C.S. Lewis and Kierkegaard


The diary of Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, includes some revealing insights into the life of a writer . . . words that I suspect may echo your own experience.

While I would never turn to Søren Kierkegaard for theological inspiration (many do), his comments about writing parallel my own.*

Only when I write do I feel well. Then I forget all of life’s vexations, all its sufferings, then I am wrapped in thought and am happy. If I stop for a few days, right away I become ill, overwhelmed and troubled; my head feels heavy and burdened.

So powerful an urge, so ample, so inexhaustible, one which, having subsisted day after day for five or six years, is still flowing as richly as ever, such an urge, one would think, must also be a vocation from God.

If these great riches of thought, still latent in my soul, must be repressed, it will be anguish and torture for me, and I shall become an absolute good-for-nothing. […]

Being an author . . . is not self-chosen; it is concomitant with everything in my individuality and its deepest urge.

May God then give me good fortune and succor and above all a certain spirit, yes, a certain spirit to resist the onslaughts of doubt and temptation that rise within me, for after all it is not too hard to do battle with the world.

This passage fascinates me. Kierkegaard eloquently expresses the struggle of the Christian writer, then ends on such a uniquely positive note, “after all it is not too hard to do battle with the world.” This victory, he indicates, comes from God placing within us a certain spirit to resist the onslaughts of doubt and temptation that rise within” us.

Keeping our eyes on Christ, and yielding to the Holy Spirit who abides within us, does indeed ensure our victory. Though the world assaults us daily, as we grow more mature in our Lord its temporary gains against us grow smaller and fewer.

I encountered Kierkegaard’s words in a recent post by Steve Laube, a prominent agent. (His agency’s blog is well worth subscribing to.) As he says,

These words resonate because it is the universal condition of writers. The call, the urge, to write is part of who you are. However, notice his last sentence where he admits to “the onslaughts of doubt and temptation that rise within me.” This, again, is a universal condition. It is normal. Embrace it and pray that God will grant you the strength today to resist.

Then do it again tomorrow.

Turning to Lewis

Although Kierkegaard’s words were written in 1847, it’s doubtful C.S. Lewis would have been familiar with them. The rather severely** edited diary did not appear until 1960, only a couple of years before Lewis’ passing.

As a scholar, Lewis was familiar with Kierkegaard. While he did not find Kierkegaard’s existentialism helpful, he could acknowledge that some appreciated his writings. In 1961, he responded to a correspondent’s request for some recommendations, he wrote,

For meditative and devotional reading . . . I suggest . . . my selection from MacDonald, George MacDonald: an Anthology. I can’t read Kierkegaard myself, but some people find him helpful.

The primary reason for Lewis’ albeit tepid mention of Kierkegaard here must have been the fact that one of his close friends was keen on the philosopher. An early translator of Kierkegaard’s works praised Inkling Charles Williams who “affectionately fostered the enterprise of publishing S.K.’s works in English.” (“How Kierkegaard Got into English”).

I am curious how Lewis would have responded to Kierkegaard’s notes on the writing life. Would he have identified with these sentiments?

I suspect they would concur in the statement, “If these great riches of thought, still latent in my soul, must be repressed, it will be anguish and torture for me.” After all, as many of Mere Inkling’s readers can personally attest, the Great Dane was not alone in experiencing this explosive pressure.

As an ancient man named Elihu once said to the Prophet Job, “I am full of words, and the spirit within me compels me; inside I am like bottled-up wine, like new wineskins ready to burst.” (Job 32:18-19).

My advice—get your precious words out before they explode.

* Here you will find the “testimony” of a person whose atheism was reinforced by reading Kierkegaard.

** The editor, Peter Rohde, says in his preface: “The luckless reader who sets out on his own to find his way in Kierkegaard’s vast, and vastly demanding works, runs the risk of losing his way and finally of losing his courage.”

It is precisely their fragmentary character that dispenses us from the obligation which the finished works place upon us, viz. to respect their wholeness—for it is nonexistent.

However, from their 8,000 to 10,000 pages it is possible to distill some one hundred and fifty pages that contain the true essence—that is, if the editor has been successful in his selection.

15 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis and Kierkegaard

  1. bookseyeread

    Hopefully, as writers we can use the “doubt and onslaughts of temptation” to spur us to improve our writing. And to seek encouragement from the One who made us “full of words.”

    1. As you say. When we find our refuge in Christ, the tribulations that assail us will be unable to harm us. And, as we see in the precious promise from Romans, “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

  2. I’ve been a fan of Kierkegaard since college. A professor introduced me to his books. That professor and I disagreed about almost everything else. Many people who read Kierkegaard stumble over his tendency to write as a character, to explore thoughts that were not necessarily his own. Also, he tended to parody the philosophers of his generation, and sometimes people today miss the joke. He was, in fact, very deeply Christian and very knowledgeable about the Bible and historic Christianity. J.

    1. My problem with Kierkegaard is not with his creative approaches to writing (e.g. dialogical format). Nor is it with his brutal critique of the state church, of which his brother became a bishop.

      My reluctance to become a fan is not based on his emphasis of intimate personal with our Creator, for I believe we are to love God heart, mind, soul and strength.

      I am wary of those who would make Christianity into something I believe it is not–a philosophy. Similarly, I do not recognize biblical Christianity as I encounter it in most “transcendental” expressions.

      This may be due to the fact God made me a practical, rather than esoteric, pastor and (modest) theologian.

      Suffice it to say Kierkegaard was quite religious and deemed his version of religion to manifest the true or best form of Christian faith.

      Like Lewis, I’ll simply say, “I can’t read Kierkegaard myself, but some people find him helpful.” I’m happy that you do.

    1. The reference to not being able to read from his diary refers to it not being published until very shortly before Lewis’ death.

      He had certainly read some of Kierkegaard’s published works, and although he noted some found them helpful in their spiritual lives, he personally, did not.

      1. Phiilip

        Sorry, I said that due to Lewis’ response “For meditative and devotional reading . . . I suggest . . . my selection from MacDonald, George MacDonald: an Anthology. I can’t read Kierkegaard myself, but some people find him helpful.”

  3. Blue Withrow

    Several weeks ago I opened the pages of a Kierkegaard volume I’d started and become bogged down in several times before. This time I decided I’d feast in small bites, no more than 10-15 pages at a sitting, and see if I could get some traction that would take me through to the end. That volume is Works of Love.
    Two things have struck me repeatedly over the course of the 130+ pages I’ve devoured this time around. The first is that, as a Philosophy student in college 50+ years ago, I was never ever even given a hint by any professor or fellow student that SK was a Christian. Always emphasized was his role as a founding father of existentialism. The second, and the one that inevitably seems to be accompanied by moist eyes, is how much I feel a kindred spirit between SK and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. By making that statement I’m not attempting to do a compare and contrast dissertation defense on the subject. Just talking ‘feel.’
    Thanks for sharing your Lewis/SK words, Rob.

    1. It’s good to revisit things that “challenged” us in the past. Hopefully we’ve grown wiser in the interim.

      Regarding Bonhoeffer’s esteem for Kierkegaard, I understand it was based upon a rejection of “gospel reductionism,” which detaches ethical responsibility (e.g. good works) from the Christian life.

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