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Love, and Kierkegaard

This is a first draft of an essay on “love” for a new volume, The T&T Clark Companion to the Theology of Kierkegaard to be published by Bloomsbury T&T Clark, edited by David Gouwens and Aaron Edwards. treachery cover My first book was on Kierkegaard, and is available from Cambridge University Press.  It has a pretty cover.

Amy Laura Hall



“When we speak this way, we are speaking of the love that sustains all existence, of God’s love. If for one moment, one single moment, it were to be absent, everything would be confused.”[1]

In Paul Holmer’s introduction to Søren Kierkegaard’s writing, he uses a very helpful phrase to describe the setting into which Kierkegaard makes a literary intervention: ‘the moving stair that human history is supposed to be’.[2] Kierkegaard creates a world different than the one that most of his contemporaries assumed. Whereas the assumption in philosophy was that one is to use ‘reason’ to ‘find’ her ‘place on the moving stair that human history is supposed to be,’ Kierkegaard sought to reorient his readers to a whole different way of seeing themselves, God, and everything that is. Holmer’s choice of words warrants close attention. The task in Kierkegaard’s era was for a person to use a particular kind of reckoning, a kind of reckoning that writers had made synonymous with ‘reason’. Any other kind of reckoning therefore became unreasonable, even irrational. Also, this kind of reckoning is toward the purpose of a person finding her ‘place’. So, the way to orient oneself, or to ‘place’ oneself, is to reckon in a very specific manner. And, the sort of reckoning that is labeled as rationality itself is related to a ‘moving stair’. The image Holmer uses here reminds me of an escalator upward. That ‘moving stair’ is moving through ‘human history,’ indicating that proper orientation requires something called ‘history,’ and that this history is moving upward. So, a person is to use a manner of thinking to orient herself on the escalator of human history – as that history is ‘supposed to be’. Holmer’s use of ‘suppose’ is useful, in that it can mean both assumed to be and also purposefully, even providentially, designated to be.

A little later in his introduction, Holmer explains that this working assumption about the mode and purpose of a reasonable life was not simply an academic matter. This working assumption was everywhere, shaping hearts and minds far beyond the hallways of academies where people were expected to learn proper German. This section of Holmer’s writing bears repeating:

“When one sketches in the details about the theology of that day, the homogeneity becomes almost overpowering. For theologians could scarcely resist making Christianity into something exquisitely metaphysical, especially when historical studies and dispositions well fed on the natural sciences were beginning to make light of miracles, of divine causes and providential orderings. Besides, the reign of philosophy extended so far as to provide the frame of concepts within which empirical science was done, in addition to being understood and subsequently taught. Most of the cultural energies seemed to be not only documented but also forecast by a philosophical scheme. General as it was and tolerant of all kinds of opposition, that philosophy became the climate of opinion within which programs were projected, political policies evaluated, education measured and perpetrated. Even religion was so prefigured.”[3]

Holmer describes a world of meaning-making, where a particular mode of philosophy shapes the concepts that shape what counts as scientific inquiry, and scientific inquiry underscores the legitimacy of a particular kind of philosophy, which helps to shape what counts as legitimate in politics, learning, even what was considered valid religiosity. These policies, forms of education, and validated ways of being religious then could project, legislate, and educate in a way that reinforces the ‘theology of the day’ and the questions that counted as proper to ‘the natural sciences’. The task of any one person, if there even is a task for any one person, is to fit oneself within the machinery of meaning-making. Holmer puts this succinctly: ‘To fathom the regularities of the world plan and know one’s place in it seemed the only philosophical and ‘objective’ thing to do’.[4]

Holmer notes that Kierkegaard writings are ‘indigenous’.[5]  Kierkegaard studied in German, but he returned home to write in Danish. He wrote a form of vernacular theology, not in that he wrote simply, but in that he wrote for his neighbors in their spoken language, often using phrases and fairy tales particular to Denmark. I do not find his choice incidental, but instructive for my own writing on Kierkegaard, including for this essay on love. Writing about Kierkegaard’s writings on love requires me to risk saying a timely, not a timeless, word – connecting his own intervention to an intervention helpful to readers living and reading during my own lifetime. I continue to teach Kierkegaard’s Works of Love in part because I believe the setting Holmer describes continues to pertain today. The unspooling of what I will call ‘Hegelianism,’ through Marxism, social-Darwinism, and multiple other compatible descriptions of the ‘moving stair of human history’ continues in dominant Western culture and, inasmuch as dominant Western culture continues to define everything that marks an upward trend of ‘progress’ and ‘development,’ also in non-Western areas seeking the legitimacy of dominant Western culture.[6] There is still very much of an incentive to, as Holmer describes Kierkegaard’s time, ‘fathom the regularities of the world plan and know one’s place in it’. ‘God’ can become the liquidator of individuality, to make a person see herself as a serviceable tool for the ideology and economic machinery of a region, a family, a nation, or any other human institution.

Into this, I repeat that to speak with any truth about love necessitates a recurring miracle of God’s loving presence. If we are to speak (or write) of love, then we must speak ‘of the love that sustains all existence, of God’s love’. It is only with the repeated presence of this love that I am able to speak at all. If God’s love ‘were to be absent,’ Kierkegaard writes, ‘everything would be confused’.[7] This recurring miracle of ‘the love that sustains all existence’ has a different shape than a ‘moving stair of history’. This recurring miracle of God’s presence interrupts and reconfigures an individual, her mode of orienting herself, and her perspective on her present and her future. Works of Love is Kierkegaard’s gift to readers who find themselves so defined by the machinery of their age that they are not even sure where to turn for help. I will begin to try to elicit this giftedness of Works of Love by describing some of Kierkegaard’s most pastorally helpful turns in the book. Then, using several examples from my own context, I will show why readers continue to need his pastoral work. Kierkegaard wrote Works of Love with his own name affixed. He wrote in the voice of other characters in a way that is useful to show what I called (in my book on Kierkegaard) ‘the treachery of love’. These characters twist love around in ways that all but dissolve a person into a beautifully useful nothing. So, in the third section, I note how a few characters embody different ways that love goes awry. I have found reading Kierkegaard alongside Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth to be helpful in further noting this contrast between God’s loving presence and a world where everything is ‘confused’. So, in an interlude, I will link Wharton’s heroine to Kierkegaard’s insights. In the final, fourth section, I will turn to Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments, a text that illumines the presence of grace presumed in Works of Love. Do not be anxious. I will do this succinctly.

Works of Love

“The commandment is that you shall love, but ah, if you will understand yourself and life, then it seems that it should not need to be commanded, because to love people is the only thing worth living for, and without this love, you are not really living.”[8]

These words come in the ‘Conclusion’ to Works of Love, and they are Kierkegaard’s gloss on 1 John 4:7: ‘Beloved, let us love one another’. Kierkegaard’s book Works of Love is more legible than his complicated book about his own writing. Some readers find Concluding Unscientific Postscript a key text for understanding what Kierkegaard’s writing is all about. They use that (pseudonymous) book to map what Kierkegaard meant to be doing in his copious outpouring of non-pseudonymous and pseudonymous books. I have found Works of Love to be more homiletically, pastorally, pedagogically, and personally helpful for hearing Kierkegaard well. Kierkegaard takes the scriptural command to love my neighbor so seriously that he spends more than four hundred pages to pull his readers into that command. He uses the command to love my neighbor as the necessary disorientation to expose what Holmer calls the ‘moving stair that human history is supposed to be’. Works of Love is a book that, when read slowly and openly, can help a reader to see where she has been placed, even where she has placed herself. Works of Love can help a reader to see that the task to which she has been put, or has put herself, is itself confused. When ‘To fathom the regularities of the world plan and know one’s place in it seem[s] the only philosophical and ‘objective’ thing to do’ (repeating Holmer here) the command to love my neighbor as myself may intervene. Kierkegaard’s Works of Love is such a sustained, scriptural intervention. He seeks to show that the system of knowing of his own time was fundamentally confused, even though it purported to be the definition of clarity itself.

The best way Kierkegaard can recommend to discover oneself as confused is first through prayer, which is how he opens the book. More specifically, it is through a prayer of reception of grace from ‘you God of love, source of all love in heaven and on earth’.[9] The book is often not directly didactic. The subtitle to Works of Love is ‘Some Christian Deliberations in the Form of Discourses’. In this subtitle, Kierkegaard distinguishes Works of Love from a more straightforward lesson about love. As he explains in a note, a ‘Christian discourse’ ‘presupposes that people know essentially what love is and seeks to win them to it’.[10] In contrast, he says, a deliberation ‘must not so much move, mollify, reassure, persuade as awaken and provoke people and sharpen thought’ seeking first to ‘fetch [the readers] up out of the cellar, call to them, turn their comfortable way of thinking topsy-turvy’.[11] In other words, a disorientation is necessary to show someone that the system they are supposedly well-placed within is itself confused. If people are expecting a list of loving works, to check off on their way up the ladder of holiness, they will gain nothing. Kierkegaard indicates this literarily with a repeated preface that opens each of the two series that make up Works of Love. The preface to each of the two series that make up the book explains that love occurs within a relation of infinite inexhaustibility: the love Kierkegaard wishes to evoke is ‘essentially inexhaustible’ and ‘in its smallest work essentially indescribable just because essentially it is totally present everywhere and essentially cannot be described’.[12] In his commentary on the preface, Kierkegaard imaginatively gives life to a character that embodies the way that I am not to read Works of Love: He writes about a comical emperor who leaves home determined to record all his deeds and thus brings with him ‘a large number of writers’ to document his works of love. Kierkegaard comments, ‘This might have succeeded if all of his many and great works had amounted to anything . . . But love is devoutly oblivious of its works’.[13] Kierkegaard hopes to evoke a new, precarious, meaning prayerful, life. Works of Love is not a list of loving works, but an evocation of an alternative stance, a particular relation. This relation is a relation to God in grace. Grace is the essentially inexhaustible and essentially indescribable setting that is proper to love.

In my book length treatment of Kierkegaard, I go into detail about how Works of Love works literarily on a reader. By my reading, Kierkegaard layers facet on facet of real love and false love, especially in the first of the two series, to disorient a reader, so that she recognizes that she has been confused by the assumptions of her day about everything from who to love, to how to love, to who she is, and who God is. Kierkegaard makes the task of love so strenuous that it seems, well . . . almost inhuman. This is his homiletic aim. In a reading of Matthew 21:28-31, Kierkegaard explains that the son who eagerly promises but does not recognize the import of his promise is ‘facing the direction of the good,’ but ‘is moving backward further away from it,’ due to his continual inattention to the import of his promise.[14] ‘The yes of the promise is sleep-inducing, but the no, spoken and therefore audible to oneself is awakening, and repentance is usually not far away.’[15] Kierkegaard seeks to wake up readers to love in a way that I have likened to Martin Luther’s second, or theological, use of the law. That is, the duty to love each neighbor, including those closest to me, as an individual uniquely and singularly beloved by God, is to strike me as insurmountably difficult, moving me into a context where I receive the inexhaustible, essentially immeasurable context of God’s grace in Jesus Christ:

“But when a person in the infinite transformation discovers the eternal itself so close to life that there is not the distance of one single claim, of one single evasion, of one single excuse, of one single moment of time from what he is this instant, in this second, in this holy moment shall do — then he is on the way to becoming a Christian.”[16]

And the ‘way to becoming a Christian’ is not about getting some list of attributes down to perfection. It is a reception, at each moment, of the presence of God’s love. (For, if God’s love is absent, everything is confused.) The very next chapter after this quote, above, is on the ‘Love is the fulfilling of the law’. There he is explicit: ‘What the Law was not capable of accomplishing, as little as it could save a person – that Christ was’. He continues, ‘Yes, he was Love, and his love was the fulfilling of the Law.’[17]

Kierkegaard reminds Christian readers that, in extravagant non-necessity, God ‘has created you from nothing’.[18] You and I do not exist out of necessity. We come to be out of God’s gift. And, Jesus Christ has brought me into a setting of infinite gift and therefore immeasurably profligate debt. Kierkegaard asks the reader to see how God has pulled each and every life into God’s grace, as if we are under ‘divine confiscation’. (I am borrowing this phrase from Fear and Trembling, a pseudonymous text also by Kierkegaard.)[19] This means that each individual is first God’s own. If Kierkegaard’s use of ‘love’s shall’ is similar to Martin Luther’s theological, or convicting use of the law, his use of God as the ‘middle term’ is perhaps akin to Martin Luther’s first, or restraining, use of the law. Kierkegaard layers uses of the law so that one is not subsequent to the other. The ‘shall’ of the command to love my neighbor creates the graced context in which I may actually begin to see that I have a neighbor to love. So, this might be called Kierkegaard’s creative use of the law. God becomes the ‘middle term’ between myself and another person, in such a way that God has created the possibility that there is a neighbor in front of me.[20] The way Kierkegaard defines the term ‘neighbor,’ a neighbor is a human being recognized by another as God’s own.[21] Seeing a creature in front of me through the prism of grace, with God as the ‘middle term,’ I come to see that the creature in front of me is not an extension of my will, a tool for anyone else’s project, or a divinity who can command my obedience or my total allegiance. To ‘go with God,’ as Kierkegaard repeats a common blessing, reminds us that ‘it is indeed only in this company that one discovers the neighbor, because God is the middle term’.[22] Without God as this ‘middle term,’ everything becomes ‘confused’. While Kierkegaard is often read in disagreement with Immanuel Kant, in this case he has taken Kant’s insistence that no human being is a mere means to someone else’s project and described this in such a way that it is impossible even to see this imperative without receiving the presence of God. If God is absent, everything would become (and has become) confused.

Kierkegaard also gives an account of transformation, from one who obediently regards other people as neighbors from a distance to someone with the courage to love another person ‘despite and with his weaknesses and defects and imperfections’.[23] This has to do with the context of an indebtedness, which makes comparison and measuring in love nonsensical. In his discussion of 1 Corinthians 13:13, ‘Love Abides,’ Kierkegaard exclaims, ‘Yes, praise God, love abides!’ – ‘if any of your actions, in any of your words you truly have had love as your confidant, take comfort, because love abides’.[24] This ‘very upbuilding thought’ is of God’s love, which ‘sustains all existence’.[25] To loop back into an earlier section in Works of Love, Kierkegaard suggests that, as God has made loving my neighbor a matter of incalculable grace, it becomes a task of ‘eternity,’ not my own effort, to fulfill the ‘shall’ of ‘You Shall Love’.[26] He writes, ‘only this shall eternally and happily saves from despair,’ and a ‘love that has undergone eternity’s change by becoming duty is not exempted from misfortune, but it is saved from despair’.[27] As a person turns over to God the task of fulfilling the law, she receives the gift of seeing the world as a wonder, not a threat. This is too simple, in that Kierkegaard is clear this is no one-and-done conversion of the soul. And Kierkegaard also is clear in many of his writings that people do threaten one another with all sorts of treachery, including the kind that manipulates someone’s trust. But he has also here described a kind of freedom, or lightness, that comes from seeing my neighbor as God’s own first, and myself as God’s beloved first. Kierkegaard makes a comparison between what it feels like to walk around in the world afraid you are going to go ass-over-teacups, and to walk around in the world in trust:

“It is well known how anxiously, how ineffectively, and yet how fearfully laboriously a person walks when he knows he is walking on smooth ice, but it is equally well known that a person walks confidently and firmly on smooth ice if because of darkness or in some other way he has remained unaware that he is walking on smooth ice.”[28]

By releasing the responsibility to make love work through dint of my own effort, saved by God from that burden, I am freed. This leads me to be able to walk on ice – to love with courage.

There are multiple ways that Kierkegaard makes the import of his deliberations practical. I will make this explicit in the section on how he writes about love gone badly. But please note here that his practical, pastoral wisdom requires an entire shift of scenery, and even a shift of what a person is looking at and for. So, for example, his description that a truly loving person does not compare himself to another person, or look closely in suspicion to see whether or not someone he loves loves him to a similar degree, is set within a context of God’s miraculous, sustaining, gratuitous presence. In the Denmark of Kierkegaard’s time – when people in Copenhagen were abuzz with anticipation of the newest means of conveyance, or the newest fashions from Europe – to claim that all that is, and all that makes life worth living is set within a context of incalculability was odd. People were sizing one another up by what they could afford, even then. In his chapter ‘Mercifulness, a Work of Love,’ he notes this, ‘Yet money, money, money! . . . how often might not one have been tempted despondently to turn one’s back on all existence and say, ‘ Here lies a world for sale and only awaits a buyer’.[29] To use Holmer’s imagery again, Kierkegaard describes the setting around him in such a way that a reader can see how calculated and/or calculating she has been taught to perceive reality itself. Kierkegaard closes Works of Love with a warning that the prudential ‘like for like’ is always beckoning a person away from a context of incalculable grace. He warns us that, in a version of supposed reality where all that you hear is about what can be measured, then you yourself will be measured.[30] Granted, both then and now there were writers cordoning off certain spaces of existence as immeasurable – marriage, the family, something ineffable often called spirituality. But Kierkegaard takes all that exists, all knowledge, each wife, each child, each lily growing in the field, even the reader herself, and claims them to be only in existence if in a setting of God’s grace. Apart from grace, everything becomes confused.

‘All of World History’

Kierkegaard’s writing on love continues to be helpful. His writings are a way to recognize the unspooling of Hegelianism in dominant, Western culture today. In this section, I will use Philosophical Fragments to explain one reason why people who know Kierkegaard’s writing need to continue teaching Kierkegaard’s writings. Kierkegaard created a pseudonym to write a book called Philosophical Fragments. The character is a thinker named Johannes Climacus, John the Climber, named after a seventh-century monk who wrote the Ladder of Paradise. The Climacus who authors Philosophical Fragments also writes a kind of poetic concatenation, but the links or steps do not climb upward. They tangle around like a finely linked necklace left in a drawer. As Howard and Edna Hong write in the introduction to their translation, this is ‘the most abstract of all Kierkegaard’s writings’.[31] I would use the word ‘intricate’ rather than abstract. As I have already quoted, Paul Holmer suggests that, at Kierkegaard’s time, ‘Most of the cultural energies seemed to be not only documented but also forecast by a philosophical scheme’.[32] Kierkegaard’s playful earnestness in the book is one way to address a machinery of meaning into which the individual is supposed properly to find her place. Kara N. Slade and I wrote an article called ‘The Single Individual in Ordinary Time: Theological Engagement with Sociobiology’.[33] We go into more depth about modern Hegelianism there. I will show what is apropos regarding love briefly here, then return again to Philosophical Fragments and Holy Communion in my conclusion.

Kierkegaard’s epigraph to Philosophical Fragments is a warning for anyone trying to create an exhaustive, scientific system of knowledge: ‘Better well hanged than ill wed’ (a paraphrase from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night).[34] In his ‘Preface’ to a later book, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, Climacus (the same pseudonymous author) fills in this quotation, ‘better well hanged than by a hapless marriage to be brought into a systematic in-law relationship with the whole world’.[35]  Unless a Christian begins, and begins again, with Jesus Christ, she will find alluringly legitimating methods of authority, many reasonable diversions toward a career in the world of reason. Unless she begins with Jesus Christ, she may never know herself as a self or her neighbor as a neighbor. A focus on ‘the savior’ may make a scholar look like a fool, but Kierkegaard recommends a kind of foolhardiness. Climacus writes in Philosophical Fragments that ‘to write a pamphlet is frivolity – but to promise the system, that is seriousness and has made many a man a supremely serious man both in his own eyes and in the eyes of others’.[36] He is explaining here indirectly, through a form of humor, that what appears to be serious is actually a way of avoiding the most difficult and yet worthwhile task of knowing oneself and loving other people.

Kierkegaard’s interlocutors in Philosophical Fragments are people trying to show their inheritance of a coherent system. Hegel was the philosopher whose name had become synonymous with the creation of a system that explains everything. One of Kierkegaard’s deleted sections in Philosophical Fragments makes this clear:

“Too bad that Hegel lacked time; but if one is to dispose of all of world history, how does one get time for the little test as to whether the absolute method, which explains everything, is also able to explain the life of a single human being. In ancient times, one would have smiled at a method that can explain all of world history absolutely but cannot explain a single person even mediocrely.”[37]

Kierkegaard intends to reveal as fraudulent any form of thought that tries to explain ‘people,’ because to explain everyone, and history, and reason itself, is to lose the possibility of knowing a single person ‘even mediocrely’. My assertion comes from reading Kierkegaard’s texts, pseudonymous and signed, in relation to Works of Love. Reading Philosophical Fragments in this way highlights that, in being ill-wed to a system of thought, a neo-Hegelian loses ‘ethics’. In a succinct essay, Julia Watkin named the cost:

“Loss of contact with ethics occurs firstly through the thinker’s make-believe standpoint in which he or she takes some fantastical God’s-eye position outside the universe, that is, outside existence. Since objective thinking, in that it concerns description of the world, has no relation to the individual thinker’s personal life, daily life becomes an inconvenient appendage to the great work of System-building (CUP, 1:119, 122-23). Secondly, there is a loss of ethics in the Hegelian-style System because it contains ethics and morality as a necessary process. Yet in a necessary process there can be no freedom and hence no ethics.”[38]

As Holmer explained, when your description begins within a system that has its own working assumptions, the description holds within the description a particular way of seeing human-beings. To combine Holmer’s words with Watkin’s, as people who determine the rules of legitimate speech define objectivity as the capacity to fit within a System, and that System carries within it also a sense of ‘necessary process,’ there can be no single individual apart from the all-encompassing system and, in a way, no sense that ethics pertains to daily life. As Kierkegaard writes in Works of Love, each aspect of an individual’s daily life matters, and matters in a way that frees an individual not only from her own self-legitimizing projects, but also from a System that has taught her to find and stay in her place within a System of meaning. I will here name briefly two examples of how this aspect of Kierkegaard’s writing about love and ethics is helpful.

First, best-selling moralist David Brooks writes and speaks about ethics. He has written in popular books like The Road to Character that a primary problem people face in the early-twentieth-century is selfish individualism. In a condensed essay called ‘The Moral Bucket List’ (which was well-timed to promote The Road to Character) Brooks diagnoses the problem facing his reading public with this phrase: ‘the culture of the Big Me’.[39] In that widely shared essay, Brooks highlights three women he believes worthy of emulating to rectify what he determines to be the complex of a ‘Big Me’. The words Brooks uses for these women matter, and I want to draw attention to these words. By his narration, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins was ‘shamed’ and ‘purified’ on her way toward losing her ‘Big Me’. In this moral development, Frances Perkins ‘turned herself into an instrument’. (Note, please, Brooks means this as a goalpost, not a criticism.) Founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day was saved by the birth of her daughter, by Brooks’s account, which moved Day from living a ‘disorganized’ life to one of direction. Becoming a mother, as he narrates it, allowed Day to lose what he calls ‘the natural self-centeredness all of us feel’. Mary Ann Evans, who wrote under the pseudonym George Elliot, was ‘stabilized,’ he explains, by choosing a good man. Her life as a writer flourished because she found a strong partner to be her psychological splint. So, Dorothy Day is saved by childbearing, Frances Perkins is saved by becoming an instrument, and Evans was saved by a good mate.

David Brooks writes in a form of moralism that does not exist within a context of grace, but a context of self-improvement set within a definition of serviceability. Into a vacuum, Brooks inserts serviceable hagiographies of three complicated, merely mortal women. The problem, as he writes it, is a ‘Big Me,’ and so three women become serviceable icons for the project of ‘Us,’ instruments for a larger purpose. He continues:

“The people on this road see the moments of suffering as pieces of a larger narrative. They are not really living for happiness, as it is conventionally defined. They see life as a moral drama and feel fulfilled only when they are enmeshed in a struggle on behalf of some ideal.”

Brooks’s prescription for his readers is very different than the disorientation Kierkegaard attempts in Works of Love. Kierkegaard describes a relation where an individual becomes primarily God’s own, confiscated and held in a way that she becomes precisely not an instrument of anyone’s project. His intervention remains timely.

A second public intellectual who writes about the importance of losing oneself is Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist who won the Templeton Prize in Positive Psychology in 2001. By his account, organized religion is useful inasmuch as it binds individuals toward a clear goal; the celebration of violence is functional inasmuch as it allows disparate groups to identify themselves as a nation-state; and patriotism is natural, and conducive to overall human flourishing, because it channels biological instincts toward a common good. Group-thinking helps ‘suppress our inner chimp and bring out our inner bee,’ allowing for a ‘hive’ mentality. In his book The Righteous Mind, Haidt succinctly applies these basics to a purposeful life at one’s workplace:

“[A]n organization that takes advantage of our hivish nature can activate pride, loyalty and enthusiasm amongst employees and then monitor them less closely. This approach to leadership (sometimes called transformational leadership) generates more social capital – the bonds of trust that help employees get more work done at a lower cost than employees at other firms. Hivish employees work harder, have more fun, and are less likely to quit or to sue the company.”[40]

Haidt’s emphasis on channeling human hive instincts is thorough. In another essay, ‘Doing Science as if Groups Existed,’ he makes a case against the ‘spell’ of ‘methodological individualism,’ a ‘belief system’ that limits an evolutionary perspective on ‘group level selection’ and downplays the benefits of living in ‘bee-like ways’. He recommends that evolutionary scientists appreciate the goods of organized religion: ‘Like fraternities, religions may generate many positive externalities, including charity, social capital (based on shared trust), and even team spirit (patriotism)’.[41] In June, 2016, Haidt promoted through social media an article in Fast Company that recommend workers will do better at work if we compare ourselves to others more. The title of the essay is blunt: ‘You Should Probably Compare Yourself To Others More, Not Less,’ and continues with the headline, ‘Comparing yourself to others is frowned upon because it leads to envy, but even that can be productive’.[42] Haidt combines a kind of Hegelianism with self-striving. The individual is to strive in every way to be serviceable to a larger purpose, and even comparison to one’s fellow instruments is useful. Whereas Kierkegaard disorients an individual to see that grace is the proper context of finding self and neighbor, Haidt defines ethics itself as being instrumental to a larger national project.

Neither Haidt nor Brooks writes from within a particular faith tradition, although their writings are widely shared and promoted by Christian publications and thought-leaders. There are writers within Christian publishing who have themselves adopted an account of Christian faithfulness that focuses on obedience to those in obvious authority and who name moral chaos as our besetting danger. When combined with an assumption that God’s providence has set up the structures of power in a family, a region, or a nation, conformity with social expectations can pass as faithfulness. And non-conformity, or refusal to be obviously of service to social expectations can pass as transgression. Kierkegaard spoke into this form of Christianity in Denmark, and speaks well into these mistakes today.

Love and Conscience

“We speak of a man’s conscientiously loving his wife or his friend or those nearest and dearest to him, but we often speak in a way that involves a great misconception.”[43]

In a footnote in Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard makes an important point about the assumptions required for an assessment of ethics within an all-encompassing system of thought. After the pseudonym, Johannes Climacus, suggests ‘let us assume that we know what a human being is,’ Kierkegaard, as editor of the book, uses a footnote to play around with the word ‘assume’. After all, Kierkegaard suggests, does not ‘assume’ itself assume some sense of ‘doubt’? And, ‘in our theocentric age’ doesn’t everyone ‘know . . . what a human being is’? His emphasis here is on the word ‘know’. Kierkegaard then relates a story of skepticism whereby ‘man is what we all know,’ and, because ‘we all know what a dog is,’ it follows that ‘man is a dog’.  It is characteristic of Kierkegaard to place a key point in a seemingly tangential footnote, using what seems like a child’s joke. It is precisely the case, he intimates, that I have no idea who I am, and that I am not in any sort of position to discover who I am, without receiving myself as a gift. One clever character in his book Either/Or puts this beautifully: ‘When I consider its various epochs, my life is like the word Schnur in the dictionary, which first of all means a string, and second a daughter-in-law. All that is lacking is that in the third place the word Schnur means a camel, in the fourth a wisk broom’. [44] This character, given only by the name ‘A,’ incites the reader to ask, ‘What if everything in the world were a misunderstanding?’ ‘A’ gives a kind of prayer after this: ‘God knows what our Lord actually intended with me or what he wants to make of me’.[45]

In Works of Love, Kierkegaard names that ‘it is God who by himself and by means of the middle term ‘neighbor’ checks on whether the love for wife and friend is conscientious’. Only in this way is love ‘a matter of conscience’.[46] The ‘great misconception’ Kierkegaard names is that having a preference, a friendship, an intimacy or goal in common, secures that ‘love’ is really ‘love’. Pulling us out of this assumption is a significant part of his effort in the book. This aspect of his work leads him to write sections so focused on the incalculability of life that some justice-oriented students in my class have dismissed him. Kierkegaard seems to some readers to lead toward a romanticizing of poverty, or at least a neglect of the real, material circumstances of someone who has nothing. In one passage, in his chapter ‘Mercifulness, a Work of Love,’ he writes about the ‘woman who laid two pennies in the temple box,’ a reference to Luke 21:1-4. Kierkegaard accentuates the meaning of the story, adding that ‘a swindler’ had ‘tricked her out of [her coin cloth] and put instead an identical cloth in which where was nothing,’ so that the woman actually, unbeknownst to her, comes to the temple with nothing.[47] Kierkegaard’s point here is not that a life of starvation is better than a life that includes food. His point here is that ‘the world understands only about money – and Christ only about mercifulness’.[48] He continues, ‘mercifulness is infinitely unrelated to money’.[49] Kierkegaard has taken the calculation away from love between lovers, and from love between neighbors. To put another person within a system, and see that person as a part of a system of any sort of project, or, to use Holmer’s phrase again, as a part of the ‘moving stair that history is supposed to be,’ is to lose that person as a person.

Kierkegaard takes in every human relation – from the bedroom to the workplace to the hustle-bustle of the Danish fashion scene – and submits it to the test of this little word ‘neighbor,’ revealing that what often passes as the appearance of Christianity is a sham. And these fabrications become substantial because the thinkers of his time had cast the world according to a particular way of perceiving all that is. Holmer’s description again notes this:

“Most of the cultural energies seemed to be not only documented but also forecast by a philosophical scheme. General as it was and tolerant of all kinds of opposition, that philosophy became the climate of opinion within which programs were projected, political policies evaluated, education measured and perpetrated. Even religion was so prefigured.”[50]

People could walk around thinking they are known and that they know themselves, evaluated, educated, and measured, even religiously assessed, by this philosophical scheme that was mid-century Hegelianism. Kierkegaard uses the imagery of vision repeatedly in Works of Love; to see another person as part of a project is to see oneself as merely part of a project as well. One of his extended passages on vision redefines aesthetics, casting the term ‘artist’ as one who ‘by bringing a certain something with him found right on the spot what the well-traveled artist did not find anywhere in the world – perhaps because he did not bring a certain something with him’.[51] He asks what it would be like if artistry ‘only fastidiously discovered that none of us is beautiful!’ and in this way made love into a ‘curse,’ revealing that ‘none of us is worth loving’.[52] Trying to determine where to place another human being on a continuum of any sort – and this includes oneself – is to make a category error as a Christian. It is to see another person but not see her at all. The middle-term ‘neighbor’ that God illumines also illumines a person who is ‘worth’ nothing, because ‘worth’ means nothing in a context of love. This includes the person in the mirror. I am not the word Schnur in the dictionary, you are not a whisk broom, because God created us out of nothing, and recreates us daily.

One of Kierkegaard’s characters names bluntly part of what is at stake in the ‘misconception’ or ‘misunderstanding’ that can result if we see ourselves and others without the ‘middle-term’ of ‘neighbor’. Kierkegaard has a section in a long book called Stages on Life’s Way that convenes a group of men talking about ‘woman’. Joking to his ‘fellow conspirators’ in a section named ‘In Vino Veritas,’ a character known as the ‘Fashion Designer’ boasts of his ability to convince a human being that she functions only for assessment and adornment. Various other men at the banquet have offered soliloquies on ‘woman,’ after having designated that ‘woman’ is not to be allowed in the room. To make a complicatedly dehumanizing text simple, Kierkegaard uses different characters to embody different subtle and overt ways that women have been designated by men as incapable of true friendship, citizenship, pedagogy or camaraderie. The Designer counters that ‘woman does have spirit’ and is quite ‘reflective’. ‘Woman’ therefore cannot be let off the hook of ethics, so to speak, as easily as some of the men in the room assert. The Designer means by this that ‘woman’ does have a capacity to know truth, but that she is easily tricked to subsume herself and truth itself in a game that has no meaning at all. He continues, is ‘woman’ not able infinitely to transform all that is sacred into that which is ‘suitable for adornment?’[53] As the ‘high priest’ of this sustained joke, the Fashion Designer vows that, eventually, by submitting herself to the world of fashion, ‘she is going to wear a ring in her nose’.[54]

In my book on love and treachery, I detail how Kierkegaard creates characters who give life to ways of seeing that preclude actually seeing another person as a person. I spend less time in that book describing how Kierkegaard interrupts a system of thought that erases the viewer herself as a self. I do briefly discuss a section in Either/Or entitled ‘Silhouettes’. In the preface to ‘Silhouettes,’ the character who pens the section, the character ‘A,’ offers a warning: ‘Foresworn may love at all times be;/ Love-magic lulls down in this cave/ The soul surprised, intoxicated,/ In forgetfulness of any oath’.[55] The oath forgotten, supplanted and distorted in this section is a woman’s covenant with God. ‘A’ draws on different stories in which women erased themselves in an attempt to approximate what they think is love, defined within a context other than God as the ‘middle-term’. The shadowy women attempt to find some self-indicting explanation for their abysmal treatment by bad lovers, to avoid rethinking the system that has defined for them their place within that system. Their attempt to find coherent meaning leads them elastically to reconfigure what they otherwise would have to face as their violation by the person they ostensibly ‘love’.[56] The elasticity and resilience of their devotion might seem initially similar to Kierkegaard’s description of the love which, indebted to God, ‘hides a multitude of sins’ and abides in spite of the faults of one’s lover.[57] But their veneration is a distortion of God’s command for love to ‘abide’ as Kierkegaard describes it in Works of Love. God is absent, the middle-term is missing, and no one is a neighbor. The women in that section of Kierkegaard’s perceptive writing have become lost as selves, and they do not even know they are lost. The Fashion Designer of Stages on Life’s Way seems right after all.

Kierkegaard’s interruption of meaning-making systems remains pertinent, as people continue to try to find their place, or just a foothold, in a thoroughgoing system of evaluation and measurement. The temptation to find a way to be useful to a larger project – whether the project be ostensibly good, true, beautiful or merely lucrative – remains strong. When asked to describe Kierkegaard’s Works of Love to someone new, I have sometimes compared his book to novelist Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth.[58] In a different form, a few decades after Kierkegaard, Wharton digs up layer through layer of the false wisdom making up nineteenth-century New York society, revealing a complex system of propriety and property, station and money. The book’s title notes that Wharton’s work is a reflection on Ecclesiastes 7:4-5: ‘The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools’. The heroine of the story, Lily Bart, tries to secure her place in a system arbitrated in part by the propriety of women like her aunt, Mrs. Peniston. In one scene, while Lily is relating to her aunt the details of a wedding that her aunt deigned not to attend, Wharton underscores the title of the book:

“Mrs. Peniston rose abruptly, and, advancing to the ormolu clock surmounted by a helmeted Minerva, which throned on the chimney-piece between two malachite vases, passed her lace handkerchief between the helmet and its visor. ‘I knew it – the parlour maid never dusts there!’ she exclaimed, triumphantly displaying a minute spot on the handkerchief; then, reseating herself, she went on . . .” [59]

Within the world Edith Wharton depicts, Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, has become an adornment, sitting ‘throned on the chimney piece’ between two malachite vases. In Wharton’s New York, much like Kierkegaard’s Denmark, fashion plus seemliness plus upward mobility equal a kind of providence. Lack of beauty, any sort of disruption, and downward association are marks of divine disfavor. Knowing one’s place is the definition of morality: ‘dread of a scene gave her an inexorableness which the greatest strength of character could not have produced, since it was independent of all considerations of right or wrong,’ and, again, regarding Mrs. Peniston, she ‘had kept her imagination shrouded, like the drawing-room furniture,’ and any disruption of decorum leaves her ‘as much aghast as if she had been accused of leaving her carpets down all summer, or of violating any of the other cardinal laws of housekeeping’.[60] Mrs. Peniston avoids knowledge of anything that might disturb her peace: ‘the mere idea of immorality was as offensive to Mrs. Peniston as a smell of cooking in the drawing room’.[61] She sees Lily’s difficulties navigating what Holmer might call the ‘moving stair’ of their system as a kind of ‘contagious illness’. This is not one woman’s idiosyncrasy. Wharton narrates the general religiosity baptizing the configuration of morality:

“The observance of Sunday at Belmont was chiefly marked by the punctual appearance of the smart omnibus destined to convey the household to the little church at the gates. Whether any one got into the omnibus or not was a matter of secondary importance, since by standing there it not only bore witness to the orthodox intentions of the family, but made Mrs. Trenor feel, when she finally heard it drive away, that she had somehow vicariously made use of it.”[62]

And in another passage: ‘The Wetheralls always went to church . . . Mr. And Mrs. Wetherall’s circle was so large that God was included in their visiting-list’.[63] Very much like Kierkegaard describes his own Denmark, God becomes the guarantor of propriety and property, and Christianity a matter of decorum. Rather than living a life under divine confiscation, known and knowing one’s life as a profligate gift from God, God becomes an acquaintance you might consider visiting when not otherwise occupied with the real work of navigating the ‘moving stair’. The characters in House of Mirth, as with the many characters in Kierkegaard’s corpus, variously strive to maintain their status or climb upward by wits, beauty, subterfuge, and inheritance. The task is to navigate that system.

Lily Bart, the heroine in House of Mirth, is alternatively the meticulous planner of circumstances and the ‘victim of the civilization which had produced her . . . the links of her bracelet seem[ing] like manacles chaining her to her fate’.[64] Lily is decidedly, perpetually unwed, spoiling chance after chance for marriage, but she is also certain that she must attach herself. As Wharton words it, Lily Bart attempts to ‘sustain the weight of human vanity’ on mere ‘threads’.[65] Always ‘in an attitude of uneasy alertness toward every possibility of life,’ Lily seeks carefully to spin and to step while also entangled in a complex web much larger than herself.[66] Lily both chooses and is entrapped. She commits suicide, and, according to the system of morality governing her life, the specifics of her destruction do not matter: ‘The whole truth?’  Miss Bart laughed. ‘What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it’s the story that is easiest to believe’.[67] Wharton makes the exact same observation that Kierkegaard makes regarding a default mode of weighing the worth of a person by calculation and comparison: ‘She was realizing for the first time that a woman’s dignity may cost more to keep up than her carriage; and that the maintenance of a moral attribute should be dependent on dollars and cents, made the world appear a more sordid place than she had conceived it’.[68]

‘Church,’ in the novel, is not a place for refuge. Church is a place of judgement. But Wharton ends the novel with an eye-blink moment of life together. Wharton takes her reader into the world hidden from the women and men who cast Lily out. As Lily notes early on, ‘Affluence, unless stimulated by a keen imagination, forms but the vaguest notion of the practical strain of poverty’.[69] This is the ‘luxurious world, whose machinery is so carefully concealed that one scene flows into another without perceptible agency’.[70] It is not in luxury that Lily glimpses hope, but in the home of a friend she has made in what we might called the unconcealed machinery. This other young woman’s home has ‘the frail audacious permanence of a bird’s nest built on the edge of a cliff – a mere wisp of leaves and straw, yet so put together that the lives entrusted to it may hang safely over the abyss’.[71]


“Thus at no moment does the past become necessary, no more than it was necessary when it came into existence or appeared necessary to the contemporary who believed it – that is, believed that it had come into existence.”[72]

Holmer notes about Kierkegaard’s time: ‘To fathom the regularities of the world plan and know one’s place in it seemed the only philosophical and ‘objective’ thing to do’.[73] In Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard uses a pseudonym to offer one of many interventions into this working assumption. To layer Wharton’s imagery with Holmer’s, Kierkegaard asks the reader to imagine a world such that the machinery is not the world plan. What would it take to imagine ‘one’s place’ as more like (to use Wharton’s words) ‘the frail audacious permanence of a bird’s nest built on the edge of a cliff’? What kind of re-configuring of vision does it take to receive one’s life as a miracle? What is your own working definition of a miracle? People around me use the word for a gift that does not fit their usual sense of how the world works. Kierkegaard uses this working definition of miracle and suggests that the world works according to the miraculous. He changes the working order of the world and the usual meaning of this word.

The conundrum of existence, in Philosophical Fragments, is a matter of love. Through this pseudonym, Johannes Climacus, Kierkegaard backs the reader into the singular importance of Philippians 2:5-11. God came in time, as a servant, to seek, in love, nothing less than equality with each one of us. In his ‘fairy tale’ of a king and a beloved maiden, Climacus connects the existence of a true self not with our ascent upward out of untruth toward truth but with God’s descent toward us, in time, out of love. ‘If the moment is to have decisive significance,’ so the refrain of Philosophical Fragments goes, ‘the god’s love . . . must be not only an assisting love but also a procreative love by which he gives birth to the learner’.[74]  It is within such a relation of love that I receive myself and a neighbor to love. What Kierkegaard spends hundreds of pages narrating in Works of Love, Climacus depicts briefly in a scene of philosophical sparring: the wonder of life is love, and God’s grace in Jesus creates both a lover and a beloved. In a section entitled ‘Interlude,’ Climacus introduces the non-necessity of existence as requisite for individuality and freedom. Climacus recommends this ‘Interlude’ as an intermission, to take up time between his discussion of the contemporary follower of the savior and the one who follows the savior many centuries after the savior’s death. Kierkegaard here plays a helpful, philosophical game with his readers, making an oblique case for God’s gratuitous love as the continued, sustaining given.

I believe Philosophical Fragments is not only about grace generally, but about a very specific, embodied practice of grace, in which God becomes tangible in time. It was precisely the enchantment of transubstantiation that offended some of Hegel’s followers. Yet, by Kierkegaard’s reckoning, love is not naturally necessary, and the presence of God in time is a miracle. Love is free, and more akin to magic, more conducive to fairy poetry than to prose. The ‘Interlude’ dwells on the non-necessity of the actual, on the freely occurring present that exists because of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. And this section in the book connects the situation of the contemporary follower, who sees the savior face to face, and the current follower, who seemingly follows at a distance of centuries. Climacus suggests that his own readers, by grace, encounter the same presence of the savior as did the savior’s original followers, through the moment that is the eternal in time. I believe he is intimating Holy Communion. He writes:

“But, humanly speaking, consequences built upon a paradox are built upon the abyss, and the total content of the consequences, which is handed down to the single individual only under the agreement that it is by virtue of a paradox, is not to be passed on like real estate, since the whole thing is in suspense.”[75]

Howard and Edna Hong helpfully note that the Danish word Kierkegaard uses that they have translated as ‘abyss’ means, literally, without ground. The paradox of God in time, of Jesus Christ, is groundless, and the moment that is Jesus Christ present for each individual is wholly inexplicable. My response, in the real (but absolutely non-necessary) presence of the one who makes me actually, magically, present, is wonder. This is the creation and recreation of an individual in time – the individual created and sustained each moment by the grace-filled presence of Jesus Christ in Holy Communion. And this brings us back to Kierkegaard’s straight-up notation in Works of Love with which I opened this essay: ‘When we speak this way, we are speaking of the love that sustains all existence, of God’s love. If for one moment, one single moment, it were to be absent, everything would be confused’.[76] So, I return, again and again, to the table, to receive the real presence of this miracle, the grace to know myself known, and the gift of a neighbor to love. This is my way out of the machinery – an escape from the moving-stair that history is supposed to be.


For Further Reading:

Mackey, Louis. Kierkegaard: A Kind of Poet. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971.

Müller, Paul. Kierkegaard’s Works of Love: Christian Ethics and the Maieutic Ideal, trans. C. Stephen Evans and Jan Evans. Copenhagen: C. A. Reitzel, 1992.

Watkin, Julia, Kierkegaard. New York: Continuum, 1997.

Mooney, Edward. Selves in Discord and Resolve: Kierkegaard’s Moral-Religious Psychology From Either/Or to Sickness Unto Death,New York: Routledge, 1996.

[1] WL, 301.

[2] Paul L. Holmer, On Kierkegaard and the Truth, ed. David J. Gouwens and Lee C. Barrett III (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012) 26.

[3] Ibid., 38.

[4] Ibid., 25.

[5] Ibid., 8.

[6] I will not here address whether any form of ‘Hegelianism’ is faithful to the complexity of the actual writings of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

[7] WL, 301.

[8] Ibid., 375.

[9] Ibid., 3.

[10] Ibid., 469, supplement.

[11] Ibid., 470, supplement.

[12] Ibid., 3, emphasis in the original.

[13] Ibid., 427, supplement.

[14] Ibid., 94.

[15] Ibid., 93.

[16] Ibid., 90.

[17] Ibid., 99.

[18] Ibid., 102.

[19] FT, 77. The full quote is, ‘Nor could Abraham explain further, for his life is like a book under divine confiscation and never becomes publice juris [public property]’.

[20] WL, 58, 102, 107, 142.

[21] Ibid., 141.

[22] Ibid., 77.

[23] Ibid., 158.

[24] Ibid., 300.

[25] Ibid., 301.

[26] Ibid., 42-43.

[27] Ibid., 42.

[28] Ibid., 186.

[29] Ibid., 319.

[30] Ibid., 384.

[31] PF, xix.

[32] Holmer, On Kierkegaard and the Truth, 38.

[33] Amy Laura Hall and Kara N. Slade, ‘The Single Individual in Ordinary Time: Theological Engagement with Sociobiology’, Studies in Christian Ethics, vol. 26, no. 1 (2013): 66-82.

[34] PF, 3.

[35] CUP, 5.

[36] PF, 109.

[37] Ibid., 206.

[38] Julia Watkin, ‘Boom! The Earth Is Round! – On the Impossibility of an Existential System,’ International Kierkegaard Commentary: Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997), 101.

[39] David Brooks, ‘The Moral Bucket List’, New York Times, April 11, 2015.

[40] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012), 237-238.

[41] Jonathan Haidt, ‘Doing science as if groups existed: Jonathan Haidt replies to David Sloan Wilson, Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, PZ Myers, Marc D. Hauser,’ Edge,

[42] David Mayer, ‘‘You Should Probably Compare Yourself To Others More, Not Less’, Fast Company, June 17, 2016,

[43] WL, 142.

[44] EO1, 36.

[45] Ibid., 36, 26.

[46] WL, 142.

[47] Ibid., 317-318.

[48] Ibid., 318.

[49] Ibid., 158.

[50] Holmer, On Kierkegaard and the Truth, 38.

[51] WL, 158.

[52] Ibid.

[53] SLW, 67.

[54] Ibid., 71.

[55] EO1, 166.

[56] Ibid., 180.

[57] WL, 289.

[58] Edith Wharton, House of Mirth (New York: Scribner Paperback, 1995).

[59] Ibid., 160.

[60] Ibid., 181.

[61] Ibid., 186.

[62] Ibid., 82.

[63] Ibid., 84.

[64] Ibid., 23.

[65] Ibid., 166.

[66] Ibid., 145.

[67] Ibid., 319.

[68] Ibid., 243.

[69] Ibid., 117.

[70] Ibid., 424.

[71] Ibid., 448.

[72] PF, 86.

[73] Holmer, On Kierkegaard and the Truth, 25.

[74] PF, 30-31.

[75] PF, 98.

[76] WL, 301.

Why I Teach a Dead Danish Philosopher

treachery coverWhen people find out I teach at Duke, they often ask what I teach. Given that I teach classes ranging from “War and Masculinity,” “Sexual Ethics,” “The Love Commandment,” and classes on medicine, and technology, my answer is complicated.  If I have not totally bored them, their next question is often about my writing.  I skip quickly over my first book, saying it is on a dead Danish philosopher, moving on to my second book about advertising.  I realized recently this is silly.  Just because his name is odd does not mean I should shy away from talking about him.  So, this month, I will explain why I teach a dead Danish philosopher named Søren Kierkegaard.  A friend suggested I say his name is pronounced “Cookie Guard,” which works fine.

I was taught early that the only Christian affirmation you can see with your own eyes is that we find original ways of sinning. One way of sinning I have seen with my own eyes is treating another person or a group of people as tools.  I have met people who even seem to think of themselves primarily as tools.  Kierkegaard borrowed this description of human sin from a Prussian philosopher named Immanuel Kant, who borrowed it from Jewish and Christian teachings.  Basically, thou shalt not treat another person as a tool.  That is one of Kierkegaard’s core affirmations, and this made him odd for his time.  Kierkegaard studied in Germany in the nineteenth-century, when most of Western Europe was keen on a style of thinking about people and history that sorts people into different types.  There are people who are useful, but who are not really people; people who are useful, and possibly capable of deciding some things for themselves; people who make themselves useful by doing the sorting of other people; and a small number of people fit to make decisions for the other three types of people.  This stair-step sorting of people was not new, but there was a new sense that all of human history depended on sorting and using people efficiently.  Due in part to industrialization, which meant new machines and new ways of moving people around, people at universities across Europe preached a message of sorting people, for the sake of moving history upward toward a goal.  When combined with a sense that this sorting is God’s will, the message was powerful.  Wisdom could be confused with knowing your place, and your neighbor’s place, and faith could be confused with obedience to whomever was above you in this sorting scheme.

I continue to teach Kierkegaard because this way of thinking continues. The unspooling of this sin happens in different forms of Darwinism, capitalism, Marxism, and progressivism, to name only a few Western isms, and there are Christians who mistake this as truth.  And, given that dominant Western culture continues to define what marks an upward trend of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ in non-Western countries, this sorting-people-as-tools ideology shapes the lives of people outside Western culture.  Many of us have been taught in some form to make ourselves useful for the sake of a larger project, and to measure and judge other people, even people close to us, by their fitness for that larger project.  ‘God’ can become the liquidator of individuality, to make a person see herself and other people as tools for the sake of a region, a family, a nation, or another human institution.  Kierkegaard went back home to Denmark after studying in Germany to write books that resituate everything.  He writes that to be human is to be infinitely known and extravagantly beloved by God.  This being-known-by-God is not progressive; it is not up a ladder toward a goal.  God does not know us little by little, as we become more useful as tools for some project.  Instead, Kierkegaard describes this being-known-by-God as a repetitive “moment” called grace.  God recreates us daily, just as God created all of the world out of nothing.  So, for me to assess myself or people around me by whether I have become more useful to a larger project is to make an error in perspective.  I am seeing badly, because I am seeing apart from the incalculable gratuity that is you, me, and everything that is.

The implications for this way of thinking can shape everything from sexual intimacy to education, from the workplace to parenthood. Kierkegaard did not sentimentalize Christianity so that I am only shaped by grace in certain circles.  He suggested I risk seeming outright foolish by every form of tool-thinking.  For students who have been taught to justify their very existence on the planet, by scoring well on this or that tool-measuring test, this foolishness is both scary, and very good news.

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