I can still see in memory the paperback of Fear and Trembling, bound with Sickness Unto Death, in the translations of Walter Lowrie, first published in 1941, and a staple of 60s consciousness in American college students. For me these texts, particularly Fear and Trembling, marked the transition zone between the Pietist world of my childhood and the bracing Existentialism of my youth, near enough to the one to appreciate the Biblical aura, the cogency of Kierkegaard’s struggle with the matter of God’s terrible demand on Abraham; far enough toward the other to be seduced by Absurdity and Contradiction.
Comes now another juncture, another disturbance. Daphne Hampson’s superb new book, Kierkegaard: Exposition & Critique.
Modest in declared intention and workmanlike in procedure—she writes, she says, an introduction, for the intelligent reader, conversant with Western thought but not necessarily with Kierkegaard—but behind and through it lies a startling and even revolutionary claim. The procedure behind the procedure, so to speak, is to take seriously Kierkegaard’s problems, as he saw them, and then to bring to him a critique from our present day and age. Not merely an archaeological or antiquarian exercise, but a dialogic one, an entering into conversation across time. Hampson’s Kierkegaard feels like such a conversation.
And so we have Kierkegaard not the proto-Existentialist (much less the proto-Fascist, which some have seen), but Kierkegaard the Lutheran, Lutheran in his religious formulations, Lutheran in the institutional setting of his loyalties and conflicts, a rather radical Lutheran for all that. Kierkegaard the post-Enlightenment thinker whose philosophical horizon is defined by Kant and in opposition to Hegel. Kierkegaard whose political and social imagination never strayed beyond the enlightened, absolutist monarchy of post-Napoleonic Denmark.
So far so uncontroversial. The hard part comes where we must judge Kierkegaard on the ground he would have cared most deeply about, on his project to define a post-Enlightenment Christianity, one that meets the test of Kant’s critique of religious knowledge, but also one free of the comfortable bourgeois fudging of liberal Protestantism. Professor Hampson confronts Kierkegaard precisely on this ground with a daring move, one built on her work in feminist theory and post-Enlightenment theology, with a passion and seriousness matching Kierkegaard’s own.
Her position, briefly, is that Christianity simply cannot be true. The Enlightenment only made this clear. Christianity is false in its claims of the particularity of Jesus Christ, as one who was uniquely God in time. It is false even as a projective, exemplary representation of human need or condition, not least in that it is exclusively a projection of male experience. Professor Hampson is restrained on this topic; I should want to say projection of male fantasies, of dominion, rage, blood-sacrifice, compensations for sexual fear and inadequacy, excluding, except at trivialised or sentimentalised margins, the experience and condition of women. These Kierkegaard does not touch. And in his apotheosis of Abraham as the hero of faith he leaves perforce undisturbed the knife, the blood, the terrible pact, the silences, the cult of death, echoing through Calvary and down to the killers at Charlie Hebdo.
Marc Chagall, The Sacrifice of Isaac
What would a post-Christian religious culture look like? A form of God-talk and God-consciousness truly inclusive of human experience? Neither in obscurantist rejection of reason and science, nor sentimentally accommodationist to the residues of old habits? Professor Hampson here, and elsewhere, hints at answers in the personal experience of prayer, of healing, of the uses of a disciplined mind, of the refusal of liberal fudge. She has had opposition to some of her work from feminists who object to its intransigence, and from theologians who object to what they see as the reductionism in what may count as Christian. One sees in all of this a reason for her attraction to Kierkegaard, her intuition of his greatness of soul, who wrestled with analogous oppositions and misunderstandings.
The question arises, if we lay to rest the distortions and untruths of the Christian past, indeed of the whole Abrahamic inheritance, as unworthy of free and intelligent people, what bulwark will we have against the worst, who are full of passionate intensity? For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, as the apostle says, but against principalities and powers.
In the midst of the horrors of the murders in Paris we happen to watch Abduction from the Seraglio in the new Paris Opera production and are struck by Mozart’s acute grasp of something, now again very much with us, in the murderous rage of the fanatic Osmin, overseer of the harem. Hypocritical, stupid, jealous of the spiritual freedom of his European captives and incapable of opening to it. But the Islamic Other in Abduction is not only Osmin, the religious thug. It is also Bassa Selim, the Pasha, a vision of decency and humanity flowing from quasi-divine lordship. Mozart’s trial run at a theme that will flower in Sorastro, the Good Ruler—not Islamic but Masonic—of The Magic Flute, and the dream of the eventual triumph of reason, wisdom, and nature:
Dann ist die Erd’ ein Himmelreich, und Sterbliche den Göttern gleich.
“Then is the earth a heavenly kingdom, and mortals like the gods.”