Soren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a Danish literary author, philosopher, and theologian whose work has had an abiding influence on philosophy, especially existentialism and postmodernism in the 20th century. His wide-ranging thought focuses largely on points where theological explication of the Christian faith and philosophical investigation of concrete human existence intersect and inform one another. Throughout his authorship, Kierkegaard proposed different understandings of existential (and theological) human temporality— how the human individual dwells and relates to himself or herself and the eternal order in the midst of time.
For Kierkegaard, time itself is a fluid and infinite succession of discrete points that are passing by. This succession is one of ceaseless quantity that spreads out extensively. Temporality, taken as signifying the temporal domain, is characterized in Kierkegaard’s work as a realm of plurality (difference) and becoming (movement). This becoming is not a necessary one. All finite, temporal actuality for Kierkegaard is contingent; it could have been another way if another possibility had been actualized. (It is for this reason that human understanding or knowledge of events in time, in history, involves an irreducible uncertainty due to the contingent status of its objects.) In the midst of this fleeting impermanence, any given moment in time—from the perspective of time alone—is an infinite vanishing, a nothing. Considering time as such, there is no present and thus no past or future. There is only the infinite succession. The differentiation and distinction into present, past, and future only arises in the relation of time to another order—to the eternal.
The temporal, for Kierkegaard, is understood in contradistinction and dialectical relation to the eternal. Generally, the eternal is presented as an eternal present—a present in full in which the relative succession of time is annulled. (For Kierkegaard, in a sense, the present is eternal before it is temporal.) “The eternal,” while it is used in various ways throughout Kierkegaard’s authorship, refers more specifically to the transcendent God and that which has to do with one’s relation to him (such as one’s moral ideals and one’s future life beyond death). Kierkegaard presents God as the source of ethical-religious stability in human existence that, in himself, transcends the temporal order (see below). As opposed to the ancient Greek intellectual conception (in Kierkegaard’s estimation) of eternity in the form of abstract ideas, Kierkegaard affirms the Judeo-Christian “eternal” of a personal creator God who transcends history and yet actively relates to it—in its origin (creation), its progression (guiding and interacting), and its consummation. It is the divine eternal that makes time into something like unified narrative.
Following the Judeo-Christian understanding, Kierkegaard understands the eternal God as creating the temporal-finite order out of nothing. This created temporal realm is that of “existence”—of what has come to be in contingent finite-historical becoming, for the temporal realm as a whole, as freely created by God, could have been otherwise. In Kierkegaard’s writings, existence is primarily discussed as the realm of ethical coming-to-be, of human existence and self-becoming.
The existing human being, for Kierkegaard, is a synthesis of the temporal and the eternal. The human at once dwells in time and relates to the eternal in the moment—a point in the succession of time at which an individual comes into contact with something of an order other than the finite- temporal. The moment is where the “present” of the eternal relates to time (where there is no present as such) in human consciousness. In the moment, time is meaningful (is more than mere succession) inasmuch as it relates to a transcendent order. It is only now that temporality—in terms of present, past, or future—is truly posited.
In Kierkegaard’s anthropology, the existing human self is an identity that is actively produced in and through time. Human living and temporality are understood in terms of repetition—the project of trying to make of one’s life something of the eternal, the stable, the abiding. For Kierkegaard, “aesthetic” repetition, the attempt to make pleasurable experiences permanent, fails because of the discontinuous and contingent nature of time. In ethical-religious repetition, however, one attempts to forge an identity through the discontinuity and becoming of time. In moral commitment, one seeks to establish a continuity over time—a continuity of temporal moments relating to the eternal—in which one becomes a self by relating to the eternal, ultimately to God. Here the unity of the self comes to be in the midst of the instability of time relative to something stable transcending time. The willing of one thing (God, the good, the eternal) in the midst of the plurality of one’s temporal life makes one into one—into one thing—into a self.
The problem in establishing this self as a continuity over time is that of sin, of moral failure. When one considers the moral task of repetition along with the possibility of freedom, one encounters a psychological state of anxiety regarding the possibility of sin, of moral failure. Anxiety, for Kierkegaard, specifically relates to dwelling in time. For anxiety has to do with the human spirit’s awareness of itself as free, as being able to actualize various non-necessary possibilities in the future—namely with the possibility of moral failure. Anxiety has to do with the tension in the synthesis of the self between our dwelling in time as finite beings and our “spiritual” relating of our finite lives to the eternal. Our freedom to act (in relation to the eternal, rightly or wrongly) and our responsibility for our actions incites anxiety over the very real possibility of failure—a kind of dizziness of freedom. In such a failure, one fails to relate to God and to relate to one’s self as a dependent being-in-relation to God—not wanting to be what one is, failing to be a self.
Kierkegaard, as a kind of Christian theologian, affirms the incarnation of the eternal God in the historical person of Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, the incarnate God-man, there inheres a paradoxical unity of the eternal and the temporal, the divine and the human. The eternal entered into time in order both to save humanity by reconciling individuals to the eternal as a gift and to provide a prototype of the eternal moral character of God in a human life. The human individual comes into contact with this event of the eternal in time in the moment of Christian salvation. As at once a supreme if not archetypical instance of the ethical moment (see above) and an analogue of the incarnation, the moment of Christian salvation is a moment in time that has eternal significance. Kierkegaard observes that in this intensive moment of relating to Christ in salvation inheres the paradox that something eternal (one’s eternal salvation) can be decided in time. Kierkegaard writes that it is quite understandable that this is something that does not “make sense” in the order of temporality alone—that a moment can be more than merely one moment among moments. In the moment of the possibility of one’s salvation, one meets the moment of the incarnation with faith or offense. In faith, one believes and accepts that in Christ the eternal to which one has failed to attain a proper and consistent relationship in one’s temporal life has come into time and given itself to one as a gift. In this moment of receiving the gift of salvation, there is a contemporaneity with Christ—for, in the moment of faith, the moment of the incarnate Christ’s being in history is “present” to one. Through the gift of Christ and the example of his life, one can attain an identity that is not a mere aggregate of equivocal points of time in succession—one can become a self in relation to God.
Christopher Ben Simpson
See also Becoming and Being; Christianity; Eternity;
Existentialism; God and Time
Evans, C. S. (1983). Kierkegaard’s Fragments and Postscript: The religious philosophy of Johannes Climacus. Atlantic Heights, NJ: Humanities Press.
Kierkegaard, S. A. (1980). The concept of anxiety
(R. Thomte, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press. (Original work published 1844)
Kierkegaard, S. A. (1985). Philosophical fragments and Johannes Climacus (H. V. Hong & E. H. Hong, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.