Love for Kierkegaard
In the final pages of Works of Love (1847), Kierkegaard ponders the nature of the commandment of love that he has been wrestling with tirelessly throughout that wonderful book. What is the force of those famous Biblical words, “you shall love your neighbor”? Kierkegaard stresses the strenuousness and, in the word most repeated in these pages, the rigor of love. As such, Christian love is not some sort of simplistic “coddling love,” which spares believers any particular effort. Such love can be characterized as “pleasant days or delightful days without self-made cares.” This easy and fanciful idea of love reduces Christianity to “a second childhood” and renders faith infantile.
Kierkegaard then introduces the concept of “the Christian like-for-like,” which is the central and decisive category of Works of Love. The latter is introduced by distinguishing it from what Kierkegaard calls “the Jewish like-for-like,” by which he means “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”: namely a conception of obligation based on the equality and reciprocity of self and other.
Although, as a cursory reading of Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption could easily show, this is a stereotypical and deeply limited picture of Judaism, Kierkegaard’s point is that Christian love cannot be reduced to what he calls the “worldly” conception of love where you do unto others what others do unto you and no more – a system of mutual favors.
The Christian like-for-like engages in what – to borrow Husserl’s terminology – is a kind of transcendental epoche or bracketing of what others owe to me and instead, “makes every relationship to other human beings into a God-relationship” (WL 345). This move coincides with a shift from the external to the inward. Although the Christian, for Kierkegaard, “must remain in the world and the relationships of earthly life allotted to him,” he or she views those relationships from the standpoint of inwardness, that is, mediated through the relationship to God. As Kierkegaard puts it emphatically earlier on in Works of Love, “Worldly wisdom thinks that love is a relationship between man and man. Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: man-God-man, that is, that God is the middle term.”
The rigor of Christianity is a conception of love based on radical inequality, namely the absolute difference between the human and the divine. This is how Kierkegaard interprets Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye.” (Matt 7 3) Judge not, that ye be not judged! The log in my own eye does not permit me to judge the speck in the other’s. Rather, I should abstain from any judgment of what others might or might not do. To judge others is to view matters from the standpoint of externality rather than inwardness. It is arrogance and impertinence.
What others owe to me is none of my business. Kierkegaard writes, “Christianly understood you have absolutely nothing to do with what others do to you.” “Essentially,” he continues, “you have only to do with yourself before God.” Once again, the move to inwardness does not turn human beings away from the world, it is rather, “a new version of what other men call reality, this is reality.” Needless to say, this is a very hard task to perform, which is why Kierkegaard was so sure that there were very few true Christians in the Denmark of his day. Arguably there are even fewer now.
The address of Kierkegaard’s writing has a specific and highly characteristic directedness: the second person singular, you. He tells the story from The Gospels (versions appear in Mathew and Luke) of the Roman centurion in Capernaum who approached Jesus and asked him to cure his servant or boy, the sense is ambiguous, “sick with the palsy, grievously tormented.” (Matt 8 6) After Jesus said that he would visit the boy, the centurion confessed that, as a representative of the occupying imperial authority with soldiers under his command, he did not feel worthy that Jesus should enter his house. When Jesus heard this he declared that he had not experienced a person of such great faith in the whole of Israel. He added, and this is the line that interests Kierkegaard, “Be it done for you, as you believed.”
This story of Christ and the centurion reveals, I think, the essential insecurity of faith. Kierkegaard writes that it does not belong to Christian doctrine to vouchsafe that you have faith. If someone were to say, “it is absolutely certain that I have faith because I have been baptized in the church and follow its rituals and ordinances,” then Kierkegaard would reply, “Be it done for you, as you believed.” The point of the story is that the centurion, although he was not baptized as a Christian, nonetheless believed. As Kierkegaard writes, “in his faith, the Gospel is first a gospel.”
Faith is a proclamation that enacts life; a movement of conversion that brings subjectivity into existence. The proclamation is the decision that brings the inward subject of faith into being over against an external everydayness. Now, such a proclamation is as true for the non-Christian as it is for the Christian. Indeed, it is more true for the non-Christian, because their faith is not supported by the supposed guarantee of baptism, creedal dogma, regular church attendance or some notion that virtue will be rewarded with happiness if not here on earth, then in the afterlife.
Paradoxically, and this is what fascinates me, non-Christian faith reveals the true nature of the faith that Christ sought to proclaim. Even – and indeed especially – those who are denominationally faithless can have an experience of faith. If faith needs to be underpinned by some sort of doctrinal security, then inwardness becomes externalized and the strenuous rigor of faith evaporates. Such is what I call the faith of the faithless which is the enemy of any hierarchically instituted church whether allegedly universal, like Roman Catholicism, or more parochial, like the good old Danish National Church. Such a faith of the faithless is institutionally anarchistic.
What kind of certainty, then, is the experience of faith? Kierkegaard writes, and again the second person singular direction of address should be noted,
It is eternally certain that it will be done for you as you believe, but the certainty of faith, or the certainty that you, you in particular, believe, you must win at every moment with God’s help, consequently not in some external way. (emphasis mine)
Kierkegaard insists – and one feels here the force of his polemic against the irreligious, essentially secular order of Christendom, the pseudo-Christianity of the Danish National Church – that no pastor or priest has the right to say that one has faith or not according to doctrines like baptism and the like. To proclaim faith is to abandon such external or worldly guarantees. Faith has the character of a continuous “striving…in which you get occasion to be tried every day.”
The enemy of faith is not doubt. On the contrary, it is certainty. There are no guarantees in faith. It is defined by an essential insecurity, tempered by doubt and defined by a radical experience of freedom. This is what I see as Kierkegaard’s central teaching, which is also the most difficult to attain. Two centuries after his birth, we still seem to be deaf to his words.
Faith is not law and nor is the commandment of love that faith seeks to sustain. Faith has no coercive, external force. As Rosenzweig writes, “The commandment of love can only proceed from the mouth of the lover.” He goes on to contrast this with law, “which reckons with times, with a future, with duration.” By contrast, the commandment of love “knows only the moment (Augenblick); it awaits the result in the very moment of its promulgation (Augenblick seines Lautwerdens).” Of course, the German concept of Augenblick is a borrowing from Kiekegaard’s Øjeblik, a blink or glance of the eye.
The commandment of love is mild and merciful, but, as Kierkegaard insists, “there is rigor in it.” Love is not reducible to some complacent and selfish system of mutual favors. Love is that rigorous, disciplined act of absolute spiritual daring that eviscerates the old self of externality so that something new and inward can come into being – a process of what Simone Weil called decreation. Love is the deliberate impoverishment of the selfish self; an impoverishment that enriches us by divesting us of our worldly riches. Just imagine for a moment if this principle were applied to the global banking system. Wouldn’t that be nice?
As Kierkegaard puts in earlier in Works of Love, citing Saint Paul, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another” (Rom 13:8). It sounds simple. But what is implicit in this minimal-sounding command is a conception of love as an experience of infinite debt – a debt that it is impossible to repay, “When a man is gripped by love, he feels that this is like being in infinite debt.”
To be is to be in debt. I owe therefore I am. If original sin is the theological name for the essential ontological indebtedness of the self, then love is the experience of a counter-movement to sin that is orientated around what the great Danish thinker Knut-Ejler LØgstrup calls the infinite ethical demand that exceeds the projective potentiality of the self. In the final words of The Sickness Unto Death (1849), in what Kierkegaard calls a “definition of faith,” the latter is described as a state in which there is no despair at all, but “in relating itself to itself and in willing to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it.”
Kierkegaard writes, and the double emphasis on the “moment” that finds an echo in Rosenzweig should be noted, “God’s relationship to a human being is the infinitizing at every moment of that which at every moment is in a man.” Withdrawn into inwardness and an essential solitude (“If you have never been solitary, you have never discovered that God exists”), each and every word and action of the self resounds through the infinite demand of God. The self comes to itself in relation to an infinite demand that undoes it. I am undone by the other that makes me the self that I am. As the melancholic Danish Prince Hamlet sagely notes, “This was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof.”
At this point, in the very last words of Works of Love, Kierkegaard shifts to auditory imagery. God is a vast echo chamber where each sound, “the slightest sound,” is duplicated and resounds back loudly into the subject’s ears. God is nothing more than the name for the repetition of each word that the subject utters. But it is a repetition that resounds with ‘the intensification of infinity’. In what Kierkegaard calls ‘the urban confusion’ of external life, the Brooklyn street corner I see from my office window, it is nigh impossible to hear this repetitive echo of the infinite demand.
This is why the epoche or bracketing of externality is essential. Kierkegaard writes, “externality is too dense a body for resonance, and the sensual ear is too hard-of-hearing to catch the eternal’s repetition.” We need to cultivate the inner or inward ear that infinitizes the words and actions of the self. As Kierkegaard makes clear, what he is counseling is not “to sit in the anxiety of death, day in and day out, listening for the repetition of the eternal.” What is rather being called for is a rigorous and activist conception of faith that proclaims itself into being at each instant without guarantee or security and which abides with the infinite demand of love. Faith might be inward, but it points outwards to the world of action.
Faith is the enactment of the self in relation to a demand that exceeds my power, both in relation to what Heidegger would call my thrownness in the world and the projective movement of freedom achieved as responsibility. Faith is not a like-for-like relationship of equals, but the asymmetry of the like-to-unlike. Faith is a subjective strength that only finds its power to act through an admission of weakness, what I call the powerless power of conscience. Conscience is the inward ear that listens for the repetition of the infinite demand. Its call is not heard in passive resignation from the world, but the urgency of active engagement. Such an experience of faith is not only shared by those who are faithless from a creedal or denominational perspective, but is had by them in an exemplary manner. Like the Roman centurion of whom Kierkegaard writes, it is perhaps the faithless who can best sustain the rigor of faith without requiring security, guarantees and rewards: “Be it done for you, as you believed.”
I love Kierkegaard for his relentless honesty, his maddening rigor, his insane passion, even for his failed love. In the end, like a burnt-out meteor, it appears he simply lost the will to live. Kierkegaard became ill in late September 1855 and collapsed in the street on 2nd October. At his own request, he was taken to Fredrik’s Hospital in Copenhagen where his condition deteriorated. Kierkegaard’s niece reports that when brought to the hospital, he said that he had come there to die. He died 6 weeks later on 11th November, aged a mere 42. The cause of death is unclear and the tentative diagnosis was tuberculosis. Exhausted by his voluminous and brilliant literary work and depressed by the sorry state of his personal life and the state of Christianity in Denmark, Kierkegaard let himself die. His lifelong friend, Emil Boesen, visited him as he was dying and kindly suggested to Kierkegaard that much in his life had worked out well. He replied, “That is why I am very happy and very sad, because I cannot share my happiness with anyone.” He continued, “I pray to be free of despair at the time of my death.”
Kierkegaard does not belong to the past. I have never seen anyone so far ahead of us. Who knows, if we truly keep faith, then one day we might begin to catch up with him.