Monthly Archives: November 2011

Reasons to Believe

Sometime back, Tim Hardin came out with “Reason to Believe”.

Here’s the beginning, and the song’s premise:

“If I listened long enough to you
I’d find a way to believe that it’s all true,
Knowing that you lied straight-faced while I cried.
Still I look to find a reason to believe.”

Perhaps that lyric resonates with me because I feel in it the truth that belief is a choice, and that for a multitude of reasons, each of us would choose to believe in an idea or a cause, or in somebody, if we could find a reason to make the choice feel valid.

Everyone who believes in God has at least one reason, and our reasons are crucial to the integrity of our faith and its working out in practice.

Kierkegaard holds that the Christianity of many people is tainted because it is grounded in impure reasons, such as: the quest for personal salvation; the need to feel forgiven; a conviction that faith will deliver prosperity; or the vision of heavenly rewards in return for our earthly sacrifices.

In Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, he contends that the only worthy reason to believe, and the only one that will guide us toward integrity and an effective faith, is simply to will the good. He would have us will the good for no other reason than because it is the good, and to recognize that following Christ is the best and perhaps only way we can recognize what the good is.

On our way to Tucson for Thanksgiving, my son Cody and I talked about happiness and how it results most naturally from the setting aside of ego when we turn our concerns toward the well-being of others.

Some years ago, I spent a summer in a cabin in the mountains above Chico, California. I had a great job, a lovely environment, but my kids were a thousand miles away. My marriage of seventeen years had disintegrated. I felt as if a tumor the size of a softball had taken root in my stomach, except whenever my thoughts turned from my plight to somebody else’s. Then the tumor would shrink, only to grow again when I returned to brooding about me.

Later, I spent several days in Tijuana taking notes for an article about Mother Teresa’s seminarians. These folks had forsaken all their possessions to live on handout food, in the barracks-like quarters of a former elementary school located in a polluted barrio of families living in shacks and tool sheds. The seminarians had taken a vow of “poverty, chastity, obedience and wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor”. Yet (or consequently) they appeared to be the happiest of all people.

Cody, a high school teacher, mentioned that many teachers want to help others but get discouraged because students and parents aren’t demonstrably appreciative. So, eventually, they give up sacrificing for their students.

When Cody wondered aloud if it’s possible to continue pursuing the good of others if we don’t feel compelled by our faith, I thought of a theme that drove Feodor Dostoyevski’s novels: without God there is no reason to follow any moral system.

I suspect even believers who do good for the sake of reward such as the desire to get thanked, to find peace, or to achieve heavenly bliss, are doomed to discouragement, because their motive is essentially selfish. In Christian terms, blessings don’t follow from sinful (i.e. selfish) motives.

According to Kierkegaard, we are called to find in our hearts or spirits the will to choose (and act for the sake of) the good regardless of personal benefit. To ask ourselves: will I pursue the good if all I ever get in return is mockery and punishment on earth followed by eternal oblivion? Can I believe that strongly in the good, which essentially is love?

Take a look at Ken Kuhlken’s books  Midheaven and Reading Brother Lawrence, both gripping and thoughtful stories.

Kierkegaard and Good Ol’ Charlie Brown

Even during the rare times when my mind is able to fully engage, I might read a paragraph or page of Soren Kierkegaard and find my only reaction is “Huh?” I might read the page over again and again and at last give up, wondering if the translator was suffering from dementia.  But, if I put down the book and ask myself to translate subjectively, beginning with the premise of the section or chapter and asking how could this premise, in my experience, possibly prove true, usually an answer comes.

The Works of Love chapter, “Love Believes All Things” maintains that (in my translation) we who aim to follow Christ should believe that Lucy won’t pull the football away just as Charlie Brown kicks at it. Even if she pulls it away seventy times seven times, we are required to believe that next time she won’t.

What’s more, Kierkegaard has the audacity to argue that if we believe all things, even that Lucy could change, we will never be deceived. “Huh?” I muttered, then laid the book down and wondered how could this be true?

I don’t know whether Charles Shultz read Kierkegaard, but I imagine he knew of St. Paul’s description of love in 1 Corinthian’s 13:7. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Without claiming Charlie Brown as a Christ figure, I will submit that Charlie is no dupe, that he remembers quite well what Lucy has done in the past and realizes what she may do again. Yet he also recognizes that no matter the number of times Lucy has snatched the football, the next time she might either snatch it or hold it still. After all, she is human, and humans grow and change. So he chooses to believe in Lucy.

Either at some point in his development or in accord with his nature, Charlie has chosen to love. On account of that choice, love has become part of him. So he believes all things. And he is not deceived. He knows he may turn a flip and land on his back. She may laugh and berate him. But he would rather suffer pain and humiliation than risk forsaking love, which chooses to believe. Sure, he could walk away, but he is neither a quitter nor a coward, and Lucy has offered him a chance to believe, to act out of love. I applaud Charlie Brown.

So would Kierkegaard, who writes: “… knowledge does not defile a man; it is mistrust which defiles a man’s knowledge just as love purifies it.”

Ken Kuhlken’s Reading Brother Lawrence, the account of a trip to the Kingdom of Heaven, recently came out as an ebook.

How to Love Whom?

One of the benefits of reading Soren Kierkegaard is, he compels us to learn to read differently. He won’t allow us to skim, or to overlook the depth of loaded words.

So, the command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” becomes a study of the words shall, love, neighbor, and of the phrase as yourself.

Consider as yourself, a critical phrase in my attempt to apply the wisdom of Kierkegaard. Especially when wrestling with his assessment of the obedience God requires, I need to remember that when God commands me to love even my ornery neighbor, he commands me to love myself as well.

Still I wonder, what does it mean to love myself? We who believe God is love can give a ready answer: we should love ourselves (and others) in the manner that God loves us. Then we who believe God loves us ought to ask, in what way does he love us?

He certainly doesn’t gush or fawn, or let us forever get away with our pranks. The tough love theory–don’t let your feelings stand in the way of applying or allowing consequences for harmful or dangerous actions–might provide a reasonably sound description. Except miserable consequences often appear to arrive in spite of our best efforts at obedience.

We are advised that God treats us with such deep concern for our welfare that his every response to our pleas and needs is meant to draw us closer to an eternal realm where the fullness of joy awaits us. Unless we fully accept that premise on faith, during hard times we may feel rebellious and abused, certainly unloved. And we may descend into self-condemnation, which is surely not the route to healing melancholy.

I’ll submit that those of us who often or occasionally battle melancholy ought to consider applying all the faith we can muster to the notion that everything that befalls us, God allows for a beneficial reason. And we should also attempt to better understand the way God’s love works. Because such understanding is a key to our ability to love ourselves and others.

According to my current understanding, the tough love equation factors into God’s love. But, as Kierkegaard points out, so does Jesus’ answer to Peter, that we should forgive our brother seventy times seven times.

While reading Works of Love, in the chapter entitled, “Love Believes All Things”, I saw that to forgive seventy times seven times means forgiveness could become a useless concept. Because if we do love well, we will decline to judge or take offense, and so will have nothing to forgive.

That chapter is a treasure.

Ken Kuhlken’s award winning novel Midheaven recently came out as an ebook.

Coach Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard cautioned believers to stay as far as possible from the Danish clergy, whose religion was “just about as genuine as tea made from a bit of paper which once lay in a drawer beside another bit of paper which had once been used to wrap up a few dried tea leaves from which tea had already been made three times.”

The man didn’t mince words. It might be fair to say that an aspect of his genius was the ability to rant and reason at the same time. Even if I didn’t sense truth in his convictions, I might read his work just to get a rise from his rabid enthusiasm. His words are so charged with emotion that I, a rather careful fellow, get awestruck by his wild indulgence, especially in analogy and metaphor.

Not only does the passion endear him to me, it gives me perspective, so that when he informs us that God requires our perfect obedience, I don’t feel condemned for falling way short but rather feel cheered on, as if a crew of girls in tutus are leaping up and down on the sidelines and a coach is screaming for us to give 110 percent.

A golfing buddy told me that Anika Sorenstam, one of the game’s legends, recommends that golfers approach each game with the intention of shooting 54. For those who don’t play, that means one under par for each hole on a standard course. On a par four hole, it means one drive, one shot onto the green, and one putt.

I don’t know that Anika, or anybody, has ever accomplished this essentially perfect score. But the idea of setting the goal has merit, much like Kierkegaard reporting that God requires us to live, act, and think according to Jesus’ prescriptions and commands.

The author of Zen Golf suggests a strikingly different goal. He reasons that if we are, say, bogey golfers (one over par per hole, on average), we should set our sights on bogeys, in order to relieve the pressure that causes tension and so restricts the freedom of our swing.

I find both suggestions valid, but for golfers with different intentions. Those who would be touring pros, and so are willing to devote their best efforts most every day of their lives, can wisely and legitimately go for birdies. The rest of us are more likely to suffer than to benefit from such a lofty goal.

Kierkegaard maintains that devoting ourselves to seeking God’s will, and obeying what we are given or discern, is the route to fullness of joy. So he cheers us on to that end, while warning that running the race will require our full dedication.

I don’t sense him condemning us bogey Christians, unless we happen, like the Danish clergy, to be leading others along our mediocre way. Rather, he appears to anguish over our failure to seek and win the highest joy. Like a parent who lies awake fretting over his prodigal children.

Ken Kuhlken writes historical crime novels and teaches online at Perelandra College.