W. H. Auden on Kierkegaard
May 10, 2014
The wide-ranging poet, playwright, and essayist, W. H. Auden, was also an avid reader and interpreter of Kierkegaard in the 1940’s and early 50’s. This was a time when existential voices were resounding throughout the academy and church, in the wake of another catastrophic war. Auden’s attraction to Kierkegaard also makes sense in the context of Auden’s struggle with sexuality and loneliness (see Wesley Hill’s article), for Kierkegaard is the premier theologian for those who feel homeless in this world. That does not convey the sense of all of Kierkegaard’s vast corpus, but with book titles like Sickness Unto Death, The Concept of Anxiety, and Fear and Trembling — I think the characterization is justified. Auden would soon move his theology in a more anglo-catholic direction, presumably for the sake of finding a doctrine of creation that is not eviscerated by sin and idolatry.
Yet Kierkegaard is enduringly valuable, to wake and stir the sleepy Christian. I think the gospel brings an aesthetic and ethic in the creaturely realm, on this side of the eschaton, but the creation as such knows nothing of it, not apart from the light that illumines all our darkness. Those who are contented with the darkness, so long as it provides the modicum of security and pleasure necessary for a sense of well-being, will repudiate the light — or, more often, politely ignore it. Some of this is very well-captured by Auden in this brief description of Kierkegaard’s apologetic strategy:
To show the non-believer that he is in despair because he cannot believe in his gods and then show him that Christ cannot be a man-made God because in every respect he is offensive to the natural man is for Kierkegaard the only true kind of Christian apologetics. The false kind of apologetics of which he accuses his contemporary Christians is the attempt to soft-pedal the distinction between Christianity and the Natural Religions, either by trying to show that what Christians believe is really just what everybody believes, or by suggesting that Christianity pays in a worldly sense, that it makes men healthy, wealthy, and wise, keeps society stable, and the young in order, etc. Apart from its falsehood, Kierkegaard says, this method will not work because those who are satisfied with this world will not be interested and those who are not satisfied are looking for a faith whose values are not those of this world.
[The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard, Indiana University Press, 1952, p. 20. In the new edition from New York Review Books, it is p. xxvii].
That last sentence is especially good and well worth memorizing.
Image: “Kierkegaard In the Street” by Luplau Janssen