Kierkegaard on Faithful Political Engagement
Applying the Danish theologian's writings to our political moment.
Soren Kierkegaard was born in 1813 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Although his life was cut short at the young age of 42, his unique global legacy as theologian and philosopher flourishes today. Many historians regard Kierkegaard as the father of existentialism, so the church is sometimes hesitant to interact with his theological works despite his firm commitment to absolute truth and Jesus as Christ. Kierkegaard’s famous works, Fear and Trembling, Either/Or, and The Sickness unto Death, criticize the German philosopher Georg Hegel’s ethical model while emphasizing the destructive role of sin in our lives. Kierkegaard sought to awaken the largely institutionalized church of his time, famously arguing that the Christian life must be driven by passions and faith. Soren Kierkegaard’s ethical framework of God as the ultimate moral authority and his teleological framework of Christian life before God compel the church to wisely submit to kingdom standards and faithfully pursue righteous political engagement and ends.
Kierkegaard’s Ethical Framework
Kierkegaard’s ethical framework, primarily established in Fear and Trembling, recognizes God as the ultimate ethical authority. In his magnum opus work, Either/Or, Kierkegaard argues that Christianity, unlike any other religious or ethical system, obliges followers to fully grasp the weight of individual and community sin. This concept of sin consciousness, an active recognizance of our fallen nature and need for redemption, only occurs when we submit to a universal ethical sphere that exists fully independent of any human communities or individuals.
Kierkegaard points out that sin is never our mistake; rather, sin is our purposeful and active rebellion against God. He critiques his culture’s move toward treating sin like an illness, like an affliction that we do not choose but can nurse back to health. Plato’s writings reflected this modern misinterpretation of sin; he asserts that vice is ignorance and virtue is knowledge, thereby reducing the nature of sin to a purely intellectual deficiency. In Plato’s view, treating sin and systemic brokenness as simple mistakes or lapses in judgment elevates knowledge as the cure-all solution to individual and community failures. If all people ascended to a higher plane of knowledge, then humanity could theoretically reach a state of utopia and perfection.
Kierkegaard flatly rejects such Platonic misunderstandings of the nature of sin. Sin is an all-consuming disease, he writes in In Sickness Unto Death; we cannot be rid of its curse through our own power. He decries Plato’s shallow dismissal of sin as intellectual failures, writing that this “culture of mistakes makes life too easy.”1 Treating sin as mistakes allows individuals to dodge blame for their own wrong actions. Rather, our King requires all people to submit to his judgment on the promised Day of the Lord, not simply to earthly judgement under a community-defined ethical code (Revelation 20:11-15, Joel 2). Sin is a choice, consciously decided by each person’s will to rebel against the living God. Such insurrection cannot, by definition, simply result from intellectual deficiencies that can be dismissed as a lapse or failure (1 John 5:17). Under the Christian’s ethical model, each individual currently and eternally bears responsibility for sins because of their sinful nature. Admittedly, systems are broken because of the fall, but we cannot blame systemic brokenness to abdicate our personal responsibility for sin.
Man exists as sinful, wholly responsible for his own sins against God. The God we serve is the definition of truth, and he is justice. We cannot live up to his standard, and thus, under justice, require punishment for our sins. But God made a way for his people to return to him. Jesus Christ died and rose again, taking on the punishment for the sins of the world. He now offers salvation and restoration to all who believe and repent from their sins. His sacrifice of love first compels the humble response of faith, then the turning from sin into new life.
Kierkegaard affirms this humbling reality: ethical standards are only satisfied through the divine intervention of the cross. Under the blood of Christ, we are now freed to a new kind of obedience (Romans 8:3, 1 Peter 1). In The Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard notes, “Ethically, the point is to get individual rightly placed in relation to sin. As soon as that is accomplished, the individual stands repentant in sin. According to the idea, that is the very moment he has been brought to dogmatics.”2 As such, religious living is not relative to ethical standards of any human community; we live ethically by submitting to God in faith and repenting of our sin.
On this topic of the ethical relation to sin, Kierkegaard presents an interesting paradox: we submit to a universal ethical standard, but this can be suspended by divine intervention as exemplified by the incarnation and the cross. Hegel argues that no higher authority exists than a universal moral standard set by communities and cultures. If, as Hegel claims, the nature of the moral universe rejects any “teleological suspension of the ethical” by God (Hegel’s aufgehoben), then religious obedience can never supersede the universal ethical framework. Kierkegaard rejects Hegel’s claim of ethical superiority, asserting, yet again, the ultimate ethic of the Christian as submission to divine action.
In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard explores the biblical example of Abraham and Isaac: Abraham submitted his will to God’s decree even when God’s command to kill Isaac appeared to contradict prior moral commands, so he was not subject to universal ethical judgment for his willingness to obey God. Instead, Abraham was celebrated by New Testament authors as a hero of the faith.3 Abraham was commended for his consistent faith; even though he did not understand God’s command, he faithfully trusted his Lord’s word and believed that his covenantal promises would remain true (Hebrews 11:8-19). Kierkegaard points out that Abraham refused to doubt and subsequently took a “leap of faith” in spite of God’s alleged suspension of the ethical command against murder because he trusted that God’s truth would prevail.4 This act was credited to him as righteousness. Abraham exemplifies our broader identity as the people of God: we are in this world but not of this world, living ultimately under God’s authority and responsive to his command. Kierkegaard writes that “the single individual…determines his relation to society by his relation to God, not his relation to God by his relation to society.”5 An “absolute duty to God” must define our ethics and practices.6
As such, Christian living is “inherently counter-cultural;” we cannot afford to blindly accept the cultural norms of any community or nation (Mark 10).7 Rather, we must always fix our eyes on Jesus as the highest authority. No community can fully discern ethical and righteous living without the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit. Kierkegaard scholar Merold Westphal opines that “[Kierkegaard’s] critique of Hegelian ethics is a direct assault on the Christendom that equates socialization with salvation and assumes that being on good terms with one’s society…is all that can be asked of one.”8 Only acceptance of God’s grace, not social success or perceived moral rightness, can bring eternal salvation. Jesus’ life and the Spirit’s movement summons us out from comfortable assimilation to universal, institutional, or community norms, calling us to a higher standard of counter-cultural obedience to kingdom norms.
Kierkegaard’s Teleological Framework
Kierkegaard’s teleological framework (relating to our purpose, role, design), also primarily communicated in Fear and Trembling, considers the church’s purpose to be life “coram Deo,” or life “before God.” The title of that famous book references Paul’s words in Philippians 2:12-13: “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”9 In light of this divine command, Kierkegaard frames our purpose in two ways: humbly receive God’s gracious gift of salvation, then determinedly work out our salvation by pursuing our task “to do good works” (Ephesians 2:10). We receive, then we give.
Kierkegaard often speaks against the common understanding of faith as a completed work. “Are we so sure that we have achieved the highest?” he questions. Can our faith really be ‘completed’ during our time on earth?10 Faith is no temporary steppingstone toward the higher goal of superior knowledge of God’s nature; rather, faith is the “task of a lifetime.”11 Kierkegaard rejects Hegel’s argument that we must escape doubt by “going further” than faith, arguing that we must accept the difficult uncertainty that accompanies faith (Psalm 62:8; Mark 5:36; 2 Corinthians 5:7). Westphal notes that “faith…is never fully mastered; there is always more to learn. It is never fully perfected; there is always the challenge to become more faithful.”12 The Christian life is a process of faith that begins anew every generation, and we cannot escape this difficult path any more than a fish’s grandchildren can learn to leave the lake and live on land.13
Kierkegaard fiercely spoke against cultural Christianity, claiming that the church is weakened by a lack of commitment to passionate faith. The Christian life is meant to be difficult, and Kierkegaard argued that the church’s focus on doctrinal convictions over ministerial passions eases the weight of Scripture’s demands. Shallow Christianity assumes points of doctrinal truth while failing to properly marvel at the incredible paradoxes of the gospel. Such a disconnect between doctrinal understanding and the also necessary participation of the heart does not lead to transformed souls or a transformed world. This one-dimensional understanding of the Christian walk encourages an easy and empty faith, positing the believer as a passive observer, free to abstain from participation in kingdom work.
Kierkegaard observes this missing link between belief and action: “What our generation lacks is not reflection but passion.”14 An Abrahamic leap of faith regarding salvation compels strong passions and the reorientation of affections. These passions “constitute our character, our inmost self;” they override other desires by “being ‘higher’ in the order of [our] cares”15 and determine our identity.16 These passions are cultivated by cognitive beliefs and observations about the nature of the universe; therefore, firm doctrinal convictions rooted in Scripture should naturally lead to intentional, value-laden passions. Kierkegaard affirms that orthodox doctrinal truths are brought to their fullness when expressed through the Christian passions of faith, hope, and love (1 Corinthians 13). We only truly live by faith by embracing both doctrines and passions. Orthodoxy, right belief, must lead to orthopraxy, right action (James 1:19-25). This participatory view of Christianity requires the passionate working out of inner beliefs: “Whatever else Christianity may be, it is a set of emotions…So if I don’t love God and my neighbor, abhor my sins, and rejoice in my redemption…then it follows that I am alienated from Christianity, though I was born and bred in the bosom of the Presbyterian Church, am baptized and confirmed and willing in good conscience to affirm the articles of the Creed.”17 If we believe but do not love, what do we really have?
Political Ramifications of Kierkegaard’s Imperatives
Kierkegaard’s ethical and teleological frameworks should greatly affect the church’s model of political engagement. His ethical framework compels the church to submit our ethical choices to Scripture and the Holy Spirit above any other authority. Our obedience to God supersedes community ethical norms. We must keep our eyes focused on kingdom living, not ethical salvation achieved by hyper-legislating morality. This obedience to God often demands counter-cultural living, which may carry political consequences. Threats of political blowback should not factor into our decision to obey God.
Kierkegaard’s teleological framework compels us to obey the dual tasks found in Matthew 22:37-40: love God and love our neighbor. As undeserving recipients of God’s grace, we may operate in his grace by pursuing faithful obedience to his commands. This perspective correctly orients our priorities and humbles us to love others well. We can joyfully and humbly pursue goodness and truth because the fullness of obedient living is found through doctrinal convictions paired with rightly ordered passions. Thus, we can seek truth with conviction and enact justice with passion.
Also, the church must better embrace and communicate both the difficult journey of the Christian life and the wonderfully attractive nature of God’s promises. Tietjen notes: “The question before us is how to be faithful to Scripture in offending no more but also no less than we must. How, precisely, does the gospel offend, and from that, how does our witness to the gospel offend? Anything more than that may not be useful or loving and anything less than that may not be faithful or obedient.”18 We must not misrepresent orthodox Christianity as legalistic or overdemanding, but we also must not lessen the claims of Christianity to reduce it to yet another self-help movement. We are not afraid of the potentially offensive nature of the gospel, but as witnesses to Jesus’ name, we seek not to offend others with our words and actions (2 Corinthians 6:3).
Kierkegaard’s dual frameworks of ethics and teleology provide an excellent lens for Christians to faithful engage in the political sphere. Kierkegaard’s criticisms of Hegel’s ethical structure establish an interesting ethical framework considering the teleological suspension of the ethical, placing God as the highest authority. His purpose-driven discourses on religious passions also connects orthodoxy to orthopraxy. To live a life of devotion and discipleship, we must recognize God’s ultimate authority and embrace passionate faith and service. Live as the “pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing” (2 Corinthians 2:15).
Daniel Hostetter is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Citizen’s Brief. He is a rising sophomore at Liberty University majoring in Government: Politics & Policy, and he hopes to one day work on Capitol Hill.
This piece is an adaptation of an interpretive essay written for Liberty University’s GOVT 302 instructed by Dr. Mary Prentice.
Mark A. Tietjen, Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians (United States: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 15.
Søren Kierkegaard, "Anxiety of Sin or Anxiety as the Consequence of Sin in the Single Individual," Kierkegaard's Writings, VIII, Volume 8: Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980), 117.
Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (United States of America: Penguin Group, 2006), 24.
Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 70.
Merold Westphal, Kierkegaard’s Concept of Faith (Grand Rapids Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 49.
Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced employ the New International Version (Colorado Springs, CO: Biblica, 2011).
Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 121.
Westphal, Kierkegaard’s Concept of Faith, 20.
Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 149.
Robert Roberts, Spirituality and Human Emotion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 19.
Westphal, Kierkegaard’s Concept of Faith, 107.
Roberts, Spirituality and Human Emotion, 1-2.
Tietjen, Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians, 123.