Pleased to Meet You, Stephen Backhouse – An Interview with the Author of Kierkegaard: A Single Life
In the inaugural edition of Pleased to Meet You, we introduce Stephen Backhouse, lecturer in Social and Political Theology at St. Mellitus College, London, and author of our upcoming book Kierkegaard: A Single Life. Stephen has published a number of critically well-received books and articles on religion, history, and Kierkegaard, from the popular Compact Guide to Christian History for Lion through the academic Kierkegaard’s Critique of Christian Nationalism for Oxford University Press. Recently, we spent some time to get to know Stephen.
Where are you from?
That question is surprisingly complicated to answer. I was born in Western Canada and spent my teenage years there. When I was nineteen I moved to the United Kingdom for an adventure and have basically lived in various parts of England ever since, most recently London. Oh, I’ve also lived in Quebec – the French speaking part of Canada. Now I am poised to live in the States for a year. My life has wreaked havoc on my accent, let me tell you!
This might be a controversial question, but seeing as you are currently a British resident, we must ask. Do you prefer coffee or tea?
Coffee. Zappi’s in Oxford makes the best double macchiatos.
Tell us more about yourself. What’s your story?
As I said, I moved to England when I was nineteen. I worked in various odd jobs and travelled around for a few years, before deciding to go to university. I went to a little place called Regents Park College, which is part of the University of Oxford. Regents was great because they were used to dealing with odd people like me. By this stage I was technically a ‘mature student’ because I was over 21.
Regents was also great because it was there that I met my wife. We got married as undergraduates, which again was odd – we had to get special permission from the principal of the college! I did a Master’s degree at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and then returned to Oxford to get my doctorate.
For the past seven years I have been the Lecturer in Social and Political Theology at St Mellitus College, an Anglican college in London that mainly serves people seeking to be ordained into the Church of England. But we have lots of other types of students too, from all countries and walks of life, so I feel I fit right in.
What is something unique about yourself that you’d like our readers to know? For instance, can you ride a unicycle?
Maybe I can. I never tried, though!
You may remember that in the mid-nineties the UK had a ‘mad cow disease’ scare. As a way to stay on top of the problem, each cow had to have a unique identifying number and the movement of all the cattle in the country was tracked. I worked in an office that administered these records – so I can revel in the fact that one of my first jobs in England was as a Cow Passport Officer. Even though it was years ago, I always try to find room for that on my CV.
Not only have you registered cows, but you’ve also published extensively on Kierkegaard. When did you first encounter him and what were your first impressions? What about him resonated with you?
Technically, the first time I encountered Kierkegaard was through the work of the evangelical intellectual Francis Schaeffer, who warned his readers away from Kierkegaard as a moral relativist and a subjectivist. Like lots of earnest young Christians growing up in North America, I was helped by the work of Schaeffer, who said lots of good and interesting things about having a faith that was culturally and intellectually credible. Unfortunately, Schaeffer did not really follow his own advice when it came to Kierkegaard. It seems he judged Kierkegaard based more on what other people wrote about him, rather than engaging with Kierkegaard himself.
After I had moved to the UK I worked for a time in a book shop. I decided to use my employee discount to help me work my way through the world’s classics – famous authors I had heard of but never really read before. I picked up Kierkegaard’s book Fear and Trembling and was blown away. Reading it was like having the bottom drop out of my world. I remember actually feeling dizzy. That book takes the story of Abraham and Isaac and re-tells it from multiple angles. It is not ascribed to Kierkegaard but a pseudonym named Johannes deSilentio.
The pseudonymous author of Fear and Trembling does not claim to have faith, but he thinks that by looking at Abraham he will discover what faith looks like. It is a bracing book – dark and complicated, but also funny and moving. It is emotionally compelling, which, believe me, is not something you can often say about philosophical theology. Even though I did not know anything about Kierkegaard’s life at the time, I could tell that this book meant something more to him than a dry intellectual exercise. Later, I found out that he was putting a lot of his break-up with his fiancé into the book, and struggling with what it might mean to sacrifice all you love for the sake of obeying God.
After Fear and Trembling I decided to study Kierkegaard whenever I could. I chose to read philosophy and theology at university so that I could choose Kierkegaard as an option. I wrote my master’s thesis on his clash with Christendom and my doctorate on his critique of Christian nationalism. Along the way I learned that Kierkegaard was certainly not a moral subjectivist (even though he does constantly remind his readers that they are Subjects and not Objects). Still, it’s ironic that I can thank Francis Schaeffer for introducing me to Cpt. Kierk.
We understand that you are also interested in Christian nationalism. Can you tell us more about that?
Saying that religious nationalism is a bad thing is not too controversial. It’s pretty easy to spot when Christianity and patriotism go “wrong” – the German church’s support for the Nazis for example. But what about when it goes “right”? What is going on when Christians automatically assume that God Blesses America or Saves the Queen? I’m interested in the ways that popular assumptions about Christianity have been shaped by all expressions of national identity, not just the obviously malignant ones.
Kierkegaard and others have helped highlight where our Christian imaginations have been colonized by the common cultures that surround us, especially the cultures that already think of themselves as ‘Christian’ in some way. Kierkegaard’s big claim was that Christendom had done away with Christianity. ‘Christendom’ doesn’t just mean having an established state church. What Kierkegaard meant by the term was any civilization which too easily confuses being a good citizen, or member of a certain group, with being a Christian. Proponents of Christendom talk a lot about ‘God’ and ‘values’ and ‘religion’ but one name is curiously unwelcome – Jesus Christ. Kierkegaard points out how potentially offensive Jesus is to Christians who find their core identity in their tribe, church, or country. The Christendom mindset assumes that its culture is God’s gift to the world. But God’s full, final revelation of himself was the Incarnation, not any historically developed nation.
Jesus calls people to rally around him, to obey him, to copy him, to find their peace in him. The result was a new movement that did not hate the old ethnic and national ties, but it did not love them either. Citizens of the Kingdom of God are a blessing to the nations to be sure, but they also prove unsettling to any nation that thinks it can count on their ultimate allegiance.
Historically, the earliest Christians tended to see patriotism as a vice – a temptation to guard against. Now most Christians of all nationalities assume it is a virtue. The story of how this happened is interesting, as is an exploration of how modern followers of Christ might navigate the rocky shores of church and state, politics and faith, love of neighbor and the idea of a Christian nation. Kierkegaard and other Christ-centered authors who think about Christianity within Christendom are good, hopeful conversation partners to have at a time like ours.
What’s next for you? You mentioned that you will be moving to the US soon.
My wife will be studying on a course in Northern California for a year, so I’ve taken time out from teaching to be with her. I’ll be researching and writing my next book, as well as travelling around supporting my biography of Kierkegaard. I’ve never lived in the States before, and I am really looking forward to it. One more influence on my ever-changing accent!
Lastly, and this is what we’ve been anxiously waiting to ask…do you have a favorite Kim Kierkegaardashian (@) quote?
She (he?) is just great. No one knows who the real author is. During my research for the biography I interviewed a stand-up comedian named Simon Munnery who does a one-man show about Kierkegaard. I was absolutely sure I had found my man but he denied it. I quote a few of the tweets in my book. I like “We love selfies! The despairing self, by taking notice of itself, tries to make itself more than it already is.” Another good one: “Let’s all welcome Chloe to twitter & remind her that being the object of attention of many people is not the same as being important to God”. Amen, sister.