VI. B. The Character of Den Enkelte

B. Antiintellectualism

The Christian thesis is not intelligere Ut credam,nor is it credere ut intelligam. No, it is: Act according to the precepts and commandments of Christ, do the will of the Father--and you shalt have faith. Christianity does not lie in the least in the sphere of the intellect.1
For the simple heart it is simply: thou shalt believe. For the understanding intellect it is: it is against reason, but thou shalt believe. Here the "thou shalt" is much stronger because it is opposed to something. 2

"Antiintellectualism," or "irrationalism," is a Kierkegaardian hallmark universally recognized and almost as widely analyzed, popularized, criticized and/or apotheosized. It will not be necessary for us either to duplicate or to compete with these efforts; it suffices to note a few things that many commentators overlook and to make audible the sectarian tenor of S.K.'s position.

One observation common to most Kierkegaard scholars but which deserves repeating is that S.K. nowhere denied reason a proper sphere or a competency in that sphere. And that sphere is broad, as broad as the world--but no broader. Reason does not have authority or competence in the supermundane dimensions of man's existence where he chooses himself and knows himself before God. S.K. belittled reason only where it presumed to encroach upon tuners of faith. S.K. maintained that reason cannot provide adequate answers for problems of "infinite, personal, passionate interest"; he did not question the rights and capabilities of reason per se. Thus S.K. was not an "irrationalist" either in principle or in practice, and the last thing he wanted to he is precisely what his existentialist disciples have made of him, the founder of a philosophy which proves philosophically that philosophy is impossible. 3

From this follows a second observation which is not as common to the commentators: S.K.'s contention against reason was a purely and thoroughly religious one. S.K. was not a philosopher who through his philosophic-rational investigations of reason discovered and gave rational definition to the limits of reason--as though reason were capable of mapping the territory into which it cannot go and then denying itself entry. S.K. was not a philosopher-theologian graciously "leaving room" for faith; he was a man of faith "making room" for faith against the incursions of intellectualism. If at times some of the pseudonymous works give this other impression, it is not because S.K. himself actually was operating out of a philosophic stance; rather, the religious maieuticer had "gone back" in the guise of a pseudonym to interest "philosophers" and entice them forward into religion. S.K.'s antiintellectualism--as every other of his major themes--is more accurately explicated when one starts from the true, religious premises of Søren Kierkegaard rather than the pseudo, philosophic premises of the pseudonyms.

At base, S.K.'s antiintellectualism was directed not toward any defect or shortcoming within reason itself but toward the theological tendency to posit, justify, and defend Christianity on the grounds of its rational comprehensibility. Whether, then, all theologizing is to be considered as coming under S.K.'s strictures depends entirely upon how broadly one applies the term "theology." So-called biblical theology, lay theology, applied theology, practical theology, etc., likely would not. What definitely would is philosophical theology, systematic theology, and any other theology that tends toward interpreting Christianity primarily in terms of its cognitive coherency--and certainly, in S.K.'s day and traditionally, this is what the very word "theology" suggested. Thus S.K. could make the acid comment: "Who speaks in honor of [faith]? Philosophy goes further. Theology sits rouged at the window and courts its favor, offering to sell her charms to philosophy."4 And thus in the precise language of scholarship it is misleading to identify S.K. either as a philosopher or as a theologian, although in popular usage--where "philosopher" means simply "one who thinks about the meaning of life" and "theologian," "one who thinks about God and religion"-the terms are acceptable and, indeed, unavoidable.

It should be noted, and noted well, that the objection of both S.K. and the Brethren against theology did not have to do with the "content" of Christian doctrine. As S.K. said: "Doctrine, as normally expounded, is on the whole correct. Hence I am not quarreling about that." 5 In neither case are we dealing with a heterodoxy attacking orthodoxy in order to supplant orthodox beliefs with new ones of its own. Thus the antitheological bent of S.K. and the Brethren is something different from that of the Social Gospel, for example, in which the objection to theologizing was made suspect by the fact that the objectors were as much at odds with the basic content of orthodoxy as with the fact of its theologizing. The true Kierkegaard-sectarian concern is not so much that the churches hold wrong beliefs (beliefs in the sense of the basic, propositional definitions of the faith) as that they foster anemic belielf (belief in the sense of decisive, ventured commitment). The live threat to Christianity is not heresy (to which theologizing might be an appropriate response, if it would confine itself simply to teaching correct beliefs rather than striving to prove or justify them) but indifference (which theologizing tends to compound by suggesting that what Christianity basically requires is intellectual comprehension and assent).

Thus S.K. was deeply troubled over the fact that theology tends to obscure rather than elucidate the true nature of Christianity. His statement quoted below is most significant because of its date; in 1836-1837 S.K. was but twenty-four years old, six years away from the opening of his authorship. Yet here appears a protest that could as well be part of the Attack of 1855:

Every Christian concept has been so sublimated, so completely volatilized into a sea of fog that it is impossible to recognize it again. To such concepts as faith, incarnation, tradition, inspiration, which in Christianity must be referred to a particular historical fact, it has seemed good to philosophers to give an entirely different general meaning whereby faith becomes immediate certainty, which at bottom is neither more nor less than the vital fluid of the life of the mind, its atmosphere; tradition has become the summary of a certain world experience, whilst inspiration has become nothing but the result of God having breathed the spirit of life into man, and incarnation nothing else than the existence of one or other ideas in one or more individuals.6

This statement, and the continuing Kierkegaardian position of which it is an expression, carries some very interesting implications regarding the way S.K. has been used in modern theology. There is not necessarily any discrepancy at all between the fact that Emil Brunner calls S.K. "the greatest Christian thinker of modern times"7 and the fact that Karl Barth gives S.K. no attention whatsoever in his history of nineteenth century theology.8 S.K. could have been what Brunner says he was without being an appropriate subject for Barth's theological history. Either Brunner's, or Barth's, or both assessments of S.K. are actually more consistent than the approach of a Tillich or a Bultmann which draws heavily upon S.K. in the process of constructing a philosophical theology which almost certainly would come under Kierkegaardian condemnation.9 It would, perhaps, be both more accurate and more fair to posit an "either/or" rather than a liaison between all those who indulge in formal systematics and the man who said: "In relation to Christianity, systematic philosophy is merely skilled in the use of all sorts of diplomatic phraseology, which deceives the unsuspicious. Christianity as understood by the speculative philosopher is something different from Christianity as expounded for the simple."10

In accord with his avowed position, S.K. did not write theology in the traditional sense, and it is only by a perverse sort of exegesis that one can make him talk like a theologian. It is difficult to pin him down on the "normal" issues of theology, simply because he did not address himself to them. Indeed, it is apparent that he made a studied attempt to avoid customary theological terminology (such as "Trinity," "incarnation," "natures") even though it is equally apparent that he accepted the basic ideas with which the terms have to do.

An interesting example in this regard also provides a striking parallel with Brethrenism. In the course of his thought S.K., obviously, treated all three Persons of the Godhead time and again; but in all of his voluminous writings there is only one discussion of the Trinity as such, and this an unpublished journal entry. Even here, however, S.K. showed no interest at all in what the Godhead is in and for itself, what its essential nature may be or what the internal relations among the three Persons. The question he discussed is: what is the economy of the three Persons as they relate to the individual in the process of his finding salvation? His conclusion, very briefly put, was:

One begins with an immediate relationship to God the Father but soon finds the disparity too exacting and so is referred by the Father to the Son as Model. Now, the Model is found to be impossibly high and so the Model refers the man to Himself as Redeemer. However, even in the Redeemer the demands of the Model still stand, and so the Son refers the man to the Spirit as a source of present help, guidance, and comfort. Then, and only then, is the Spirit ready to lead one to the Son and the Son to the Father.11

Although in the course of their writings the eighteenth century Brethren obviously treated all three Persons of the Godhead, there appears only one discussion of the Trinity as such. But even here they showed no interest in what the Godhead is in and for itself, etc. But Christian Longenecker addressed himself to the question: what is the economy of the three Persons as they relate to the individual in the process of his finding salvation? His conclusion was: One first meets God through a confrontation with the Father in his holiness. As a consequence the man is so struck by his own sinfulness that he shuns intimacy and finds forgiveness incredible. Therefore, the "tug of the Father directs him to the throne of grace and brings him to the Son." "Now the Son will cleanse his flesh and spirit of all defilement and give him a new leader, namely, the Holy Spirit." And then the man discovers that "he can love God."12

The major significance of this parallel does not lie particularly in the results; there may be more of a difference than our brief summaries would indicate. Rather, the impressive factors of the comparison are these: In the first place, neither S.K. nor Longenecker was heterodox, but their approach to orthodoxy was unorthodox, to say the least. Both recognized the importance of a correct understanding of Christian doctrine; in neither S.K. nor the Brethren is there any hint of an "it doesn't matter what you believe" attitude. But on the other hand, both S.K. and the Brethren saw doctrine as correct only insofar as it was edifying, relevant to one's immediate existence. The test of true doctrine is whether it edifies, not whether it is logically consistent. Just as soon as doctrine wandered toward the abstract and theoretical, S.K. and the Brethren lost all interest.

The position of both S.K. and the Brethren surely can be described as antiintellectual; it accurately could be called non-theological if one confines the term "theology" to formal, speculative, systematic thought; it would be inaccurate to call the position doctrinally heedless or promiscuous; and it would be entirely out of order to term it irrational.

Viewed from his radically religious perspective, S.K.'s anti-intellectualism shows up at point after point in widely varying connections; in fact, it is seen to be the necessary negative that proceeds from any number of his positive motifs:

  1. Thus, because the concept of den Enkelte is a thrust in the direction of the personal, the concrete, the specific, the particular--any movement in the direction of abstraction and generality is to be condemned: "[People] regard Christianity as a sum of doctrinal statements and lecture upon them, just as they do upon ancient philosophy, the Hebrew language, or any other scientific discipline, treating the relation to them of the hearers or learners as entirely indifferent. Substantially this is paganism. The Christian position clearly is that the personal relationship to Christianity is the decisive thing."13 Doctrine, if it is to touch den Enkelte where he lives, must be edification directed to that individual, not theory directed to the forum of learning.14 And because God is a Person, den Enkelte's relationship to him must involve infinitely more than just intellectual cognition.15
  2. We are dealing with S.K.'s antiintellectualism immediately following our discussion of his concept of faith because the connection is very close. If faith is venture in the radical sense defined above, then it can in no way be rational calculation. The two are opposed movements, for reflection proceeds, not by leaping into seventy thousand fathoms of water, but by building a pier out from the shore, welding cautious deduction to proven premise every inch of the way:

    If I really have powers of reflection and am in a situation in which I have to act decisively--what then? My powers of reflection will show me exactly as many possibilities pro as contra.... There is nothing more impossible, or more self-contradictory than to act (decisively, infinitely) by virtue of reflection. If anyone asserts that they have done so they only give themselves away and show that either they have no powers of reflection (because the reflection which has not a pro for every contra is not reflection at all, the essence of it being its duality) or else they do not know what it means to act.16
  3. Immediately following this discussion of antiintellectualism will come a section on S.K.'s understanding of "inwardness," or "subjectivity." The relationship again is very close. Christianity becomes actual for a person only when it has driven radically inward, affecting his very being, touching the deepest wellsprings of his life; and cognitive propositions simply do not penetrate to this level. What follows is S.K.'s best and most succinct statement of an idea to which he devoted major attention. Would that in their effort to exegete S.K.'s "subjectivity" all his commentators might start with this little-used passage rather than confining their attention to words of the nonreligious pseudonyms:

    The truth, in the sense in which Christ was the truth, is not a sum of sentences, not a definition of concepts, etc., but a life. Truth in its very being is not the duplication of being in terms of thought, which yields only the thought of being.... No, truth in its very being is the reduplication in me, in thee, in him, so that my, that thy, that his life, approximately, in the striving to attain it, expresses the truth, so that my, that thy, that his life, approximately, in the striving to attain it, is the very being of truth, is a life, as the truth was in Christ, for He was the truth. And hence, Christianly understood, the truth consists not in knowing the truth but in being the truth.... No man knows more of the truth than what he is of the truth. Only then do I truly know the truth when it becomes a life in me.... And hence one sees what a monstrous error it is, very nearly the greatest possible error, to impart Christianity by lecturing."17

    At least something of the same thought was expressed in an anonymous tract which almost certainly comes from an eighteenth century Brethren source. In concluding his appeal, the author requests non-Christians to renounce their own sophistical judgments of the matters presented and pray God for a beginning of experience, saying, "A completely small experience of the Way which Christ himself is is better than a great fancy [einbildung] of the Way which Christ himself is."18

    Is this not an embryonic way of saying that truth "is a life, as the truth was in Christ" and not "the duplication of being in terms of thought"?
  4. The point at which the Brethren most fully justified and defended their antiintellectualism was as the negative counterpart of obedience. S.K. also had a strong emphasis on obedience and also saw that intellectualism is the enemy. "To reflect" is essentially opposed to "to obey," for reflection involves questioning, the demanding of an explanation, the holding back of commitment: "It is very far from being true that the longer a man deliberates and deliberates, the nearer he comes to God; on the contrary, the truth is that the longer the deliberation becomes while the choice is postponed, the farther he removes himself from God.... The ungodly calmness with which the irresolute man would begin in the case of God (for he would begin with doubt), precisely this is insubordination; for thereby God is deposed from the throne, from being the Lord."19

    In their earliest theological work, through the writing of Mack Senior, the Brethren also emphasized that obedience must take precedence over intellectualizing: "It is very good to look only to the express word of the Lord Jesus and to His own perfect example. If people would just follow after Him in the obedience of faith, taking reason captive in obedience to the Lord Jesus, they would not be led astray by the high sounding talk of men."20 A generation later, the second Alexander Mack discussed the matter in more detail, in response to a specific accusation that the Brethren shrink from the use of reason: "The baptism-minded ones [the "Dunkers"] wish to have no other system than the words of their Savior, as they stand written in the New Testament, which words never give place to reason, and not only as well-ringing gold, which can withstand the most severe inspection, but also will stand when heaven and earth pass away.... Under heaven there is to be found no higher honor for our small reason than where it may shine in the bonds and fetters of heavenly wisdom, and that, on the contrary, where it is met outside this captivity, it is outside its city of refuge."21 Certainly there may be an aspect of naivete to this "if people would just follow after Him," but if it has not become clear already, it presently will, that S.K., for one, always would rather be identified with naive obedience than with sophisticated theologizing.
  5. Another major characteristic of both S.K. and the Brethren is their "devotional immediacy," i.e. the sense of God's living presence and their intimate fellowship with him. Of course, to treat God primarily in terms of rational cognition would be to kill that sense of immediacy forthwith; thus, this is another grounds for antiintellectualism. As S.K. put it:

    That which a simple soul, in the happy impulse of the pious heart, feels no need of understanding in an elaborate way, since he simply seizes the Good immediately, is grasped by the clever one only at the cost of much time and much grief.22
    And in a word that is much more profound than its bantering tone might indicate:
    The best proof for the immortality of the soul, that God exists, etc., is really the impression one gets in one's childhood, and consequently the proof which, in conradiction to the learned and highfalutinproofs, can be described thus: it is quite certain, because my father told me so"23
  6. One of S.K.'s strongest protests against intellectualism came in connection with his insistence on the equality of all men before God. Clearly, if one's ability to theologize is a necessary aspect of his becoming a Christian, then many a person is damned for his low native ability:
    Are you, my reader, perhaps what is called an educated person? Well, I too am educated. But if you think to come closer to this Highest by the help of education, you make a great mistake.... Christianity is by no means the highest of education.... Alas, have not this education and the enthusiasm with which it is coveted rather developed a new kind of distinction, ad distinction between the educated and the non-educated.24
    From the Brethren side, Mack Junior, who shared S.K.'s concern about the quality before God, also saw that intellectual distinctions dare not be allowed to stand within Christianity:
    Great People can certainly make great deductions, but little people, for all that, have often learned so much out of the Bible which even great people have missed.25

It should be plain that although neither S.K. nor Brethren had much use for formal, rationalistic theology, they were not opposed to thinking and reason per se. Far from being philosophical irrationalists, they were Christians interested in preserving the simplicity and accessibility of the gospel. Indeed, their antiintellectualism was not even an independent and self-explanatory doctrine but only the negative corollary of the positive points they truly were concerned to make. Thus, on the one hand, Mag. Artium Hr. Søren Kierkegaard, "father" of philosophies, theologies, and psychologies whose number cannot yet be counted, and on the other hand, the simple, uneducated Brethren--these two were nonetheless of a mind regarding the place (more accurately, lack of place) of intellectualism within Christianity.

Copyright (c) 1968