Rob Sturdy: An Introduction to Soren Kierkegaard

19 12 2011

I delivered the following introduction to Soren Kierkegaard at St. Paul’s Theological Center, hosted by St. Andrew’s Mount Pleasant on March 10th, 2010 as part of the “Great Theologians” series.  Read more about it here.

“What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, excerpt insofar as knowledge must precede every act.  What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die…what use would it be to me to be able to formulate the meaning of Christianity, to be able to explain many specific points- if it had no deeper meaning for my life?…I certainly do not deny that I still accept an imperative of knowledge and that through it men may be influenced, but then it must come alive in me, and this is what I now recognize as the most important of all.  This is what my soul thirsts for as the African deserts thirst for water.”[1]

This excerpt, taken from Kierkegaard’s journal entry dated August 1, 1835, in many ways sums up the man and his thought and is a fine argument for why it is well worth our time to spend an evening on Kierkegaard.  I would like to point out a few things from the journal entry to prepare you to listen for specific themes and styles that I will keep drawing us back to throughout our time together.

First, notice Kierkegaard’s earnestness.  It should be evident from the quote above that the search for truth and meaning is not a casual affair for Kierkegaard.  Rather than pursuing thought for thought’s sake, Kierkegaard is searching for an idea not only worth dying for, but also worth living for.

Second, notice that for Kierkegaard the aim of thought is to produce action in life.  If you understand this point you will understand his earnestness.  Kierkegaard’s question is not so much “what should we think about…,” but rather “how should we live?”  Our modern concerns will no doubt misunderstand Kierkegaard’s point on this issue.  The modern refrain is “it is not important what we believe, but how we act.”  If this is how you understand the quote then you have failed to read it properly.  Let us focus on one sentence from the excerpt to draw out this very important point.  “I certainly do not deny that I still accept an imperative of knowledge and that through it men may be influenced…”  What is being said here?  What is being said is that knowledge, that is what you believe, is of supreme importance.  But this knowledge must translate to concrete behavior in our actual lives.  This is what Kierkegaard mean’s by “it must come alive in me.”  The thoughts of the mind must take on flesh, arms, legs, eyes, ears etc. and move and act and have consequences in the real world.

Third, notice that unlike many philosophers today, Kierkegaard takes for granted that the truth he is so desperately searching for is bound up within the will of God.  “What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do.”  Kierkegaard is not looking for universal principles that could exist without God.  In fact, as we shall see momentarily, Kierkegaard believed such universal principles could be suspended if God demanded.  Rather, for Kierkegaard “What matters” is ultimately determined by the command of God and its appropriation by the human will.

And finally, notice that Kierkegaard is a poet.  We will not be studying a dry, distant, dizzyingly complex philosopher/ theologian tonight.  We will be studying a philosophy/ theologian who wraps every thought in a beautiful parable.  “This is what my soul thirsts for as the African deserts thirst for water.”

Soren Kierkegaaard was born on May 15, 1813 the youngest child of Michael Kierkegaard.  Kierkegaard’s was born into a poor agrarian lifestyle.  The Pedersen’s occupied a small portion of land next to the church, hence their family name “Kierkegaard,” or church yard.  At the age of twelve Michael was able to leave the farm and join his uncle who was a merchant in Coppenhagen.  At the age of 24 Michael Kierkegaard established his own business that was so wildly successful he was able to retire at the age of 40.

Michael’s wife, Kirstine, died childless early on in the marriage.  Less than a year after Kirstine’s death, Michael’s housekeeper was discovered to be pregnant and Michael married her shortly thereafter.  The couple had three daughters and four sons, the youngest of whom was Soren.   Soren enjoyed a bond with his father that exceeded that of the other siblings.  Understanding this special bond is an integral piece in understanding the puzzle that is Soren Kierkegaard.

Michael Kierkegaard grew up in a strict Lutheran family, influenced by the pietistic tradition.  He had a strong awareness of sin and guilt that created a mood of general despair that trickled into the household and especially into Soren.  Michael had more cause (at least in his own mind) to despair over his sin than most serious Lutherans of his day.  Despite Michael’s obvious moral lapse in impregnating his housekeeper, the real issue that weighed most heavily on Michael’s conscience was an event that occurred when he was only a boy.  The event is vividly recounted by Sven Leopold in his biography of Kierkegaard.  He writes of an instance when Michael was charged with grazing the sheep.  A fierce rain storm came upon suddenly and the boy was stranded with the seep for many hours.  Here is the tale as told by Leopold in Soren Kierkegaard: Genius Tragedie:

“The Shepherd boy sat among his mute sheep while the rain poured down.  It was another three hours until supper and he would have to stay, for his father was a strict man who would become angry if his sheep came home early just because of the rain…At some point the boy burst into tears, but after a while he stopped.  No one cared about a shepherd boy’s cries.  Pained by dread and sadness he walked across the moor and climbed a hill covered with heather.  When he reached the top he looked around on all sides to make sure no one was watching him…Then he clenched his cold fists, turned his swollen face toward the dark sky, raised his arms in a threatening gesture at a silent and angry God and cursed him.  ‘I hate you up there!’ He yelled, hurling a child’s curses against an implacable God…Then he went down the hill, and one hour later he walked back to the farm with his sheep.”

How did Michael understand this event that many of us would disregard readily as an inconsequential tantrum of a child?  Out of the seven Kierkegaard children five would die before they reached the age of thirty four.  Michael began to believe that God was cursing the family because he had once cursed God on the hill top.  Of the two remaining Kierkegaard children, it seems that Michael only confessed to Soren.  He wrote in his journal:

“A guilt must fall upon the whole family, the punishment of God must be on it; it was to disappear, wiped out by the powerful hand of God, obliterated like an unsuccessful attempt, and only at times did I find some little relief in the thought that my father had been allotted the heavy task of calming us with the consolation of religion.”

In addition to cursing God on that lonely hilltop in Jutland Michael’s sexual impropriety with his housekeeper also weighed heavily upon him.  At the age of eighty he confessed this impropriety to Soren and it appeared to have a profound impact on Soren’s appreciation (or lack thereof) of Christianity.  He writes concerning this episode:

“Then it was that the great earthquake occurred, the terrible revolution which suddenly forced upon me a new and infallible law of interpretation of the facts.  At that point I suspected that my father’s great age was not a divine blessing, but rather a curse.”

Soren, disenchanted with both his father and Christianity, moved out of his father’s house to University where he spent most of his time drinking, flirting, and going to theatre.  Soren would write of his relationship to Christ at this point in time “If Christ is to come and take up His abode in me, it must happen according to the title of today’s Gospel in the almanac:  Christ came through locked doors.”  Shortly after this journal entry, Soren found his way back in the church and celebrated his return to the faith by taking communion.  “There is an indescribable joy which blazes within me,” he would write after his reconciliation with Christianity.  His religious experience, whatever it was, also paved the way for Soren to reconcile with his father shortly before his death.  Soren wrote of his father’s death:

“I had so very much wished that he might live a few years longer, and I look upon his death as the last sacrifice which he made to his love for me; for he did not die from me but died for me in order that if possible I might still turn into something.”

Michael’s death had an obvious and profound impact on Soren, shaking him from the frivolity that had defined much of his adult life, he poured himself into his studies and finally finished his dissertation in 1840.  This dissertation titled The Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates, is a foundational piece for understanding not only the thought of Kierkegaard, but who he was as a man and the role he had cast for himself in this world.

The Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates

Have you ever noticed how much of your life seems to reflect the going out and coming in of the tide?  By that I mean, the tide comes in and brings with it shells, and detritus, and fish who are swept along with the movement of the ocean.  And just as they are swept in, they are swept out.  But this coming and going is not determined by them, but rather by the ocean.  So too much of our life is not actually determined by ourselves but by the tide of the culture.  We are attend extra-curricular activities when we are young to make us well rounded, like boy scouts, basketball, piano etc.  It is not so much up to us to decide what will make us well rounded, but rather culture.  When we are teenagers we apply for college.  It is not so much up to us to decide whether or not you should apply for college or even what you hope to gain in doing so, but rather it is simply what one does. From there, you graduate and get married.  You will have 2.5 children, a middle class income, and a home in the suburbs.  That is what one does.  It just kind of happens, whether you think about it or intend it or not.  You are swept along.  Kierkegaard refused to be swept along, and his dissertation is a harsh critique of individuals who are unreflectively swept along.  He writes:

“At any such turning point in history, two movements must be noted.  On the one hand, the new must forge ahead; on the other, the old must be displaced.  Inasmuch as the new must forge ahead, here we meet the prophetic individual who spies the new in the distance, in the dim and undefined contours…Then comes the tragic hero in the strict sense.  He battles for the new and strives to destroy what for him is a vanishing actuality, but his task is not so much to destroy as to advance the new and thereby destroy the past indirectly.  But the old must be superseded; the old must be perceived in all its imperfection.  Here we meet the ironic subject.  For the ironic subject, the given actualisty has lost its validity entirely; it has become for him an imperfect form that is a hindrance everywhere…He is the one who must pass judgment…Here then we have iron as the infinite absolute negativity.  It is negativity, because it only negates, it is infinite, because it does not negate this or that phenomenon; it is absolute, because that by virtue of which it negates is a higher something that still is not.”[2]

Of the three characters mentioned above, Kierkegaard is the ironist and as the ironist he is the “infinite absolute negativity.”  It is negative because it always questions, always critiques, always negates the coming in and going out of the tide.  It is infinite because this is its role in any and every age.  This is not so much a call to be a negative person, in the sense that you and I would understand it, but rather to view the world critically and reflectively.  This essentially makes the ironic person free to choose rather than bound to be swept along.

But you may ask what role does the ironic play in Christian life and theology?  The answer lies in the freedom that the ironic life brings to the individual.  For Kierkegaard, freedom and the exercise of that freedom was essential to what it meant to be a human being.  The fundamental nature of freedom and responsibility to our basic humanity is a theology borrowed from Luther.  In Luther’s commentary on Genesis, he takes the “image of God” to mean essentially free will and the exercise of that will in an ethical way.[3] Kierkegaard, influenced in no small way by Luther on a range of levels, adopts this basic anthropology and draws out the psychological implications.  This is no more clearly seen than in Kierkegaard’s work The Concept of Anxiety to which we now turn.  I will try to trace Kierkegaard’s basic anthropology in a few simple points.

The Concept of Anxiety:

  1. Preliminaries:  “Innocence is ignorance.  In innocence…the spirit of man is dreaming.  This view is in full accord with that of the Bible, which…” denies that man in his innocence had knowledge of either good or evil.”[4]
  2. Freedom is an essential to humanity:  “When it is assumed that the prohibition awakens the desire, one acquires knowledge instead of ignorance, and in that case Adam must have had a knowledge of freedom, because the desire was to use it.  The explanation is therefore subsequent…What passed by innocence as the nothing of anxiety has now entered into Adam, and here again it is a nothing- the anxious possibility of being able[5]
  3. Freedom creates anxiety:  “Only the possibility of being able is present as a higher form of ignorance (as opposed to knowledge of good and evil), as a higher expression of anxiety, because in a higher sense it both is and is not, because in a higher sense he both loves it and flees from it.”[6]
  4. Because free choices have consequences:  “Every notion that suggests that the prohibition tempted him, or that the seducer deceived him, has sufficient ambivalence only for a superficial observation, but it perverts ethics, introduces a quantitative determination, and will by the help of psychology pay man a compliment at the sacrifice of the ethical, a compliment that everyone who is ethically developed must reject as a new and more profound seduction.”[7]
  5. But unless you exercise that freedom, accepting the responsibilities and the consequences you will never fully “exist”

Now you may see why the ironic subject is essential for Kierkegaard for Christian thought and practice.  Those who are swept along by the tides of culture, unreflectively moving through life, are sub-human (Philistines!).  In being swept along, they fail to exercise their freedom.  In failing to exercise their freedom they fail to truly “exist” as humans.

This was worked out by Kierkegaard on many profound levels and not merely in abstraction but in real action with real material consequences.  This is seen no more clearly than in Kierkegaard’s broken engagement with his fiancé Regina Olsen.  In September of 1840 Kierkegaard proposed to the beautiful and intelligent Regina Olsen.  Only a day later however, Kierkegaard was shook to the core over what his engagement meant, not for himself but for Regina.  He writes in Repetition:

“So let us suppose I had married her. What then?  About me there is something rather ghostly, which accounts for the fact that no one can put up with me.  I was engaged to her for a year, and still she did not really know me.  I was too heavy for her and she was too light for me.”[8]

He called off the engagement because he did not want Regina to suffer through a marriage with a melancholic, troubled, anxious man.  Kierkegaard fled from Copenhagen to avoid the scandal of the broken engagement.  He landed in Berlin where he attended the lectures of Friedrich Schelling, whose subject was Georg Willhelm Friedrich Hegel.  One of Kierkegaard’s classmates in this lecture series was a budding historian, economist and philosopher named Karl Marx.

During these lectures Kierkegaard became well acquainted with the philosophy of Hegel.  Regretably we do not have the time to delve deeply into Hegelian philosophy, yet we do have time to provide a brief introduction in order to understand our subject, Soren Kierkegaard, better than we would otherwise.

In Hegel’s The Phenomenlogy of the Mind, Hegel attempts to trace the logical process by which the human mind rose from simple consciousness to reason, to spirit, to religion, and finally to Absolute Knowledge.  This was done through the process of synthesizing contradictory realities.

Here is an example.  In the mind it is possible to conceive of contradictory realities.  How do we then come to an understanding of absolute truth if we cannot reconcile competing realities?  Hegel does so through the dialectical method.  Below are two examples.

Thesis:  Universal                                                             Thesis:  My individual rights

Antithesis: Particular                                                      Antithesis: Your individual rights

Synthesis:  Individuality                                                 Synthesis:  Civil Justice

Though Kierkegaard found Hegel’s philosophy impressive in scope and his intellect equally astounding, Kierkegaard nevertheless did not believe that Hegel’s philosophy could ever be moved out of abstract realities and as such could never be useful outside of academia.  He would go on to say of Hegel “The one thing that has always escaped Hegel is how to live- it’s like reading out of a cookbook to a man who is hungry.”

Why would Kierkegaard say that Hegel’s philosophy could not be applied to teach us how to live?

Thesis: Marry Regina Olsen

Antithesis:  Do not marry Regina Olsen

Synthesis: …..?

What must I do?

“What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, excerpt insofar as knowledge must precede every act.  What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die…”[9]

In Kierkegaard’s famous breakthrough work, Either/ Or, he seeks to develop a method by which human beings can learn how to live.  The work is notoriously difficult to interpret, as it is written by psydonomous writers.  It thus because very difficult to discern when Kierkegaard is speaking for himself, or for someone else.  But that is actually part of the genius of the work.  Kierkegaard is not so much interested that you come to his conclusion, but rather that you reflect on your life and come to a conclusion for yourself.  He presents four “stages of on life’s way” for you to reflect on.  Each stage has a representative that brilliantly argues the case.  You are left on your own to make sense of which mode is the best way of existing in this world.  There is no rational basis for remaining in any sphere, as many of our most “rational” convictions are based on reasonably shaky presuppositions.

  • Philistine:  an individual formed wholly and unreflectively by his social and economic environment.
  • Aesthete:  formed by his natural instincts and acts to fulfill his animal desires
  • Ethical:  formed by the higher categories of good and evil and lives to fulfill his role within these categories.
  • Religious:  A truly mysterious stage, where one lives solely for the will of God, often in contradiction to rational thought

As should have been made clear by now, one occupies spheres based not on determinism but upon choice.  So how do we make the choice?  Kierkegaard never says so explicitly, so I may be on dangerous grounds here.  But I will try and piece together how one might choose to change spheres.

The “Leap”:  Logic and reason can show you how fundamentally incompatible different ways of life actually are, but they cannot tell you which one to choose.  In order to move from the Aesthete to the Ethical stage, or from the Ethical to the Religious, one must make a “leap.”  This leap is not based upon reason but upon faith and is expressed in the will to be ethical, or the will to believe (in the religious sphere).  This leap may be irrational in a strict sense, but it is not unreasonable or uninformed.  Consider this lengthy paragraph written by the Aesthete in Either/ Or.

“If I imagined two kingdoms bordering each other, one of which I know rather well and the other not at all, and if however much I desired it I was not allowed to enter the unknown kingdom, I would still be able to form some idea of it.  I would go to the border of the kingdom known to me and follow it all the way, and in doing so I would by my movements describe the outline of that unknown land and thus have a general idea of it, although I had never set foot in it.  And if this was a labor that occupied me very much, if I was unflaggingly scrupulous, it presumably would sometimes happen that if I stood with sadness at the border of my kingdom and gazed longingly into that unknown country that was so near and yet so far, I would be granted an occasional disclosure.”[10]

Persuasion: As has been expressed early in this paper, logic and reason can show how different forms of life are incompatible.  They cannot however help you choose which one to pursue.  So how then are we prompted to pursue anything?  I think here Kierkegaard uses the language not of logic but of persuasion.  Note the language of Judge Willhelm as he writes the young Aesthete.

“The faithful romantic lover waits, let us say fifteen years; then comes the moment that rewards him.  Here poetry very popularly perceives that the fifteen years can easily be concentrated; now it hastens to the moment.  A married man is faithful for fifteen years, and yet during these fifteen years he has had possession; therefore in this long succession he has continually acquired the faithfulness he possessed, since marital love has in itself the first love and thereby the faithfulness of the first love.”[11]

You will notice that Judge Willhelm’s argument is not rational in the strict sense.  All he has done rationally is shown that the life of the Aesthete and the life of the Ethical person are incompatible.  However, his argument is reasonable and persuasive.  The pleasure that the Aesthete seeks in the fleeting moment is contained in decades long faithfulness in marriage.

The Religious Life

Kierkegaard stands in a long line of “negative theologians,” negative not because they are exceptionally critical but rather negative in their understanding of reason’s ability to prove the existence of God.

Tertullian:  “Credo qua absurdum est”  “I believe because it is absurd

Blaise Paschal:  “God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.”[12]

Martin Luther: “But since the devil’s bride, Reason, that pretty whore, comes in and thinks she’s wise, and what she says, what she thinks, is from the Holy Spirit, who can help us, then? Not judges, not doctors, no king or emperor, because [reason] is the Devil’s greatest whore.” [13]

Fear and Trembling:

In Kierkegaard’s work Fear and Trembling, the event of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac is addressed in terms of Kierkegaard’s understanding of ethical and religious spheres.  Kierkegaard’s argument follows essentially the following points:

  1. It is wrong to commit murder
  2. Abraham attempts to commit murder
  3. Therefore Abraham is wrong and a murderer…or is he?

“But I come back to Abraham.  During the time before the result, either Abraham was a murderer every minute or we stand before a paradox higher than all mediations.”[14]

Here we see the utter incapatability of the stages of life.  In Kierkegaard’s reading of the story of Abraham, it is impossible to reconcile the demands of the ethical life with those of the religious.  To try to live in both stages would produce an inconsistency, which Kierkegaard is at great pains to avoid.

The danger of deciding for faith:

“We are touched, we look back to those beautiful times.  Sweet sentimental longings leads us to the goal of our desire, to see Christ walking about in the promised land.  We forget the anxiety, the distress, the paradox.  Was it such a simple matter not to make a mistake?  Was it not terrifying that this man walking around among the others was God?  Was it not terrifying to sit down to eat with him?  Was it such an easy matter to become an apostle?  But the result, the eighteen centuries- that helps, that contributes to this mean deception whereby we deceive ourselves and others.  I do not feel brave enough to wish to be contemporary with events like that…”[15]

The paragraph just quoted is tremendously useful for cultural Christians.  We need to come to grips once more with the weight of making a “decision for Christ.”  There is the chance after all, that one could be wrong about the person of Christ and this is no trivial thing.

The severity of Kierkegaard’s theology and philosophy should, if one thinks long and hard enough about it, place one in despair.  However it is not meant to leave one there.  Perhaps here it will serve you well to remember that Kierkegaard is formed in no small part by the theology of the great German reformer Martin Luther.  Those familiar with Luther’s works will notice the residue of his theology throughout the philosophy of Kierkegaard.  In particular we want to look at Luther’s understanding of “the law”, which is not to be read so narrowly as the Ten Commandments, but is often used as anythingthat awakens knowledge of sin, guilt, shame, fear etc.  When the law does this, it acts as an angry dog which chases the frightened sinner into the loving arms of Christ.  Kierkegaard uses his despair and anxiety in a similar way.  Notice below how he uses man’s inability and God’s ability to form a perfect marriage:

“God in heaven is capable of all things and man is capable of nothing at all.  Is it not so, my listener, that these two correspond to each other, God and man?”[16]

The Persuasiveness of Christianity

We will conclude with one thought, which wonderfully illustrates Kierkegaard’s depth of thought concerning matters of Christian theology, his skill as a poet, as well as his understanding of the Christian faith as a compelling, persuasive system.

We must remember, that for Kierkegaard in order to move from one stage of life (say the ethical) to another (the religious) one must make a leap of faith.  Yet what prompts this leap?  It is not rational (in the strict sense, i.e. logic/ scientific method), but that does not make it unreasonable.  The rational (logic/ scientific method) can tell us much about the world, but they cannot tell us much, if anything, about the deepest experiences of being human.  By this we mean falling in love, finding a cause to die for, the search for justice, feelings of compassion and mercy, a longing to be connected to the spiritual world.  For these science and logic have little to say to us.  Where then do we turn?  Kierkegaard will argue that in order to understand these things we must grow comfortable with paradox, which is we take love, justice, mercy etc. seriously we must grow comfortable with their paradoxical nature.  Kierkegaard will write:

“The thinker without paradox is like a lover without feelings.”

What does he mean here?  If the theologian cannot come to grips with the paradox of say, the incarnation (God and man) or the crucifixion (God dies) then one has lost Christianity already.  A rational Christianity, like a lover without paradox, is a Christianity without passion or feeling.

What might arise passion and feeling in the Christian?  A poetic exposition of a glorious paradox.  Let us study in part the parable below, found originally in Kierkegaard’s workPhilosophical Fragments.  I have excerpted a massive section.

Suppose then a king who loved a humble maiden. The heart of the king was not polluted by the wisdom that is loudly enough proclaimed; he knew nothing of the difficulties that the understanding discovers in order to ensnare the heart, which keep the poets so busy, and make their magic formulas necessary. It was easy to realize his purpose. Every statesman feared his wrath and dared not breathe a word of displeasure; every foreign state trembled before his power, and dared not omit sending ambassadors with congratulations for the nuptials; no courtier groveling in the dust dared wound him, lest his own head be crushed. Then let the harp be tuned, let the songs of the poets begin to sound, and let all be festive while love celebrates its triumph. For love is exultant when it unites equals, but it is triumphant when it makes that which was unequal equal in love. — Then there awoke in the heart of the king an anxious thought; who but a king who thinks kingly thoughts would have dreamed of it! He spoke to no one about his anxiety; for if he had, each courtier would doubtless have said: “Your majesty is about to confer a favor upon the maiden, for which she can never be sufficiently grateful her whole life long.” This speech would have moved the king to wrath, so that he would have commanded the execution of the courtier for high treason against the beloved, and thus he would in still another way have found his grief increased. So he wrestled with his troubled thoughts alone. Would she be happy in the life at his side? Would she be able to summon confidence enough never to remember what the king wished only to forget, that he was king and she had been a humble maiden? For if this memory were to waken in her soul, and like a favored lover sometimes steal her thoughts away from the king, luring her reflections into the seclusion of a secret grief; or if this memory sometimes passed through her soul like the shadow of death over the grave: where would then be the glory of their love? Then she would have been happier had she remained in her obscurity, loved by an equal, content in her humble cottage; but confident in her love, and cheerful early and late. What a rich abundance of grief is here laid bare, like ripened grain bent under the weight of its fruitfulness, merely waiting the time of the harvest, when the thought of the king will thresh out all its seed of sorrow! For even if the maiden would be content to become as nothing, this could not satisfy the king, precisely because he loved her, and because it was harder for him to be her benefactor than to lose her. And suppose she could not even understand him? For while we are thus speaking foolishly of human relationships, we may suppose a difference of mind between them such as to render an understanding impossible. What a depth of grief slumbers not in this unhappy love, who dares to rouse it! However, no human being is destined to suffer such grief; him we may refer to Socrates, or to that which in a still more beautiful sense can make the unequal equal…..

Behold where he stands — the God! Where? There; do you not see him? He is the God; and yet he has not a resting-place for his head, and he dares not lean on any man lest he cause him to be offended. He is the God; and yet he picks his steps more carefully than if angels guided them, not to prevent his foot from stumbling against a stone, but lest he trample human beings in the dust, in that they are offended in him. He is the God; and yet his eye rests upon mankind with deep concern, for the tender shoots of an individual life may be crushed as easily as a blade of grass. How wonderful a life, all sorrow and all love: to yearn to express the equality of love, and yet to be misunderstood; to apprehend the danger that all men may be destroyed, and yet only so to be able really to save a single soul; his own life filled with sorrow, while each 7 hour of the day is taken up with the troubles of the learner who confides in him! This is the God as he stands upon the earth, like unto the humblest by the power of his omnipotent love. He knows that the learner is in Error — what if he should misunderstand, and droop, and lose his confidence! To sustain the heavens and the earth by the fiat of his omnipotent word, so that if this word were withdrawn for the fraction of a second the universe would be plunged into chaos — how light a task compared with bearing the burden that mankind may take offense, when one has been constrained by love to become its saviour!

But the servant-form is no mere outer garment, and therefore the God must suffer all things, endure all things, make experience of all things. He must suffer hunger in the desert, he must thirst in the time of his agony, he must be forsaken in death, absolutely like the humblest — behold the man His suffering is not that of his death, but this entire life is a story of suffering; and it is love that suffers, the love which gives all is itself in want. What wonderful self-denial! for though the learner be one of the lowliest, he nevertheless asks him anxiously: Do you now really love me? For he knows where the danger threatens, and yet he also knows that every easier way would involve a deception, even though the learner might not understand it.

Every other form of revelation would be a deception in the eyes of love; for either the learner would first have to be changed, and the fact concealed from him that this was necessary (but love does not alter the beloved, it alters itself); or there would be permitted to prevail a frivolous ignorance of the fact that the entire relationship was a delusion. (This was the error of paganism.) Every other form of revelation would be a deception from the standpoint of the divine love. And if my eyes were more filled with tears than those of a repentant woman, and if each tear were more precious than a pardoned woman’s many tears; if I could find a place more humble than the place at his feet, and if I could sit there more humbly than a woman whose heart’s sole choice was this one thing needful; if I loved him more sincerely than the most loyal of his servants, eager to shed the last drop of his life-blood in his service; if I had found greater favor in his eyes than the purest among women — nevertheless, if I asked him to alter his purpose, to reveal himself differently, to be more lenient with himself, he would doubtless look at me and say: Man, what have I to do with thee? Get thee hence, for thou art Satan, though thou knowest it not! Or if he once or twice stretched forth his hand in command, and it happened, and I then meant to understand him better or love him more, I would doubtless see him weep also over me, and hear him say: To think that you could prove so faithless, and so wound my love! Is it then only the omnipotent wonder-worker that you love, and not him who humbled himself to become your equal?

But the servant-form is no mere outer garment; hence he must yield his spirit in death and again leave the earth. And if my grief were deeper than the sorrow of a mother when her heart is pierced by the sword, and if my danger were more terrible than the danger of a believer when his faith fails him, and if my misery were more pitiful than his who crucifies his hope and has nothing left but the cross — nevertheless, if I begged him to save his life and stay upon the earth, it would only be to see him sorrowful unto death, and stricken with grief also for my sake, because this suffering was for my profit, and now I had added to his sorrow the burden that I could not understand him. O bitter cup! More bitter than wormwood is the bitterness of death for a mortal, how bitter then for an immortal! O bitter refreshment, more bitter than aloes, to be refreshed by the misunderstanding of the beloved! O solace in affliction to suffer as one who is guilty, what solace then to suffer as one who is innocent!

Such will be our poet’s picture. For how could it enter his mind that the God would reveal himself in this way in order to bring men to the most crucial and terrible decision; how could he find it in his heart to play frivolously with the God’s sorrow, falsely poetizing his love away to poetize his wrath in!

And now the learner, has he no lot or part in this story of suffering, even though his lot cannot be that of the Teacher? Aye, it cannot be otherwise. And the cause of all this suffering is love, precisely because the God is not jealous for himself, but desires in love to be the equal of the humblest. When the seed of the oak is planted in earthen vessels, they break asunder; when new wine is poured in old leathern bottles, they burst; what must happen when the God implants himself in human weakness, unless man becomes a new vessel and a new creature! But this becoming, what labors will attend the change, how convulsed with birth-pangs! And the understanding — how precarious, and how close each moment to misunderstanding, when the anguish of guilt seeks to disturb the peace of love! And how rapt in fear; for it is indeed less terrible to fall to the ground when the mountains tremble at the voice of the God, than to sit at table with him as an equal; and yet it is the God’s concern precisely to have it so.[17]

Is it persuasive?  If there is a God, would you not want him to be like this?  If there is not a God, do you not wish there was one like this?  The persuasiveness of Kierkegaard’s faith is in its dramatic beauty.


[1] Kierkegaard, Journals Gilleje, August 1, 1835

[2] Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony XIII pg 335

[3] Luther, Vol 1 pg 56

[4] Kierkegaard IV pg 313

[5] Ibid IV pg 316

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid IV pg 315

[8] Kierkegaard VI 255

[9] Kierkegaard, Journals Gilleje, August 1, 1835

[10] Kierkegaard, Vol I pg 48

[11] Ibid Vol II pg 126

[12] Paschal, Pensees 235

[13] Luther, Sunday in Epiphany, 17 January 1546.”

[14] Kierkegaard III pg 115

[15] Ibid III pg 115

[16] Kierkegaard V pg 93

[17] Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments ch. 2


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