Augustine and Kierkegaard

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Kim Paffenroth, John Doody, Helene Tallon Russell
Augustine in Conversation: Tradition and Innovation
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Rowman & Littlefield
    , September
     338 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This volume marks a shift in a venerable series. Whereas previous volumes edited by Doody and Paffenroth paired Augustine with a broad topic (most recently, the environment), this entry puts Augustine into conversation with a specific thinker. As a result, the collection brings together contributions concerning myriad themes ranging from temporality to ethics. The unifying principle of this volume is the fact that all of these themes were treated, at one point or another, by both Augustine and the 19th-century Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard. What remains to be seen is the degree to which a “dialogue” between the two can prove both “intriguing and fruitful,” as Paffenroth and Russell put it in their coauthored introduction (ix). 

To move from a thematic to an authorial focus is sure to breathe new life into the series, although the choice of Kierkegaard might be surprising to some. Other names might leap more readily to mind when we think of pairing Augustine with modern thinkers: Augustine and Heidegger is probably the most obvious, but one could also think of work that has been and is being done on Augustine and Ricoeur, Augustine and Arendt, even Augustine and Hegel. Augustine and Kierkegaard, meanwhile, diverge on many key points, as several of the contributed chapters attest. Yet divergence need not delay dialogue. Sometimes the most fruitful conversations take place between those who disagree in intriguing ways. 

In the second chapter, titled “The Image of God in Augustine and Kierkegaard,” Matt Drever testifies to key differences between the two thinkers, while at the same time suggesting some underlying sensibilities shared by both. For Drever, there is no simple narrative line to be drawn from Augustine to the “modernist”—say, to Hegel—or to what he terms the “postmodernist”—Heidegger, perhaps (27). Rather, both Augustine and Kierkegaard find themselves located not only at the roots of both the modern and the postmodern, but also at the roots of the very questions which take us from the former to the latter. Though Augustine and Kierkegaard share trajectories in this regard, Drever stops short of arguing for direct influence of the African bishop upon the Danish firebrand. In this, he agrees with Lee Barrett, whose recent work provides much of the scholarly background for this volume’s chapters. Both Drever and Barrett would concede, then, that Kierkegaard neither thought of himself as properly Augustinian, nor possessed a particularly firm grasp on the Augustinian oeuvre. Instead, what brings the two together is a shared sense that the “path to authentic selfhood” can only be trodden if its destination is God (38). 

This need not lapse into some solipsistic quest, however. For Drever, the Augustinian-Kierkegaardian path remains deeply social: love of God and love of neighbor cooperate to guide us in our self-realization, even if the deepest unity between these loves must await eschatological consummation (39). Drever’s careful analysis is echoed in the seventh chapter, “Sacrament and Self-Construction,” by Janna Gonwa. There, the claim is that both thinkers anticipated the need for an account of subjectivity in the face of self-fragmentation, which is often thought to be modern despite its pre-modern roots. As Gonwa argues, this should highlight the “continued potential for theistic teleological accounts of subject-formation to respond to current worries about agency, contingency, and fragmentation” (137).  

The fifth and sixth chapters offer us a window into Augustinian and Kierkegaardian accounts of temporality. In “Kierkegaard and Augustine on Time,” Karl Aho (again building upon Barrett) states that both authors shared an obsession with the present. Yet he qualifies this by adding that Kierkegaard reifies the present, while Augustine undermines the present in the name of the future (91-92). While this may seem a gaping chasm rather than a qualification, Aho ultimately concludes that Kierkegaard is offering a “corrective” to Augustine on the question of time (104). Both seek to “edify their readers” via a therapeutics of temporality (106); Kierkegaard simply does a better job. One counterpoint here would be to argue that Augustine was not, in fact, offering a therapeutic account of time, but rather ratcheting up our existential quandary as time-bound beings who dream of a timeless present. Robert Reed’s chapter, “Eternal Becoming and Temporal Understanding,” hits closer to the mark with its argument that Kierkegaardian faith relies upon an unimaginable “instant” of decision, whereas Augustine rejects the instant in favor of a drawn-out process of fides quaerens intellectum (124). 

In the thirteenth chapter, “Augustine and Kierkegaard on the Church,” Barrett argues that despite the parallels we hope to posit between Augustine and Kierkegaard, they ultimately diverge quite radically in matters of ecclesiology. It remains true that both authors ask difficult questions about selfhood in the face of fragmentation, but they depict entirely different roles for the Church when it comes to solving those questions. For Augustine, the ecclesia remains “Mother”; for Kierkegaard, it had to become a provocateur, even a “Socratic gadfly” (250). Barrett concludes that the reason for this divide was contextual. Augustine had to convince his flock to direct their passions rightly; Kierkegaard just wanted his fellow Danes to get passionate in the first place. Altered contexts thus made for rival ecclesiologies. 

Stepping back to take a holistic view, it looks like the most successful contributions here are those admitting that Augustine and Kierkegaard are probably more unalike than alike on most issues. And yet, the dialogue must continue. The goal, however, will be not to force together quite brilliantly distinct authors, but instead to creatively contrast them in such a way that future chapters in this dialogue will be even more “intriguing and fruitful” (ix).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sean Hannan is Assistant Professor in the Humanities Department at MacEwan University.

Date of Review: 
May 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kim Paffenroth is professor of religious studies and the director of the Honors Program at Iona College. 

John Doody is professor of philosophy and Robert M. Birmingham Chair in humanities at Villanova University.

Helene Tallon Russell is associate professor of theology at Christian Theological Seminary.


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