Either/Or

In 1843, while contending with the melancholy that was a motive for the urgency and intensity of his work, Sören Kierkegaard wrote this journal entry:

“The most important thing of all is that a man stands right toward God, does not try to wrench away from something, but rather penetrates it until it yields its explanation. Whether or not it turns out as he wishes; it is still the best of all.”

One of the heaviest challenges of my life was a years-long bout with panic attacks, in the heat of which, family problems deposed what balance I had and left me alternating between panic and severe depression.

My friend Charlie Morgan, then a graduate Psychology student, recommended The Road Less Traveled, by M. Scott Peck.  In that book I discovered an insight that started my healing and which I still try to live by.

Before, I believed that by defining life and events according to my preference I was avoiding pain. I agreed with the 1960s bumper sticker, “Reality is a Crutch.” From the wisdom of Scott Peck, I recognized that dedication to facing or seeking the truth, about large matters and small, sets me free from the pain, emotional and often physical, that are symptoms of living with illusions.  The truth guides us out of the night woods and into the morning meadow. And/or it loosens the stranglehold of a conscience whose job is to turn us away from the selfish and destructive and toward the Good.

Kierkegaard maintains that peace of mind requires purity of heart. To achieve purity of heart requires that we only seek one thing, the Good. And, he assures us, we can’t begin to know or approach the Good except by undertaking a penetrating search for the truth. And as a prerequisite for penetrating the truth, we need to accept one of two premises. Either:
• Christ is God
• or God isn’t anything.
Anyone who cares to argue or question the proposition that those are the only two valid choices should consider tackling Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.

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11 comments on “Either/Or
  1. Ken, this is good. I look forward to reading the blog. Great content and written only as you can. I’m embracing, CHrist is God.

  2. Greg Gorsuch says:

    You are so right, each year I grow older I see more and more of the illusions I (and our culture, all cultures) live within. Though I don’t recall Peck ever directly quoting Kierkegaard, you may find as you become more and more familiar with Kierkegaard, that Peck reflects many of the same categories and states them in a way that are often more accessible. Happy Birthday my ‘older’ friend.

    • Greg, I believe you are right about Peck, that he is a wise fellow who hasn’t gotten as much credit as he deserves perhaps because he gained such wide popularity and is so accessible. Often the highbrow mind prefers opacity. Thanks for reading and commenting. Ken

  3. llwroberts says:

    I have thought about how authors like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky force you to slow down because they develop the scene, characters, and plot so completely.

    Life wasn’t lived back then at such a frenzied pace. I am one of the worst for trying to cram too much into a short space of time.

    One of my goals is to “learn” how to slow down and not live that way. I don’t think you can come into complete touch with reality unless you can experience life through all the senses. It’s difficult to be sensual about anything if you are always hurrying. To “penetrate” the meaning, to slow down enough to enjoy a red sunset, a yellow butterfly dancing around a flower, deserves more than a glance. Perhaps it’s found in God’s rest and not in our own ability, a gift.

    • Lorilyn, I especially appreciate your point about Dickens et al. In contemporary mainstream publishing, the highest praise, or at least the one that can sell the most books, is that so and so has written a page turner. Well, not only does that often mean that the pages have nothing worth lingering upon, but as your comment implies, they certainly do nothing to help our minds find a more peaceful, receptive place. Thanks for that insight. Ken

  4. Bob Weathers says:

    Hi Ken! I so appreciate our extended lunch(es!) yesterday in Irvine. Our time together always rings true—equal parts honesty and humility, add a dash of chutzpah—as does the voice of Kierkegaard.

    I’d like to engage with you, here and in person, regarding the existential and moral matters you’ve introduced above…

    When you write of your own experience (for whose vulnerability I respect you deeply) and of Kierkegaard’s admonition to living, even with anxiety, into the abyss-like self-emptying of ego (and its infinite “projects”), everything in my being resonates knowingly, with recognition.

    However, when you introduce the final “either/or” propositions (regarding Christ and God), it feels like there’s been a sizable, or at least palpable (to me), shift of idiom. The earlier felt rooted in experience (phenomenology); whereas the latter moves too quickly (again for me) into assertions about truth, which risk sounding like propositional, rather than phenomenological, declarations.

    Now I know you, Ken, and know that quality of interaction we have about matters of faith. And you know me, too.

    I realized just the other day that I get tripped up, as I believe Kierkegaard did, with “beliefs” which emanate from convention, dogma, and such like.
    So I did a quick etymological study, sheerly for my own benefit, on words such as “faith” and “belief.”

    I was overjoyed to discover the sense, in Latin and Greek roots, of being “taken” by something; as opposed to “taking” or “making” something into a mental form. That is, if faith or belief implies that which is initiated from that which lies beyond intellect, reason, empirical inquiry, etc.—which I’m happy to call God, or even Christ—and that trans-rational, trans-mental, even trans-personal “faith” or “belief” asks only one thing of us (that we surrender our sense of ego selfhood), in order that we might live in alignment which what is (only God), then I imagine that you and I do in fact agree, not on propositions per se, but on that which underlies all propositions. If that points in the direction of what you (and Kierkegaard?) meany by “God in Christ” or “Christ as God,” then I, too, “believe”!

    One further caveat: I can hardly bear the familiarity with which, in my experience, most Christians speak of “their” Christ, “their” God; hence, prefer most of the time to hang out with what Thomas Merton called “anonymous Christians.” For what it’s worth, and this coming from me is a very high compliment indeed, you are, my friend, one such anonymous Christian.

    Is it possible to be so Christian (in the Kierkegaardian sense) as to assiduously avoid all named associations to Christianity? Or, perhaps more my own personal cross (more than yours?) to bear, to be so deeply “taken” by Christ as to have to surrender even one’s seemingly instinctive aversion to many, or even most, of those who identify themselves in a public way with Christ?

    P.S. Now I wonder, truthfully, insecurely, if I may have already overstayed my welcome on your brand-new blogsite?

    I hope not…

    • Bob, as you know me pretty well, I suspect you’ll believe when I assure you that as this blog moves along, I will write plenty about personal experience. Right now, I’m trying to restrain that impulse, and to offer each week something from Kierkegaard that readers might find worthy of considering and perhaps pondering the implications. Hoping to make SK a bit less overwhelming.

      About being taken as opposed to taking: that’s wonderful. Over the years I have experienced lots of occasions when I read or hear something that feels remarkably true, even though I couldn’t begin to make a reasonable case for it. A kind of intuitive sense that doesn’t claim to be prophetic. This may be what Kierkegaard proposed as a faculty we have that can gain assurance outside the realm of logical. I need to read more. Once I have, I will write about it.

      As you know, I can sympathize with your feelings about those who appear, at least at first glance, as the very kind of lukewarm yet pretentious phonies Kierkegaard exposes in the quote I posted today.

      Of course I could go on and on about my reasons for attending church (and mostly appreciating the experience), but the simple answer is, I sense God wants me to attend.

  5. llwroberts says:

    Peck also wrote another very thought-provoking book besides “The Road Less Traveled” called “The People of the Lie.”

    It’s worth reading because it deals with the concept of evil.

  6. Gary Swaim says:

    Ken, I’d like to take yours and Kierkegaard’s words either/or and move a slightly different direction, for possible discussion. First, you know me well enough to know that I am a digital painter as well as a writer. Gave up on watercolors long ago. Too much time that I just don’t have.

    Recently, I painted a 23×19 work entitled “He Sees Only Black and White.” A clown with brilliant colors all around him, even on his clothing and a tear trailing down his cheek. Either/or in our world is often most problematic. Little is, it seems, either/or — black or white. It’s a world of brilliant colors that dazzle the eyes. . .if the eyes see. It’s precisely this either/or syndrome that plagues our world of politics, our relationships with others, our bone-chewing self-centeredness. . .our bone. . .our bone. Our world is/should be both/and, over and over and over again. With this perspective, we might even bring about the scriptural truths of reconciliation.

    Sorry, Ken. Most tangential to your post, but I needed to say it. I LOVE Kierkegaard, and my wife and I, owing to heavy fog, landed in Jutland (Soren’s birthplace) instead of Copenhagen. Now, I know why historians have said that Kirkegaard had a sullen attitude for reason of the weather there. I would rather believe that his 20 degrees below winters gave to us one of the very best philosophers/theologians of modern time. Thanks for the ears and best from Gary.