Category Archives: Soren Kierkegaard

Soren Kierkegaard v. melancholy

Cracking Up

Ken Kuhlken: At church, a guest speaker urged us toward open-hearted love for others, even the apparently lost. I appreciate this kind of urging, but only if it’s given along with clues that help us to love better. Otherwise, it’s rather as if a doctor says, “You’ve got heart problems, goodbye.”

I doubt we can learn to love much better unless we begin to heal from the despair with which Kierkegaard contends we are all afflicted. And we can’t begin to heal from despair unless we learn about ourselves, how we work. Which can’t begin to happen until we devote ourselves to searching for the truth about ourselves and our human condition and facing what we find no matter how painful. Which we can’t do very well as long as we’re over-busy with achieving career goals and staying in shape and relating with friends and so on and so on. Something’s got to give. Which is why I don’t care for the trend to treat every depression with meds that fix us enough so we don’t crack up. Maybe we all need to crack up.

Dr. Bob Weathers: I love this, Ken: “We all need to crack up.” I’ve been reflecting a lot about the path, laid down by Christ, of crucifixion.  Sounds like a downer topic, but inherent in it is liberation, the peace that surpasses all (ego) understanding.  It is simply not sufficient to cognitively assent to Christ dying for our sins; we are called to a much more radical reformulation of our very selves. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are God-given templates for our own existence.

What then does it mean to live a life of crucifixion, and resurrection? Kierkegaard provides guidance here.  We must choose to leap into the “abyss”. Otherwise, we are bound to acquiesce into Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation.”.”

The ego would separate itself from God; which is as foolish as this morning’s rays of sun, glimmering across the treetops, deciding to separate themselves individually from the sun.

But we do this all the time: forgetting our essential reliance upon the Divine.  One poet observes that God is like the ocean, taking care of each wave till it safely gets to shore.  Do we really believe this?  More crucially: are we daily committing to living this?

As a start then, what does a sanctifying (I prefer that term to “sanctified”) life look like?  How do I live all of this?

This is where crucifixion, as basic blueprint, comes in.  Daily I must be willing to breathe into that which is greater than myself.  Which, to the ego, feels like death.  But only in relationship to that which is greater does the ego have a genuine bearing, a true north star.

All simple enough to say; but truly crucifying to live.  What if, for example, I take just today’s suffering—its inevitable frustrations (of ego plans), its physical pain or discomfort—as springboard into deeper fidelity to God?  In other words, could I approach my daily suffering as a cross to be borne; and so as deliverance into that which transcends my preferences, my personal willpower, me? Can I truly I consider it all joy because it reminds me where my real good lies?

According to medieval Persian saying, Someone asked the Master what the essence of faith was.  The Master said, “It’s that feeling of joy when sudden disappointment comes.”

I agree that we first need to understand who we are, and then to undertake self-transformation (powered and enlightened by grace), if ever we are to truly appropriate Christ’s promises of the “kingdom of heaven.”  Yet we habitually ignore his life, and its inexorable calling to us.

Too commonly, our conventional religion allows or even assists us in ignoring God’s call. Our rituals become rote practices, mere husks of faith, offering neither transformation nor the hope of the ultimate salvation we seek.

I certainly don’t mean to advocate creating a more rigorous or puritanical religion grounded in a kind of sublimated form of (ego) willpower.

Rather, as individuals, we drop humbly to our knees and pray to be healed of our very selves, which keep us locked out of a living experience of the Kingdom, and perpetually divided in our allegiances, between the finite (the world’s values) and the infinite (Christ’s values).  This division may well be the cause of religiously inspired bloodshed and atrocity.

Instead, we can take the road less travelled, the path of crucifixion, where we need go no further than today’s allotment of disappointment, sorrow, and reversal of fortune to discover yet another opportunity for faithfully surrendering ourselves to the one who authors us into moment-to-moment existence.

 

Ken Kuhlken writes novels.  Dr. Bob Weathers teaches and practices psychology.

 

 

I Did It My Way

Having previously written about the despair of finitude and the despair of weakness, two of the three varieties of despair Soren Kierkegaard identifies, I’ll turn to the third, the despair of defiance.

Those inflicted with this form of the disease have experienced the reality of the infinite.  Yet the experience hasn’t humbled them as it ought to. Instead, it has inflamed their self-esteem to the degree that they consider themselves equal to the power that created them and allowed them the experience.

I’m no historian, only a college history minor and writer of historical novels.  Still, I offer for consideration my view that the two most profound influences on the thought and events of the 20th century were the 19th century philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Soren Kierkegaard.

Nietzsche advocated for the supremacy and assertion of human will. Hitler was certainly influenced by Nietzsche, and Marxist dictators such as Lenin, Stalin, and Mao were, if not directly influenced by him, inspired by the school of thought to which he belonged.

A person inflicted with the despair of defiance, as I suspect Nietzsche was, can’t abide feeling subservient.  She may be endowed with a sensitive nature coupled with a brilliant mind and therefore suffer more deeply than most from wounds caused by misunderstanding or rejection. If she has experienced the infinite and been led to believe in an omnipotent creator and ruler, she is likely to blame all the unfairness she experiences or witnesses on that ruler. Having witnessed what she perceives as grievous flaws in creation, and at some level believing she could do better, how could she not defy God’s will to form her into the self he created her to be?

Another person inflicted with the despair of defiance may have succeeded so grandly in worldly pursuits that he concurs with his admirers and believes in his essential superiority.  Why then should he risk submission to his creator’s vision of what his self should become?

As soon as a sense of entitlement or resentment enters us, we expel humility and invite the despair of defiance, which prompts the acts that allow so many honored, successful, and even truth-seeking people to fall from grace. Fyodor Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment is an inspired case study of such a person.

The despair of defiance makes it easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich (or powerful, and perhaps the intellectually gifted) to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Because the key to the Kingdom of Heaven is found in the self we are called by our creator to become.

In the film Chinatown, Noah Cross tells Jake Gittes, “I don’t blame myself. You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.”

Notice the defiant won’t take the blame for his despair or anything else, no matter how despicable.

 

 

Despair as Comedy

Soren Kierkegaard identifies three varieties of despair. Last week I described the despair of finitude, under the title “Get Real”. So I’ll move on to the “despair of weakness”, which he defines as “the despair of not wanting to be oneself.”

Unlike the despair of finitude, the “weakness” variety doesn’t begin with attraction to the finite but as a result of the choice to avoid the responsibility of living as a unique, self-directed individual. This person feels incapable of being himself.

Those who have learned to feel guilty about everything may easily fall into this despair, motivated by the desire to guard against the risk of more guilt by attempting to do and say what others expect of them. They reason or sense that acting differently from others would cause more recrimination and so more guilt.

This despair “… actually consists of wanting to be someone else.” Only their “someone else” isn’t a real person but the external image of someone they idealize as being above condemnation or criticism.  Someone who need not suffer guilt or consider himself to be the object of disdain.

The person inflicted by the despair of weakness may not relish the rewards of the finite except as they distract from introspection and thereby protect him from the pull of the infinite toward synthesis with the finite.  His motive isn’t attraction but self-defense. He seeks protection from the terrifying temptation to step into the void that lies between his illusions and the reality of who he was created to be.

His illusions and attention to the superficial not only help him avoid connection with the infinite but also with anything more complex than that which he regards as unpleasant. He opts to avoid whatever doesn’t positively affect his present condition or sense of security. In essence, he is so engaged in protecting himself against discomfort or suffering, he can’t think except fleetingly about anything or feel deeply about the concerns of anyone else.

Whereas Kierkegaard finds the person inflicted with the despair of finitude rather pathetic on account of his belief in the value of the ultimately trivial, he sees the person ruled by the despair of weakness as comical, trying in vain to be something imaginary. The poor fellow is the spiritual and emotional equivalent of someone devoted to lip-synching a popular song or thrashing on an air guitar.

Next I’ll turn to the despair of defiance, the variety of despair we novelists find most compelling. Please subscribe, read, and let me know if any of these conditions feel or appear familiar.

Meanwhile, should you care to learn more about the rather bizarre life that has led the author of these posts at least to the edge of either eternity or madness, his story Readiing Brother Lawrence is quite available.

Get Real

If Soren Kierkegaard wrote the truth, all we need do to overcome melancholy is get real. The catch is, getting real can be an arduous chore, which amounts to vanquishing despair.

Kierkegaard taught that we all are inflicted with despair, a disease far more dangerous than depression or melancholy. And he concluded that both the cause and the result of despair is the alienation of our selves from the infinite.

Each of us was created in human form to be an integrated self, aware of and relating in harmony with both the finite and the infinite.

The finite is necessity, the senses, and the mind as it deals with the superficial, both concrete and abstract. Mathematical equations or the most engaging philosophical or poetic inquiry can be no less finite than a cupcake.

The infinite is God, freedom, and beauty as the manifestation of love and truth.

The self is the result of a synthesis of the finite and the infinite that takes place within us, a conscious unity only accomplished in relationship to God. As long as the self rebuffs or ignores God, it is not itself. And the conscious or unconscious recognition of not being oneself is the substance of despair.

The recognition of our despair should lead us to seek the infinite and finally surrender to its pull and so experience our absolute dependence upon God. But timidity, defiance, or attachment to the familiar allows the finite to hold us captive.

Kierkegaard identifies three categories of despair. In this reflection I’ll introduce the despair of finitude, which “consists in ascribing infinite value to the trivial and temporal.” The person inflicted with this strain of despair considers the stuff of the finite world as supremely valuable. Preachers often call this form of despair idolatry.

The illusion that finite treasures, pleasures, and challenges give life meaning dissuades this person from believing in himself. He calculates that acting in his unique way, rather than in the same manner as the ones by whom he is surrounded, would risk the disapproval of the others. As a result, he might lose all the finite rewards social and public acceptance promise. So he either chooses not to risk being himself or declines to look deeply enough to realize the existence of a potential self beneath the surface.

In Kierkegaard’s vision, these people have “pawned themselves to the world.” They may amass wealth, succeed in careers, prudently calculate social, financial, or political advantages and even be honored by history. Yet they are at best copies of what they admire in others or find that others admire. They have no real self.

In “The Father”, a remarkable short story by Raymond Carver, a mother and daughters are gathered in the kitchen observing the family’s new baby. They offer opinions until one girl says, “He looks like Daddy.”

“But who does Daddy look like?” a sister asks.

The youngest sister answers, “Daddy doesn’t look like anybody.”

They all turn and stare at the father in horror.

I wonder, what more appropriate cause for despair, depression, or melancholy than the recognition, conscious or unconscious, that I am nobody? Literally nobody. The knowledge that I, as a unique being, do not exist.

 

 

Making room for the Infinite

Dallas Willard, in The Spirit of the Disciplines, advocates prayer, solitude and silence, meditation upon the life of Christ, sacrifice and service to others. He implies these disciplines will allow us to make room for what Soren Kierkegaard calls the infinite.

Every believer should read the book. But if Kierkegaard had read it, I imagine he would respond that prescriptions are dangerous, and we each need to discover and practice our unique manner and method.

In my case, prayer may not be the most effective means of accessing the infinite. I have a fitfully wandering mind. Even with a prescribed agenda like the Lord’s Prayer, I need to address one thought at a time because each thought sends me off on a tangent. “Our father–” Zoom, off I go into concerns about parenting.

Solitude and silence work for me.  During the time in my life (age fifteen, following the death of my father) when I most needed to feel the presence of the infinite, I spent nearly every day for a year at a golf course amongst oaks and willows alongside the stream. Usually I played alone. The golf course wasn’t Walden Pond or a hermitage in the desert, but it served.

Meditation upon the wisdom and life of Christ has become a vital part of my routine, and also where these reflections of mine usually begin.

Sacrifice and service to others, I suspect, follow naturally from love conceived in the manner Kierkegaard teaches: that we should obey Christ’s command to love (primarily in action) our neighbors (everyone) without distinction.

And I will add to Willard’s list a discipline I find both difficult and imperative, which is denying myself the right to judge.

Long ago, when I first turned to the Bible, a passage that most rang true was Luke 6:37: “Do not judge not and you will not be judged, do not condemn and you will not be condemned, forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

“Do not judge” felt especially relevant, and I have tried to obey as it applied to severe judgments (this guy is a lowdown, worthless jerk, etc.) Only lately, in response to Kierkegaard’s exacting application of Christ’s commands, have I begun to notice the extent to which I go around judging all day long. He isn’t successful since his car is junk, she doesn’t know how to match clothes, he probably eats too much, she has breast implants, he’s an athlete, she is exceedingly beautiful, as would her friend be if she gained about twenty pounds.

All these judgments of mine, according to Kierkegaard, have the effect of delivering judgment upon myself.

Say we are a curious person who wants to know about others, and instead of our critical judgments we look at people with the intention of seeing the goodness, the love in them. Instead of my eyes and thoughts lingering on the beautiful checker at Trader Joe’s, suppose I turn to the heavy-set older fellow she is checking, and attempt to view him with Jesus’ merciful and loving eye. If I succeed, won’t I get blessed with a deeper appreciation of beauty, more in accord with the infinite?

Kierkegaard has been accused of drawing from Eastern thought, perhaps because of his vision of God echoing our behavior with his behavior toward us. Without exception, Kierkegaard teaches, God’s attitude toward us literally reflects our attitude toward others.

No doubt this will offend many believers, as it seems almost mechanical, more like karma than like the ways of the anthropomorphic God they imagine.

Still, the notion of God’s behavior reflecting ours is an idea worth much consideration, as it may hold a key to the infinite.

Soren Kierkegaard approves of Jesus Christ Superstar

Last evening I watched Jesus Christ Superstar. I hadn’t seen the film since the year of its release. The songs and choreography are fun, and the portrayal of Christ offers some thoughtful moments.

The disciples and followers join in a frenzied dance, singing “Christ you know I love you, did you see I waved? I believe in you and God, so tell me that I’m saved.” Jesus replies with an accusation, the essence of which is: not one of you gets it. You don’t even know who I am or what I’m doing.

Soren Kierkegaard would agree. “In the world there is lots of talk about this or that strife, about this person in conflict with that person, about that man and that woman living in strife with one another, about this one challenging another to a fight, about there being unrest in the city, about a war that is impending, about the conflict of nature’s elements that rage fearfully. But if one should bring up or mention the strife and unrest that resides within every person with God–what an astonishing effect! To most people such talk is but nonsense, a mere trifle. There are too many other important things to talk about.

“Travel the world over, enter into conversation with all the different peoples, visit them in their houses, follow them to the meetings, and listen attentively to what they talk about. Now tell me if you ever hear anything said about the eternal strife, the war between God and man, the war within a person’s soul. And yet this strife is the affair within every single person.

“But it is certain that every person has opportunity, in one way or another, to become aware of this strife. And it is this strife that underlies all others. Oh, whoever you are, pay heed to this sacred strife. This alone is the strife of eternity.”

He means the war between flesh and spirit. He defines the spirit as the synthesis of the finite and the infinite.

For instance, Christ was spirit, a perfect synthesis. If finite necessity such as communicating with or healing people threatened to overpower the infinite and disintegrate the synthesis, he commonly withdrew and re-engaged with the infinite, thereby preserving his spirit.

Most of us are only vaguely, if at all, aware of the infinite. So any contact with that realm feels awfully foreign and dangerous, like madness, and naturally sparks fear.  On account of the fear, we resist its pull. For distraction from the dread this resistance creates, we occupy ourselves with all manner of insipid conflict, as in a current magazine headline: “Kim calls Khloe fat,” or with relatively trivial strife, such as our retirement accounts.

Unless we surrender to the frightening pull of the infinite, we never achieve the synthesis that creates spirit.

Kierkegaard points out that unless we integrate the finite and infinite our creator endowed us with, we not only have no spirit, neither do we have a true self. We don’t even have a partial self, because we sense the need for a true self and attempt to manufacture one by imitating others we see or imagine and come to believe we ought to be.

If we can surrender to the pull of the infinite, we can become ourselves. Otherwise, we are not real.

When, before Tae Kwon Do sessions, Master Jeong would tell us to meditate and  “Think about who you are. Not what you do or what you think. Who you are,” he wanted us to expel the trivial, invite the infinite, and become ourselves.

 

 

A Christmas Carol

When I mention Soren Kierkegaard to people well-educated in the humanities, psychology, or Christian studies, I usually get a response of admiration along with a comment that he is hard to grasp.

Though I let these responses pass without much comment, they are beginning to concern me. As a parent or softball coach, when a kid says something like “But that’s hard,” I try to help her understand that because something is hard doesn’t mean we can’t do it or shouldn’t bother to try. Master Jeong, a Tae Kwon Do ninth-degree black belt, used to give us this admonition: “Practice the move a hundred times. If you can’t do it right, practice a thousand times. If you still can’t do it, practice ten thousand times.” If something is worth doing, hard is no excuse.

A deep understanding of Christ and his message is certainly worth pursuing, and it’s not something of which we humans are incapable.

I love Christmas carols. I was listening to them and wrapping presents, and when Emmylou Harris sang “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given,” I stopped and marveled over the recognition that God would give us such credit for both intelligence and potential for insight as to send a messenger with no hoopla, who would speak in parables and other ways that challenge all our abilities to understand. Such a vote of confidence ought to make us feel honored and driven to prove his confidence justified.

We humans don’t give ourselves enough credit.

Kierkegaard teaches about confidence in others as an expression of love. One way, perhaps the best way, we can learn to love better is to give credit to others for possessing love. Even though we don’t see evidence of it, if we believe God is love and we are made in God’s image and therefore endowed with love, then we can presume it resides in all people and determine to act toward them accordingly.

If we treat others with loving confidence even while we recognize that they, like Charlie Brown’s Lucy, might snatch the football away and leave us to go flying, then we are expressing purity of heart, pleasing God.

The failure to give ourselves credit for our God-given abilities is dangerous.  In Dostoyevski’s masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, in a section called ” The Grand Inquisitor“, Ivan, one of the brothers, tells Alyosha, his younger brother, a story set in Spain during the Inquisition.

Christ returns to earth and performs healings. Soldiers of the Inquisition arrest and deliver him to the Grand Inquisitor, who sits Christ down and explains the church’s position. He asserts that when the devil tempted Christ in the desert (see Matthew 4), Christ responded incorrectly on account of his belief that people as a whole are capable of choosing and living with freedom. The vast majority, the Inquisitor argues, would rather give up freedom up in exchange for food, security, and a simple dogma upon which to base all decisions.

The Inquisitor believes his judgments are in accord with human nature and so overrule the benefits of the freedom Christ offered us, since only a small minority of humankind would choose freedom.

Brother Alyosha won’t deny the Inquisitor’s assessment of human nature. Neither will I. But I will argue against joining the Inquisitor in his refusal to urge people toward freedom. And I’ll contend that we should do our utmost to challenge people to grow in depth of free, un-coerced, un-simplified understanding.

No matter how hard, how mysterious or confounding an issue may be, we should be willing to tackle it if for no other reason than in gratitude for God’s belief in us.

The importance of accepting such a challenge is multiplied in the case of preachers, artists, parents, coaches, or anyone else in a position to influence. If I could convince the writers of the Perelandra College community to assume one attitude, I would advise them to never consider anything too difficult, for themselves or for their audience. Sure, they may need to work harder to communicate. So be it.

To believe others are capable of more than we can observe in them is a primary quality of love.

Where Is Truth?

Soren Kierkegaard has been accused of forsaking reason in favor of searching for truth in the purely subjective. To that accusation, I say phooey.

His argument concerning the objective and the subjective and their value in the search for truth holds that logic, reason, and conclusions based upon sensory or scientific observation are only valid in the objective realm. Truth about our values, the meanings of our lives, the essential nature of reality, or our purpose for existing cannot be observed by using our physical senses, nor approached through reason except by commencing with a premise such as: what matters most is achieving the greatest good for the greatest number, or nothing exists outside what our senses can observe.

Without relying on such a premise, questions of value, meaning, purpose, or essential reality must be approached from outside the reach of the purely objective. To find answers, we must add another element to the equation.

In other words, Kierkegaard doesn’t deny the usefulness of the objective, but simply maintains that it can’t answer all of our concerns. Either we give up searching for answers outside the objective realm or we find another path.

Many, perhaps most, people choose to give up searching and instead choose to rely exclusively on someone else’s answers or to relegate any non-objective search to the category of nonsense.

Kierkegaard suggests, as an alternative to giving up or blindly following a leader, that we inquire of the subjective when we feel called to explore places in which the objective will only reach a dead-end. The subjective, contrary to popular belief, is not necessarily synonymous with wishful thinking or whim. In Kierkegaard’s  vision, the subjective involves a dedicated and relentlessly honest journey inward.  I’ll offer a few thoughts about this journey.

One way to begin is to cultivate solitude. Removing ourselves from other people and the distractions they bring can at least allow us time to discover what else we are and what our beings possess other than the superficial and obvious.

Kierkegaard proposes that “… anyone who stands alone for any length of time soon discovers that there is a God.” Though in this passage standing alone can refer to alienation from others, another of his central topics, it can also apply to solitude.

Anyone at liberty to practice solitude, or who sometimes longs for solitude, may appreciate reading Thomas Merton’s No Man Is An Island, which in one edition was subtitled “thoughts in solitude”.

But solitude is by no means the only route inward. Even while surrounded by people and engaged in activity, we can do our best to expel from our thoughts a lot of what normally occupies them. Many of us spend valuable time and effort needlessly passing judgment on people or things or situations. We not only judge ourselves but dedicate energy to making excuses for the thoughts or behaviors that led to those judgments. We listen to the opinions of others, or read books or articles, without absorbing or relating to any subtle insight or wisdom because we are occupied with creating arguments against or in favor of the speaker’s or author’s assertions or implications. All this activity, most of it fruitless, keeps our minds whirling, on the surface.

When I studied Tae Kwon Do, we began each session with a brief meditation. Master Jeong would guide us to: “Think about who you are. Not what you do or what you want. Who you are.”

Some of my deepest and most valuable excursions inward have come during long road trips. For an account of one such journey, and to experience how a journey inward can lead us to the kingdom of heaven, take a look at Reading Brother Lawrence.

Happy holiday preparations,

Ken Kuhlken

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Is Truth?

“Truth is the work of freedom,” Kierkegaard wrote.  “…truth exists for a particular individual only as he himself produces it in action.”

We might test this theory by allowing ourselves freedom to experience a variety of attitudes, beliefs and actions and asking which of them makes our conscience feel free. Then, as we act in accord with our conscience, our actions become the truth. Not the results of truth, but truth itself, as John Keats expressed when he wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Notice he didn’t claim that beauty is true and truth is beautiful.

Truth as action and substance rather than mental construct is a central tenet of Kierkegaard’s vision of Christ. He asserts that when Jesus claims to be the truth, it doesn’t mean Christ’s teachings are true or his example is the right way to behave. It means, Jesus, his person, his existence, is the truth.

The validity of the test suggested above depends upon whether or not we have a conscience. Not long ago, I realized that when I was a boy, the word conscience was commonly used, but I couldn’t remember having heard it in years. No doubt the social sciences knocked the stuffing out of the word with the theory that the conscience once viewed as part of human nature is actually a result of early childhood programing.

While we are certainly affected by parental and cultural programming, I’ll argue that a deeper level of conscience exists. This conscience recognizes the good and will guide us toward the good, if we set it free. Sure it’s buried deep, under heaps of learned opinions, attitudes, prejudices and fears. To find it we need to devote the will, time, and effort to journey inward.

Kierkegaard has plenty to offer concerning the journey inward, which can become the adventure of a lifetime. And which I mean to explore next week.

For more about the journey inward than a blog can offer, Ken Kuhlken’s Reading Brother Lawrence.

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.