Kierkegaard's God and the Good Life

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Editor(s): 
J. Aaron Simmons, Michael Strawser, Stephen Minister
Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    University of Indiana Press
    , September
     2017.
     292 pages.
     $40.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780253029362.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The editors open their introduction to this anthology of original essays by describing the essays’ common theme: using Kierkegaard’s texts to explore ways of “dealing with complex questions that lie at the intersection of religion and ethics” (ix). Not so long ago, such a theme would have elicted essays on Kierkegaard’s theory of “stages” (especially the ethical and the religious) and his associated pseudonymous authorship. That those issues are barely mentioned here is a testimony to a major turn in Kierkegaard studies. For decades, Kierkegaard’s earlier glittering, elusive pseudonymous authorship had a stranglehold on scholarly attention while his “second authorship”—later texts published under his own name (for the most part), which are direct, earnest, and overtly aimed at “upbuilding” or “edification”—received less consideration. This collection reflects and contributes to a major shift in attention toward the later veronymous, upbuilding texts, reading them for their insights into moral and religious psychology, especially as they relate to current social issues.

While this volume’s focus on Kierkegaard’s later works is in line with current scholarly trends, its title is surprising. Talk of “the good life” is suggestive of eudaemonistic ethics (an ethics oriented around the happiness of the agent), and Kierkegaard is roundly hostile to eudaemonism. The editors’ brief introduction doesn’t directly explain the title choice or its counterintuitive character, but in his essay, Ed Mooney addresses it: “Kierkegaard is usually taken to focus on life’s difficulties and anxieties than on what a well-lived life might look like. There’s even something bourgeois about the concept of ‘a well-lived life’—a successful career, comfort, good money, and family” (173). Rather than steering clear of the concept, Mooney questions what “a good life” would look like within the framework of Kierkegaard’s thought. He strikingly asks how we are to see the Abraham of Fear and Trembling, the father commanded by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as living the good life. Clearly, it needs to be a broader, richer, more conflicted notion of well-being than we find in typical eudaemonism. Collectively, the essays in this volume make a start on sketching out what such an alternative notion of well-being might amount to as that relates to the volume’s three sections: a first on the relation of faith and love, a second on moral psychology and ethical existence, and a third on existence before God.

The five essays in part 1, “Faith and Love,” resume and extend one of the liveliest recent debates in Kierkegaard studies: how to assess Kierkegaard’s juxtaposition in Works of Love of particular, preferential love (elskov) with universal, non-preferential neighbor love (kærlighed). Broadly, interpreters have disputed whether the two forms of love are simply incompatible or whether neighbor love might coexist with and transfigure preferential loves. Sharon Krishek, whose Kierkegaard on Faith and Love (Cambridge University Press, 2009) significantly intensified this debate, opens the volume with a construal of love in broadly Aristotelian terms: God creates us with the potential to love and establishes love as the telos of human existence, but it is up to human agency to actualize that potential and realize that end. This way of framing love parallels Judge William’s play on Danish words for gift (gave) and task (opgave) in describing married love in Either/Or 2. Pia Søltoft offers a striking challenge to standard readings of the two forms of love as fundamentally distinct and even opposed, branding this as an anachronistic projection of Anders Nygren’s 20th century analysis oferos and agape back onto Kierkegaard. All the essays in this section are astute, with Michael Strawser contesting Louis Mackey’s reading of faith and Mark Tietjen linking Kierkegaard and Simone Weil, but I am especially grateful for John Davenport’s thorough, careful, and precise analysis of the debate over the compatibility of preferential and neighbor loves. This essay is an enormously helpful review of the existing debate, and it points a way forward that seems entirely convincing to me, reading Works of Love in a way interestingly parallel to Judge William’s ideas about married love in Either/Or 2.

Part 2, “Moral Psychology and Ethical Existence,” consists of four essays. John Lippitt’s reads Kierkegaard as a virtue ethicist (with a particular focus on humility and gratitude); Rick Furtak emphasizes passion as epistemologically essential; Stephen Minister insightfully juxtaposes Levinas and Kierkegaard on religious and ethical maturity. Alongside these three excellent essays, a fourth stands out as highly distinctive: Christopher Barnett applies Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel’s notion of knowledge as system to that looming presence on our own epistemological landscape, Google. Just as Kierkegaard worried that the objective, disinterested stance promoted by Hegel would lead us to forget what it is to exist authentically, so Barnett sees hauntingly similar threats in the epistemological proclivities of the internet age. This essay compellingly fulfills the editors’ aim of showing the relevance of Kierkegaard to current social and political issues.

The final section on “Existence Before God” offers four rather diverse essays. The first is Ed Mooney’s, which, as I noted above, is the only essay in the volume to directly engage the reference to the good life in the volume’s title. Marilyn Piety draws comparisons between Kierkegaard’s Christian epistemology and that of several early church fathers. Grant Julin offers an insightful reading of Kierkegaard’s multiple treatments of Job. In a surprising concluding essay, Aaron Simmons invites us to read Kierkegaard as a Pentecostal thinker (broadly construed). I confess to meeting this claim with skepticism. In Kierkegaard’s Denmark, N. F. S. Grundtvig led the Danish Lutheran Church from sterile Enlightenment rationalism toward a more emotional, inspired mode of religious life. If Grundtvig does have points of similarity to Pentecostalism, then Simmons needs to speak to Kierkegaard’s dripping disdain for Grundtvig, even as his own brother joined his cause.

This is an engaging and insightful volume of articles, many of which I expect to see cited in ongoing discussions of Kierkegaard.

About the Reviewer(s): 

George Connell is Professor of Philosophy at Concordia College in Moorehead, MN.

Date of Review: 
July 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

J. Aaron Simmons is associate professor of philosophy at Furman University in Greenville, SC. He is author of God and the Other: Ethics and Politics After the Theological Turn and author (with Bruce Ellis Benson) of The New Phenomenology: A Philosophical Introduction.

Michael Strawser is chair of the department of philosophy and professor of philosophy at the University of Central Florida. He is author of Both/And: Reading Kierkegaard from Irony to Edification and Kierkegaard and the Philosophy of Love.

Stephen Minister is Clara Lea Olsen professor of ethical values and associate professor of philosophy at Augustana University in South Dakota. He is the author of De-Facing the Other: Reason, Ethics, and Politics after Difference. 

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