Kierkegaard and Religion

Personality, Character, and Virtue

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Sylvia Walsh
Cambridge Studies in Religion, Philosophy, and Science
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , March
     2018.
     265 pages.
     $71.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781107180581.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

I love teaching Kierkegaard to undergraduates. Despite the collegiate pressure cooker of parental expectations, peer assumptions, and social norms, in Kierkegaard’s texts students encounter an enigmatic thinker who invites them to devote their lives entirely to becoming a self by developing a personality and character that are not mere reflections of what they take for granted, but radical interruptions of their basic beliefs about existence and what matters in it. Although looks of incredulity are not infrequent from my students upon first reading Kierkegaard, many eventually claim that their lives were transformed by the invitation to selfhood that he offered to them. 

In her new book, Kierkegaard and Religion: Personality, Character, and Virtue, Sylvia Walsh offers one of the clearest and most compelling defenses of Kierkegaard’s view of selfhood as an essentially religious conception grounded in an appreciation of an “inverse dialectic” whereby what is positive is “always given expression and known in negative or opposite form” (7). What might be viewed as the proto-existentialist or melancholic strands in Kierkegaard’s thought are, on Walsh’s reading, rightly considered specifically Christian approaches to subjectivity as grounded in pathos and passion. Rather than knowledge, we are encouraged to trust. Instead of guarantees, we are invited to embrace risk. Not merely hoping for what will come in eternity, we eternally hope for a transformation of finitude itself. Moreover, instead of finding joy in overcoming oneself, joy emerges as a result of the humility and self-denial that come from realizing our ultimate incapacity in relation to God. 

Although these are themes that are fairly standard fare in the Kierkegaard literature, Walsh’s approach is distinctive by taking as its framework contemporary debates in empirical psychology regarding the notions of personality and character. Arguing that Kierkegaard offers a concept of personality that is “a multifaceted construct,” she suggests that he is a profound resource to empirical studies because he is “able to explain both consistency and inconsistency in human behavior via a religious analysis of human existence” understood in light of the duality of phenomena revealed in the inverse dialectic (176). As such, Walsh’s book is not simply a commentary on Kierkegaard, but also a constructive account of how to understand the potentially necessary religious dimensions of character building and personality development. Displaying a substantive understanding of the empirical literature, Walsh’s account does not come across as defensive or reactionary, but instead is a nuanced and patient interrogation of what might get missed if we allow objectivist assumptions to remain operative in our scholarship and our social lives. 

In contrast to some recent readings of Kierkegaard that attempt to secularize his relevance, Walsh is unapologetic about the religious dynamic that makes his thought retain its traction in our contemporary world: “This study has sought above all to underscore the importance of religion for becoming an authentic self, concrete personality, single individual, and person of character in Kierkegaard’s thought” (175). As she notes repeatedly, for Kierkegaard, the “infinite measure of what it means to be a human being” is exemplified in the person of Jesus Christ (175). 

Given the focus on religious character, it might seem that Walsh would locate Kierkegaard in a long line of Christian virtue theorists, as many other Kierkegaard scholars have done. Perhaps surprisingly though, she mounts a robust textual case that Kierkegaard “largely adopts a negative stance toward virtue in his authorship, associating it with sagacity, the complacent social morality of modern Christendom, and the presumed capacity of human beings to realize the good on their own and to acquire merit for it” (106). Suggesting that he is better understood as a “character ethicist” than a “virtue ethicist,” Walsh emphasizes that the goal is not acquiring merit, but rather living a loving life characterized by the “loftiness” of “lowliness” that is the key to imitating Christ (131). Indeed, the theme of self-denial, rather than self-overcoming, is a hallmark of Walsh’s presentation. She develops this theme in an especially interesting chapter that compares Kierkegaard’s account to medieval Catholicism. Therein she argues that Kierkegaard recommends “taking a backward, inverse, indirect course rather than a straightforward, direct one in ascending to the highest expression of Christian character in the loftiness and abasement of Christian love instead of striving to climb a ladder of virtue by which to scale paradise” (152). 

Building on this idea of Christian love, in the last chapter Walsh offers what I take to be an implicit Kierkegaardian political theology, though it is not presented as such. In a time when churches, like people, are evaluated by their success rather than by their faithfulness, and when power and wealth are deemed sufficient for greatness, Kierkegaard calls for churches to become militant rather than triumphant in relation to cultural captivity (166), and for us to love the unlovable (161), while interrupting our economic frameworks with a divine logic that erases the distinction between “mine” and “yours” (162). Rather than being sufficient through our own strength, Kierkegaard shows that “the more profound self-knowledge thus begins with gaining oneself rather than the whole world, becoming a person in need rather than the master of all things, and being capable of nothing at all rather than nursing the delusion of being capable of all things” (159). 

In this incredibly clear, sweepingly aware, and compellingly argued book, Walsh presents Kierkegaard as being most radical when at his most religious, and at his most empirically relevant when at his most existentially concerned. Although this book is primarily written for a scholarly audience, the Kierkegaard that Sylvia Walsh presents is someone that I hope all my students get to meet. And since I get to decide what goes on the syllabus, I will make sure that they do.

About the Reviewer(s): 

J. Aaron Simmons is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Furman University and Vice President of the Søren Kierkegaard Society. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including God and the Other: Ethics and Politics After the Theological Turn, and Kierkegaard’s God and the Good Life.

Date of Review: 
June 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sylvia Walsh is the author of Kierkegaard: Thinking Christianly in an Existential Mode (2009); Living Christianly: Kierkegaard's Dialectic of Christian Existence (2005); Living Poetically: Kierkegaard's Existential Aesthetics (1994); translator of Kierkegaard's Discourses at the Communion on Fridays (2011) and Fear and Trembling (Cambridge, 2006); and co-editor of Feminist Interpretations of Kierkegaard (1997). She directed a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar for College Teachers on Kierkegaard and served as president of the Søren Kierkegaard Society, co-chair of the Kierkegaard, Religion and Culture Group in the American Academy of Religion (AAR), and advisory board member of International Kierkegaard Commentary.

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