Jason Upton asked me to write a review for his website of the Kierkegaard anthology, Provocations. So I thought I would share it with you.


Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Soren Kierkegaard
Compiled by Charles E. Moore
Orbis Books

Soren Kierkegaard
(1813-1855) lived nearly his entire life in Copenhagen, Denmark where he was raised and educated by his wealthy merchant father who was given to morose religious obsessions. Kierkegaard possessed such rare intellectual abilities as a philosopher that some scholars regard him as the most profound thinker of the 19th century. As a young man his affluence and intellectual gifts afforded him unlimited opportunities in Danish society and for a time he immersed himself in the privileged life of the Copenhagen elite. But he never found satisfaction for his spiritual emptiness in society life. In his early twenties Kierkegaard wrote in his journal:

I have just returned from a party of which I was the life and soul; wit poured from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me, but I went away — and wanted to shoot myself.

Shortly after his twenty-fifth birthday Kierkegaard made his decisive leap of faith and experienced a profound spiritual conversion. He received theological training and considered becoming a Lutheran pastor, but decided he was not cut out for the pastoral life. Instead he poured himself into his writing. Over the next fourteen years Kierkegaard penned more than twenty-five books, some of them massive tomes, and died at the age of forty-two.

Soren Kierkegaard is regarded as the father of Existential philosophy — a philosophy emphasizing radical freedom, individual experience and a subjective approach to truth. Kierkegaard would argue that only the truth that matters to you is meaningful, everything else is trivia. Interestingly, the other great Existentialist philosopher is Friedrich Nietzsche, whose virulent anti-Christian philosophy culminated in his famous maxim: God is dead. Although Kierkegaard and Nietzsche had very similar ways of understanding human existence, they began from radically different premises; Kierkegaard made the decisive leap of faith to encounter God while Nietzsche did not. What a difference! Kierkegaard inspires the “knights of faith”, while Nietzsche inspired the Nazis.

Here is an example of what Kierkegaard called faith:

“A sparrow, a fly, a poisonous insect is an object of God’s concern. It is not a wasted or lost life. But masses of mimickers, a crowd of copycats are wasted lives. God has been merciful to us, demonstrating His grace to the point of being willing to involve Himself with every person. If we prefer to be like all the others, this amounts to high treason against God. We who simply go along are guilty, and our punishment is to be ignored by God…what faith it takes to believe that one’s life is noticed by God and that this is enough!” Provocations, pp. 19, 21

Provocations is a compilation of some of Kierkegaard’s best spiritual writings. Personally I have found it to be a spiritual gold mine. I am indebted to Jason Upton for introducing me to this wonderful anthology. We live in an age of “cotton candy Christianity” or what Kierkegaard called “lemonade twaddle.” So much that passes for “spiritual” across the evangelical landscape is insipid motivational blather or syrupy sweet sentimentalism. For those who cannot stomach any more cotton candy or lemonade twaddle, Kierkegaard is an invigorating call to the demands of authentic Christianity. Kierkegaard viewed Christianity as a spiritual revolution which always challenges the status quo and is therefore an offence to all complacency. The state church of Denmark in the 19th century was the very symbol of self-satisfied bourgeois smugness and Kierkegaard wrote (usually under various pseudonyms) in a desperate attempt to awaken a slumbering church to authentic spiritual passion. Another way of putting it is: Kierkegaard is a spiritual kick in the butt. Here’s an example:

“We must awaken the collision. The possibility of offense must again be preached to life. Only the possibility of offense is able to waken those who have fallen asleep, is able to break the spell so that Christianity is itself again. Woe to him, therefore, who preaches Christianity without the possibility of offense. Woe to the person who smoothly, flirtatiously, convincingly preaches some soft, sweet something which is supposed to be Christianity! Woe to the person who betrays the mystery of faith and distorts it into public wisdom in order to take away the possibility of offense! Woe to the person who speaks of the mystery of the Atonement without detecting in it anything of the possibility of offense.” Provocations, p. 171

How good is this book? At one point while reading it the first time, I went for a walk with my wife and read it aloud to her for five miles! Five stars in my book. Which is not to say I agree with everything Kierkegaard says — you need to make allowances for Kierkegaard to be a man of his times and occasionally a bit extreme — but Kierkegaard always makes me think.

Provocations is arranged in 98 short chapters, most of them about four pages long. This makes Kierkegaard a bit more “digestible” — small bites, as it were. My copy is now dogged-eared and heavily marked up and has spawned hours of deeper thinking regarding my own relationship to God in Christ. Charles Moore has given this complication a very fitting title — it is indeed provocative.