Protestants don’t have saints. Or at least we claim we don’t. But if we consulted our eyes, fingers, and hearts, they would tell us otherwise. Perhaps we don’t own up to having saints because we worry it might impugn our identity, which is often anchored in the notion that we are those who resist and protest the ways of our elder brothers and sisters in Rome. But no matter what our minds tell us, our eyes, fingers, and hearts tell the truth. We are closet saint-admirers.
Which writer do you read when you are existentially famished? Whose thoughts do you continually find yourself pondering while putting away the dishes? Whose words do you break down and repeat with thrill and delight? Whose life inspires you? Who makes you want to be a better human being? That’s your saint. One of mine is the Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard.
Ever since Kierkegaard’s writing was introduced to an American audience (through the translations of Walter Lowrie, David Swenson, and Howard and Edna Hong), we’ve seen a near-bottomless amount of scholarship focusing on Kierkegaard the Philosopher. And over the past decade or so, the theme of Kierkegaard as Theologian has received a good deal of attention.
With the release of Kierkegaard and Spirituality: Accountability as the Meaning of Human Existence—the newest volume in the “Kierkegaard as Christian Thinker” series from Eerdmans press—C. Stephen Evans has hopefully opened up a new chapter in Kierkegaard studies: Kierkegaard the Spiritual Director. Evans, who teaches philosophy at Baylor University, brings philosophical grit and pastoral sensitivity to this book, making it a work on spiritual formation with a spine.
Evans summarizes Kierkegaard’s spirituality in three broad strokes. He first outlines the natural basis of spirituality in Kierkegaard’s thought, then the errant forms our spirituality can take, and then Kierkegaard’s notion of a distinctly Christian spirituality.
Everyone is spiritual, Kierkegaard argues, in that we are created by a God who has endowed each of us with a spirit. When we use this “eternal dimension” as a launching pad and compass for relating to our Creator, we use it appropriately and fulfill our designed nature. When we use it to ground ourselves in something other than God, we use it inappropriately and typically fall into some form of despair, because it can’t afford us what we’re ultimately longing for. The heart wants its source; it wants the infinite.
Evans frames Kierkegaard’s vision of spirituality in terms of “self-actualization.” We all want to be something and live our lives to the fullest. But with so many possible paths to take, we’re apt to wander and find ourselves lost. With stunning detail and coherence, Evans weaves together a typology of errant movements of the spirit discerned by Kierkegaard. They all share an attempt to ground identity and fulfillment in something finite, something other than God. This is not genuine self-actualization, though—not if God has created and designed us to be particular kinds of selves in relation to him.
In my estimation, Evans’s discussion of these errant forms of spirituality, paired with his ensuing discussion of Kierkegaard’s view of natural knowledge of God, is worth the price of the book. This is some excellent stuff for anyone looking to think seriously about interreligious dialogue, apologetics, and mission. Relevant applications to our cultural moment bleed through the pages. Case in point: I often sneer at the remark, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” This is because we all bind (from the Latin word religare) ourselves to someone or something, and various forms of reverence and obligation naturally follow. But Evans’s discussion of errant forms of spirituality present in Kierkegaard’s Sickness Unto Death lends the “spiritual but not religious” trope a little more cognitive weight.
There are plenty of non-Christian or “secular” spiritualities out there—just scan the New York Times bestseller list or step into the foyer of a Barnes and Noble. Kierkegaard discusses (and even occasionally commends) several of these “generic” spiritualities in his writings. Evans groups them under the heading of “Socratic Spirituality” because Kierkegaard greatly respected Socrates—he went so far as to say that although he is a disciple of Jesus, Socrates was his teacher. I think we can agree with Kierkegaard that at least some pagan forms of spirituality have a measure of value and wisdom—and that certain forms of spirituality occasionally found in Christian circles are fundamentally flawed.
Routines and Rituals
Evans’s portrait of Kierkegaardian spirituality as a matter of self-actualization is bound to warm the hearts of contemporary readers who love to peddle “self care” and repost defiant internet memes that read, “Don’t ever let anybody tell you…” We long to be ourselves and to find ourselves. But in typical Kierkegaardian fashion, this is the exact moment when the Danish Socrates would turn the table upside down and ask: Whose self-actualization are we talking about? And according to which moral standard? You have to choose.
One aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought that I wish Evans would have brought to the surface, especially given the current state of the American church, is the Dane’s critique of Christian teachers, leaders, and ministers. Admittedly, Kierkegaard held his criticism of the Danish church for far too long, and when he unleashed it later in life, he did so with vitriol and ad hominem remarks, to which Evans rightly objects. But Kierkegaard’s critique of Christendom, the established church, and leaders he knew personally is worthy of consideration in our day and age. If it doesn’t move or act like Christ, it probably isn’t Christian. More Christian pastors (and Christian university presidents) need to hear that, and heed it.
As I was reading Evans’s book, I wondered, “How exactly do we live ‘before God’ and stay accountable to him?” Evans gives readers a handy snapshot of Kierkegaard’s view of communion and personal Bible reading. But the extent to which these practices form one’s spirit, helping you become the sort of creature God has designed you to be, isn’t all that clear. Kierkegaard himself was formed beyond these two practices. He had his own routines and rituals that shaped the contours of his spirituality, such as his adolescent walks with his father, his neighborly philosophical discussions in Copenhagen, his reflective carriage rides to the country, and even his theatre trips. Evans doesn’t mention these routines and rituals, but these were significant practices for Kierkegaard’s own self-actualization.
If Kierkegaard is to serve as our spiritual director, we need to hold his feet to the fire. How do we self-actualize? If Kierkegaardian spiritual formation is a matter of “self-actualization,” as Evans suggests, then we must press our spiritual director for practical guidance. The fact of the matter is we need to be apprenticed. The equipment of “self-actualization” is there, but we don’t know how to use it properly. We need practices and people to help facilitate and sustain our spiritual formation. We need intercessory prayer, Christian friendship, and pastoral oversight to live an accountable life before God. We need a few apostle Pauls in our lives: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).
Is Kierkegaard a saint for our time? I don’t know. But I do believe the time is ripe for him to (re)enter discussions on spiritual formation. As Evans ably displays, Kierkegaard is the sort of spiritual director who is unwilling to separate right living from holy living, or ethics from spirituality. I love that about him, and we need that right now. Kierkegaard believed that Christians need to hold themselves to a higher ethical standard than Aristotle and Immanuel Kant. A call from God rearranges the moral board. Revelation sets the playing field. It’s unlikely that Kierkegaard gets read in the same class or small group as Dallas Willard or Eugene Peterson. But after reading Evans, one comes away thinking he should.
Kyle David Bennett teaches philosophy at Caldwell University, where he is program director of the Spirituality and Leadership Institute. He is the author of Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World (Brazos).
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