|KIERKEGAARD'S RELATIONS WITH POSTMODERNISM
DR. CHARLES L. CREEGAN
SØREN KIERKEGAARD (1844)
Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (b. 1813, d. 1855)
was a profound and prolific writer in the
Danish "golden age" of intellectual
and artistic activity. His work crosses the
boundaries of philosophy, theology, psychology,
literary criticism, devotional literature
and fiction. Kierkegaard brought this potent
mixture of discourses to bear as social critique
and for the purpose of renewing Christian
faith within Christendom. At the same time
he made many original conceptual contributions
to each of the disciplines he employed. He
is known as the "father of existentialism",
but at least as important are his critiques
of Hegel and of the German romantics, his
contributions to the development of modernism,
his literary experimentation, his vivid re-presentation
of biblical figures to bring out their modern
relevance, his invention of key concepts
which have been explored and redeployed by
thinkers ever since, his interventions in
contemporary Danish church politics, and
his fervent attempts to analyse and revitalise
Christian faith. Kierkegaard burned with
the passion of a religious poet, was armed
with extraordinary dialectical talent, and
drew on vast resources of erudition.
Dr. Charles L. Creegan.
For Presentation to Conference on 'Person'
in a 'Postmodern Era' Wesleyan Center, Point
Loma Nazarene College, January 24, 1997 Charles
L. Creegan, North Carolina Wesleyan College
Copyright © 1996, Charles L. Creegan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Doctor Charles Creegan received the B. A.
from Oberlin College in 1981. His major fields
were Philosophy and Religion, and he was
accorded graduation honors in religion. He
received the Ph. D. from Drew University
in 1987, presenting a dissertation
entitled "Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein:
A New Way of Doing Philosophy". The
thesis committee consisted of Charles Courtney,
Thomas Oden and Paul L. Holmer. From 1998
2000, Creegan was webmaster at North Carolina
Wesleyan College (where he spent 10 years
teaching philosophy and religion (and doing
major WWW development). He is also an active
researcher in philosophy of religion. And
he is rapidly falling behind in the quest
for useful net stuff. He is married to Nicola
Kierkegaard's Relations with Postmodernism
The Problem Stated
Post-Modern Christianity: Don Cupitt
Kierkegaard and Postmodernism I: Methodology
Kierkegaard and Postmodernism II: The Relational
The Relational Self In Practice
Kierkegaard and Postmodernism III: The Transcendent
Kierkegaard and Feminism I: "That Individual"
Kierkegaard and Feminism II: Relational Ethics
Kierkegaard and Feminism III: Women's Experience
There are intriguing congruities between
Kierkegaard and some recent tendencies in
feminism and post-modern thought. 1 Neither
Kierkegaard, feminists, nor post-modernism
are systematic (that's one congruity right
there!), so the common points can't be neatly
tabulated. But (again typically of all the
parties concerned) they tend to lie in three
areas: methodology, communicative strategy,
and the rejection of procrustean metaphysics.
In what follows I will try to assemble some
fragments which point out these congruities.
The Problem Stated
What happens to 'person' in a 'post-modern'
era? At one level the answer to this question
is plain. From the medieval synthesis through
modern times, the search for understanding
has been the search for an essence, a metaphysical
construct. Within this paradigm, the quest
for 'person' has focused on the quality of
a metaphysical essence: Are persons primarily
body or mind, thought or feeling, material
Postmodern paradigms of the nature of understanding
shift the terms of this search. The "loss
of the transcendental signified" deconstructs
the notion of essence, for selves as for
other things. Spiritual reality, understood
as metaphysical, has no place in these paradigms.
Feminist paradigms yield a related transformation
of the notion of selfhood. In the language
of postmodernism, a key feminist claim might
be that the "transcendental signified"
has been determined patriarchally. The loss
of the metaphysical self allows a focus on
experience, particularly the social experience
of women. Attention to such experience grounds
challenges to traditional categories in various
fields, notably ethics. Christian ethics,
unabashedly determined through patriarchal
authority, appears a prime target for such
Post-Modern Christianity: Don Cupitt
Before looking at how Kierkegaard's ideas
relate to these issues, it would be helpful
to see how Christianity looks to one who
wholeheartedly embraces the "post-modern"
worldview. This new face of Christianity
is manifest in the work of Don Cupitt, theologian
and Anglican cleric. His project is incarnate
in a variety of works. In what follows I
will focus on The New Christian Ethics, which is a wide-ranging theological investigation
of the status of Christian practice in light
of the 'death' of the realist frame of reference
for Christian belief.
Cupitt begins by asserting that theological
realism has been gradually demythologized
since the Enlightenment. He claims that the
increasing human consciousness of the social
construction of reality has led to the impossibility
of maintaining such a realism. Given that
meaning is pure social construction, theological
realism is rendered a dead option. Yet Christian
ethics (if not other ethical systems as well)
is still stated in the 'residually-theological'
terms of a platonic-realist framework. 2
Cupitt asserts that "all modern philosophies
of language" agree that the world is
a human creation, the human world a communication
network in and by language. 3 He consistently
fleshes out this claim with reference to
structuralist and post-structuralist ideas,
even remarking that French structuralism
is much the most advanced tradition in carrying
the ideal of 'world-as-language' to its utmost
conclusions. 4 Thus he cites structuralist
theories of language and meaning-creation
as furnishing the description and effecting
the culminating result of the process of
Structuralism insists on the social construction
of meaning - that there is no reality beyond
what is said in language. The Saussurian
term langue refers to the total linguistic framework
within which utterances take place. Language
does not express or point to an external
reality; it actually forms this reality.
Different linguistic constructions thus name
and hence 'create' a different reality.
Cupitt uses this framework to mount a general
attack on the concept of private experience.
I cannot experience a thing unless I have
been pre- programmed by culture to be capable
of experiencing it. . . . If a meaning is
not already imprinted upon my constitution,
it cannot become excited. There is no experience
which is not the firing of a meaning, and
therefore, . . . all mystical ideas about
extraordinary experiences about the ineffable
and about pure unconditioned awareness are
One might of course participate in a culture
which has mystical ideas as part of its framework.
Such ideas would merely be human constructions,
with a natural history like any other concepts.
But to those who claim to have private unsocialized
experiences of the ineffable, Cupitt replies:
What makes it seem so important to you is
just what makes it mean nothing at all to
me. For, necessarily, the only common meaning
is linguistic meaning. Experience does not
exist; can you understand that? Only the
public is real, and experience is not public.
Given the death of realism and experience
as a basis, Christian ethics is challenged
to invent a new decision-structure not dependent
on them. But to do so requires rooting out
the residual theological realism inherent
in a host of Christian practices and beliefs,
replacing this with forms tenable in the
face of a self-conscious social construction.
Consistent with his denials of realism as
regards the external world and of private
experience, Cupitt goes on to claim that
the metaphysical self is a necessary casualty
of this rooting out of realism, and with
it the idea of internal action and thought
as a locus of 'truth.' From this it follows
among other things that
In religion . . . we have to give up the
old Augustinian idea that the real me is
the me at private prayer. My reality is first
and foremost relational and linguistic. I
am the sum of all my communicative interactions
with other people. 7
Private prayer, construed as the ultimate
metaphysical connection between the metaphysical
self and the real though hidden God, is essentially
an ontologically impossible practice.
Kierkegaard and Postmodernism I: Methodology
What kind of relations obtain between Kierkegaard
and postmodernism? It is common to suggest
that Kierkegaard's position always already
comprises the postmodern analysis of knowing
and language. The anti-metaphysical strands
running through such works as the Fragments and the Postscript, together with the entire project of the pseudonymous
authorship, are taken as forerunners of the
postmodern emphasis on constructed truth
and plural readings. Thus Kierkegaard has
been a central resource for such postmodern
writers as Mark C. Taylor.
Kierkegaard's most direct address to the
issue of postmodern reading is contained
in his Book on Adler. This essay has not been much considered
by postmodern thinkers, perhaps because it
is a minor and topical work, which was occasioned
by the case of a clergyman hopelessly confused
between Hegelianism and Christianity. Nevertheless,
this little work is of great help in clarifying
Kierkegaard's relation to postmodernist ideas.
In it Kierkegaard discusses two "confusions
of the age" which are particularly important
in this context: the confusions between the
'genius' and the 'apostle', and between the
'premise-author' and the 'essential author'.8
In Kierkegaard's formulation the central
distinction between the categories 'genius'
and 'apostle' is in the dimension of communicative
authority. The contribution of the genius
must be judged on its own internal evidence,
and such qualities as profundity and cleverness
are potentially important. The apostle's
contribution, on the other hand, stands or
falls on the quality of authority associated
with it. Even if I understand the content
communicated by the apostle to the fullest,
I have not appropriated it fully unless I
also accept the authority under which it
is promulgated. 9 Kierkegaard consistently
maintained that he himself was "without
authority." One of his main criticisms
of Adler is that he confuses these categories,
believing that he can support a claim to
revelation through argumentation concerning
the content revealed.
The premise-author has "premises for
living but no conclusions"; although
he may write and even be published, he cannot
write the essential final part of the treatise.
What the premise-author lacks is an essential
life-view. He is outwardly directed, whereas
the essential author is inwardly directed.
The premise-author thinks that everything
will be all right if only a loud enough outcry
is made. 10
The essential author, on the other hand,
always has a conclusion in hand and never
makes a move through uncertainty. His work
is nourishing where the premise-author is
It is one thing to be a physician . . . ,
and another thing to be a sick man who .
. . communicate[s] bluntly the symptoms of
his disease. Perhaps he may be able to express
and expound the symptoms in far more glowing
colors . . . . But in spite of that there
remains the decisive qualitative difference between a sick man and a physician. And
this difference is precisely the same decisive
qualitative difference between being a premise-author
and an essential author. 12
Kierkegaard views Adler under the category
of premise-author, especially in light of
his willingness to alter and ultimately retract
his "revelation" under official
The distinction between essential and premise
authorship gets to the heart of the split
between Kierkegaard and postmodernism. The
postmodern outcry "vive la Differance!"
is avowedly meaning-devouring. To be a postmodernist
is to be a premise-author, a reincarnate
Adler, an invalid posing as a physician.
Clearly Kierkegaard wishes to count himself
an essential author, self-contained and upbuilding.
In this respect, perhaps even more than in
his refusal of apostolic authority, he distinguishes
himself from Adler. It is his claim to a
self-consistent and edifying "project"
which distinguishes Kierkegaard's methodology
from that of postmodernism.
Kierkegaard and Postmodernism II: The Relational Self
Like Cupitt, Kierkegaard discusses the grammar
of the self and the relation of religious
inwardness and outwardness. His position
on this subject reflects a certain tension.
But before considering how this tension is
played out in specific examples it will be
useful to understand how he thinks of the
self in general.
Given that Cupitt's reflections on prayer
are part of a chapter entitled 'Remaking
the Christian Self,' it is worth noting that
Kierkegaard also has a theory of the self
which is fundamentally epistemological and
relational rather than metaphysical. However,
he stresses the internal relating ability of the self.
A human being is spirit. But what is spirit?
Spirit is the self. But what is the self?
The self is a relation that relates itself
to itself or is the relation's relating itself
to itself in the relation; the self is not
the relation but is the relation's relating
itself to itself. 13
Cupitt rejects the 'inner' mental and soulish
self in favor of the 'outer' and relational
self. But attention to Kierkegaard suggests
that this is a false dichotomy. If Cupitt
wants to reject metaphysical realism, his
reliance on the inner/outer distinction is
untenable. 'Inner' and 'outer' are metaphysical
terms which imperfectly name two fuzzy classes
Kierkegaard's construction of the self as
relational stresses this point. As language
users we are constantly involved in the process
of relation; and while the world around us
controls what kinds of selves we are to some
extent, by its relation to us, we are at
the very least not passive observers of this
process. We may choose how to value and integrate
the various relations in which we are involved;
we may even seek new relations.
Kierkegaard deepens his relational analysis
by denying that the self is self-constituted,
claiming instead that it is constituted by
another, on which it is thus dependent. Inevitably
then the question arises of the self's relation
to this constituting other. In The Sickness Unto Death Kierkegaard runs through the typology of
possible relationships between the self and
its constitutive other. He finally defines
the state of spiritual health thus: "In
relating itself to itself and in willing
to be itself, the self rests transparently
in the power that established it."14
So much might be said simply as a matter
of philosophical psychology. Even Cupitt's
structural-social account of the self might
be phrased in these terms, if the constituting
power were understood to be the language-using
community as a whole. But Kierkegaard of
course claims that the establishing power
A reliance on God as establishing power certainly
appears metaphysical. But in this context
it is significant that God comes into Kierkegaard's
discourse as a necessary postulate of relationality,
rather than as a metaphysical idea. As D.
Z. Phillips points out, in the everyday grammar
of religion, the relation between the believer
and God is primary, and theological or philosophical
attempts to take as foundational the project
of 'proving God's existence' metaphysically
tend to ignore actual religious practice.
15 Kierkegaard's existential method
at least has the merit of not ignoring practice.
The Relational Self In Practice
Kierkegaard's understanding of what is implied
by the transparent relation of outward relations
to the inward (and where it can go wrong)
can be seen at work in four distinct contexts:
in his imaginative construction and theological
category of the 'Knight of Faith,' in his
critical remarks on 'hidden inwardness' in
Christianity, in his self-evaluation of his
own maieutic project, and most directly in
his comments on the relation between hidden
and visible 'works of love.'
The best known of these contexts is that
of the 'Knight of Faith,' who represents
the ideal of Christianity in Fear and Trembling. The Knight of Faith represents a stage beyond
that of the Knight of Infinite Resignation,
who has visibly given up the world. The Knight
of Faith, having given up the world, nevertheless
acts 'by virtue of the absurd' as though
the world were his.
He resigned everything infinitely, and then
he grasped everything again by virtue of
the absurd. He is continually making the
movement of infinity, but he does it with
such precision and assurance that he continually
gets finitude out of it, and no one ever
suspects anything else. 16
Kierkegaard's two paradigmatic examples of
this stage are Abraham and an invented modern
figure who is to all outward appearances
a tradesman or a tax collector. What they
share is a faith so 'inward,' so subjective,
that it does not show at all in their everyday
lives. Thus it is impossible to determine
what they are: whether the contemporary Knight
is not perhaps actually the perfect philistine
he appears, whether Abraham is not perhaps
the heartless automaton the narrative allows.
But while stressing this inwardness as the
essence of Christianity, Kierkegaard is also
acutely aware of the potential problems of
hiddenness. He makes fun of the 'starred
and beribboned' personage who declares that
he is ready to give all if it should be required
of him, but in 70 years he has found no challenge
requiring him to give all.
This amounts to making a fool of God; it
is like a child playing a game of hide-and-seek
so that no one shall find him. One says aloud
- if it is required, etc. - and then says
very softly - look, not even Satan himself
will be able to get hold of me - so cleverly
shall I hide. 17
Kierkegaard, always sensitive to the use
of language and its relation to other actions,
in one passage from his journals makes outward
context the test of spiritual sincerity:
. . . all speaking with the mouth is a kind
of ventriloquism, an indeterminate something.
The deception is that there is, after all,
a definite visible figure who uses his mouth.
But take care. Language is an abstraction.
In order for speaking actually to become
human speech in a deeper sense, or in a spiritual
sense, something else is required with respect
to being the one who speaks, two points must
be determined: the one is the speech, the
words spoken, the other is the situation.
The situation determines decisively whether
or not the speaker is in character with what
he says, or the situation determines whether
or not the words are spoken at random, a
talking which is unattached. 18
Thus geographical or cultural 'Christendom'
is composed of those who claim 'inwardness'
but do not ever show it outwardly, who effectively
avoid ever being put to the test. Kierkegaard
claims that both inwardness and its expression
are needed: neither will suffice alone.
Kierkegaard's rejection of hidden inwardness
might seem to be at odds with his own case,
in which he admits to having hidden his inward
Christianity. Indeed he confesses that this
"is and continues to be an awkward matter."
But he notes that he has not remained hidden
in order to avoid the 'Christian collisions,'
nor has he in fact been spared them. Furthermore,
he claims that the task which he took on,
that of prodding others' false 'hidden inwardness,'
could only be achieved by the method of indirect
communication, which requires its author
to hide his purposes. 19
Finally, the first section of Works of Love addresses the problem at hand straight on
in dealing with "love's hidden life
and its recognizability by its fruits."
Here Kierkegaard maintains that the spring
of Christian love and action is to be found
in God's unseen love. Yet "if it were
so, as conceited sagacity, proud of not being
deceived, thinks, that we should believe
nothing that we cannot see with our physical
eyes, then we first and foremost ought to
give up believing in love."20 If one
did so then one would lose faith in the internal
relation which grounds those external relations
which are conventional works of love. Religious
inwardness and social outwardness are here
seen as intimately connected, so much so
that the spring of the individual's outward
relations is to be found in inwardness. More
than that, in speaking of the primary importance
of looking toward one's own fruits, rather
than those of others, Kierkegaard is foreshadowing
Cupitt's exhortation to "meditatively
question ourselves, read quietly and think
about our lives, our friends, our values
. . . if they help us with our real life,
which is our life with others."21 But
he goes beyond Cupitt in suggesting a touchstone
by which one might actually determine something
about values, a relation which is valued
above all others and in turn serves as a
standard of valuation for all others - in
short, a transcendent relation.
Kierkegaard and Postmodernism III: The Transcendent
This notion of transcendent relation, which
arises naturally from Kierkegaard's understanding
of the self as relational, in both "inward"
and "outward" aspects, is the foundation
of an analysis of personal religious practices
(such as private prayer) which does not depend
on a substance-metaphysics. Of course, religious
believers often refer to these practices
using an expression which has the surface
grammar of substance- metaphysics, speaking
of relations between individuals and 'the
transcendent.' But Kierkegaard for one consistently
tries to subvert this surface grammar and
center his work on the deep grammar of relation,
as in the following passage:
When the question about truth is asked subjectively,
the individual's relation is reflected upon
subjectively. If only the how of this relation
is in truth, the individual is in truth,
even if he in this way were to relate himself
to untruth. 22
Yet, as Kierkegaard claims in a gloss on
this passage found in his journals, this
emphasis on relation does not give the believer
a blank check. The tendency which he exhibits
in his more theoretical works to keep from
direct talk of Divine reality is driven by
his "epistemological modesty"23
and does not arise out of any doubt on his
part about the truth of God. He believes
that there is such a truth, but this truth
can only be grasped in the course of transcendent
relations; it cannot be established ahead
of time. For
the remarkable thing is that there is a How
with the characteristic that when the How
is scrupulously rendered the What is also
given, that this is the How of faith. Right
here, at its very maximum, inwardness is
shown to be objectivity. 24
In short, the only person with whom one can
have a God- relationship is God, and the
only way to the truth of God is through God-relationship.
Back once more to the Book on Adler. Kierkegaard
speaks of "an erring Wissenschaft" which confuses Christianity. "Esprit and spirit, revelation and originality, a
calling from God and ingeniousness, an apostle
and a genius, all coalesce in one and the
same thing".25 Even so does postmodern
reading, the Wissenschaft of normative erring,
confuse Christianity in our age. Theologians
like Cupitt, and philosophers like Mark C.
Taylor, take Derrida - who in Kierkegaardian
categories is the ultimate premise-genius,
at play in the field of the signifier - Derrida of all people, as a prophet of Absolute
But Kierkegaard's substitution of existential
epistemology for substance-metaphysics, and
his ironic and dialectical use of serious
philosophy and theology, are proof against
Derridean mis/reading. Kierkegaard had already
shown this in his unfinished student work Johannes Climacus, or De Omnibus Dubitandum Est. The text is a travesty on the theme of the
existential impossibility of philosophical
reading: Johannes is a student of philosophy
who goes mad in the attempt to existentially
appropriate Descartes' universal doubt. 26
Were Johannes around today his trouble would
clearly be with Derrida not Descartes. But
it would be the same problem, with the same
result. The semeiotic sense demonstrated
in that work shows that Kierkegaard will
not mistake Derrida's shop for a tailor's,
despite the sign in the window: "Pressing
Kierkegaard and Feminism I: "That Individual"
At first glance Kierkegaard's relations with
feminism are even more tenuous than his connection
to postmodernism. To the extent that he comments
on the "woman question," Kierkegaard
adopts a patronizing patriarchal point of
view. Indeed, Kierkegaard's implied 'individual'
(the audience of his books) is masculine
and bourgeois. But this fact raises a dialectical
puzzle. For the origin of Kierkegaard's category
lies in his need to communicate with his
ex-fiancée, Regine Olson. In short 'that
individual' was a woman, a particular woman.
Thus much of the time, at least in the early
pseudonymous works, Kierkegaard's intended
audience is a woman - although of course
she is not the explicit audience of the pseudonymous
authors. Yet both historical and textual
evidence shows that, in relation to this
particular audience, Kierkegaard signally
fails at the task of communication as he
sets it for himself ex post facto in The Point of View: to find the reader where [she] is, and
begin there. 28
Despite this irony, Kierkegaard's focus on
the individual, his reader, is very important.
As Kierkegaard came to appropriate the category
of the individual in his writing, he redefined
the notion of audience. Indeed he redefined
this concept in a way which has some connection
with the framework of contemporary feminism.
Virginia Held speaks of feminist ethics as
addressing the domain "between the self
and the universal."
What feminist moral theory will emphasize,
in contrast, will be the domain of particular
others in relations with one another.
The region of "particular others"
is a distinct domain, where it can be seen
that what becomes artificial and problematic
are the very "self" and "all
others" of standard moral theory. In
the domain of particular others, the self
is already closely entwined in relations
with others, and the relation may be much
more real, salient, and important than the
interests of any individual self in isolation.
Thus feminism implicitly rejects the two
frameworks of classical ethics, 'individual
rights' and 'universal duties'. For all his
stress on individual existential appropriation,
Kierkegaard too places his focus "between
the self and the universal" by stressing
the mode of personal Socratic dialectic.
In so doing he rejects the philosophical
modes of communication which were dominant
in his time: solipsistic reflection (Descartes)
and didactic systematization (Hegel). In
short, Kierkegaard talks like a feminist:
from his own experience, or praxis, to individual
others, and without attempting to make any
individual's experience normative for others
with different stories. (I can't review the
arguments here, but many Kierkegaard scholars
have recently questioned the reading of Kierkegaard's
"stages" as normative and developmental.)
Kierkegaard's project is maieutic, and we
would do well to recall the philosophical
differences between midwives and obstetricians.
Kierkegaard and Feminism II: Relational Ethics
Another important key to the feminist side
of Kierkegaard is his category of the 'teleological
suspension of the ethical,' which forms the
framework for his reading of the Abraham
story. Ironically, this is the passage in
all Kierkegaard's work which feminists, indeed
women generally, unite in rejecting. But
before taking offense, it is worth clarifying
the reasons for this offense.
It is common to take the call for a teleological
suspension of the ethical as a demand for
the metaphysical rejection of the world in
the interest of obtaining unchanging Truth.
Such an interpretation is in danger of forgetting
that the Truth involved is not a humanly
constructed thesis, but a revelation.
Here it is important to remember Kierkegaard's
formulation of the categories 'genius' and
'apostle' in terms of communicative authority.
What is essential in the command to Abraham
is not the content, but the authority behind
it. What is essential about it for us is
our relation to that authority, a person,
God. If we bemoan the unfairness and injustice
of the Divine request, we have missed the
transformation that has occurred before our
very eyes. In his teleological suspension
of the ethical, Abraham has sacrificed abstract
rational justice (Kantian patriarchal ethics)
and received back an ethics of relation.
Or rather, since the earlier history of Abraham
implies that he already lives an ethics of
relation, it is Johannes de Silentio and
his Kantian readers who are challenged to
undergo this transformation. In Fear and Trembling Kantian universal ethics, the bourgeois
ethics of Either/Or's Judge William, is slain once and for all.
What replaces it should look familiar to
readers of Held and Gilligan: it is an ethics
of relation, an ethics of care.
Feminists may still be outraged at the Abraham
story. But their offense at the particular
lesson about relation which this story suggests
should not blind them to the fact that Kierkegaard
is here a fellow traveler. And of course
he too is offended. The dialectical question
is what happens after that.
It may be worth pursuing this story further.
Kierkegaard's idea of an absolute relation,
which is the touchstone for all other relations,
does not make other relations "less
important" in some universalistic sense.
Indeed it may provide a needed corrective
to an ethic of caring. Nell Noddings suggests
that one need not care for those one doesn't
know. 30 Virginia Held rebels against this,
and resolves the problem by admitting a mixture
of universal rational laws and relational
caring. 31 But if there is a touchstone relation,
an absolute relation, and one which is by
its very nature only possible with regard
to one Other, then a pure ethic of relation
may be possible. Then Kierkegaard may have
a serious contribution to make to feminist
Kierkegaard and Feminism III: Women's Experience
It is worth noting in this context that Kierkegaard
is not completely oblivious to women's experience.
In a footnote, he reminds us of a woman whose
experience parallels Abraham's: Mary. Far
from being an empty receptacle (as some feminists
have claimed), Mary also receives a revelation
which forces a radical choice and demands
a teleological suspension of the ethical
- a rethinking of what relationships are
When the angel had announced to Mary that
by the Spirit she should give birth to a
child - no, this whole thing was a miracle,
why then did this child need nine months
like other children? O what a test for faith
and humility! That this is the divine will,
to need the slowness of time! Behold, this
was the cross. 32
Abraham's ordeal is quickly over. But Mary's
endures for nine months, and longer. And
while we don't hear about what Abraham (or
Isaac) thought about the ordeal afterward
(and as far we know Sarah never learned of
it), we do know that "Mary kept all
these things, pondering them in her heart."
At first glance this appears as "hidden
inwardness." But it is precisely this
kind of pondering about the Incarnation which
can so easily lead - has often led - to a
theology of liberation.
Can Kierkegaard be a resource for feminist
Kierkegaard's God rejects the rational universal
in favor of an ethic of relation. Is not
this a feminist God? Kierkegaard's God asks
that we be prepared to make sacrifices for
the sake of personal relation. Is not this
asking true to the facts of human relationality?
Kierkegaard's God provokes us to consider
which relations are dearest to us. Is not
this a God speaking to women's experience?
Kierkegaard's God speaks only to individuals,
and demands that our faith arise out of individual
experience. Is not this a feminist God?
I hope to have shown that various echoes
of postmodern and feminist positions are
present in Kierkegaard. Like many postmodern
and feminist writers, he proposes and uses
a model of the self which is founded on relation
rather than metaphysical essence. His unique
contribution lies in his emphasis that relations
are personal, and grounded in a transcendent
relation. These key features of Kierkegaard's
theocentric Christianity make it a valuable
point of departure for Christian analysis
of selfhood in the present age.
Yet for Kierkegaard analysis, however abstruse,
is only useful in the context of lived resolution.
This, I think, is the reason for the initially
surprising fact that Kierkegaard is in many
ways more closely related to feminist praxis
than to postmodern play. It also requires
his serious readers to be more interested
in praxis than play. To make this point I
want to end with a famous passage from Kierkegaard's
What I really need is to get clear about
what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as
knowledge must precede every act. . . . the
crucial thing is to find a truth which is
truth for me, to find the idea for which
I am willing to live and die. Of what use would it be to me to discover
a so-called objective truth . . . if it had
no deeper meaning for me and for my life? 33
1. This paper began as a response to a session
on "Kierkegaard, Indirection and Misdirection,"
sponsored by the Kierkegaard Group of the
American Academy of Religion, November, 1995.
I owe thanks to the presenters on that occasion:
Laura Lyn Inglis and Peter Steinfeld of Buena
Vista University, David Kangas of Yale Graduate
School, and Helene Russell of Claremont Graduate
2. Don Cupitt, The New Christian Ethics (London:
SCM Press, 1988), 1.
3. Ibid., 6.
4. Ibid., 85.
5. Ibid., 87.
6. Ibid., 82.
7. Ibid., 91.
8. Søren Kierkegaard, On Authority and Revelation,
trans. Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1955), 3-12.
9. Ibid., 110.
10. Ibid., 3-6.
11. Ibid., 6-10.
12. Ibid., 11.
13. Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto
Death, Kierkegaard's Writings, no. XIX, ed.
and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong
(Princeton: Princeton University Press,
14. Ibid., 14.
15. D. Z. Phillips, The Concept of Prayer
(London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965),
16. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling;
Repetition, Kierkegaard's Writings, no. VI,
ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H.
Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
17. Søren Kierkegaard, Søren Kierkegaard's
Journals and Papers, ed. and trans. Howard
V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1967-1978), sec. 2123.
18. Ibid., sec. 4056.
19. Ibid., sec. 2125.
20. Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, Kierkegaard's
Writings, no. XVI, ed. and trans. Howard
V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1995), 5.
21. Cupitt, 91.
22. Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific
Postscript to "Philosophical Fragments",
Kierkegaard's Writings, no. XII, ed. and
trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992),
23. A term I first encountered in C. Stephen
Evans, "Kierkegaard on Subjective Truth:
Is God an Ethical Fiction?," International
Journal for Philosophy of Religion 7 (1976),
24. Kierkegaard, Journals, sec. 4550.
25. Kierkegaard, On Authority, 104.
26. Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments;
Johannes Climacus, Kierkegaard's Writings,
no. VII, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and
Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1985), 264.
27. See Kierkegaard's dismissal of philosophy
on these grounds in Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or,
Kierkegaard's Writings, no. III-IV, ed. and
trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1987), I: 32.
28. Søren Kierkegaard, The Point of View
for My Work As an Author: A Report to History,
ed. Benjamin Nelson, trans. Walter Lowrie
(New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1962),
29. Virginia Held, "Feminism and Moral
Theory," in Women and Moral Theory,
eds. Eva Feder Kittay and Diana T. Meyers
(Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1987),
30. Nell Noddings, Caring (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1984), 91-94.
31. Held, 119-20.
32. Kierkegaard, On Authority, 50n.
33. Kierkegaard, Journals sec. 5100.