Kierkegaard: The Aesthetic and the Religious

Written by George Pattison Reviewed By Mark Elliott

Pattison’s book: Kierkegaard: The Aesthetic and the Religious is strong on presenting the intellectual context for Kierkegaard. In line with his earlier work Pattison majors on the literary side and less directly on the religious-philosophical. Schiller as a sort of Romantic believed that in art, or perhaps in art’s inspiration and in what it inspires—imagination and creativity—‘mind’ and ‘body’ could be harmonised. Hegel’s philosophy of history argued that opposites interact over time, and cancel each other out, so that the thinker or the reflective spectator could still his mind, and his life would follow. But, for Kierkegaard, as long as the contradiction of the world remains in human hearts, no amount of optimistic spectating is going to deal with them. The Hegelian ‘cancelling out’ is ultimately nihilistic, especially as consciousness is lost—in that one cannot spectate and participate at the same and the view on offer is not (to translate) good triumphing over evil but good and evil producing something fairly grey. To overcome this one needs to present models for people: life as art or art as life. So back to a sort of religious aesthetics.

What Pattison does for us is give a refreshing reading of Kierkegaard as a writer, an artist. There is a lot of selective digging in his Journals and Letters which removes the focus from being yet another tour through the main works such as Concluding Scientific Postscript or Either/Or: these in some senses are presupposed through summary references to their content, so that this is not really the book to buy if you are looking for an introductory volume. Kierkegaard was critical of the Kantian then, Goethean ideal (of course an optimistic one) that controlling ideas are the beginning and end of art. No, life, the world, are not reducible to big ideas which unite them. Kierkegaard emphasises the wandering, yearning ideal of the knightly philosopher but that ideal should not become all self-important (as it would, in Heidegger). There is not only the world-negation that irony allows—that is Hegelian, some cheap consolation for the loss of one thing being found in the new acknowledgement of another (as if a person who loses their sight is comforted by some supposed increase in tactile sensitivity). Humour is much less cynical: one can only see the light side of things who has been and continues to be vulnerable and hurt. (The backlash against making too much of divine vulnerability in theological writing recently may be more to do with existential cynicism than the desire to defend the concept of God from unworthy notions.)

Pattison makes the useful point that drama for Kierkegaard was the summit of aesthetic forms since it represents life in terms of agents interacting with each other at a heightened level of consciousness. It is sculpture which moves and talks (although does not sing: how would Kierkegaard have regarded Wagner’s claim for Gesamtkunst?—probably unfavourably). Music carries people along unreflectingly, and is a heady brew if joined to tragic stories, whereas comedy and its (softer) irony demand distance and reflection. As Pattison puts it: ‘the development of reflection undermines the element of fatality which is essential to all true tragedy’. Tragedy can only be a sub-set of comedy: we should view tragedy as containing painful lessons for ourselves which bring us to repentance and thus a sense of being removed from ‘the human individual as the centre of the universe’—a comic vision. The self is taken seriously only for it to be blown up, exploded and gently resurrected/put back together again—differently. In all, a worthwhile exposition of worthwhile themes from a timely thinker.

In The End of Theology—And the task of thinking. Pattison turns his hand to some assessment of where theology is at today. The initial assessment is not encouraging. Theology is ‘eking out an existence at the margins of academic life, foraging amongst the uncultivated borderlands of other disciplines’. This makes theology sound like some sort of low life-form, which, womble-like, picks up pieces the everyday folk leave behind. Pattison (with one wave to matters pastoral) prefers to think of the theologian as a ‘fellow-worker who understands’. Theology is understood as telling its own story and remaining silent about metaphysics yet (curiously) at the same time retreating to the church-community, it does not help when Pattison admits that all he is doing when he writes the word ‘God’ is to affirm intelligibility and coherence of the world (as distinct from those ‘postmodernists’ who feel it is lacking). He feels that mystical theology cannot work since the mystic vision is incommunicable, even among a group of mystics and only a few people are allowed to be mystics, despite, presumably what those who pray might think. We need to be ‘dialogical like the Bible’, although by dialogical he means interacting with creation, human and non-human, but especially tradition: the voices from the strange other worlds which have gone before us but whose language can be understood by reference to those who came a generation later. We should not think it is all becoming clear, as we, the subjects interrogate the objects. Pattison insists that we be not monological like the reductionists who say: ‘we can no longer believe that’.

Dialogism takes history seriously. Furthermore, ‘it is not just about telling the story of a single hero [Hegel], or presenting the unfolding of a single point of view. It is more like a drama than a novel’ (42).

The object of theology would then seem to be this conversation rather than ‘God’. For dialogism we need people, speaking beings for truths to exist, since if they ceased to exist there would be no ‘truths’, pace. Augustine, who thought all truths existed in the mind of God and would exist even if the world came to an end. There is no Archimedean point: according to Pattison, the NT has no more right to be seen as timeless than Heidegger’s ‘basic words in philosophy’ which have endured since before Plato. Nor can we hope to get ‘the big picture’: Kierkegaard was rightly critical of Hegel’s conceit in that respect. But he is not a postmodernist. One, the past matters and must not be treated with Nietzschean contempt, as though it were dead and mute. The self is held in its dialogue with those things which have formed its community. An ontology (that which is fundamental to existence) of dialogue (communicative relationship) is preferred to a Heideggerian ontology of language. The author has sympathies more with a Gadamerian/Catholic valuing of the tradition of Scriptural interpretation than with the Protestant sola scriptura. Also, two, Kierkegaard is once more the patron saint when, in chapter four Pattison insists that the individual ‘me’ matters despite all postmodern trends such as the colonising of ‘theological anthropology’ by sociology. ‘Personality’ still means something, and Christians are called to be individually heroic despite the trends, to be like Simone Weil, or Kierkegaard. Moral anguish and action belong to individuals; so do moral failings.

On these last two points, Pattison puts clear water between himself and Don Cupitt. There is a striking similarity to his Cambridge mentor in the format of the book: shortage of footnotes; no index, no bibliography. Neither of these books for all their brevity are introductory: far too much is presupposed and the works are dense. Yet sometimes full immersion in the icy currents is better than slow wading.

Mark Elliott

St Andrews University