Connecting the Crises: The Danish Constitution of June 1849 and Søren Kierkegaard’s “Attack on Christendom”

Julie K Allen

Abstract


The tendency of 20th century French and German philosophers to claim Søren Kierkegaard as the “Father of Existentialism” has largely obscured not only Kierkegaard’s Danish identity but also the influential, though oblique, role he played in mid-19th century Danish society and politics. Although many of the pseudonymous texts from his early period offer veiled satirical critiques of particular individuals and institutions in Danish society, Kierkegaard’s final literary accomplishment, the series of articles known collectively as the “Attack on Christendom” (1854-55), presents his most sweeping indictment of Danish society, a critique of the unity of state and church that had been an integral part of Denmark’s political structure for nearly a thousand years. The death and subsequent hagiographic treatment of Bishop J.P. Mynster is generally identified as having provided the impetus for Kierkegaard’s diatribe, but it is no coincidence that his work appeared just a few years after the establishment of religious freedom in Article 81 of the June Constitution of 1849. However, scholars have been slow to make the connection between Kierkegaard’s brilliantly insightful and stylistically masterful last work and the societal upheaval that both gave rise to and followed the granting of this fundamental civil right. In this paper, I examine Kierkegaard’s evolving view of the governmental regulation of religious belief and practice, both as it impinges upon his personal life and as it manifests itself in his literary texts, particularly, but not exclusively, the “Attack on Christendom.” Far from being an ivory-tower intellectual with little interest in or contact with the common people of Denmark, Kierkegaard was passionately invested in the temporal and spiritual affairs of his countrymen and he used his literary talents to challenge both establishment practices and received truths. While his contributions to existentialist philosophy are undeniably important, his legacy of using literature to critique and reshape social norms is equally significant.

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