Kierkegaard and the Paradox of Religious Diversity

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George B. Connell
Kierkegaard as a Christian Thinker
  • Cambridge, UK: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , February
     202 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this text, George B. Connell addresses the problem of religious commitment in a world of religious pluralism. Rather than a gradual disappearance of religion from public life, apropos the secularization thesis, we find ourselves in a world with religious disagreements playing a part in many conflicts across the world. Is it possible to carve out a position that honors one’s honest commitment to a particular religious identity, which at the same time allows one to live in peace with the religious Other in an authentic way? One encounters two difficulties in the quest. Either one waters down the particularity of each faith tradition in order to highlight the universal humanity that we all share, or one emphasizes the particular differences to the detriment of any sort of shared humanity. This problem of religious universality and particularity is at the center of Connell’s argument, and it is by reading Kierkegaard in the light of the problem of religious diversity that Connell hopes to address this problem.

As Connell points out, applying the concept of religious diversity is anachronistic, since Kierkegaard’s own authorship is set within the context of 19thcentury Danish Christendom. More problematically, there has been an appropriation of Kierkegaard’s thought in modern political Danish discourse by the far-right, particularly around the topic of immigration and the perceived threat of the loss of a particular “Danish” way of life. It is true that Kierkegaard seems to use language that is pejorative—“pagan,” for example—and thus on a surface reading, this may reflect intolerance of religious difference. A closer examination, however, reveals that the harshness of his critique reflects his utilization of the term in his critique against Danish Christendom, a critique that includes any claims to Danish exceptionalism or the preservation of a particularly Danish way of life. Kierkegaard probably was not concerned with passing judgment on alternative religious systems. Connell maintains that Kierkegaard’s writings are rich with a number of concepts that serve a useful role in addressing the concept of religious diversity.

Chapter 1 serves as a prolegomena of what follows by addressing the mention of religious Others in Kierkegaard’s writing. Kierkegaard’s own taxonomy of religion is based on a tripartite structure: pagans, Jews, and Christians. Connell does an excellent job here navigating the “mixed bag” that is Kierkegaard’s use of these terms, particularly how Kierkegaard addresses the question of Judaism. On the one hand, Kierkegaard without a doubt wrote many unkind things about the Jewish people. Without excusing him, he was very much a man of his times in this way. On the other hand, he often uses both terms, pagan and Jew, not to refer to non-Christian religious Others, but to point out the faults within Christendom itself, while seeming to open up the possibility that being a pagan (i.e., a catch all for non-Jewish, non-Christian religious Others) or a Jew is a “live option” for a person in society that merits no social stigma. 

Guiding the rest of the book’s layout are Philip Quinn’s four challenges of religious diversity: epistemological conflict, definitions of religion, religious intolerance, and constructive comparisons. Chapter 2 is dedicated to the problem of epistemological conflict, or how one should understand the conflicting truth-claims between different religious traditions. Connell addresses the familiar classifications of exclusivism, pluralism, and inclusivism, but he reads them through the lens of what he calls “the phenomenology of moods,” borrowing an idea from Martin Heidegger that mood is what gives us access to being. It is then not simply the truth claims that matter in the case of religious difference, but how my mood reveals the religious Other. Connell lays out three Kierkegaardian moods that roughly correspond to exclusivism, pluralism, and inclusivism: seriousness, irony, and humor. Whereas seriousness reveals the Other to be a rival, and irony relativizes all particular religious claims, Kierkegaardian humor, with its acknowledgement of transcendent truth tempered by a knowledge of human epistemic limitation, opens the way for one to adhere to one’s particular faith commitment while acknowledging the shared humanity and mutual epistemic limitations of the religious Other. This question of Kierkegaardian humor is by far the most important element in Connell’s argument. It is a question I’ve pondered myself concerning the role of religious difference and the public square, and I’m glad to see it addressed here.

Chapter 3 and 4 address familiar problems to those who study Kierkegaard, such as the problem of Fear and Trembling’s reading of the Abraham story and the question of religious fanaticism after September 11, and the question of the relationship between immanent (universal) religion and transcendent (Christian) religion in Kierkegaard’s writing. Connell does a fine job of showing that any comparison between the actions of Abraham in Fear and Tremblingand the actions of a religious terrorist is a dis-analogy easily cleared up by a more-than-surface reading of the text. He shows that while Kierkegaard clearly believes in the ultimate truth of the Christian faith, his understanding of the relationship between immanent and transcendent religion, particularly as understood by Merold Westphal, conceptually opens up the possibility for mutual learning between those of different faith traditions. Finally, chapter 5 engages in a typical comparative study of the similarities between Confucius and Kierkegaard concerning the notion of ethical selfhood.

Connell’s work should be of great interest to anyone interested in the public expression of religion in the modern world. Rather than demand that religious people water down their own faith commitments in public in the name of peace and shared humanity, Connell acknowledges the importance of particular religious identities to their adherents for their public lives while providing a way, particularly for believing people, to understand how that commitment can “play nice” with others in the public sphere. Kierkegaardian humor allows room for such commitments as well as for mutual learning with the religious Other who, like us, shares a very human condition: we all only see “in part.”

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Brake is a graduate student and lecturer at George Mason University and the editor of the upcoming Rowman and Littlefield/Lexington Books series Theology and Pop Culture.

Date of Review: 
April 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

George B. Connell is professor of philosophy and division chair of humanities at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota, and president of the Søren Kierkegaard Society. His previous books include To Be One Thing: Personal Unity in Kierkegaard’s Thought.


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