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The Sickness Unto Death
A book by Sören Kierkegaard probes the depth of existential reality, a dimension so many modern folks avoid. Basic questions of truth are at stake here for a public theology for today.
By Ed Knudson
Sören Kierkegaard is recognized today as one of the most significant thinkers of the 19th century. Very critical of cultural religion and state forms of Christianity, he wrote as the modern world was beginning to take shape, including in his native Denmark. He influenced most of the major theologians of the 20th century and continues to influence contemporary movements such as postmodernism.
For Kierkegaard "truth is subjectivity." That is, the internal subjective consciousness of the human person is where words have their meaning. Kierkegaard fought against the Hegel notion that truth is found in high generalized intellectual abstractions. Modern truth tends to be associated with numbers, mathematical calculations of external conditions, which are then generalized in theories which exist, so to speak, outside human consciousness. The distinction between words and numbers, then, is a rather critical one when discussing the nature of truth.
Most moderns turn away from their own conscious experience and look to external authorities in the various professions based on external methods of determining truth. Much of that has been immensely helpful to human beings, such as medical knowledge. At the same time, the dominating institutions of economy and government tend to dismiss the importance of internal human consciousness, which can in many ways be understood as the very realm of theological language. That is one reason religious faith has declined in the "modern" world. Modern media, modern corporations, and modern government want to dominate and control and determine what people think and feel consciously so that they will act in ways beneficial to those external institutions.
Modern institutions, built upon the Enlightenment idea of the free individual, do not really want individuals to think for themselves, they want individuals to think in the ways they are told to think by these institutions. Think, for example, of the degree to which the modern corporation focuses on advertising and marketing. And think about modern political campaigns, which are really contests over which candidate can more effectively manipulate the mind of the individual voter.
This insight, that modern institutions based on external notions of truth are not actually interested in promoting the notion of the free individual, is one of the most compelling reasons why a new sort of "public theology" is important to consider in these times. It is theology in the Protestant tradition that has placed emphasis on the importance of the subjectivity of the internal consciousness of the human individual. No one did more to try to do this than Soren Kierkegaard.
It is not just the internal consciousness of the person that is the focus, of course, but also the relations among persons, the intersubjective nature of human relationships mediated through language, language that creates the sense of time so important to human beings. Ultimately, of course, theology focuses on the relation of the human and the divine and this is the central concern of Kierkegaard's writings. This relation can provide a true "ground" on which the human individual can stand in relation to the dominating institutions.
Moderns also turn away from sickness and death, not wanting to squarely face these realities in their own subjective consciousness. Then when the tough stuff happens to them personally modern persons, having rejected the importance of God in the first place, tend to blame God for creating such a world that suffering can occur. Known in theology as the question of theodicy, the question of suffering should be clearly addressed. The writings of Soren Kierkegaard are a good place to start.
So, right here you can read one of his most important books by clicking on this link: The Sickness Unto Death.
This book was published by Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1941. Thanks to Ted and Winnie Brock for making this available at Religion Online.
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