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Living Christianly

Kierkegaard's Dialectic of Christian Existence

Sylvia Walsh


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Living Christianly

Kierkegaard's Dialectic of Christian Existence

Sylvia Walsh

“In this book Sylvia Walsh gives a comprehensive interpretation of how Kierkegaard understands what it means to live as a Christian. She shows that Kierkegaard’s ‘second authorship’ sees Christian existence as requiring an ‘inverse dialectic’ in which joy is attained through suffering, life through dying, and hope in God through despair of one’s own capabilities. Walsh’s work provides us with a powerful, unified account of Kierkegaard’s later, Christian writings. No one who wishes to understand Kierkegaard can ignore this central dimension of his thought, and Walsh has given us the best and clearest account of it that we have.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
The pseudonymous works Kierkegaard wrote during the period 1843–46 have been responsible for establishing his reputation as an important philosophical thinker, but for Kierkegaard himself, they were merely preparatory for what he saw as the primary task of his authorship: to elucidate the meaning of what it is to live as a Christian and thus to show his readers how they could become truly Christian. The more overtly religious and specifically Christian works Kierkegaard produced in the period 1847–51 were devoted to this task.

In this book Sylvia Walsh focuses on the writings of this later period and locates the key to Kierkegaard’s understanding of Christianity in the “inverse dialectic” that is involved in “living Christianly.” In the book’s four main chapters, Walsh examines in detail how this inverse dialectic operates in the complementary relationship of the negative qualifications of Christian existence—sin, the possibility of offense, self-denial, and suffering—to the positive qualifications—faith, forgiveness, new life/love/hope, and joy and consolation. It was Kierkegaard’s aim, she argues, “to bring the negative qualifications, which he believed had been virtually eliminated in Christendom, once again into view, to provide them with conceptual clarity, and to show their essential relation to, and necessity in, securing a correct understanding and expression of the positive qualifications of Christian existence.”

“In this book Sylvia Walsh gives a comprehensive interpretation of how Kierkegaard understands what it means to live as a Christian. She shows that Kierkegaard’s ‘second authorship’ sees Christian existence as requiring an ‘inverse dialectic’ in which joy is attained through suffering, life through dying, and hope in God through despair of one’s own capabilities. Walsh’s work provides us with a powerful, unified account of Kierkegaard’s later, Christian writings. No one who wishes to understand Kierkegaard can ignore this central dimension of his thought, and Walsh has given us the best and clearest account of it that we have.”
“Walsh writes clearly and with the assurance of one who is completely at home in the primary sources and is tried and tested in the cut and thrust of critical debates. . . . Walsh has undeniably opened up a rich field for English-language Kierkegaard study and it is to her credit if her work stimulates other and further studies.”
“Walsh offers an exegesis of complex Kierkegaardian notions such as sin-consciousness, offense, self-denial, suffering, and faith. As Kierkegaard scholars and teachers of existential philosophy are well aware, these are quite difficult concepts and tasks to comprehend, and much more difficult to embody and live. Walsh succeeds in explaining and defending these ideas.”
“Whether or not one will accept Kierkegaard’s description of living Christianly is beside the point here, since Walsh succeeds in her task of drawing from Kierkegaard’s journals and all the major works from the second period in order to give us a balanced, focused, and honest portrayal of Kierkegaard’s thought and task.”

Sylvia Walsh is Scholar in Residence at Stetson University. She is the author of Living Poetically: Kierkegaard's Existential Aesthetics (Penn State, 1994) and co-editor of Feminist Interpretations of Søren Kierkegaard (Penn State, 1997).





1. The Consciousness of Sin/Faith and Forgiveness

2. The Possibility of Offense/Faith

3. Dying to the World and Self-Denial/New Life, Love, and Hope in the Spirit

4. Suffering/Joy and Consolation

5. Christian Existence Within the Broader Dialectic of Christianity

Works Consulted



Kierkegaard has been interpreted for the most part on the basis of his writings up to and through Concluding Unscientific Postscript and in terms of his differentiation between the aesthetic, ethical, and religious spheres of existence. This study, by contrast, places its focus primarily on Kierkegaard’s writings after the early pseudonymous literature and concentrates on his understanding of Christian existence as distinct from aesthetic and ethical-religious forms of life. It thus supports and amplifies the view advanced by others that Kierkegaard should be regarded primarily as a Christian thinker and writer. Modern and postmodern emphases upon his early pseudonymous works have tended to obscure the importance of his later religious and specifically Christian writings and to project an image of Kierkegaard as being primarily a philosophical, aesthetic, or general ethical-religious author. But the thrust of Kierkegaard’s labors and the deepest significance and consequences of them go beyond his early authorship and its broader philosophical, literary, and religious significance. Kierkegaard’s foremost concern as a writer was to delineate how to become a Christian and what the existential qualifications of Christianity were. Consequently, a more critical distinction concerning the nature and purpose of Kierkegaard’s writings and a shift in focus of attention on them are in order.

To find the heart of Kierkegaard’s thought and to see him as he most desired and deserves to be remembered, one must turn to the second period of his literary activity, to the remarkable quantity of writings produced during the years 1847–51. In the course of these five years Kierkegaard completed nineteen works as well as a number of diverse articles and sketches for projects left undeveloped or unfinished. Most of these writings were published under Kierkegaard’s own name as author or editor and thus undoubtedly represent his own views and/or existential positions. Others were withheld, for various reasons, and appeared in print only posthumously. The writings of this period generally fall into two categories: (1) those designed as “upbuilding,” instructive or polemical works for the purpose of elucidating, wholly or in part, the distinguishing characteristics of Christian existence; and (2) those directly or indirectly providing or supporting Kierkegaard’s own explanation of the nature and purpose of his authorship and his personal relation to it. The works comprising the first group include Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits (1847), Works of Love (1847), Christian Discourses (1848), The Lily in the Field and the Bird of the Air: Three Devotional Discourses (1849), Two-Ethical Religious Essays (1849), Three Discourses at the Communion on Fridays (1849), The Sickness unto Death (1849), Practice in Christianity (1850), An Upbuilding Discourse (1850), For Self-Examination (1851), Judge for Yourself! (1851), The Changelessness of God (1851), and Two Discourses at the Communion on Fridays (1851). Those making up the second group are The Crisis and a Crisis in the Life of an Actress (1848), The Point of View for My Work as an Author (1848), On My Work as an Author (1851), Armed Neutrality (1849), “The Single Individual”: Two “Notes” Concerning My Work as an Author (partly drafted in 1846–49), and An Open Letter (1851).

Since Kierkegaard neither wrote nor published any major works after 1851, the writings from 1847 through 1851 form a clearly distinguishable unit. Consequently, Kierkegaard’s final writings, consisting of some newspaper articles and a series of polemical pamphlets called The Moment, which were published in 1854–55, will be excluded from consideration here. These writings deserve careful consideration in their own right, especially since Kierkegaard’s full-blown attack upon Christendom is articulated in them. With respect to this study, however, they are primarily important for determining whether Kierkegaard was consistent in the understanding of Christian existence developed in the second period of his authorship, that is, whether they represent the logical conclusion of certain tendencies in his thought or a significant departure from his central perspective. That is an important issue to determine but cannot be adequately addressed and decided until Kierkegaard’s central position has been established.

Among the large body of writings from 1847 through 1851, it is the more substantive works of the first group that will be the primary focus of attention in this investigation. These works contain the most developed and most balanced statement of Kierkegaard’s understanding of Christian existence and establish him as a Christian author whose ultimate purpose was to cast Christianity into reflection in such a way as to lead the reader to the decisive categories of Christian thought, and then out of reflection to the task of becoming a Christian and the simplicity of living Christianly. For as Kierkegaard saw it, “Christianly, one does not proceed from the simple in order then to become interesting, witty, profound, a poet, a philosopher, etc. No, it is just the opposite; here one begins and then becomes more and more simple, arrives at the simple. This, in ‘Christendom,’ is Christianly the movement of reflection; one does not reflect oneself into Christianity but reflects oneself out of something else and becomes more and more simple, a Christian” (PV 7).

Kierkegaard claimed that his entire authorship was designed to serve his function as a Christian author. According to his explanation of the authorship, the aesthetic and philosophical writings from 1843 through 1846 were preparatory for the central task that lay ahead. The early aesthetic works were intended to establish communication with the public, to define where they were, and to begin there, talking about aesthetic existence in order to get to religious themes. Thus people would not immediately be put off by the author and his earnestness, and when they suddenly found themselves in the midst of the distinctive categories of Christianity, they would at least be compelled to take notice. Kierkegaard regarded Concluding Unscientific Postscript as the turning point in this endeavor inasmuch as it stated the problem of the whole authorship, which was how to become a Christian. One way had already been indicated by the aesthetic works—by movement away from the aesthetic. The Postscript posed the problem explicitly and described the other mode of movement—away from speculation. Having used the aesthetic literature to dispel the illusion that those who live under aesthetic categories are Christian and the philosophical discourse to show that one cannot reflect oneself into Christianity, Kierkegaard assumed that those who had benefited from the early works would be, “like the empty jar that is to be filled,” in a condition of receptivity, ready for an introduction to the decisive Christian categories (PV 8). Toward the end of 1846, after the publication of the Postscript, he remarked in his journal: “The whole pseudonymous production and my life in relation to it was in the Greek mode. Now I must find the characteristic Christian life-form” (JP 5:5942).

This search informed the second period of Kierkegaard’s authorship. As an artist transfers a vision to canvas, so Kierkegaard sought in casting Christianity into reflection to depict in language, the medium of reflection, the ideality of Christianity—its distinctive conceptual categories, its absolute character, and its ethical requirements—in terms of Christian existence. He maintained that Christianity is not a doctrine (although it has doctrines) but an “existence-communication,” that its truth consists not in dogmatic propositions but in the realization of a spiritual qualification of existence exemplified and ultimately conferred by Jesus Christ. Thus Kierkegaard’s literary task, as he saw it, was “to present in every way—dialectical, pathos-filled (in the various forms of pathos), psychological, modernized by continual reference to modern Christendom and the fallacies of scientific scholarship [Videnskabens Vildfarelser]—the ideal picture [Billede] of being a Christian” (PV 131, translation amended slightly). Kierkegaard’s aim was not to construct or systematize the qualifications of Christian existence, but simply to describe (at fremstille) them. This was something which he, possessing a touch of the poet intensified by the passion of his own personal striving toward the ideal, was uniquely qualified to do. Indeed, in Armed Neutrality he asserted of himself: “I know with uncommon clarity and definiteness what Christianity is, what can be required of the Christian, what it means to be a Christian. To an unusual degree I have, I think, the qualifications to be able to present this” (PV 138).

Kierkegaard’s hope was to distinguish Christian existence from a background in which the qualities and levels of existence are generally confused and undifferentiated. He thought that most Christians of his day lived out their lives in categories entirely foreign to Christianity and that Christendom had

made the finite and the infinite, the eternal and the temporal, the highest and the lowest, blend in such a way that it is impossible to say which is which, or the situation is an impenetrable ambiguity. It is not as difficult to chop a vista through the most tangled jungle as it is to make ideals shine into this ambiguity, where everything is murky, where we live protected against ideals, also by means of shoving a sensible point of view between them and us so that we understand one another in any striving for something higher—that brings some advantage—but would look upon an authentic higher striving that renounces advantages as being utterly ridiculous, the most ridiculous “exaggeration.” (JFY 123)

In Kierkegaard’s estimation, Christendom had allowed itself to conceive of that which is Christian as the superlative degree or the fulfillment of that which is purely finite, human, natural, and worldly. Kierkegaard thought this had produced “the greatest possible corruption of Christianity” (SKP X4 A 460). In his view Christianity is indeed the highest, but only in the eternal sense of what is highest; it is not the highest degree of the temporal or earthly but its opposite.

If Christian existence is distinct from, even opposed to, other forms of existence and their conceptual categories, the possibility of anyone becoming committed to Christianity in a decisive and appropriate manner is not a viable option until those qualifications have been set forth clearly and precisely. Kierkegaard claimed that knowing what Christianity is (knowing the truth objectively) is not synonymous with knowing what it means to be a Christian (knowing the truth subjectively or inwardly). Being a Christian requires the application of one’s knowledge of Christianity to one’s existence, becoming the truth rather than just knowing the truth. Thus Christianity is actually known and represented only by existing in it. But the ideal form or definition of the qualifications for this actuality can be cast in reflective form. In electing to describe this ideality, Kierkegaard sought to interest persons in learning what Christianity is in order that Christian existence might become an existential possibility for their lives. He hoped that all individuals would make it the standard and goal for their lives and assume the task of becoming a Christian.

Kierkegaard’s purpose in depicting the existential qualifications of Christianity was therefore more evangelical than theological. Kierkegaard did not consider himself to be a theologian, although this does not prevent others from applying his depictions and clarifications of Christian existence and its distinctive categories to the theological enterprise. Certainly his thought is not without theological content and significance. Nevertheless, Kierkegaard regarded his task as descriptive rather than constructive, systematic, or speculative in the traditional theological manner. In fact, he hoped to delineate the qualifications of Christian existence so adequately that no further objective reflection on them would be necessary. In a journal entry of 1850 he states:

My activity with regard to the essentially Christian.

It is to nail down the Christian qualifications in such a way that no doubt, no reflection, shall be able to get hold of them. It is like locking the door and throwing away the key; thus the Christian qualifications are made inaccessible to reflection. Only the choice remains: will you believe or will you not believe, but the chatter of reflection cannot get hold of it. (JP 1:522)

Kierkegaard’s portrayal of Christian existence is given its distinctive character by the dialectical manner in which he conceives and correlates the qualifications for living Christianly. Indeed, Kierkegaard understands dialectic to be so intimately related to the Christian life that it is appropriate to speak of “the dialectic of Christian existence” and to regard the elucidation of this dialectic as the central achievement of his thought. In Armed Neutrality he states: “Every decisive qualification in being a Christian is according to a dialectic or is on the other side of a dialectic” (PV 130). Consequently he maintained that “only a dialectician can portray Christianity” (JP 1:761). In assuming the task of presenting the Christian ideals he aimed to “jack up the price” of becoming a Christian “by bringing a dialectic to bear” (JP 6:6464). He often chided Luther for being undialectical while claiming without modesty of himself: “My service through literature is and will always be that I have set forth the decisive qualifications of the whole existential arena with a dialectical acuteness and a primitivity not to be found in any other literature, as far as I know” (JP 5:5914; cf. 3:2467, 2474, 2521, 2541, 2556).

The term “dialectic,” then, is not an alien epithet imposed on Kierkegaard’s thought but indicates how he understood his own procedure and the qualifications he sought to describe. An awareness of his conception and use of dialectic is thus essential to an accurate assessment of his writings and the content of his thought. But since “dialectic” is a philosophical term that is generally understood in terms of its Socratic, Platonic, and Hegelian conceptions, it requires some redefinition and explanation when used with reference to Kierkegaard’s existential and religious thought. Kierkegaard basically identifies and distinguishes between two kinds of dialectic: conceptual or quantitative dialectic and existential or qualitative dialectic (JP 1:759). Conceptual dialectic refers to the logical method of bringing opposite concepts together in the realm of thought and generally has as its goal an “objective knowledge containing a greater or lesser degree of probability.” In Kierkegaard’s view the dialectical task is to sustain a dual or paradoxical perspective that emphasizes the opposition, duplicity, and tension between concepts rather than a synthesis and mediation of them as in Hegelian dialectic. Opposites, however, do not always contradict each other; sometimes they are complements, and as the reader will see in the following chapters, this is especially true of the dialectical concepts and categories of Christianity as Kierkegaard understands them.

But for Kierkegaard dialectic is never simply a dialectic of concepts; rather, it involves the interpenetration of thought and existence. Existence itself is dialectical, but in a qualitative rather than a logical sense (JP 1:637). The perception of this second kind of dialectic, the dialectic of inwardness or the ethical in human existence, is one of Kierkegaard’s most notable achievements. Existential dialectic comes to expression both in terms of the qualitative contradiction between one’s present condition and one’s ethical or ethical-religious telos, and in terms of the potential qualities, capacities, or conditions that may be realized in human existence. Even the aesthete in Either/Or expresses an awareness of existential dialectic: “Ordinarily, dialectic is thought to be rather abstract—one thinks almost solely of logical operations. But life will quickly teach a person that there are many kinds of dialectic, that almost every passion has its own” (EO 1:159). The terms of qualitative dialectic vary according to each individual’s apprehension and appropriation of inwardness, and they change with the movement from one existence sphere to another. What is regarded as the highest or the telos at one level is negated as an absolute and relativized in the next.

This poses a problem of communication in ethical and ethical-religious teaching, for what it primarily seeks to communicate is a capability (Kunnens Meddelelse) rather than knowledge (Videns Meddelelse) (JP 1:651). Thus communication of the ethical and the ethical-religious must be indirect and dialectical in form and content. Kierkegaard paid close attention to the dialectic of communication appropriate to the qualitative dialectic of existence. In turning to the depiction of the ideal Christian, however, he assumed a direct method of communication, although he considered that he was abandoning only the deceptiveness of indirect communication, not its basic principle that ethical capability cannot be communicated directly. Thus Kierkegaard preferred to characterize Christian communication as “direct-indirect” (JP 1:657). Initially it supplies an element of knowledge, but it still affirms that a direct relation to Christianity is not Christianity and that the essentially Christian is the rigor of existentially actualizing the qualifications of Christian existence (JP 1:518). Kierkegaard conceded that “a knowledge about Christianity must certainly be communicated in advance,” but he maintained that “it is only a preliminary” (JP 1:653). As in indirect communication, “the communication is not in the direction of knowledge but of capability” (JP 1:657). Thus his direct description and clarification of the existential qualifications or determinants of Christianity must be viewed in this light as the provision of a preliminary knowledge of what Christianity is so that it may be inwardly appropriated by interested persons.

There is another feature of Kierkegaard’s understanding and use of dialectic that is of central importance in his perception and presentation of Christianity and Christian existence. The existential dialectic appropriate to Christianity is informed by a peculiar dialectical method and character which Kierkegaard identifies as “inverse dialectic” (omvendt Dialektik) or “the dialectic of inversion” (Omvendthedens Dialektik). Briefly stated, in inverse dialectic the positive is known and expressed through the negative, what appears to be negative may be indirectly positive (and vice versa), and the positive and the negative, Christianly understood, are always the inverse of the natural, human, worldly, and pagan understandings of these terms.

Although not yet labeled as such, this dialectic of inversion first receives explicit formulation in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, where it is seen as applying not only to Christianity but also to the religious sphere in general. As Johannes Climacus, the pseudonymous author of that book, states the formula: “The sign of the religious sphere is . . . that the positive is distinguished by the negative” and “the religious continually uses the negative as the essential form” (CUP 1:432, 524; see also 240, 455, 532). Climacus goes on to point out that “the negative is not once and for all and then the positive, but the positive is continually in the negative, and the negative is the distinctive mark” (524). In the Postscript this inverted or positive-negative dialectic is conceived even more broadly as informing the very structure of human existence. Climacus points out that in relation to truth the existing subjective thinker, who is a synthesis of the temporal and the eternal, is just as negative as he or she is positive, since certainty can be had only in the infinite or eternal, which is illusively or deceptively present in human existence; that is, it is never fully realized and thus requires continuous striving through the increase and deepening of subjectivity or inwardness in the human subject (80–85). Inwardness in turn is precisely the medium through which the subjective thinker becomes conscious of the negativity or illusiveness of the infinite or eternal. The more subjective one becomes, the more one becomes aware of one’s distance from the eternal.

As Climacus sees it, this negative relation to the eternal is intensified in Religiousness A or immanent religiosity through the expression of existential pathos in the forms of resignation, suffering, and the consciousness of guilt, and in Religiousness B or Christianity through the consciousness of sin and the possibility of offense. At the same time, however, these negative expressions of religious pathos are indirect signs of a positive relation to the eternal or God. Climacus understands Christianity to consist essentially in inwardness or subjectivity, but it is not just any and every type of inwardness or pathos. In his view, Christian subjectivity is conditioned in such a way that it is made specifically different from all other forms of inwardness by the introduction of dialectical factors that serve to intensify its pathos to the highest pitch. These include, first of all, a negation of the individual’s essential continuity with the eternal in the counter-recognition that subjectivity is untruth or in a state of sin, and second, an affirmation of the coming into existence of the absolute paradox or the eternal in time, in relation to which the individual lays hold of the truth in existence through faith defined as “this absurdity, held fast in the passion of inwardness” (210).

In the religious writings and journals of the second period of his authorship, Kierkegaard associates the dialectic of inversion even more specifically with Christianity and regards it as the form by which every qualification of Christian existence should be understood and distinguished even though the basic formula applies to the ethical-religious sphere as well. In his journals Kierkegaard states that “the formula for essential Christianity is: the essentially Christian is always the positive which is recognizable by the negative,” and he points out that “the apostle always speaks out of this inverted dialectic” (JP 4:4680; see also 4:4682, 4696). It is in this period that Kierkegaard begins to refer to this positive-negative dialectic as “inverse dialectic,” and he views it as applying to the Christian’s relation to God as well as to the world. The Christian’s inverted relation to God is expressed in various ways. For example, progress toward the eternal is indicated by retrogression (JP 1:77; 2:1425). The heightening of the God-relation is achieved by lowering oneself and becoming as nothing before God. One draws closer to God as one acquires a sense of one’s distance from the divine. In a communion discourse from 1848 Kierkegaard states that “God and the human being resemble each other only inversely. You do not reach the possibility of comparison by the ladder of direct likeness: great, greater, greatest; it is possible only inversely. Neither does a human being come closer and closer to God by lifting up his head higher and higher, but inversely by casting himself down ever more deeply in worship” (CD 292). In other discourses Kierkegaard uses the lilies of the field and the birds of the air and the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector to illustrate the Christian’s inverted relation to God. The lilies and the birds teach one to keep silent in order to become nothing before God, for in becoming silent and making oneself nothing one begins to seek first the kingdom of God: “Thus in a certain sense one devoutly comes backward to the beginning. The beginning is not that with which one begins but that to which one comes, and one comes to it backward” (WA 11). Similarly, the tax collector who stood by himself far off from the altar feeling unworthy before God was nearer to the divine than the Pharisee, who also stood alone, but only presumptuously to exalt what he imagined to be his own greater righteousness (WA 127–34; see also JP 4:3933).

While Christians stand in an indirectly positive relation to God through negative qualifications, their relation to the world is directly negative because Christianity is diametrically opposed to the world’s presuppositions, values, and goals. In Judge for Yourself! Kierkegaard maintains that “the world and Christianity have completely opposite conceptions. . . . The difference between secularity and Christianity is not that the one has one view and the other another—no, the difference is always that they have the very opposite views, that what the one calls good the other calls evil, what the one calls love the other calls selfishness, what the one calls piety the other calls impiety, what the one calls being drunk the other calls being sober” (JFY 96). The Christian striver needs, therefore, to be “torn out of his conceptual setting and his world of ideas” in order to acquire the Christian point of view (JP 2:1409). The world’s procedure is to understand everything in a direct manner, while Christianity views everything inversely and indirectly. In Christianity the positive is not immediately, simply, or directly what it is but appears in the first instance as its own opposite or has negative consequences.

The qualifications for living Christianly are actualized in existence through an inverted dialectical process Kierkegaard calls “reduplication” (Reduplikation). In general, reduplication means to exist in what one thinks, to express the content of one’s understanding in one’s actions in order to realize a fusion of thought and being in existence, not merely conceptually or abstractly but actually. Kierkegaard defines it this way in another passage from his journals: “When Christianity (precisely because it is not a doctrine) does not reduplicate itself in the one who presents it, he does not present Christianity; for Christianity is an existential-communication and can only be presented—by existing. Basically to exist therein [at existere deri], to express it in one’s existence etc.—this is what it means to reduplicate” (JP 1:484). But Christian reduplication as Kierkegaard understands it refers more specifically to the dialectical manner in which the actualization of the Christian qualifications takes place in Christian striving. In his journals Kierkegaard says that

every striving which does not apply one-forth, one-third, two-thirds, etc. of its power to systematically working against itself is essentially secular striving, in any case unconditionally not a reforming effort. Reduplication means to work against oneself while working; it is like the pressure on the plow-handles, which determines the depth of the furrow—whereas working which does not work against itself is merely a superficial smoothing over. . . . Again the difference between the direct and the inverted, which is the dialectical. Working or striving directly is to work and strive. The inverted method is this: while working also to work against oneself. (JP 6:6593, translation amended slightly; see also 3:3661)

This passage, written in 1850, is strikingly similar to a note in On My Work as an Author (written in 1849 and published in 1851), where Kierkegaard writes with respect to the maieutical (as opposed to direct) movement of his authorship:

This again is the dialectical movement . . . or it is the dialectical method: in working also to work against oneself, which is reduplication and the heterogeneity of all true godly endeavor to secular endeavor. To endeavor or to work directly is to work or to endeavor directly in immediate connection with a factually given state of things. The dialectical method is the reverse: in working also to work against oneself, a redoubling [Fordoblelse], which is “the earnestness,” like the pressure on the plow that determines the depth of the furrow, whereas the direct endeavor is a glossing-over, which is finished more rapidly and also is much, much more rewarding—that is, it is worldliness and homogeneity. (PV 9n)

In For Self-Examination Kierkegaard specifically identifies this inverted dialectical movement as the way of Christ, who “knows from the very beginning that his work is to work against himself” and whose narrow way is made even more difficult and absurd for his followers inasmuch as “when you must use your powers to work against yourself, then it seems infinitely too little to say that the way is narrow—it is, instead, impassable, blocked, impossible, insane! And yet it is this way of which it holds true that Christ is the way” (FSE 61).

Kierkegaard understands reduplication, therefore, as an inverted dialectical movement that is appropriate to existence, especially Christian existence. It is a dialectic that informs the Christian striver’s action as well as thought, and it refers not only to the process of appropriating in one’s finite, temporal, or natural life the inverted Christian concepts and existential qualifications but also indicates how this is to be done—not directly but indirectly and inversely. Humanly understood, Christian striving seems to produce the opposite of the effect or condition one expects or strives for, but Christianly understood, to work against oneself means to work against one’s true condition or goal only in the sense that one goes about attaining and expressing it in an opposite manner from what the world would recommend or do. A corollary of this inverse procedure is that Christian strivers bring upon themselves opposition from the world as they succeed in actualizing the Christian qualifications in this indirect and inverted manner.

As inverse dialectic applies in the differentiation of Christian concepts and corresponding actions from their merely human, natural, or worldly correlates, it may be described as being exclusive in character, although Kierkegaard does not regard this exclusivity as signifying an unqualified negative relation of Christianity to the world. In spite of the fact that the Christian concepts and existential qualifications are diametrically opposed to merely human, natural, and worldly conceptions and incur opposition from the world as a result, what Christianity seeks, he claims, is to relativize, transform, and inform these views and actions, not simply set itself against them or maintain an attitude of indifference toward the world.

Initially, however, it would appear that Kierkegaard intended in his later religious writings to suggest a disjunction between the Christian concepts and method of reduplication and those concepts and methods which obtain in other existence-spheres, even the ethical-religious. He does not discuss this matter directly, and his failure to do so causes a certain amount of ambiguity concerning how he regards the ethical-religious once he begins to concentrate entirely on Christian existence. He tends to use the terms “natural,” “immediate,” “human,” “pagan,” “earthly,” “temporal,” and “worldly” almost interchangeably, implying that their common frame of reference is of greater relevance to his thought than any particular nuances in their meanings. Kierkegaard makes it quite clear that Christianity is opposed to aesthetic immediacy, and it is basically this aspect of existence toward which the exclusive dialectical relation is directed. But in Concluding Unscientific Postscript the ethical-religious is portrayed as also being opposed to aesthetic immediacy and as beginning with a dying away from that stage of existence. In this respect, therefore, the ethical-religious stands in continuity with Christianity. Likewise, in “An Occasional Discourse” (more popularly known as “Purity of Heart”) the ethical individual is characterized as one who recognizes the opposition between the temporal and the eternal and whose vision “is formed to see everything inverted,” in accordance with “eternity’s true thought—that everything in life appears inverted [omvendt]” (UDVS 135; translation amended slightly).

Inverse dialectic and opposition to aesthetic immediacy thus clearly apply in the broader dimension of the ethical and ethical-religious as well as in Christianity. But insofar as the ethical-religious does not envision an absolute discontinuity with and heterogeneity to the eternal, it remains along with aesthetic immediacy within the bounds of immanence or within the limits of a purely human conception of what is possible and true. The ethical-religious represents the highest potentiality of the purely human, and in comparison with the lower, entirely direct understanding of the immediate person it signifies the beginning of, and considerable growth in, the rejection of the unqualified immediate, natural, worldly values and goals that most people embrace in life. Thus, ethical-religious individuals feel themselves to be strangers in the world, although in Kierkegaard’s view they may not exhibit any external sign of their opposition to the values and goals of the society in which they live. But such persons cannot succeed in transcending purely human expectation and understanding in order to embrace the kind and extent of inversion and contradiction that Christianity introduces into the world and requires of the Christian. Thus the inverted dialectic that applies in Christianity serves to distinguish it from the ethical-religious as well as from aesthetic immediacy and to provide the form by which this distinctiveness can be expressed.

In contrast to the exclusive dialectic that informs the Christian striver’s relation to the world, the inverse dialectic operative in his or her relation to Christianity is complementary in character. Here the negative stands in a dialectical relation to the eternal or the positive, but both the negative and the positive are essential to the definition of a Christian. The negative qualifications must come to expression in Christian existence, since the positive is indirectly present in or known through the negative. Thus Kierkegaard defines and depicts Christian existence on two levels. Ideally it is conceived in terms of its positive characteristics: “The essentially Christian is always the positive” (JP 4:4680). But in existence these are always coupled with, and are only indirectly recognizable through, negative qualifications, so that existentially the essentially Christian must be defined to include the negative either as a simultaneous complement of the positive or as a temporal precondition for it. The negative qualifications are also presented as ideal requirements inasmuch as they define Christian existence in the strictest sense or in its highest expression in existence. Since Kierkegaard understands human existence as a process of becoming, the existing Christian is never a Christian in a directly positive or ideal sense but is always in the process of striving toward that ideal. Properly speaking, that person should always be referred to as a Christian striver.

There are essentially four basic and decisive negative qualifications of Christian existence that must be viewed and correlated in the dialectical manner just described. These are the consciousness of sin, the possibility of offense, dying to the world or self-denial, and suffering. Through these negative qualifications Christian strivers stand related to or bring to expression in their existence the positive qualifications of Christianity: faith, forgiveness, new life, love, hope, joy, and consolation. These qualifications constitute the complementary dialectical determinants of Christian existence to which Kierkegaard devoted most of his attention in the second period of his authorship. His task, as he conceived it, was to bring the negative qualifications, which he believed had been virtually eliminated in Christendom, once again into view, to provide them with conceptual clarity, and to show their essential relation to, and necessity in, securing a correct understanding and expression of the positive qualifications of Christian existence.

In the chapters that follow, these complementary dialectical qualifications for living Christianly will be placed in bold relief, and the ways in which they are correlated and informed by inverse dialectic will be shown in detail. The negative factors of the consciousness of sin and the possibility of offense will be correlated in separate chapters with the positive qualifications of faith and forgiveness. Dying to the world and self-denial will be shown in their inverted dialectical relation to the experience of new life, love, and hope in the Spirit. And suffering, the capstone of living Christianly as Kierkegaard understood it, will be delineated in its essential correlation to joy and consolation. Finally, Kierkegaard’s portrayal of Christian existence will be situated within the broader complementary dialectical framework of Christianity as incorporating both gospel and law, grace and works, mildness and rigor, through a relation to Christ in his dual role as the Christian striver’s redeemer and prototype for living Christianly.

There are of course other specific qualities, actions, and characteristics of Christian existence in addition to these basic qualifications. As Kierkegaard saw it, living Christianly cannot be tightly systematized and minutely pinned down, and even in relation to the basic qualifications there is no direct or unequivocal concrete expression of them that obtains in every situation in life or that unconditionally and concretely identifies them and their actualization in existence. It is precisely this ambiguity that makes living Christianly so difficult to define and to bear, for after all possible clarification has been applied to the basic qualifications, Christian strivers are still left with the responsibility—which they must exercise with a large dose of uncertainty, humility, fear, and trembling—of concretely reduplicating these qualifications in their lives. The inverse understanding of the qualifications and the inverse method of reduplicating them that Kierkegaard presents in his writings can serve as guides in this task, but they can never be a complete systematic formulation of what it means to be a Christian or to strive to become such. As noted earlier, Kierkegaard does not proceed in this way or with such a goal, although certain of his writings concentrate heavily on the elucidation of particular qualifications. But they are always treated in an unsystematic fashion and in an existential context in which the problem of becoming a Christian, rather than an objective concern about what Christianity is, informs his reflection on them.

Consequently, even the systematic way in which the basic qualifications are identified, correlated, and considered in the following chapters is to a degree arbitrary and a departure from Kierkegaard’s own practice. For in the procedure to be followed, Kierkegaard’s understanding of these qualifications will be abstracted to some degree from the contexts in which they are discussed in his writings and journals in order to encapsulate the conceptual clarifications and dialectical relations he proposes. To the extent that this procedure can contribute to the elucidation of Kierkegaard’s achievements in this regard, it nevertheless seems justified for academic purposes, especially if Kierkegaard’s continual reminders to his readers are heeded—that the correct objective understanding of Christianity does not make one a Christian and that once one properly understands what Christianity is, existentially the most essential and most difficult task still lies ahead in the actualization of these qualifications in one’s own life.

No attempt will be made in this study to assess Kierkegaard’s personal success or failure in reduplicating the qualifications of Christian existence in his own life or to interpret his understanding of this life-form by reference to his own existential situation. While Kierkegaard’s understanding is undoubtedly conditioned by his relation to Christianity as well as by other experiences and individuals in his life, his description of Christian existence and the inverted dialectic that informs it is not merely the projection of, or a reaction to, his psychological state of being, social environment and encounters, and personal relationships. Rather, it a deeply reflected and original account that has an objective foundation in both scripture and Christian tradition. It is quite possible, therefore, to discuss Kierkegaard’s understanding of Christian existence generally apart from his personal relation to it. Indeed, such a procedure is even necessary in order to permit his depiction to stand on its own for assessment of its adequacy as a description of Christianity and Christian existence and for reduplicating it in one’s own life. But this does not mean that Kierkegaard was personally unrelated to the Christian ideals which he strove to depict. On the contrary, from his point of view it is essential that any person who undertakes to depict the qualifications for living Christianly stand related to this ideality as one engaged in striving to fulfill it; otherwise the whole project of “poet-communication,” as he characterized his presentation of the Christian ideals, would become an intellectual enterprise and a failure (JP 6:6528).

Finally, no attempt will be made here to recast Kierkegaard’s language into less patriarchal terms. Kierkegaard was a man of his time with respect to linguistic form and the use of sexual stereotypes. Thus it would seem artificial and untrue to present his views in linguistic terms uncommon to his age and his own practice, however inadequate, exclusive, or negative in connotation they may be. But Kierkegaard’s language is not always as androcentric as his translators sometimes make him out to be. Where that is the case, I have taken the liberty to amend the standard translations of passages quoted in this study in order to render Kierkegaard’s meaning and intent more accurately. In regard to discussion of his thought and its general application, however, gender inclusiveness or neutrality is entirely appropriate and will be maintained throughout the study. Although one can find ambivalent and negative attitudes toward women expressed throughout Kierkegaard’s writings (some of which belong to the spokespersons for particular life-views rather than to Kierkegaard himself), the primary emphasis in his authorship is upon our common humanity and spiritual equality.

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