V. The Decisive Christian Category

"The individual"--that is the
decisive Christian category, and it will be decisive
for the future of Christianity.1

"Den Enkelte" ("the individual"--in contrast
to "the public") [is] a thought in which is contained
an entire philosophy of life and of the world.

This category is the point at which and
across which God can come to seize hold of the race.
To remove that point is to dethrone God.

Kierkegaard claimed "the individual" as "his category,"4 and there is nowhere else to begin a presentation of his thought. This is not to suggest that S.K.'s procedure was that of a systematic philosopher and this is the fundamental presupposition that must come first. It is to say, rather, that this is where S.K. chose to start and that we can best understand him by following his route.

In so doing we have put ourselves at something of an embarrassment in that Brethren literature provides nothing that parallels S.K.'s technical conception of den Enkelte. The conclusion to be drawn is, however, not that S.K.'s category is unsectarian. It is rather that S.K. started "farther back," based his thought on a more fundamental proposition than did the Brethren or sectaries generally. Nonetheless, we will discover that the first characteristics S.K. derived from den Enkelte are rather precisely paralleled in Brethrenism. The suggestion, then, is strong that some sort of "individualism" is also the unspoken assumption of the sectaries and that what S.K. has accomplished is to give formulation to the "metaphysics" of sectarianism.

But it might be objected that Martin Luther himself had a strong conception of individualistic religion and that this in itself, therefore, dare not be classified a sectarian trait. Here is raised a broader issue which should be considered. Not only as regards "individualism," but in connection with any number of other Kierkegaardian motifs as well, Luther could be quoted in support. But this fact does not invalidate the contention that the motif is also truly sectarian in character. For one thing, it cannot simply be taken for granted that because he was the founder Martin Luther symbolizes only "churchly" Protestantism; in some respects this decidedly is not the case. We noted earlier that scholars have found sectarian as well as churchly traits in him.

But indeed we should not even expect sectarianism to be completely different from "churchism"; both are Protestant and thus will show many affinities. However, in some cases, such as the strong critique of infant baptism, the Kierkegaard-sectarian view will run diametrically counter to Luther. In some cases, such as Gemeinschaft being central in the doctrine of the church, the emphasis would be largely absent in Luther although not necessarily opposed by him. In cases such as "individualism" Luther could be cited in agreement, but the motif is much more central and emphatic in sectarianism. In cases, such as the equality of all men before God, Luther and sectarianism would be in full agreement, but the sectaries would prove more radical and sweeping in applying the doctrine to the life and structure of the church. And finally, in some cases the sectarian motif, although not greatly dissimilar to churchly teaching, nevertheless appears as part of a somewhat different pattern, is approached out of a somewhat different context.

In short, the uniqueness of the sectarian point of view does not depend on the uniqueness of every one of its motifs--nor even of any one of those motifs. It is rather the pattern as a whole, the consistent recurrence of differences in emphasis, the developing of an angle of vision, that in the end will distinguish Protestant sectarianism from its churchly counterpart.

As we begin with S.K.'s category of den Enkelte, we find that the very act of beginning is complicated by confusion and disagreement on how to translate the term that identifies the category. We are going to suggest that the best secondary exposition of S.K.'s conception is that by Martin Buber; and the English translator of that exposition is the person who has forced the question. He notes: "The German which I have rendered by the cumbrous and none too clear phrase 'the Single One' is der Einzelne, which is a fairly precise rendering of Kierkegaard's hiin Enkelte. It is a pity that in the English translations of Kierkegaard no effort seems to have been made by the translators to avoid the use of the word 'individual,' which is highly misleading. For every man is individuum, but not everyone is an Einzelner or Entelte."5 Even so, Smith's decision must be questioned. Der Einzelne, the German term used by Buber, is the customary German translation of the Danish original, and thus Buber is not responsible for any innovation. However, this translation itself begins to distort the meaning of S.K.'s Danish--and in the direction that Buber will go in criticizing Kierkegaard. Smith's "the Single One," then, though a close enough rendition of the German, distorts the meaning just one step further in the same direction.

Perhaps the problem best can be approached by starting with the German, moving back to the Danish, and then going to the English. The basic German root einzeln means single, sole, solitary, individual, isolated, detached. And there is a closely related German root that can clarify the matter by way of contrast; it is einfach, meaning simple, single, not complex or mixed, indivisible. The difference is a subtle one but quite significant. Einzeln defines the "one" in terms of his relation (more accurately, lack of relation) to "others," comes at the "one" by cutting him out of the herd, setting him apart. Einfach, on the other hand, defines the "one" in terms of his own essential "integrity," focusing on that which makes him a true integer, without regard to the presence or absence of others.

Danish allows the same sort of distinction. In Danish ene means alone, by oneself; eneboer is a hermit or recluse; enebarn is an only child; ener means one, unit; and eneste means only, single, sole. These clearly belong with einzeln. But enkel means plain, simple; enkelhed is simplicity; enkelt is single, simple, individual, the opposite of dobbelt. Enkelt is closer to einfach than to einzeln.

"The Single One," i.e. Smith's English translation, compounds the einzeln propensity by using two words that stress "apartness."6 Much better would be "the Simple One" (although that has other connotations which would never do), or simply, the One" (which is too awkward to be feasible). But from the standpoint of etymology alone, "the individual" is a very acceptable rendering. "Individual" means one in substance or essence; existing as a separate indivisible entity; an object which is determined by properties peculiar to itself and cannot be subdivided into others of the same kind.

And particularly if "individual" be read not so much as that which can not be divided but rather as that which is not divided, then it is a very close equivalent of S.K.'s den Enkelte. Smith's objection that a man necessarily is individuum and therefore cannot be thought of as becoming such is a complete misunderstanding. Clearly, S.K. was saying precisely that a person needs to become individuum, undivided, at one with himself, and not that he should cut himself off from the race. If, as S.K. very emphatically did say, "Purity of heart is to will one thing," than as he very well might have said, "Purity of existence is to be one thing"--"for he who is not himself a unity is never really anything wholly and decisively."7 We support the customary translation of den Enkelte as "the individual," although to do this immediately creates difficulties of another order.

Martin Buber has pointed out that in current usage "individualism" carries two major types of implication:

  1. what we might call selfcenteredness, or autonomy—of which he explicitly absolves S.K.'s den Enktelte—and
  2. atomism, einzeiln-ness, solitariness--of which he explicitly accuses S.K.8

As regards the first category, individualism implies self-assertion, self-reliance, self-realization, self-development, improving one's self, finding one's self, creating one's self.9 But Buber sees that these have nothing to do with S.K.'s den Enkelte. 10 Indeed, S.K. himself had taken pains to repel such "heroic-aesthetic individualism" in a very significant statement:

In every one of the pseudonymous works this theme of 'the individual' comes to evidence in one way or another; but there the individual is predominantly the pre-eminent individual in the aesthetic sense, the distinguished person, etc. In every one of my edifying works the theme of 'the individual' comes to evidence, and as officially as possible; but there the individual is what every man is or can be.... But I believe that people have for the most part paid attention only to 'the individual' of the pseudonyms and have confounded me as a matter of course with the pseudonyms.11

S.K. may be the father of existentialism, but obviously one must be cautious about identifying his den Enkelte with the "existentialist hero" of his present-day disciples.

In a later chapter we shall attempt to defend den Enkelte against Buber's charge that it entails isolation and atomism; here our concern is to establish only that "the individual" is as good a translation of the Danish as has been proposed--if one is careful not to allow the implications of "individualism" and "individuality" that are current in much of modern philosophy and psychology and even in common parlance. Actually, S.K.'s den Enkelte is very close to the "I" of Buber's primary word "I-Thou"12 and thus to the concept "person"13 as it is used by a number of contemporary theologians.14

But how all-important the idea of den Enkelte was to S.K. is indicated by his statement: "I live, and with God's help I shall die in the belief that when death has carried me away ... He will place the imprint of providence upon my life so that it will help men to become aware of God and to see how thoughtlessly they hinder themselves from leading the highest life, a life in communion with God."15 As shall become apparent, den Enkelte is for all intents and purposes a synonym for "a life in communion with God," but unfortunately it cannot be said that S.K.'s prayer has been answered, that his life has borne this imprint in the eyes of most men. S.K. has yet to be truly appreciated for the witness he was most concerned to make; and that appreciation must begin with a profound understanding of what he meant by den Enkelte.

The primary point--and one that Buber notes well, although too few other scholars do--is that den Enkelte is first and last, through and through, an absolutely religious conception. Buber calls it "a theological anthropology,"16 and indeed S.K. himself spoke of "the theological self, the self directly in the sight of God--and what an infinite reality this self acquires by being before God!17 Buber puts den Enkelte into the sharpest possible antithesis to the anthropology of existentialist philosophy, noting that this anthropology has been made possible only by "renouncing" (more accurately, by simply ignoring) S.K.'s basic presupposition.18

It is not because SK. failed to make that presupposition explicit; he made such plain and pointed statements as:

"Every human life is planned religiously. To deny this is to throw everything into confusion and to annul the concept of individual, race, immortality."19
"Essentially it is the God-relationship that makes a man a man."20
"The fatalist ... has lost God and therefore himself as well; for if he has no God, neither has he a self."21
"That man's life is wasted who ... never became eternally and decisively conscious of himself as spirit, as self, or (what is the same thing) never became aware and in the deepest sense received an impression of the fact that there is a God, and that he, he himself, his self, exists before God."22

It was in The Sickness unto Death that S.K. indulged in his most abstract and philosophical discussion of "the self," calling it the relationship which the self has to itself. He seems to mean that basically I am the person I understand myself to be; my own image of my role and purpose determines who I am. Yet even here S.K. specified that such self-understanding is correct, eventuating in a true self, only when it is the understanding that first was held by God and hence revealed to me through my relationship with him. Thus "the self cannot of itself attain and remain in equilibrium and rest by itself, but only by relating itself to that Power which constituted the whole relationship [of the self to itself]"23

The constitutive principle of den Enkelte is that he exists "before God." The Danish word for--here translated "before"--can mean "for the sake of" as well as "in the sight of," and undoubtedly both meanings were part of S.K.'s intention. And "before God" is not a late, "religious" modifier attached to an earlier, philosophic concept; in point of fact, existence "before God" was a Kierkegaardian theme prior to the development of den Enkelte as a technical term.24

"Before God to be oneself--for the accent rests upon 'before God,' since this is the source and origin of all individuality."25 In as strong terms as possible, S.K. made it plain that "authentic existence" is found solely and exclusively before God:

There is only One who knows what He Himself is, that is God; and He knows also what every man in himself is, for it is precisely by being before God that every man is. The man who is not before God is not himself, for this a man can be only by being before Him who is in and for Himself. If one is oneself by being in Him who is in and for Himself, one can be in others and before others, but one cannot by being merely before others be oneself.26

If, as is the common understanding, existentialism is a philosophy that starts with the givenness of man's existence, his Geworfenheit, his "being-what-he-is"; and if, starting from this premise, some existentialists come to a theistic conclusion and others to a nontheistic one--if this is existentialism, then S.K. was not an existentialist, and den Enkelte has little if anything in common with existentialist individualism.

S.K. begins with God, not arrives at God as a conclusion derived from human existence. It is not too much to say that den Enkelte is an affirmation about the intention and strategy of God before it is an affirmation about the nature of man. Buber points in this direction but does not go as far as he could or should; he says of S.K.'s den Enkelte: "Not before a man can say I in perfect reality--that is, finding himself--can he in perfect reality say Thou--that is, to God."27 But it is not that man on his own initiative chooses to be den Enkelte in order to address God; rather, God first has addressed man as den Enkelte, and man must then get into that role if he is to hear and respond. Den Enkelte is first of all the character of God's address and only then the nature of man's response.

The "singleness" of den Enkelte comes about, then, because God chooses to address men singly, individually, one by one enkeltvis, as the Danish language so appropriately puts it. Although S.K. did not so use it, the golden text for his den Enkelte could well be Isa. 40:26.

Lift up your eyes on high and see:
 Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
 Calling them all by name;
Because he is great in strength,
 Mighty in power,
Not one is missing.

The text he did use was Mt. 10:29. "What is there said about the sparrows is yet completely the literal truth about mankind, that God knows each individual--indeed, that to be man is simply to belong to the genus which has the distinction that each individual is known qua individual by God and can know him."28

The entire motive of becoming den Enkelte, then, is not so much a matter of a man realizing his nature, finding his authenticity, as it is a matter of response. S.K. did not develop "responsibility" as a formal concept--this has been the work of our own day--but Buber properly derives and defines the term as a part of his exposition of S.K.29 Briefly put, den Enkelte is a man who has become single (single-minded, single-willed, single-hearted, single-eyed) in response to and in order to respond to the individual summons of God's requirement and the individual chrism of his grace.

That this is a rather different concept of individuality, S.K. was quite aware. He made so bold as to say that in one sense Christ was a greater thief than Barrabas, because Christ stole from the human race its "very notion of what it is to he a man!"30 And the extent of that theft nowhere becomes more evident than when we consider the character of den Enke1te's consciousness of his individuality. Because that consciousness is achieved before God, it is not with respect to his talents but with regard to his guilt."31 S.K. approached this thought in several ways, but the core explanation as to why the self-understanding of den Enkelte must be of this sort is quite simple: "Christianity is God's thought. To be a man was, for God, an ideal which we can hardly even imagine; the fall was a guilt which involved a degradation, and in order to feel the painfulness of it one must have an impression of the ideal which went before."32 When a man puts what he is alongside what God intends and calls him to be, guilt is the only possible resultant: "When thou art alone, ... alone in individuality, or as a single individual, and face to face with God's holiness--then the cry ["God be merciful to me a sinner"] issues of itself.... From [the Pharisee] no cry was heard. What is the meaning of this? ... It means that he was not before God."33

"Repentance" is the counterpart of guilt, and it appears as an essential aspect of individuality amazingly early in S.K.'s authorship and, even more amazingly, in the mouth of Judge William, the ethicist of Either/Or. When S.K. finds himself impelled to attribute a thoroughly religious concept to a nonreligious pseudonym we can be sure that we are dealing with something crucial and basic: "There is also a love by which I love God and there is only one word in the language which expresses it ... it is repentance.... For only when I choose myself as guilty do I choose myself absolutely, if my absolute choice of myself is to be made in such a way that it is not identical with creating myself?"34 With this concept of repentance S.K. set an absolute distinction between den Enkelte and all existentialist thought about creating oneself. The distinction was pressed even harder when, toward the end of his career, S.K. made an extended analysis of the following thematic statement: "To become sober is to come to oneself in self-knowledge, before God, as nothing hefore Him, yet infinitely, absolutely, under obligation.... Only by being before God can a man entirely come to himself in the transparency of sobriety.... Christianity thinks that precisely to become nothing--before God--is the way, and that if it could occur to anyone to wish to be something before God, this is drunkenness."35

It does not follow that this repentance, or becoming nothing, is a negative act, a degradation, for it is actually the glory of the human spirit.36 Indeed, den Enkelte eventuates as the most positive of conceptions, for his becoming nothing is but the counterpart on man's side of the forgiveness forthcoming from God's side: "Believing that his sins have been forgiven is the decisive crisis through which a human being becomes spirit; he who does not believe that is not spirit."37 In the final analysis, then, den Enkelte is one who has become single in repentance in order to find the grace and forgiveness of God which is bestowed upon and can be received by only those who are single.

Because one becomes den Enkelte via self-abasement rather thin self-aggrandizement, a very important implication follows: God justly can demand that every man become den Enkelte; it is equally possible for every man to become den Enkelte.38 We shall later identify as one of his sectarian characteristics S.K.'s radical and emphatic affirmation of the equality of all men before God; we see here that it is an inevitable corollary of his concept of den Enkelte.

Den Enkelte is fundamentally a religious idea, but the matter can be put even more exactly. S.K. did not consider himself to be developing any new category but simply delineating the Christian gospel; den Enkelte is nothing more nor less than the Christian man. S.K. said it in so many words: "The formula for being a Christian is to be related to, to turn to, God personally, as a single person, quite literally as a single person."39 He developed the conception not as a philosopher but as a Christian evangelist, and thus at points could go so far as to read "before God" as meaning, specifically, "before Christ."

In the first place, Christ was himself den Enkelte par excellence. 40 But he is much more than just an example from man's side; he is also the term of address from God's:

The potentiation in consciousness of the self is in this instance knowledge of Christ, being a self face to face with Christ.... A self face to face with Christ is a self potentiated by the prodigious concession of God, potentiated by the prodigious emphasis which falls upon it for the fact that God also for the sake of this self let Himself to be born, became man, suffered, died. As was said in the foregoing, 'the more conception of God, the more of self,' so here it is true that the more conception of Christ, the more self. A self is qualitatively what its measure is. That Christ is the measure is on God's part attested as the expression for the immense reality a self possesses; for it is true for the first time in Christ that God is man's goal and measure, or measure and goal.41

Copyright (c) 1968