“Here I stand…not at a crossroads—no, but at a multitude of roads, and therefore it is all the harder to choose the right one.”
—Kierkegaard, in a letter to P.W. Lund, 1835

When I first read the above line by Christianity’s favorite philosopher, I thought, well, of course he faced a deluge of indecision in his white-haired smoky-armchaired nineteenth-century affluence—tea or coffee today? Hegel or Kant? Reading or writing? But I found it more endearing when I realized that he was writing as a twenty-two-year-old and that I’d had the same exchange of words with a dear friend the day before. Oh, Søren, the original adultescent!

Kierkegaard had pretty much realized that at some point he couldn’t live on his parents’ couch anymore, at least not without paying rent, and that if he was going to make a name for himself, he had to choose one field of study. After much agonizing, he’d finally narrowed it down. Science or theology? (For what it’s worth, Kierkegaard wasn’t considering philosophy at the time; he was explicitly angling toward theology at this point.)

He called his indecision “Faustian” doubt, or, in more colloquial (Mbird) terms, the fear of a better option: the creeping inkling that there was more for him than just theology. Just as so many youngins are afraid to commit to a teaching degree, for example, fearing that teaching isn’t really for them, doubting that it will be worth the time and money, Kierkegaard was afraid that in choosing to study theology he was choosing to be a squabbly old man: “Hell, I’m just a kid myself” (Kenny Chesney). But every move we make increases the impossibility of making a different one.

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In Kierkegaard’s view, this sense of doubt is what Faust was trying to alleviate when, in the old German legend, he surrendered to the Devil for unlimited knowledge. Kierkegaard, though, argues that Faust’s doubt could never be alleviated by the pursuit of knowledge for the simple reason that all that can be known can be doubted. SK believed that doubt, in its many forms (and especially the fear that there is more to be had), is human and not exceptional at all. For Kierkegaard, Faust represents this aspect of humanity which may only get more severe with aging. The older we get, the more we know, and the more we doubt that we are really on the right track: maybe we married the wrong person; maybe we bought the wrong house; maybe we yelled at little Teddy too many times and our misparenting is ultimately the reason he acted out in class and got sent to the principal’s office and will certainly do drugs in five years’ time. Maybe…yada yada.

I think that Faust represents doubt personified. He need be no more than that and Goethe probably sins against the concept when he permits Faust to convert…. In accordance with his own idea he could never turn to God because in the very instant he did so he would have to admit to himself that here in truth lay enlightenment; but in that same instant he would, in fact, have denied his character as one who doubts (from the same letter as above).

And if Faust is no longer a character who doubts, he’s not just/really “converted”; he’s no longer human.

When college admissions season rolled around at my high school, ambitious weenies like myself tried to settle our doubt by talking about how excited we were to know where we were going, and what we were going to major in, and what job we would do for the rest of our lives; I remember leaving one such conversation and fleeing to the art classroom downstairs where I confessed all the doubts and uncertainties I had been bottling up. My art teacher, frizzy-haired and maybe definitely high at the time, said, “Right now, you don’t have to know who you’re going to be.” And that was such a relief to hear. Two years later, half of us would freak out and crash-land into an English major anyways, and we’d be forced to entertain a totally different ‘life plan’ than we had ever envisioned before.

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Perhaps doubt is like the weeds in Jesus’ parable of the weeds and the wheat: it’s just something that we have to live with. We don’t have to resolve it—and, in attempting to resolve it, we’d only make matters worse:

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.

And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’

He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’

The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’

But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn’” (Mt 13:24-30 NRSV).

We have both weeds and wheat inside of us; both faith and doubt, certainty and ignorance.

So we stand at the crossroads, say a quick hi to our friend Søren, and head off down the path that seems most right. And the little gremlins of doubt and fear will jump on our shoulders, and we’ll try to put them on a leash, and, when that fails, we’ll try to make friends with them (ht Henri).

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Part of Kierkegaard’s own gremlins, however, were not just the closing of doors, the fear of a better option, but simply that some parts of the theological field frankly just didn’t suit him. There were parts that he loved, of course (namely, the quest for a truth that moved him as an individual); but then there were parts he resisted, even sneered at. Between science and theology, he was very clearly interested in the liveliness of science, the realness of it–“life has always interested me most”–and the idea of becoming one of the many old men in pajamas arguing about the nature of being seemed in many ways (not surprisingly) less appealing:

To me the learned theological world seems like Strandvej on a Sunday afternoon in the season when everybody goes to Bakken in Dryhaven: they tear past each other, yell and scream, laugh and make fun of each other, drive their horses to death, overturn and are run over. Finally, when they reach Bakken covered with dust and out of breath—well, they look at each other—and go home.

Despite this view of the “learned theological world,” Kierkegaard ultimately became a central part of it. Many a student has found him- or herself at the heart of a impassioned but ultimately not-very-risky debate about Hegel versus Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard’s writings, foundational for students of philosophy, are also really pretty dense; for many, he is a total brick wall. It’s strange to say that Kierkegaard became the very thing he so disliked about high academia. If he really wanted to avoid joining in the theological horse races, perhaps he would have been more like RF Capon would have been better off disappearing into the Brazilian rainforests to dig up dinosaur bones. Perhaps he chose poorly. Then again, perhaps not.

The other lesson from the parable of the wheat and the weeds is that our human judgment is totally insufficient—the parable says that if we were to pull up the weeds, we’d pull up the wheat, too. In other words, we can’t tell the difference. What seems good to us, may be “worse than it seems” (Naked and Famous); and what seems regrettable to us may be exactly the thing that heals us (the cross). Kierkegaard, despite becoming the kind of person he didn’t want to become, also became the kind of person who could offer unexpected comfort to others…we find his legacy is particularly effective in reconciling anxious “intellectuals” with the bold absurdity of faith. If we can learn anything from kid Kierkegaard, it’s that the kind of person we want to be is not always who we choose to be. And, at the end of the day, that may be just fine.