First Response Paper for Existentialism and Atheism: Kierkegaard among the other Existentialists


In order to respond affirmatively to the question raised in class recently of whether or not existentialism is relevant to the contemporary situation, one need only look to recent motion pictures like The Dark Night.   Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent states rather despondently in the film, “Either you die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”  Thomas Hibbs rightly insists that, “the Joker espouses a nihilist philosophy concerning the arbitrariness of the code of morality in civilized society; it is but a thin veneer, a construct intended for our consolation.”[i]

For starters, reading someone like Fyodor Dostoevsky, one would notice the brutal honesty, the disgust for hypocrisy,[ii] and even further his indulgence in the freedom to defy reason with remarks such as the following: “I know better than any one that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else.  But still, if I don’t consult a doctor it is from spite.  My liver is bad, well – let it get worse!”[iii] It’s almost as if one can hear Jim Carey in these words as Truman in the Truman Show mocking the “God” of his world and saying, “Is that the best you can do?”  One could also call attention to the movie Fight Club to find an embodiment of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. Brad Pitt who plays the character Tyler Durden commented that the major theme running throughout underlined “the need to push through the walls we put around ourselves and just go for it, so for the first time we can experience the pain.”[iv] It’s like when Dostoevsky says, “corporal punishment is better than nothing.”[v] The protagonist and nameless narrator played by Edward Norton observes that “the fighting between the men strips away the fear of pain and the reliance on material signifiers of their self-worth, leaving them to experience something valuable.”[vi] The final message in Fight Club is deliberately ambiguous in nature and intended to leave the interpretation open for the viewers.[vii] Amidst the ambiguity, however, one might discover such themes highlighted as the critique of image-management, the deceptive nature of advertisement, the exposure of materialism’s empty promise to provide happiness, and the failure of human beings in general to live vigorously as a consequence of fear.


Like the aforementioned films, what each of the authors surveyed in the course thus far share in common is not just their coming to a point of despair, but the explicit realization of this despair.  Beyond that, there are of course other themes held in common between Jaspers, Sartre, Ortega, Rilke, Kafka, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Camus and Kierkegaard: a tendency “to stress the freedom, precariousness, and even absurdity of the human situation, along with the responsibility of the individual to define herself or himself through action.”[viii] In their work Walter Kaufman locates the heart of existentialism as “the refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life.”[ix]

An overwhelming experience of uncertainty leads Rilke’s character in The Notes of Malte Laurids Brigge for example to take refuge by reciting a poem monotonously just to become fixated on something stable.[x] Kafka’s parable “Before the Law” reveals his sentiment that something can be accepted as necessary without inevitably being true.  In other words, the individual defines what is valuable.  Ortega would say that a person “has to make his own existence at every single moment,”[xi] and that “man is what has happened to him, what he has done.”[xii] This is because, as free beings, humans live in “constitutive instability.”[xiii] Maybe most emblematically, the state and behavior of the character Pablo at the end of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “The Wall” is a far cry from any noble adherence to a traditional religious or moral system, as Pablo has reached a point at once of impenetrable apathy and arbitrary obstinacy.[xiv] The only valor for him from this moment onward (indeed, after, and presumably in all subsequent moments) is derived from the nerve of pure, self-willed and independent individuo-determination.


In what could be more than a slight contrast, with Kierkegaard the reader might detect a trace of idiosyncrasy.  Is he the anomaly of the group?  While it is rightly put forth that those whom are deemed existentialists hold widely divergent doctrines and worldviews, is it possible for these doctrines and worldviews to be so easily filtered out, leaving such a pure, collective existentialist dogma to designate all of these writers and thinkers as unified and distinguished?  There appears to be something very foundational about Kierkegaard’s absurd postulations, which would count him in the ranks of a far removed camp from the vein of Nietzsche and some of the others.  While Kierkegaard’s thought is obviously foreshadowing and consistent with some of the chief concerns of modern existentialism delineated above, it seems that Kierkegaard is at the same time offering a radical critique of the notion of existentialism as it is demonstrated, for instance, by Jim Carey in the movie The Truman Show; namely in his suggestion that, to use Kierkegaard’s language, defiance of relationship with the Author, despite the appeal, leads to the highest despair – expressly, an inauthentic relationship to self because of a refusal/protest to be oneself, or otherwise said, an impossible demand to be oneself (to be absolute ruler of self, which actually results in ruling nothing).[xv] It is as if Truman is saying in the words of Kierkegaard, “No, I will not be erased, I will stand as a witness against you, a witness to the fact that you are a second-rate author.”[xvi] Truman as the one who defies “does not want to don his own self, does not want to see his task in his given self, he wants by virtue of being in the infinite form [his own God], to construct it himself.”[xvii] According to Kierkegaard with regard to Truman, “What is required of him is to let go of this torment, that is, to humble himself under it in faith and take it on him as part of the self.”[xviii]


When Kierkegaard distinguishes between a less mature stage of despair as unawareness of despair or unconsciousness of the self, and the higher form despair as “before God,” he implies that the higher form of despair, though it might be seen as “blessedness,” almost makes the person in despair more culpable.  In this more culpable stage, the person is either constituted by a posture toward God of reluctance or refusal.  In the former case, the self does not wish to be oneself.  In the latter, and dialectically, the self decides exactly to be oneself – only here “being oneself” implies a refusal to stand before God and acknowledge complete dependence.  This highest state of despair is characterized by defiance (Truman).

The toil is only beginning once despair is brought into the light, and the despair is even worse when one comes to understand it as her real condition.  One can never just be.  Everyone is either becoming more or less of a self, says Kierkegaard.  Becoming more of a self (by the self relating correctly to the potential self) is a tremendous struggle.  It requires death to self, another absurd facet of the proposal.  Merold Westphal notes that Kierkegaard “is not the individualist he has often been taken to be.  He has a dialectical concept of the self as essentially relational.”[xix] The self, according to his definition, is “a relation that relates itself to itself and in relating itself to itself to another.”[xx] The “another” aspect of the relationship is what becomes so focal.


In the analysis of Kristen Johnson, she is concerned that “though one can understand the proclivity of existentialism to draw upon the work of Kierkegaard, given his concern for selfhood and existence, it is unclear that those philosophers and thinkers who have invoked him have adequately accounted for the foundational role of sin in his thought.”[xxi] Obviously for Jaspers, as Kaufman states, the differences between Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are far less important than the similarities.[xxii] In fact, as Kaufman also points out, Jaspers “dismisses Kierkegaard’s “forced Christianity” no less than Nietzsche’s “forced anti-Christianity” as relatively unimportant.”[xxiii] But is this the most appropriate rendering?  Certainly the extent to which these two major figures write from such a seemingly shared existential experience is fascinating, and clearly there is a remarkable correspondence provided the fact that they did so independently, but can one so quickly draw the conclusion that their resemblance rather than their distinction is most noteworthy?

It is critical for the reader to remember Kierkegaard’s statement: “how infinitely silly is the behavior of those who have defended Christianity by removing the offense.”[xxiv] Hence, it should follow that the interpreter of Kierkegaard likewise take special caution not to remove the offensiveness in Kierkegaard’s claim that, while anyone might come to knowledge of despair, only the Christian (the one before God and Christ) can, because of revelation, know despair as sin.[xxv] It is precisely this imperative feature that is so influential for later, modern reformed thinkers like Karl Barth.  This absolute paradox, however unthinkable, is still the reason Kierkegaard is so dissimilar to the others.  While he aspires to reject rationality at one level, this move is nonetheless permissible; for that which one cannot think can still be the subject of one’s thought.[xxvi] There are those like Stephen C. Evans who see this step by Kierkegaard as falling short of fideism, but others sharply criticize this view and accuse Evans of being unfaithful to Kierkegaard and his radical “leap of faith” postulation.[xxvii] Westphal for instance, and perhaps somewhat offensively as well, considers Kierkegaard’s distinction between the Christian and non-Christian experience of despair to be “illuminating”[xxviii] and “bold in freeing us from intimidation by secular appeals to reason.”[xxix]

At least from the perspective of a Christian in Kierkegaard’s case, could there be a more significant point of departure than from that point which separates the Christian from the non-Christian?  This is not to neglect of course the unique and authentic manor with which Kierkegaard and Nietzsche each represent their respective positions as Christian and non-Christian.  Furthermore, Kierkegaard might be the first to criticize such a simplistic disparity as the one just mentioned (between Christian and non-Christian), as he himself admits elsewhere that the worship of a pagan might be more faithful than the worship of a given Danish Christian.[xxx] Nevertheless, is not the critical gap evident between the leap of faith that Kierkegaard says one must take to obtain true selfhood and the divergent, albeit equally decided path of Nietzsche’s nihilism?  Indeed, it may very well be true that even for Kierkegaard, what Nietzsche achieves for himself is no less than some substantial degree of authentic selfhood compared to those who find themselves (or don’t “find” themselves) in a less developed stage of despair.  Would this be to say very much about Nietzsche’s accomplishments, however, at least from the point of view of Kierkegaard, when one considers how sharply Kierkegaard criticized his society full of supposed Christians?  Kierkegaard might even say of Nietzsche’s thinking that, “just because it is very close to the truth, it is infinitely far away”[xxxi] (italics added).


Kierkegaard explains that someone who is in love would not feel the need to “defend” the reason why, or prove that he or she is in love, and so it should be with the Christian.[xxxii] Instead of relying on proof or reason, faith comes as a result of a revelation from God.  But several inquiries might be raised this point.  Firstly, what Kierkegaard has described thus far begs the question of what kind of knowledge or state exactly is necessary to receive this revelation and move from a stage of unawareness of self to a stage of awareness of self.  Indeed, he says that only the Christian can understand sin.  And yet paradoxically it is entirely the responsibility of the individual to realize this sin.  For Kierkegaard, and by extension, for traditional Christian faith, sin is not merely ignorance of the good, as Socrates suggests.  This is the lie of the world according to Kierkegaard.  At the same time, sin in the unaware self is hardly sin in the strictest Christian sense of the term.  This person does not knowingly stand before God.  Theologically speaking, then, are there any soteriological conclusions to be drawn from this text?  What is the phenomenology for the reception of this revelation?

Even without looking to other works of Kierkegaard, there are implicit hints here of what might be considered an early expression of inclusivism toward the non-Christian on the basis of some kind of existential realization or self-actualization.  It might even be tempting to read into Kierkegaard a prefiguring of the Rahnerian “anonymous Christian” doctrine, but based on this text alone, that would perhaps be premature.  One mustn’t criticize, however, Kierkegaard’s limited horizon given the context within which he wrote, for his mission was primarily to challenge Danish Christendom and evoke repentance therein.  His historical setting could hardly be labeled pluralistic in any present-day sense of the term.  So while the material in The Sickness Unto Death is inconclusive, the possibility remains, however speculative, of conducting an explicitly Kierkegaardian and existential soteriology of the non-Christian from the Christian perspective.

[i] Thomas S. Hibbs, “Christopher Nolan’s Achievement: The Dark Night,” On the Square, July 22, 2008,


[ii] Walter Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (Plume, 1975), 81.

[iii] Ibid., 54.

[iv] “’Club’ fighting for a respectful place in life,” Post-Tribune, March 15, 2001.

[v] Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, 78.

[vi] Stephen Schaefer, “Brad Pitt & Edward Norton,” (October 1999),

[vii] Graham Fuller, D Eidelman, and JG Thomson, “Fighting Talk,” [[Interview (magazine)|Interview]] 24, no. 5 (November 1999): 1071–7.

[viii] C. Stephen Evans, Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics & Philosophy of Religion (Intervarsity Press, 2010).

[ix] Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, 12.

[x] Ibid., 141.

[xi] Ibid., 153.

[xii] Ibid., 157.

[xiii] Ibid., 156.

[xiv] Ibid., 298.

[xv] Louis H. Mackey, “Deconstructing the self : Kierkegaard’s Sickness unto death.,” Anglican Theological Review 71, no. 2 (March 1, 1989): 158.

[xvi] Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition of Edification & Awakening by Anti-Climacus (Penguin Classics, 1989), 105.

[xvii] Ibid., 99.

[xviii] Ibid., 110.

[xix] Merold Westphal, “Levinas, Kierkegaard, and the theological task.,” Modern Theology 8, no. 3 (July 1, 1992): 252.

[xx] Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, 43.

[xxi] Kristen Deede Johnson, “The infinite qualitative difference: sin, the self, and revelation in the thought of Søren Kierkegaard,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 53, no. 1 (February 1, 2003): 43.

[xxii] Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, 23.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, 116.

[xxv] Johnson, “The infinite qualitative difference,” 42.

[xxvi] Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being: Hors-Texte (University Of Chicago Press, 1995), 46.

[xxvii] William N A Greenway, “Faith beyond reason: a Kierkegaardian account,” Christian Century 117, no. 25 (S  -20  2000 13, 2000): 922-924; Douglas Hedley, “Faith beyond reason: a Kierkegaardian account,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 2, no. 2 (July 1, 2000): 233-234.

[xxviii] M. Westphal, “Kierkegaard’s Fragments and Postscript: The Religious Philosophy of Johannes Climacus,” Reformed Journal 34, no. 10 (October 1, 1984): 22.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript 1 : Kierkegaard’s Writings, Vol 12.1 (Princeton University Press, 1992), 559.

[xxxi] Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, 98.

[xxxii] Ibid., 134.