Kierkegaard and Spirituality

Accountability as the Meaning of Human Existence

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C. Stephen Evans
Kierkegaard as a Christian Thinker
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Eerdmans
    , October
     2019.
     224 pages.
     $25.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780802872869.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Kierkegaard and Spirituality: Accountability as the Meaning of Human Existence, C. Stephan Evans provides both a picture of Søren Kierkegaard as a spiritual writer and a defense of Kierkegaard’s view of spirituality as a fitting description of the human experience. To accomplish this twofold task, Evans spends the bulk of his time describing Kierkegaard’s understanding of genuine spirituality, only addressing criticism when it is relevant to the discussion. What emerges is a masterful and concise account of Kierkegaard’s thoughts on spirituality, which anyone interested in Kierkegaard as a thinker or the question of what it means to live spiritually ought to read. By drawing on the entirety of Kierkegaard’s body of literature—both his pseudonymous works and those penned in his name—Evans’ exposition avoids the mistake of misidentifying a pseudonym’s thoughts as Kierkegaard’s own or minimizing the role of the pseudonymous voices in his theological project.

Evans sets up the trajectory of the book by situating Kierkegaard’s use of the word “spirit” within and against its usage in biblical and Hegelian tradition. Primarily building off The Sickness Unto Death (1849), Evans shows how Kierkegaard appropriates G.W.F. Hegel’s understanding of “spirit” as a “process with dialectical tensions,” but applies it to the individual rather than the whole of reality (6). Rooted in Christian tradition, Kierkegaard understands God as Spirit as “that which animates or gives life to something” and human beings as conditionally spirit because they are dependent on God for life but nevertheless have relative freedom given to them by God (8). It is this unique tension between the finite and the infinite, and the process through which an individual relates to the infinite, which constitutes a human being as spirit. By locating Kierkegaard within this Christian and Hegelian landscape, Evans shows how Kierkegaard is both a product of his time and a visionary who challenges the prevailing view of spirituality.

While Evans clearly uses the pseudonymous work The Sickness Unto Death as the primary source for fleshing out Kierkegaard’s view of spirituality, this is not a fault in his argument. Evans justifies his choice by highlighting Kierkegaard’s admission that his pseudonym Anti-Climacus shares a viewpoint, which Kierkegaard “did not think he had a right to portray himself as speaking from” despite his like-mindedness (6). Moreover, Evans supplements his account using the rest of Kierkegaard’s corpus in chapters 4 through 8. It becomes clear that the views in his other pseudonymous writings, and those claimed by him in Works of Love (1847) and his discourses, rely on the same principles laid out in Sickness Unto Death. From this collection of works, Evans supplies a comprehensive description of Kierkegaard’s view of spirituality that details how a human being can either (1) fail to be a genuine self by relating to idols instead of God, (2) find genuine selfhood in relationship to God without fully understanding who God is—a state Evans names “Socratic Spirituality”—or (3) find genuine selfhood in relationship to God as revealed in the person of Christ, or “Christian Spirituality.” His summary indicates that Kierkegaard has wisdom not just for the Christian, but also for the Muslim, Platonist, and the “spiritual but not religious” individual.

Turning to his defense of Kierkegaard, Evans adeptly responds to concerns that Kierkegaard’s later polemical works present an unhealthy view of spirituality that is present throughout his earlier writings. Rather than shy away from these claims, particularly those made by Joakim Garaff, Evans readily accepts them. However, he shows that the polemical works are not a “logical outworking” of the core thought present in the earlier writings, but an unhealthy “aberration” (193). For example, Evans explains that the polemical literature’s depiction of the world and earthly goods as unredeemable departs from Kierkegaard’s earlier writings, which viewed Christianity as a transformative agent that could heal our disordered love. Early Kierkegaard locates impoverished spirituality not with the goods themselves but with “the lack of a healthy relation to God” (189). While Evans could have taken up a different line of argument that the polemical works are simply a corrective to the institutional church not to be taken at face value, his reasoning has the advantage of refusing to excuse harmful theology as an exercise in rhetoric.

Finally, in his concluding chapter, Evans supports the fittingness of Kierkegaard’s view that genuine spirituality is found in accountability before God by addressing doubts about God’s nature. Lifting up a hesitation attributed to Jean-Paul Sartre, “God’s existence would be intolerable, because if God existed, his gaze would be unescapable,” Evans concludes that accountability before God as a virtue of genuine spirituality only makes sense in a world in which God’s love is unconditional (201). Indeed, Sartre would be right if God were not the Good understood by Socrates or the God revealed in Christ, but for Evans, “this objection stems from a misunderstanding of the nature of love” (202). To accept Kierkegaard’s view of spirituality as a right understanding of the human condition requires us to see God’s gaze as loving. In a final testament to Kierkegaard as a theologian, Evans’ work does not end with a practice in apologetics concerning God’s unconditional love, but with an invitation for the readers to judge for themselves. From beginning to end, Evans pays homage to Kierkegaard as a spiritual writer through his well-researched and exhaustive summary, as well as his keen ability to clarify, support, and apply Kierkegaard’s thoughts for the modern reader.                                                                                                                                                

About the Reviewer(s): 

Katarina von Kühn Murray is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
July 8, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

C. Stephen Evans is University Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Baylor University and director of the Baylor Center for Christian Philosophy. He is also Professorial Fellow at the Logos Institute for Analytic and Exegetical Theology at the University of St. Andrews and at the Institute for Religion and Critical Enquiry at Australian Catholic University. His numerous books include A History of Western Philosophy, God and Moral Obligation, Kierkegaard: An Introduction, and Why Believe?