Two ways of being lost: Kierkegaard on anxiety and religion

What, if anything, do Kierkegaard’s reflections on anxiety have to teach us about the religious impulse? If you read many common interpretations of his book The Concept of Anxiety, the answer you could easily come away with is: nothing, unless you’re already a devout Christian. That is, many such interpretations treat the book’s religious themes as, to put it bluntly, inside baseball for Christian theologians.

Of course, it’s undeniable that Kierkegaard is tackling matters of Christian theology in the book. Its aim, as stated in its subtitle, is to undertake ‘a simple psychologically orienting deliberation on the dogmatic issue of hereditary sin.’ In other words, it’s a treatise on the proper Christian interpretation of the story of the Fall–the first sin of Adam and Eve, as recounted in chapter 3 of Genesis. Thus, all of the book’s ‘psychologically orienting’ reflections on anxiety–insightful as they might be independently of this context–are, for Kierkegaard, just means to this end.

If this weren’t inside baseball enough, Kierkegaard tries, in the course of the book, to correct the errors in rival interpretations of the Fall: for example, those of philosophers or theologians like Augustine, Hegel, and various obscure 19th century Danish Hegelians. The dizzying array of references to such thinkers–especially early in the book–represents, in fact, one of the major roadblocks for many readers approaching the book for the first time.

One common way to interpret the text, then–for those, that is, who don’t have any particular interest in such inside baseball–is to detach means from ends: in other words, to present Kierkegaard’s reflections on anxiety as much as possible independently from the theological thickets in which he embeds them. This way of appropriating Kierkegaard was championed, for example, by Jean-Paul Sartre, a consummate atheist who adopted many of Kierkegaard’s ideas–including from The Concept of Anxiety–while essentially stripping them of the religious significance he accorded them.

I think there’s a middle path here. To be sure, The Concept of Anxiety is about the Fall and original sin. However, through his consideration of these topics, Kierkegaard proposes a unique conception of what Christianity is. To understand just how unusual this conception is, we must grasp how he envisions the fundamental problem to which Christianity offers the solution. As with many traditional views, the basic human problem–and, the basic religious problem–is, for him, that we are lost. However, it’s hard to overstate just how dramatically different Kierkegaard’s understanding of our lostness is from those found in the main currents of Christian theology. In breaking from them, he ends up, I think, with a fascinating picture of the religious dimension of human life.

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