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  • The Kierkegaardian Moment:Dialectical Theology and Its Aftermath
  • Hent de Vries

It is common knowledge that Kierkegaard was widely and eagerly read by European theologians of different stripes when in the early 20th century his works became gradually available in translation (into German, French, and then also English). An extensive body of scholarship has been devoted to that reception and to the difficulties that (often inadequate) translations posed for a general readership that was not very familiar with his intellectual background or literary style, much less with the philosophical and theological message he seemed to communicate, if indirectly, by way of numerous pseudonyms and no small amount of posturing, with the help of striking paradox and a near endless variety of Biblical and dramatic parables. Add to this the protracted dialogues and sharp diatribes, portraits and vignettes, intimate journals, actual and fictional letters and what emerges is a singular oeuvre that required extensive interpretative, indeed, dialectical skills and, hence, baffled most audiences.

Not so theologians who, rightly or wrongly, almost immediately recognized in Kierkegaard—the very master of the incognito—a fellow Christian apologist, a witness, martyr, and, perhaps, knight of faith; a modern genius of what we would now (no doubt, well beyond Kierkegaard's own, far from ecumenical, much less inclusivist outlook) call "Abrahamic religion" (cf. Stroumsa).

A significant position in the German reception history and early twentieth-century renaissance or réveille of Kierkegaard's writings is [End Page 1083] taken up by Karl Barth, but also, more generally, by the relatively short-lived movement of so-called dialectical theology—sometimes dubbed the theology of "the Wholly Other," of "the Word of God," but also self-designated as a "theology of crisis"—a school of thought between roughly 1918 and 1932 that is forever associated with Barth's name and the considerable influence he exerted on its original beginnings and, by any standard, most rigorous theoretical formulation.

Barth, arguably the most important Protestant theologian of the twentieth century (and, indeed, unsurpassed in that stature up until the present day), is our best anchor point for any effort to determine what I would like to term here "the Kierkegaardian moment" in Christian theology. No better foil against which to profile Kierkegaard's reception in Protestantism than the remarkable attempts of dialectical theology in its radical attempt to invent as much as resuscitate a stringent—and decidedly Reformed—concept of Biblical, practical, and eventually dogmatic "theology" and to do so from the perspective of "theological existence now." Not accidentally, Theologische Existenz Heute was the programmatic title of a journal, founded in the summer of 1933, by Barth and his friend Eduard Thurneysen (the fellow pastor in whom Barth confided most when he first started the exegetical as well as political revolution in the theological and cultural symbiosis of his days).

The facts are known and I will not dwell on the actual reception history of Kierkegaard's work in Christian theology in this context too long (cf. von Kloeden; Jüngel; Barrett; and Turchin). What interests me here is a systematic, if you like, conceptual point, first of all. All I wish to clarify is what the Kierkegaardian moment in dialectical theology and its aftermath only could be. More precisely, I want to help us understand not only why Barth and so many others were quick to adopt Kierkegaardian language, but then—equally swiftly, with ever greater consistency and consequence—moved also somehow beyond it. This paradoxical given (if that is what we should call it) holds lessons for theology more generally, in its Christian, Protestant varieties and, I suspect, not limited to these. It even tells us something about the reception in theology—and, no doubt, in other theoretical registers as well—of singular motifs and moments that only resemble the impulses that went out from Kierkegaard's writings as they were first perceived, but are not necessarily identical with and, hence, limited to them. After all, if this were not the case there would be little more than historical or documentary interest to the matters at hand. As such, these texts and the controversies they elicited would be of little further theoretical (i.e., theological, philosophical, critical...


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