Kierkegaard, Pietism, and Existentialism: Eighteenth-Century Pietism as the Origin of Twentieth-Century Existentialism
Note: this paper was originally presented at the 2011 International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies conference in Graz, Austria by invitation. Portions of this paper are drawn from James Rovira's monograph Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety (Continuum/Bloombury 2010). If you enjoyed this paper, please consider encouraging your library to order the book.
This paper will argue that twentieth-century existentialism developed out of eighteenth-century Pietism by way of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), validating and extending Hermann Deuser’s insight that the existential “concretization of religion that always emanates from the biographical details of Kierkegaard’s life and toward which his entire work ultimately aims is the Christian piety drawn from Lutheran theology and Pietism.” While Kierkegaard did not acknowledge dependence upon Phillipp Spener, who as the author of Pia Desideria is widely recognized as the father of Pietism, he makes occasional reference to Arndt and to his True Christianity for whose works Spener’s Desideria was originally written as a preface. Kierkegaard quotes from True Christianity, for example, in Purity of Heart, and he makes an oblique reference to it in Concluding Unscientific Postscript as one of the “old devotional books” by which his contemporaries might have revealed to them, indirectly, the “religious delusions” of their era.
The Pietist structure of Kierkegaard’s religious consciousness comes into view when Arndt’s and Spener’s thought is compared to Kierkegaard’s on three points: an orientation against intellectualism in religious belief and practice, criticism of the state church, and an emphasis upon sincere faith defined by inwardness that is manifested in action and decision. Kierkegaard’s psychologizing of these fundamental characteristics of Pietist thought in his pseudonymous authorship inaugurated existentialism just as Spener’s Pia Desideria inaugurated Pietism. The dependence of subsequent authors such as Jaspers, Heidegger, and Sartre upon Kierkegaard for fundamental concepts such as anxiety, boredom, and despair as the salient features of modern inwardness translate Kierkegaard’s psychologizing of Pietist thought into twentieth-century existential philosophy, perhaps most particularly in Heidegger’s Being in Time.
In current scholarship, “Pietism” has been defined narrowly in terms of religious groups or movements directly influenced by Spener, and broadly in terms of Protestant groups influenced by Medieval mystical writers such as Tauler and Thomas à Kempis through Arndt. I will be working with a broader definition of Pietism, as it includes under its umbrella groups such as the Moravians, the religion of Kierkegaard’s own family. Halle Pietism arrived in Denmark in the late seventeenth century, at the onset of the absolute monarchy. The Danish state church was officially Lutheran, so Halle Pietism’s rather conservative willingness to work within established structures allowed it to gain a foothold in Denmark. Christopher Barnett in Kierkegaard, Pietism and Holiness (2011) argues that Halle Pietism’s initial foothold in Denmark helped pave the way for the early eighteenth-century arrival of Moravian Pietism, a type of Pietism more separatist than Halle Pietism and one that became more popular among Denmark’s rural populations.
Kierkegaard’s father, Michael Pederson Kierkegaard, grew up in an area that was welcoming to Moravian Pietism though Halle Pietism was predominant. M. P. Kierkegaard demonstrated his allegiances by establishing connections with Moravian groups upon his initial arrival in Copenhagen (Barnett, p. 49-50). By the time the elder Kierkegaard moved to Copenhagen, Danish Pietism had grown increasingly annoyed with the rationalism dominating Denmark’s state church. This rationalism, finding expression in new catechisms and hymnals by this time, met with Pietist resistance in the form of “singing wars” in which older Pietist hymns were sung over the newer hymns during services.
However, this annoyance with rationalized Christianity existed from the beginning of Pietism. Spener rejected a “convivo intellectus or conviction of truth” as a primary expression of Christianity, claiming that it is “far from being faith” (p. 100). Arndt similarly complains that “Many of those that nowadays apply themselves to the study of divinity suppose it to be a mere notional and speculative science, or some piece of polite learning so much in vogue among scholars” (p. xxv). Reading Kierkegaard can leave the impression that Hegel caused the rationalization of the Christian faith, but Pietist polemic suggests that the rationalization of the Christian faith laid the groundwork for Hegel. This anti-rationalist impulse in Pietism was developed and expanded by Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Johannes Climacus through his emphasis upon paradox and its accompanying “crucifixion of the understanding” in Concluding Unscientific Postscript’s description of Religiousness B. Climacus argues that the individual who passes into Religiousness B has fully comprehended the absurdity of Christian belief, particularly belief in the incarnation of Christ, so has chosen belief fully and completely at the expense of reason in his or her embrace of Christianity.
Kierkegaard further clarifies his stance on the limitations of intellect in Point of View. Even within his signed authorship, he makes reference to the “coils and seductive uncertainty of reflection” (Kierkegaard, 1962, p. 34) even as he describes reflection as a necessary precondition to becoming a Christian: “This, in ‘Christendom,’ is Christianly the movement of reflection; one does not reflect oneself into Christianity but reflects oneself out of something else and becomes more and more simple, a Christian” (Kierkegaard, 1998, p. 7). Kierkegaard hopes that the complex process of reflection provided by his authorship will lead his readers out of reflection, into simplicity, and into Christianity. Kierkegaard’s work, then, intensifies and existentializes Pietist anti-intellectualism into an individually-defining moment of choice, the point at which one consciously, individually, and deliberately becomes a Christian rather than accepting Christianity as a part of one’s national, social, and familial identity.
Kierkegaard’s concern that one’s Christian identity be existentially appropriated rather than socially communicated was anticipated by Spener’s belief that too many German Lutherans are concerned with making Lutherans rather than “genuine Christians to the very core” (p. 100). Spener’s critique of each of the three estates focused on corruption in various forms, but his critique of the clergy is that which would be expected of a socially-established state church. In his view, the clergy were ambitious, so seeking advancement; too comfortable; and more interested in intellectual innovation or theological disputation than in faith and obedience (pp. 44-57). He once again mirrors Arndt on these points, who complained: “Fain would they have for themselves such a Christ, as would be magnificent, splendid, wealthy, pompous, fashionable, and conformable to all the airs and humours of the age” (p. xxvii). This concern led more radical Pietist groups to call for a complete separation of church and state, while relatively moderate groups such as the Moravians still appeared separatist as they emphasized the importance of meetings held independently of state church services. This emphasis on separation leads Barnett to argue that early Pietism reveals monastic influences.
The Pietist concern that conferring official status upon Lutheran churches corrupted the faith finds its equivalent in Kierkegaard’s work. Climacus consistently assumes an audience that already considers itself Christian, but a “[cheap] edition of a Christian” who “is baptized, has received a copy of the Bible and a hymnbook as a gift” and therefore might ask, “is he not, then, a Christian, an Evangelical Lutheran Christian?” (p. 557). In Climacus’s thinking, state Christianity is closely affiliated with educational achievement, so that he too can criticize clergy for rationalizing Christianity into a system of speculative thought while assuming an audience who has “the opportunity for deeper inquiry” (p. 170). Early Pietist critique of a rationalized Christianity as a comfortable, socially-acceptable Christianity – which as yet only implied critique of the state church while still assuming its existence – becomes in Kierkegaard an explicit criticism of culturally disseminated Christianity. It is widespread cultural acceptance itself that has become the problem as it interferes with development of inwardness.
Inwardness is the third point of contact between Pietism and Kierkegaard that is later taken up by twentieth-century existentialism. Both Spener’s and Arndt’s work is replete with an emphasis on inwardness; when Spener expressed the desire to see German Lutherans made Christian to the core, he was echoing Arndt’s preface to True Christianity in which he asserts that he has undertaken
to write this piece of Practical Christianity, that it may serve for an instruction, how true repentance must needs proceed from the inmost centre of the heart alone, how it entirely changes the mind and affections, together with the other faculties of the soul, and conforms in fine, the whole man to Christ and to his holy gospel, renewing him day by day, into a new creature. (p. xxv, his emphasis)
Spener and Arndt’s understanding of inwardness appears to be one of internal conformity to an external image (Christ), thus anticipating Judge Wilhelm’s presentation of the ethical in Either/Or II and subsequent commentary on the limitations of the ethical by Climacus and Kierkegaard’s other pseudonymous authors.
Kierkegaard also intensifies and existentializes the Pietist treatment of inwardness as he has received it. Kierkegaard’s pseudonym for The Concept of Anxiety, Vigilius Haufniensis, yokes earnestness to inwardness in describing his conception of an integrated religious self. He begins with Karl Rosenkranz’s definition of “disposition” in his Psychologie (1837) as a “unity of feeling and self-consciousness” (Kierkegaard, 1980a, p. 148). Self-consciousness leads one to claim one’s feelings as one’s own. Feeling is the “immediate unity of its sentience and its consciousness,” and sentience is “unity with the immediate determinants of nature” (Kierkegaard, 1980a, p. 148). Sentience, feeling, and self-consciousness, each progressively folded into the other, is disposition, an idea which Haufniensis feels is a fairly complete “conception of a concrete personality” (Kierkegaard, 1980a, p. 148). Haufniensis embodies his ideal for a concrete consciousness in a person who not only understands what he is saying, but also understands “himself in what is said” (Kierkegaard, 1980a, p. 142). Thought and being are united in one who has self-consciously synthesized his or her multiple capacities.
Earnestness is the deepest expression of disposition. Haufniensis defines it as “the acquired originality of disposition,” a means by which individuals recognize themselves as distinct, unique selves who have become so over time (Kierkegaard, 1980a, p. 149). Individuals are therefore original, but this originality is acquired. Earnestness, being what makes individuals themselves, comes to be identified with the “personality itself” (Kierkegaard, 1980a, p. 149), the primary identifier of one’s inwardness.
The opposite of acquired individuality in Haufniensis is the demonic, those without a self. More common manifestations of the demonic are those who have lost themselves in a social identity:
He [the person in despair] now acquires a little understanding of life, he learns to copy others, how they manage their lives —and he now proceeds to live the same way. In Christendom he is also a Christian, goes to church every Sunday, listens to and understands the pastor, indeed they have a mutual understanding; he dies, the pastor ushers him into eternity for ten rix-dollars—but a self he was not, and a self he did not become. (SUD)
Heidegger’s Being and Time mirrors this description:
The Self of everyday Dasein is the they-self, which we distinguish from the authentic Self – that is, from the Self which has been taken hold of in its own way. As they-self, the particular Dasein has been dispersed into the “they,” and must first find itself. This dispersal characterizes the “subject” of the kind of Being which we know as concernful absorption in the world we encounter as closest to us. (p. 167)
The “they” in Heidegger’s thought is formed on the basis of rational activity, articulating the boundaries and nature of one’s being for one’s own self by a calculation of averages: “Dasein is for the sake of the ‘they’ in an everyday manner, and the ‘they’ itself Articulates the referential context of significance. . . Proximally, factical Dasein is in the with-world, which is discovered in an average way” (p. 167). The language we are given and our calculating abilities – our rational capacities – collude with culture in creating a self that is purely cultural, oriented toward an external ideal, so inauthentic.
What is most revealing, however, is not the continuity among Pietism, Kierkegaard, and twentieth-century existentialism, but the source of their differences, which come from disparate attitudes toward spirit. However much Pietism influenced him, Kierkegaard’s own attitude toward it was ambivalent. He could say in one journal entry that “Pietism is the one and only consequence of Christianity” (no. 86), while in another claim that he has “never, not in the remotest manner, suggested or attempted trying to extend the matter into Pietism, into pietistic strictness and the like” (no. 6685). Barnett argues that Kierkegaard’s positive attitudes reflect his opinion of Moravian Pietism while his negative ones reflect his opinion of Halle Pietism. He makes a compelling case, but I think that there is more to be said.
Arndt’s and Spener’s Pietism always demanded an externally visible demonstration of conversion; Spener emphasized this point perhaps even more than Arndt. This emphasis upon conformity to an outward ideal is reflected in the description of the ethical personality in Either/Or II:
The self the individual knows is simultaneously the actual self and the ideal self, which the individual has outside himself as the image in whose likeness he is to form himself, and which on the other hand he has within himself, since it is he himself. Only within himself does the individual have the objective toward which he is to strive, and yet he has this objective outside himself as he strives toward it. (Kierkegaard, 1987, p. 259)
Ethical selves, in the process of becoming ethical, continually compare their internal reality to their external ideal, inwardness being defined by the conformity of the internal self to its external ideal. The ethical is therefore fully realized when it becomes the universal (pp. 255-6). The activity of spirit is denied by the ethical subjectivity: ought implies can, so the presence of the command implies the ability to carry it out without consciousness of subsequent Divine support. Haufniensis criticizes the ethical subjectivity for attempting an impossible task, one leading either to despair, insanity, or faith (p. 16), defining the ethical stance of a religious subjectivity as one aware of its own weakness and dependence upon God. Ought, in Haufniensis’s thinking, implies individual inability accompanied by Divine assistance.
Heidegger, at the other end, denies spirit: “Yet man’s ‘substance’ is not spirit as a synthesis of soul and body; it is rather existence” (p. 153). Heidegger is here making an oblique reference not just to common Christian belief but to Kierkegaard’s specific way of describing it in the opening pages of The Sickness Unto Death: “A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? [. . .] A human being is a synthesis of the finite and the infinite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis” (p. 13). Kierkegaard is therefore caught between the ethical disregard of spirit in early Pietist writings and the existential denial of spirit in Heidegger, which perhaps makes him the most engaging figure. The crux of the matter is the ability of a culturally given self to achieve individuality. Kierkegaard argues that this achievement is only possible for a self that has an active foothold outside time in eternity, a self that is transcendent by nature. He would identify both the denial or disregard of spirit, then, as a form of despair, the sign of a self that is unwilling to be itself. The as yet unidentified reasons for this despair are perhaps most important of all.
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