by Murray Rae
Soren Kierkegaard is one of the most exciting, influential and – at times – incomprehensible Christian thinkers of the nineteenth century. Those who have wrestled with his writing may find him elusive (writing under a variety of pseudoynyms), unbalanced (since he was trying to redress the imbalance he perceived in his own cultural context) and unclear (until the recurring themes of his writings gradually emerge into clarity).
Kierkegaard is often credited (or blamed) for existentialism, a concept far more widely discussed than understood. He is likewise accused of individualism by those who read him more as a systematic theologian than a prophetic figure. But his influence upon twentieth century theologians (especially Barth, Bultmann, Brunner and Bonhoeffer) as well as philosophers, (from Heidegger, through Sartre and Derrida) is undeniably deep. In fact it was Ludwig Wittgenstein is reputed to have said of Kierkegaard, “he is far too deep for me.”
Anyone then, trying to introduce the reader to a figure as complex as Kierkegaard, faces a daunting task. But Murray Rae brings this Danish thinker to life in a way that is not only comprehensible and clear but exciting and insightful. An obvious familiarity with primary and secondary literature, coupled with a broad knowledge of the context in which Kierkegaard lived, makes Rae a competent guide through his writings.
Rae leads the reader through a personal narrative of Kierkegaard’s life, his troublesome relationship with his father, his failed engagement, and his belief that he was living under a curse. In so doing, by the time we arrive at a discussion of Kierkegaard’s literature, we are already getting to grips with its significance.
The Kierkegaard portrayed by Rae is certainly no systematic theologian in the traditional sense, but appears rather as a prophet. As such, his work cannot be understood outside the context of that to which he was reacting. Nevertheless, through the course of his commentary, Rae not only steers us through his teachings in relation to the issues of his own day. He also reveals something of a systematic substructure running throughout Kierkegaard’s writings, as he labours to relate ethics, the church, and the Christian life thoroughly and radically towards the insufferable otherness of Christ.
The prophetic strain in Rae’s portrayal surfaces most clearly in his summary of the philosopher’s varied and controversial writings, as he claims that ultimately, “Kierkegaard retreats and his reader is left alone before God.”
Regardless of whether Kierkegaard is to be regarded as a theologian, Rae’s account portrays a thinker who relentlessly gave himself to exploring, not so much the creedal dimensions of Christian belief, as the relationship between the believer and the figure of Jesus Christ.
The lively and lucid manner in which it is written, leave the contemporary reader in little doubt about the relevance and value of Soren Kierkegaard in our own world.