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Sickness Unto Death

Soren Kierkegaard

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What does Christianity mean for Kierkegaard in The Sickness Unto Death? What are his views on organized religion? How is Christianity different from paganism and pre-Christian religions in his view?

Kierkegaard sees Christianity as a religion based on revealed truth. In his view, the fundamental tenet of Christ's teaching is that human beings may have an individual relationship with God. Kierkegaard criticizes religious leaders who downplay the difficulty of Christ's messages, or who suggest that Christianity is simply a matter of attending Church and listening to comforting sermons. The basic message of Christianity, Kierkegaard argues, is "absurd." It makes no sense that God would take interest in an individual human being. It also makes no sense to think that human beings can communicate directly with God (how would we know when God is speaking to us?). Before Christ revealed the truth to us, the possibility of an individual relationship with God would have seemed ridiculous. Indeed, Kierkegaard writes that this idea is an "offense" to the rational, non-Christian mind--it insults the pagan's good sense. Yet a relationship with God, in Kierkegaard's view, provides the only true solution to "despair." Kierkegaard argues that all people, including non-Christians, suffer from despair. Despair is a complex term for which Kierkegaard never provides a clear definition, but from his comments and examples it appears that "despair" refers to a condition in which people fail to live up to their full potential as physical and spiritual beings. It also signifies a failure to attain the eternal life that Christ promised. "Faith"--an individual relationship with God--is the only solution to despair. Whereas pre-Christian people had little understanding of despair and no knowledge of faith, despair is intensified for Christian people, since they have been made aware of the solution to despair. For Christian people, despair becomes "sin." Remaining in despair violates God's command that we must believe in Christ's truth.

Discuss Kierkegaard's view of Socrates. Why does Kierkegaard feel that the modern age is in need of a Socrates? Are there similarities between Socrates and Kierkegaard?

In Plato's dialogues, Socrates pursues the truth by engaging his contemporaries in dialogues, probing their ideas with challenging questions. Socrates demonstrated that his contemporaries often could not come up with good justifications for ideas that they had assumed were true--he showed that they did not actually know nearly as much as they claimed to. Kierkegaard suggests that much modern "knowledge" is similarly vulnerable. According to Kierkegaard, many of his contemporaries have used "science" and scholarly methods to build up vast systems of knowledge about the world. They have even claimed to have attained unchallengeable certainty about moral and religious matters. In Kierkegaard's view, all of these systems are vulnerable insofar as they base their claims on an analysis of the objective world--the world of things and facts. Kierkegaard argues that the objective world is irrelevant to human individuals. Human beings must be concerned first and foremost with their own spiritual welfare, not with the course of history before were born or after they die. Human beings must therefore decide for themselves what they think about moral and religious matters. Furthermore, on matters of religion, Kierkegaard argues that Christ's most fundamental teaching is that human beings must pursue an individual relationship with God. Scholarly debates on theological or historical matters only distract people from this enterprise. In his comments on Socrates, Kierkegaard may be implying that his own writing is meant to provide a Socratic counterweight to science and scholarly writing. Somewhat like Socrates, Kierkegaard engages his audience with lively examples and sarcastic comments. Like Socrates, Kierkegaard challenges the conventional views of his day, particularly views about religion. Kierkegaard's goal, like Socrates', is to make us think more deeply about moral and religious matters.

Some twentieth-century fans have advanced non-religious interpretations of Kierkegaard's philosophy. How important is religion to Kierkegaard's message? Could someone who doesn't believe in God agree with Kierkegaard?

Some readers of Kierkegaard have argued that the main message of his philosophy is that individuals should follow their own conscience, shunning views that they find reprehensible even if these views are held by many people. In The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard criticizes people who think that historical or scientific study can provide them with moral or religious guidance. He urges us to rely instead on an individual relationship with God. If we substitute some notion of individual conscience for Kierkegaard's understanding of God, Kierkegaard's philosophy could be interpreted as a secular message of moral self-reliance. After all, it is difficult to see what speaking directly to God would mean in practice if it did not mean following moral notions that we intuitively believe are unchallengeable. That said, however, religion is the dominant concern of The Sickness Unto Death. Kierkegaard argues that it is a sin to neglect Christ's teachings. He implies that the truths Christ has revealed to us are higher than all others. Whether or not his philosophy can be reproduced in a non-religious form, Kierkegaard's primary concern seems to have been to present an understanding of Christianity that he felt was correct but which many of his contemporaries would have disagreed with. He seems to have assumed that his readers would be Christian and would be concerned about what the correct interpretation of Christianity would be.

Discuss Kierkegaard's writing style. How does it affect his philosophical message? Would his philosophy be changed if it were expressed in a more straightforward style?

See the commentary to Part I.A.

Discuss Kierkegaard's concept of despair. Who suffers from despair? What forms does it take? Why is it a problem? What, according to Kierkegaard, does Christianity tell us about despair?

Discuss Kierkegaard's understanding of sin. How is sin related to despair? What sort of people live in sin? Why is sin a problem? What is the opposite of sin and how can people overcome sinfulness?

At several points in The Sickness Unto Death Kierkegaard offers a formula for the eradication of despair. What is Kierkegaard's solution to despair? How does he argue for it?

Kierkegaard frequently criticizes "scientists," "scholars," "speculative thinkers," and others who focus their energies on understanding the world of material things and facts. What are his criticisms? What alternative does he support? Do you agree with his viewpoint?

How do you think Kierkegaard expected his readers to respond to The Sickness Unto Death. Who is his target audience? How are we supposed to change our lives or beliefs after reading his book?

What is your opinion of The Sickness Unto Death? Do you find Kierkegaard's message that we should pursue an individual faith in God compelling? Are there advantages to the viewpoint he criticizes--the view that study of the objective world can provide important moral, religious, and intellectual guidance?

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