I plan to spend a few days next month at a Benedictine monastery in the desert outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The suggestion was made that I give some of the monks a little talk. I think "A Philosopher Defends Monasticism" would be an appropriate title. So I have been reading up on the subject.
This morning I looked to see what Kierkegaard has to say on the topic of monks and monasteries in his late works For Self-Examination and Judge for Yourself! They are bound together in an attractive English translation by Howard and Edna Hong (Princeton University Press, 1990).
Of course I did not expect old Kierkegaard to have anything good to say about the monastic ideal, but I was slightly surprised by the harshness of his tone.
I myself am highly sympathetic to the ideal. Had I been born in the Middle Ages I would have been a monk for sure. I fantasize my having been Thomas Aquinas' amanuensis and intellectual sparring partner. And although I love to read Kierkegaard and about him and have been doing so all of my philosophical life, there are two things about him that put me off. One is his anti-mysticism, which is of course connected with his anti-monasticism. The other is his anti-rationalism. But these two add up to a third, his fideism, which I also find off-putting. Well, more on all of this later. Now let's look at some quotations.
One of S.K.'s objections, perhaps his main objection, to monks and monasteries and 'popery' is straight from Luther: it is to the idea of earning merit before God by good works:
To want to build upon good works -- the more you practice them, the stricter you are with yourself, the more you merely develop the anxiety in you, and new anxiety. On this road, if a person is not completely devoid of spirit, on this road he comes to the very opposite of peace and rest for his soul, to discord and unrest. No, a person is justified solely by faith. Therefore, in God's name, to hell with the pope and all his helpers' helpers, and away with the monastery, together with all your fasting, scourging, and all the monkey antics that came into use under the name of imitation. (Judge for Yourself! 193, emphasis added)
You cannot justify yourself before God by your own efforts: "a person is justified solely and only by faith." (193) In these later works of direct communication, S. K. speaks in his own voice and is here clearly endorsing the thought of Luther on justification.
A few pages earlier S. K. speaks of the highest life:
No, it is certainly not the highest to seek a solitary hiding place in order if possible to seek God alone there. It is not the highest -- this we indeed see in the prototype [Christ]. But although it is not the highest it is nevertheless possible . . . that not a single one of us is this coddled and secularized generation would be able to do it. But it is not the highest. The highest is: unconditionally heterogeneous with the world by serving God alone, to remain in the world and in the middle of actuality before the eyes of all, to direct all attention to oneself -- for then persecution is unavoidable. This is Christian piety: renouncing everything to serve God alone, to deny oneself in order to serve God alone -- and then to have to suffer for it -- to do good and then to have to suffer for it. It is this that the prototype expresses; it is also this, to mention a mere man, that Luther, the superb teacher of our Church, continually points our as belonging to true Christianity: to suffer for the doctrine, to do good and suffer for it, and that suffering in this world is inseparable from being a Christian in this world. (169)
S. K. here sounds his recurrent theme of Christianity as heterogeneity to the world. The heterogeneity to the world of the monastic life, however, does not go far enough. A more radical heterogeneity is lived by one who remains in the world, not only living the doctrine, but suffering for it. No doubt that is how the Prototype lived, but he was and is God. How is such a thing possible for any mere mortal?
If true Christianity requires suffering for the doctrine, if it requires persecution and martyrdom, then true Christianity is out of reach except for those who, like present-day Christians in the Middle East, are even as we speak having their throats cut for the doctrine by radical Muslim savages as the rest of the world looks on and does nothing. In the Denmark of Kierkegaard's day (1813-1855), when Christianity was the state religion and the object of universal lip-service, true Christianity was out of reach for S. K. himself by his own teaching. The true Christian must be prepared for persecution and martyrdom, but it is difficult to see how they can be "inseparable from being a Christian in this world."
So add this persecution extremism to the off-putting factors already listed: the anti-mysticism, the anti-rationalism, and the extreme fideism.
But what a prodigiously prolific writer he was! What a genius, and what a fascinating specimen of humanity.