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An American's View of Denmark

An interview with K. Brian Soderquist

Based on your brief bio, I asked how your English was before our interview. Then I found out you were from Utah, perhaps I should ask how is your Danish?

I have been in Denmark ten years. I feel absolutely fine in everyday situations. I teach in Danish at the university; one can be in a country for ten years and still discover there are nuances that manage to escape you. In fact, I sometimes have trouble speaking straight English.

Do you dream in English or Danish?

A strange mix. I guess it is Danish most of the time. We always speak Danish in public and then privately it is a mix.

What was the journey that took you to Denmark?

I went there as a missionary. I returned to Denmark about three times after I was an undergrad. I finished a master’s degree in the U.S. and went back to Denmark again for four months. I thought about doing my PhD right away in Denmark, and after a couple of years of being frustrated in the PhD program, I transferred to the PhD at the University of Copenhagen.

So it wasn’t as simple as serving a mission and then going back to live there?

The truth is I knew more about living in Denmark than I knew about Søren Kierkegaard. I came back and decided to do philosophy as my major and then a master’s degree in theology.

Please explain to me the difference between philosophy, religion, and theology.

That is a difficult one for me because I have been jumping in and out of those different academic departments, and I have always been interested in the exact same questions. I ended up doing the exact same thing in different departments.

Philosophy as a professor of theology—how does that work?

I teach philosophy of religion and ethics in the theology department, University of Copenhagen, so I am sort of at that end of their spectrum. And of course, if I was at a philosophy department I would be in the other extreme. It’s nice various disciplines are flexible enough that there is overlap. This makes it very nice for me, especially since my specialty is Kierkegaard existentialism. It is fortunate that I can either read Kierkegaard as a philosopher or as theology or as an author and it doesn’t matter what department I am in. He is a strange mix of those three disciplines.

How do students respond to the topics you teach?

I think students, whether they’re American exchange students or Danish students of theology, are interested in some aspect of what Kierkegaard talks about. For the most part, students are open to what Kierkegaard is after, and it doesn’t matter if they have a background in religion, philosophy, or theology, or psychology for that matter. The texts are flexible enough that people read themselves into what he is talking about, find something that they are passionate writing or thinking about.

You have interesting classroom discussions I would imagine?

Absolutely. People who are confidently agnostic love Kierkegaard. And people who are confidently religious love Kierkegaard. In some sense, he criticizes all of us and offers all of us possibilities for thinking about these issues in a more nuanced way. Whether one is devout or agnostic, it’s more complicated than simple formulas.

Aren’t there more of the latter in Denmark?

Yes, it’s a very secularized country, but as we have seen recently in political issues, these cartoons caused a big stir, at least in Denmark. There are a lot of Danes—I think the majority of Danes—who still understand themselves through religious categories. Even though those religious categories are secularized. It is a Christian country, as a description of Danish culture.

They don’t practice in the way we might define that here in the U.S.?

No, they certainly do not practice it; religion is not something that makes demands on an individual as far as doing things that he or she might not otherwise do.

That is the crux of Christianity is it not?

That is certainly what Søren Kierkegaard would think. Danes understand what being Christian is in different terms, as a secularized country in general. The world is complicated and it has also complicated Denmark in a lot of different ways. Even in the theology department there are different perspectives. I think it is a lot like Yale Divinity School, some people have political interests and their interest with religion is synonymous with their interest in political issues. For them there is no difference between the political and the religious, and part of the reason to study theology would be to have a traditional theological and religious angle on practical political problems. Other people come from almost fundamentalist backgrounds, also in Denmark. Five percent of the students there have a more traditional evangelical background. There are also people studying theology who aren’t interested in personal religious spirituality. It’s an academic discipline; it’s diverse, and there is a great deal of passion, life, to the theology classes in Denmark that sometimes aren’t apparent in more homogenous groups.

What is your favorite aspect of Denmark?

The thing that I enjoy most about Denmark is an enormous calm. Something I notice every single time I reenter Denmark—after being here for example. The stress that I usually carry around with me is alleviated a little bit just by looking around and noticing that other people are calm. And I think that it’s cultural. It comes from something exactly the opposite of what we find in the U.S. I think it is a function of the welfare state and some strong unions in the early part of the twentieth century. The balance of power between employers and employees lies in the hands of the employees. People insist on going home to be with their families. It is a secularized version of having time that is not dedicated to doing one’s work. The presupposition is that you don’t own me, and that has become universal in Denmark. Right now the government is trying to change that. The government is pushing hard to get more from the people.

How many hours do they generally work?

Thirty-seven hours a week is standard. There is an insistence, culturally speaking, that one shall go home and spend some time with the family. They have strong family values; it is just not religious. Family values means to spend time with one’s spouse, children, and friends. They invite people over for dinner, starting at six o’clock, and they socialize until midnight—very social. Over dinner they spend a couple of hours talking to each other. This is just what people do, and it is what people find rewarding. I am happy to take the cue from Danes and just relax. I work too hard. I strain my days—my wife would say “relax.” I feel like I am a little bit foreign in that sense.

So you almost would say that, and correct me if I am wrong, this insistence on sociality, good as it is, would definitely clash with the worker-bee mentality of Latter-day Saints, who feel this need to be busily engaged all the time?

That is true, I think you are exactly right. I see those as sort of competing cultural values, to always be active. If we understand we are raised with this Protestant work ethic—beehive mentality to work, to be engaged—is a reward in and of itself, it’s a demand in and of itself. It plays itself out in a number of ways: my employer cannot ask enough of me; I will always do it; I want to do it well; I will go ahead and give that extra few hours and feel like I am doing my duty. In Denmark, culturally speaking this is universal, that is viewed as an imposition—that someone could ask me to work instead of spending time with my family or my friends is something to fight against. In fifteen years, I have seen the erosion of that calm. I don’t think there is any way of slowing it down, because I don’t think my generation of Danes is nearly as protective of that time. I must admit I don’t think they know what they will be losing. They definitely will give their children and grandchildren some thin ice having to stay in motion the whole time—stress. That is the way it works itself out psychosocially, a terrible stress. Coming from my perspective, my background, it seems so calm, and people seem relatively stress free compared to what I see in my American exchange students, my American friends, and myself. And I am afraid it is going to disappear a little bit because my generation of Danes don’t know what that stress is. I think they could imagine what it would be like to have a little bit more money and not to pay as much tax, and in that sense they are more focused on issues that are a bit more American.

How did you come to speak at the Kennedy Center?

Professor David L. Paulsen, of the Philosophy Department at BYU, contacted somebody at the University of Copenhagen, who is involved in translating Søren Kierkegaard’s writings into English, about looking over a translation that a former BYU philosophy student had made of an article written by Søren Kierkegaard’s brother, Peter Christian, against Mormonism back in the 1850s. Søren was a critic of the Danish state church and Peter Christian was a priest in the Danish state church—the only two surviving brothers. They had quite diametrically opposed views about the state church. Peter Christian was made bishop in the north, where there were a lot of Latter-day Saints, and he was made bishop partially because he was good at dealing with new religious movements: Baptists, Latter-day Saints, etc. Right after the Danish Constitution was written, which allowed freedom of religion, a lot of different movements started. He was interested in defending the Danish State Church—traditional Christianity—against these various versions. I am part of the translation team, and I was recommended as a person who could look over the translation. I wrote back an e-mail and said, as a matter of fact, I would love to do this because I am a Latter-day Saint and my great-great-grandfather was Erastus Snow—and I think this tract was written against him in the 1850s.

Things don’t happen by chance!

No, so we corresponded for awhile, and he asked if I would think of coming here to speak. I grew up in Logan; my parents live in Logan. I haven’t been back to Utah for four years, because I have been visiting my parents while they were missionaries in Stockholm. In Cache County, we considered BYU a rival school, and I have been to BYU a few times, but I thought, of course, I would love to come here—and here I am.