The three writers considered in this essay were contemporaries: the English crusader for Christianity lived longest (1812–1889); the Dane who fathered existentialism had the shortest span (1813–1855); and the German lyricist, born sixteen years before Kierkegaard, outlived the latter by one year (1797–1856). Kierkegaard and Heine were baptized as Lutherans; Browning received his youthful Christian training in the London chapel attended by his devout Scotch-German mother. All of them became recognized as Christians with deep biblical roots.

The voice of each of these protesters against the spirit of the age was raised with vehemence for the “old-time religion,” and raised with power and beauty. William Lyon Phelps called Robert Browning the greatest secular ally of Christianity in modern times. Heinrich Heine was to write some of his finest poetry in the Romanzero (1851) composed in his faith period, during the dark decade of almost unbearable pain on his “mattress-grave” (Matratzengruft) in Paris. But through his reading of the Bible and above all his “conversations” with God during the long night-watches, his spirit had come to a glorious reawakening. His own testimony reads of a conversion as dramatic as that of Augustine and as sure: “The reawakening of my religious feelings I owe to that Holy Book [the Bible], and it became for me both a source of salvation and an object of the most pious admiration.” Romano Guardini in telling of St. Augustine’s conversion stresses the “new attitude befitting the new station,” which is that of humility. Heine expressed that new attitude in the following words:

Strange! After I had jumped about all my life on all the dancing-floors of philosophy, had given myself over to all the orgies of the spirit, and had wooed all possible systems without being satisfied … now I find myself on the same foundation on which Uncle Tom stands, that of the Bible. And I kneel down beside the black praying brother in the same devotion.

Hegel’s former disciple was to prove the genuineness of his conversion by burning a work he had been long in preparing explaining the Hegelian philosophy; and he also wrote a long preface to a new edition of an earlier book wholly recanting parts in such words as these, “I confess without reserve that everything here which has reference to the great question of God is just as false as indiscreet.” But his about-face regarding Christianity has been played down. To the German mind of the period, his denunciation of the specific doctrines of Hegel as having been put into a few words by the serpent of Eden (“When you have eaten of the tree of knowledge, you will be as gods”) was quite unthinkable.

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Lone Knights Of Faith

Both Browning and his Danish twin, Sören Kierkegaard, were profound religious psychologists. From the start, each acted as a “lone knight of faith,” to use Kierkegaard’s term. Moved alike by a strong sense of sure Christian mission, each writer brought the Christian message to his readers by way of a series of dramatic monologues. Here the characters speak for themselves; and they speak most eloquently as they exemplify life’s business as the “terrible choice” between good and evil. For they make that choice (as well as excuses to themselves for it) over and over in their everyday lives. Indeed the high purpose of the English poet and the Danish seer was to make clear to an age they saw treating Christ more and more cavalierly that, as St. John says in Browning’s A Death in the Desert,

The acknowledgement of God in Christ … solves for thee

All questions in the earth and out of it.

Thus in open defiance of the German philosophers, notably Hegel, whose doctrine manifestly exalted philosophy over religion, the Briton and the Dane conducted their lone literary crusades for Christianity. As heirs of Luther, these two highly gifted men—both of whom were endowed with minds, like Luther’s own, among the sharpest the world has known—did not so much play down man’s reason (as they were accused of doing) as refuse to enthrone it above man’s faith. What actuated Browning and Kierkegaard was the spirit of Christian living as set over against the letter of formalism—the same cry, in fact, as that of their spiritual ancestor for sincerity toward God. We find Kierkegaard in his own rebellion against the Danish state church in 1854, the year before his death, appealing to that sincerity in these desperate words:

Whoever thou art, whatever thy life may be, my friend—by ceasing to take part (if in fact thou dost) in the public performance of divine worship as it now is, thou has one guilt the less, and a great one, that thou dost not take part in holding God to be a fool, and in calling that the Christianity of the New Testament which is not the Christianity of the New Testament.

For on such Luther-like terms Kierkegaard stressed the need for “reine Innerlichkeit” (absolute inwardness).

Certainly when Kierkegaard launched his psychological faith-campaign in 1843 with the famous Either / Or, basing it, on the one hand, on a flat denial of man’s reason to arrive at the true knowledge and, on the other hand, on the acceptance of the Christian revelation, he was following directly in Luther’s footsteps. So far from faith’s being the outgrowth of knowledge, the opposite is true: knowledge is the fruit of faith. The German rationalism that developed in the centuries following Luther is as false to his teaching as the Sartrian type of existentialism is false to Kierkegaard’s. As the seventeenth-century mystic Isaac Penington declared of the rationalism he saw developing rapidly in Europe, such trust in the autonomy of man’s reason is a harking back to the sin of Eden, the taking over by what the Quaker philosopher called “the darkness within.”

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When Penington wrote, the movement was just beginning; at the time of Kierkegaard and Browning, both of whom saw it for what it was, the tide of rationalism was at its height. Both England and Denmark became fertile soil for Hegelianism, as it swept from Germany throughout Europe. It is interesting to note that Heine, who had studied with Hegel as a young man, in the epochal thorough-going repudiation of his philosophy, referred, as had Penington two centuries before, to the diabolism of the reason doctrine. The German poet even had a statement in his will to the effect that for four years he had abdicated all philosophic pride—and this will had been written five years before his death in 1856. In the writings of his last decade, Heine tells further of the way he had been entrapped by the gray spider webs of Hegelian dialectic which he declared were traceable to the Evil One, whom he called “the bluestocking without feet” in the Garden of Eden. In another figure, the poet wrote (in the epilogue to his Romanzero, 1851): “Yes, I have returned to God like the prodigal son after I had herded the swine for a long time with the Hegelians.”

Sincerity In Question

Some German critics doubted Heine’s sincerity in that greatest act of his life, his profession of faith—for the mockery of the gifted ironist had become so ineradicable a hallmark that a number of persons questioned, alas, his good faith here, even in the face of his agonizing, constant physical suffering at the period of his recantation of rationalism. Yet the noted Harvard Germanist, Kuno Francke, did not doubt the sincerity of Heine’s conversion but rather made it the basis of an attack upon the poet. In his History of German Literature, a volume going through a number of editions at the turn of the century, the German scholar at Harvard wrote that “of all the writers of his time Heine is the saddest example of the intellectual degeneration wrought by the political principles of the Restoration.” Calling him “an unworthy disciple of Goethe,” Francke refers to Heine’s theism of his last years (a theism so heartfelt that he incorporated in the will mentioned above an appeal to “the one God, single and eternal, creator of the world” to have mercy on his immortal soul) as “blasphemous godliness.” Here the adjective “blasphemous” is evidently intended for Heine’s desertion of what Francke called “the modern ideal of humanity” as represented in Goethe, Hegel, and others. The German historian thus dismisses him as “from the beginning—religiously, politically, and even artistically a renegade.”

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But the Francke indictment of Heine, precisely like the scorn both Browning and Kierkegaard met in their own circles because of their forthright defense of Christianity, is the price paid by the knight of faith in an unbelieving age. It is only the later ages who see the worth of those Kierkegaard called “the sacrificed ones” in the cause of truth. The point, however, to be made here is that the type of reason inveighed against by the Christian writer is what Isaac Penington, referred to earlier, called “the corrupted reason.” It was this type of reason that Luther, trained in Occam’s school, fought; and it was also this corrupt form of rationalizing that Browning, Kierkegaard, and Heine came to see in its proper perspective.

And earlier than any and all of these Christian seers we have St. Augustine’s own coming to “the Truth of man as by God first spoken,” and coming to this Truth via the one only Way, that which Christ Jesus offers us. For the “paradox of faith” is paradoxical only on the surface; but in the war on humanist rationalism, where it is necessary to fight it on its own terms, only the truly faith-filled can see below that surface. In God’s light only do we see light. “He who knows the truth knows that Light,” said Augustine, “and he who knows the Light knows eternity.” And, he adds, “Charity knows it.” As Romano Guardini wrote in his exegesis on St. Augustine’s Confessions, titled The Conversion of Augustine (Newman, 1960):

Such knowledge of the spirit cannot be acquired abstractly; it must be personally experienced, and in such a way that the person experiencing it is drawn into a living relationship with it: I was created by Him “up” there, or rather, by Thee up there; Thou art He-who-tums-to-me, He-who-creates-me. And still the depths of the soul are unplumbed; still this does not suggest the existentiality that Augustine means. Only love can do that because it is the only fitting response to God’s creative act, its reflection of the Creator in the creature. The motion with which love places itself within the I-thou, with which it unfolds, takes fire, ventures, flings itself across and surrenders, thereby finding itself—this is what first renders one capable of seeing that which should be seen: “Charity knows it”—namely, the Light which to know is to become an entity [p. 220].
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Here is spelled out unequivocally the true philosophy of faith in all eras.

For, as Guardini has made very clear in the above work on Augustine, universal truths are what exist, not, as rationalism falsely holds, as autonomous knowledge, but as a gift. They appear, that is, “in their proper place, namely, behind the banners of grace, as revelation.” What Guardini has to say in the matter is well worth hearing:

The realities of the spiritual God, of creation, of good and evil and of the soul now assume their true form with all the authority of sacred truth. With this the knower too finds his place: from one who has recognized mere philosophically grounded truth, he becomes one who has heard the word of God and gained a new attitude befitting his new station: that of humility.

Paul Brockelman, writing on Kierkegaard’s “Philosophy of Existence” (Koinonia, December, 1962), makes this point about this “Christian philosopher”: “His concept of existence and his notion of Christian faith mutually define one another.” The same thing may be said with equal justice and succinctness of Browning and Heine. Not only so, but it may also be said of every articulate seer from the dawn of Christianity down to our own day: “He who knows the Light knows eternity.”

Two Hands

I saw two hands

In nowhere

Before sometime and somewhere that


And a blacksmith’s shower of stars



I saw two hands

In sometime

Roll up the clouds and


A thirsty river’s rain from them

While lightnings leap from snapping fingers

And Milky Way’s walls reverberate.

I saw two hands

In somewhere

By a muddied river’s bank that


A piece of clay and

A man stepped forth

Who had two fateful hands.

I saw two hands

One time

In ancient Egypt’s land


The carmine sea and

Push a wall of water on either side

To set a people free.

I saw two hands

In fullness of time

On a mystery-laden night


An ox’s strawy crib

While a wistful mother wondered

At what rustic sheepmen see.

I saw two hands

At that time when

Time held its breath


At the spikes in the tree

On a place of a skull.

‘Come unto me.…”


M. Whitcomb Hess, a member of Phi Beta Kappa and a graduate of the University of Kansas (A.B.) and of Ohio University (A.M.), has written more than 100 essays on philosophical and literary themes, and also many poems. Among the publications in which her work has appeared is the London “Contemporary Review.”

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