Kierkegaard and the tragedy of grace

Kierkegaard and the tragedy of grace.

God grants us grace, but we have to accept it. I argue that bad social conditions close some people to grace.  Kierkegaard would disagree.

Most Christians agree that we cannot save ourselves.  God offers his grace freely, not because we merit it, but because God loves us.   Paul writes,

For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves.  It is the gift of God—not by works.  (Ephesians 2:8-9)

The difference among Christians is how we earn grace.  Faith or works is the usual distinction, but of course that is too crude.  I’m going to follow Kierkegaard (as far as I can), who is generally considered the first existentialist.  So, choice must be important. 

This in fact is Kierkegaard’s position.  God offers, but we have to to accept the gift.  What does this mean?  I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it mostly clearly.

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian “conception” of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins . . . In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin . . . . Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before.  (45-46)

Only pedants, I think, will worry that I speak of Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer in the same breath. 

Love or adversity?

Kierkegaard begins “Strengthening the Inner Being,” his most sustained treatment of grace, with a quotation from Paul, one that comes just a few verses after that quoted above.

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.  (Ephesians 3:17-18)

From here Kierkegaard goes on to write about how adversity can lead you to God’s grace, whereas Paul, who was experiencing real adversity (house arrest, and worse to come) when he wrote the Ephesians, wrote about love.*  Though Kierkegaard wrote a fine book on love (agape) late in life, there is not much love when Kierkegaard writes of grace.  For Kierkegaard, grace comes from adversity.  

What’s the problem with Kierkegaard? 

Kierkegaard is such an individualist that he does not allow for tragedy.  Some people live in circumstances that lead them to be unreceptive to God’s grace.  Kierkegaard insists on radical individual responsibility.  (In his journals, Kierkegaard wrote “I wish that on my grave might be put ‘the individual'”; it wasn’t.)  Other people, thought Kierkegaard, can’t do much to lead you to God, or keep you away from him (Jackson, pp 235, 242).  

At the close of “Strengthening the Inner Being,” Kierkegaard writes “blessed is the person who could truthfully say: God in heaven was my first love.”  (p 101)  Well, no one can say this.  Ever.  We are all embodied beings attached to those who care for us as children, even when this care is bad.  It is only this early love that makes the adult acceptance of grace possible.  Absent this early love we do not love God first.  We don’t love, at least not well. 

I would say this is the key error in Kierkegaard’s thinking about grace.  He understands that we have to choose to accept grace, and that doing so involves a leap to faith.  But he nowhere admits that external forces can make us too blind and scared to leap. 

Calvin argued that some people are barred from grace because they are not members of God’s elect.  In my account, God doesn’t choose, but society may.  Consider the following:

  • a lack of love
  • extreme poverty
  • abuse, and even torture
  • severe trauma

All these may close a person within him- or herself, impoverishing the spiritual imagination.  Some people will overcome this adversity; many won’t.  The external practice of religion, such as going to church or synagogue, has relatively little to do with whether one has experienced grace.  Grace is an inner experience that requires external support; it is not demonstrated by ritual, though ritual may help support it.   

One more barrier for the intellectual elite   

There is one more barrier to grace.  An impoverished culture among intellectual elites, some of whom take pride in the destruction of “grand narratives,” as they are called (Lyotard).  Poverty comes in at least two forms: deprivation of love (including the love of neighbors, who fail to notice and care for those in need), and the deprivation imposed by an intellectual culture that destroys the spiritual imagination. 

Tragedy and grace, heaven and hell

In earlier times, people wondered if the pagan, someone who had never heard of the Judeo-Christian God, is doomed to Hell.  It hardly seems fair.  Well, what if we imagine there is no heaven or hell?  Then those who are unable to receive God’s grace live in a tragic world, in which the richness of belief is unavailable.  The is not Calvin’s tragedy of being excluded from the elect.  It is a social and spiritual tragedy, and we ought to recognize what a disaster it is, emptying the world of mystery and faith. This emptying began with the Enlightenment, and has accelerated  in recent years, from faith in reason to faith in nothing.

The obligation of grace

The obligation of grace to which Bonhoeffer refers obligates us to foster ways of life and love that open all of us to the experience of grace.  Not evangelism, but social, intellectual, and economic change on a large scale is needed.  We live in a tragic world, but blindness to grace is primarily a social problem.  Not just a social problem.  Some will be forever closed to the experience, for that is who they are.  But it is the social barriers that we can do something about. 

Doing something about these barriers is how we express our gratitude for grace.  In other words, it is how we become worthy of the gift.


* Paul’s authorship of the Letter to the Ephesians is contested.  Many regard it as Deutero-Pauline, that is a letter written by another who deeply understands Paul’s ideas.  Many believe Paul himself wrote the letter.  I don’t think it makes much difference; the tone and spirit are Paul’s. 


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.  Macmillan, 1963.

Timothy Jackson, Arminian edification: notes on grace and free will, in The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard, edited by Alastair Hannay and Gordon Daniel Marino, pp. 235-256.  Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Søren Kierkegaard, strengthening the inner being, in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, pp 80-101, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong.  Princeton University Press, 1990.

Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love.  Harper Perennial, 2009.

Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi.  University of Minnesota Press, 1984. 


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