Catholic Theology after Kierkegaard

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Joshua Furnal
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Catholic Theology After Kierkegaard is a revised dissertation, of the highest caliber. It is a model of thorough research, clarity of writing, and importance of thesis. The author, Joshua Furnal, demonstrates a deep knowledge of Kierkegaard’s writings, and of the scholarship on him from the twentieth century up to the present, in English, German, French, and Italian.

The book’s central thesis, argued winsomely and I think persuasively, is that Kierkegaard should be viewed positively by Catholic scholars today, particularly by those who seek to advance the cause of the ressourcement movement associated with authors such as Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Romano Guardini, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karol Wojtyla, and Joseph Ratzinger. Kierkegaard should not be viewed with suspicion, or as a threat or a distraction, but rather as a key contributor to the task of comprehending the tradition of Catholic theology and articulating the heart of that theology in today’s world. He should be viewed, in fact, as a kind of crypto-Catholic, who could plausibly have taken a path in life roughly similar to that of John Henry Newman, if he had lived longer.

The first chapter of the book presents a reading of Kierkegaard’s theological anthropology that takes seriously its Lutheran roots, while at the same time arguing that the trajectory of his anthropology fits well within a sense of “broader Catholicity.” The author agrees with Christopher Barnett’s view that “Kierkegaard’s emphasis on our utter dependence upon God and how the human creature receives being from God, is a theological position that can be traced back to Meister Eckhart and Thomas Aquinas” (38). The second chapter presents a broad overview of how Kierkegaard’s thought was received in the twentieth century by Catholic figures such as Theodor Haecker, Guardini, Erich Przywara, Erik Peterson, Jean Daniélou, Congar, James Collins, and Louis Dupré. This reception was mixed in terms of attitudes and quality of reading accuracy, but the overall picture allowed for the deeper engagements seen in de Lubac, von Balthasar, and then Cornelio Fabro, the Italian Thomist who emerges as the hero of the book. The author notes that Erik Peterson was a Protestant theologian who was led to be received into the Catholic Church primarily through the influence of Kierkegaard. For Peterson, Kierkegaard liberated Christian thought from “the iron cage that the dogmatism of Luther had locked humanity within” which was actually “a betrayal of human existence” (91).

These two stage-setting chapters are followed by three key chapters on de Lubac, von Balthasar, and Fabro. De Lubac is presented as engaging in a sympathetic reading of Kierkegaard that broadened out the sources of the ressourcement beyond just the Church Fathers and Aquinas to include also modern authors whose writings contribute in various ways to a deeper understanding of the Fathers and the Bible. The author notes that de Lubac venerated Kierkegaard “as ‘the herald of transcendence’ in an age ‘carried away by immanentism’” (115), and that de Lubac described Kierkegaard’s Fragments and Postscript as “masterpieces of the philosophical and religious literature of all time” (118). De Lubac’s theology of the eucharist is compared favorably to Kierkegaard’s deep devotion to the eucharist in his “Discourses at the Communion on Fridays”: “Kierkegaard insists that it is not the priest who gives Christ to us, but Christ himself who communicates his own life to us in the Eucharist. . . . In this way, Kierkegaard envisions that when Christ is lifted up, he draws all people to himself”(138–39). The author concludes that “ressourcement is not ‘a nostalgic retreat to the theological safety of premodern Christendom. Rather, it is a vital struggle for the proper diagnosis of our present condition’” (142), and that de Lubac saw Kierkegaard as an important ally for Catholic thinkers in this task of diagnosis.

The chapter on von Balthasar paints a mixed and much more problematic picture, in that von Balthasar did read Kierkegaard with a certain degree of seriousness, but was lacking in the area of clarity of interpretation. The author focuses on von Balthasar’s reading of The Concept of Anxiety, arguing that this work was misunderstood by him, and that this misunderstanding extended to the topics of aesthetics and christology. Balthasar and Heidegger were in agreement that Kierkegaard was the best psychologist since Aquinas, but both misconstrued Kierkegaard’s psychology, with unfortunate ramifications for their own thought.

The chapter on Cornelio Fabro is clearly the high point of this book, and it is the first major treatment in English of Fabro’s work as a Kierkegaard scholar. In distinction from prominent Thomists such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Fabro’s main claim was that “Kierkegaard’s writings arrive not infrequently at the threshold of Catholicism, or to be more precise, Thomism” (183). Fabro not only wrote extensively on Kierkegaard, he also learned Danish and became the principal translator of Kierkegaard’s writings into Italian. Just as a more accurate interpretation of Thomas had to be articulated in the twentieth century by climbing out from under the accumulated rubble of centuries of neo-scholastic misconstruals, so also did Kierkegaard’s thought require excavation from the rubble of twentieth century misuses of his ideas in authors such as Heidegger and Sartre. Fabro was able to see that Aquinas and Kierkegaard were engaged in similar tasks, namely reading the Bible, Plato, and Aristotle with sympathetic and synthetic eyes, reclaiming the classical tradition of realist thought. “Fabro portrays the trajectory of his life’s work as recovering Thomistic metaphysics in light of the crisis of modern atheism and the theological import of Kierkegaard’s writings” (194).

I am only scratching the surface of the Furnal’s rich overview of Fabro, and by his own admission his chapter is only the scratching the surface of Fabro’s engagement with Kierkegaard. Furnal concludes with the dual plea for contemporary Catholic theologians to read Kierkegaard and to so do without the presupposition that Kierkegaard’s theology is somehow at “cross-purposes with the reform and renewal of Catholic theology” (219).

About the Reviewer(s): 

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

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

Joshua Furnal is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology in the Faculty of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Radboud University, the Netherlands. Previously, he was a Visiting Research Fellow with the Leslie Center for the Humanities and a Lecturer in the Department of Religion at Dartmouth College (USA), and a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Durham University (UK) in the Department of Theology and Religion.


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