Søren Kierkegaard’s 200th birthday is May 5th. Jeffery Frank says that his greatest contribution may not be his forays in to existentialism or his “leap of faith” but how we communicate today.
For all his well-known existential explorations — his fascination with life’s dreadful uncertainties and his belief, set forth in “The Sickness Unto Death,” that despair is central to the human condition — Kierkegaard will forever be associated with the “leap,” an exertion of faith that helped him accept the absurd idea that Jesus was simultaneously divine and yet much like other young men of his time; the question obsessed and perplexed him. As he put it in his major 1846 book “Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophic Fragments,” “The Absurd is that the eternal truth has come to exist, that God has come to exist, is born, has grown up and so on, and has become just like a person, impossible to tell apart from another person.” Kierkegaard called this “the Absolute Paradox.”
These were awkward questions for discussion in a public forum — particularly in a small 19th-century monarchy with a dominant church. Kierkegaard came to realize that the subjects he cared most about — spiritual, deeply personal, wordless even — did not lend themselves to straightforward discourse. So he found a new way to communicate, letting his various pseudonymous “authors” say what a pedagogical doctor of theology could not. This was the Socratic method in epic form. It allowed Constantin Constantius in “Repetition” to hint that life might indeed be lived over; and it let Johannes de Silentio in “Fear and Trembling” retell the biblical story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac and to introduce what he called the “teleological suspension of the ethical,” the idea that one could disregard society’s legal and ethical boundaries in favor of a higher law. It was a dazzling thought experiment, and somewhat frightening, especially when you consider its extreme, all-too-familiar modern-day applications.