Kierkegaard's Theological Sociology

Prophetic Fire for the Present Age

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Paul Tyson
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , March
     2019.
     148 pages.
     $20.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781532648250.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The central thesis of this well researched and argued book is that Søren Kierkegaard’s thought, at its core, was proposing a theological groundwork for what we know now as the social sciences. This turns out to be a road not taken, as the secularization of Western thought in the late 19th and early 20th centuries mandated that social science operate according to a “methodological atheism” within which the religious beliefs of the social scientist—if they had any, which is unlikely—have no bearing on the questions asked and the answers given by “social science.” Auguste Comte, Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud are key authors in this secularizing trend, but they are just as much symptoms of the trend as they are causative agents within it. In Kierkegaard’s Theological Sociology: Prophetic Fire for the Present Age, Paul Tyson demonstrates his knowledge of this intellectual terrain very well, and he argues forcefully that Kierkegaard saw with prescience that the developing secular methodologies would produce poorer results than would a more robust and careful presentation of the sources of insight available in theological anthropology.

Tyson focuses mainly on Kierkegaard’s book Two Ages: A Literary Review (1846), though he is clearly aware of the Dane’s complex authorship as a whole. Tyson could have written a longer and more complex book, drawing also on The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin (1844), Christian Discourses (1848), Works of Love (1847), The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening (1849), as well as other books by Kierkegaard. I hope that such a work is on the future research agenda of this author. In this work Tyson felt it sufficient to make his methodological argument by drawing primarily on Two Ages, in which he finds the idea that human beings are intrinsically religious: we always worship something. The question that faces us, perennially, is whether our lives will be characterized more accurately by the term idolatry or by the term faith. Idolatry can take various forms, such as the “high ideals” of a revolution that lead to terror and beheadings, or it can lead to an insipid age of levelling, which is characterized by gossip, distracting entertainment, and the anonymity of the press dominating and directing the masses. In both cases what is lacking is a vital connection between individual persons and God, which is the only sure pathway to social and political health.

Tyson says “[i]f we are trying to understand human society and we have a fundamentally wrong conception of what constitutes the human soul, our social and human sciences are going to have a bizarrely abstract and point-missing quality to them, no matter how rigorous their empirical data and statistical analysis is” (xi). If we have a seriously faulty understanding of the human person, this will not only hamper social scientific understanding, it will also contribute to a world that actually furthers the dehumanization and violent treatment of human beings, which is precisely what happened in the 20th century. Tyson believes that the notion that Kierkegaard was an “individualistic” thinker who was ignorant of social realities is upside down; Kierkegaard was actually one of the most perceptive sociological thinkers in the modern era, but his insights have not been appreciated as such given that they are operating on a different wavelength than the standard secular models. He sees sociology doxologically—meaning that the character of our worship will be either idolatrous and violent, or faithful and loving, depending on the quality of our relationship to our Creator.

Tyson articulates a broad critique of the methods and results of modern social science, drawing on thinkers such as Jacques Ellul, Michael Polanyi, Christopher Lasch, John Milbank, Charles Taylor, William Cavanaugh, and Brad Gregory. Synthesizing insights from these authors, and others, allows him to paint a picture of Kierkegaard’s theological sociology as a kind of prophetic fire that seeks to burn away the various idolatries of our age. One false cultural construct today is dystopian fantasies, which are popular in fiction and movies. These are truthful in the sense that they depict the dire future that humanity faces if it continues down its current path of environmental destruction and social division. Yet they are untruthful in not calling human beings to the pathway of repentance, hope, and spiritual maturity in relation to God. There is also an opposite mistake of the modern world, which is a false optimism regarding technological progress and the supposed human ability to fix the problems we have created. This modern Pelagianism is criticized at a deep level in Kierkegaard’s thought as a whole. To worship ourselves is just another form of idolatry. Another mistake is to adopt an attitude of “fundamental perplexity” and simply throw up one’s hands and declare that the human situation is too complex, uncertain, and relativistic to make any real sense of. “But where there is no frame of thinking about the drivers of society other than functionally materialist, functionally atheistic frames, then where this impasse will take us and what it means remains entirely opaque” (123).

Tyson concludes that we can learn from Kierkegaard that the virtue of hope can be enkindled in us when we leave idolatry behind and turn to faith, in response to God’s grace. He argues that Kierkegaard’s thought is a fire that burns down the false assumptions of a materialistic approach to understanding human social dynamics; another way of putting this is to say that Kierkegaard’s attack upon Christendom has become, in our day, an attack upon post-Christendom. Yet the metaphor of fire can be turned in a positive direction when we see Kierkegaard’s thought as a warming hearth for the faithful. “This courageous, infuriating, cantankerous, and profoundly passionate Dane can remind us of the obvious dynamics of the social world, and draw us back to the deep resources of Christian theology in understanding the world in which we live” (125).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles K. Bellinger is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at Brite Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
September 4, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul Tyson is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and the University of Queensland, Australia.

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