Archives For Soren Kierkegaard

Right off the bat, I’ll own that this title is pretentious. But I just had this realization, and I think it’s profoundly true. I’ll need to improve my titling skills, because while this post should be broadly relatable, I’m sure the title scared most people away. But not you, dear reader. Thanks for giving me a chance here.

The 19th Century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard is one of the most influential thinkers in history. If that statement surprises you, it’s because his thinking comes to most of us indirectly through many currently-influential voices. He’s the philosopher equivalent of the bands who influenced the Beatles, who in turn influenced every musician you’ve ever enjoyed.

But he doesn’t do much direct influencing of modern readers because it takes a lot of work to dig into. (Follow me on this—I promise it will pay off.) For one thing, he wrote a ton of books, and those books tend to have many hundreds of pages. But to make matters exceedingly irritating, many of Kierkegaard’s books were written under numerous pseudonyms (Victor Eremita, John Climacus, Anti-Climacus, Hilarius Bookbinder, etc. etc. etc.). And some of these works claim to be compilations of writings from still others. Some of these pseudonyms seem to represent more nearly than others what Kierkegaard himself believed, but it’s impossible to be sure.

Kierkegaard would play games with these pseudonyms. He would release two books by two different pseudonyms on the same day, or within a couple of weeks of each other. While he was producing these works, he would be sure to be seen in public frequently so that no one would suspect him of being the author of these works (a bit of theatre that worked for a time, but not for long). These books would offer different points of view on Christianity, philosophy, ethics, and society. Kierkegaard also published several books under his own name, but it still takes a lot of brainpower to untangle the relationship between this Kierkegaard and the pseudonymous authors of Kierkegaard’s other books.

Because of these bizarre methods, there’s no consensus on what Kierkegaard himself actually believed, no universally agreed upon “theology of Soren Kierkegaard.” I’m tempted to think of that as a frustrating loss. But I’m realizing that it’s not. It’s actually a gift.

How can I possibly claim that this quirky, controversial, confusing philosopher could save our world? Because the kind of reading that his books require would make us all better citizens and dismantle our biggest hurdle to mutual understanding.

When I first started reading Kierkegaard’s works, I read them as I read any book. I was in search of “Kierkegaard’s theology.” I wanted to know his views on things. When I do this with any author, I get a feel for their positions, and then I decide whether or not I agree with Calvin or Keller or Wright or Lewis. When I think about it, it’s extremely binary. But this is actually unhealthy. Because I actually agree with and disagree with all of these authors.

What is this pull I feel to identify with some authors over others, as though I need to check [favorite author]’s views before I know what I believe? Wouldn’t it be healthier to learn from each author and pull the most helpful parts from each? Isn’t it most important to walk away with deeper understanding and inwardly transformed as a result of wrestling with an author’s arguments? How does it help me to be able to claim to “agree with John Piper” or whomever, as though it’s all or nothing? Are we not perpetuating the problem by relying on a few individuals to do our thinking for us? Really, it just makes us all that much more divided. Encamped. Partisan.

But Kierkegaard’s bizarre style won’t let us get away with this. You have to think for yourself. When you read Kierkegaard, you have to engage with his actual arguments, because you never really know what it means to “agree with Kierkegaard.” You have to decide, to “judge for yourself,” to use a Kierkegaardian phrase. With each pseudonym; each book; each paragraph, sentence, and argument, you must weigh and decide what you think.

It’s infuriating. And exhausting. And healthy.

Kierkegaard was extremely controversial in his day, and cartoons like this were often printed in newspapers, where he was mocked for his pants and curved spine. People tend to be uncomfortable with those who challenge the norms.

Our political climate is so polarized. You’re republican or you’re democrat. You’re pro or anti whomever. You’re pro this or anti that. We deal in sound bites, in memes. And your response has to be instant. You have to be outraged or impressed within seconds, and if you don’t make a social media statement right now then you’re siding for or against someone or something bad or good. IT’S US OR THEM! RIGHT NOW! Our figure head has made this or that statement, so fall in line!

Don’t you hate it? Isn’t it ugly? Don’t you feel in your bones that we need something better, something more sustainable?

What we need, I submit, is a Kierkegaardian way of reading things. Take your time. You’ll have to decide, but don’t simply follow the party line. Do your homework. Weigh each comment, each argument, each moment on its own merits. It’s not about blind adherence, it’s about the journey.

Judge for yourself.

Kierkegaard also rails against indecision, so you do have to make up your mind. Deciding is important, but you’re not allowed to decide by default, by blindly following your tribe’s voting guide or statement of faith. If we could all retrain our habits of engagement in light of Kierkegaard’s infuriatingly inefficient approach, perhaps we’d learn to understand each other better, to renounce the “hot take.” We would then develop wise, patiently-formed, true-to-the-depths-of-our-soul convictions, and we could hold hands and walk away from the echo chambers we’ve been told to pledge allegiance to.

[If you want to give Kierkegaard a try, I recommend starting with this fantastic biography, or this brief but helpful guide to his thought.]

Two Kinds of Love

Mark Beuving —  February 13, 2013 — 2 Comments
Soren Kierkegaard

Soren Kierkegaard

Soren Kierkegaard made an interesting distinction between two types of love.

First, there is preferential love. As the name suggests, this kind of love is based on preference. Preferential love is the love we feel towards those we find attractive. It’s the love we feel for those who care for us and love us. It is love towards the lovable.

Obviously, this is a great kind of love to have. We love God because he is lovable (1 John 4:19). We love our friends, family, and lovers. To refrain from loving someone simply because they are lovable would be ridiculous.

Our culture rightly prizes this kind of love. This is the love that most of our songs and movies glorify. There is often a hedonistic and even lustful bent to this kind of love, but the point is, preferential love is directed toward those to whom we feel attraction for whatever reason.

But Kierkegaard contrasts preferential love with what he calls commanded love. This is love of the will. It is love that is directed toward anyone and perhaps everyone. Commanded love looks at a person, and even when there is no attraction or affection, it genuinely wishes that person well.

Obviously, commanded love is the more difficult of the two. Preferential love comes and goes, but commanded love rests on no circumstance. There is no reason why commanded love cannot be directed toward both our dearest friends and our bitterest enemies. If preference and lovability are not determining factors, we may choose to direct the love that wills another’s well-being toward any person at all.

Kierkegaard ties commanded love to one of the biblical words for love—agape. It is an unconditional, un-circumstantial kind of love. Commanded love—agape love—is the kind of love that God showed when he died for us while we were still sinners (Rom. 5:8).

Heart in the SandThe point is not to rid ourselves of preferential love. We couldn’t even if we tried. Rather, the point is to command love for every person we encounter. Kierkegaard exhorts us to love our neighbor. By neighbor, he does not necessarily mean the near-person, like our next-door neighbor. Instead, he means the next-person, as in the next person to cross our path. If we will love the next person with commanded love, then we are not differentiating between people based on our tastes and feelings. We are instead loving people as people, valuing them as those made in the image of God and therefore as worthy objects of our love.

A good gauge of how well you are loving your friends and family is how well you are loving your enemies. You have no preferential love for your enemies, or for the outcasts of society. If you find yourself loving them—genuinely wishing them well—then you love them with commanded love. And if you find no commanded love for your enemies, then your love for your friends is likely nothing more than preferential love, subject to change with the whims of your feelings.

As our culture celebrates love this Valentine’s Day, ask yourself which type of love you will be celebrating.

Red CurtainSoren Kierkegaard was concerned that we neglect to love our neighbors because we focus on the dissimilarities between us. We are like actors in play:

“Here you see only what the individual represents and how he does it. It is just as in the play. But when the curtain falls on the stage, then the one who played the king and the one who played the beggar, etc. are all alike; all are one and the same—actors. When at death the curtain falls on the stage of actuality…then they, too, are all one, they are human beings. All of them are what they essentially were, what you did not see because of the dissimilarity that you saw—they are human beings.”

This excellent illustration cuts two ways. First, it affects the way we view other people. We see successful businessmen, gifted speakers, homemakers, professional athletes, homeless people, white or blue collared workers, etc. We notice skin color and gender, confidence and awkwardness.

But Kiekegaard would have us understand that these outward dissimilarities are nothing more than roles we are called upon to play. The differences are there, but the time is coming when the curtain will fall, and the man who played the king will sit down for drinks with the man who played the beggar. And they will sit together as equals, for they are not king and beggar in reality—these were roles they assumed on the stage—they are nothing more and nothing less than actors. They are equal.

We would do well, then, to look past the outward symbols of dissimilarity when we encounter another person. We should look deeply into her eyes and recognize the gaze of a fellow human being. This allows us to view the other person as a neighbor.

Isn’t this the way it works in our neighborhoods? There is no hierarchy on my street. When I stand on the sidewalk with my neighbors, we don’t relate to each other as realtor, professor, plumber, and contractor. We are simply neighbors. We spend much of  our lives on adjacent lots. The roles we play and the costumes we wear are irrelevant; we are able to love one another as equals.

The conversations I have on my street are a taste of humanity stripped of its dissimilarities. If only we could see everyone in that light. If only we could stop playing games and simply love.

But this will also require us to see the other direction that Kiekegaard’s illustration cuts. Kierkeggard would have us look to ourselves and remember that we, too, are only actors, regardless of how important a role we believe ourselves to be playing:

“We seem to have forgotten that the dissimilarity of earthly life is just like an actor’s costume…so that each one individually should be on the watch and take care to have the outer garment’s fastening cords loosely tied and, above all, free of tight knots so that in the moment of transformation the garment can be cast off easily.”

Do you have some level of power in this life? Don’t hold it too closely. Don’t take yourself too seriously. You have been called upon to play the role of an executive or a teacher or an overseer or a day laborer. But that role does not define you. Make no mistake that one day your costume will have to be removed. Better to wear the costume loosely so that you are prepared to step back into the role of human being as soon as the play ends.

It’s difficult to see other people as neighbors when we see ourselves as big shots. So play your role well. Give it everything it deserves. But don’t forget that the stage only extends so far. Don’t lose sight of the curtain—it is going to drop. And there you will stand—no longer the king, but an actor. A neighbor. A human.

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