Tag Archives: Soren Kierkegaard

Happy Endings

Lots of us pray the Lord’s prayer fairly regularly, thereby requesting that, “Your will be done.”

Recently I heard a pastor quote a Christian writer’s prediction that anyone who can pray with perfect sincerity for God’s will to be done is guaranteed eternity in heaven.

Regardless of what we believe about salvation, weighing our sincerity in light of that comment could be a valuable tool for self-discovery. So I asked myself: can I, in perfect sincerity, pray for God’s will to be done? That would mean I could be okay with God’s will even if it included my getting melanoma, dying in a month, and leaving my fourteen-year-old Zoe to face a tough world without my help. And it would give my approval even if God’s will included my family dying by torture.

Not likely.

Remember Abraham and how God told him to offer Isaac as a sacrifice? I’ve heard preachers argue that Abe was okay with following instructions because he knew God would surely intercede and stop the sacrifice.

Phooey.

That view of Abraham may be in accord with prosperity gospels. But why then is Abraham regarded throughout the Bible as an example of faithfulness. If he felt so sure God was only testing him and wouldn’t let him go through with the act, his faithfulness was no big deal.

Here’s another take on Abraham, from Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”:

God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son.”
Abe said “Man, you must be putting me on.”
God say, “No.”
Abe say “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but,
the next time you see me coming you’d better run.”

I suspect Mr. Dylan, rather than advocating that view, was poking fun at an attitude common amongst fundamentalists. I taught at a fundamentalist college where the dean of the seminary convinced even some bright students that to achieve salvation, we needed to believe correct dogma.

Double phooey.

Here’s yet another view of Abraham, this one promoted by 19th century thinker Soren Kierkegaard:

Abe, whom Kierkegaard regarded as the Knight of Faith, wasn’t any more convinced that God would relieve him of the call to sacrifice than Jesus was convinced he wouldn’t actually get crucified. Rather, Abraham, like Jesus, simply believed that whatever God asked of him, he would do.

Because God asked.

Period.

After all, to refuse would be as ridiculous as if my brain told my hands to swing at a pitch and my hands on their own decided not to. Because Kierkegaard was a brilliant philosopher, I’ll call this perspective a philosopher’s view of Abraham.

Christian writers, especially those who target Christian readers, had better decide whether they trust (a) the prosperity view, (b) the fundamentalist view, or (c) the philosopher’s view.

Because the ending to most every story will imply one of the three.

Suppose you hold to (b) and yet you write a romance novel in which the hero and heroine live happily ever after. Might you be promoting (a)? And if so, aren’t you lying?

I don’t mean to accuse or condemn, but to suggest we writers question whether our stories are true to our beliefs.

Because writing is a sacred vocation, we should worry about the fate of writers who willingly lie for bucks or for the pride of publication.

A couple novels I enthusiastically recommend that deliver view c (philosopher’s view) endings are Midheaven and Newport Ave.

Love Everybody?

I try to write a Church for Writers post at least every month, and this month I meant to offer some thoughts about the religion of evolution. But then a man entered a nightclub in Florida and killed and wounded almost a hundred people. And the next day, a radio personality commented: “We need to start acting kindly to each other. If everybody did just that, the world would be a safe and happy place. And though we can’t make other people be kind, we can behave kindly ourselves. That much is easy.”

Her comments were quite appropriate, I thought, and right in accord with Christ’s command for us to love our neighbors. And though I was touched by her passion and innocence, I need to note that being kind to everyone is not so easy.

Before I go on, I should point out that in my vocabulary, to love our neighbors and to be kind to people are practically synonymous. Psychologist and author M. Scott Peck defines love as a willingness to sacrifice, which could translate to being kind even if it hurts.

Kindness may be easy when people treat us well and don’t get into our way. But when they attack or demean us or frustrate our plans or desires, being kind to them is hard. It’s something we need to work at. Something most of us need to learn. And kindness to the degree it becomes sacrificial love is, for many if not most of us, mighty hard.

Following my first divorce, I began to detect that I was not good at loving people. So, being an avid reader, I began reading up on the topic of love.

I could recommend quite a few books, but I’ll start with Soren Kierkegaard’s Works of Love . Kierkegaard maintains that when Christ instructs us to love our neighbor, he is issuing a command, not making a suggestion. And Christ clarifies the command with the parable of the good Samaritan. In this context, to love our neighbor means to love without distinction. Everybody. Even those who believe or act in ways we find odious. Even those who may have done us grievous wrongs.

Being truly kind, not just friendly, is hardly easy. But it’s possible, if we put our hearts and minds to it.

Please try to love without distinction, and consider reading a book on love, and pray something like this: “Lord, teach and help me to lover better.”

The rewards of love are many and miraculous.

Please subscribe to this blog and read about them, maybe next month.

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.

 

 

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.

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.