D. Anthony Storm's Commentary on Kierkegaard

Fifth Period: Direct Communication (1848-51)

An Open Letter to Dr. Rudelbach

  • An Open Letter, Prompted by a Reference to Me by Dr. Rudelbach
  • Foranlediget ved en Yttring af Dr. Rudelbach mig betræffende
  • 1851, January 31
  • KW13, SKS13, Fædrelandet 26

This article is quite revelatory of Kierkegaard's position on Christianity. It was published on January 31, 1851. Andreas Gottlob Rudelbach (1792-1862), with N. F. S. Grundtvig, who had been officially censured in Denmark, began a publication in 1825 entitled Theologisk Maanedsskrift (Theological Monthly). This publication, with its assault on rationalism, appealed to H. L. Martensen, whom Kierkegaard would later oppose openly. But sensing that this alignment would be prohibitive, Rudelbach broke away from Grundtvig. Rudelbach later became pastor of St. Mikkels, Slagelse, Sjælland, Denmark. In his writings he propounded reformation of the church. While Kierkegaard surely noted the need for reformation of the church, he objected to Rudelbach because he suggested political means of reformation, whereas Kierkegaard would later write that the church needs to be dismantled and rebuilt anew on spiritual terms. In both the attack on The Corsair and his later attack on the Danish Church (see Articles from the Fatherland), Kierkegaard began the assault.

Rudelbach had used the term "habitual Christianity" to refer to a weakened and thoughtless ecclesiology. Kierkegaard used this term too, and agreed that reformation is needed. But he rejected Rudelbach's method.

I am a hater of "habitual Christianity". This is true. I hate habitual Christianity in whatever form it appears. I would like particular notice to be made of this "in whatever form", for habitual Christianity can indeed have many forms. And if there were no other choice, if the choice were only between the sort of habitual Christianity which is a secular-minded thoughtlessness that nonchalantly goes on living in the illusion of being Christian, perhaps without ever having any impression of Christianity, and the kind of habitual Christianity which is found in the sects, the enthusiasts, the super-orthodox, the schismatics—if worse comes to worst, I would choose the first. The first kind has still taken Christianity in vain only in a thoughtless and negative way, if on the whole it may be judged even that rigorously. The second kind has taken Christianity in vain perhaps out of spiritual pride, but in any case in a positive way. One could almost be tempted to smile at the first kind, because there is hope; the second makes one shudder. But, as stated, it is true that I am a hater of habitual Christianity (p. 52).

When Kierkegaard later formally attacked the church, he would no longer be tempted to "smile" on the former type of habitual Christianity. He demanded total deconstruction.

Therefore I can have no objection if our learned theologian, Dr. Rudelbach, says something like this [that he is a hater of habitual Christianity]; on the contrary, I would even thank him for it.... The only thing I wish in this matter is that in the future he would not associate that misleading term "emancipation" with my efforts, and the only thing I might fear is that, after I have said this myself, it will become a literary cliché to write that I am a hater of habitual Christianity (p. 52).

Kierkegaard maintained that all reformation that is politically motivated and appropriated is unacceptable. There must be separation of church and state.

There is nothing about which I have greater misgivings than all that even slightly tastes of this disastrous confusion of politics and Christianity, a confusion which can very easily bring about a new kind and mode of Church-reformation, a reverse reformation which in the name of reformation puts something new and worse in place of something old and better, although it is still supposed to be an honest-to-goodness reformation, which is then celebrated by floodlighting the entire city. Christianity is inwardness, inward deepening. If at a given time the forms under which one has to live are not the most perfect, if they can be improved, in God's name do so. But essentially Christianity is inwardness (p. 53).

In his later attack upon the Church Kierkegaard emphatically denied being a reformer, and often lamented that it was a sin to want to be a reformer, because self-proclaimed reformers lacked authority from God. He does allow, however, that someone could be qualified for the task.

If this faith in the saving power of politically achieved free institutions belongs to true Christianity, then I am no Christian, or even worse, I am a regular child of Satan, because, frankly, I am indeed suspicious of these politically achieved free institutions, especially of their saving, renewing power.... Altogether different prophets are needed for this, or, quite simply, this task ought to be entrusted to those who are regularly appointed and trained for such things.... Just as I regard it as an illusion for someone to imagine that it is external conditions and forms which hinder him in becoming a Christian, so it is also the same illusion if someone imagines that external conditions and forms will help him become a Christian.... Christianity...is infinitely higher and infinitely freer than all institutions, constitutions, etc. (p. 54).

In a postscript to this letter Kierkegaard again clarifies his purpose.

I have only provided, poetically, what may be called an existential-corrective to the established order, oriented toward inward deepening in "the single individual"—that is, I am positive I have never directed one word against the teaching and the organization of the established order, but I have worked to make this teaching more and more the truth in "the single individual.".And in order to prevent any misunderstanding I have aimed polemically throughout this whole undertaking at "the crowd," the numerical, also at the besetting sin of our time, self-appointed reformation and the falsifications along this line (p. 56).

Here is Kierkegaard's final note.

If it is a matter of conscience, it must be fought out in this way. If it is not a matter of conscience, then it becomes something entirely different. Christianity means precisely this: in self-concern to develop an indifference toward externals (p. 59).