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Review of 'Kierkegaard: A Single Life' by Stephen Backhouse

Kierkegaard

‘What I really need is to get clear about what I am to do…what matters is to find my purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth that is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die….of what use would it be to me to be able to formulate the meaning of Christianity, to be able to explain many specific points – if it had no deeper meaning for me and for my life?’

- Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, in one of his earliest journal entries, 1835.


Stephen Backhouse has added another book to the evolving literature which aims to understand the man and the thoughts of Søren Kierkegaard. Stephen makes a highly valuable contribution through his book new book ‘Kierkegaard: A Single Life’ (2016).

The book is in two main sections. The first, larger section gives a biography of Kierkegaard. The second gives an overview of every one of Kierkegaard’s published books and can either be read as an addendum to the biography, or can be accessed/referenced as the reader desires.

The biographical section is an excellent, thorough and historical account of Kierkegaard’s life. Chapters are organised according to theme (e.g. ‘A Controversial Life’, ‘School Life’, ‘Family Life’), rather than by time. Because of this at points the account is not entirely chronological, though it very rarely repeats a specific detail when it fits under two themes.

In the second half Backhouse gives about two pages to each of his overviews of Kierkegaard’s works. The limitation of these short descriptions is obvious, for attempting to encapsulate what Kierkegaard is trying to communicate is hard even within hundreds of pages. However, in my view for a book aiming to introduce Kierkegaard and his writings to Kierkegaard novices, these overviews are ideal for, at the very least, drawing the reader in to want to discover more. Further, the reader of Kierkegaard will come to know that interpretations of Kierkegaard’s writings differ in the secondary literature. Backhouse himself states these overviews to be his own interpretation, but that ‘you must read the originals and decide for yourself’.

Backhouse’s self-professed purpose for writing this book is to make Kierkegaard and his writings more accessible to ‘educated non-specialists’. Backhouse has achieved this in his very readable book. Counting myself in this target group (though having written two small papers on Kierkegaard in the past) I have found it invaluable. As anyone who has read any Kierkegaard will tell you, he is not the easiest writer to understand, and any help understanding his own motivation, context, life situation, and choices is precious. This book provides that help. It is true, as Backhouse is aware, that at points the amount of historical, technical detail threatens to slow the reader; but in the end this small cost is worth the gain.

This book is also a great asset to those other than the target audience: those who do not know God. It is a strong testimony to the life changing power of Christ’s truth, and this within the fascinating, thought-provoking context of Søren Kierkegaard’s life. It would also serve the student or scholar wanting to begin or continue more rigorous study of Kierkegaard. Although there are other biographies on Kierkegaard, this one is easily digested and serves as an excellent biographical introduction to his life and context, giving the reader a foundation for understanding his thoughts.

The healthiest of Christian communities will be made up of a collection of people (‘Single Individuals’) who find their security, significance and identity in Christ

What relevance might a book that describes the life and thoughts of a nineteenth century Danish man have for us Christians living in Australia in 2017? Here are a couple of my own thoughts.

Kierkegaard is against systems and establishments; in his day this communicated as an ‘attack upon Christendom’ (note Kierkegaard’s motivation was not to destroy the church, but to purify the church). It is this thinking that undergirds his scathing opinion of linking church and state. Kierkegaard said this of Grundtvig, a contemporary pastor in Kierkegaard’s time: ‘The Grundtvigian nonsense about nationality is also a retrogression to paganism… Christanity specifically wanted to do away with paganism’s deification of nationalities!’ Nazi Germany is perhaps our worst example of linking church and state; and it is no wonder that Dietrich Bonhoeffer ‘was steeped in Kierkegaard’s writings’ (Backhouse).

While linking church and state is not our current problem, if we consider Kierkegaard’s underlying thinking there may still be some relevance. Kierkegaard is against systems because he believed that they innately dehumanize. They dehumanize because they overlook the Single Individual, and it is the Single Individual that is all important to Kierkegaard’s construction of thinking.  The Individual cannot relate to God through a system; it must appropriate truth fully within itself (then it fully becomes). These kind of thoughts are where Kierkegaard earns the common title the Father of Existentialism.

As members of churches (church systems if you like) there is something for us to heed here. We need to encourage the becoming of the Single Individual – that is, individuals who continue to find their security, significance and identity in God and not in the systems that we create (including the communities that come from these systems). We may profess with our lips that we encourage individuals to find these things in God; but do our actions and the way we run our systems profess the same? Do our systems instead discourage Individuals to find these things in God, because our systems do not tolerate Individuals who do not take security, significance or identity from them? In other words, do our systems isolate/reject (or dehumanize) those who are different? Those who are other (to use more recent theological language)?

Kierkegaard wrote a book called, ‘Works of Love’ which was about loving one’s neighbour. ‘Søren thought the only way to truly love anyone was as and for individuals apart from any group or crowd to which they might belong’ (Backhouse). This concurs with what we learn from the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). We must desist from loving those only within our system. If we persist we create delineations that determine who our neighbour is and who is not. Who we ought to love and who we are justified not to love.

The healthiest of Christian communities will be made up of a collection of people (‘Single Individuals’) who find their security, significance and identity in Christ rather than individuals who find their security, significance and identity within the communities that we ourselves create (and delineate).

The last thing Kierkegaard wrote included these words, ‘But what, specifically, does God want? He wants souls able to praise, adore, worship, and thank him’. In conclusion, if this book serves to introduce you to more of Kierkegaard’s writing it has served a wonderful purpose. And for this reason I highly recommend it to you.

Nicola lives in Perth with her husband Steve and two children. She loves the beach and beautiful bush walks, as well as thinking carefully through the deeper questions of life and faith.

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