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Art & Dangerous Ideas: Kierkegaard

Art & Dangerous Ideas: Kierkegaard

Artists love to push their boundaries, but we cannot push boundaries wisely without asking ourselves, “How do we walk that line between art and dangerous ideas?” Kierkegaard will be our first philosopher to be examined in this series. As a Danish philosopher, theologian and poet, Soren Kierkegaard had deep concerns about beauty, aesthetics, and spirituality. He wrestled deeply with his heart and the questions of his own soul, eventually embracing his faith with great passion. But what is the impact of his ideas?

Christian Creative Inquiry

To be creative in all of life, requires us to examine our assumptions. These assumptions may come from artists, authors, theologians, or philosophers. But if we are creatives who claim to be Christians, we must also question which ideas truly fit the gospel we have embraced in Scripture. With this in mind, I am inviting you to consider how different thinkers have influenced our art and our communities and ask whether their ideas are helpful or detrimental. In this week’s blog we will examine part of Kierkegaard’s philosophy.

Understanding Kierkegaard’s Three Stages of Life

Kierkegaard believed that all people begin life in a stage he called the aesthetic stage. This is the least mature stage of life. Some people never grow past it, while others become disillusioned with it and move on to subsequent stages. Only the most mature, wise and sophisticated woman or man will reach the Spiritual stage. Though it was intuitively reflecting what he saw in society, and though this approach made spiritual people seem to be more mature, it has real weaknesses. Here are the three stages as Soren described them:

The First Stage

The first stage is the aesthetic stage. This stage focuses on individual pleasure and immediate satisfaction. It is a type of hedonistic love of pleasure as beauty is consumed and enjoyed only for what it immediately provides. It portrays love of beauty as hedonistic, shallow and ultimately unsatisfying. This aesthetic stage reflects the foolishness of someone who only lives for the moment, and fails to live with the future in mind, and especially without the eternal in mind.

The core problem, as Kierkegaard sees it in this stage, is boredom. Clearly, daily pleasures were not meant to satisfy our heart, mind and soul. Thus a wise young girl or boy will see this and jettison such an approach to life.

The Second Stage

The second stage is the ethical stage. In this stage the man or woman realizes the vapidness of focusing on pleasure and beauty, and learns to appreciate the deeper significance of moral responsibility and holding yourself accountable to higher ideals. This person begins to see the role they play in the larger society and embraces both the privileges and responsibilities of a citizen that cares about human flourishing. Such a person wants to respect others, and also protect others from being taken advantage of.

It is a form of loving our neighbors and consider the world that is outside of our own internal sense of being. The problem with this stage, according to Kierkegaard, is that we cannot fully keep the laws and fulfill all of our responsibilities. There is still evil in our hearts, and temptations to sin that keep us from living up to the standards of this ethical stage.

The Third Stage

The third and final stage is the religious stage. This stage provokes the individual to fully see the limitations and faulty pursuits found in the ethical and aesthetic stage. Then, as our soul rejects the previous stages, we are compelled toward spiritual self-reflection. This results when we take a “leap of faith” to embrace a relationship with God, who can bring peace, joy, and hope to our soul.

Thus, the weakness of the ethical stage finds hope in this religious stage. Our sins are forgiven, and our inability to keep the law has been addressed. And this God of the Bible can give us a satisfaction within our souls to outshine anything we encountered in our aesthetic stage, such that mere physical beauty and sensory experiences of our childhood become undesirable and unnecessary.

Kierkegaard’s Negative Contributions

These three stages sound true at first, and we may recognize how these stages are present in many people as they grow up. But we dare not ignore the cost of embracing his view of the 3 stages of life. Kierkegaard believed that each stage brings a distinct understanding of life, which requires you to leave behind the previous stage.

Thus, as you progress through the stages, a spiritually mature and religious person will abandon the pursuit of art, as well as the love of beauty in creation, or even a longing for the beauty of the New Jerusalem. More than simply problematic, this approach leads to an emaciated theology (God as disembodied spirit, separated from physical beauty), and shallow understanding of how we are made(wonderfully and beautifully), and who God is (Now he is True and Good, but not Beautiful).

Kierkegaard’s Impact on Modern Thought

Kierkegaard’s three stages recognized the subjective experience Christians can have when they ask Jesus into their heart and commit their life to Christ. He is right that people become disillusioned with life without Christ, and then in faith, take that ‘leap of faith’ to trust in Christ. For him, that leap meant leaving behind all his previous loves, and assuming those “immature loves” were inherently negative and detrimental to spiritual growth. But this I where he erred. He universalized his own experience.

Sadly, he dismissed the idea that art can play a significant role in forming meaning and providing direction during our spiritual life. This led to a denigration of beauty, art, and aesthetics within the Christian communities. Art was now seen as immature, and a love of beauty as something juvenile which must be jettisoned in order to be a mature Christian.

To be fair, Kierkegaard was not the only figure to contribute to this negative view of art, but his memorable 3 stages became an easy to explain model for intellectuals to utilize to dismiss artists and art.

Kierkegaard’s Impact on Theology and The Church

This framework contributed in a significant way to the death of aesthetics in theological circles. Art had been seen with skepticism ever since the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. But thinkers like Kierkegaard gave theologians a reason to continue to be skeptical of art, and skeptical of the emphasis upon beauty within the church.

Just consider, if art is something only valuable for the foolish, and the selfish youth, then there is no reason for the church to spend any time on art, beauty, or even pointing to the beauty of creation.

The Cost of Ignoring Art & Beauty

Why would theologians ever spend time on passages about art in the Old Testament, like Exodus 31? Commentaries have largely ignored the importance of passages about Bezalel because of these assumptions and such skepticism. And so, for decades and even centuries, theologians failed to see art and beauty as relevant in their preaching and commentaries, because art and beauty were assumed to be irrelevant before they ever opened the Bible to begin their work.

This view continues to lead women and men in the pew, who love Christ, to believe that art and beauty are not a meaningful part of life for a ‘spiritual’ person. I cannot state this boldly enough: This is all anti-biblical. The old word for this is heresy.

The only exception theologians are forced to concede is the beauty of Creation, because we know that God said it was good, and we have passages like Psalm 19 which make it clear that the beauty of God’s creation speaks powerfully to believers and non-believers.

The Required Antidote

We may view beauty in an immature way when we are young, but the antidote is not to avoid beauty. The answer is to ask God to show us how He wants us to perceive His beauty and the beauty of His creation. The best place to start is Psalm 19:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice b goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth.
The law of the Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring forever.
The decrees of the Lord are firm,
and all of them are righteous.
They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the honeycomb.
By them your servant is warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
But who can discern their own errors?
Forgive my hidden faults.
Keep your servant also from willful sins;
may they not rule over me.
Then I will be blameless,
innocent of great transgression.
May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
– Psalm 19 (NIV)

Redeeming and Rescuing Beauty from Dangerous Views

As we see in this Psalm, a deeply spiritual man or woman who is in relationship to the God of the Bible, does not jettison “the beautiful” or “the moral”. On the contrary, now they see that these things are all held together in God. All beauty points us back to God and increases our appreciation of his love for us.

Likewise, all moral convictions remind us of God’s holiness and our need for a Savior. Beauty and the arts were meant to deepen our faith and increase our ability to express and contemplate how deep the Father’s love is, for those who have come to the foot of the cross.

Soren’s Short Sightedness vs The Using the Arts to Glorify God

If Soren Kierkegaard had been born before the Reformation these ideas would not have found the same fertile ground as they did in his era. If Soren was not born into the age where philosophers were combating the notions of romanticism, his ideas may have been forgotten. Yet, because he was born after the rise of the ideas of German Idealists and the Romanticists, His ideas took root.

Today, we must see with clear eyes that these 3 stages are not timeless, and do not match the God of scripture, the God of creation. We must jettison these ideas so that we can embrace all the good gifts of God, and worship Him more fully with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.

Christ as the Icon, and the Correction to Kierkegaard

Maybe you have embraced these ideas in the past, or you have heard other well-meaning Christians refer to these 3 stages with affection or respect. But now we know these 3 stages do not reflect the Bible, nor the nature of the Gospel.

In Colossians 1, the Apostle Paul refers to Christ as the “ICON of God.” Such a verse would be unintelligible if we embraced Kierkegaard’s views. Thankfully, scripture itself offers the corrective. Jesus, who was and is God, took on flesh, becoming the very image (Icon) of God, as part of His redemptive plan.

The Beauty We Long for: The New Jerusalem, Streets of Gold

And the finale of that redemptive plan is where we will walk the streets of Gold in the New Jerusalem that will be brimming with extravagant beauty because that is the only kind of city which is fitting for our glorious, just, true, and beautiful God.

Do you agree?
Have you encountered Kierkegaard’s stages in your church or community?
Or have you encountered the sentiments of Kierkegaard’s stages…denigrating art as immature?

Please leave me your comments/ stories/ anecdotes!!
I would love to hear your experiences, and to respond.

Copyright © 2023 Joel & Michelle Pelsue. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.

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10 comments on “Art & Dangerous Ideas: Kierkegaard”

  1. Dr. Alan C. Hueth Reply

    Joel, based on my present studies and love of the importance of media literacy, this is the best article that I’ve seen in your ministry. Kierkegaard’s (K’s) aesthetic, ethical, and religion stages reveal some of the important aspects of Christian artists. However, I do have issues with the concept of the assumed time-based stages. Here are a few Q’s for you to help me understand your perspectives on these areas:

    1. It assumes that young artists are focused on “aesthetics” first. Then, over-time, they “get ethical” and consider what’s right and wrong in their art. And then they “get religion” and focus only on that in their art…at least, that’s my interpretation. Am I right or wrong? If not, please correct me on this; and…

    2. I’m having a problem about K’s ethical and religion ideas. Is he separating these two as if they’re completely different concepts and are done in timely ways? There is no “secular” in God’s mind. Everyone that has lived on earth is/has been religious and — because of that — have some form of ethics connected to their religion. And most people that I’ve known — especially my college students (even Christians) don’t even know this because of a lack of knowledge, and that’s a problem with K’s assumptions. Given that, I’m also wondering what your thoughts are about the ethics of aesthetic-focused Christian artists?

    I appreciate any answers you can provide.

    Thanks and blessings on you and yours

    • Joel Pelsue Reply


      First, thank you so much for the high compliment. I know you have wrestled in academia with these issues for many, many years.

      1. First, I don’t actually agree with Kierkegaard that these are the stages for artists or any believers. We can and should actually mature, and yet continue to enjoy the simple pleasures we find in the gifts of God, including food, fellowship, art, and sex with our spouse, etc. A wise and mature Christian does not “leave behind” the love of enjoying food, wine, or art. In fact, the opposite is true. A godly man or woman loves God and at the same time, thanks God for the joy of viewing a sunset, or the fellowship of friends and family.

      In some ways, it is similar to the book of Ecclesiastes. Solomon realizes pleasure and hedonism are not satisfactory. Then he looks to books and education, and that isn’t satisfactory either. Eventually, he realizes it is all meaningless “under the sun.” Only a relationship with God, and celebrating the life we are given is truly wise and satisfactory.

      In this sense, I agree with Kierkegaard, that mature people see that simple, hedonistic pleasures don’t really satisfy. This is true of artists and “civilians” equally. At that point, they may seek to become moral, or like Solomon, in Ecclesiastes, they may look for satisfaction in learning, or like the archetypal American, turn to the accumulation of stuff. There might actually be more stages, or seasons of disappointment, followed by levels of maturity. So I agree with K that we find lesser pleasures wanting and hopefully realize we can only be satisfied by a relationship with our Maker and Creator and Savior. But I disagree that we completely abandon all pleasures as we become more spiritual. That would be, in essence, to reject the “good gifts of God” as beneath us once we become spiritual.

      2. Yes, K does separate them. Why? Because he is responding to Hegel and Marx, who believe that reason is limited. Thus, K needs to make faith a very separate thing from reason and the ethical life… this is why he refers to faith as supra-rational or ir-rational. This is why he is the first Christian existentialist. He is trying to move beyond reason, and the limits it has, under Hegel and Marx. Note what he states here:

      “If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe. If I wish to preserve myself in faith I must constantly be intent upon holding fast the objective uncertainty so as to remain out upon the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water, still preserving my faith.”

      I agree with you that “There is no “secular” in God’s mind.” Abraham Kuyper is right that Christ is sovereign over all, and the typical sacred-secular divide does not exist. If only K (Kierkegaard) had the benefit of learning from K (Kuyper). But alas, he did not, Kierkegaard was stuck following the battle between the romanticists and the German idealists (especially Kant). This context is the key.

      This brings us to your final question:

      “I’m also wondering what your thoughts are about the ethics of aesthetic-focused Christian artists?”
      BTW – I am enjoying this exchange of ideas, and wish we could do this in person!

      Hans Urs Von Balthasar is the key here, which I am currently reading.
      Balthasar points out that God himself is the most beautiful thing we can encounter, and I would propose that all great beauty (artistic or in creation) points to God himself. Even the most moving stories point to the sacrificial love of Christ. The most moving, and beautiful things we encounter point to the one who is without blemish (holy), and who is Glorious and Majestic.

      The most deeply and truly aesthetic person is the one who is in love with, and worships the source of beauty itself (God). As St. Augustine stated, The True, The Good and The Beautiful are all part of God’s character. Thus to love beauty, if we understand it properly, is to love God himself… the source of all beauty, and the one to which all beauty points.

      Like C.S. Lewis in his progression from paganism to Christianity, we must move from loving the beauty of creation, and learn to see beyond creation to the creator himself. The pagan and the hedonist have a shallow imagination, and a weak notion of where true beauty actually originates. It is the Christian who raises his or her eyes to the heavens and consider the truly Beautiful One, who is God.

      FYI – I am writing a book on beauty… so this is fresh on the mind.

  2. Karen DeLoach Reply

    Great article, thanks.
    What I first noticed as a young, spirit-filled believer was how ugly all the facilities were- the small churches especially. In warehouses, store fronts, or where ever they could meet. The attitude was that money for art works, beautiful flowers, accoutrements, etc, was a waste of money.)
    Fresh out of grad school for art, this was MOST distressing.
    Now if we can get them to put in some stained glass and carved wood! ( I realize there have always been exceptions)
    Finished with my rant.
    blessings, Karen

    • Joel Pelsue Reply


      Yes! I was visiting colleges with my daughter and have been surprised to see most chapels as boring, while walls, void of all aesthetic ornamentation… as if to say God is boring. Some pastors and theologians have commented to me in private that I am too aesthetically sensitive, but I think it is them who are overly aesthetically in-sensitive.
      They don’t realize what they are communicating.
      I am sure that would be discouraging after graduation from an MFA program with a passion for art!!!

      Thank you so much for sharing.

  3. ;Graham Voller Reply

    Hi, It is interesting that many believe Bezalel was a case of ‘first mention’, I.e. the anointing Exodus 31:3 “I have filled him with the Spirit of God”. God gave him wisdom to create images of the spirit world as well as natural beauty to adorn God’s habitation on earth, His living room in fact. I loved reading your notes on this. I am an abstract painter and I am perhaps more on the outer of Christian comprehension than most! My work is on instagram, and Tricera gallery. The intelligence and brilliance of God’s wisdom can’t be contained in our intellect, but it shines forth in jars of clay> Thanks again. Graham

    • Joel Pelsue Reply


      Yes, in the Old Testament, Bezalel is the first person in the Bible of whom it is said they are “filled with the Spirit of God.” And yes, indeed, as jars of clay, we “see only through a glass dimly,” Thank you so much for taking the time to comment! I looked you up on Tricera…very visceral and powerful work. What was your inspiration. I”m not sure what you mean by “outer of Christian comprehension…we have all kinds of abstract and conceptual artists… Christians need not be representational, or explicit in their work, of course! Would love to learn more.

  4. Brenda Stichter Reply

    Thanks for this article! I hadn’t thought about Kierkegaard much in quite a while, (probably since college) and I find that revisiting his theories helps me understand the perspective of some people in the church we attend. I have noticed their coldness to the arts and beauty, but hadn’t attached the background philosophy behind it.
    Just from my own quick thoughts on these stages – it would seem to me that, rather than jettison the old, maybe we ADD each stage to a fuller life perspective. Different personalities seem to hold more deeply to different aspects of this growth. And, in fact, the ‘stages’ seem to miss some of the deep richness of life with Jesus. There are so many Bible passages that reference beauty, including the beauty of God. (I started marking them after reading an essay stating that HE is not beautiful… )
    Lots of thoughts on this topic now – though I presented them in hodgepodge order – so thank you for adding to my studio time this morning!

    BTW, I am also an abstract artist who loves Jesus!

    • Joel Pelsue Reply


      Thank you for your comment.
      Yes, I agree that ” rather than jettison the old, maybe we ADD each stage to a fuller life perspective.”
      The Christian life should be one of enjoying creation, being a good citizen, and having a deep spiritual walk with Christ. The stages should not be separate, but rather complementary.
      Psalm 19 reminds us to enjoy creation and beauty more deeply once we have a relationship with our Creator and Savior. It has more depth and meaning now as a gift of one who loves us.
      I am writing a book on beauty…where was that ridiculous article that claimed: “He is not beautiful?” I would love to read that.
      God is the source of beauty, and all beauty points us back to Him!
      This is why the whole narrative of scripture starts in a beautiful garden and ends in a stunningly beautiful city.

      you may enjoy this blog of ours on beauty more specifically: https://a-e-m.org/beauty-is-not-subjective/

      have a great day,


      Thanks again.


  5. Chris Lovie-Tyler Reply

    Thanks for this, Joel!

    I haven’t read much Kierkegaard, or encountered these “stages”, but I could see the problems with them as I read them. And I can see how they’ve negatively affected the Church.

    It all comes back to the relationship these things have to our main relationship, with God. If everything is in its right relationship, it’s a blessing, and each thing deepens the other. When it’s separated from, or elevated above God, it becomes a curse, and each thing undermines the other.

    I got a lot from reading the comments section too. Thanks, everyone!

    • Joel Pelsue Reply


      Thank you for taking the time to comment… and you come all the way from New Zealand!! A country we have always wanted to visit.

      I totally agree with you…we should enjoy art, beauty, science, reason, and all the gifts of God, as gifts from the one who loves us, and redeems us.

      To split them apart is to do damage to our own souls. This is where the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution where tremendously helpful for scientific progress and yet damaging at the same time. They lost the beauty and mystery of humanity and creation.

      Thank you.

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