Athens to Glasgow: Kierkegaard on the Atonement.
Stephen Watt looks at Kierkegaard's view of the atonement and the implications for Scottish Catholics.
Kierkegaard on the Atonement
I’m going to address three questions in this article. First, what is Kierkegaard’s understanding of the atonement? Second, what implications does such a view have for Catholics? Third, what implications might such a view have for Scottish Catholics in particular?
Although it’s relatively easy to summarise some key features of Kierkegaard’s approach to Christianity in general and the atonement in particular, it’s perhaps rather more difficult to pursue these general features into more detail. His life and influence may be briefly summarised along the following lines: born a Lutheran in Copenhagen in 1813, he wrote extensively about religious and philosophical matters, dying in 1855. He is widely regarded as being one of the founders of existentialism. Moreover, the general lines of Kierkegaard’s approach to everything are clear enough. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it:
For Kierkegaard Christian faith is not a matter of regurgitating church dogma. It is a matter of individual subjective passion, which cannot be mediated by the clergy or by human artefacts. Faith is the most important task to be achieved by a human being, because only on the basis of faith does an individual have a chance to become a true self. This self is the life-work which God judges for eternity.
But beyond that, the details of Kierkegaard’s views on specific issues are often less clear, which has given rise, inevitably in the modern age, to an industry of academic and other interpreters who, while sometimes providing helpful clarification, have also created scholarly barriers to encountering Kierkegaard in the raw, and thus engaging in that irreplaceably personal process of developing our self and our relationship with God. Kierkegaard wrote a lot, wrote in different styles and under different names, and regularly used irony to make his point. It is rare then that you can find a straightforward, unproblematic declaration of his views rather than a prompting, in the way of Socrates’ claim to be a midwife of others’ knowledge, to a personal encounter with God.
Kierkegaard appears to have held an orthodox, Lutheran view of the atonement: Christ has objectively paid the penalty for our sins. We, as sinners, should bring this salvation into our own lives by faith in Christ. But he is, typically, acutely aware of the tensions and paradoxes left by this general schema. Faith construed as a simple act of acceptance misses the texture of a life of faith:
Therefore we shall not cite any particular Biblical passage, but rather rely upon the complete and perfect impression of the common teaching of the Scriptures, that on the way of perfection one walks in tribulations; and therefore we shall for the edification of a sufferer (for these discourses are indeed the Gospel of Suffering), consider the joy in the thought:
THAT IT IS NOT THE WAY WHICH IS NARROW, BUT THE NARROWNESS WHICH IS THE WAY
Moreover, in following the narrow way, the objective mysteriousness of God and the atonement resists an easy understanding and is only gained by that Gospel of Suffering:
When we speak of being content with the grace of God, the reason doubtless is that the grace of God does not express itself in our experience as a human being would like, or finds it easy to understand, but speaks instead a more difficult language. When the grace of God grants to a man what he likes and desires, he is not merely content, but happy and grateful; under such circumstances he deems himself fully capable of understanding that God is good and gracious. That this is a misunderstanding…is certain enough.
What implications then does such an approach have for Catholics? To focus on its main elements, Kierkegaard acknowledges the objective nature of the atonement but emphasises that salvation is attained by a lifelong struggle of faith, where Christians find themselves at odds with the world and its expectations. That sounds a very Catholic approach which emphasises the importance both of the imitation of Christ and of the redemptive power of suffering in that imitation. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, scholars not long after his death began to speculate on whether, had he lived longer, Kierkegaard would have become a Catholic. In the Danish context, with a Lutheran State Church part of the fabric of respectable society, such a speculation makes particular sense: there is undoubtedly a danger for any church too closely identified with a State for it to fall into a contentment with worldly values. Kierkegaard rages against this comfortableness of State religion in a way that St John Henry Newman touches on when, in his novel Loss and Gain, the prospective Catholic convert encounters a comfortable Protestant cleric in a religious bookshop:
[H]e heard the shop-door open, and, on looking round, saw a familiar face. It was that of a young clergyman, with a very pretty girl on his arm, whom her dress pronounced to be a bride. Love was in their eyes, joy in their voice, and affluence in their gait and bearing. Charles had a faintish feeling come over him; somewhat such as might beset a man on hearing a call for pork-chops when he was sea-sick. He retreated behind a pile of ledgers and other stationery, but they could not save him from the low, dulcet tones which time to time passed from one to the other.
Although times have changed, there is undoubtedly still a recognisable type of Protestant who fits rather too comfortably into whatever the approved social hierarchy of the day demands in terms of values and lifestyle.
But whilst throwing Kierkegaardian stones at members of other ecclesial communities is good fun, the dangers of a comfortable or mechanical religion are not foreign to Catholicism. We too can find ourselves rather too comfortable with worldly values and success. We can certainly expect too smooth a ride in our lives and question our faith when we encounter difficulties. Sacraments and liturgy should provide comfort and respite in the desert, but they will not abolish that Gospel of Suffering. And, in the spirit of a relentless search for salvation which leaves no motive unquestioned, no easy resting place, there is also the danger that we may fall in love with suffering for the sake of suffering, exclusion for the sake of exclusion, forgetting that such a journey only makes sense if it is a journey to God.
Finally, what implications might Kierkegaard’s approach have for Scottish Catholics in particular? Well, we’re human, so everything that applies to others applies to us. But is that all? I’m genuinely not sure of an answer here, but I think there is merit in just asking the question. Approximately half our population has the aspiration for an independent Scotland and many more have started to think of Scotland as more independent culturally and politically than previous generations might have done. At the moment, there is little in our national public discourse which thinks deeply about what it might be to live well within a Scottish culture or Scottish circumstances: too much is coloured by what Hugh MacDiarmid described as the ‘bairns’ play’ of ephemeral politics. But when I think, for example, about the artistic influence of the Swedish, Kierkegaardian drenched atmosphere of Ingmar Bergman’s films, full of domineering father figures, a God who both threatens and is absent, the dreadfulness and yet the hope of intimacy, is there nothing that another cold northern nation with its own Protestant history might have to contribute in an honest wrestling with itself and with God, for its own benefit, but also for the benefit of others?
Further reading and references:
Quotes from are from:
Kierkegaard, S. (1958) Edifying Discourses: A Selection, Harper Torchbooks, New York
McDonald, William, "Søren Kierkegaard", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2017/entries/kierkegaard/>.
Newman, J.H. (1896) Loss and Gain: the Story of a Convert, Longmans, Green and Co., London.
Works with a particular emphasis on Kierkegaard and Catholicism:
Fabro, C. (2020) Selected Articles on Søren Kierkegaard : Selected Works of Cornelio Fabro Volume 2, Chillum MD, IVE Press.
Furnal, J. (2016) Catholic Theology after Kierkegaard, OUP, Oxford.
(Furnal (2016) is a ridiculously priced academic work but well worth reading if you can get it. Fabro (2020) is reasonably priced on Kindle at least and is a good introduction to a Catholic theologian (Cornelio Fabro) who was heavily influenced by Kierkegaard.)
Thank you. I have a great interest in Kierkegaard and these insights furthered my interest. I have read about him but not his writings themselves. Which of his books is the best for starters?