05/06/2013 09:58 am ET Updated Jul 06, 2013

Happy Birthday, Soren Kierkegaard!


On May 5, 1813, Søren Kierkegaard was born in a well-off home next to city hall in the northern European town of Copenhagen. With a population of only around 200,000, it was nonetheless the cultural and intellectual center of Denmark. He died at the young age of 42, though produced more volumes of writing than most philosophers who lived twice as long. His mother, the former maid of the house, died when he was 21. His father died four years later. Of his six siblings, only one outlived him.

Kierkegaard (or "S.K.," as has philosophical followers have affectionately/lazily dubbed him) has loomed large in modern Western philosophical and religious thinking. Perhaps less of a canonical figure than G.W.F. Hegel and Immanuel Kant, the Great Dane's works have nonetheless found their way woven into fiction and philosophy, especially via that of the 20th-century Existentialists like Heidegger and Sartre. For better or worse, he is often given the label of "father of existentialism." But all this can be found with a few clicks of the Net.

The question that must always be posed to historical figures and the texts they write has to do with relevance: What does S.K. have to say to us today? For me, his difficult and tangled texts led me through the end of my undergraduate studies. His writings about the "authentic individual" conspired with my search for a self that would fit well within a postmodern, post-religious environment. I began to find some answers, however temporary, as a student of philosophy and theology. Critical of "Christendom," S.K. sought a purity of will to seek out the "true" relation to God. This appealed to me. He might have been one of the "spiritual but not religious" types, but I imagine would have disdained the cultural conformity that that movement has now attracted.

As I started through graduate school in my 20s, his outline of "stages on life's way" began to speak to me. The three stages traversed the aesthetic, the ethical, and ultimately the religious stages of being. At the time, I thought of them as existing along a ladder to be climbed, leaving the past behind as one moved from the aesthetic to the ethical to the religious (though I could never tell where I was on the ladder). As I've grown older the "stage" has become less of a time-based term, and more of a theatrical term. All the world's a stage, just as all stage's create their own worlds. We act on each of them, and we are watched and evaluated on each. An individual is never alone, but always part of a larger whole. This led me to a deeper understanding of the implications of S.K.'s work.

In his journals, he once wrote, "personal life does not find its fulfillment in thought alone but in a totality of kinds of existence and modes of expression." Ironically, it was such a statement that has moved me away from philosophy and theology -- away from the head-based approaches to the artistic, poetic, body-bases of reality. Which is not so much to turn the mind-body split on its head, but to dissolve the difference between mind and body. But I had to get out of philosophy, and especially theology, to learn that. It is in embodied existence that we find what S.K. liked to talk about as our telos, our goal, aim, and purpose for living. The religious "stage" does not surpass the aesthetic and ethical so much as encompass them, wrap them up in a grand moving stage of the world.

All that leads to death, a subject for which S.K. had a lot to say. For it is through the reality of death that we can achieve what he called an "anthropological contemplation." The acceptance of our impending death leads to a deeper drinking of the fountain of life. It leads away from what one of his psychoanalytic followers, Ernest Becker, termed the "denial of death," and toward a truthful life.

And so, when I arrived in Copenhagen for the first time with a friend, it was not to the home of S.K.'s birth that we set out, but to his gravestone.