Kierkegaard is never more lyrical than when writing about the beauty of creation. Throughout his authorship, there are numerous passages where he waxes poetic on the natural world, whether it be on the colors of an autumn scene, a sunset, or a moonlit evening.
At the same time, he also thinks that the beauty of creation runs much deeper than the attractions that appear on its surface. Beauty is not decided by the eye of the beholder; it is not simply measured by one’s aesthetic sensibilities. For Kierkegaard, there is a reality to the beauty of creation; it has existence independent of the human imagination.
The Existence of Beauty
So how can beauty be said to have existence? Such a suggestion can seem very odd to the modern scientific mind. Following the Enlightenment, “reality” has become wedded to physical phenomena. In Kierkegaard’s day, the astounding success of modern science led empirical reason to be placed on a pedestal that was hard to question. This fuelled an incredible optimism in the capacity of the empirical sciences to make sense of reality.
For Kierkegaard, however, there is much more to reality than meets the empirical eye. Hidden from the observable cladding of this world, lives God, who creates the cosmos not only with physical order but alsoIn order to know who we truly are, for Kierkegaard, we must come to know the one who orders us with moral order and aesthetic order. When the world is created out of nothing, God orders it in a plurality of ways that define both what it is and what it should be.
For example, human beings are not only created to function as living organisms—organisms which can be explained in terms of “the nervous system and the system of ganglia and the circulation of blood.”Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard’s Journals an Notebooks, vol. 4, ed. by Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, Alastair Hannay, David Kangas, Bruce H. Kirmmse, George Pattison, Vanessa Rumble, and K. Brian Söderquist (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 60. They are also created to be persons who love God with all their hearts and souls and minds. This is not merely an ideal way to be human; it is the real way to be human. To use the words of Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Anti-Climacus, God’s creative purposes determine what it means to be a “vital” and “healthy” self, in every walk of life.Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, ed. and trans. Howard V. and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 7-8. By belonging to God “not by birth but by creation out of nothing,” we “belong to God in every thought, the most hidden; in every feeling, the most secret; in every movement, the most inward.”Kierkegaard, Works of Love, ed. and trans. Howard V. and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 115.
Now, while this might be how the world was created to be, it is not how it currently exists. Creation has fallen into disorder and we have become forgetful of our createdness. We confuse our lives before God with our lives before creation. We view creation as something we are free to define for ourselves, with our own wild imaginations. And when we do so, we pretend to be something we are not; we deceive ourselves. We become master pretenders—to borrow a term from the folk band First Aid Kit.
In order to know who we truly are, for Kierkegaard, we must come to know the one who orders us; and we must become ordered by the power that establishes us. This happens when “the self in being itself and in willing to be itself rests transparently in God.”Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, ed. and trans. Howard V. and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 82. To clarify, this is not a universal feeling of absolute dependence; Kierkegaard firmly resisted the Schleiermacherian Romanticism that was so influential in his day. For him, the presence of God is not immediately accessible to us, but is something we need to be given to know by being reborn from above, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Not only is this required to know God, in truth; it also required to know creation in truth. It is only on the ground of God’s transformative presence that we can become faithfully attentive to the aesthetic order and can start to notice the real beauty that surrounds us.
In short, real beauty is the objective quality of those things that are pleasing to properly ordered aesthetic sensibilities. This means, therefore, that real beauty can only be noticed when our aesthetic sensibilities are functioning in the way they were created to function. For this to begin to happen in this present world, there needs to be a correctionOne could say that we need to become aesthetic scientists. That is, we must seek to know beauty for what it is, according to the terms of the Creator. of our aesthetic intuitions. Against the Romanticisms of his day, Kierkegaard was insistent that we need to learn to see beauty in a new way.
By the renewing of our minds, we must look beyond our lustful infatuation and immediate enchantment with surface adornments and come to perceive beauty for what it really is—beyond our immediate sense of beauty. One could say that we need to become aesthetic scientists. That is, we must seek to know beauty for what it is, according to the terms of the Creator.
In this present world, this could mean many things. At the very least, it means that we must come to interpret beauty with the proper optical aid. We require the eyes of faith; so we must pray “Veni creator spiritus” (“Come Creator Spirit”), with the hope that the Creator might begin to awaken us to see creation for what it is. But, given our current blindness, our aesthetic perception must also be aided by the words of Scripture. It is by God’s Word and Spirit, that our aesthetic method and practice can become attuned to the reality of beauty.
To think further about this, let’s turn to Kierkegaard’s theology of beauty.
Kierkegaard on Real Beauty
The first thing to clarify is that Kierkegaard does not deny that the surface beauty of creation (phenomenal beauty) can be a part of real beauty. It is possible for elements of real beauty to be appreciated by both natural sentiment and faithful contemplation. The two are not necessarily incompatible. At the same time, he also thinks that there can be a real ugliness to a scene that might, at first glance, be phenomenally beautiful—as can there be a real beauty to a scene that might, at first glance, be phenomenally ugly.
Imagine, for example, a scene in which a couple are enjoying a starlit night, luxuriating on a superyacht, tasting the most exquisite of cuisines, and enjoying the finest of wines. From a Kierkegaardian perspective, there could be two ways to interpret what this scene tells us about the world.
First, one could respond in the following way:
Beautiful—indescribably beautiful—when the moonlit winter night is strangely like a fairy tale, a poem, or when the stars on a dark night twinkle in the enormous arch of the sky, or when echo waits in the still night for something to break the silence so that it can have the joy of echoing! Beautiful—rapturously beautiful, who can keep from surrendering to it—beautiful, to gaze out over the ocean, far, far into the distance, this distance which continually, captivatingly remains distance and continually seems to beckon you, so close that it invites you to let your gaze follow—into the distance.Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard’s Journals an Notebooks, vol. 4, ed. by Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, Alastair Hannay, David Kangas, Bruce H. Kirmmse, George Pattison, Vanessa Rumble, and K. Brian Söderquist (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 5033.
But, after writing these words on the beauty of creation, Kierkegaard asks: “is this looking at the world from a Christian point of view?”Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers, vol. 4, ed. and trans. Howard V. and Edna H. Hong (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967-78), 5033. He then offers a second alternative response, seeking to expose the ways in which we can be so very confused about the beauty of creation:
Look now at the world, the human world—is it not a beautiful world, a splendid world. A splendid world, where man, created in the image of God, essentially lives to eat, drink, accumulate money—in short, occupies himself with the things which make him forget that he is created in the image of God.Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers, vol. 4, ed. and trans. Howard V. and Edna H. Hong (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967-78), 5033
Again, to be completely clear, Kierkegaard does not deny that a Christian can interpret a moonlit night, a starry sky, an ocean view as beautiful. What concerns him is when such a scene is perceived as encapsulating “beauty”—in a way that can distract from any underlying ugliness, or which can lead us to overlook a deeper beauty. Kierkegaard was incredibly sensitive as to how easy it is for us to become enraptured and mesmerized by a worldly beauty that can lead us astray.
Beauty and the Natural Sciences
So, what does beauty have to do with the natural sciences? Kierkegaard does not directly address this question. But let me follow a Kierkegaardian line of thought to suggest something that he might have said—something that may be provocative in some circles.
Insofar as the natural sciences are concerned with knowing the natural order of creation, there is a sense in which the Christian natural scientist qua natural scientist should be mindful of the aesthetic order of creation. There is a sense in which the Christian natural scientist qua natural scientist should be mindful of the aesthetic order of creation.Why? Because, insofar as the world has been created with an aesthetic reality, real beauty is a part of what is natural.
Why might this be provocative? Because, in the modern world, the natural sciences have been reduced to the physical, life, and social sciences; they concern themselves with those phenomena that can be studied directly with an empirical eye.
In Kierkegaard’s own day, scholarship had limited its view of reality to the one world-historical process in which “God does not play the role of the Lord.”Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, ed. and trans. Howard V. and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 156. Accordingly, he describes the scientific revolution in Europe as being on a trajectory towards a “pantheistic scientism.”Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard’s Journals an Notebooks, vol. 7, ed. by Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, Alastair Hannay, David Kangas, Bruce H. Kirmmse, George Pattison, Vanessa Rumble, and K. Brian Söderquist (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 71. And he notes that due to “a lack of religious discipline, a lack of ‘sobriety,'” even Christian scholars were praising “science, science.”Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard’s Journals an Notebooks, vol. 7, ed. by Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, Alastair Hannay, David Kangas, Bruce H. Kirmmse, George Pattison, Vanessa Rumble, and K. Brian Söderquist (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 71.
Unsurprisingly, with such naturalistic short-sightedness, the aesthetic reality of creation was not taken to be as “natural” or “real” as those objects that are observable to the empirical eye.
To be clear, neither I nor Kierkegaard would want to suggest that real beauty should become an object of the physical, life, or social sciences. At the same time, I do want to venture a proposal that, at the very least, might encourage the Christian scientist to be open to the aesthetic order of creation. That is: the Christian scientist should avoid advancing a scientific understanding of the world that feeds into the ugliness of its disorder. They should not tinker with the physical order of creation in ways that either serve disorder (i.e. by organizing materials in a way that is not proper to their created order) or which may confuse our aesthetic sensibilities (i.e. by serving the fulfillment of disordered aesthetic sensibilities). Such manipulation is every bit as misaligned with the reality of creation as fabricated results in an experiment.
I shall refrain from making any judgment here as to what scientific endeavours might fund pleasures that run contrary to real beauty—though it shouldn’t require too much imagination. I am happy to leave such judgement to Christian scientists themselves, who will have a much betterThe Christian scientist should avoid advancing a scientific understanding of the world that feeds into the ugliness of its disorder. understanding of the goals of their specialisms than I ever will. All I ask is that there should be at least some self-questioning as to whether one’s particular scientific practice is consonant with real beauty—insofar as we can know what this is.
It should be acknowledged that this this is likely to be a bigger challenge for some scientists over others. In some areas of science, it is likely that a commitment to the real beauty of creation will come at a cost. It may hold a scientist back from a level of wealth and power that may have brought fulfilment to their baser aesthetic sensibilities. But, for Kierkegaard, such concerns should not matter to the Christian. This is because Christianity “does not at all emphasize the idea of earthly beauty.”Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers, vol. 1, ed. and trans. Howard V. and Edna H. Hong (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967-78), 797. Christianity expresses itself in suffering in this world. And beneath any suffering that the world might deem ugly, real beauty radiates: “there is truly a community of suffering with God, a pact of tears, which is in itself so very beautiful.”Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard’s Journals an Notebooks, vol. 3, ed. by Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, Alastair Hannay, David Kangas, Bruce H. Kirmmse, George Pattison, Vanessa Rumble, and K. Brian Söderquist (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 230
The Depth of Real Beauty
What I have said so far raises a question with which I shall end: what does real beauty look like? This is not at all easy to answer. Real beauty is much deeper than we will are able to fathom with our limited aesthetic intuitions. Creation is far more beautiful that we can even begin to see. This why it is so hard for us to appreciate the real beauty of creation—why so much beauty is perceived to be ugly and why so much ugliness is perceived as beautiful. It is why we are so dependent upon God to guide and order our aesthetic sensibilities.
It is for this reason that Kierkegaard writes: “I cannot really say that I positively enjoy nature [because] I do not quite realize what it is that I enjoy.”Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers, vol. 1, ed. and trans. Howard V. and Edna H. Hong (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967-78), 117. He continues:
The works of the deity are too great for me; I always get lost in the details. This is the reason, too, why people’s exclamations on observing nature: It’s lovely, tremendous, etc.—are so frivolous. They are all too anthropomorphic; they come to a stop with the external; they are unable to express inwardness, depth.Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers, vol. 1, ed. and trans. Howard V. and Edna H. Hong (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967-78), 117.
For Kierkegaard, the real beauty of creation is not something that can be grasped by even the most devout of Christians. All a Christian can do is seek beauty by turning to the one who gives creation its beauty.
As the aesthetic scientist grows in her appreciation of real beauty, she will grow in her awareness of how much more beauty there is to be enjoyed. As she learns, she will be filled with an even deeper sense of wonderment and awe. She will recognize that there is always more to be discovered in the beauty of creation, as she grows in her love for her Creator, and as her imagination grows in its attentiveness to God’s aesthetic purposes.I have a fuller discussion of Kierkegaard’s theology of creation in Aaron Edwards and David Gouwens’ forthcoming volume, The T&T Companion to the Theology of Søren Kierkegaard.
A Modern Creature: Introducing a Conversation
Geoffrey Fulkerson and Joel Chopp, The Henry Center
Søren Kierkegaard | The Real Beauty of Creation: A Kierkegaardian Account
Andrew Torrance, University of St Andrews
Robert Jenson | Robert Jenson’s Story of Creation
Stephen John Wright, Nazarene Theological College, Manchester
Herman Bavinck | Herman Bavinck as a Man of Science
John Bolt, Calvin Theological Seminary
Eberhard Jüngel | A More Natural Theology: Eberhard Jüngel on the Relationship between the Doctrine of Creation and Christology
R. David Nelson, Baker Academic & Brazos Press
Adolf Schlatter | Creation and Science under Jesus’ Rule: Perspectives from Adolf Schlatter
Robert Yarbrough, Covenant Theological Seminary
Jon Levenson | The Tapestry of Creation: Jon Levenson on Creation and Omnipotence (Feb 21)
John Hilber, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary
Rudolf Bultmann | Myth, Science, and Hermeneutics: Rudolf Bultmann on Creation (Feb 28)
Joshua Jipp, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Dietrich Bonhoeffer | Christ at the Center of Creation: Bonhoeffer and the “God of the Gaps” (Mar 7)
Jeff Hardin, University of Wisconsin
Kathryn Tanner | How We Say What We Say about God and Creation (Mar 14)
Myk Habets, Carey Baptist College, New Zealand
Oliver O’Donovan | The Ends of Science in Oliver O’Donovan’s Doctrine of Creation (Mar 21)
Matthew Arbo, Oklahoma Baptist University
Jürgen Moltmann | Tradition Modified: Moltmann’s Contemporary Doctrine of Creation (Mar 28)
Stephen N. Williams, Union Theological College, Belfast