R.C. Sproul’s Lecture On Kierkegaard And Existentialism

I found this a little reductionist and introductory, and I don’t agree with him on all the points, but it’s not a bad intro to Kierkegaard if you’ve been wondering about this Danish philosopher and his views. 


Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard didn’t mince words when he addressed the lack of passion that marked the church of his day. What can we learn from Kierkegaard today? Dr. Sproul will explain.

We remember that Socrates was known as ‘the gadfly of Athens’ because of his style that was so provocative as he would go through the marketplace and ask people penetrating questions and try to stimulate their thinking. So the modern philosopher who also was given that descriptive nickname of ‘gadfly’ was Søren Kierkegaard, who many believe to be the father of modern existentialism.

Of course Kierkegaard lived in Denmark, he was born in 1813 and died in 1855 at the young age of 42. I remember as a college student, being a philosophy major, going through my Kierkegaard period, because Kierkegaard was passionately committed to the Christian faith, and after reading so much of the barren wasteland of modern philosophy as a student and when it came to the study of Kierkegaard it was like a breath of fresh air blowing through the abstract classrooms of philosophy.

So for a time I more or less fell in love with Kierkegaard and read everything I could get my hands on that he had written. He was a man of prodigious ability both in terms of technical philosophy, but also was extremely gifted in a literary way. And it’s amazing that somebody who spoke a language that to the rest of the world is obscure, and emanating from such a small nation as Denmark, that he would have had the influence on 19th and 20th century culture that indeed he did.

If there’s one word that summarises the concern of Søren Kierkegaard as a philosopher, it is the word ‘passion’. He himself was a passionate man, a man of intense feelings; feelings of love and devotion to Christ, but also his life was marked by a constant struggle against the impulses of despair principally emanating from a lost love whose name was Regina, which haunted him to the day that he died.

Now one of the insights that Kierkegaard gave to the world was his analysis of what he called ‘the stadia’, which is the plural of ‘stadium’. A stadium is where one goes to observe some public event or spectacle, like an athletic contest. And he talked about the three stadia of life, or sometimes termed the three stages along life’s way, where many people become stuck in one or the other of these stages.

And the first stadium of the three stadia he called the aesthetic stadium, or the aesthetic stage along life’s way. And this is the level of existence where one becomes, and remains, chiefly a spectator. And he includes within this group of aesthetics those who are what he called epicurean hedonists. Namely, those who spend their lives appreciating, admiring and being chiefly concerned with the pursuit of the delight that comes through the arts. Those who like to go to concerts, those who like to go to galleries, those who enjoy being spectators to other people’s creative genius.

Woman Visiting Art Gallery Lifestyle Concept

And secondly, he put in this stage of the aesthetics those who were abstract intellectuals, what we would call ‘eggheads’, whose heads are in the clouds but remain divorced from the details of human existence that get down and dirty. In this regard he once made an observation about the culture of his day; we remember that Nietzsche had been chiefly critical of 19th century European culture, calling it ‘decadent’ because of its lack of creativity and its lack of courage. Kierkegaard said: “Let others complain that our age is wicked. My complaint is that it is paltry, that it lacks passion.” He said:

“When I become depressed with my own culture and the world around me… I inevitably am drawn back to the Old Testament where I encounter people who are real: they lie, they steal, they cheat, they commit adultery, and yet in the midst of all of this, they have this passionate pursuit of the God who is.”

And so he was complaining of those who passed the time of their lives on the sidelines. Who remained personally and existentially uninvolved with the great cares and crises of human existence.

Well the second stage along life’s way, according to Kierkegaard, he called the ethical stage, where people live on the basis of conscience and are concerned with the value systems around them in terms of good and evil. They are not simply disinterested spectators, but they are people who are concerned with value and with justice. And this of course is an advanced stage over the aesthetic stage, but it is an intermediate stage to the ultimate existential stage to which Kierkegaard was calling people.

And he saw that the highest, or the deepest, stage along life’s way was stage three, which he defined as the religious stage of human existence. Now a passion for religion, and for the things of God, is what marked this philosopher’s life and his thinking. I mentioned earlier that as a college student I read everything I could get my hands on from Kierkegaard including Purity of Heart, Fear and Trembling, Attack Upon Christendom, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Either / Or, and others.

In this religious stage life in its existential passion is marked, according to Kierkegaard, by the twin characteristics of fear and trembling. And he wrote a book by this title in which the hero of the story is the Biblical patriarch Abraham. And if you recall, Abraham’s existential anguish when God called him to the supreme test, whereby he was commanded of God to take his son, the son whom he loved, Isaac, to take him to Mount Moriah and there to kill him and offer him as a sacrifice unto God. And in Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard tries to pierce the soul of Abraham and imagine the existential anguish that Abraham went through as he was contemplating this enormous, dreadful task that God had set before him.

And one of the key refrains that Kierkegaard works with in Fear and Trembling is related to the Biblical description of that event, when we are told that after God gives this command to Abraham, the narrative says:

“And Abraham rose up early in the morning.”

And Kierkegaard begins to contemplate on that phrase, and he asks the question, why did Abraham get up early in the morning? Was it because he was such a virtuous, sanctified man that he rose up early to be bright and alert and about the business of obeying the command of God? Kierkegaard doesn’t think so.

Kierkegaard thought that the reason that Abraham got out of his bed in the morning is because Abraham couldn’t sleep. He tossed and turned on his bed, he was caught in the throes of existential anxiety, of fear and of trembling, because God had commanded him to do something that was absolutely unthinkable: to destroy his own son, who indeed was the child of promise. And to do this, God was commanding Abraham to do something that the moral law later, as expressed in Moses, and already as expressed in the natural law written within us, completely forbade the taking of a human life in such a manner. And child sacrifice was an abomination to Israel, and so part of Abraham’s anguish was the anguish of asking himself:

“Can this really be the voice of God?”

This involved what Kierkegaard called the ‘temporary suspension of the ethical’. I don’t know what that phrase may mean to you, but the only thing I can relate it to in our day, in terms of simple explanation, is the experience you may have when you’re driving through a city, and maybe the traffic lights are not adequately performing, or there’s a traffic jam, and instead of going through the lights as they occur, there is a policeman on the corner. And if you’ve ever driven your car to an intersection where a policeman was directing traffic and the light turned red, but the policeman motions you to go ahead, you have the temporary suspension of the ethical. The law requires that you stop when the light is red, unless the personal embodiment of the law – the traffic officer – is present there to override it. And even then you see people hesitate to go through a red light even when the policeman in his uniform is motioning you to come through.

Barcelona, Spain - November 7, 2014: Police directing traffic in a square in Barcelona. This police force is called Guardia Urbana de Barcelona and one of its functions is to control the traffic in the city

Now this is just a tiny taste of the thing that Abraham struggled with when God told him to go against the law. And so how does Abraham respond to this existential crisis? Well he does it by taking a leap of faith and embracing the paradox of the moment. And now what Kierkegaard does at this point is that he uses this illustration in the life of Abraham to illustrate the whole substance of a passionate Christian life, because the Christian faith is a pilgrimage that requires the existential leap: the time where you have nothing in front of you but darkness, and yet you have the command of God to move ahead, and you must leap by trusting that God will be out there in the darkness. And you must act, and you cannot simply be a spectator or sit around analysing what is right and what is wrong if you know that God is calling you to something, even if you can’t see what’s on the other side of the street. Just like Abraham, you have to take the existential leap of faith.

Now for Kierkegaard the existential leap of faith was not something that was patently irrational or absurd, but it was something that on the surface seemed to be irrational and absurd, and what Kierkegaard is saying is that that’s the risk a person has to take if they’re going to be a follower of Christ, because Christ himself is the supreme paradox. Because in Christ, in his incarnation, we have the intersection of the infinite with the finite; the eternal with the temporal; the unconditioned with the conditioned. And that is the paradox of the one who is God and man. And so one must passionately commit oneself to this Christ of scripture in a moment of crisis that later became called by theologians ‘the crisis of existential Entscheidung’ or decision.

And this moment of passion is the moment of faith that defines a true, authentic Christian’s life. And that takes place – he uses the term, as I said, ‘moment’. The existential moment that is of decisive significance for one’s whole existence. And so Kierkegaard speaks about this moment of truth, this moment of decision where faith breaks into the ordinary linear structure of life and defines everything from that moment on.

The other person with whom Kierkegaard so closely identified from Biblical literature, in addition to Abraham, was the person of Job. Because Job was the man who knew the profound depths of suffering and of pain, and who was threatened every minute of his existence with despair. And yet out of his pain came insights into truth, into love, and into faith. And remember Job, in the midst of his affliction, crying out:

“Though he slay me, yet will I trust him!”

And in that sequence, Job became for Kierkegaard his spiritual model, or ideal. One of the things that he was concerned about was how pain and suffering can be translated into beauty, though the one who is experiencing the anguish and pain that produces the beautiful is not fully appreciated by the public.

He’s speaking here of the woes and misery suffered by the poet, or the artist. He told the story of a man who worked in the theatre, and his role was to play the part of a clown. And he comes out onto the stage, and as he is going through his act he sees in the back of the theatre an outbreak of smoke and fire. And he is alarmed, and so he cries out to the audience that the building is on fire. And when he does that, dressed in his clown outfit, the audience laughs. And the more the clown warns, and the more he cries out about the imminent danger, the greater the laughter of the people.

Sad clown throws up his hands in despair. Contrast between the fun costume and unhappy expression.

And he says that’s the way the public responds to the poet who creates his beauty out of his own pain. Or the prophet who brings truth out of his own suffering: that people enjoy it without feeling the sickness or the pain that is being undergone.

Now in another small work he talks on this point, which was entitled Sickness Unto Death, where there he talks about loneliness and he talks about the condition of what is called ‘existential solitude’: to be shut up in a world where you are closed in by yourself. He points out that it is the supreme punishment for those who are incarcerated in prison to be put in solitary confinement, where one is cut off from all human intercourse and communication. And he said when a person goes into that depth of loneliness, they are as a person who has a fatal illness, who is sick unto death, who has a desire for one thing, and that is to die. But he can’t die. He’s not allowed to die.

And again, Kierkegaard is identifying here with Job, who cried out to God that God would slay him and take his life, to put him out of his misery.

Now, for Kierkegaard, one of the great legacies he gave to 20th century theology was his emphasis on the subjective aspect of truth. He was not interested in the cold, abstract logic of Hegel; or of abstract, speculative philosophy or theology. He wrote a vehement attack against the institutional church for its dead orthodoxy and formalism in his Attack Upon Christendom. And he said that in his passion to recover the personal dimension of authentic truth, that:

“Truth is subjectivity.”

Now there’s a debate as to whether he really meant what he said. Was he simply saying that truth doesn’t come alive until it has the personal application and appropriation by the individual? Or, as some of his followers claim, truth itself is reduced to personal, subjective preference? If that is the case, then of course Kierkegaard has undermined the Christian faith that he is espousing by setting the stage for a later relativism that would negate the objective truth of the word of God.

But the basic concern of Kierkegaard at this point, I don’t think was to give us a complete new epistemology or philosophy of truth, but rather to call his generation and future generations to a passionate, subjective involvement into the life of faith. That’s his legacy to me: I believe that theology should be rational, cogent, coherent, logical, and all of that; but that our response to that, which is objectively true, should be a response of unrestrained passion and care, as we show our love for the things of God.

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