Kierkegaard on Prayer. Who Knew?
Three times I’ve posted on Kierkegaard. I thought I understood him. He is an existentialist for whom belief in God is a subjective truth. The decision cannot be justified; one can barely give reasons. All one can know is what one knows about any subjective truth: that it is based on a decision to believe it. No wonder that Kierkegaard is often called the first existentialist.
Recently I came across a book of Kierkegaard’s prayers. You could say I should have known about his prayers before. Perhaps I should of, but philosophers don’t write about this aspect of Kierkegaard’s work. Neither do most theologians. It seems irrelevant to most of them. It shouldn’t be. The prayers turned my view of Kierkegaard upside down.
I’ll just summarize the content of several of the prayers. You will lose the poetry, but you’ll get the idea.
- “Thou hast loved us first” (prayer 8), Kierkegaard asks God to help us avoid the seductions of the world, and to love others as much as we love ourselves.
- “Thy forgiveness” (prayer 21). We are to forgive others seventy times seven. Will you, God, ever tire of forgiving us?
- “For faith” (prayer 27). Teach me not to get bogged down in stifling reflection, but simply to have faith.
- “To know thy will” (prayer 37). Keep us vigilant so that we may work for our salvation through fear and trembling.* But “grant that we may hear also a gentle voice murmuring to us that we are Thy children, so that we will cry with joy, Abba, Father.”
The first sentence of the last prayer sounds like the Kierkegaard I am familiar with, the author who dwelt on the anxiety and dread that accompanies the life of the faithful. But the second sentence is like that of a little boy rushing to sit on the lap of his beloved father. Abba is best translated here as “daddy.”
Kierkegaard has written that the experience of God as absurd is good, for it means we have abandoned the impossible and presumptuous—trying to understand God. But if God is like daddy, then a conversation is both possible and desirable, though of course it is a conversation between two beings of vastly unequal status.
What does Kierkegaard mean by prayer?
For Kierkegaard, prayer is the opposite of what he called the “infinitive qualitative difference” between man and God (Training, p 139). The more one understands what one is trying to do in prayer, have a relationship with God, the more audacious this appears to be. In fact, there is only one real prayer: that one might be able to pray. Prayer becomes a silent surrendering to God. Kierkegaard says this, but he is hardly silent; a number of his prayers go on for several pages.
He [God] lets me weep before him in silent solitude, pour forth again and again pour forth my pain, with the blessed consolation of knowing that he is concerned for me—and in the meanwhile he gives that life of pain a significance which almost overwhelms me.
I have absolutely lived with God as one lives with a father. Amen. (quoted in Lefevre, pp 201-203).
A simple straightforward piety?
Karl Jaspers, a mid-twentieth century philosopher, wrote that Kierkegaard’s was really a simple straightforward piety, as opposed to the tormented and complex nature of his thought.
The expressions of assurance of God’s love, the description of his relationship to God as that of a son to a father, the absence of skepticism or doubt within the life of prayer—these would seem to support Jaspers’ point of view. (Lefevre, 204)
I agree. There are two Kierkegaards, Kierkegaard the existential philosopher, and Kierkegaard the pious Lutheran. The difference is more significant than that of a scientist believing in God. For the scientist there really are two different worlds, faith and science. Kierkegaard’s faith contradicts his philosophy of the infinite qualitative difference.
Prayer doesn’t do anything
The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.
It is only superstition, says Kierkegaard, to believe that God acts on man in an external way. God is spirit. He acts inwardly—upon the inner man. A prayer of confession doesn’t help God know the confessor. God already knows. Prayer is a means to self-understanding. Only such a person can be acted upon and changed by God, who can’t do anything with a man until he sees himself as he really is (Lefevre, p. 214). And who is he? A sinner standing alone before God, saved by his decision to act on the absurd proposition that God exists.
Most people wouldn’t call Kierkegaard a theologian. They’d call him a philosopher or existentialist. Yet, Kierkegaard shares something important with recent theologians. Like them, he doesn’t write much about the teachings of Christ. Both Karl Barth, and Rudolf Bultmann, the two most influential theologians of the twentieth-century, share this disregard. To be sure, they talk about Christ, but in abstract terms, such as Christ’s relationship to God the father. Or what we should make of gospels written for a world of magic and mystery, as Bultmann puts it.
I’m talking about what Christ taught by his words and his example. To love one another as Christ has loved us, to care for the needy, to give all you can to the poor, renounce materialism, and forgive others as God has forgiven you (Matthew 5-7). And what way of life is most conducive to Christ’s teachings? Whatever it is, it is not the abstract individualism of Kierkegaard, who argues that one must detach oneself from all social relations and stand alone before God. In his journals Kiekegaard wrote that “I wish that on my grave might be put “`the individual.'” It wasn’t.
Whatever the best way of life is, it will be a creaturely life, a life lived with and among others. Even the Lord’s Prayer is a group prayer, all about “us.” It is this life that Christ talked about in his teachings, the only way of life that makes sense of his teachings.
* Fear and Trembling concerns the dread (angst) that Abraham must have felt as he prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac.
Karl Jaspers, The importance of Kierkegaard, in Cross Currents 2 (3), 1952, 5-16.
Søren Kierkegaard, Training in Christianity, translated by Walter Lowrie. Oxford University Press, 1941, p 139.
Søren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard: A Selection, edited and translated by Alexander Dru. London: Oxford University Press, 1938, p 754.
Søren Kierkegaard, The Prayers of Kierkegaard, ed. Perry Lefevre. University of Chicago Press, 1956