Contemporary with Christ
Kierkegaard and Second-Personal Spirituality
- ISBN: 9781481310871
- Published By: Baylor University Press
- Published: July 2020
Joshua Cockayne’s Contemporary with Christ: Kierkegaard and Second-Personal Spirituality is another of many recent efforts to provide an account of the spirituality of the Danish philosopher/theologian Søren Kierkegaard. The focus of the text is twofold: first, the stated goal of the author is to remedy what he identifies as a frequent oversight in the field of analytic theology, namely the overemphasis on rationality/argument to the detriment of spirituality. Cockayne, therefore, introduces Kierkegaard’s spirituality to challenge formulations which are insufficiently spiritual, a move with resonances to Kierkegaard’s attacks on Christendom in his own time. Second, this text seeks to argue for the priority of the notion of a “second-personal” orientation to Kierkegaard’s thought. This second-personal orientation is, of course, contrasted from either a “first-personal” or “third-personal” approach, where the first-personal is understood to be the sphere of individual religious experience, while the third-personal is the domain of knowledge or concept, as defined by Cockayne (12-13). Kierkegaard’s second-personal approach is thus an orientation devoted to the “you” of Jesus, said by one who is “contemporary” with Christ; that is, the ideal spirituality as expressed by Kierkegaard in Cockayne’s account, is the person who fully understands themselves as a self before God as a present and ongoing reality, in an active, personal relationship.
The work is split into two main parts: the first introduces the second-personal approach of Kierkegaard and provides an overview of his spirituality in this register, while the second focuses on specific spiritual activities, namely prayer, scripture, reception of communion, and spiritual growth through encountering suffering and death. For well-versed readers of Kierkegaard, this information will be generally familiar, containing as it does key features of his thought. As an example, in chapters 1 and 2, on “Knowing God” and “Understanding God,” Cockayne describes how Kierkegaard critiques theologians, clergy, and people in general who think Christianity is about a correct knowing or thinking of the religion, as opposed to the radical form of lived religion that Kierkegaard actually advocates for. The innovative moments of the book come in the way in which Cockayne connects Kierkegaard’s thought with modern research, primarily psychological and philosophical. Cockayne, will, for example, spend a great deal of time explaining how current psychological studies can both help us think through what Kierkegaard might mean by “contemporary with Christ” and also support the effectiveness of his approach as a form of spirituality.
Cockayne’s text is quite thorough in its reading of Kierkegaard. It is well-researched, well-referenced, and serves competently as a guide into Kierkegaard’s spirituality and current research. However, I would still offer a few brief critiques of the book, which are less so criticisms and more so cautions about modes of presentation. I also think that these will help readers see the potential benefits of the text.
Cockayne is an analytic theologian—that is, a thinker with training in analytic philosophical methods; Kierkegaard is, of course, most commonly considered a continental philosopher. While the differences between the approaches are sometimes overstated, Cockayne does acknowledge that there are differences, and his stated goal in the text is to use Kierkegaard to influence the approach of analytic theology. And yet, as he writes: “It seems clear that Kierkegaard would dislike huge swathes of what is produced by philosophers of religion and analytic theologians.” (2) I would not presume to suggest what Kierkegaard would actually say, but I did have some hesitations about the method employed in this text, even as it is offering a correction. Cockayne emphasizes Kierkegaard’s “rational” side (3) and puts his work into dialogue with contemporary science and psychology, while also employing categories and terminology foreign to Kierkegaard throughout, such as “cognitive penetration of perception” (56) or even the very structure of “second-personal” spirituality. Again, this is less of a critique than a matter of tone; if you are interested in Kierkegaard’s thought being brought into dialogue with contemporary psychology and analytic thought, then you are likely to quite enjoy this book, and to be enriched by it.
A second critique is related to this concern about certain analytic forms of thinking, which structure the world in a subject/object format and emphasize reason and knowledge. Kierkegaard complicates this quite explicitly, suggesting that God cannot be thought of as an object and is instead a pure subjectivity. The subject must therefore know God as subject, an activity which makes little sense in a subject/object framework, and is perhaps intended to upend any attempt at knowing God. And yet, Cockayne concludes: “Becoming contemporary with Christ allows both a knowledge of God and a mutual empathy with God. Contemporaneity should be understood as a kind of encounter with Christ’s presence” (59). Cockayne goes through quite an extensive effort to still be able to say that Kierkegaard “allows [for] a knowledge of God.” Again, this pursuit takes him through much contemporary psychology and, I would suggest, misses essentially all of the apophatic aspects of Kierkegaard’s thought. Reading Cockayne’s text in dialogue with Peter Kline’s Passion for Nothing: Kierkegaard’s Apophatic Theology (Fortress 2017) perhaps reveals just how (wildly) divergent two well-cited scholarly texts on Kierkegaard’s thought can be.
A final critique is similarly oriented to the matter of tone in terms of the presentation of Kierkegaard’s thought. Kierkegaard offers a scathing treatment of “Christendom;” at a minimum, his relationship with the institutional church is fairly characterized as complicated. Cockayne does not entirely neglect this, but the direction of his volume is surely towards an institutional spirituality. The section on communion is an example of this; that Kierkegaard, on his death bed, refused to receive communion because Danish clergy were “royal functionaries” is not insignificant to Kierkegaard’s understanding of the matter, but this account is not discussed here. Kierkegaard assuredly did say many wonderful things about communion, and it is good to read and understand those things; but it is important to say that Kierkegaard apparently considered the reception of communion from an institutionally affiliated person secondary to some higher spiritual principle.
Matthew Kruger is assistant professor of the practice in the theology department at Boston College.Matthew KrugerDate Of Review:March 31, 2022