Rasmus Nielsen (1809-1884)

Professor of philosophy 1841-83, MA theology 1837, Dr. Theol. 1840, rector of the university 1880-81.

Nielsen commenced his philosophical career as a supporter of G.W.F. Hegel’s idealism, but when in the late 1840s he personally met the independent philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard and studied his writings, Nielsen distanced himself from Hegelian idealism and emphasised the personal aspects of faith which he argued could not be grasped by human reason. In line with Kierkegaard, Nielsen attacked Hegelian attempts to integrate philosophy, history and Christianity into a cultural synthesis which subordinated everything to one logical principle. This approach was popular among Danish theologians in the middle in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, Nielsen was critical of a new generation of materialist and positivist philosophers who claimed that the natural sciences made theology and religious faith untenable. In contrast to most fellow theologians, Nielsen emphasised that one had to take scientific theories seriously. However, this did not exclude Christian faith. According to Nielsen it was an existential challenge for each individual to live with both scientific knowledge and religious faith without dissolving this unbridgeable dualism. Nielsen had occupied this mediating stance during two controversies about faith and knowledge in 1849-1850 and 1865-1869. In the latter controversy he was severely criticised by both theologians and philosophers. While Nielsen’s position was marginalised at the Philosophical Department at the university after 1870, when positivist tendencies began to dominate and Nielsen’s integration of theology and philosophy was sidelined, he found a more receptive audience among theologians with Grundtvigian sympathies. Many liberal Grundtvigians saw his philosophy as a solid middle road between conservative high-church orthodoxy and atheist free thought. In an article in his journal For Idé og Virkelighed [For Idea and Reality] in 1873, Nielsen explicitly applied the radical distinction between faith and knowledge, or religion and science, when discussing evolution. Nielsen whole-heartedly supported Darwinism as long as it was understood as a scientific theory and not as a complete worldview. Nielsen’s separation model of science and religion became instrumental in responses from liberal Grundtvigians to scientific ideas, such as Darwinism, which at first glance seemed to threaten Christian faith.

Hans Henrik Hjermitslev

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