the worldly shrewdness which conforms with the world is unchristian)--certainly it is the sole consequence of Christianity."30

It is not accurate directly to equate Pietism and sectarianism, although clearly Pietism does represent a sectarian-type tendency. The broader category of sectarianism will do S.K. more justice than simply to call him a Pietist, but to have identified his Pietist affinities is a real gain.

But if S.K. was as typical and obvious a sectary as we have suggested and as the remainder of this volume will be devoted to demonstrate, how is it (the question must be asked) that so many competent scholars have been almost unanimously and totally blind to the fact? A number of explanations suggest themselves. In the first place, he lacked the correct external markings, he neither founded nor joined a sect--unless his call for others to join him in leaving the church be interpreted as a tentative step in this direction.

At the same time, S.K. can be quoted strongly to the effect that he had absolutely no desire to found a sect or new church organization. Several factors must be taken into account, however.

Sectarian leaders customarily express sincere reluctance and even resistance to the idea of leaving the church and founding a separate group. They would much prefer to reform the church rather than separate from it. Thus we find cases--such as the Quakers, the Wesleyans, and the early Puritans--in which the sectaries insisted vehemently that they were not separating from the church and in consequence of which the church itself was forced to take as much responsibility in cutting off the sect as the sect did in separating itself from the church.

Perhaps the strongest consideration is the fact that S.K.'s statements to the effect that he had no intention of founding a sect can as well be interpreted to mean that he had no such intention as that he was conscientiously opposed to sects as such. The truth is that any sect of which S.K. was the founder--or even a member (for one cannot conceive of S.K. as one of a group without his immediately becoming the center of the group)--would have had a very poor prognosis of success or even survival. To set up and run an actual institution requires, in addition to an ideology, some practical skills in the way of administration and organization. Of these S.K. had not a trace. Hans Brøchner, who knew him personally, said: "Kierkegaard had not a sense of actuality, if I may use the expression, which, in a given situation, could form a balance to his enormous reflective powers."31

And S.K. was aware of the problem: "... I am melancholy to the point of madness, something I can conceal as long as I am independent but which makes me useless for any service where I do not determine everything myself."32

If a sectary, S.K. clearly was one who was constitutionally unfitted to belong to a sect. But this anomaly in no way invalidates our contention or changes the orientation of S.K.'s work. If a sectary, S.K. must be seen not as an organizer but a theoretician (if that term properly can be applied to one so opposed to "theory"). He would well qualify as "the sectaries' theologian" except for the fact that the sectaries' theologian hardly qualifies as a theologian. Nevertheless, although this lack of external indicators does not affect the sectarian character of his thought, it has tended to block the discovery that it is sectarian--and thus the possibility has been overlooked.

Another, and perhaps more important, factor in this scholarly blindness is the fact that for most critics the very term "sectarianism" is a bad word, one they would not at all be happy to have associated with S.K. It carries connotations of divisiveness, narrowness, and fanaticism that do not fit well with "the greatest Christian thinker of modern times." (In due course we shall see that these connotations are not properly a part of the basic concept "sect," although neither is it entirely accidental that the derogation has adhered to the term.)

Yet it is interesting to note that of the Kierkegaard scholars who approach S.K. from a religious viewpoint at all, nearly every one comes from the "churchly" (and rather high-churchly) traditions. Some of them are Roman Catholics. The Danish and German scholars are, of course, for the most part Lutheran. But even in England and in this country Kierkegaardians have tended to come predominantly from the Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican ranks. There is an interesting exception; one of the very earliest students and translators of S.K. in America was Douglas Steere, a Quaker sectary; his presence serves simply to prove the rule. But now it is proper that the scope of scholarship be broadened and that S.K.'s thought be examined by those who look from a rather different perspective.

There is a peripheral line of evidence regarding S.K.'s sectarianism which needs to be considered at some point, and better here than elsewhere. It is not sufficient to maintain that a thinker has been understood just because his antecedents have been traced or that he dare be allowed no ideas that cannot be accounted for in his antecedents. However, there are some external findings that may serve at least to make S.K.'s sectarianism historically plausible.

One of S.K.'s nieces reported that both Søren's father and Emil Boesen's were members of "the Moravian brotherhood."33 Just what this "membership" amounted to is a little difficult to ascertain, because it is quite clear that the entire family were also staunch and loyal members of the state church; but the opportunity for Moravianism to influence S.K. was there in any case. Brøhner described the religion of S.K.'s father as "pretty much that of the old pietists."34

A catalog of the library S.K. left behind him shows something of his interests and possible sources of influence. Both Dru and Croxall list one group of hooks as the "mystics," but whatever the heading, here is clearly a sectarian style of thought. Dru names the authors: "Tauler, Ligouri, Sailer, Zacharias Werner, Arndt, Thomas a Kempis, Baader, Bernard of Clairveaux, Bonaventura, Ruysbrock, Boehme, Fenelon, Guyon, Swedenhorg, Tersteegen, Lamennais, 22 vol. of Abraham a St. Clara, etc."35 Apart from duplications, Croxall also lists Suso, Angelus Silesius, and (as significant as any) Gottfried Arnold.36

Much more valuable than these library lists are S.K.'s references to his own reading. In Purity of Heart he quotes from Johann Arndt's True Christianity37 (although earlier than the Pietist movement per se, this book became a popular handbook of Pietist and other sectarian groups). In one of the Edifying Discourses he calls it "an ancient, venerable, and trustworthy book of devotions."38 And in a reference which the Danish editors are confident intends Arndt's book and is a true autobiographical detail, the pseudonym Quidarn wrote in his diary: "The Bible is always lying on my table and is the book I read most; a severe hook of edification in the tradition of the older Lutheranism is my other guide...."39

In Either/Or, Judge William, a pseudonym, quotes Fenelon.40 S.K. himseff later said, "I have been reading Fenelon and Tersteegen. Both have made a powerful impression upon me."41 And as the motto for a very personal little piece, "About My Work as an Author, "S.K. used a verse from Tersteegen's Der Frommen Lottrie, another devotional of the sectaries.42

We have made this survey of S.K.'s religious options not so much to close some possibilities as to open one, namely, Classic Protestant Sectarianism. To that investigation we now proceed.

Copyright (c) 1968