Taking Kierkegaard Personally

First Person Responses

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Editor(s): 
Jamie Lorentzen, Gordon Marino
  • Macon, GA: 
    Mercer University Press
    , November
     2020.
     372 pages.
     $38.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780881467703.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Taking Kierkegaard Personally: First Person Responses, a collection of thirty-five essays, preceded by a substantial introduction, arose from a Søren Kierkegaard conference held at St. Olaf College in 2018. It is impossible, of course, in a short book review, to even begin to summarize the contents of each essay. I have chosen, therefore, a few essays from the four parts of the book to give the reader a sense of the book’s overall tenor and purpose. The prompt for the conference was: what existential lessons have you learned from Kierkegaard? In other words, avoid abstract exegesis of the works and reflect on how Kierkegaard has informed and shaped your own life and relationships. Most of the chapters are less than ten pages long, which seems to have been a strategy employed by the editors to include as many voices as possible within the scope of 350 pages.

Part 1 has the heading, “Taking Kierkegaard Personally on Campus and on the Job.” Stacy Ake’s contribution, entitled “‘If You Are All Christians, then I Am Not’: How Kierkegaard Helped Me Survive a Christian College,” describes the culture shock she experienced between her childhood, which was spent in part in Mexico, and the relatively affluent, homogenously White and Republican ethos at Houghton College in upstate New York. That ethos told her that it was evil to listen to (non-Christian) rock music, and that taking courses from certain suspect professors at the college could lead to the undermining of one’s faith. All Catholics were among the unsaved and on their way to hell. Reading Kierkegaard was a lifeline for her during this time in her life, because he spoke so eloquently concerning the hollowness and spiritual vacuity of what goes by the name of “Christendom.” Ake describes the painful isolation and confusion that she felt while in college, surrounded by ostensible Christians. After beginning graduate school in biology, she was eventually drawn to philosophy, through the constant pull of Kierkegaard’s ideas and personal witness.

Next, Kenneth Gilmore’s essay, entitled “Kierkegaard and the Concept of Self-Actualization in Black Preaching,” reflects on how the writings of a dead White male who is usually only discussed in the ivory tower can be made relevant to persons who are living within the dark shadow of slavery and the more subtle forms of racism that persist in our day. If Kierkegaard describes the despair of White Europeans, how much more does his psychological insight illumine those who have been dehumanized for centuries? Gilmore draws inspiration from Kierkegaard as a Christian psychologist; the individual is called to grow in selfhood before God, and this call will have social implications that can inspire us all to work for positive social change.

Part 2, “Taking Kierkegaard Personally in Society and in the World” includes Mark Stapp’s essay, “Kierkegaard versus Silicon Valley,” in which he interprets Kierkegaard’s commentary on his age as a prescient foreshadowing of ours. In Kierkegaard’s day rationalism was supposed to be making the world a better place decade by decade; in ours it is technology, with its gadgets and increasingly rapid dissemination of mindless “information” that is supposedly the engine of progress. Will the doubling of computing power every eighteen months enable human beings to more successfully respond to the existential and ethical problems they face? No. Is social media an advancement or a “weapon of mass distraction”? The latter is closer to the truth.

Then, Maria Alessandri contributes an engaging essay on “Becoming Faithful: Reading Gloria Anzaldua Reading Kierkegaard.” Based on archival research in Anzaldua’s unpublished papers, the author finds that the notable Chicana and Queer theorist read Kierkegaard avidly and was deeply influenced by him, even though that may not be apparent in her writings. Anzaldua found a deep connection between Kierkegaard’s description of the fragmented self that is in a state of sin and the psychological situation of persons who are “othered” and split apart by social forces and expectations.

Part 3 has the heading, “Taking Kierkegaard Personally at Home and with the Family.” Matthew Kirkpatrick writes about the beginning of life: “Creating Children: Parenthood and the Challenge of Kierkegaard’s Understanding of Community.” The author reflects on Kierkegaard’s idea of love as it is lived out by spouses and in the task and adventure of raising children. He says that in children we see God’s image in innocence and openness. We are stewards who need to learn to love as God loves. In another essay, Marcia Robinson reflects on the end of life in “Kierkegaard’s Wisdom as Quiet Pastor to Those Who Mourn: Live!” The author describes how Kierkegaard’s pastoral discourses have provided crucial assistance to her in dealing with the deaths of close family members. This counterpoint between Kierkegaard’s thoughts on eternity and time and Robinson’s wrestling with her personal grieving has been a journey over twenty years.

Part 4 has the heading, “Taking Kierkegaard Personally with Oneself and God.” Anna Louise Strelis Söderquist contributes an essay on “The Human Limit: Kierkegaard and Camus on Forgiveness.” Comparing Camus’ The Fall with Kierkegaard’s thought she finds deep resonances on the subject of original sin. Camus reveals how we are trapped in the loneliness of guilt; this parallels Kierkegaard’s closed-up self in despair. The author relates how she is learning to receive grace and forgiveness in her own life, as the only real alternative to that loneliness.

This brief overview only scratches the surface of a rich collection of essays. The collection is a welcome addition to the secondary literature on Kierkegaard, and it reveals the power of his writings to inspire not just philosophical and theological analysis, but also to speak into and shape the lives of his readers.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles K. Bellinger is associate professor of theology and ethics at Brite Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
September 25, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jamie Lorentzen is a senior research fellow at the Hong Kierkegaard Library and author of several books and articles on Kierkegaard, Melville, and Bob Dylan.

Gordon Marino is professor of philosophy and curator of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College.

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