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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.


Someday at Christmas

This essay first appeared on January 1, 2017 in the Herald-Sun.pb-110128-egypt-unrest-kiss-ps_photoblog900

WRAL radio began playing Christmas songs around Thanksgiving. I have been singing favorites and learning new ones. One song from 1966 had never fully registered in my brain until this year. It was beautifully written by Ron Miller and made breathtaking by Stevie Wonder. A person named Lacey Sawyer created a YouTube montage for the song. Her tableau combines with the words in my mind. “Someday at Christmas there’ll be no wars, when we have learned what Christmas is for” overlays images of American soldiers climbing over rubble and making peace signs with what appear to be children in Iraq or Afghanistan. The video includes men in loud lamentation at a protest, perhaps from the Arab Spring (2011). Sawyer has pulled together photos that evoke Middle America and the Middle East, as people in Marine uniforms hand out “Toys for Tots” and two women grasp hold of a man in uniform, perhaps returning from the Middle East. Miller’s lyrics and Wonder’s voice together were originally a prayer for a world without war, where “all men are equal and no man has fear.” This prayer from 1966 intertwined voices crying out against war in Vietnam and voices calling for Civil Rights.

I have been layering this prayer with another song, from 1989, called “Fight the Power.” At the beginning of their song, Public Enemy includes these words from a 1967 speech by Civil Rights leader Thomas N. Todd: “Yet our best trained, best educated, best equipped, best prepared troops refuse to fight. Matter of fact, it’s safe to say that they would rather switch than fight.”  The hope that Mr. Todd spoke of in 1967, the same year Stevie Wonder’s album debuted, was that people told to kill would refuse to do so. Playing off a cigarette ad, Todd paraphrased a prophecy from the prophet Isaiah. Todd evoked a world where troops would refuse to fight – a world where swords were switched into plowshares – and this hip-hop group brought his words to bear again in 1989. Someday at Christmas, there’ll be no wars; our best will refuse to fight.

In 2011, during the “Arab Spring,” I heard a story about mothers and grandmothers in Egypt who had been teaching their sons for decades to refuse to shoot at civilians if ordered to do so. A journalist named Scott Horton spoke at a 2011 conference here in Durham about the geopolitical ramifications of U.S. sponsored torture, and he suggested that, possibly, one unpredictable result of coverage of U.S. sponsored torture of Muslim prisoners was that people in predominantly Muslim countries were galvanized to protest in the thousands against dictators who were torturing their own people – dictators like Hosni Mubarak. And, at least for a time, troops refused to fight. In a February 1, 2011 article for The National Hugh Naylor reported:

Egypt’s powerful military said yesterday it would not open fire on protesters as a coalition of Egyptian opposition groups called for a million people to take to Cairo’s streets today. ‘To the great people of Egypt, your armed forces, acknowledging the legitimate rights of the people … have not and will not use force against the Egyptian people,’ an army statement said. The concerted opposition action signaled the emergence of a unified leadership for the protests demanding the removal of the president, Hosni Mubarak.

A powerful image from Lefteris Pitarakis of the AP shows an Egyptian woman kissing an officer who could be her grandson. The NBC news ran these words: “An Egyptian anti-government activist kisses a riot police officer following clashes in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Jan. 28, 2011.” Something akin happened in Wisconsin that same winter, as police officers joined hands with protestors against Governor Scott Walker.


Here is some news you may not have seen widely shared. Joshua Berlinger of CNN reported in July, 2016: “Many of the protests against police violence have been peaceful. In Dallas – before a gunman killed five police officers at a Black Lives Matter rally . . . officers were even posing for photos with demonstrators.” Which brings me to an image that could beautifully accompany Stevie Wonder’s voice. Ieshia Evans was protesting police violence – specifically the Baton Rouge police department, when a photographer named Jonathan Bachman caught her lamentation. She walks forward, hands out, as police officers in full riot gear appear to back away. The image has gone viral, as a visual prayer for otherwise. It is an image of disarming, non-violent courage, remarkable to people in part because she is a visually beautiful woman and the police officers look as if they would prefer to switch, rather than fight. It is not the only image of hope. There are others. I pray we see more. “Maybe not in time for you and me, but someday at Christmastime.”

Brokeback Mountain and Moonlight, with Love

moonlightThis essay was published in the Durham Herald-Sun on Sunday, December 4, 2016.


When my older daughter was at Riverside High, the theater program performed “The Laramie Project,” a collaboration of author Moises Kaufman, people in Laramie, Wyoming, and members of the Tectonic Theater Project. It was performed first in 2000 and uses multiple voices to tell a real story, the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard.  The event that precipitates the production, every time, is the brutal death of a young man murdered because he is gay.  The story begins with a tragedy.

Annie Proulx set her 1997 short story “Brokeback Mountain” in Wyoming. She opens with these words:

They were raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state, Jack Twist in Lightning Flat, up on the Montana border, Ennis del Mar from around Sage, near the Utah line, both high-school drop-out country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life.

This love story ends as Jack is murdered with a tire-iron after attempting, finally, to stop living a lie. Ennis offers to help Jack’s parents take his ashes to Brokeback Mountain. Jack’s mother, who Proulx implies has a clue and a heart, offers for Ennis to visit Jack’s boyhood bedroom.  Proulx describes what Ennis finds:

The shirt seemed heavy until he saw there was another shirt inside it, the sleeves carefully worked down inside Jack’s sleeves. It was his own plaid shirt, lost, he’d thought, long ago in some damn laundry, his dirty shirt, the pocket ripped, buttons missing, stolen by Jack and hidden here inside Jack’s own shirt, the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one.

Proulx’s prose and characters are so familiar I can visualize their gait, hear the cadence of their voices. I grew up loving men who are “inured to the stoic life.”  Texan Larry McMurtry co-wrote the screenplay with Diana Lynn Ossana for the 2005 film.  I have not seen the movie.  I knew too many boys and girls suffocated by a setting where they could not live the truth of daylight.  The only suicides I knew growing up were of people who others whispered about, often with a tsk tsking that implied death was better than living gay.  As one friend wrote, a town like my hometown is a place “you dearly love but never feel relaxed in.”

People have, in my hearing, used the words “Brokeback Mountain” as a derision, drawn from a visceral fear of men who are gay in secret. This is absurd, given these same people do not want anyone to be gay not in secret.  Fear of the undetected gay coupling is a nonsense that acknowledges God makes some of God’s beloved children gay, linked to a refusal to bless love between two gay people.  This nonsense is written into movies attended by congregations as a fellowship outing – where men marked as “effeminate” are mocked, used as comic relief in supposed morality plays or to accelerate comedy in self-loathing slapsticks about “family life.”

[Let those with ears to hear, please hear.  You know what I am talking about.]

I am grateful for the 2016 film Moonlight.  I am grateful the Carolina Theatre brought this to Durham.  The film is based on a play by Tarrell Alvin McCraney, and the screenplay was written and directed by Barry Jenkins.  McCraney and Jenkins offer a blessing that does not mock or evade hatred.  McCraney and Jenkins have also offered a story that shows a man coming out in a way not linked to death.  They wrote neither a comedy nor a tragedy.  They wrote a life.

In his November 4, 2016 essay “The Sad, Surreal Experience of Seeing an Audience Laugh at Moonlight,” E. Alex Jung writes:

It was a Friday night . . . and the screening was completely sold out. Early on, though, one scene made me realize I might have picked a bad audience: It’s in the first third of the movie, where our young hero Chiron is sitting at the dining table with his surrogate parents, Juan and Teresa (Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe). He asks them, point-blank, “What’s a faggot?” It’s a moment that feels like a gut punch. When I first saw it, I held my breath, waiting to hear what Juan would say. He explained that it was a negative word used to describe men who liked other men. Then came the next question, “Am I a faggot?” A group of women behind me started giggling at the first question and were full-on laughing by the second — so much so that they drowned out Juan’s response. I was perplexed: Were we watching the same movie?

I pray people will see the film. I pray people will hear and, eventually, not laugh.  And I fervently pray that children from Texas to Wyoming to Durham, North Carolina will see on screen the possibility of their own beautiful truth.

The National Anthem Protest Matters

This essay originally appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on Sunday, November 6, 2016


I listen to sports radio while running errands. This helps me follow what fans are being told to care about and what they are inculcated to talk about with one another.  This is how I recently came across Colin Cowherd.  Cowherd, the host of a Fox Radio show, was explaining Monday Night Football’s apparently suboptimal ratings.  By Cowherd’s reckoning, the NFL is punishing ESPN for periodically featuring journalism.  The NFL is delivering bad match-ups on Monday nights to try to bring ESPN to heel, Cowherd explained.  Cowherd was clear ESPN should know their place, and keep “promoting the brand” of the National Football League.  ESPN, by Cowherd’s analysis, had made a reckless decision by covering stories critical of the NFL.  Just before this analysis, Cowherd had told listeners that most people in the U.S. dislike an athlete named Colin Kaepernick.

Here is one story that ESPN risked to cover journalistically. On May 24, 2016, ESPN reported: “At least a half-dozen top NFL health officials waged an improper, behind-the-scenes campaign last year to influence a major U.S. government research study on football and brain disease, congressional investigators have concluded in a new report . . . the NFL pressured the National Institutes of Health” to defund a $16 million study, because the study “would be detrimental to the league’s image.”  ESPN concluded: “Taxpayers ended up bearing the cost instead.”  How dare ESPN cover a Congressional Report on the NFL, especially when Congress is supposed to be in gridlock?  (That was irony and a bad pun.)  Two Republican U.S. Senators from Arizona collaborated on another report, in 2015, on the NFL and the Department of Defense.  As ESPN reported: “the NFL received $7 million over three years from contracts.” Senator McCain “said he was ‘shocked and disappointed to learn that several NFL teams weren’t sponsoring these activities out of the goodness of their own hearts but were doing so to make an extra buck.’” Senator McCain noted that “the military faces cuts in spending” and that there is no reason to think (or studies to show) that displays of patriotism on the field will help recruiting.


A friend told me I will “need a bigger paddle to stir this pot.” I do not have a big paddle, so I will now come at the National Anthem controversy by way of a Southern classic from 1974.  The first time I heard Kid Rock’s execrable cover of “Sweet Home Alabama” I threw up my hands, asking what this world is coming to. It seemed to me that Mr. Rock had trashed a good ballad.  Then I saw a documentary that interviews and features African-American women who served as back-up singers coterminous with the Southern Rock Era – women like Merry Clayton.  The film is called “20 Feet from Stardom.”  Merry Clayton there explains how she and Clydie King came to sing back-up on “Sweet Home Alabama.”  Clayton told Dorian Lynskey in a 2014 Guardian article:  “I said we’re going to sing the crap out of this song. They have the nerve to sing Sweet Home Alabama! That’s the white interpretation of Alabama. It’s not sweet home to black people! It’s not sweet home at all. We’re going to sing it like a protest song.” Clayton explained in 2013 to journalist Sam Adams for “A.V. Club” that hearing Neil Young’s 1970 song had hit a nerve with her, “I read the lyrics and it was during those terrible racial times . . . Dr. King had just been killed . . . it was a highly racial time, not just for black people, but for everybody in the world. We had the Vietnam War going on at the time; our boys were going to war and being killed.”  Clayton’s words helped me truly to hear lyrics I had allowed to wash over me.


There is a reason why NFL players across the league are not standing up during the National Anthem. The rule stating that players will be on the field during the Anthem is new.  As Tom E. Curran of Comcast Sportsnet New England explained on ESPN, this requirement was started in 2009.  It is part of the very same military recruitment scheme that Senator McCain rebuked.  Men standing 2000 feet from stardom are being asked to stand and pretend like their friends are not concussive and their fathers and cousins have not been killed and traumatized over a lie about weapons of mass destruction.  Some people are so devoted to the idea that this country has lived only in valour and equality that we cannot move forward in truth.  I love football, and I love democracy.  Real journalism matters for both.  If you have been fuming over one young man’s courage to name that this country we love has problems, please ask more complicated questions about our history and about our present.



Holy Pride

This essay first appeared in the October 2, 2016 issue of the Durham Herald-Sun.

Years ago, I was at a concert downtown to hear a vaguely Christian folk singer. He sang something that, at the time, I thought was profound: “With all the beauty this world has worth knowing, pride won’t get us where we’re going.”  I liked this so much I made these words the signature on my email account.  I now shake my head at my younger self.  Some friends could have written one simple question back at me: “What about the Gay Pride Parade?”

Last week, I participated in two different acts of pride. On Thursday, a group of Duke Divinity students led about a hundred people on a singing vigil through the new cafeteria on West Campus.  The women leading the procession carried candles, summoning us to continue one avowal: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”  This act was an act of lamentation.  We were lamenting racist terror in the U.S., most recently the killing of Keith Scott and Terence Crutcher.  We were singing to and with one another, committing to resist the pretense that racist terror is normal.  To my mind, African-American women are too infrequently encouraged at Duke to speak loudly and tell other people what to do, where to go, and what to sing.  So, this liturgy felt also like an act of courage.  Their words, their leadership, looked to me like holy pride – precisely the kind of pride that Duke needs more of if we are going to find beauty in this world and get where we need to be going.  Judging by the looks on many faces of people who were working in the new cafeteria, other people were grateful too.

Then, on Saturday, my daughter and I walked with thousands of people through Durham for North Carolina’s 32nd Annual Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Festival Parade, otherwise known as the “Gay Pride Parade.”  Noting the convergence of tragedy the same week, some participants carried signs of solidarity against racist terror.  Some people started up conversations with members of the Durham Police Department, perhaps in an attempt to understand another human being’s perspective face-to-face.  I was struck again by how diverse the group gathered was.  I know that sounds cliché.  But, truly, the Pride Parade is every bit as diverse as the North Carolina State Fair.  There were people in biker gear, people in cowboy boots, teenagers and people who can remember the first parade over three decades ago.  There were Christian groups and Jewish groups and at least one proudly affirming atheist (they were carrying a sign proclaiming this).  Even within the group from Duke, we were students and friends and faculty – some of us walking in solidarity, others walking out and proud for the first time.  Many, many people from across this beautiful state took the day to risk an unabashed celebration of our beloved selves, recognizing that, for that one day, everyone was on the same page on this one single, basic affirmation:  We are proud.

I have quoted thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas in this column before. He wrote many volumes on Christian doctrine and Christian virtue.  He did not affirm the holy beauty of people who are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, or Transgender.  But he did write some very helpful things about a vice usually translated as “Sloth.”  For most people, the word “sloth” connotes sitting around on a couch watching bad television and eating take-out pizza for a week.  (Which might not actually be a disaster.)  But for Thomas Aquinas, sloth is a very particular, moral malady.  He suggests sloth is often connected to despair, and that despair often leads to an inability to go about the basic things in life that help us to flourish.  Not only does despair indicate a separation from hope in God, but that separation can lead people not to feel like eating, or walking around, or sewing, or dancing, or many of the other practices that are gifts of daily life.  Sloth is a kind of “sorrow,” he writes, because we deem “evil and worthless” the goods God has given us.  Thomas Aquinas even calls sloth a “mortal sin,” in that sloth involves our being fundamentally separated from the affirmation that God loves us and is with us.  Again, “when this state of mind dominates [someone’s] affections,” it can seem as if we will “never be able to rise to any good.”

By my reading of these two events, we were engaging in two different acts of holy pride, reminding one another that our lives are neither “evil” nor “worthless.” On both Thursday and Saturday, people resisted sloth, risking the appearance pridefulness for the sake of a virtue called pride.  In some Christian circles, these words will sound like nonsense.  I’m willing to risk that.

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