I didn’t want to make a thesis about Denmark’s political culture from one bike tour guide’s comments. So after stopping at the Father of Denmark’s statue I sought out a book that could tell me more about NFS Grundtvig.
At the bookshop they had two options in English and one was lighter to carry and described as more accessible. I bought Knud J V Jespersen’s A History of Denmark and read the relevant chapters. (I skipped “Economic Conditions 1500-1800”!)
It turns out that Grundtvig is even more interesting than BikeMike shared. Grundtvig lived from 1783-1872 and his life spanned from the age of Enlightenment to Romanticism to Bismarck’s Realpolitik. “All of the strong philosophical currents contributed in their own way to his thinking, and so to the creation of a particularly Danish ‘ism’—Grundtvigianism–which probably affected Denmark far more than any other European political or ideological movement.” (p 112-113)
His written histories reintroduced pagan Norse myths and gods to the Danish people. His subsequent three extended study visits to England gave him an appreciation for the value of pragmatism and freedom of thought. His most famous maxim is “First a human, then a Christian.” Ponder that for a moment.
What if everyone in the world thought in these terms?
- First a human, then a Muslim.
- First a human, then an American.
- First a human, then a Republican.
How much of our conflicts would go away? Similarly if all people could acknowledge they are humans and not gods or God’s agent. Humbly accept the limitations of being human, which includes an imperfect understanding of the divine. What peace and love and understanding might be available? But I digress.
In Denmark in the early 1800s, society was mired in a stranglehold of the church institution and aristocratic absolutism. The defeat to Bismarck created an existential crisis and Grundtvig articulated a new way to be Danish. He was a Lutheran pastor who preached separation of church and state. He preferred a Christian faith that is a conversation among equals rather than a long theological sermon. Amen.
He also reformed education with his ideas about a “school of life,” which was aimed at rural youth who’d been deprived of educational opportunity. “In short the intent was no less than to transform the inarticulate masses into responsible and articulate citizens in the new democratic society, which was slowly taking shape.” (p 114)
In a series of commentaries on contemporary societal problems (in 1838), Grundtvig created the word “folkelighed” to present his central concept:
…belonging to a nation was a matter of free choice. One could choose to join or remain outside. Choosing to join the popular, that is, national, community meant accepting certain duties towards that community as a whole, not just linguistic, but in the form of taking for the whole and an obligation to include the members in a folkelig, a mutually committed community. (p 118)
Grundtvig arrived at a propitious time in Denmark’s history when they were at a crossroads. The USA and England are at a crossroads. Who will inspire us to be more fully human, to look after one another and our planet? In the absence of a philosophical giant such as Grundtvig, we will have to read his words and others from history and find our inspiration.