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Kierkegaard’s Way

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Danish philosopher. Undated drawing by his brother. (Bettmann, via Getty Images)

I appreciate y’all’s patience with my lighter blogging over this past week. At the risk of being whiny, this relapse of the Epstein-Barr virus is really doing a number on me. I am finding it especially challenging to focus. This was the problem I had during my last round with the virus, but it seems worse now, probably because I’m older. I dunno. But I have to finish the revision of my next book this week, and I am trying to use as many of the hours of the day when I’m at my sharpest to devote to the manuscript. Consequently, I’m blogging less right now. If you want to make a joke about how it’s impossible to tell when I’m blogging with a clear mind, and when I’m blogging through a mononucleosis fog, I’ll laugh along with you, because it’s probably true.

I want to share with you a wonderful essay from Harper’s: editor Christopher Beha’s warm and appreciative review essay of a new biography of the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard — often called “SK” by scholars — meant a lot to me as a younger man, and was instrumental in my conversion to Christianity. This part of the essay speaks to why. Before we get there, you should know that SK believed that there were three “stages of life’s way” on the journey to becoming a true Self: the Aesthetic (living for pleasure and sensual feeling), the Ethical (living by a moral code), and the Religious (living entirely for God; this mode combines the previous two, and transcends them). In this passage, Beha talks about SK’s Fear and Trembling, the philosopher’s 1843 meditation on Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac at God’s command. It is a bizarre story, the Old Testament account, but in it, writes SK, we see an icon of the kind of “infinite resignation” it takes to be truly religious. Beha writes:

For Kierkegaard, this was the nature of the truly religious life. It entailed an inward turning toward God, one that could not be reduced to a moral law. In the preceding decades, great effort had been made to rationalize Christianity and situate it as the foundation of a universally binding ethical code. The problem, from Kierkegaard’s perspective, was that Jesus did not call us to obey a set of rules; he called us to love. It cannot be that adherence to an ethical code is the highest life, because it is possible to obey every rule placed in front of you without ever feeling love in your heart. To the aesthetic and the ethical was added a third category, the religious, which was beyond both.

Placed in this tripart relationship, the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious seem almost to represent a Hegelian progression, but one stage does not lead inevitably to the next as they do in Hegel’s system. There is no internal contradiction in the aesthetic life that ushers us out of it. We must choose to be ethical as an act of individual will. And since choosing in this way, and standing by our choices, is precisely what the ethical entails, we must in a sense already be living in the ethical sphere in order to choose it. Nothing in the aesthetic sphere—which is precisely the sphere wherein such choices cannot occur—could make us ethical by degrees. (From A’s papers: “Experience shows that it is not at all difficult for philosophy to begin. . . . But it is always difficult for philosophy and philosophers to stop.”) What is required is a qualitative leap from one state to another.

A similar leap must move us from the ethical to the religious. The ethical sphere gives us the satisfaction of adherence to a code, seen in Judge William’s smug complacency, and so it does not push us on to something greater. Yet we continue to have moments of anxiety or despair, as when we sense that no amount of upstanding behavior will change the fact that we and all we love are fated to die, or when we recognize that our ethical code is built on air, that it does not—cannot—have a universal basis, that the Christian story on which these ethics claim to be built cannot be rationalized as a Hegelian synthesis of the absolute and the particular or the necessary and the contingent, but must be accepted as a paradox, an absurdity.

In Kierkegaard’s view, it is precisely this anxiety that makes our inward turning possible. It is in this anxiety that we begin to be truly religious. For religious life does not unfold according to a universal code. Like Abraham, we cannot know in advance if we are doing it correctly. We must give ourselves over to it, as Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, in great fear and trembling. This is the famous leap of faith for which Kierkegaard is perhaps best known (although he never used the expression). The phrase is sometimes taken to mean that we ought to throw ourselves into belief even though we have no intellectual basis for doing so. In fact, it means that no amount of philosophical consideration or ethical behavior can bring about the inward turning that religious life requires. [Emphasis mine — RD]

Read the entire essay. The book Beha reviews is Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Soren Kierkegaard, by Clare Carlisle. It will be published on May 5.

The line I highlighted was a critically important aspect of SK’s teaching, for me as a college student wrestling with belief. I kept thinking that if I read the right argument, then I could believe in God. Something about this seemed … wrong, somehow, but I couldn’t figure it out. Reading an introduction to Kierkegaard’s thought , a book that’s now long out of print and hard to find, convinced me that I was going at the question of God’s existence all wrong. It would not matter if I encountered a convincing philosophical proof of God’s existence. The question was less a matter of the mind and more a matter of the heart. I was deceiving myself to mask my cowardice — my fear of believing. After Kierkegaard, I could not un-see what I had seen about myself: that I will only be able to know God by committing myself to loving and serving him as my “absolute telos” — that is, the Person whose presence would give meaning to every other thing in my life. I can no more be talked into that than I could be logically convinced to fall in love with someone who would be good for me. But anything short of that is not true religion.

SK taught me that to know God is like knowing how to play the violin. It’s something you cannot learn to do by reading a book about it. It’s something you can only learn to do by practicing it, and by wanting to know the art of violin-playing so much that you sacrifice for it. In other words, the encounter with God cannot be merely abstract and cerebral … or it’s not an encounter with God. SK was reacting strongly to Enlightenment rationalist Christianity. With relation to God, my own problem was that I wanted to make the leap of faith while keeping my options open. I wanted to try on faith as a possibility, but keep the door open to abandoning religion if it didn’t work out for me. This is what I did, too, in college — though after reading Kierkegaard, I couldn’t deny that I was faking it. I couldn’t deny that I was not brave enough to be religious, to take that leap of faith: the “leap,” as Beha explains, being willing to give myself body, mind, and soul to the worship of God.

It will not surprise you to know that at the same time, I idolized Romantic Love, and wanted nothing more than to lose myself in the love of a woman … but was equally afraid to surrender to a flesh-and-blood woman, thereby foreclosing my options. This was a fundamentally immature stance, but it’s where I was stuck for a long time, both with regard to God and Woman. SK spoke directly to me as I was restlessly searching for what it meant to live truthfully. His point was the same one that St. Augustine made in his Confessions: that our hearts are restless until the rest in God. I would have thought that was pious mumbo-jumbo before reading SK. After SK, I knew that it was true, though it was not a truth I was ready to face. I still had some running away to do.

The SK paradox I could not un-know, though, was that by resisting commitment to God because I wanted to retain the power to define myself according to my desires, I was not becoming my true Self, but asserting the right to change masks with the seasons. Furthermore, I was looking for religion to deliver me from anxiety. SK taught me that to be fully human is to live within the tension between time and eternity. To believe that there is no respite from that anxiety, or that there is total and permanent respite from it in this life, is to live in despair, and, in fact, to live a lie.

Finally, SK taught me that my idea of the religious life had been completely conditioned by middle-class respectability. I thought the only choice one had in life was between what SK called the Aesthetic mode, or the Ethical mode. I was living out the Aesthetic mode, and while it was fun, it was not serious, and not grounded in anything. But the Ethical mode seemed more respectable, but still called forth the question, “Is that all there is?” I thought the Christian religion was nothing more than an expression of life in the Ethical mode. I thought it was what you did when you got tired of carousing, and got Serious About Life, and acquired a wife, kids, and a career.

I had that all wrong, according to Soren Kierkegaard. Not that there’s anything wrong with having a wife, kids, and a career. It’s just that religion is something else.

It has been many years since I’ve read Kierkegaard, who is not an easy writer. The Clare Carlisle biography will be out next week. If I’m finished with my own manuscript by then, maybe I’ll buy it over Kindle. It sounds well worth reading. Carlisle is a British scholar, and the book has already been published in the UK. I found this passage from the introduction whetted my appetite for more:

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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