Kierkegaard in 7 quotations, Part VI: A eulogy brings out the worst in Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard’s 200th birthday is tomorrow. Today, I reflect on writings from the last year of his life.

In 1854, the bishop of Copenhagen and longtime Kierkegaard family minister Jakob Peter Mynster died. In a funeral sermon, Hans Lassen Martensen, one of Kierkegaard’s university professors (and Mynster’s eventual successor as bishop) called Mynster a “truth-witness.” The term seems innocuous enough; it’s the sort of thing one says at a bishop’s funeral. It’s something you hear and then immediately forget.

But the term infuriated Kierkegaard, who saw the Christian life as one of difficulty and truth as a costly thing. Bishops, like professors, were public officials. Their lives seemed easy to Kierkegaard, and therefore, they could not be Christian “truth-witnesses.” In an article published in December 1854 in the periodical The Fatherland, Kierkegaard wrote:

A truth-witness, one of the authentic truth-witnesses, is a person who is flogged, mistreated, dragged from one prison to another, then finally–the last advancement, by which he is admitted to the first class in the Christian order of precedence among the authentic truth-witnesses–then finally, for this is indeed one of the authentic truth-witnesses Prof. Martensen talks about, then finally is crucified or beheaded or burned or broiled on a grill, his lifeless body thrown away by the assistant executioner into a remote place, unburied–this is how a truth-witness is buried!–or burned to ashes and cast to the winds so that every trace of this “refuse,” as the apostle says he has become, might be obliterated.

Truly, there is something that is more against Christianity and the essence of Christianity than any heresy, any schism, more against it than heresies or schisms together, and it is this: to play at Christianity. But (entirely, entirely in the same sense as the child plays at being a soldier) it is playing at Christianity: to remove all the dangers (Christianly, witness and danger are equivalent), to replace them with power (to be a danger to others), goods, advantages, abundant enjoyment of even the most select refinements–and then to play the game that Bishop Mynster was a truth-witness, one of the authentic truth-witnesses, play it so frightfully earnestly that one cannot stop the game at all but plays it on into heaven, plays Bishop Mynster along into the holy chain of truth-witnesses that stretches from the days of the apostles to our times.

This is Kierkegaard at his worst. The writing lacks the beauty and wit of so many of his other works. It’s undisciplined (those three sentences come to more than 260 words). The critique of Christendom in earlier works is no less incisive, but it is far more artful and theologically astute than it is here. Here, he’s simply berating Martensen and Mynster and insulting his readers. The strategy of indirect communication employed throughout his career–making an unsuspecting reader more receptive to the truth by taking away the reader’s untruth–is replaced by an approach that will only make readers less receptive to the truth Kierkegaard wants to communicate.

The article by itself doesn’t make Kierkegaard a bitter crank, but he didn’t just write this one article in The Fatherland about Martensen and Mynster. He wrote more than 20. And then he started his own journal, The Moment, to continue his polemic. By this point, Kierkegaard knew that he wouldn’t be accepted in any sector of Denmark’s establishment: the academy, the church, the press. In fact, he was publicly mocked. His tirade isn’t a counterattack–it’s just resentment, confirming for everyone, and especially for himself, that Kierkegaard would remain an outsider.

Kierkegaard did not end up having the chance to rehabilitate his reputation. He collapsed in the street in the autumn of 1855 and died a few weeks later. He was much better than his last writings. We cannot ignore them, but we can choose to remember him for his better efforts, which is what I’ll do tomorrow.