The Latest Volume in the Kierkegaard Research Series

George Pattison on ed. Jon Stewart’s Kierkegaard’s Influence on Theology, Tome III

Jon Stewart (ed.), Kierkegaard’s Influence on Theology. Tome III: Catholic and Jewish Theology. Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception and Resources, Vol. 10
Jon Stewart (ed.), Kierkegaard’s Influence on Theology. Tome III: Catholic and Jewish Theology. Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception and Resources, Vol. 10, Ashgate, 2012. 234 pp. $124.95

Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception and Resources is continuing to prove a remarkable achievement, and is cumulatively providing an important point of reference for all those working on Kierkegaard, whether they are specialists looking to follow up on some aspect of his work or its reception that lies outside the purview of their own research or whether they are novices looking for a way ‘in’, perhaps so as to check out why or how Kierkegaard relates to their own primary field of study. It is also developing – as was envisaged from the start – into an extremely large project of almost encyclopaedic proportions (although the articles are for the most part full-length scholarly essays rather than brief encyclopaedia notices). The systematic organization of the work means that topics that have often been neglected in writing about Kierkegaard get their due, a comment that is particularly relevant to the present volume, since the significance of Kierkegaard for the Catholic thinkers dealt with here has tended to fall beneath the horizon of their commentators, at least in the English-speaking world. The reasons for this differ from thinker to thinker – in the case of Przywara, his major ‘Kierkegaardian’ work, Das Geheimnis Kierkegaards (Kierkegaard’s Secret) has never been translated, whilst Eugen Biser is simply unknown in the Anglo-Saxon world. As regards von Balthasar, it is probably partly because what he writes about Kierkegaard is swamped by the vast range of other authors and themes in his voluminous works (Joseph Ballan duly notes his reputation as a one-man epitome of Christian culture), and also because those who like and write about von Balthasar tend, on the whole, not to like or write about Kierkegaard (perhaps put off by von Balthasar’s own often negative comments relating to Kierkegaard’s opposition to aesthetics). And if this lack of visibility is true on a case by case basis, it is also true with regard to the Catholic reception of Kierkegaard as a whole. The Italian Bishop Bruno Forte published a book a few years ago called Fare teologia dopo Kierkegaard (Doing Theology after Kierkegaard), suggesting that, in some way, Kierkegaard marks an important watershed in modern Catholic thought. (Incidentally, another short work, The Portal of Beauty, shows, however briefly, a more subtle appreciation of how Kierkegaard might contribute positively to a theology of beauty, whereas von Balthasar, on the account given here—which resonates with my own reading of the great Swiss theologian—has, as far as Kierkegaard is concerned, what the late Roger Poole would call a decidedly ‘blunt’ reading.) On the Jewish side, I attended a 2010 AAR session at which one leading contemporary Jewish theologian was asked directly whether modern Jewish philosophy was really a response to Kierkegaard, to which, after a brief hesitation, he answered ‘Yes’. There is therefore an important task for a volume such as this in redrawing the balance sheet of Kierkegaard reception in both Catholic and Jewish traditions.

Like other volumes in the series, this contains work of very high quality, thoroughly researched and clearly presented. Of course, there is an inevitable unevenness in the nature of the task each author faces. Although David Law argues for Kierkegaard having played a significant role in the development of von Hügel’s thought (p. 81), the Baron generally mentions Kierkegaard only in passing, and the most sustained discussion, in Eternal Life, is only two pages long. Przywara, as noted, dedicated an entire book to the Dane (albeit not a long one), and did so in a time and place at which Kierkegaard had become a central and defining figure in theological debate in both Protestant and Catholic circles. Similarly in the Jewish section, Tamar Aylat-Yaguri’s fascinating article on Abraham Isaac Kook and Kierkegaard candidly acknowledges that, quite possibly, Kook never actually read Kierkegaard—as opposed to Abraham Joshua Heschel, who, as Jack Mulder explores, brought him into passionate conversation with the Hasidic Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk. This variation in the depth, extent, and significance of the respective subject’s engagement with Kierkegaard gives an unavoidable unevenness to the collection, and it might well have been helped by an editorial statement of policy as regards the basis of the selection and perhaps some synoptic comment on the various tasks that the different authors were undertaking. To this reader, at least, it seems hard to justify the presence of the Kook article; there is nothing wrong with it as an article and there is many a journal that could have given it a good home, but if KRSRR is to broaden out to include not only the lesser known paths of Kierkegaard reception but articles dealing with any possible analogy to Kierkegaard’s thought in the period since his death, then it is hard to see where it will all end. And if we are to include writers who don’t actually write much about Kierkegaard and seem to have significantly misread him, there would have been a strong case for including Lévinas in the Jewish section. In fact, there is a strong case for including him, since although his few comments are not extensive and highly contentious they have probably had a disproportionate influence on perceptions of Kierkegaard.

Perhaps more importantly still, this is a volume that especially cries out for more of an editorial introduction that would give readers some sense for the overall role of Kierkegaard in the traditions being discussed and the place of the various individual figures in that. One of the reasons for this is that, perfectly understandably and perhaps necessarily, some of the key figures, Buber and Rosenzweig amongst the Jewish readers of Kierkegaard and Maritain and Marcel amongst the Catholics, have already been dealt with in the volume Kierkegaard and Existentialism. Of course, the present volume is entitled Kierkegaard’s Influence on Theology, and it might be countered that those just named are philosophers rather than theologians, but there are many points in the modern tradition where this is a problematic distinction—not least because of the so-to-speak ‘official’ difference dividing Catholic and Protestant views on the role of philosophy in relation to theology. To take another significant figure absent from this volume, Cornelio Fabro, discussed in the volume including the Italian reception of Kierkegaard, was a major figure in both philosophical and theological receptions of Kierkegaard but also, and not least, in the specifically Catholic reception. And might there not be a case for including authors such as Kafka as part of Kierkegaard’s Jewish reception? Readers who have or have access to the whole set of volumes may not be too worried by all this, but those acquiring or loaning this volume in the context of a focussed project on, say, Catholic or Jewish receptions of Kierkegaard (!) are going to be disappointed if they expect to find all their answers here. Perhaps they shouldn’t—but they could helpfully be guided to the other works in the series that might help fill out the picture. To some extent the opening pages of Peter Šajda’s article on Guardini and Christopher Barnett’s article on Pryzwara do a good job at providing the larger context for their respective studies, but this is still not enough to give a rationale for the collection as a whole.

All that being said, let me end by saying that the essays are of a consistently high quality, very thorough, and, in addition to filling out the overall historical narrative of Kierkegaard reception occasionally offer surprising and even provoking angles on the Kierkegaard texts themselves. David Possen’s presentation of Soloveitchik’s ‘Halakhic man’ as (perhaps) a figure of indirect religious communication is both startling and intriguing. The comments above about the very different tasks faced by the different authors make it difficult and perhaps impossible to specially commend any selection, although the present reviewer particularly appreciated the clarity, scholarship, and drive of the contributions by Šajda, Barnett, and Possen, and learned from them. Others will find differently.