Søren Kierkegaard's Theology of Encounter

An Edifying and Polemical Life

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David Lappano
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , March
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In recent years a range of studies have called into question prevailing assumptions of Kierkegaard as a radical anti-Hegelian and antisocial individualist. These false assumptions have calcified partly due to his rudimentary and piecemeal reception in Europe and America, and partly due to an inordinate focus on the earlier half of his authorship. David Lappano’s book, Kierkegaard’s Theology of Encounter, brings together an erudite and scholarly grasp of Kierkegaard with the broad scope of Kierkegaard’s authorship to illustrate the central place of social thought and action in Kierkegaard. 

The stated aim of the book is to “provide a theoretical framework that brings the unity of Kierkegaard’s ‘middle period’ into relief” (5). This “middle period” consists of works written between 1846 and 1852. By viewing and articulating this section of Kierkegaard’s authorship as a unity, Lappano overturns the picture of Kierkegaard as a radical, isolated individualist. The theoretical framework that Lappano constructs in order to bring this idea into relief has at least two layers. The first layer looks at the middle period of Kierkegaard’s authorship in terms of two major themes: the edifying and the polemical construed as a dialectic. The second layer traces the movement of Kierkegaard’s dialectical thinking from an encounter with God, to an encounter with the public, to an encounter with the Church. In each of these encounters the dialectic between the edifying and the polemical develop a critical consciousness that makes social thought and action both possible and necessary for the existential (Christian) life. 

Lappano’s first chapter locates Kierkegaard within four central contexts: Danish Christianity, Romanticism, Hegelianism, and the sociopolitical world of Golden Age Denmark. The rest of the sequence of Lappano’s chapters follow the dialectical development he constructs as a theoretical framework. Chapters 2 and 3 deal with the encounter between the self and God, narrated in terms of the sacramental acts of confession and communion. In confession, the polemical side of the dialectic is illustrated in terms of Kierkegaard’s “infinite qualitative difference” between God and humanity. In communion, the edifying side of the dialectic is illustrated in terms of the Eucharistic kinship we share with God. Chapters 4 through 7 deal with the encounter between the individual and the public. The edifying is taken up in terms of the concept of the “eternal,” which acts as a hinge between inward and outward orientations. The polemical, grounded in the eternal, is taken up in terms of a critique of social power, authority, and false notions of social “leveling” that serve to reinforce and exacerbate power imbalances. Chapters 8 through 10 deal with the encounter between the individual and Christendom. In these chapters the edifying and polemical are held together in terms of a “militant faith” where the church “strives to be a community of individuals who exist ‘without authority’, who are committed to works of love and the imitation of Christ, and who communicate indirectly for upbuilding an open society of persons” (184). It is in these final chapters that Lappano offers a constructive account of Kierkegaard’s ecclesiology—a subject of much debate.

Lappano’s book has many strengths to commend it. The writing is crisp, and the argument is clear and cogent. The reader is never lost and does not need to continue on in hopes that all will be revealed in the end, as is often the case in dense monographs. Rather, the structure of Lappano’s argument unfolds in a sensical, linear fashion without being predictable or derivative. Another strength is Lappano’s sensitivity to recent scholarship. Lappano is able to present a compelling new picture of Kierkegaard because of his grasp of the issues involved in informed readings of Kierkegaard’s writings. Finally, not only is the argument coherent and knowledgeable, it is compelling, both as a reading of Kierkegaard and as a model that can be appropriated in present circumstances. Lappano’s robust reading reveals a more persuasive version of Kierkegaard’s “single individual,” whose edifying and polemical (or decentered and decentering) social and ecclesial existence is grounded in the edifying and polemical encounter with God. 

There are two parts of the book that are worth debating. The first is Lappano’s exclusion of the attack literature of 1854-1855. Lappano argues that this part of Kierkegaard’s authorship diverges from the edifying and polemical texts of 1846-1852 by leaving out the edifying element. One wonders whether it is true either that the attack literature lacks any “edifying” element, and the extent to which it is incongruous with the theological view developed by Kierkegaard prior to 1854. This point, however, is debatable and Lappano has offered a coherent argument for his view. The second point open to debate is Lappano’s use of the phrase “militant church/faith.” Although Lappano follows Kierkegaard’s own language here, the term “militant” has not aged well. What Lappano means by the phrase is clear enough, but that does not change how the term works in common perception. Consider Lappano’s claim, “A church militant forges relationships of alliance” (249). That phrase sounds counterintuitive, as a militant church/faith in modern parlance implies the opposite. Perhaps a better term could have been found to update the language for use in today’s context. A final thought in passing is that the relationship between Kierkegaard and monasticism, as an alternative sociality, could have been explored in more detail and would add an interesting layer to the argument.

Lappano’s book is a prime example of why Kierkegaard studies are exciting at the moment. It is not only interesting in terms of the dialogue and development of scholarship itself, but because Kierkegaard’s thought is presented in compelling ways for present circumstances. The world needs the best of Kierkegaard, which Lappano deftly presents, and perhaps less of the venemous worst of Kierkegaard. That is, we need more critical, “militant” social beings capable of resisting all absolutisms and fundamentalisms of the self and society, grounded in an edifying and polemical life such as the one Lappano constructs and commends.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brandon Pierce is an Independent Scholar and Senior Minister of the Stamford Chuch of Christ.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Lappano is based at the Centre for Christian Studies.


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