Category Archives: Soren Kierkegaard

Soren Kierkegaard v. melancholy

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.

Us vs. Them, Or Schaeffer vs. Kierkegaard Revisited

My friend Raymond, a history professor, believes religion is at the heart of all human misery and turmoil. He ought to read How Should We Then Live?

In a few hundred pagesFrancis Schaeffer analyses the history of western philosophy, art, and politics, and argues that Judeo Christian ethics essentially civilized our world, until the reemergence of Greco-Roman thought instigated a downturn. The case he presents might at least prompt Raymond to reconsider.

The history prefaces Schaeffer’s theme, that the future of humanity is in dire jeopardy, thanks to our culture having accepted a world-view he calls the “existential methodology.” Under this system, he contends, we must base all decisions either exclusively upon “reason” or  “non-reason.” He argues that reason, strictly employed, insists we conclude that humans are machines, ruled by deterministic principles. And reliance on “non-reason,” by which he means feelings and impulses, delivers us into the postmodern realm of value-relativity from which the concepts of good and evil have been expelled in favor of “if it feels good, do it.”

Schaeffer traces the “existential methodology” back to Soren Kierkegaard. Without attempting to probe Kierkegaard’s thought, he asserts that the philosopher opened the gateway to relativism.

Since the book offers no evidence that Schaeffer read Kierkegaard, I suppose he is relying on the common misconception that Kierkegaard, often labeled the father of existentialism, was advocating for the death of critical thinking at the hands of a culture ruled by philosophical libertines.

Anyone who holds that opinion of Kierkegaard, please read Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.

Schaeffer proposes that a return to Judeo Christian values is the only antidote to the collapse of Western civilization.  On this point, I tend to agree.  But I have to ask, “So, does this fellow mean we should believe in God simply because the faith is practical? ”

I prefer to think we are challenged to find what is true.

I’m no authority on Francis Schaeffer. But after one book, I fear the man is a prime example of the us vs. them attitude that has sent many bright, honest, and creative minds fleeing in dismay from the church and which may prove to be even more evil and dangerous than relativism.

by Ken Kuhlken, who now means to turn from defending Kierkegaard to reflecting upon the philosopher’s ideas.

We Are Not Droids — Schaeffer v. Kierkegaard

A couple weeks ago, my friend Bob Weathers mentioned that while at Fuller Seminary, he read something by Francis Schaeffer that criticized Soren Kierkegaard. I knew of and admired Schaeffer on account of his L’Abri community, but I hadn’t read his any of his books.

Now, while reading How Then Should We Live?  (written, like Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, in answer to the question Aristotle raised) I see Schaeffer’s problem with Kierkegaard.

He appears to blame Kierkegaard for the result of his ideas, for what the philosopher’s followers have wrought, which Schaeffer calls the “existential methodology” that places reason and non-reason (the objective and subjective, in Kierkegaard’s terms) as mutually exclusive processes.

Schaeffer blames this “existential methodology” for causing the flight of reasonable people from Christian ideals and ethics.  He maintains that existentialists, beginning with Kierkegaard, have convinced us that values belong to the realm of  “non-reason” or blind faith and therefore can never be universally or culturally applied. So, according to Shaeffer, on account of the existentialists, our culture as a whole considers values as relative only to the individuals who choose to follow them.

Certain existentialists may argue for the relativity of values, but according to my reading of and about him, Kierkegaard made no such argument. I have found not the least indication that he denies the value of reason, a faculty he consistently applies with a master’s touch. His rejection of reason is only of the insistence that it is all we have with which to discover truth.

Schaeffer appears to believe we must either rely exclusively upon reason or ban reason and rely only upon the “non-reason” of our instincts, desires, and wishful fantasies.

This morning I came across an article about scientists who contend that reason is only one of our tools, and perhaps not the one we most often apply, even while we consider ourselves reasonable, logical. Please click and read.

Surely reason is a factor in what Kierkegaard means by the subjective. Likewise, intuition, emotion, and perhaps divine inspiration, influence our reasoning.  After all, we are not droids.

This Schaeffer v. Kierkegaard conflict ought to matter to anyone concerned who has ever wondered if evangelists should aim to influence the objective or the subjective; the mind, the heart, or the whole individual. A worthy question, especially for those who take The Great Commission to heart.

Ken Kuhlken

Kierkegaard v. melancholy, post 10

Tough Guys Like Jesus

Following the lead of my son Cody who at age seven hoped to become a ninja, I practiced Tae Kwon Do for five years, under Master Jeong.  Among his admonitions were, “Don’t fight unless you are willing to die,” and a corollary, “Don’t take black belt test unless you are willing to die. “

The advice is about risk versus reward. If you fight with the least timidity, you probably will lose. The black belt test is meant to push you beyond your capacity.

Soren Kierkegaard offers similar advice about choosing the Christian faith. Making an existential choice, at least one so fraught with peril as following Christ, requires us to take a stand, to commit to an idea, value, or view with the intention of following it to the grave.  Like marriage, for those who take their vows in earnest.  So, wisdom would dictate, “Don’t take a stand, don’t commit, unless you are willing to risk dying for it.”

To commit ourselves is simple enough unless we mean to keep the commitment.  To keep a commitment, we don’t just choose once, but need to make the choice over and over, all our lives.  Remission in our will to stand firm often proves fatal to the commitment, and causes its purpose to backfire.  Again, think of marriage, or of church leaders who get busted for preaching one value and living otherwise and who in consequence bring disgrace and mockery on the faith.

Recently Zoë and I watched The Karate Kid.  The old one with Mister Miyagi.  I was reminded that the Tae Kwon Do spirit is “indomitable spirit”, which I as a black belt am supposed to exemplify.

At first, I felt confronted with a dilemma, and struggled to resolve the insistence on exerting my indomitable spirit with the Christian’s call to die to self, to consider our own power as nothing, but submit to God and rely on His power.

Then I saw that in order to stand up to discouragement, frustration, doubts, and the other forces that attack us all, and to recommit over and over to follow the choice I made, I (at least) need an indomitable spirit.

For those who would remind me that God can give us an indomitable spirit, I will point out that we still need to summon and apply it, and to remind ourselves of it when we feel forsaken, as even the best of us occasionally do.

Ken Kuhlken

The Good Know Nothing

A quote by novelist Paul Auster rang so true, I used a phrase from it as the title of my current Tom Hickey novel in progress.

“Only the good doubt their own goodness, which is what makes them good in the first place. The bad know they are good, but the good know nothing.”

The best minds are too small to consider all the complexities around us.  The most objective are driven by emotions, needs and passions they can barely begin to understand, let alone control.  Surely all our beliefs might be illusions.

We claim to know so that we can feel secure, or to create a useful platform from which to further our particular agenda.  Churchgoers aren’t likely to admit to the extent of their doubts.  The wealthy commonly believe poverty equals laziness.  And so on.

When I passed along the Auster quote to my son Cody, he thought it through then came back with, “But Dad, if that’s true then the good must be ineffectual, because they don’t have the certainty about anything to make a stand.”

Here’s my answwer:

Those of us who can’t be satisfied with a meaningless life are by definition called to make an existential choice, to decide between alternatives and dedicate ourselves to a guiding belief.

As a path toward recognizing the best choice, Kierkegaard argued the value of subjectivity.  The highest and deepest truth, he contended, is discovered by an inward journey rather than by observation of external reality.  By searching inside ourselves, in solitary, devoted, open-minded exploration; by preferring the instincts of the artist to the over-confident ways of science or philosophy, we can discover realms beyond the external and objective.

Those who have chosen to believe but admit that they are choosing on the basis of subjective experience can draw a distinction between knowledge (in an absolute sense) and belief.  Then they can make a stand with dedication and passion, yet retain a lightness of heart and mind, a portion of humility.  With these they can avoid the defensiveness or arrogance of the know-it-all.

 

Getting It

The common belief about knowledge, at least in our culture, is that to claim knowledge about something we should be able to backup the claim with logic, sensory observation, personal experience, or a solid reason to trust the provider of the knowledge.

But sometimes we encounter ideas we simply know are true even though they don’t come through any of the accepted methods.  Occasionally an idea rings so true that it sets off a whole new vision and calls us to view ourselves, or an element of our lives, or the whole world, in a remarkably different way. Light breaks into the cave.  Suddenly we “get it.”

My earliest recollection of “getting it” is of my reaction to Feodor Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment.  The best I can express the experience in words is, I realized that compared to love, nothing else matters.

Later, the final lines of John Keats “Ode on a Grecian Urn” knocked me out cold.  “Beauty is truth, truth beauty–that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” When I came to, the world was a far richer place.

And William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming” floored me, and convinced me that the “rough beast … slouching toward Bethlehem to be born,” was real and something I had better reckon with.

Then came Sören Kierkegaard.  I wish I could recall the passage, because its theme has haunted me ever since, with the knowledge that Christian churches can be the enemies of Christ.

While most evangelists labor to bring people to church or lead them to professions of faith, Kierkegaard challenged us to undertake a passionate, vigilant, and persistent search for truth.  I suspect he believed that if Christ, as he claimed, is the truth, to Christ is where honest truth seekers are bound, whether or not they set off in that direction.

Churches, like schools or mentors, can be valuable resources, or distractions, or worse.

During graduate school, I had the privilege of hanging out with novelist Kurt Vonnegut. At a party, a few of us gathered in the kitchen, which is often the setting for the most engaging conversations.  Mr. Vonnegut used the platform to argue that if one of us worked in a gas station and the price of a gallon was outrageous, we should realize our responsibility for charging that price, and not blame the station owner or anyone else. Because we had chosen to work there.

B. Traven, author of Treasure of the Sierra Madre, maintained that oppressed people should realize that they don’t need to remain oppressed. They could choose to die resisting.

What these bright fellows were getting at with their extreme examples is that each of us, not our nation, employer, family, or pastor holds the ultimately responsibility for our thoughts or actions.

As Kierkegaard would have us recognize, neither God nor our conscience, if we attend to it, condones the neglect of our capacity to discover the truth and act accordingly.

Which is good advice to remember especially now that a cadre of pastors have declared they mean to preach on politics.

Ken Kuhlken, www.kenkuhlken.net

Looking for Loopholes

Someone encountered W.C. Fields on his deathbed reading a Bible.  When the person asked if he had gotten religion, Fields replied,  “I’m looking for a loophole.”

Most of us prefer looking for loopholes to facing hard truths.  Not Sören Kierkegaard.

When he writes about Christ, he not only takes Christ’s words at face value, he takes them to heart and applies them to reality no matter how severely they may insult or outrage.

Works of Love is essentially a treatise on Matthew 22:39: “… You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  The book’s premise is, when Christ commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves, he is commanding us to “love without distinction.”

Note my repetition of “command”.  The verse reads, we “shall”, not “should,” love our neighbor.

As the parable of “The Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37) clarifies, our neighbor is whomever we encounter in need. Since all human beings are in need of something, that’s quite a chore.

“The Good Samaritan” also clarifies that the way we are to love is through action.

A couple years ago, Pam left Zöe and me.*  I won’t presume to challenge, justify, or even pretend to understand her reasons.  But I will note that it’s no cinch trying to do justice to raising a wonderful daughter as a single dad with only a modest income and with two demanding jobs.  Sometimes, I was inclined toward resentment.  Kierkegaard helped plenty.

Each time Pam showed up, I would remind myself that regardless of any resentment I might feel, I was obligated to act toward her in a loving way.  In other words, to treat her with kindness, generosity, and concern.

Hold on, I thought, she did me … Loophole.

Yeah, but if I treat her well, aren’t I condoning … Loophole.

A most unexpected and peculiar revelation came out of this practice.  I began to see that resentment fades in light of a call to action.  I suppose resentment inspires counter-resentment, which prompts an escalation of resentment, and so on.

But even beyond the interpersonal dynamic, I began to experience a strange release from resentment, a sense of freedom that felt like a gift or blessing.

Score one for the theory that the truth will set us free.

* Here’s a story about Zöe and her mom and dad in lighter times.

The Curse of the Clever

Let’s return to the question, does Sören Kierkegaard offer a cure for depression, which he called melancholy?

Because Kierkegaard offers nothing easy or simple, the opposite may appear more likely.  He would have us live by Christ’s standards, without recourse to excuse or compromise.  To attempt living out such an idealistic set of prescriptions might only add pressure to our minds, and the pressure might drive us into even darker places.

But if what he writes is the truth, and if the truth will set us free (John 8:32), then the ticket to freedom is not less pressure but more truth. And if the truth won’t set us free from depression, how valid is the assertion that the truth will set us free? And if that assertion proves invalid, isn’t all belief in Christ and his wisdom called into question?

Unless we’re inclined to credit Christ with superior wisdom, engaging with Kierkegaard might prove simply annoying.  So let’s suppose that Christ hit the mark with his proposition that the truth can set us free.

Sure, we could debate endlessly about the definition of this “truth” Christ referred to, and about what on earth “free” means.  But I’d rather leave such debates to folks with time on their hands, and move on with our attempt to heal melancholy.

Kierkegaard was fanatically devoted to discovering truth. And he offers a wealth of insight about human nature, which should lead to insights about our individual selves.  Applying these insights can save us from harmful attitudes and actions.

Kierkegaard was deeply suspicious of intelligence, which he referred to as cleverness. The clever, he maintains, are more apt to expend their powers creating excuses than to use their cleverness in the quest for honest self-discovery.

When I studied Tae Kwon Do, Master Jeong would respond to every excuse, for failure to execute a move or for lack of progress toward the next level, with stony silence.  I suspect most every psychologist and educator would agree that excuses are the archenemy of growth and learning.

But not so many of us recognize that the clever are most in danger, as they can dream up the most convincing excuses.

I’m not remarkably clever.  Still, I am going to try throwing out my best excuses and re-opening the inquiries that inspired them.

Ken Kuhlken, 9-18-11