VI. B. The Character of Den Enkelte

G. Self-Examination

Now examine thyself--for that thou hast a right to do.
On the other hand, thou hast properly no right,
with out self-examination,
to let thyself be deluded by "the others,"
or to delude thyself into the belief
that thou art a Christian--therefore examine thyself.

The motif now before us is a close corollary of den Enkelte, inwardness, and devotional immediacy. As with devotional immediacy, in both S.K. and the Brethren it can be understood as a direct inheritance from Pietism. And again, it is as much a mood or quality of mind as it is a doctrine.

One of S.K.'s books bears the title For Self-Examination; many of the others could as well have. Likewise, the title of the first and major section of Michael Frantz's long poem is "Mirror and Test of Himself."2 The opening stanza reads:

Lord Jesus, Thou my Alpha and Omega,
 Thus my beginning and my end,
now have it in mind
 To lament to Thee how it is with me.

Seventy-six stanzas later he was still on the theme:

O! If I could rightly test myself,
 Then no one would be judged as I would be;
I should not rebuke others
 Until I have first judged myself.

And Stanza Ninety-Three reads:

Lord, help me test myself still more,
 Because I am very obscure to myself;
I can judge only on the basis of what I myself am,
 A self fallen into serious judgment.3

In an issue of Sauer Junior's Geistliche Magazien there appeared a brief appendix (evidently by Sauer himself) on "the necessity of self-proving," in which it is said:

Out of all considerations that a man can have, none is so necessary as this: that one's present thoughts and deeds agree with eternity, wherein one ponders what will be the result of each deed, word, and thought with which we detain ourselves.... Also, we must give God's judgment unimpartially not only upon all our deeds but also upon each unnecessary word that we have spoken.4

In addition to such specific references, Brethren devotional literature is pervaded throughout with this mood of pietistic soul-searching; the certainty of God's presence continually reflected itself in questions ahout one's own responsiveness. Without doubt a similar mood of introspection could be found in many writers of the churchly tradition, yet it does seem to be more widely typical of the sectaries.

However, if the flavor is pervasive in Brethrenism, in S.K. it is so strong that some readers find it distasteful Of course, S.K. did indulge in self-dissection, although this emphasis in Kierkegaard studies is not entirely of his doing. As we observed earlier, scholars have taken it upon themselves to set out and footnote every "self-examining" passage in S.K.'s works, even where he had not intended them to be read as such, and so too have his journals been edited in a way that makes this aspect more central than it actually was.

Nevertheless it is probably true that no one in history ever has been more acutely cognizant of and concerned about his own inner nature, development, and history than was Søren Kierkegaard. Reinhold Niebuhr has called him "the profoundest interpreter of the psychology of the religious life since Augustine";5 and with S.K., as with Augustine, that psychology was learned from precisely one case study, himself.

S.K.'s penchant for self-examination was, of course, in part a purely personal propensity; but more than that, it was part and parcel of his religious orientation and tradition. Self-examination is a necessary concomitant of the Kierkegaardian concept of faith. As was his custom, S.K. could and did put the matter in general, semiphilosophic terms:

The law for the development of the self with respect to knowledge ... is this, that the increasing degree of knowledge corresponds with the degree of self-knowledge, the more the self knows, the more it knows itself.6

And as was even more customary with S.K., he did not leave the matter on the level of abstract statement but made it more personal, more religious, more Christian: "It is indeed our aim to prompt the hearer to test his life, his Christianity, to be observant of where he is."7 A most important point regarding self-examination, although one that almost goes without saying, is that it must take place before God and with his help. Thus S.K. was an enthusiastic supporter of the office of confession--not auricular confession to a priest (in which S.K. would have had no interest) but the Lutheran practice of his day, which was a service of worship preceding communion, directed specifically to helping the individual make his personal confession to God. A number of S.K.'s discourses were designated for this occasion, and of confession, S.K. said

Not God, but you, the maker of the confession, get to know something by your act of confession. Much that you are able to keep hidden in darkness, you first get to know by your opening it to the knowledge of the all-knowing One.8

Although apparently not attested from eighteenth century sources, the Brethren traditionally have followed much the same practice. Theirs was not called "confession" but precisely "the self-examination service" (based on Paul's "Let each man examine himself" [1 Cor. 11:28)). It took the form not only of a direct adjunct to the agape-communion service but also of an earlier visit by the deacons with each member of the congregation individually.

Copyright (c) 1968