Søren Kierkegaard (5 May, 1813 11 November, 1855), a 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian, is generally recognized as the first existentialist philosopher. He bridged the gap that existed between Hegelian philosophy and what was to become Existentialism. Kierkegaard strongly criticised both the Hegelian philosophy of his time, and what he saw as the empty formalities of the Danish church. Much of his work deals with religious problems such as the nature of faith, the institution of the Christian Church, Christian ethics and theology, and the emotions and feelings of individuals when faced with existential choices. Because of this, Kierkegaard's work is sometimes characterized as Christian existentialism and existential psychology. Since he wrote most of his early work under various pseudonyms, and often these pseudo-authors would comment on and critique the works of his other pseudo-authors, it can be exceedingly difficult to distinguish between what Kierkegaard truly believed and what he was merely arguing for as part of a pseudo-author's position. Ludwig Wittgenstein opined that Kierkegaard was "by far, the most profound thinker of the nineteenth century".
Theology of Kierkegaard
Søren Kierkegaard's theology has been a major influence in the development of 20th century theology. Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a 19th century Danish philosopher who has been generally considered the "Father of Existentialism". During his later years (1848-1855), most of his writings shifted from being philosophical in nature to being religious.
Kierkegaard's theology focuses on the single individual in relation to an unprovable, yet known God. Much of his writings were a directed assault against all of Christendom, Christianity as a political and social entity. His target was the Danish State Church, which represented Christendom in Denmark. Christendom, in Kierkegaard's view, made individuals lazy in their religion. Many of the citizens were officially "Christians", without having any idea of what it means to be a Christian. Kierkegaard attempted to awaken Christians to the need for unconditional religious commitment.
Kierkegaard's primary religious audience was Protestant Christian readers, especially those who did not fully grasp what Christianity was all about. It was not his intention to convert non-Christians to Christianity, although much of Kierkegaard's religious writings do appeal to some non-Christian readers. For example, Martin Buber was a Jewish existentialist theologian who critiqued much of Kierkegaard's ideas.
Kierkegaard took up a sustained attack on all of Christendom, or Christianity as a political entity, during the final years of his life. In the 19th century, most Danes who were citizens of Denmark were necessarily members of the Danish State Church. Kierkegaard felt this state-church union was unacceptable and perverted the true meaning of Christianity. The main points of the attack include:
Church congregations are meaningless: The idea of congregations keeps individuals as children since Christians are disinclined from taking the initiative to take responsibility for their own relation to God. Kierkegaard stresses that "Christianity is the individual, here, the single individual."
Christendom had become secularized and political: Since the Church was controlled by the State, Kierkegaard believed the State's bureaucratic mission was to increase membership and oversee the welfare of its members. More members would mean more power for the clergymen: a corrupt ideal. This mission would seem at odds with Christianity's true doctrine, which is to stress the importance of the individual, not the whole.
Christianity becomes an empty religion: Thus, the state church political structure is offensive and detrimental to individuals, since everyone can become "Christian" without knowing what it means to be Christian. It is also detrimental to the religion itself since it reduces Christianity to a mere fashionable tradition adhered to by unbelieving "believers", a "herd mentality" of the population, so to speak.
If the Church is "free" from the state, it's all good. I can immediately fit in this situation. But if the Church is to be emancipated, then I must ask: By what means, in what way? A religious movement must be served religiously - otherwise it is a sham! Consequently, the emancipation must come about through martyrdom - bloody or bloodless. The price of purchase is the spiritual attitude. But those who wish to emancipate the Church by secular and worldly means (i.e. no martyrdom), they've introduced a conception of tolerance entirely consonant with that of the entire world, where tolerance equals indifference, and that is the most terrible offence against Christianity. ... the doctrine of the established Church, its organization, are both very good indeed. Oh, but then our lives: believe me, they are indeed wretched.
Attacking the incompetence and corruption of the Christian churches, Kierkegaard seemed to have anticipated philosophers who would go on to criticize the Christian religion.
I ask: what does it mean when we continue to behave as though all were as it should be, calling ourselves Christians according to the New Testament, when the ideals of the New Testament have gone out of life? The tremendous disproportion which this state of affairs represents has, moreover, been perceived by many. They like to give it this turn: the human race has outgrown Christianity.