Three days past Kierkegaard’s 200th birthday, some great articles have cropped up examining his legacy. The New York Times, for instance, featured a great mini-summary of his legacy; more interestingly, at aeon, atheist Julian Baggini writes a fantastic essay about his personal relationship with Kierkegaard’s thought:
He was an existentialist a century before Jean-Paul Sarte, more rigorously post-modern than postmodernism, and a theist whose attacks on religion bit far deeper than many of those of today’s new atheists. Kierkegaard is not so much a thinker for our time but a timeless thinker, whose work is pertinent for all ages yet destined to be fully attuned to none.
Because of his influence on existentialism, Kierkegaard’s deep devotion to Christianity has often been neglected; in particular, his creative, passionate attachment to aspects of Lutheran thought. What’s more, as Baggini points out, he was deeply personal in his thought, emotionally engaged and never, when he could help it, abstract or merely cerebral:
He knew intense love, and was engaged to Regine Olsen, whom he describes in his journals as ‘sovereign queen of my heart’. Yet in 1841, after four years of courtship, he called the engagement off, apparently because he did not believe he could give the marriage the commitment it deserved. He took love, God and philosophy so seriously that he did not see how he could allow himself all three.
While there’s plenty of other great content in Baggini’s piece, the last bit about commitment is the most immediately interesting. Kierkegaard, Baggini suggests, was honest and dutiful, preferring not to stretch himself too thin – a deeply ethical way of approaching life. And yet his oblique commentaries on the engagement to Regine, particularly in Repetition and Fear and Trembling (the second the work most directly concerned with going beyond mere ethics), reveal a much more complex picture.
Simply put, Kierkegaard was a man who had an extraordinarily difficult time accepting faith, saying( pseudonymously in his Postscript) that becoming a Christian is the most difficult thing in the world. And in Kierkegaard’s terms, it is: first because of the religion’s absurdity (an admission rare in the Christian world – see too Walker Percy), but secondly, and perhaps more deeply, in the difficulty of accepting grace, or love. And as the romantic metaphor was central to Kierkegaard’s conception of faith (see esp his Fragments), it’s quite possible he found himself ethically worthy neither of Regine’s love nor God’s.
Kierkegaard and Luther were similar in two remarkable ways: first, they were critics of well-established, highly developed forms of Christianity that they diagnosed as vacant and depersonalized; second, they were able to critique so effectively because they knew themselves well, were deeply in touch with their own limitations and, as much of the evidence suggests, anxious and obsessive about them. Despite Christianity’s often-low view of human nature, admission of our weaknesses, especially moral failings, ironically tend to upset Christians as much or more than anyone else. It was only in Luther’s and Kierkegaard’s moral humility that they could call the Church into a position of greater honesty about its own shortcomings.
Kierkegaard would have no admixture between the grace which is central to Christianity and our petty, moralistic responses to it. That isn’t to say that he rejected morality, but only that he called for honesty in realizing how much of what passes for Christian virtue is in fact the opposite. His psychological meditations on the response to grace are especially lucid in a story he tells, in Fear and Trembling, about a seductive, volatile merman and a naive girl whom he approached to conquer:
Let us make a change [in the Agnes legend]. The merman was a seducer. He has called to Agnes as by his wheedling words has elicited what was hidden in her. In the merman she found what she was seeking, what she was searching for as she stared down to the bottom of the sea. Agnes is willing to go with him. The merman takes her in his arms. Agnes throws her hands around his neck; trusting with all her soul, she gives herself to the stronger one. He is already standing on the beach, crouching to dive out into the sea and plunge down with his booty – then Agnes looks at him once more…in absolute faith and in absolute humility…And look! The sea no longer roars, its wild voice is stilled; nature’s passion, which is the merman’s strength, forsakes him, and there is deadly calm – and Agnes is still looking at him this way. Then the merman breaks down. He cannot withstand the power of innocence, his natural element is disloyal to him, and he cannot seduce Agnes…Then he returns alone, and the sea is wild, but not as wild as the merman’s despair. He can seduce Agnes, he can seduce a hundred Agneses, he can make any girl infatuated – but Agnes has won, and the merman has lost her. Only as booty can she be his; he cannot give himself faithfully to any girl, because he is indeed only a merman. (Hong translation)
Call it Luther’s bound will, Nietzsche’s will to power, or Augustine’s especially apt libido dominandi (a lust for domination which in turn enslaves yourself); Kierkegaard is touching on something innately human – we are indeed only humans. So when grace is offered – one-way love for someone unworthy of it – the merman breaks down; he cannot accept it.
And why can’t he? Kierkegaard’s psychological insight is acute, even for him, in this story. The merman cannot conquer her, because she has given herself to him already (the christological parallel is more than apparent). But neither can he accept her love, because he feels unworthy. In understanding this example – as with much of Kierkegaard’s work – the main requirement of readers isn’t so much intellect as empathy. The merman cannot have this quasi-divine love on his own, lesser terms (she has removed the element of power vs. power altogether), but he knows he is incapable of reciprocating the love on her terms. So he goes away, not so much changed or softened by her love as plunged into despair by a vision of what, to him, is inaccessible; moreover, a vision that will never allow him to be happy in his meanness. We remember O’Connor’s Misfit: “There’s no pleasure in life but meanness” and, a short time later, “it’s no real pleasure in life.”
…the seducer is crushed, he has submitted to the power of innocence. He can never seduce again. But immediately two forces struggle over him: repentance, Agnes and repentance…Meanwhile, in his passion the merman himself becomes even more unhappy, for he loved Agnes with a complexity of passions and in addition had a new guilt to bear. Now the demonic in repentance probably will explain that this is indeed his punishment, and the more it torments him the better.
The “demonic” element of repentance is wanting to make atonement oneself – an impulse that becomes clear in the story. Kierkegaard continues:
If he surrenders to this demonic element, perhaps he will make one more attempt to save Agnes, just as in a sense one can save a person with the aid of evil. He knows that Agnes loves him. If he could tear this love away from Agnes, then in a way she would be saved. But how?… Maybe he will endeavor to incite all the dark passions in her, to belittle her, to ridicule her, to make her love ludicrous, and, if possible, to arouse her pride. He will spare himself no anguish, for this is the deep contradiction in the demonic.
(By “demonic”, Kierkegaard doesn’t so much mean the modern ‘evil demons’ sense as the the Greek daimon, an animating passion or spirit along the lines of Socrates’ interior voice). Anyway:
If he remains hidden and is initiated into all the anguish of repentance, he becomes a demoniac and as such is destroyed.
That is, he’s heroic in an ethical, human sense, but there’s also a latent operation of pride: he will suffer his own punishment; he will serve his own time. The alternative to this (admittedly heroic) moralism is a stunning one:
…If he becomes disclosed, if he lets himself be saved by Agnes, he is the greatest human being I can imagine… The merman, therefore, cannot belong to Agnes without, after having made the infinite movement of repentance, making one movement more: the movement by virtue of the absurd.
And this, of course, is the life of faith, as Kierkegaard obliquely circles back to the Abraham story that’s the main subject of the book. But the emotional movements of the merman story point to a couple of parts of Kierkegaard’s legacy that are specially relevant today:
First, that his emotional attunement to himself was one of Kierkegaard’s greatest strengths. A man who had loved a girl, so the story goes, and renounced her for some ethical reason, was likely grappling with this story over the next couple of years, when FAT and Repetition were written. It’s easy to imagine him using memories of his own emotional landscape to write an arresting account of the human response to divine love, the pseudo-heroic moral antics, the latent pride, and the impossibility of ever accepting love fully.
Second, his penetrating critique of the Church. We continue with his commentary on the merman story:
If a person does not have sufficient passion to make either of the two movements [repentance and the movement “by virtue of the absurd”]; if he skulks through life repenting a little and thinking everything will come out in the wash, then has once and for all renounced living in the idea… How many in our time have sufficient passion to think this and then to judge themselves honestly? The very idea of being conscientious about time in this way, of taking the time to scrutinize in sleepless vigilance every single secret thought, so that if a person does not always make the movement by virtue of the noblest and holiest in him, he may in anxiety and horror discover and lure forth – if in no other way, then through anxiety – the dark emotions hiding in every human life, whereas in association with others one so easily forgets, so easily evades this, is stopped in so many ways….
Kierkegaard couldn’t stand the speculative Christian philosophy of his day; hated the external flourishing of the Church, the innovations of apologetics, the evidence for the historical Jesus… all, to him, was a distraction from Christianity’s proper task, which is the knowledge of the self in its dark thoughts, its passions. Indeed, having a developed emotional life, suffering, feeling deep guilt and self-scrutiny… these were not faith itself, but they were certainly its prerequisites (see “Religiousness A” and “Religiousness B” in the Postscript). Self-knowledge, admission of guilt, discovering, “in anxiety and horror”, the “dark emotions hiding in every human life” – this discovery is the task of the Church, and external forms of religion, no matter how well defined, are distractions from this task.
And the Church is partially responsible for Kierkegaard’s appropriation by secular, atheistic existentialism – the Church rejected many of his insights, or does so implicitly, while people like Camus had the stolid courage to accept Kierkegaard’s call to brutally honest self-examination.
Two hundred years later, many of Kierkegaard’s broadsides to Christianity’s credibility still stand: different ethical goals, albeit laudable, of the Church can be distractions from the religious, and repentance can be purely the demonic – that is, heroic, but still fundamentally egoistic.
Dawkins’s books tend to be banal reprisals of old, hashed-out ideas; Christianity and science only conflict when the former’s at its most fundamentalist and the latter at its most imperialist; and the Dan Brown idea of Catholics burning Gospels they didn’t like is bad history. But the one, quite valid critique of the Church that can be made is its lack of introspection, of admitting the impossibility of perfection and the limits of human agency… we are only mermen, after all. Fortunately, there’s grace for our denial, too – Agnes’s love is unyielding – but Kierkegaard graciously calls us to accept divine love in radical honesty, in” fear and trembling” (Ph 2:12); an acceptance which is the highest thing on earth, even impossible, but still task enough for a lifetime.