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The Oddest Prophet - Søren Kierkegaard

Malcolm Muggeridge

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  • Austin Inyang

    I find this article very illuminating and inspiring. Theres a lot to learn from the life of Kiekegaard - especially in these days of confusion and Godlessness.

  • Wayne Northey

    Malcolm Muggeridge forever eschewed "kingdoms on earth", especially after his profound disillusionment with Russian communism, and sees in Kierkegaard this same rejection. Life is so much more paradoxical. As Kierkegaard closed in on the "religious", he discovered that the "crowd is untruth", which in turn leads Christians to pray that part of the Lords Prayer: "your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." (Matt 6:10) But no to kingdom building, whether through quixotic and brutal worldwide war on terror to "make the world safe (again - such folly!) for democracy", or through any other earthly scheme that does not capture and radically transform the heart first and concomitantly. Thank God for Kierkegaard, for Muggeridge. Thank God too for Martin Luther King Jr., for Gandhi. The paradoxes!

A renegade philosopher who spent most of his life at odds with the church, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) insisted that every person must find his own way to God. Perhaps that’s why he fascinated the tart-tongued agnostic and British TV commentator Malcolm Muggeridge, who sums up his life with unusual insight and wit in this classic profile.

The prophets, when they appear on our earthly scene, are rarely expected. A king is awaited, and there is a birth in a manger. The venerable, the bearded, the portentous are usually spurious.

One of the oddest prophets ever was Søren Kierkegaard - a melancholic Dane, a kind of clipperty-clop, ribald Hamlet who from the middle of the last century peered quizzically into this one, dryly noting, before they happened, such tragicomic phenomena of our time as universal suffrage, mass media and affluence abounding.

Kierkegaard was insistent that the only way out of these gathering clouds of fantasy was to climb doggedly upwards to the rocky peak above them, where God dwells.

Marx and Kierkegaard, the two key voices of the twentieth century. ... Almost all Marx’s prophesies have failed to happen .... while Kierkegaard’s forecasts have been fulfilled to a remarkable degree.

In 1835, when he was twenty-two, Kierkegaard experienced a juncture he would later call an Either/Or situation. His theological studies, unlike his brother Peter’s, were going badly and he was wasting time on other pursuits, some of them disreputable. There was always this gregarious, dissolute side of Kierkegaard’s character to be considered: his love of company, a glass of wine, a pretty girl. The trouble, of course, arose in the other, the dark side, the seat of his angst, where the clouds of his congenital melancholy would gather.

His mood had been intensified by a whole series of deaths in the family: three of his sisters, then two of his brothers, and then his mother had died in rapid succession. As his brother Peter remarked, the survivors seemed to be spending all their time at the graveside. It all appeared to confirm his father’s conviction that a curse had been laid on him and his offspring. Like Faust his father had turned away from God, and the Devil had rewarded him by making him rich and respected. Now the time had come for the price to be paid, and Søren, as part of that price, was sure that he too would die young. How was he to shape up to so brief a sojourn here on this earth? Who was he supposed to be and what was he supposed to do?

"What I really need," he wrote at the time, "is to get clear what I must do, not what I must know. What matters is to find a purpose; to see what... really is God’s will... that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me."

This is what he was asking himself. How to establish contact with the reality he had already sensed in the universe, the quest for which made all others seem trivial and aimless? How to distinguish it from all the different sorts of fantasy – scientific, technical, political, erotic – which Western man was even then so busy constructing to evade this reality? How to get rid of all his own personal impediments – the ego lifting its cobra head, the appetites reaching out greedily like octopus tentacles? How to strip himself down until there was nothing, nothing at all, other than a sense of his own worthlessness? Perhaps at that point he might catch a fleeting glimpse of what he sought, and in catching that glimpse, find that there was a place for him after all in the great drama which Christ’s life, death, and resurrection had unfolded to uplift, illuminate and redeem mankind.

If Christianity is really to be proclaimed, it will become apparent that it is the daily press which will, if possible, make it impossible.

In 1848, a time of great turmoil in Europe, two significant voices were raised, both, at the time, obscure and little heeded. One, Karl Marx’s, proclaimed the ultimate and inevitable triumph of the proletariat in a worldwide class war, to be followed by the creation of a classless, socialist utopia, in which all government, all law, all exploitation of man by man, would wither away, and the human race live happily ever after.

The other voice, Kierkegaard’s, scornfully dismissed such collectivist hopes for humanity as infallibly leading to a new and more comprehensive form of servitude. The divine right of kings had been abolished, but the divine right of the people which had replaced it would prove, Kierkegaard insisted, an even worse deception, and would give rise to regimes that exceeded any hitherto known in their brutality and claims to omniscience. I am the people - Le peuple, c’est moi - was an even more insanely arrogant claim than the famous one of Louis XIV’s, L’Etat, c’est moi - I am the state.

Against the new leviathan, whether in the guise of universal suffrage, democracy, or of an equally fraudulent triumphant proletariat, he pitted the individual human soul made in the image of a God who was concerned about the fate of every living creature. In contrast with the notion of salvation through power, he held out the hope of salvation through suffering. The Cross against the ballot box or the clenched fist; the solitary pilgrim against the slogan-shouting mob; the crucified Christ against the demagogue-dictators promising a kingdom of heaven on earth, whether achieved through endlessly expanding wealth and material well-being, or through the ever greater concentration of power and its ever more ruthless exercise.

Marx and Kierkegaard, the two key voices of the twentieth century. The curious thing is that though Marx purported to have an infallible scientific key to history, almost all his prophesies have failed to happen. On the other hand, Kierkegaard’s forecasts, which were based purely on his imaginative intuition, have been fulfilled to a remarkable degree. Take, for instance, his profound sense that if we lost the solitude or separateness that an awareness of the presence of God alone can give, we would soon find ourselves irretrievably part of a collectivity with only mass communications to shape our hopes, formulate our values and arrange our thinking.

Suppose someone invented an instrument, a convenient little talking tube which, say, could be heard over the whole land...I wonder if the police would not forbid it, fearing that the whole country would become mentally deranged if it were used...

On the whole the evil in the daily press consists in its being calculated to make, if possible, the passing moment a thousand or ten thousand times more inflated and important than it really is. But all moral elevation consists first and foremost in being weaned from the momentary...

If Christianity is really to be proclaimed, it will become apparent that it is the daily press which will, if possible, make it impossible. There has never been a power so diametrically opposed to Christianity as the daily press. Day in and day out the daily press does nothing but delude the masses with the supreme axiom of this lie, that numbers are decisive. Christianity, on the other hand, is based on the thought that the truth lies in the single individual...

We have totally abolished the notion of imitation and at best hold to the paltriness called social morality. In this way people cannot become truly humbled so that they genuinely feel the need of Grace. What is required of them is no more than social morality, which they fulfill tolerably well...

Is not the truth of the matter really this, that we are just like a child who would rather be free from being under his parents’ eyes? Is not this what we want? To be free from being under the eyes of God?

As Kierkegaard became increasingly gripped by the great drama of the Christian faith, it was almost inevitable that he should fall out with the Church. This nearly always happens, as a Wesley could find no place for himself in the Anglican establishment a century earlier, and a Tolstoy was to discover when he was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church.

We have totally abolished the notion of imitation and at best hold to the paltriness called social morality. In this way people cannot become truly humbled so that they genuinely feel the need of Grace.

So he found himself relentlessly pushed into a different sphere of existence. This is where all the pseudonyms were put aside, and he became just Søren Kierkegaard, a poor sinner who knew nothing except that he existed now, with time as an eternal present, and that whatever fate might lie in store for mankind, they would never see in this earth their only habitat, or in history their only destiny.

A quality which I particularly admire in Kierkegaard is his courage, the courage of a man by nature timid and even cowardly. Having decided that his life must be dedicated to looking for reality, or God, he pursued this aim undeviatingly to the end, in spite of physical frailty and ill health, ridicule, loneliness, every sort of discouragement. His chosen mode of expression was the written word; a whole stream of books, articles, every sort of prose composition came from his pen. In the case of his books, he used up his inheritance to pay for their publication, so that on the day of his death, not one penny remained. His life and his money expired together.

By his forty-third year, Kierkegaard’s life was exhausted, and in November of 1855 he died.


From A Third Testament.

Søren Kierkegaard
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