The 19th century saw a concerted battle between Christians who derived their
faith from the Bible and tradition, and those who were attempting to reframe
Christianity in the light of the scientific method and a revived emphasis on the
rational. Amongst these Kierkegaard was truly unique.
Kierkegaard's father was a wealthy merchant and strict Lutheran. His
gloomy, guilt-ridden piety and vivid imagination strongly influenced his
son. Kierkegaard studied at the University of Copenhagen and became
familiar with the work of Hegel.
Kierkegaard is recognised as the originator of that way of thinking about
life now known as "existentialism". He thought that Hegel had watered down the
meaning of human existence by approaching the realities of life through
abstractions. That those abstractions ever become real depends not on them
(for they remain mere concepts), but on whether or not they are realised in an
individual life experience and thus endowed with existence - hence
While at the university, he ceased to practice Lutheranism and for a time
led an extravagant social life, becoming a familiar figure in the
theatrical and caf� society of Copenhagen. After his father�s death in 1838,
however, he decided to resume his theological studies. In 1840 he became
engaged to the 17-year-old Regine Olson, but almost immediately began
to suspect that marriage was incompatible with his own brooding, complicated
nature and his growing sense of a philosophical vocation.
He abruptly broke off the engagement in 1841, but the episode took on
great significance for him, and he repeatedly alluded to it in his books. At
the same time, he realized that he did not want to become a Lutheran pastor.
He attacked the established Lutheran Church in Denmark, remarking that,
"Pastors are royal officials; royal officials have nothing to do with
An inheritance from his father allowed him to devote himself entirely to
writing, and in the remaining 14 years of his life he produced more than 20
He wrote in Danish and although he was well known in his homeland, it was not
until the 20th century that his thinking was widely taken up. Its popularity
reached a peak between 1938 and 1968.
At a basic level his attitude towards life was one which proposed the
falsity of relying completely on rationality, as proposed by Hegel. It's
important to realise, he thought, that we differ from other life in being aware
of our existence. Philosophy isn't the construction of a coherent
thought-system, but the expression of an individual existence.
In a sense, he was protesting against those who tended to perceive human
beings as things, one kind of object among many objects in the universe.
Teilhard de Chardin has since correctly observed (in The Phenomenon of Man)
that it is not self-awareness which sets humans apart from other animals.
Rather, it is our capacity to think about and reflect on ourselves in a
process of meta-thought which distinguishes us. Many conclude that we are far
closer to other sentient beings in terms of self-awareness than Kierkegaard
would have conceded.
Nevertheless, the existentialist concern for human beings as much more
than objects reflected fundamental Christian teachings and turned out to be
important during the twentieth century. It's particular value was in reaction
against social engineering, which in its socialist, capitalist, fascist and
other forms treated (and still treats) people as units to be exploited or
At the same time, twentieth-century perceptions have rendered obsolete his
insistence on the separation of humanity as entirely distinctive from other
things and creatures. The principle of "complementarity" in physics, for
example, stresses that all physical particles are interdependent and that they
all interact with each other. All particles throughout the universe are
Similarly, our planet is increasingly being perceived as a single system,
of which humanity is a sub-system. Both as a race and as individuals we share
the same underlying form and processes with all other sub-systems. Even our
awareness is essentially systemic, comprising a large number of sub-systems
such as the brain, and social norms as well as disciplines like history and
cybernetics. Hegel's philosophy is, according to this line of thought, a
component of the sub-system we call "philosophy".
Co-operation and co-ordination are the name of the systems game. As Fritjof
The more one studies the living world the more one comes to realise
that the tendency to associate, establish links, live inside one another
and co-operate is an essential characteristic of living organisms.
So when Kierkegaard talks of "experience" as defining our existence as
humans, he seems to be operating from a somewhat more subjective view of the
world than either he would have liked or than can today be sustained. Our
experience is, when we step back and take a good look, intimately and
inextricably interwoven with the rest of existence. The "existential", the
quality of being, is therefore a property not of individuals but of the planet
as a whole within the context of the entire universe.
A E McGrath points out that in philosophical parlance, the term
"experience" has acquired an extended meaning:
It has come to refer to the inner life of individuals, in which those
individuals become aware of their own subjective feelings and emotions. It
relates to the inward and subjective world of experience, as opposed to the
outward world of everyday life. 
While Christian tradition emphasises the uniqueness and freedom of each
individual, there is also a strong thread which lays great stress on
humanity's participation in and responsibility for the whole of the created
world. In that respect, Kierkegaard was perhaps too close to the mechanistic
perceptions of his time. Neither we nor the planet are like wind-up machines.
As a consequence of his philosophy, Kierkegaard thought that all attempts at
providing Christianity with justification for its teachings were not only doomed
to failure, but were irreligious in nature. He held instead that a correct
approach to being a good Christian was through an attitude which placed special
emphasis on life experience. Passionate faith, not thought, is what gives us our
distinctive character within God's creation. Abstract theories and doctrines are
concepts which can't be truly tested until they are lived out.
This conviction surfaced again and again in the next century through those
who proposed that the light of reason can take a Christian only so far. The rest
of the pilgrim's journey is, as it were, in the dark. Once again, it is apparent
that he ignored or did not perceive the complex pattern of inter-relatedness
which gives us what we call "life". Experience is therefore multifaceted because
it is inextricably bound up with all other experience, including theoretical
Today we are acutely aware both of subjectivity and of relativity. All
subjective experience is unique. It can only be reported on. So when Kierkegaard
refers to "experience" he can only know his experience - that unique
relationship to the world that each one of us has.
We each perceive the world through our individual lenses. While we share the
same period of time, and the same culture, none of us shares either the same
upbringing, the same contexts or the same perspective. The same event is
perceived and interpreted differently by different individuals. You will
experience an event in your way, and I in mine. Experience - the "existence" of
Existentialism - is not the solid base Kierkegaard thought it was. It is
relative to a host of different factors in each of us.
Looking once again behind the scenery on the Christian stage, it may be
possible to notice an important similarity between traditional doctrine and
The Church at large teaches that fundamental truth rests not in reason but
in revelation. We can think through certain things - but other things we must
find out for ourselves by experiencing God's communications to us. This
information comes first through the Bible and then through the Church's
interpretation of Scripture.
Both types are not ultimately open to reason, except in the sense that we
think about what God has told us. The effect of both are a depth of conviction
which derives not from consideration but from an emotional, passionate
Kierkegaard studied both philosophy and theology. In his time, the only
philosophy taught in Danish universities was that of Hegel. The latter held that
nothing is ultimately and completely real except the whole - and in that sense,
thought itself is an entire system, almost like an organism. He asserted that
the real is rational, and the rational is real. Only when facts are perceived in
their place within the entire whole can we speak of rationality.
In a very real sense, Hegel set Western thinkers on a course for the present
integrative systems approach to the universe.
As an out-and-out radical thinker, Kierkegaard could not go with the Hegelian
approach. He preferred to emphasise that the aim of the philosopher is to be an
individual to the full - since in existing,
not in just reflecting, is to be found truth. His phrase was "�in the crowd is
Kierkegaard maintained that systematic philosophy not only imposes a
false perspective on human existence but also, by explaining life in terms
of logical necessity, is a means of avoiding choice and responsibility.
Individuals, he believed, create their own natures through their choices,
which must be made in the absence of universal, objective standards.
Choice lies at the very core of human existence, he said. Hegel (and, by the
way, a large majority of modern psychologists) was wrong in supposing that we
act as a result of the conceptual schemes (constructs) we take on board through
It is difficult today to divorce individual choice from its context. While
each of us undoubtedly has an element of freedom in what we choose, we are
profoundly influenced and limited by the cultural setting in which we make
those choices. Our awareness of context is one reason why Christians
increasingly find the traditional idea of sin difficult to sustain.
Kierkegaard was correct in concluding that we have no absolute moral rules
to work with. But he nevertheless overstated his case for the independence of
human choice. It is difficult, for example, knowing a teenager's home and
social background, to fully blame him or her for petty crime.
His book Stages in Life's Way (1845) proposed three main aspects to
being. We begin our lives, he thought, in an aesthetic phase in which a
romantic, restless desire predominates. This leads a person into a search for
Every mood, every thought, good or bad, cheerful or sad, you pursue to its
utmost limit, yet in such a way that this comes to pass in abstracto
rather than in concreto; in such a way that the pursuit itself is
little more than a mood ... 
At some point, those who face life's challenges move from the aesthetic into
an ethical phase, a search for universal rules of conduct. This is when a person
begins to mature, begins to realise the eternal in the temporal. Perseverance
brings the ethical phase to maturity in a religious phase in which obedience is
to the absolute (which incorporates both the ethical and the aesthetic). When
that comes about
... the chief thing is not whether one can count on one's fingers how many
duties one has, but that a man has once felt the intensity of duty in such a
way that the consciousness of it is for him the assurance of the eternal
validity of his being. 
This is not a scheme of rational obedience to the absolute, but a life
gamble in which religious faith is exercised in risking all. The essence of
existence, therefore, is living out a faith which derives its power from the
capacity to take a chance on what can't be verified by rational means.
Kierkegaard correctly construed faith as trust. He took as central to his
life-task the explanation of what is involved in being a Christian.
In Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846) Kierkegaard pointed out
what he called the "absurdity" of Christian teaching. The way in which it tended
to affront level-headed, rational people was good proof of its truth rather than
of its falsity.
So, for example, it is useless to try to explain the incarnation of Jesus
because such truths can't be authenticated by reason. Truth lies in paradox and
in the experience of those who will risk it. He defined truth as "�objective
uncertainty held fast by the personal appropriation of the most passionate
What he apparently did not notice is that Christianity has always claimed to
be an objective religion, based not upon visions or concepts but upon history.
Those in his times who were attempting to rationalise belief, to find
rational "proof" for various aspects of faith (including the existence or
non-existence of God) - to "�bring God to light objectively", in
Kierkegaard's words - were attempting the impossible because "� God is a
subject, and therefore exists only for subjectivity in inwardness". God is
never a "third party".
So the issue is not belief (in a truth) but in being a Christian
(through experience) and in so doing opposing traditional faith and reason. In
the final analysis faith as trust comes only through despair about one's own
personal possibilities - and as such is a gift of God.
The believer lies constantly out upon the deep, with
70 000 fathoms of water under him. Long as he may lie there, he gets no comfort
from the expectation that little by little (because of accumulated proofs) he
will find himself on land � but until the last instant he lies above a depth of
70 000 fathoms.
Kierkegaard's overall question asked what it means to be a Christian. He was
clear that this did not necessarily mean being part of the formal Church.
Indeed, the individual stands over against the Church, which constantly
tries to put God into a doctrinal box. It "deifies" itself by placing worth on
outward appearances instead of on inward truth.
The Christian, in contrast, can become a true Christian by God's grace and a
"leap of faith" into the uncertainty of the provisional.
Only a man of iron will can become a Christian. For only he has a will that
can be broken. But a man of iron will whose will is broken by the Unconditional,
i.e. by God, is a Christian.
 Hidden Connections, Doubleday, 2002
 Christian Theology, Blackwell, 1994
 Purify Your Hearts
 Either / Or