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Kierkegaard on the Transformation of the Individual in Conversion

  • William C. Davis (a1)


From at least the time of the writing of The Philosophical Fragments, Søren Kierkegaard's work takes a special interest in both the transition from unbelief to faith and the character of the life of true faith. Trained in Lutheran dogma and convinced of the radical nature of human freedom, his work on this subject demonstrates a profound concern for and grasp of Lutheran orthodoxy, as well as a remarkable degree of subtlety. After all, it is no simple task to give an account of the central features of the Christian life that is faithful to both a libertarian conception of human freedom and the doctrines of the church founded by the author of The Bondage of the Will. This paper proposes to accomplish two things: first, to state a problem that lies on the surface of Kierkegaard's account of the transformation involved in Christian conversion and second to present a resolution of the problem that is faithful to Kierkegaard's intentions.



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1 Kierkegaard, Søren through Climacus, Johannes, Philosophical Fragments, trans. by Hong, Howard V. and Hong, Edna H. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 18. Hereafter this work will be referred to simply as the Fragments. A similar formulation can be found in Kierkegaard's, For Self-Examination, trans. by Lowrie, Walter (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), p. 96: ‘it is a new life.’

2 Fragments, p. 19.

3 Ibid. p. 74.

4 Kierkegaard, Søren through Climacus, Johannes, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. by Swenson, David F. and Lowrie, Walter (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), p. 379, emphasis supplied. Hereafter this work will be referred to simply as the Postscript

5 Ibid. p. 43.

6 Ibid. 90.

7 Kierkegaard, Søren through Anti-Climacus, The Sickness Unto Death, trans. by Hong, Howard V. and Hong, Edna H. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 14, but also 49, 82 and 131 (the last sentence of the work is a restatement of this formula).

8 Kierkegaard, Søren through Anti-Climacus, Training in Christianity, trans. by Lowrie, Walter (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), p. 71, from the section entitled ‘The Moral’.

9 Postscript, p. 330.

10 Kierkegaard, Søren through Vigilius Haufniensis, The Concept of Anxiety, trans. by Thomte, Reidar and Anderson, Albert B. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980). Although it is my intent to limit the analysis to Climacus, Anti-Climacus and Kierkegaard in propria persona, the critical concepts of freedom and coming to be are given especially clear expression in this work.

11 This is the central assumption in Climacus' thought experiment in the Fragments.

12 The significance of the prohibition for the ‘fall’ is discussed in The Concept of Anxiety, pp. 39–45.

13 Fragments, p. 16.

14 Galatians 5: 1.

15 Kierkegaard, Søren, Journals and Papers, x: 2 A 428 (Hong & Hong number 1261). Citations from Kierkegaard's, Journals and Papers are from Søren Kierkegaard's Journals and Papers, edited and trans. by Hong, Howard V. and Hong, Edna H. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970) in seven volumes. Entries will be referred to both according to the Danish edition (as above), and by the entry number in the Hong and Hong edition.

16 Chapter III of The Concept of Anxiety addresses the anxiety that attends the sin of remaining in unfreedom.

17 For example, see Journals and Papers, x: i A 260 (H & H 6385).

18 See the Postscript, p. 232, as well as Journals and Papers, vii: 1 A 181 (H & H 1251):‘But if one will reflect on omnipotence, he will see that it also must contain the unique qualification of being able to withdraw itself again in a manifestation of omnipotence in such a way that precisely for this reason that which has been originated through omnipotence can be independent…Only omnipotence can withdraw itself at the same time that it gives itself away, and this relationship is the very independence of the receiver…He to whom I owe everything has in fact made me independent.’

19 Fragments, pp. 26ff.

20 Journals and Papers, III C 23 (H & H 3191). Kierkegaard thought that the apostles' position was unique, in that they were confirmed in their status as ‘disciples’ in such a way that falling away was not a threat. This understanding would allow Kierkegaard to explain why St Paul overlooks naming the one enemy remaining: that enemy did not apply in St Paul's case.

21 Postscript, p. 533.

22 See the fifth of the seven ‘Edifying Discourses’ that follow Training in Christianity.

23 Postscript, pp. 545, 520 and 364.

24 Ibid. pp. 203ff. See also Evans, C. Stephen, Kierkegaard's ‘Fragments’ and ‘Postscript’ (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1983), pp. 261ff.

25 Postscript, p. 538.

26 Ibid. pp. 363 and 383.

27 See Journals and Papers, xi:2 A 29 (H & H 4489), note also xi:2 A 317 (H & H 4361), xi: 2 A 353 (H & H 4362) and x:3 A 782 (H & H 6717).

28 Postscript, p. 380.

29 See also Evans, , Kierkegaard's ‘Fragments’ and ‘Postscript’, pp. 213–25, for a discussion of Kierkegaard's distinction between nonsense and paradox.

30 See The Concept of Anxiety, p. 113: ‘The history of the individual life proceeds in a movement from state to state. Every state is posited by a leap.’

31 Since Kierkegaard makes an exception for apostles and other ‘extraordinary’ Christians so that some can have assurance of salvation, something like direct revelation may be involved.

32 It appears that this is precisely what Climacus has in mind at one point in the Postscript: ‘He who understands the paradox (in the sense of understanding it directly) will in his misunderstanding of it forget that what one time he apprehended with the decisive passion of faith as the absolute paradox (not for the relative, for the appropriation of that would not be faith), as that therefore which absolutely was not his own thought - he will forget that this never can become his own thought (in a direct sense) without transforming faith into an illusion, whereby also at a later moment he reaches the perception that he was deluded when he absolutely believed that it was not his own thought’ (p. 514, emphasis supplied).

33 Kant, Immanuel, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, trans. by Greene, Theodore M. and Hudson, Hoyt H. (New York: Harper & Row, 1960).

34 Ibid. p. 43.

35 For Hegel the possible becomes actual in the ‘moment’ and is logically necessitated by its antecedents; it is a stage in the dialectical unfolding of the Absolute Spirit. For Kierkegaard the ‘moment’, while still the nexus of the temporal (the actual) and the eternal (the possible), is instead the locus of free choice, the self-positing of the individual spirit. The third chapter of The Concept of Anxiety, especially pp. 88–9, contains a discussion of the manner in which time and eternity are related in the moment.

36 Postscript, p. 176.

37 This interpretation of Kierkegaard's understanding of existence relies heavily upon Evans' Kierkegaard's ‘Fragments’ and ‘Postscript’, especially pp. 55–72. Although Evans intends only to give an account of the writings of Climacus, the essential place of passion and striving in the concept of the whole self is integral to Kierkegaard's psychology.

38 Postscript, pp. 273–9.

39 Climacus echoes this in the Postscript, p. 186: not presupposed to be a sinner before birth, the existing individual is ‘born a sinner…by coming into existence therefore (for the beginning was that subjectivity was untruth), he becomes a sinner’. Whether that first act must be sin is hard to say. The Lutheran doctrine of Original Sin only required that it be the case that in every human instance it is sin.

40 The sixth ‘Discourse’ following Training in Christianity concerns the distinction between being an admirer as opposed to a follower of Christ.

41 Fragments, pp. 59, 63.

42 This is the way that Evans describes ‘the condition’ (Kierkegaard's ‘Fragments’ and ‘Postscript’, p. 271), and although Kierkegaard never refers to it in this way, the Journals refer to sin-consciousness as that which leads us to God (VIII:I A 284, H & H 4011), and as that which Christianity presupposes (VIII:1 A 473, H & H 4012); and Climacus in the Fragments does refer to the consciousness of sin as that which ‘the learner acquires in the moment’ (p. 51) and ‘the condition for understanding’ (p. 93).

43 For instances of this usage see the Postscript, pp. 244 and 516–17.

44 Ibid. p. 432; cf. also p. 347.

45 The uses of omdanne and forvandle in The Sickness Unto Death are consistent with the progressive/instantaneous distinction also, though neither are used as technical terms. Omdanner is used (p. 83) for Christianity's progressive reshaping of ethical concepts, and forvandlede is used twice (pp. 40 and 53) for instantaneous metamorphoses. These are the only times either word is used.

46 Fragments, pp. 18–19.

47 Journals and Papers, VIII: 2 A 511 (H & H 2119).

48 Journals and Papers, XI: 2 A 317 (H & H 4361).

49 For a clear instance of this use see the Postscript, pp. 497–8; the English word ‘basis’ is used for grunder.

50 The Concept of Anxiety is particularly clear on the character of freedom. What it says about sin can be applied to any significant human act: ‘We have nowhere been guilty of the foolishness that holds that man must sin; on the contrary…we have said that sin presupposes itself, just as freedom presupposes itself, and sin cannot be explained by anything antecedent to it, anymore than can freedom…Freedom is infinite and arises out of nothing’ (p. 112).

51 Fragments, pp. 74–5: ‘Necessity stands all by itself. Nothing whatever comes into existence by way of necessity, no more than necessity comes into existence or anything in coming into existence becomes the necessary…The change of coming into existence is actuality; the transition takes place in freedom. No coming into existence is necessary - not before it came into existence, for then it cannot come into existence, and not after it has come into existence, for then it has not come into existence.’

52 ‘Christ drawing all men to himself’ is the common subject of the seven ‘Edifying Discourses’ that follow Training in Christianity.

53 Training in Christianity, p. 159.

54 On the duplex movement in communication see Evans, , Kierkegaard's ‘Fragments’ and ‘ ‘Postscript’, pp.

55 Postscript, p. 516.

56 The Sickness Unto Death, pp. 113–24.

57 Training in Christianity, p. 182.

58 Concerning Christ as the ‘pattern’, see especially Training in Christianity, the fifth and sixth ‘Edifying Discourses’. In particular see p. 232: ‘Christ came to the world for the purpose of saving the world, and at the same time (as was implied in His first purpose) to be “the pattern”, to leave behind Him footsteps for those who would follow Him.’

59 The Concept of Anxiety, pp. 73–81, considers the effects of history's piling up of ‘consequent anxiety’, while pp. 111 ff. consider the anxiety that is consequent upon the individual's own sin.

60 ‘If the single individual is to feel in kinship with God (and this is what Christianity teaches), then he also senses the full weight of it in fear and trembling, and he must discover - as if it were not an ancient discovery - the possibility of offence.’ The Sickness Unto Death, note, p. 120.

61 Postscript, pp. 515, 520 a n d 545 give blunt statements concerning this.

62 ‘when once for all one busily cancels the whole thing, or presumptuously takes it in vain, regarding it as a dream…’ Training in Christianity, p. 188.

63 Ibid. p. 253.

64 Fragments, p. 33.

65 Certainty about any contingent matter is technically impossible. Objective certainty is only possible of necessary truths, and worse than this, ‘to think about existential problems in such a way as to leave out the passion [i.e. objectively] is tantamount to not thinking about them at all, since it is to forget the point…’ (Postscript, pp. 312–13). While subjective certainty about one's faith is possible, such certainty could only lead to complacency and decline.

66 I John 5:13. The entire Epistle concerns how the believer is to attain knowledge concerning her relationship to God.

67 The same could be said of the opening chapters of both of St Peter's Epistles.

68 Journals and Papers, x:2 A 208 (H & H 983).

69 Lutheran dogma held that Christ's work not only makes salvation possible in general, it also justifies particular sinners.


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