Results tagged “Kierkegaard” from Reformation21 Blog

Despair at Work

"Remember," Paul writes, "that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world" (Eph 2:11-12). This is spiritual despair, the "sickness unto death" (John 11:4) according to Kierkegaard. If despair is the condition of "having no hope and [being] without God in the world" then the opposite condition is "realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have the boldness and access [to God] with confidence through our faith in him" (Eph 3:11-12). Despair, in other words, is only remedied through faith in Jesus Christ, "through whom we have now received reconciliation" with God (Rom 5:11). Even those united to Christ through faith continue to struggle with despair--to live and act as though the grace of God is not enough--insofar as their faith remains imperfect in this life. For this reason, despair is as universal as sin (see part 1 of this series) and not to be reduced to or confused with mere consciousness of despair, since the consciousness of despair may be absent or superficial or even be false (see part 2 of this series).

The Subjectivity of Despair

While despair is not to be reduced to mere consciousness (or mood, attitude, emotion, or the like), it is nevertheless profoundly subjective in the Kierkegaardian sense that it concerns and involves one's self. People seem to despair over something, he observes, and in their despair are ever ready to (mis)diagnose their despair as something merely (and thus trivially) objective rather than profoundly subjective:

An individual in despair despairs over something. So it seems for a moment, but only for a moment; in the same moment . . . despair in its true form shows itself. In despairing over something, he really despaired over himself, and now he wants to be rid of himself (SUD, 19).

To be rid of oneself--to no longer want or will to be the person you are or have become--in one sense that is the end of despair: it is the place to which the prodigal came when he "came to himself" in the "far country" (Luke 15:17) and it's the place we reach when we are finally sick of our sin and ready to be rid of "this body of death" (Rom. 7:24). We may come to this point by myriad different paths but it is a place we must all reach if we are to become true selves before God since we all begin in despair just as surely as we begin in sin.

Kierkegaard illustrates the subjectivity of despair with the case of an "ambitious man whose slogan is 'Either Caesar or nothing'." When this man "does not get to be Caesar," he "despairs over it."

But this also means something else: precisely because he did not get to be Caesar, he now cannot bear to be himself. Consequently he does not despair because he did not get to be Caesar but despairs over himself because he did not get to be Caesar (SUD, 19).

Not getting to be Caesar is not the root of his despair but merely the occasion for its surfacing in his consciousness. His despairing "over something"--over not getting to be Caesar--is actually a symptom of his despair "over himself" which was even driving his ambition to be Caesar. In truth, Kierkegaard declares, this man is in despair over himself all along, "for whenever that which triggers his despair occurs, it is immediately apparent that he has been in despair his whole life" (SUD, 24).

This man's ambition to become Caesar, much like the prodigal's drive to squander his inheritance in a far country, is actually a spiritual device for losing himself in all the trappings of being Caesar in order to dodge or suppress the truth about being in despair before God. If he had become Caesar he would have been happy, perhaps, because he would have been preoccupied with being Caesar; being Caesar is very useful in the quest to avoid coming to oneself. His happiness may have been elusive or short lived, however, because his despair over his self would have survived his becoming Caesar and, as with the hungry swine-feeding prodigal, likely broken through eventually despite drowning himself in the world.

Even if the ambitious man successfully suppressed his consciousness of being in despair throughout his entire life as Caesar and had no anxiety at all over remaining Caesar, he still would not have escaped being in despair but only successfully suppressed his consciousness of it. This would be a far greater tragedy because he is so much more than Caesar: he is a human being created in the divine image and called to enjoy and glorify God forever. Without the consciousness of "having no hope and [being] without God in the world" he not only would be "just as despairing" as if he had not been Caesar, but also ignorant of his true condition and all the more hopeless for that (SUD, 19).

Despair as Weakness and Defiance

Coming to oneself in the far country of despair, or seeing oneself as one is before God in the mirror of his word, is not to be confused with coming to faith, however. While resting transparently in God, our creator and redeemer, is the only way to overcome spiritual despair, many despairing people take offense in the moment of self-disclosure and react in despair rather than in faith.

Kierkegaard proceeds, therefore, to describe two broad forms of conscious or reactionary despair: weakness and defiance. Both forms are described over against the formula in which the self, "in willing to be itself, . . . rests transparently in the power that established it," who is God (SUD, 49). Weakness is the form of despair in which the consciously despairing person does not will to be oneself; defiance is the form of despair in which the consciously despairing person wills to be oneself without resting transparently in God. Both have their exegetical counterparts before Scripture. The difference between the two forms of conscious despair--weakness and defiance--is just to what degree the despairing person is consciously defiant. All consciously despairing people are both culpably weak, in that they do not will to live to the glory of God, and defiant, in that they will to live to some other end.

The person who despairs in weakness experiences despair as "a suffering, a succumbing to the pressure of external factors" (SUD, 51). They are conscious of despairing but still conceive of despair as though its source is entirely outside of them rather than within them. Perhaps the person who despairs in weakness even becomes conscious of the fact that it is a kind of weakness to be in despair over earthly things. Even if so, "instead of definitively turning away from despair to faith and humbling himself under his weakness, he entrenches himself in despair and despairs over his weakness" (SUD, 61). An example is the person who, hearing God's word, becomes aware of her sin but instead of casting herself on God despairs over the possibility of repenting or being forgiven, which at bottom is a refusal to believe the gospel and rest in Christ.

At this point, the despair of weakness--of not willing to be oneself before God--passes into the despair of defiance--of willing to be oneself without resting transparently in God. Defiant despair, however, "is conscious of itself as an act" and thus aware that the source of despair "does not come from the outside as a suffering under the pressure of externalities but comes directly from the self" (SUD, 67). In defiance, the person "in despair wants . . . to create itself, to make his self into the self he wants to be, to determine what he will have or not have in his concrete self." As such, the defiant person "constantly relates itself to itself only by way of imaginary constructions, no matter what it undertakes, however vast, however amazing, however perseveringly pursued. It recognizes no power over itself" (SUD, 68).

Such willful despair cuts the person off "from any relation to a power that has established it, . . . severing it from the [very] idea that there is such a power" (SUD, 68). Thus, defiant despair is at its core defiance before God, the willful assertion of one's autonomy:

The self is its own master, absolutely its own master, so-called; and precisely this is the despair, but also what it regards as its pleasure and delight. On closer examination, however, it is easy to see that this absolute ruler is a king without a country, actually ruling over nothing. . . . Consequently, the self in despair is always building only castles in the air (SUD, 69).

Defiance before God is a futile effort of self-assertion. "In despair," Kierkegaard writes, "the self wants to enjoy the total satisfaction of making itself into itself, of developing itself, of being itself," but only on its own terms (SUD, 69). It is impossible, however, to become oneself before God apart from the faith that rests transparently in him; spiritual defiance is a suicidal folly in which one wills to actualize a self that turns out to be an imaginary "nothing."

When it comes to studying the Bible, the weakly despairing reader despairs over arriving at the meaning of the text and its significant for one's life and the defiantly despairing exegete asserts his or her own meaning and significance. Despair can twist and distort our exegetical work in shockingly obvious and remarkably subtle ways, as I shall try to show in upcoming posts. Already, Kierkegaard's analysis reminds us that exegetical technique alone is incapable of delivering us from spiritual despair before God and his word. Biblical exegesis, in other words, is an inescapably spiritual discipline before God that must be pursued by faith.

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a peculiar sort of apologist for the spiritual earnestness he believed is demanded by the gospel and necessary to being human. It is not surprising, then, that Kierkegaard had much to say about despair before God (coram Deo) since spiritual despair is, in many ways, the great enemy of spiritual earnestness. The theme of spiritual despair, developed under various terms, runs throughout his literature and takes center stage at the culmination of his pseudonymous corpus in his 1849 masterpiece, Sickness unto Death. Not much later, Kierkegaard muses under his own name on what spiritual despair does to us before God's word (coram Scriptura) in his 1851 discourse, "What Is Required in Order to Look at Oneself with True Blessing in the Mirror of the Word?" Reading the latter in light of the former, as he intended, is instructive: my aim here is to draw out and give voice to his warning about the subversive exegetical danger of spiritual despair to would-be Bible readers.

Since there are many aspects to his analysis of spiritual despair and warning to Bible readers, I intend to develop this line of thought over a several posts, each one capable of standing on its own but better when held together. Along the way I hope to set out something of Kierkegaard's concept of spiritual despair, draw out several dimensions of Spiritual despair, and then observe how this analysis of despair applies to the dynamic of reading and interpreting God's word. Some readers will no doubt recognize similar themes in Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Blaise Pascal, a number of Puritan and Nadere Reformatie (Second Reformation) writers, and perhaps others. The significance of spiritual despair has long been recognized in the Christian tradition and is inescapable among all who aspire to reflect soberly on living before God, few have given it the attention of Kierkegaard.

"What is Required?"

"What Is Required" is the first of the three discourses that make up Kierkegaard's little book, For Self-Examination. Dated the fifth Sunday after Easter, it is in fact a sermon on James 1:22-27:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

The spiritual distance between being a doer of the word who practices true religion before God and a mere hearer of the word is a matter of faith. The mere hearer of the word is just the sort of spiritually confused person who thinks she believes and perhaps claims she believes but whose life shows no evidence of faith apart from certain "counterfeit affections," as Edwards calls them (WJE, 2:379-80). "What good is it," James asks,

If someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?...[F]aith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead...You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe--and shudder!...[F]aith apart from works is useless (James 2:14, 17-20).

The person who has only the faith to hear but not to do does not have saving faith--the sort of earnest faith Westminster says "acts differently upon that which each particular passage [of Scripture] contains; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come" (WCF 14.2). The mere hearer of the word lacks or fails to live by this sort of faith and is therefore in what Kierkegaard calls despair.

Despair is the faithless, hopeless, and in a sense, loveless condition of not living for what is promised, desiring what is given, and doing what is required but rather as one "having no hope and without God in the world" (Eph 2:12). The one who lives by faith hears the promise that the doer who acts "will be blessed in his doing" and rises up in hope and does whatever is commanded in love--and is indeed blessed in the doing; the one who lives in despair, however, may hear the promise and even want to be blessed but fails to do what is written and enter into the joy of the benediction, the blessing that belongs to those who live according to this word. Faith is the difference.

Despair as Universal as Sin

For reasons rooted in Kierkegaard's broadly Augustinian anthropology, he views faith as essential to being human. This is not just a psychological point for him: faith is not just necessary for humans to have a sense of wholeness in life but is actually necessary to being whole. The very structure of being human is such, he argues, that we can only be what we were created and are called to be by resting in the One in whom "we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28).

As such, all humans are absolutely dependent on God not only for our objective existence in the world, as rocks and trees and birds depend on God, but also for our subjectivity--depending on him at the level of self-consciousness and personal identity, for our knowing and willing and desiring and doing in the stream of being and becoming that is our life. In Augustinian terms, only faith is able to settle our otherwise incurably "restless" hearts; in Pascalian terms, only faith is able to bring us into that communion with God that fills the "infinite abyss" in our souls; in Kierkegaardian terms, only faith enables us to be and become a true human self before God:

Every human existence that is not conscious of itself...before God,...every human existence that does not rest transparently in God,...whatever it achieves, be it most amazing, whatever it explains, be it the whole of existence, however intensively it enjoys life esthetically--every such existence is nevertheless despair SUD, 46 (XI 158).

If, he explains, in faith "the [human] self in being itself and in willing to be itself rests transparently in God," then in despair the human self fails to be itself by not resting transparently in God. Every fallen person fails in just this way: fails at life's great "task" of being human before God and is thus in despair. Even those of us who are being delivered out of despair through faith are susceptible to despair and remain in some measure of despair insofar as our faith remains imperfect in this life.

Despair, therefore, is universal, This means none of us are absolutely trustworthy handlers of God's word--none of us are beyond the possibility of taking offense at what is written or being tempted to defend ourselves against the force of it in our lives. Though "no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account," in the weakness of our faith not one of us rests in him with perfect transparency. So Kierkegaard is convinced, at least; and convinced of this, he's also convinced we're all a little too willingly distracted and diverted before God's word even as we (pretend to) hear and read it.

Søren Kierkegaard is surely one of the most influential and misunderstood influences on modern Western thought and especially contemporary theology. This is a bit surprising for someone who wrote in Danish and styled himself neither a philosopher nor a theologian but a "religious poet." That is a curious but fitting description. He was not particularly dogmatic and seldom systematic in his expositions the way many of his German and Danish contemporaries were, but he was a piercing observer and enormously witty and creative writer whose intricately complex corpus constitutes something like an elaborate apology for spiritual earnestness in late-European Christendom.

About half of his massive body of work is written under various pseudonyms representing different and often conflicting perspectives; the other half largely consists of signed "discourses" intended to spiritually awaken and edify readers. Although he completed the requisite theological exams to be ordained in the Lutheran church and sometimes preached in Copenhagen's pulpits, he was never ordained and preferred to call his many published sermons "discourses" because he was "without authority."

The authority he denied having, however, was not just the official authority to preach that comes with being ordained but also a species of moral authority. He elaborates, among many other places, in the introduction to his little book, For Self-Examination (1851). To preach, he explains, "is essentially . . . neither to describe faith in books nor as a speaker" but "to have faith and to 'witness' to the faith" that "should be recognizable in [the preacher's] life" (FSE, 18-19). To preach one must be a witness and to be a witness is to be a martyr. But a martyr, he continues, playing with the word, is far more than just being an eyewitness to some event or having a certain life-experience to tell about; a martyr is a person whose life is so decisively shaped by the reality to which he testifies that the person has died to every other way of being in and moving through the world (FSE, 25).

Being a martyr in this sense, he insists, is necessary for anyone who would be an authoritative witness to the Incarnate. It is also why a preacher of Christ must have an earnest, life-defining faith in the one who is the resurrection and the life and our hope of glory--a point that has not always been as obvious to people as one would think it should be. We who dare to handle and preach God's word before others must, therefore, "live in the Christian thoughts and ideas" we study and profess, not as a place we sometimes visit or as an abstract region of mere thoughts and ideas, but as the concrete form of our "daily life," as he puts it (FSE, 10). If we do this--if, in John's words, we walk in the light as he is in the light (1 John 1:7) and, in James's words, we are daily doers of the word and not forgetful hearers of it (James 1:25)--then we will have "eloquence enough and precisely that [kind of authority] which is needed when [we] speak" (FSE, 10).

What to make of those who preached Christ out of envy and rivalry (Phil 1:15-18) or Kierkegaard's denial of having this kind of authority is another story for another time (and the latter perhaps another place). That we are called to have and in some sense must have this kind of authority is surely right and God's people benefit in ways they know and appreciate and in ways that go far beyond what they may know and appreciate when we do. What we might call existential authority and eloquence is a critical component of the holistic apology for the faith that the preacher walking in the light of the gospel and living for the hope of glory in Jesus Christ presents to the people every time he stands to preach.