Daphne Hampson on Kierkegaard

Daphne Hampson on Kierkegaard

Daphne Hampson holds doctorates in history from Oxford, in theology from Harvard, and a master's in Continental Philosophy from Warwick. The author of Christian Contradictions: The Structures of Lutheran and Catholic Thought, she has for many years engaged with the Lutheran tradition, in particular the work of Kierkegaard.

Daphne has lectured widely, in the UK, Continental Europe, North America and Australia. She is Professor Emerita of Divinity at the University of St Andrews where she held a chair in Post Christian Thought, and a life member of Clare Hall, Cambridge. She lives and works in Oxford where she is an Associate of the Faculty of Theology and Religion. Daphne’s Kierkegaard: Exposition & Critique (OUP, 2013) is out now in paperback.

Mark Thwaite: Your book does a wonderful job of taking us through very many of Kierkegaard's works. It begins by reminding us of Kierkegaard's intellectual context. Would you like to sketch that context for us here Daphne?

Daphne Hampson: That’s a tall order!

Kierkegaard is an immediate post-Enlightenment thinker. The Enlightenment of the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century, particularly in the German tradition and particularly post-Kant, had thrown up quite fundamental questions for Christianity. Further back than that – and foundational to Kant – Newton had shown that nature is an inter-related causal nexus, predictable and conforming to laws. Thus it became impossible for educated men to think that history could be ‘interrupted’ by miracles, and furthermore that there could be one-off example of a human being who was an incarnation of God.

The response was either atheism, as in the case of Hume and the French philosophes; or, like Kant, to suggest that it was we who chose to see Jesus as the archetype of a perfect human being; or, in the case of the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, to come to think simply theistically rather than Christocentrically, finding in the figure of Jesus a man who had a unique awareness of and openness to God. Furthermore, the onslaught of biblical scholarship, setting those documents in the historical context of the early church, was bound to upset the apple-cart.

Kierkegaard was well aware of all these developments. But he thinks that all the work in biblical scholarship, or the belief that Jesus was a good teacher of humankind (akin to Socrates) is quite beside the point. Kierkegaard will reinstantiate what he takes to be classical Christian faith. What one must recognize – and Kierkegaard in part recognized, in part denied – is that Christianity was in a very different position after the Enlightenment than it had previously been. Whether to say the same thing in a different age is essentially to say something different is however a different matter.

MT: And why did Kierkegaard dislike Hegel so much?

DH: Particularly important for Kierkegaard – as you surmise - was the work of Hegel, which dominated the theological scene in Denmark when he was a young man. The point was that Hegel refused to accept the incompatibility of the Enlightenment and Christian belief, as was the case for example in Kant (‘honest Kant’ as Kierkegaard refers to him). The young Hegel’s scathing ‘theological’ writings lay unpublished, Hegel having either changed his mind (which seems unlikely) or else having decided that to publish this work would be unpropitious if he wanted promotion and security.

Kierkegaard saw through the farce. Hegel’s talk of Geist was not the transcendent God of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. He thought Hegel dishonest, muddying the water. In the face of the Enlightenment and Hegel, Kierkegaard must insist that Christianity claims that God took on humanity in the person of one particular human being. Moreover that to be a Christian is to credit this; or rather to hold in faith that this is the case, for it is, Kierkegaard believes, a contradiction in terms (a paradox) to think that the changeless God entered time.

In other respects however Kierkegaard draws heavily on Hegel. For example his complex definition of the self (in The Sickness Unto Death) is unthinkable without Hegel. It is Hegel who had first seen the self as essentially relational, a relation which relates to itself. Kierkegaard, precisely, has such a non-Aristotelian model of the self as a self relating relation; while at the same time understanding the self crucially differently in saying that such a self cannot come to itself unless it is grounded in the relation to God.

So, like most original thinkers, one might say of Kierkegaard that he is both deeply indebted to his background and context and also makes radical moves in relation to that background. In either case Kierkegaard is not context-less.

MT: Would it be too strong to say that your book is an attempt to rescue Kierkegaard back for theology?

DH: It had never occurred to me that Kierkegaard required rescuing for theology! There is a huge volume of theological writing on Kierkegaard and he is widely taught in university theology departments. He himself describes himself as a ‘religious' writer. If you mean is he not an existentialist, or have I rescued him from being seen ‘purely’ as an existentialist, I am left slightly puzzled.

It is true, of course, that Kierkegaard writes about what it is like to live, particularly what it is to live as a religious person with the ‘idea’ of God constantly in mind. And it is true also that he has wonderful descriptions of all manner of people and their life-styles: he is really at his most edifying as he holds us, and our follies, up before our eyes. That he may have contributed to a certain style of writing – personal, and to the point – is without doubt the case. But I’m not quite sure what ‘existential’ writing is, if Heidegger, Sartre and Camus are all supposed to be ‘existentialists’ (and each in their own way might well be unhappy with the term).

‘Existentialist’ he may be, but this is not to preclude that Kierkegaard, well schooled in classical theology, as well as the Lutheran tradition, and also the philosophy of the Enlightenment period, and not least in the thought of the ancient world, addresses himself to issues of substance, not just of style. It really doesn’t help if for example a commentator on Kierkegaard casts him as only interested in the issue of ‘becoming’. Kierkegaard wants to ask how, in a post-Enlightenment world, one might relate to the Christian proposition that Christ is one person in two natures, human and divine.

Another way of answering this question might well be to comment that it is the Lutheran tradition which is somehow ‘existential’ (so one cannot divide the theology from any purported ‘existentialism’). Now such a statement can be misunderstood, as when Catholics are wont to say that a Lutheran writer is ‘existential’, intending thereby ‘simply subjective’, or ‘writing out of their life experience’, because they haven’t a clue about the structure of Lutheran thought and cannot make head or tail of it. This has not been uncommon. Faith is for the Lutheran tradition a kind of leap, an entrusting of oneself to another (or as Philip Watson so well put it, a transfer of centre of gravity). But it doesn’t follow that that structure of thought is not an ordered whole. One could well say that what, crucially, lies behind Luther’s thought is his break with medieval Aristotelian modes of thought, in which persons are conceive of as derived substance to which properties can be accredited. In as much as he thinks of selves as acting, as a bundle of forces or as relational Luther is the first modern man. (I’ve always thought it no chance that Hegel comes out of the Lutheran tradition.) So Kierkegaard might well be held to be ‘existential’ in that he is Lutheran. And unlike Hegel he thinks in terms of the particular individual.

MT: What do you think philosophers miss about Kierkegaard if they don't give full due to his Lutheranism?

DH: This is a question that it’s difficult to know where to start to answer! Philosophers in general are deeply ignorant of Luther, let alone recognizing that Kierkegaard is a Lutheran. But perhaps more surprisingly many theologians, particularly Anglican and Catholic, and particularly British theologians, are ignorant of Lutheran thought. There is far more awareness of Lutheran thought in the States.

Yes of course: one cannot grasp Kierkegaard if one is ignorant of Lutheran thought. How would one understand that faith is a kind of wager, that it is future orientated, that the Christian has a double sense of self as living ‘from the future’ while present in the world? Or that for Kierkegaard sin is a position (a setting of oneself up in the face of God, a refusal of dependence) and not an act: as Kierkegaard says ‘very often … it is overlooked that the opposite of sin is by no means virtue. … No, the opposite of sin is faith’? Again, epistemologically, that Christian ‘truth’ is other than what one would expect to be the case, that it does not build on but rather overturns human ways of thought? In all these ways Kierkegaard is deeply imbued with his tradition.

None of this implies of course that Kierkegaard is some kind of rigid Lutheran. Just as any great tradition, the Lutheran tradition has spawned the greatest variety thinkers as they have picked up different strands. No more than that all Catholics think alike do Lutherans. Thus Kierkegaard notably – and this is something I have pointed to in my work – has a much more rounded and integrated notion of the self as it stands in relation to God than does many a Lutheran thinker. Kierkegaard sounds almost Catholic as he speaks of love of God. But there are crucial differences: for Kierkegaard we are of ourselves nothing coram deo, before God; it is God who allows the human to ‘be’ something in relation to him.

So yes, in short, philosophers badly need to know something about the Lutheran tradition! They would comprehend Hegel better too, and even Kant. Even Heidegger, who was a Catholic but well versed in Luther. Luther is quite fundamental to the German philosophical as well as theological tradition (of which Kierkegaard is a part) in a way that is rarely comprehended.

MT: How important are Kierkegaard's Journals and Notebooks in understanding his work and thought?

DH: Certainly one finds remarks in Kierkegaard’s journals which give added insight into a position that he’s taking. And - quite apart from considering Kierkegaard as a theologian or philosopher - they are a delight to read. Kierkegaard was such a very human person in his range of emotions and so observant and often witty in his commenting on the world around him. An abbreviated version of these Journals was one of the first Kierkegaard books I owned as a teenager (it cost me 3/6) and I notice how well worn that is!

MT: Boldly, you claim, Philosophical Fragments is the most important text published in theology since the Enlightenment" -- why and how so?

DH: Yes I think it is – and that one doesn’t need to be particularly bold to come to this conclusion! If people grasped that book and thought through its implications (understood, however, within a somewhat different context than that to which Kierkegaard himself seems to have held), then they would see with clarity the situation in which Christianity is placed today. By ‘today’ I mean in the post-Enlightenment world. Let me explain.

Kierkegaard well realizes that Christian claims are not compatible with Enlightenment thought. That’s what the book is about. ‘Socrates’, in the book, could well be replaced by Kant. Or one might well say with modern thought in general. It is assumed that ‘truth’ is available to us through the thinking individual. Or, by extension, one might say through considering the world around us. Consider Einstein on a desert island. He can think out mathematical truth. He can also discover empirical truth – he can measure and observe the world. He can also consider moral truth and come to a conclusion. But to be a Christian our man on a desert island needs a missionary to arrive on a boat. That is to say Christian ‘truth’ is the contention that there lived a man who in a second nature in one persona was God. Other Christians might of course express the Christian claim slightly differently.

By definition, to be a Christian is to believe that there was a ‘uniqueness’ in the events surrounding Jesus of Nazareth, in whatever terms one may wish to cast that uniqueness. This is a historical claim, and differs from ordinary historical claims, such as that Caesar crossed the Rubicon. For, whether or not it is the case that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, it is perfectly possible that he should have done so (in that ‘crossing rivers’ belongs to a repeatable category of things that take place within the causal nexus; you get your horse to put one foot in front of the other till it reaches the other side). Unlike this the Christian claim is a claim to uniqueness; that Truth came into being in history at a certain point in time, such that Christianity can never lose that reference point in history. By contrast one could understand Marxism as an ideology while knowing nothing of Marx. Christians lay claim to revelation, an intervention in history.

What is so interesting is that Kierkegaard apparently (and this is something I’ve only come to realize in recent years) holds to a pre-Enlightenment understanding of how the world works. That is to say he thinks there are all sorts of interventions or revelations, for example he credits miracles. So he has a whole different understanding of God’s relation to history than most people would credit today (or than post-Enlightenment, educated, people had since at least the eighteenth century). For Kierkegaard, God is bringing his purposes to fruition in history, such that the claim to Incarnation stands in a peopled field. Given this context it is a lot more ‘thinkable’ for him than for one who doesn’t think in this way.

So what Kierkegaard does in this book brings to our attention the incompatibility of Christian claims with what we now know and how we think about reality. With part of himself Kierkegaard recognizes this, which is why he says that we must relate to Christ through faith not reason. But it is also the case, as I hope I’ve shown (and this has been too little considered in Kierkegaard scholarship), that the Incarnation is ‘possible’ for him because he continues to hold to what one must name pre-Enlightenment epistemological suppositions. It is in thinking this one through that I would judge that most people today would think Christian claims to be simply untenable. Or else, if they want to be Christians, they need to recognize that they are taking a ‘leap of faith’ in a very different sense than in a pre-Enlightenment world in which all sorts of strange one-off things are occurring.

Thus I think that this book faces us, in a nutshell, with what it is that Christianity is claiming. When we think about Kierkegaard’s argument and place it in the context of our own world I think we shall recognize that Christianity makes claims that we cannot allow.

MT: Could you sketch for us why you call the Works of Love ‘Love's Deeds’ and open out a little the argument that you are advancing with this translation...

DH: The Danish reads Love’s Deeds: that is a direct translation, what it is that love does. I’m not sure that Works of Love conveys this; that could mean works that are loving as compared with some other kind of works. Here again Kierkegaard’s book is cast within a Lutheran context. For Luther, it is God’s acceptance and love of us (for Luther, in Christ) irrespective of any particular merit on our part, which in turn sets us free in like manner to love our neighbour, with a love which is irrespective of any particular merits on the his or her part. This goes to the heart of the Christian message; that God loves sinners, or those who are far from perfect. Such love is to be contrasted with which for example Plato describes in which I love something because I find a good in it for me; or indeed that brotherly love which Aristotle describes in saying that I see in my friend another ‘I’. The Christian understanding of agape is a revelation as to what love truly is.

This is precisely what Kierkegaard’s book is about: what it actually entails to love one’s neighbour. He describes such love in moving terms. It must imply an uncommon openness to others, a being ‘present’, irrespective for example of class, or of whether I happen to like them, or most crucially whether they behave lovingly towards me. It is a dramatic and dynamic kind of love, which Kierkegaard thinks changes the world. Furthermore it makes for a radical equality between people in the eyes of God, and thus should lead us to treat each with dignity. I think Kierkegaard is perfectly right that this is what Christian discipleship is about (though obviously it is not only Christians who can take it upon themselves to think and behave in this way). I believe the book is a classic, a beautiful text, and were it not so unwieldy it would surely be much better known. I try to bring out the best in this book – and to wrestle with what is not so good about it, Kierkegaard’s regressive views on democracy, or his evident sexism.

MT: Kierkegaard wrote using many different pseudonyms -- how seriously should we take those "authors" and how should we read them and the points of view they are advancing? Where is Kierkegaard when e.g. Victor Eremita, Johannes de Silentio and say Constantin Constantius are addressing us?

DH: I don’t think Kierkegaard’s employing of pseudonyms is of deep consequence (though it is a faux pas in some circles to say this). We should consider the following. (i) It is not that Kierkegaard says something different in his pseudonymous work than he does in his signed work and his Journals. (ii) It was common in his society to publish pseudonymously; Bishop Mynster, his great opponent at least for part of his career, did the likewise. (iii) Evidence has come to light, in relation to a number of books, that Kierkegaard decided to publish under a pseudonym only at the last moment. What I think is important, and why Kierkegaard published pseudonymously, is that he wants to be able to present his work ‘objectively’, so that people are able to think out for themselves whether what he is saying is true. He can do this better if it is placed at arm’s length.

MT: In your Preface you movingly acknowledge your personal debt to Kierkegaard, saying how important he has been for your own intellectual journey ("a source of delight and edification"). If, God forbid, Kierkegaard hadn't existed who would you turn to fill (some of) the gaps?

DH: This is a lovely question but I absolutely don’t know how to answer it! I simply cannot imagine who I should be or what conclusions I should have come to had Kierkegaard not been on the scene. I have read him, as I said, since a teenager – and I am now 70. He has been inextricably wound into my life in that he has been a constant dialogue partner as I have engaged with his thought. That is exactly what desired his readers should do.

For myself, Kierkegaard allowed me, at an earlier stage and with far greater clarity than might otherwise have been the case, to arrive at an understanding as to what it is that Christianity implies and claims. I may have come down on the other side of the fence than he; but it has been important to think this out - and at least we should have understood each other as to what the issues are. So I’m grateful. I’ve also thought a lot about what is the difference in historical context between us: what is it that has changed more generally?

But also in other subtle ways – as I’ve indicated – he has been endlessly edifying. Kierkegaard has enabled me to think out what my values are or confirmed me in what I already thought. Last but not least I think it has sometimes encouraged me that Kierkegaard could keep going, all those hours working on his own, while receiving little recognition. Kierkegaard speaks to one as an individual in a way that few authors do. That is why one comes to care about him – however much one might think differently.

MT: Why and how is Kierkegaard still relevant? Why should we read him?

DH: I think I may have answered this question. Or perhaps Kierkegaard can best answer it when he writes: ‘I know what Christianity is. And to get this properly recognized must be, I should think, to every person’s interest, whether he be a Christian or not, whether his intention is to accept Christianity or to reject it.’ People need to stop faffing about and to consider the validity of what it is that Christianity maintains. Anything else won’t do.

But others will surely read Kierkegaard for the sheer joy of the beauty of his prose (which comes through even in translation), for his insights into human life (including its pain), and not least for his wicked humour and his joy. At the end of the day I have to say of Kierkegaard that read him on account of his tender love of God, which I in some sense and in some moments share, even though I may have come to judge Christianity otherwise.

MT: What are you working on now Daphne?

DH: I have various projects afoot.

In the first place I am writing a book about the whole period of the Enlightenment and after which I love so much. It may be called exactly that, Enlightenment and After. I have wondered about a subtitle like ‘The Unraveling of Christianity’ but I think that may be too wicked. It will have chapters on Hume, Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Feuerbach, and lastly Kierkegaard – as a reaction to the Enlightenment, but whose work would have been quite other had it not been for the Enlightenment, in that he writes an apologetic for Christianity in the face of the Enlightenment. This is the period in which all the crucial questions for Christianity in the modern world come to the fore. Moreover I have to say that the answers or responses which were given, whether in the hands of say Schleiermacher and Hegel (so very different, and different again from Kant or Kierkegaard), are so imaginative and various. I seem to be good at explaining texts to others and getting at what the issues are and this book will attempt to do that again.

Then I might get around (I do hope so) to writing a small explanatory book on Luther and Lutheran theology. 2017 will be 500 years since the outbreak of the Reformation. I was horrified in 1983, with the celebration of 500 years since Luther’s birth, to find that people seemed not to have a clue about his theology. The Reformation apparently simply broke out because the church was corrupt, not because Luther had a different understanding of Christianity, a different structuring of Christian faith. I’ve discussed this subject matter at length at a scholarly level in my Christian Contradictions: The Structures of Lutheran and Catholic Thought (2001), but it would be good to try to put over some of this material and to discuss and critique Lutheran thought more generally at a comprehensible level for an intelligent reading public. It is after all thought-provoking. The Reformation caused the major split, after a thousand years, in Western Christian thought and it has not healed.

Finally I surely have to write a big feminist book before I die, but that always seems to be put on hold while I prepare ground work, such as the present Enlightenment project. I have wondered whether to call that Christianity as Fascism, but that may be just off-putting until people can recognize and understand what I mean. I’ve moved a whole step beyond my After Christianity (1997/2002) in coming to conclude that it’s not simply that Christianity has been an ideology which has harmed half of humanity (as it were as an unfortunate spin off), but that the very raison d’être of the Christian myth has in part been to make it look ‘only natural’ that men should be superordinate and women subordinate. That, I think, is a good definition of fascism: an ideology the raison d’être of which it is to make it look only natural that one part of humanity is normative, while those who don’t belong to the norm are cast as ‘the other’. I gave an invited lecture in which I spoke about these questions at the European Society for the Philosophy of Religion meeting in Germany this summer and it seemed to go down well, which is encouraging.

God grant me a life and a half to do what I know I need to do. But as Kierkegaard well knew, one can only live a day at a time.

-- Mark Thwaite (14/11/2014)

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