We are always running into people who describe themselves as “very spiritual, though not religious.” Usually it is just a virtue signal. They are either flaunting their exceptional intellectual integrity that disdains superstition, or the fuzzy piety manifested in their vegan lifestyle and large collection of crystals.
Because the word “spirituality” is burdened with such connotations, I opened Professor Evans’ book, Kierkegaard and Spirituality (henceforward KS), expecting to damn it with a few dismissive words. That expectation grew firmer as I read the preface and the first few pages of Chapter 1. “Spiritual” and “spirituality” were used incessantly, without any attempt to pluck a meaning from the weedy semantic field in which they lie.
The first paragraph of this present review was the salvo with which I intended to launch a speedy demolition of the book. That was then.
In the review I am actually writing, that salvo figures instead as my only objection to this illuminating account of Kierkegaard’s philosophy – the best I have ever come across. Evans has adopted an empirical approach to the meaning of spirituality in Kierkegaard. He constructs the meaning as one might a building. Sentence by sentence, he goes about it, page by page, chapter after chapter, the whole length of this lucid, jargon-free and exciting account of Kierkegaard’s thought. Step by step he shows us what he (and Kierkegaard) mean by “spirituality” and why it is important that we know.
No critique of the current abuse of “spirituality” appears until the construction project is complete. But the need for such a critique is not forgotten. It is addressed on p. 200, when Evans has finished explaining what he calls “Kierkegaard’s relational understanding of spirituality.” “That understanding contrasts sharply,” he says,
…with the kind of individualist view of spirituality that has become popular in our culture. It is common to view spirituality as a kind of individual choice, something that the individual creates and develops on his or her own. There are many forms of spirituality on offer, and indeed, on this view, spirituality becomes something like a consumer choice.
By the time you reach page 200, Evans has equipped you to see for yourself how empty this vague consumer version of spirituality looks, when contrasted with Kierkegaard’s profound and noble account of Christian spiritual life. The critique of consumer spirituality, slowly arrived at and merely implicit for much of the way, is more searching than would have been the analytic one I was hoping for in the opening pages It is worth waiting for the real thing, but its total absence early on will bother some readers.
Once he gets going, Evans writes clearly and explains Kierkegaard’s thought without falling into his bizarre technical vocabulary. Nor does he lose his way among the innumerable eccentric personalities and noms de plume under which Kierkegaard is pleased to write. Many Kierkegaard scholars do go astray in these thickets, never to be seen again this side of ordinary English.
Evans is exceptional. Where necessary, he will explain Kierkegaard’s terminology and account for the pseudonyms, but mainly he constructs a convincing account of Kierkegaard’s philosophy in plain, neutral, philosophically informed, English. Sometimes scholarly language has to be dealt with, and philosophical subtleties need to be explained. Sometimes different legitimate interpretations must be considered. Evans passes these tests with honours. He plainly states the evidence that persuades other scholars, alongside the evidence he finds more persuasive. The reader is brought up to speed, without being badgered.
KS is a masterpiece of concision. The whole Kiekegaardian oeuvre is taken into account in its 203 pages. As we make our exciting way along, the focus narrows to human spirituality, made distinctive by the freedom with which we are endowed. Our freedom, though not absolute, sets us apart from other natural things. It commands us to become a human person and enables us to do so.
Self-definition is a posture we strike in relation to other things; it is “a relation we pursue to some ideal that is outside the self.” Many false ideals may attract us. They are idols which cannot give us satisfaction. “Genuine spirituality always involves a relation to an ideal that is truly divine.” However when God enters our life it is not as our equal. We use our freedom to become “accountable” to God for the use we make of it. Hence the subtitle of KS: Accountability as the Meaning of Human Existence.
“The task of becoming a self is transformed,” Evans writes, “when a person encounters God as the incarnate Christ. At that point we begin to live before “a historical person, someone who makes clear demands on those who would be his followers. The task of human selfhood is itself given new meaning and value by the fact that God became a human self.”
The last chapter of KS is devoted to the bitter turn Kierkegaard took in his final years and final writings. They seem less a completion of his philosophy, than a sneering abandonment of it. Kierkegaard encumbers Christian life with such harsh demands that he can assure his reader that not a single Dane qualifies.
Evans calls the work of this final period “attack literature.” He is critical of it, but he shows his quality as a commentator in the tenderness of his critique. “I conclude,” he writes, “that the attack literature, rather than being the culmination of Kierkegaard’s authorship, should be viewed as an unfortunate aberration. It describes a form of spirituality that is really incompatible with the spirituality found in Kierkegaard’s authorship up to that point.”
It is hard to read Kierkegaard without an informative and careful guide. This book is such a guide.