Kierkegaard: Concluding Unscientific Postscript. (10/05/2001)

In what follows I do not pretend to be an expert in the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard, much less thoroughly knowledgeable in the discourse of the Concluding Unscientific Postscript (to The Philosophical Fragments), but have read both, even if completely many years ago, when I was myself a practicing Christian, and hence looking more for answers then where now I am more inclined to find questions; and so, having admitted my ignorance with respect to the intricacies of his thought up front, I am also prepared to admit, furthermore, that my assessment of his philosophy is not going to be very extensive and may only focus on one or two relatively minor points. I find myself taking that approach now, where before I was an enthusiastic reader, simply because I have so little interest in and patience with those subjects Kierkegaard found compelling. To say that he bores me, even to sleep most of the time, is putting it mildly. My most consistent response to his work, after only five or ten pages of anything he wrote, is a very large yawn. I cannot keep my eyes open. A fair question, of course, is why do I bother, either reading any of it in the first place, or then trying to say something reasonably intelligent about it in the second? I have no answer for that question.

In the case of the two works mentioned above, Kierkegaard expressed his most thorough rejection of the notion, instigated by Hegel, that human thought or experience can be reduced to an encyclopedic universality. This fact is obvious from the titles: Philosophical Fragments, which cannot be either encyclopedic or universal; followed by Concluding Unscientific Postscript, which clearly implies that it is anything but a significant work meant to wrap-up one that already falls short of completion. I suppose the question Kierkegaard intends to beg is whether a mere Postscript can be expected to conclude a mere Fragment. This question matters because at the middle of the 19th Century (1848, for instance, when he wrote the Postscript) virtually everyone in Europe was attempting to outdo everyone else with compilations of encyclopedic proportions on every subject in the universe. Kierkegaard bucks the trend of an entire century of intellectual development. That is his signature.

His statement, again in the title, that what he intends to do is going to be "unscientific" is another way in which he runs himself, his thought, against the prevailing trend of the times since science was thought to be the best, if not the only, methodology available for pursuing answers to serious questions at the mid-point of the century. Descartes, Leibnitz, Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel, were all champions of reason and science who believed that solutions to all problems confronting philosophy would ultimately find their resolution in the application of objectivity grounded in disinterestedness. Being passionless about an issue was the best approach to take to every question. Again, Kierkegaard refuses to be caught up in the scramble to reduce issues that touch the borders of religiosity to the level of disinterestedness that was being demanded by practitioners of Enlightenment ideology. In identifying his subject of inquiry in the Postscript, for instance, he says that "Faith does not result simply from a scientific inquiry; it does not come directly at all. On the contrary, in this objectivity one tends to lose that infinite personal interestedness in passion which is the condition of faith . . . in which faith can come into being" (30). Kierkegaard, then, was on the front line of the struggle between science and religion that emerged in the 19th Century as a result of the dissemination of scientific work by Darwin and Newton, for example, who both challenged the views of reality held sacred by the church. In fact, Kierkegaard's argument is not unlike the ones voiced by early church Fathers as they struggled to maintain their own faith against the various schools of philosophy in the Greek world of the 1st and 2nd Centuries as the new faith reached the ancient centers of learning in the Mediterranean basin.

While Kierkegaard might seem to be a radical voice in the philosophical circles of his time, where he articulated a stance against scientific inquiry, in the wider picture of the development of human thought, especially on its religious side, he was completely orthodox in his position. The very point of his objection to science, in fact, was meant to maintain and shore up the erosion of belief that was seen everywhere in Christian society as a result of the spreading acceptance of scientific ideology. At the beginning of his discussion of the Speculative Point-of-View as it addresses the question of the historical validity of Christian doctrine, he brings forth the image of a man who is bedeviled by doubt about whether or not he has maintained a true commitment in his life to the truth of Christianity's ideology. In other words, he doubts whether or not he is truly a Christian. Kierkegaard notes that strange twists have occurred historically, since it is true that initially a person "was at the risk of his life [if he] dared to profess himself a Christian," whereas now the same condition of risk might arise if one were "to venture to doubt that one is a Christian" (49). He draws an important distinction here between two different kinds of doubters when he seems to condemn one but excuses the other; that is,

"Especially when this doubt does not mean that the individual launches a violent attack against Christianity with a view to abolishing it; for in that case it would perhaps be admitted that there was something in it. But if a man were to say quite simply and unassumingly, that he was concerned for himself, lest perhaps he had no right to call himself a Christian [because of his doubt], he would indeed not suffer persecution or be put to death, but he would be smothered in angry glances. . . ." (49)

The point that draws my attention here, of course, is that people who might launch an attack against Christianity, and mean by doing so to abolish it, and I purposefully exclude the word "violent" from this re-statement to make clear the fact that nothing I say in this regard has ever even imagined the use of violence against Christians or their institutions, but has only meant to employ verbal argument and dissent against what I see as a fully lethal hegemonic ideology, were still at risk of persecution and death, in Kierkegaard's mind at least, as late as the middle of the 19th Century. While he may only be using a rhetorical excess here to make his point, the perception clearly surfaces that even if you only rise to the level of doubting your commitment to Christian values that action is likely to result in your being "smothered in angry glances," which is a statement of similar kind with being "put to death," in as much as being "smothered" by anything, even just "angry glances," generally must imply the existence of a violence-prone will to destroy the life of the offender. Violence against the Other, especially those who are perceived as being a threat to Christian hegemony, is never the last resort of the Christian community but always its first response to any notion that something or someone threatens its absolute will to maintaining and extending its power. In my view, anyone who denies this fact shares complicity with the killer in every death that has been visited on anyone who chooses to dissent from belief in Christian doctrine, even extending to those who think Christianity should be abolished.

My disaffection with Kierkegaard arises from two directions simultaneously. In the first place, the idea that a foreign invader has the right to forcibly convert a native population to a lethal religious ideology, at the point of a gun and under threat of cultural annihilation if they decline to be swayed, is one that cannot be justified or excused no matter how long ago it occurred. The fact that the perpetrators of this crime against humanity still persist in exercising that illegal and horrific right against native Americans by continuing to incarcerate them in concentration camps only testifies to the fact that Christians refuse to acknowledge their crime and have no inclination whatsoever to abandon the pleasures they derive from its ongoing commission. The only reason any of this 500-year history of genocide occurred was because native Americans lived in a land and possessed a wealth that Europeans could only dream of having for themselves. That pure and absolute desire for material pleasure was satisfied by mass murder, which was, all the while, concealed under a claim of bringing spiritual salvation to a people who never needed, and certainly did not want, any such thing in the first place. That same myth and absurdity persists today, bringing comfort to Christians, while continuing to mete out death and destruction to their countless native victims. If you think I seek something other than the absolute abolition of Christianity from the face of the earth, and certainly never through violent means, you are not following my argument.

At the same time, and secondly, every aspect of the doctrine that underlies Christian action against the Other must be called to account and abolished as well. The point of this excursion into the "holy" and "sacred" ground of the Myth of Eden has been to expose precisely those elements of Christian ideology that both allow and excuse mass murder in the name of sacred duty. White European America is about to launch yet another war of revenge against its non-Christian enemies in the Middle East. The process through which Islamic people have been demonized is the same one used for hundreds of years against native Americans, the same one that was employed by George W. Bush's father 10 years ago to attack Iraq, the same one that has always served to find and identify the consummate Evil over which Christian Good must triumph. Hail to the Chief and let the slaughter begin. The only comfort native Americans take from this situation is that no one mistook the latest terrorist for one of our own. We live with that constant fear: not that one of ours would ever attack "innocent" non-combatants, since we have never done that intentionally, but that someone out there in Christian America will mistake one of us for one of them and make native people the next target for religious retribution and cleansing. Kierkegaard's easy familiarity with the practice of punishing non-Christians with persecution and death, at a time when his brothers in America were beginning the execution of their final solution to the problem of native American presence in the Western hemisphere, simply and directly fulfills the essence of Christian promise: wherever they are, no one else has a right to exist.

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