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Progress!!! obscured by black smoke (Guest post by Jim Ayers.)

And how these 'art-deco' locomotives looked so cool. They became the public face of technical progress - locomotives that looked like expensive automobiles that looked like "ZOOM".

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Draft of entry for “Torture” for Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Religious Ethics

Torture and fear

This entry would ideally consist of one word. No. Lisa Hajjar begins her essay “Does Torture Work? A Sociolegal Assessment of the Practice in Historical and Global Perspective” by stating, “If an article addressing the question ‘does torture work?’ had been solicited for the Annual Review of Law and Social Science a decade ago, it would have seemed as anomalous as an article entitled ‘does genocide work?’” (2009). A longer entry is necessary, and requires the author to ask about the definition of ‘work’ regarding the function of torture. Given that torture does not ‘work’ to procure intelligence, why have people working under the direction of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States tortured people? To put the question crudely, what ‘work’ does torture do? What ‘work’ has been wrought by torture in the last two decades?

In “Crucifixion as Parodic Exaltation,” Joel Marcus presents a question in interpreting the use, during the Greco-Roman era, of prolonged, spectacularly public executions on elevated, crosswise structures: Why? There were speedier ways to kill someone. What work was the cross doing for the authorities of that era? He explains, “in the ancient Greco-Roman context, the idea of bringing a person down by raising him up must still have struck people as incongruous, and presumably those responsible for the practice would have been cognizant of this irony” (Marcus 2006). The “human object lesson” that was crucifixion “gained maximum visibility and hence optimal deterrent power.” Marcus writes “this strangely ‘exalting’ mode of execution was designed to mimic, parody, and puncture the pretentions of insubordinate transgressors by displaying a deliberately horrible mirror of their self-elevation.” He continues, “people of any class who had not shown proper deference to the emperor,” people who “demonstrated disdain for imperial rule,” were particularly subject to this form of torture. “The graphic tableau of the cross” is, Marcus argues, “a prime illustration of Michel Foucault’s thesis that the process of execution is a ‘penal liturgy’ designed to reveal the essence of the crime” (2006, 79).

In Fear: The History of a Political Idea, intellectual historian Corey Robin enumerates different uses of fear as a means of control. Specifically, Robin is interested in “political fear,” by which he means “a people’s felt apprehension of some harm to their collective well-being . . .” (2004, 3). He links different ways that political fear works, and his analysis is helpful for thinking about how torture works politically. Robin explains that “political fear,” while “often associated with government acts,” is not unrelated to “the fear a woman has of her abusive husband, or the worker of her unkind employer.” Although by some accounts “these fears” are merely “personal, the product of an unfortunate but entirely private derangement of power,” Robin continues, “they are political . . . [and] spring from pervasive social inequities.” These established rules of order are, in turn, sustained by fear. Fear “sustain[s] long traditions of rule over women and workers” (2004, 3).

Robin explains that, during times of war, the form of fear used most obviously is to present “public objects of apprehension and concern” (2004, 18). The effort to normalize torture in the United States, and, to some extent, in other countries participating in the ongoing “war against terror” has involved depicting Muslim people as “public objects of apprehension and concern.” There has been another, related, political use of fear—a fear that “hover[s] quietly about the relationships between the powerful and the powerless, subtly influencing everyday conduct without requiring much in the way of active intimidation” (19). Linking Marcus’s insight about the use of crucifixion as a “display” or “liturgy” to warn against insubordination to state power, torture may “work” to, as Hajjar words it, “deter opposition and signal the costs of resistance.” Hajjar quotes Henry Shue’s 2004 essay on torture, noting that the purpose of torture may be “intimidation of persons other than the victim.” She continues, summarizing other essays on “modern torture regimes”: “Terroristic torture is an invisible spectacle because people are made fearful of torture that they know is occurring but do not actually see” (Hajjar 2009, 323). Torture, as a spectacle, as a possibility, as a hidden but known reality, may be used as part of a complex of social control.

Logistics of torture

The applicable definition of “encyclopedia” in the Oxford English Dictionary is as follows: “A literary work containing extensive information on all branches of knowledge, usually arranged in alphabetical order.” This encyclopedia entry—this set of words containing information about torture – comes from a location central to one agency’s pursuit of intelligence. This entry on torture comes from the vantage point of North Carolina in 2019. The North Carolina Commission on the Inquiry of Torture issued a report in September, 2018: “Torture Flights: North Carolina’s Role in the CIA Rendition and Torture Program.” The commission included legal scholars, clergy, veterans, and physicians working together to document how and why Johnston County Airport in Smithfield, North Carolina was used as a launching site as part of the United States Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation program. North Carolina was involved in trafficking people by air to places where people were assigned the task of torturing other people in the presence of other people tasked with recording words.

In his “Foreword” to the report, Alberto Mora, Former General Counsel (2001-2006), Department of the U.S. Navy identifies the basics. He explains that the “connection between North Carolina and the government-sponsored torture of the era is clear: aircraft operated by at least one local company, based at North Carolina airfields that were subsidized by North Carolina revenues and subject to a measure of North Carolina regulation, and flown by North Carolina pilots, were engaged in the transport of dozens of captive individuals to multiple foreign sites, some managed by U.S. officials, others by foreign governments, to be tortured” (Read 2018, 4). This 2018 report was part of an ongoing effort by citizen groups across the United States to document U.S. sponsored torture. There was a saying about the Italian government under Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini. Tourists were said to have noted that Mussolini “made the trains run on time.” In their report, the North Carolina Commission documents how North Carolina made the rendition planes run on time. This report was barely discussed outside of activist circles.

Linguistics of torture

In the United States, the word “torture” has become diluted in the cultural lexicon. This entry is written from a state that functions as a hub of the U.S. military and of defense contracting to institutions of higher education. The author is interested in the dilution of the word and legal definition. To write accurately about torture for this lexicon requires that the author ask the reader first to note how accustomed most readers in the United States have become to use of the word casually in polite company. The word “torture” has been used as a joke. As in, “this is torture!” People in the U.S. hear this word used in gridlocked traffic, while someone is trying on a swimsuit in front of a department store mirror, to describe a badly written song on the radio. The word “torture” has, through common parlance and also through film and television, become something rhetorically other than what it is, technically. Actual torture has also been diluted, visually, through the use of images on a screen.

Torture has been used repeatedly since September 11, 2001 in Western, popular culture, to entertain, to warn, and to frighten—from Game of Thrones to 24 to Homeland to complicated, story-driven video games. Actual people have been tortured as “human object lessons,” to use Marcus’s phrase, with originally limited, targeted viewing. And, at the same time, fictionalized depictions of torture have reached a wide, general audience. As recently as April, 2019, John Powers, a television critic for National Public Radio, summarized the popularity of Game of Thrones as “the world’s most popular show” at that time. Powers noted that “journalists are even writing elegiac articles about how, given our fragmented media environment, Game of Thrones may be the last TV series that everyone watches at the same time in order to be part of the conversation” (2019). While some journalists have been attempting for almost two decades to draw attention to a systemic, carefully orchestrated system of actual torture, watching (and commenting adroitly on) television series that depict torture has become a civic ritual, even a responsibility to be “part of the conversation.”

Seventeen years prior, in an essay for The Christian Science Monitor, Gregory M. Lamb noted the precipitous increase in television violence after September 11, 2001: “So much for media critics’ expectations that grisly fictional violence on TV would abate after the sobering events of September 11. Scenes of torture and sadism appeared on network entertainment TV at a rate nearly double that over the previous two years” (2002). Lamb also named in particular a Parents Television Council (PTC) study that reported, in 2008, the show 24 was depicting procedural torture as commonplace: “A Parents Television Council review found that 24 showed 67 scenes of torture in the first five seasons. [The main character of 24] Jack Bauer has been involved in more than 160 separate instances of violence since the show began (all six seasons) and has killed at least 71 individuals” (Lamb 2002). Other television programming was keeping up: “there were 110 scenes of torture on prime-time broadcast programming from 1995 to 2001. From 2002 to 2005, the number increased to 624 scenes of torture. Data from 2006 to 2007 showed that there were 212 scenes of torture” (Lamb 2002).

Bush and Cheney administration officials were open about their appreciation and emulation of the show 24. In a succinct, 2008 review of two (then recent) books on torture—Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals and Philippe Sands’s Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values—journalist Dahlia Lithwick begins by noting, “The lawyers designing [the Central Intelligence Agency’s] interrogation techniques cited Jack Bauer more frequently than the Constitution.” She continues, “according to British lawyer and writer [Philippe] Sands, Jack Bauer—played by Kiefer Sutherland—was an inspiration at early ‘brainstorming meetings’ of military officials at Guantanamo in September 2002.” Lithwick explains that “Diane Beaver, the staff judge advocate general who gave legal approval to 18 controversial interrogation techniques including waterboarding, sexual humiliation and terrorizing prisoners with dogs, told Sands that Bauer ‘gave people lots of ideas.’” Quoting Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security chief, in his words to the Heritage Foundation about the show, it “reflects real life.” Lithwick continues: “Even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, speaking in Canada last summer, shows a gift for this casual toggling between television and the Constitution. ‘Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles—He saved hundreds of thousands of lives,’ Scalia said. ‘Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?’” Lithwick concludes “The problem is not just that they all saw themselves in Jack Bauer. The problem was their failure to see what Bauer really represents within the legal universe of 24.”

Jane Mayer, the author of The Dark Side (one of the books reviewed by Lithwick) summarized the legal universe created by the show 24 in a 2007 essay for The New Yorker: “Each season of 24 . . . depicts a single, panic-laced day in which Jack Bauer . . . must unravel and undermine a conspiracy that imperils the nation.” She continues: “Terrorists are poised to set off nuclear bombs or bioweapons, or in some other way annihilate entire cities. The twisting story line forces Bauer and his colleagues to make a series of grim choices that pit liberty against security.” Mayer concludes that the show hinges on the choice, “invariably” for “coercion,” as, “[w]ith unnerving efficiency, suspects are beaten, suffocated, electrocuted, drugged, assaulted with knives, or more exotically abused.” And, “almost without fail, these suspects divulge critical secrets.

This “unnerving efficiency,” with which “suspects divulge critical secrets” is not only unnerving but in direct contradiction to the facts about gathering “intelligence” through torture. Lisa Hajjar draws on historical scholarship on torture in Europe to explain “its basic flaw was recognized since the Roman era: What it proves is the individual’s capacity to endure pain rather than the veracity of the statements elicited.” Hajjar quotes J.H. Langbein’s 1978 essay for the University of Chicago Law Review, “Torture and plea bargaining,” “Judicial torture survived the centuries not because its defects had been concealed, but in spite of their having been long revealed” (Hajjar 2009, 319). The visual loop of torture continues to be part of the concealing of both basic, logistical truth and a longstanding, principled, moral consensus unequivocally against torture.

In a 2005 New York Times essay “Normalizing Torture on ‘24,’ ” Adam Green notes a pattern that links different ways fear works politically-socially with how torture works politically-socially. Torture is, by one sociolegal universe, not only necessary to procure “intelligence” but creates ligaments to connect people in a social body. Suffering torture becomes a macabre form of bond. This is another way that torture has “worked” politically in the U.S. Green’s narrative summary is necessary to understand the perhaps counter-intuitive claim that torture has worked to domesticate torture.

“What is most striking about torture on 24 is how it affects not only politics but also emotional and professional relationships. The C.T.U. data technician Sarah Gavin, interrogated with tasers to discover if she were a terrorist mole, subsequently returns to work showing no signs of trauma. Indeed, she marshals the clarity of mind to renegotiate her terms of employment with her superior, who approved her interrogation just hours earlier. The war-protester son of Secretary of Defense Heller, more alienated than ever after a session of sensory deprivation in a C.T.U. holding room, receives a strikingly paternal lecture from his father about why that treatment was appropriate. Even Audrey’s husband, Paul, somehow rises above his grievance to view his erstwhile tormentor as a buddy, helping Jack extract documents from a defense contractor and fend off attack—and even loyally taking a bullet for him. In all of these interactions, torture doesn’t deaden the feelings between people, rather it deepens them. . . . It is often noted that torture goes against the tenets of human community in two fundamental ways. Because torturers deny the basic humanity of their victims, it’s a violation of the norms governing everyday society. At the same time, torture constitutes society’s ultimate perversion, shaking or breaking its victims’ faith in humanity by turning their bodies and their deepest commitments—political or spiritual belief, love of family—against them to produce pain and fear. In the counterterrorist world of 24, though, torture represents not the breakdown of a just society, but the turning point—at times even the starting point—for social relations. Through this artistic sleight of hand, the show makes torture appear normal.” (Green 2005)

Note that the creators of Game of Thrones elicited what Terri Gross called (approvingly) “a huge and fanatical international fan base” by way of repeated scenes of rape, graphic violence, and prolonged sequences of human beings torturing human beings. The title of that review was “Game Of Thrones Keeps Its Finger On The Pulse,” a phrase that warrants another question: What are the characteristics of a social body that has been trained to pulsate in this particular way (Powers 2019)?

The dilution of “torture” continues. “The Good Place” (2016–the present) is a television series produced in the United States specifically and explicitly about morality. The show has as its core conceit a universe in which the main characters are set up to be tortured for eternity by their proximity with one another. The show’s creator, Michael Schur, has explained his aim for The Good Place is to bring moral philosophy to a mainstream, television audience. Schur has literarily made torture a laughing matter. To quote the title of a Vanity Fair article: “The Good Place Makes Eternal, Hellish Torture So Hilarious.” Schur explains: “We’ve always tried to keep it sort of cartoon-y and silly, because what is actually happening is obviously awful for everyone.” He elaborates thus: “I have a 9-year-old son, and part of my thinking whenever we do something about how someone is being tortured is, ‘Would my 9-year-old son laugh at this?’ That’s the sort of target audience for that kind of joke is, a 9-year-old boy . . . I’ve gamed it out in my head” (Bradley 2017). One possible reading of the series is that it upends the logic of suffering in shows like 24 and Game of Thrones, depicting visually an alternative form of living together toward mutual flourishing. This fact of an era remains. During the same two decades when the United States might have been, under different circumstances, engaged in a United Nations investigation about U.S. sponsored torture, popular culture made “torture” a household word.

There are counterexamples. Yasiin Bey underwent the standard procedures for forcibly feeding a person imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay in 2013. Bey, known professionally in his career as a musician by the name Mos Def, underwent these procedures as part of a documentary directed by Asif Kapadia, in coordination with Reprieve, a human rights organization based in London, in an effort to bring awareness of the ongoing conditions at the U.S. military prison at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In describing the effort, the Guardian notes, “in its fight against human rights abuses there is no substitute for the court of public opinion” (Ferguson 2013).

“Real patriots”

The actual facts of whether torture “works” to elicit intelligence have been established since the Greco-Roman era. Regardless of the court of public opinion, the courts of ethics have been clear about the morality of torture for decades. This is what must strike a reader at present. The United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment was established in 1984 and, from the outset, in Part I, Article 1 of its founding resolution, it defines torture as:

“. . . any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”

There are multiple practices covered by this definition: prolonged and repeated pouring water into a human being’s face so that he or she feels as if they are drowning; forcing prolonged confinement in a small space alone, without even intermittent contact with another human being; putting another human being, while naked, into a freezing cold space, causing hypothermia; shocking another human being, while naked, on their genitalia; and forcing water into another human being’s anus. This is not an exhaustive list. These were some of the practices encouraged under the auspices of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency after September 11, 2001. These practices are not allowed under U.S. law and are explicitly disallowed under international law, including prohibitions established through the Geneva Conventions following World War II.

People working with and in the U.S. have been assigned the role of torturer; people have been assigned the role of assigning the role of torturer; people have assigned the roles of these practices, determining who is best suited to which role. And people have been assigned the role of popularizing the necessity of these practices. There have been organizations and working groups of psychologists, filmmakers, musicians, clergy and scholarly writers charged with the work of determining how to implement the “deterrent power” of torture in the United States and abroad (to use Joel Marcus’s phrase again). To paraphrase General Dwight D. Eisenhower in his departing speech, torturing other human beings became, after September 11, 2001, an industrial complex. Again, when threatened with psychologically acute pain, most human beings will respond with an answer that the executioner of such pain seems to be eliciting. But torture may “work” in that it may spread fear across a region, a nation-state, a village, or a family.

Scott Horton is an investigative journalist who has written extensively on U.S. sponsored torture. In his 2015 essay for Harper’s Magazine, “Company Men: Torture, treachery, and the CIA,” Horton writes that when “the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released its torture report—or, more accurately, a redaction-studded version of the report’s executive summary . . .

the authors avoided the tepid style of most congressional prose, opting instead for a clinical, precise, and engaging narrative that patiently unfolds one of the most dysfunctional and embarrassing episodes in the history of American spycraft.” Horton contrasts the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s narration with a story that was much more popularly regarded as truthful, a 2012 movie directed by Kathryn Bigelow, starring Jessica Chastain as a CIA operative serving on a team to use supposed intelligence to carry out the execution of Osama bin Laden. The Senate report “makes for an instructive comparison with Zero Dark Thirty, which was written and produced with the CIA’s secret backing. The film tells the story of post-9/11 intelligence in the way Langley [a metonym for the Central Intelligence Agency] would like to have it told. But the Senate report unmasks the film as sheer fiction.” The report “has the distinct advantage of being true.”

This course of events was not inevitable. It was possible that the United States could have embarked on a thorough, public reckoning with the facts eventually highlighted by the (partial) publication of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report in 2014. But, there were new “objects of apprehension and concern” (to use Robin’s phrase) in the form of “ISIS” (the Islamic State) and November elections for members of the U.S. Congress. During an August, 2014 press briefing, Barack Obama, then in the middle of his second term as President of the United States, responded to a question about the Senate report by referring to people involved in the practice of torture as “real patriots,” conceding that, although “we tortured some folks,” and that torture is “contrary to our values,” the acceptance of torture as a necessity is ethically conceivable. To quote from that briefing, President Obama explained, “I understand why it happened. I think it’s important when we look back to recall how afraid people were after the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon had been hit and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen, and people did not know whether more attacks were imminent, and there was enormous pressure on our law enforcement and our national security teams to try to deal with this.” He continued, “it’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had. And a lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots” (Kludt 2014). His wording encourages empathy not only for the enlisted men and women expected to carry out torture, but for the people above them in the hierarchy who created the moral and legal architecture that made torture seem plausible.

In order better to understand the court of public opinion created at that time, and thus President Obama’s own political options, it is helpful to note two images from a media source distributed widely in the U.S. in 2014. The line running underneath the address label for The Week was, in 2014, “ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT EVERYTHING THAT MATTERS” (Capitalization in the original, 2014). In September of 2014, the two editions serving as parentheses around September 11, 2014 featured images about “ISIS.” In the September 5, 2014 edition, the highlighted article was “Back on the Job: Obama’s decision to respond to ISIS’s challenge,” with a political cartoon on the cover featuring Barack Obama, looking directly at a badge that would be known to most readers in the U.S. as a sheriff’s badge from the “Western” classic High Noon. That storyline asks a basic question about a man’s willingness to engage in a showdown against a murdering gang. In this case, the object of “apprehension and concern” is personified by a caricature of another man with brown skin, with a beard and a turban. The badge is engraved with the word “SHERIFF” and “OF THE WORLD.” The Week also announced “The Best of the U.S. and International Media” on September 12, 2014, with a related image, of two young men looking at the image of a poster featuring a Muslim imam pointing, in a style referencing the Uncle Sam military recruitment poster from the U.S. in World War I and II, with the words “I WANT YOU” across the bottom. Two young men with brown skin are looking up at the poster. One young man has on an athletic jersey and is holding a basketball. To the side of the drawing is another brown-skinned young man with an athletic jersey, walking away from a basketball court and toward the poster. The racial dynamics are not subtle. Would the first African-American President of the United States be up to the task of performing as Sheriff of the World, or, as the second image implies, would he be on the side of the three other brown-skinned young men, “Joining the jihad.” (xxii)


Joel Marcus writes in his essay on crucifixion: “The greater the insolence, the higher the cross; the proper response to excessive haughtiness was, in the words of the Clint Eastwood film, to ‘Hang ‘Em High!’” If the work of torture in the years after September 11, 2001 was in part to strike fear and deter haughtiness, and if the work of torture on television was in part to dull the sense that torture is neither moral nor normal, then it is my hope, as a citizen and a scholar in religious ethics that people will summon defiance and clarity. At a 2011 conference held in Durham, North Carolina, “Toward a Moral Consensus Against Torture,” Scott Horton named as a possible, very unintended consequence of the U.S. program in torture the acceleration of resistance that came to be known as the “Arab Spring.” With the 2004 publication of images of U.S. coordinated torture of human beings at the Abu Ghraib prison, Horton proposed, people suffering under dictatorships in the region gathered courage to resist regimes held up through a combination of foreign (often U.S.) aid and torture. This possibility, that, contrary to American grand strategy, the exposure of actual torture may have elicited such courage helps this author to continue her pursuit of our common discipline.


Bradley, Laura. 2017. “How The Good Place Makes Eternal, Hellish Torture So Hilarious.” Vanity Fair. Accessed September 11, 2019.

Ferguson, Ben. 2013. “When Yasiin Bey was force-fed Guantánamo Bay-style – eyewitness account.” The Guardian.  Accessed September 11, 2019.

Green, Adam. 2005. “Normalizing Torture on ‘24.’” The New York Times. Accessed September 11, 2019.

Hajjar, Lisa. 2009. “Does Torture Work? A Sociolegal Assessment of the Practice in Historical and Global Perspective.” Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 5: 311‒345.

Horton, Scott. 2015. “COMPANY MEN: Torture, Treachery, and the CIA.” Harper’s Magazine, 04: 84-88.

Kludt, Tom. 2014. “Obama: ‘We Tortured Some Folks.’” Talking Points Memo. Accessed September 11, 2019.

Lamb, Gregory. 2002. “TV’s Higher Threshold of Pain.” The Christian Science Monitor. Accessed September 11, 2019.

Lithwick, Dahlia. 2008. “Lithwick: How Jack Bauer Shaped U.S. Torture Policy.” Newsweek. Accessed September 11, 2019.

Marcus, Joel. 2006. “Crucifixion as Parodic Exaltation.” Journal of Biblical Literature, 125: 73–87.

Mayer, John. 2007. “Whatever It Takes: the politics of the man behind ‘24.’” The New Yorker. Accessed September 11, 2019.

Parents Television Council. 2008. “Parents Beware of 24.” PTC’s Weekly Wrap. Accessed September 11, 2019.

Powers, John. 2019. “‘Game Of Thrones’ Keeps Its Finger On The Pulse As It Enters The Home Stretch.” National Public Radio. Accessed September 11, 2019.

Read, Catherine. 2018. “Torture Flights: North Carolina’s Role in the CIA Rendition and Torture Program.” Accessed September 11, 2019.

Robin, Corey. 2004. Fear: The History of a Political Idea. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. 2014. “Report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program.” 2014. Accessed September 11, 2019.

United Nations Human Rights. 1984. “Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.” Accessed September 11, 2019.

Be not dismayed . . .

Be not dismayed . . .

A sermon I preached at Ann Street United Methodist Church, Beaufort NC, on July 22, 2018

The assigned, lectionary readings for the week were Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22


The prophet Jeremiah announces the word of the Lord:

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!”

These words of God, spoken through God’s prophet Jeremiah, terrify me.

Yet, here they are, in our assigned Scripture reading for today.

These words are akin to the words of warning to religious leaders in the Gospel of Mark:

“If anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.”


One of my tasks at Duke Divinity School is to teach future pastors, and sometimes I envision myself as an angel-mermaid, diving deep to try to pull back up for air new youth pastors, chaplains, and others who are at the bottom of the sea. I have watched so many Christians stumble because someone has tripped them up with bad words. But who can make sure their own words don’t trip someone else up, unintentionally? The work of being a shepherd is scary.

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!”

Maybe I should just tiptoe back away, slowly from this shepherd thing. No, thank you. No millstone around the neck for me. I won’t cause anyone to stumble or scatter, because I will just stay over here and keep my mouth shut . . .


Here we are, though, and I am supposed to preach a sermon to you.

So. What God promises through God’s prophet Jeremiah is that God will give to his people a shepherd who will bring wisdom, justice, and SAFETY.

“I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing.”

In a time to come, God declares, the people, we, the sheep will no longer be dismayed.

No longer be dismayed.

What does that mean?

No longer to be dismayed?

I turned to the Oxford English Dictionary for help with this. The people who translated the Hebrew of Jeremiah to the English of the NRSV were linguists, good dictionary people, so I went to the OED.

Here is the OED definition of the action of someone who dismays other people:

“To deprive of moral courage at the prospect of peril or trouble; to appal or paralyze with fear or the feeling of being undone; utterly to discourage, daunt, or dishearten.”

Here is the OED definition of someone who has been dismayed by a bad shepherd:

“To be filled with dismay; to lose courage entirely.”

God is speaking through Jeremiah to a people whose shepherds have scattered them through fear. They are a people who have been undone, discouraged, disheartened, by the very same people who were supposed to encourage, hearten, and repair them.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when God’s people will receive a shepherd who causes us no longer to be dismayed.


The imagery of a Shepherd (capital S) here is tricky, in that the Shepherd, when it comes to ministry, is also a sheep. Imagine a Shepherd who is also a Sheep. This may seem weird, but imagine a sheep walking around in shepherd’s clothing.

I am a Pastor, a Shepherd, but I am also a person. It is not as if I am a totally different category of creature because I am a pastor. So, I am both a sheep and a shepherd.

As we turn to Psalm 23, I want to think about what it means, for each of us, as people who believe in the ministry of all believers, that I am part of a flock, and also a shepherd, with this particular Lord as my Shepherd? What does it mean to be a shepherd who is a sheep/shepherd who is beloved by the God of Psalm 23?

The Lord is my Shepherd . . .  Even people who never intended to memorize a Psalm probably know this one by heart. Maybe we know it because it is short. It is, well, handy. If I were going to play in the NFL, and I had the chance to put something across my forehead, it would be Psalm 23.

(This is a visual joke that I cannot convey on the blog. I am very short, and the thought of my playing in the NFL is a form of vaudeville.)

Some of you know the basics of shepherding. Some of you may have taken care of actual sheep, not just people sheep.

But not everyone does know the basic pattern of shepherding sheep in a place that has valleys and little water or grass.

In Psalm 23, the Lord grants us a place where we not only eat, but rest. We rest in green pastures. We don’t gobble them up until we are prodded along to keep moving.

The Lord grants us a place not only to drink water, but to rest. We are not gulping on the run, not merely surviving, while being dismayed, but resting.

Anyone who has eaten in a school cafeteria while afraid of the next test, or afraid of being mocked by a group of mean girls, or afraid of being kicked under the table by a mean boy, they (we) know what it is like to eat and gulp while being dismayed.

Anyone who has been worried about their next Advanced Placement exam knows what it is like to gulp water and gobble food while being dismayed.

Anyone who has been scared about their new haircut in Junior High knows what it is like to sit in a cafeteria dismayed.

Anyone who has been dreading the next baseball game, because somehow the bully became the team captain – or the coach – knows what it is like to try to sleep beside still unstill waters, while dismayed.

The Shepherd who is the Lord brings to his people not just food, but food without fear, water without fear.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will not fear.

Think of the word valley. Creatures who prey, who dismay, who cause sheep to be scattered and very literally undone, they stalk their prey through valleys. They stalk through places where they are sure to snatch one of the less swift of the flock.

The words of Psalm 23 tell us that, fundamentally, there is not a wolf stalking us through the valley.

Read the words of the Psalm again.

Who is following us?

“Goodness and Mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”

It is goodness and mercy following us through the valley, because the Lord is my shepherd, and you, we, will dwell.


What God is describing here may be something like what God describes for us in Ephesians, our third Scripture reading for today.

The new Christians Paul is writing to in Ephesus have been aliens, strangers, people not part of a flock.

They have been “Strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”

While those citizens of the Roman Empire who are hearing these words may not have known they were dismayed, Paul explains to them that they have been living without rest, without encouragement. Jesus. Look up what it was like to live under the Roman Empire. They may not have even known they were disheartened, because they didn’t even know they had a heart to be heartened.

But now, in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near . . . For Jesus is our peace, Jesus has made peace between groups of people who were set apart from one another. “So then we are no longer strangers and aliens, but members of the household of God.”


What kind of good news might this have been for us, the sheep, living under the Roman Empire?

Think of Psalm 23 read in reverse, as part of a corporate pep-talk for people trying to live divided, dismayed, gobbling and thirsty.

The Lord is my Shepherd, I will be fit. I will be the smartest. I will be indispensable.

What one of my tech savvy friends told me recently is that people in the tech industry are supposed to be fungible.


If you look this up in the Oxford English Dictionary, it means:

“Of a good that has been contracted for: that can be replaced by another identical item without breaking the terms of the contract. More generally: interchangeable, replaceable. My tech boss is my shepherd, I shall be rendered identical, replaceable, and interchangeable.”

We know what this looks like.

To eat and drink in dismay, to walk through the valleys in fear.

And one answer we are given repeatedly is that we are to be resilient, persevering. These are two words that we hear again and again in the work-a-day world. PERSEVERE. BE RESILIENT.

This is what I call the Austerity Gospel. This is what Social Darwinism looks like. This is the Survival of the Fittest Sheep.


If we are no longer strangers and aliens, but members of the household of this truly Good Shepherd, how may we live in a world where the forces of evil do try to dismay and stalk us through the valleys, seeking to scatter and divide us?

As sheep with a Good Shepherd, we may help one another simply by refusing a logic of fear, where only the strongest, bravest, and most resilient or fungible sheep are worth keeping.

We may tell the Social Darwinists to take a hike in the other direction.

When facing a false shepherd that is trying to scatter and divide you, you can remember Jeremiah’s words.

God means for us to have a Shepherd who heartens and encourages us and brings us peace.

This is a word for us as sheep and as shepherds.

If you think about it, someone who is responsible for other people is a shepherd. So, a teacher, a pastor, a nurse, a parent, a flight attendant, a team captain, a coach, is a shepherd.

And so that person is playing God, is playing a Shepherd. The question then becomes, what kind of Shepherd, what kind of God is that person playing at? When you are responsible for other people in the room you are in, you are playing God, and what kind of God are you playing? Are you the God of the 23rd Psalm? Are you the God of the Austerity Gospel of Social Darwinism?

Here is some good news, if you don’t know which you are, or if you are, like me, both a sheep and a shepherd, any given time of the school year.

Together, a group of sheep like us can remind one another to be good sheep shepherds, and we can, if we are not dismayed, divided, and scattered, call out a bad shepherd like Jeremiah does.

Woe to you, dismaying bully fake shepherd, we will not be dismayed.

My younger daughter and I went to see the documentary about Rev. Fred Rogers recently. The documentary is “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.”

We went to see this at the Carolina Theater in Durham. It is an old theater, so it is now full of hipsters with tattoos. There was not a seat left in the theater, and my daughter was the only person there under the age of 20. I left thinking that it was very brave for so many men to sit next to women they didn’t know, watching this very poignant documentary. Won’t you be my neighbor, while I blow my nose into my slightly ironic John Deere ball cap. It was, truth be told, more like church than many churches.

Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister who saw TV as a medium for the Gospel.

At the beginning of the documentary, they show Mr. Rogers speaking to the Senate about PBS Funding, delivered 1 May 1969. I was only 1 year old at the time, but some of you may have seen this in real time? In the documentary, Mrs. Rogers says that she could tell, watching him give the testimony, that he was truly nervous. (Someone who loves someone truly can tell when they are scared.)

And this is what — This is what I give. I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.”

That is it. So true. We are not fungible.

We should not have to snarf our food and gulp our water and try merely to survive in this world. No one of us should be forced to give a reckoning that we deserve to be cared for by this good shepherd.

At the end of the documentary, Mrs. Rogers explains that, when he was close to death, Mr. Rogers asked her if he was a sheep? In this case, Mr. Rogers was asking if he had lived as a sheep or as a goat. Meaning, was he bound for heaven or hell. Mrs. Rogers relates that she told him, if ever there was a sheep, you are it.

But please hear me on this. Even Mr. Rogers needed to hear these words of assurance. And he needed a shepherd near him to remind him of these words.

The Lord is your shepherd. The Lord is my shepherd.

Don’t let a false shepherd bamboozle you.

You are beloved.

Be not dismayed.






On Kierkegaard and Love

This is an updated version of my essay on Kierkegaard and Love, for the T&T Clark Companion to the Theology of Kierkegaard.

Love: A Holy Caprice

Amy Laura Hall

Preliminary Remarks

Kierkegaard was adept in describing how people become befuddled, or worse, regarding Christian love. My own reading of Kierkegaard and love is related to life at a major research university. I turn to his words as a correction to the quantification of everything. I write from a region determined to be measurably on the go. I am asked each year to register a number, on a computer, evaluating a student’s spirituality. I draw on Kierkegaard’s words on love to name the absurdity. Kierkegaard knew how we may take as common sense a world of meaning that stifles or precludes love. Johannes de Silentio’s confused praise of heraldry in Fear and Trembling reminds readers that love is not a chivalric practice to be mastered but a gift to be received. Two key words in Fear and Trembling (besides Abraham) are ‘knight’ and ‘courage’. Yet de Silentio truly glimpses love when reading about the reception of a gift of love in the story of Sarah and Tobias.[1] In Repetition, Constantin Constantius’s determination to orchestrate joy would be comical, except this leads a young man to despair of loving and being beloved. The pseudonymous author of Repetition seeks repetition like a surveyor, watching other human beings not as their neighbour, but as a voyeur. Constantius and the young man of Repetition are alike in their desire to be in control, at a distance, first seeking to find something worth love, then removing themselves from the effort. They are remote; the story is fruitless. I read Repetition as a tragedy. This is to name only two of Kierkegaard’s many pseudonymous puzzles left for our disorientation and edification. Kierkegaard saw that each one of us is a holy caprice, brought into being out of nothing and renewed daily with bread we do not earn and that we cannot measure. Kierkegaard saw that grace is manna, a nonsense that only makes some sort of sense as we realize how beloved, we are. I am like Tobit’s Sarah, daily receiving God’s profligate grace.

I read Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous writings on ethics through Works of Love. There are other scholars writing on Kierkegaard and ethics that draw also, or even primarily, on Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Kierkegaard created characters as if in a play and wrote books in their voice, inhabiting their worldview. Concluding Unscientific Postscript is written by a pseudonym that some read as congenial to a form of progressive Christianity. Two of Kierkegaard’s other pseudonymous tomes, Either/Or and Stages on Life’s Way, suggest stages along a continuum toward maturity in understanding and performing ethics. In two decades of teaching Works of Love to students who have previously read his writing in an undergraduate class, I have found that many were trained (or at least not discouraged) to find footholds for their spiritual growth from ‘A to B to C’ – or from the aesthetic, to the ethical, to the religious stage. Many of them draw on Johannes Climacus’s Postscript to understand Kierkegaard’s other clues, to solve the puzzle of his authorship. Young Christian readers seem to want to find a coded treasure map to navigate Kierkegaard’s books. His writings are best read as parables, with puzzles remaining. His texts are invitations to see confusion and receive gifts offered by God in Jesus Christ.


Works of Love is written under Kierkegaard’s own name. This does not mean the book solves every puzzle or leads to a treasure. In his commentary on the preface to the book, Kierkegaard embodies a character that explains how I am not to read Works of Love: He writes about an emperor who leaves home to record his deeds and brings with him ‘a large number of writers’ to document his works. 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.’[2] Kierkegaard evokes a new, precarious (that is, prayerful) life. Works of Love is not a map toward love, but an evocation of an alternative stance, a particular relation. This relation is a relation to God in grace: ‘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.’[3] God’s love ‘sustains all existence’ and is the precondition and repeated, sustaining condition that allows any of our words about love to approximate human speech about love.

In Paul Holmer’s introduction to Kierkegaard’s writing, he uses a helpful phrase to describe the setting into which Kierkegaard makes a literary intervention: ‘the moving stair that human history is supposed to be’.[4] Kierkegaard creates a world different than one most of his contemporaries assumed. Kierkegaard sought to reorient his readers to a different way of seeing themselves, God, and everything that is. 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 seemed unreasonable, irrational. 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 upward escalator. That ‘moving stair’ is moving through ‘human history’, indicating that orientation requires something called ‘history’, and that 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. It can mean both assumed to be and also purposefully, even providentially, designated to be.

Later, Holmer explains this mode and purpose of a reasonable life was not simply an academic matter. This assumption was everywhere, 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.[5]


Holmer describes a world of meaning-making, where a particular mode of philosophy defines what counts as scientific inquiry, and scientific inquiry underscores the legitimacy of a particular kind of philosophy. This, in turn, helps shape what counts as ‘legitimate’ in politics, learning, even religiosity. These policies, forms of education and validated ways of being religious then could project, legislate and educate to reinforce 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.’[6]

Holmer notes Kierkegaard’s writings are ‘indigenous’.[7] Kierkegaard studied in German and returned home to write in Danish. He wrote a form of vernacular theology, not in the sense that he wrote simply, but that he wrote for his neighbours in their spoken language, drawing from parables particular to Denmark. I do not find his choice incidental. 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 in my own lifetime. I continue to teach Kierkegaard’s Works of Love because I believe the setting Holmer describes continues. 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. There is still very much of an incentive, as Holmer describes Kierkegaard’s time, to ‘fathom the regularities of the world plan and know one’s place in it’. ‘God’ can become the liquidator, 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’.[8] 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 may re-orient 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 defined by the machinery of their age, unsure where to turn for help.

In the first section, I will begin to elicit this giftedness of Works of Love by describing some of Kierkegaard’s helpful turns in the book. Then in the second section, ‘All of World History’, using several examples from my own context, I will suggest why readers continue to need his pastoral work. I use Kierkegaard’s play on words in the pseudonym and text of Concluding Unscientific Postscript and Philosophical Fragments to draw attention to efforts to map human beings in contemporary, popular, moral philosophy in North America. 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’.[9] These Kierkegaardian characters twist love around to dissolve a person into a beautifully useful nothing. In the third section, ‘Love and Conscience’, I begin with a playful and instructive footnote about knowledge, by Kierkegaard, from Philosophical Fragments. I then describe how characters from Either/Or and Stages on Life’s Way embody how love goes awry.

Reading Kierkegaard alongside Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth is helpful to note this contrast between God’s loving presence and a world where everything is ‘confused’. So, in an interlude, I link Wharton’s heroine to Kierkegaard’s insights. Then, in the final, fourth section, ‘Belief’, I return to Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments, a text that illumines the grace presumed in Works of Love. Through Johannes Climacus’s Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard sketches a way of perceiving a life in time such that a) the past is not necessary, b) Jesus Christ was not necessary, c) Jesus Christ is gratuitous, and, d) Christians who wish to follow Christ may receive him first hand, in the non-necessary, gracious gift of his presence at Holy Communion. This, like other of his writings, is parabolic – more akin to a fairy tale than a physics proof. The invitation remains.

Works of Love

These words come in the ‘Conclusion’ to Works of Love, and they are Kierkegaard’s gloss on 1 Jn. 4.7: ‘Beloved, let us love one another’: ‘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.’[10] Kierkegaard takes the scriptural command to love our neighbour so seriously that he spends four hundred pages to highlight that command. He uses the command to love our neighbour 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, 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 ‘[t]o 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 neighbour as myself may intervene. Kierkegaard’s Works of Love is 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.

The way Kierkegaard recommends you discover yourself as confused is through prayer, which is how he opens the book. More specifically, it is through a gift from ‘you God of love, source of all love in heaven and on earth.’[11] The book is not 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’.[12] 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’.[13] A disorientation is necessary to show someone that the system they are supposedly well-placed within is confused. If people are expecting a map to love, or a list to check off on their way up the ladder of holiness, they will gain nothing. The preface to each of the two series in Works of Love that make up the book explains that love occurs within a relation of 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’.[14] Grace is the inexhaustible and  indescribable setting for love.

In my book-length treatment of Kierkegaard, I go into detail about how Works of Love works literarily on a reader. 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 Mt. 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.[15] ‘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.’[16] Kierkegaard seeks to wake up readers in a way that I liken to what has come to be known in classical Lutheranism as the convicting, or theological, use of the law.[17] That is, the duty to love each neighbour, 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. The law’s command to love my neighbour is both in time and timeless. The law’s command to love does not have a pause button. Rather, the command to love may transform a person to discover ‘the eternal’ in a new way:


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 in this instant, in this second, in this holy moment shall do – then he is on the way to becoming a Christian.[18]


And the ‘way to becoming a Christian’ is not about perfection. It is a reception, at each moment when I find myself baffled, of the presence of God’s love. (For if God’s love is absent, everything is confused.) The next chapter after that quote is ‘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.’[19]

Kierkegaard reminds readers that, in extravagant non-necessity, God ‘has created you from nothing’.[20] You and I do not exist out of necessity. We come to be out of God’s gift. Jesus Christ has brought me into a setting of infinite gift and therefore immeasurable 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 Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling).[21] This means that each individual is immeasurably God’s own. If Kierkegaard’s use of ‘love’s shall’ is similar to a Lutheran account of the theological, or convicting use of the law, his use of God as the ‘middle term’ is akin to a Lutheran account of the first, or restraining, use of the law.[22] Kierkegaard layers uses of the law so one is not subsequent to the other. The ‘shall’ of the command to love my neighbour creates the graced context in which I may begin to see that I have a neighbour to love. I will name this 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 neighbour in front of me.[23] As I read Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, grace and law are not diametrically opposed. They are intertwined. The way Kierkegaard defines the term ‘neighbour’, a neighbour is a human being recognized by another as God’s own.[24] Seeing a creature in front of me through the prism of grace, with God as the ‘middle term’, I 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 allegiance. To ‘go with God’, as Kierkegaard repeats a blessing common at his time, reminds us that ‘it is indeed only in this company that one discovers the neighbour, because God is the middle term’.[25] 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 so it is impossible to see this imperative without receiving the presence of God.[26] If God is absent, everything would become (and has become) confused.

Kierkegaard gives an account of transformation, from one who obediently regards other people as neighbours from a distance to someone with the courage to love another person ‘despite and with his weaknesses and defects and imperfections’.[27] This has to do with the context of an indebtedness, which makes comparison and measuring in love nonsensical. In his discussion of 1 Cor. 13.13, ‘Love Abides’, Kierkegaard exclaims: ‘Yes, praise God, love abides! … – if in any of your actions, in any of your words you truly have had love as your confidant, take comfort, because love abides.’[28] This ‘very upbuilding thought’ is of God’s love, which ‘sustains all existence’.[29] To loop back into an earlier section in Works of Love, Kierkegaard suggests that, as God makes loving my neighbour a matter of incalculable grace, it becomes a task of ‘eternity’, not my own effort, to fulfill the ‘shall’ of ‘You Shall Love’.[30] 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’.[31] As I turn over to God the task of fulfilling the law, I receive 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 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 neighbour 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 fall on your face, 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.[32]


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. Note here his practical, pastoral wisdom requires an entire shift of scenery, 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, nor 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”.’[33] To use Holmer’s imagery, Kierkegaard describes the setting around him so 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’ beckons a person away from a context of grace. He warns that, in a version of supposed reality where all that you hear is about what can be measured, then you yourself will be measured.[34] 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, the reader herself, and claims them to be only in existence in grace.

 ‘All of World History’

Kierkegaard’s emphasis, in Works of Love, on the singular importance of each neighbour, and his shift there of perspective away from assessing progress of love in time, may help readers, by way of contrast, to recognize the unspooling of Hegelianism today. To put the matter bluntly, up front, I want to help readers see how commonsensical it still seems to weigh oneself, assess one’s prospects, and choose carefully which person may rightly be deemed a neighbor – all by a stair-step scheme that assesses and weighs and chooses regarding progress in time. The logic of a ‘moving stair’ that Holmer described for an earlier generation has, if anything, intensified.

I will also use Philosophical Fragments to illumine how one pseudonym may help moral philosophers in particular to note an occupational hazard of our field. In our desire to be novel, useful or notably instructive, we may model a form of inquiry that leads more to confusion than to grace. Moral philosophy (or Christian ethics) may, in a region, school, or other institution on-the-make, become a form of self-justification. A fine scholar may lose her birthright for a bowl of oatmeal.

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 sixth-century monk who wrote the The Ladder of Divine Ascent.[35] 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’.[36] 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.’[37] 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’.[38] 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 to this chapter.

Kierkegaard’s epigraph to Philosophical Fragments is a warning for anyone trying to create a coherent and thorough system of knowledge: ‘Better well hanged than ill wed’ (a paraphrase from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night).[39] 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’.[40] Unless a Christian begins, and begins again, with Jesus Christ, she will find alluringly legitimating modes of authority, many 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 neighbour as a neighbour. A focus on ‘the saviour’ 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’.[41] He explains, through a form of humour, that what appears to be serious is 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.[42]


Kierkegaard reveals 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, 119, 122–3]. 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.[43]


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 the words of these two close readers of Kierkegaard’s words (Holmer’s 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 here name two examples of contemporary, influential writers whose popularity highlights the existence of the moving stair.

Best-selling moralist David Brooks writes and speaks about ethics. He writes in The Road to Character that a primary problem people face in the early-twentieth-century is selfish individualism.[44] In a condensed essay called ‘The Moral Bucket Brooks diagnoses the problem facing his reading public with this phrase: ‘the culture of the Big Me’.[45] Brooks highlights three women he believes worthy of emulating to rectify what he determines to be the complex of a ‘Big Me’. 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’. (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 Eliot, was ‘stabilized’, he explains, by choosing a good man. Her life as a writer flourished because she found a partner to be her psychological splint. Dorothy Day is saved by childbearing, Frances Perkins is saved by becoming an instrument, and Evans is saved by a good man.

David Brooks writes in a form of moralism that does not exist within a context of grace, but a context of self-improvement. 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 different than the disorientation Kierkegaard attempts in Works of Love. Kierkegaard describes a relation where an individual becomes God’s own, confiscated and held in a way that she becomes not an instrument of anyone’s project.

Jonathan Haidt is 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 applies these basics to work:


[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.[46]


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 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).’[47] In June, 2016, Haidt promoted an article in Fast Company that recommends workers may do better if we compare ourselves to others. ‘You Should Probably Compare Yourself To Others More, Not Less’ is the title of the essay, and continues with the headline: ‘Comparing yourself to others is frowned upon because it leads to envy, but even that can be productive.’[48] Haidt combines Hegelianism with self-striving. Kierkegaard disorients an individual to see grace as the proper context of finding self and neighbour. Haidt defines ethics as instrumental to a larger project. Whereas Kierkegaard warns in Works of Love that comparison is a poison that destroys any life worth living, because comparison destroys love, Haidt recommends comparison as a way to live a life of meaning.[49]

Neither Haidt nor Brooks writes from within a particular faith tradition. Their writings are shared and promoted by Christian publications. They are invited frequently to Christian colleges and universities to speak about altruism, decency and ethics. (Each one has spoken at Duke University on these themes in the last two years). When combined with an assumption that providence, nature or both has set up the structures of power in a family, a region or a nation, conformity with social expectations can pass as faithfulness to the natural order of things. And non-conformity, or refusal to be obviously of service to social expectations, can pass as transgression and/or nonsense.

 Love and Conscience

We do not know ourselves. We cannot even begin to know our neighbour. But we may begin to know we are beloved by God. Kierkegaard writes in Works of Love: ‘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.’[50] 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’.[51] 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 whisk broom.’ [52] This character, given only 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.’[53]

In Works of Love, Kierkegaard names that ‘it is God who by himself and by means of the middle term “neighbour” checks on whether the love for wife and friend is conscientious’. Only in this way is love ‘a matter of conscience’.[54] 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 Lk. 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.[55] 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’.[56] He continues, ‘mercifulness is infinitely unrelated to money’.[57] Kierkegaard has taken the calculation away from love between lovers, and from love between neighbours. 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 ‘neighbour’, 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.[58]


People could walk around thinking they are known and that they know themselves, evaluated, educated and measured, religiously assessed, by this 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 part of a project. One of his extended passages on vision redefines aesthetics, casting the term ‘artist’ as someone 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’.[59] 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’.[60] 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 ‘neighbour’ 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 what is at stake in the ‘misconception’ or ‘misunderstanding’ that may result if we see ourselves and others without the ‘middle-term’ of ‘neighbour’. 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 ‘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’ has 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?’[61] As the ‘high priest’ of this sustained joke, the Fashion Designer vows that, eventually, the ‘woman’, by submitting herself to the world of fashion, ‘is going to wear a ring in her nose’.[62]

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.’[63] 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’.[64] 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.[65] 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 neighbour. 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.

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 a new reader, I have compared his book to novelist Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth.[66] 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 Eccl. 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, 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.[67]


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 disfavour. 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’.[68] 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’.[69] 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.[70]


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.’[71] Very much as 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’.[72] 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’.[73] 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.[74] 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”’.[75] Wharton makes a similar observation about the fragility of love as Kierkegaard has made in his writings about love: ‘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.’[76]

‘Church’, in the novel, is not a place for refuge. Church is a place of judgement. But Wharton ends the narrative 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.’[77] This is the ‘luxurious world, whose machinery is so carefully concealed that one scene flows into another without perceptible agency’.[78] It is not in luxury that Lily glimpses hope, but in the home of a friend she has made in what we might call 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’.[79]


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.’[80] In Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard uses a pseudonym to offer one of many interventions into this working assumption: ‘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.’[81] 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 Johannes Climacus, Kierkegaard invites the reader into the singular importance of Phil. 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.’[82] It is within such a relation of love that I receive myself and a neighbour 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, and he recommends this ‘Interlude’ as an intermission, to take up time between his discussion of the contemporary follower of the saviour and the one who follows the saviour many centuries after the saviour’s death. Kierkegaard plays a helpful, philosophical game with his readers, making an oblique case for God’s gratuitous love as the continued, sustaining given.

Philosophical Fragments is not only about grace generally, but about a very specific, embodied practice of grace. By Kierkegaard’s reckoning, love is not 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 saviour 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 saviour as did the saviour’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.’[83] Howard and Edna Hong note the Danish word Afgrund that Kierkegaard uses, which they translate as ‘abyss’, means, literally, ‘without ground’.[84] The paradox of God in time, of Jesus Christ, is groundless, and the moment that Jesus Christ is present for each individual is inexplicable.

If I consider the work of love that is God as if it is a piece of real estate, I have not only missed the point. I am in a different worldview. If I consider the work of love that is God as an on-the-scene, journalistic photo-opportunity, I have not only missed the point. I am in a different worldview. In Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard names two temptations for the ‘Follower at Second Hand’. I will attempt to secure the groundless possibility of Jesus Christ’s presence in something that makes sense to reasonable people. I may try to anchor Jesus Christ’s presence by taking on the role of the Holy Spirit, using my eye-witness account of holiness to prove that I am first-hand.[85]

Kierkegaard writes truth through his pseudonyms. Johannes de Silentio (in Fear and Trembling) talks too much, but he also knows that he does not know what he is talking about. My best response, in the real 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. This brings us back to Kierkegaard’s straight-up notation in Works of Love: ‘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.’[86] As a follower at second-hand, someone who lives millennia after Jesus has been crucified and resurrected, I am faced with the challenge of finding him. I am no different than Mary, Peter, Paul. Do I prove his presence? Do I prove I am present with him, catapulting myself through centuries to show his truth? If I do, I treat God’s gift of love as real estate, as something traded. The presence of Jesus Christ in Holy Communion is a miracle – a holy caprice. The presence of my neighbor as a command from God is also a miracle – a holy caprice. I receive love and know love as a gift, a nest, hanging over an abyss, held and sustained.

For Further Reading

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

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

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).


[1] On this, see in particular Louise Carroll Keeley, ‘The Parables of Problem III in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling’, in International Kierkegaard Commentary: Fear and Trembling and Repetition, ed. Robert L. Perkins (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1993), 127–54.

[2] WL, 427, Supplement.

[3] WL, 301.

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

[5] Ibid., 38.

[6] Ibid., 25.

[7] Ibid., 8.

[8] WL, 301.

[9] Amy Laura Hall, Kierkegaard and the Treachery of Love (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

[10] WL, 375.

[11] WL, 3.

[12] WL, 469, Supplement.

[13] WL, 470, Supplement.

[14] WL, 3, emphasis in the original.

[15] WL, 94.

[16] WL, 93.

[17] See The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, trans. Charles P. Arand et al. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000); especially Article VI.

[18] WL, 90.

[19] WL, 99.

[20] WL, 102.

[21] 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].’

[22] See again The Book of Concord. especially Article VI.

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

[24] WL, 141.

[25] WL, 77.

[26] See Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Mary Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 95–158.

[27] WL, 158.

[28] WL, 300.

[29] WL, 301.

[30] WL, 42–3.

[31] WL, 42.

[32] WL, 186.

[33] WL, 319.

[34] WL, 384.

[35] John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, trans. Colm Luibheid and Norman Russell (New York: Paulist Press, 1982).

[36] PF, xix.

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

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

[39] PF, 3.

[40] CUP, 5.

[41] PF, 109.

[42] PF, 206.

[43] Julia Watkin, ‘Boom! The Earth Is Round! – On the Impossibility of an Existential System’, in International Kierkegaard Commentary: Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997), 95–113, 101.

[44] David Brooks, The Road to Character (New York: Random House, 2015).

[45] David Brooks, ‘The Moral Bucket List’, The New York Times, 11 April 2015. Available online: (accessed 24 December 2017).

[46] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012), 237–8.

[47] 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. Available online: (accessed 24 December 2017).

[48] David Mayer, ‘You Should Probably Compare Yourself To Others More, Not Less’, Fast Company, 17 June 2016. Available online: (accessed 24 December 2017).

[49] Jonathan Haidt also defines altruism in relation to killing. Jonathan Haidt, ‘Why We Celebrate a Killing’, The New York Times, 7 May 2011. Available online:

[H]umans, far more than other primates, were shaped by natural selection acting at two different levels simultaneously. There’s the lower level at which individuals compete relentlessly with other individuals within their own groups. This competition rewards selfishness.  But there’s also a higher level at which groups compete with other groups. This competition favors groups that can best come together and act as one. Only a few species have found a way to do this. Bees, ants and termites are the best examples. Their brains and bodies are specialized for working as a team to accomplish nearly miraculous feats of cooperation like hive construction and group defense … We have all the old selfish programming of other primates, but we also have a more recent overlay that makes us able to become, briefly, hive creatures like bees … This two-layer psychology is the key to understanding religion, warfare, team sports and last week’s celebrations. … [Using Emil Durkheim’s theory of] ‘collective effervescence’: the passion and ecstasy that is found in tribal religious rituals when communities come together to sing, dance around a fire and dissolve the boundaries that separate them from each other … [Haidt argues that the] celebrations were good and healthy. America achieved its goal — bravely and decisively — after 10 painful years. People who love their country sought out one another to share collective effervescence. They stepped out of their petty and partisan selves and became, briefly, just Americans rejoicing together.

[50] WL, 142.

[51] PF, 38.

[52] EO1, 36.

[53] EO1, 21, 26.

[54] WL, 142.

[55] WL, 317-18.

[56] WL, 318.

[57] WL, 158.

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

[59] WL, 158.

[60] WL, 158.

[61] SLW, 67.

[62] SLW, 71.

[63] EO1, 166.

[64] EO1, 180.

[65] WL, 289.

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

[67] Ibid., 160.

[68] Ibid., 181.

[69] Ibid., 186.

[70] Ibid., 82.

[71] Ibid., 84.

[72] Ibid., 23.

[73] Ibid., 166.

[74] Ibid., 145.

[75] Ibid., 319.

[76] Ibid., 243.

[77] Ibid., 117.

[78] Ibid., 424.

[79] Ibid., 448.

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

[81] PF, 86.

[82] PF, 30–1.

[83] PF, 98.

[84] PF, 317n19.

[85] PF, 254. From JP 3:3792, p. 763: ‘But when the possibility of repetition is posited, then the question of its actuality arises: is it actually a repetition.’

[86] WL, 301.


My Father’s Uncle

I am very grateful to share these reflections by my own father, about his uncle.  My father shared these words at my great-uncle’s funeral.  I myself only visited with Uncle D a few times, but I was also very much struck by his attentiveness.  He listened to every word. 

Memories of Uncle D (J. D. Moore)

October 12, 2009

I am a grand nephew of J. D. Moore and the grandson of Shirley Moore Elliston, one of J. D. Moore’s sisters. I happen also to be a United Methodist minister, the pastor now of Tarrytown UMC in Austin, Texas. For nine years, from 1990 until 1999, I was the senior pastor of First UMC in Victoria. It was during these years that I got to know J.D. personally.

As a child growing up in Palo Pinto County, Uncle D (our family’s life-long name for him) was for me a larger than life figure, and not just because of his tall stature. (He would have been such a figure even if he had been 5 feet tall!) I knew him as the uncle who was a famous athlete in football, track and basketball—-and who ran marathons into his 60s. It was only later that I learned that he had done other things.

Uncle D’s and Aunt Edith’s visits (along with Bill, John and Cora Jo) were special occasions. They were all so full of life. I remember one visit especially. We were living on a farm four miles north of Graford. I was junior high age. They had no sooner gotten out of the car than John and Bill decided they wanted to run down to the Keechi Creek some two miles away, just for the exercise! I tried to keep up with them but finally met them on their way back to the house. My dad, Bob Hall, always enjoyed visiting with Uncle D. It seemed they could visit for hours and my dad would talk more than usual because D was such an attentive listener.

Uncle D had a commanding presence. I think it was his eyes that riveted me in place. When he looked at me, I knew I had been looked at. He would give me his full attention as I tried to answer his questions. He always gave me the impression that he knew me well and expected great things from me.

When Carol and I lived in Victoria, I would often drive to visit with my mother. A few of these trips were to Houston or Huntsville, and Uncle D would go with me to see my mother, his niece, Ethel. (He also wanted to size up the retirement home she was living in as a possible place for himself someday.) When my mother moved back to her hometown of Mineral Wells, I would go there monthly to check on her. Uncle D traveled with me almost every time to visit John and Rhoda and other relatives. It was during these six hour journeys that we became friends. We would call it our therapy sessions.

I learned so much from him about my family on my mother’s side. He would talk about his mother and dad, his siblings and his early years on the farm. I learned that he earned money each summer selling soft drinks and produce by the side of Highway 180 West in Mineral Wells. There were stories also about his years at North Texas State University, his athletic adventures and injuries, his work as a short order cook, his meeting Edith and working for her parents at a boarding house. He would reminisce about his earliest teaching jobs in Salesville, Dublin, and El Campo. In El Campo, he looked so young that he bought some non-prescription glasses so the students would take him more seriously.

In town after town as we traveled between Victoria and Mineral Wells he would recount events that happened: refereeing a game in an open field in Hico, and visiting on a ranch between Hamilton and Lampasas when he was serving on state boards of education. One memorable story: As a young man, he was refereeing a high school game in the old convention center in which the fans were so unruly that he stopped the game and threatened to clear the gym if they did not settle down. They did.

When his beloved Edith passed away, he would talk with me about how he went up to the farm house on the pecan orchard south of Mineral Wells for a while “to get acquainted with himself again.”

These trips were a great gift to me. Without them, I would not have had the extended time to listen and learn from him. And he was always a good listener for me as I shared some of the joys and trials of being a Methodist pastor.

What I came to appreciate about my uncle were these traits:

He was principled. His principles were shaped by his disciplined Baptist upbringing. A passage of scripture that comes to mind for me is Psalm 1: He was “like a tree planted by the waters which yield their fruit in their season, and their leaves do not wither. In all they do, they prosper.” He was committed to the Lord and he strove to live an upright life—–and expected others to do the same.

He was persuasive. He was not a man you wanted to say “no” to! He got things done, not the least of which was establishing Victoria College and guiding it through its development. He knew how to “network” with decision-makers before they had a name for it.

Uncle D was direct. He was not known for subtlety.  You always knew where you stood with him and you did not have to wonder about his opinion.

My dad, who knew the Moore clan of Palo Pinto County well, used to tell me that nobody ever won an argument with a Moore. My Hall forbears were the quiet, retiring type, and the contrast between Hall reunions and Moore reunions was remarkable for me as a youngster. The exception to this heritage was Grandpa Fawks, my paternal grandmother’s father, a staunch old-time Methodist, son of a Methodist circuit-riding preacher. It seems that he and Grandpa Moore —Uncle D’s father— got into a heated argument just before my parent’s wedding on the subject of infant baptism! Someone had to break up their argument so that the wedding could commence. I never heard who won the argument. It was probably a draw. I have felt the assertive Fawks and Moore blood contending with the retiring Hall blood a number of times in my life.

His ministry was educating. This was his Christian calling. I think he was so dedicated to education because of what education had done for him. He passionately wanted to provide quality educational opportunities for others.

Uncle D was an attentive husband and father. On our trips he would speak to me of his children’s and grandchildren’s accomplishments and the pride he took in their distinguished careers.

During my years in Victoria I was always proud to tell people that I was a nephew of J.D. and Edith Moore. I learned how much they were loved in the community, each in their own fields of endeavor. And I would usually hear some wonderful stories about Uncle D from former VC students and faculty members—-and a few stories about how they butted heads with him over some issue, always told with a smile.

Victoria and this region would not be the same without the leadership of J.D. Moore. He was blessed and he was a blessing.

The other biblical text that came to mind for me when reflecting on his life was the parable Jesus told, found at Matthew 25: 14-30. It is the story of the talents and what people did with them. Well, my Uncle D did not bury his talents in the ground. He was not mouse-minded. He invested his talents, he exercised them for the glory of God and for the love of neighbor. To change the metaphor, he sowed seeds that resulted in trees which have and will bear much fruit for generations to come.

An ancient church patriarch, Irenaeus, said it this way: “The glory of God is a man [or woman] fully alive.” Uncle D lived his life fully and we are the better for it. The challenge for us is to claim this legacy and use our differing talents for God’s glory in the time we have left to us.

These are reflections of Robert Edward Hall, Grand-Nephew of J.D. Moore and Grandson of Shirley Mae Moore Elliston Moor and Eddie Earl Elliston; and son of Ethel Mae Elliston Hall and Robert McConnell Hall. Shirley was a sister of J.D. Moore. I have added more detail to the reflections I shared at Uncle D’s funeral service on October 3, 2009, at First Baptist Church in Victoria, Texas.

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