Sunday, 1 September 2013

Kierkegaard: Works of Love

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22: 37-40)

Sometimes I think that Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a real asshole (for a good synopsis, check this out: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kierkegaard/). He certainly had the "trickster" quality about him. The way I try and understand him is that he said that his writings were "the art of taking away".

When I started reading about existentialism, I started out with Sartre, and only found out later that it was Kierkegaard who helped initiate the discourse (which further, to me, confirmed Kierkegaard's class of assholeship). Sartre's Either/Or is heavy, dense reading (and I wouldn't recommend him), but what I took away from it all these years ago is the passage about a flooding and destruction of life in Bangladesh being merely a redistribution of matter. Perhaps he didn't say it that way but that's what I remember most of Sartre.

In his Works of Love (1847) I begin to see what Kierkegaard meant in claiming this "art of taking away" as "[h]e used irony, parody, satire, humor, and deconstructive techniques in order to make conventionally accepted forms of knowledge and value untenable." (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kierkegaard/) Part of this formidable intellectual arsenal, was his use of contrast and comparison to great effect in Works of Love.

In Matthew 11: 28-30, the Christ says: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

This promise forms the foundation of Kierkegaard's insight in Works of Love:

The objection is often made against Christianity—though in different manners and moods, with various passions and purposes—that it displaces erotic love and friendship. Then, again, men have wanted to defend Christianity and to that end appealed to its doctrine that one ought to love God with his whole heart and his neighbour as himself. When the argument is carried on in this manner, it is quite indifferent whether one agrees or disagrees, just as a fight with air and an agreement with air are equally meaningless. (Kierkegaard, Works of Love: some Christian reflections in the form of discourses. Translated by Howard and Edna Hong, Harper&Row, p.58)

Kierkegaard says that erotic love and friendship are forms of self-love (or, passionate preferences). As altruistic as these forms of love may be, there is, ultimately, an expectation of reciprocity of some sort. In terms of erotic love, there really is no guarantee that one will ever meet "one's true love" and, if found by those fortunate enough, there is no guarantee that it'll even last. "The beloved and the friend are therefore called, remarkably and significantly enough, the other-self, the other-I..."(ibid, p. 66)

Just a paragraph earlier, Kierkegaard warns that if we think the distinction between "pagan" notions of love and Christian notions of "neighbourly" love center around "passionate preference" (ie, differences in tenderness and fidelity), we are mistaken. Love, after all, is a human thing. Christians feel as much for erotic love and friendship as non-believers. The differences lay rather in perspective.

Taking cue from Christ's words in Matthew 22: 37-40, with a childlike simplicity Kierkegaard says that the difference is that, in Christianity, everyone is rightfully our neighbour, and that we have the opportunity to love our neighbour the moment we meet anyone in the course of our days. He uses a wonderful image of the devotee first locking himself in to pray and be close to God, then, going out the door meeting his neighbour.

As someone with a scientific/philosophical bent, I cannot deny the sweet irony inherent in scientific inquiry that we are to approach it in the spirit of objectivity and clinical regard when the more we study some phenomenon the more easily we are taken up by the subject of our inquiry. There are the opening lines in Psalm 19 that I've always found to be true in my study of linguistics:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.

They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.

Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.

I've not read even the most "atheistic" scientist immune to the wonder of their study. But I've read many "Christian" fundamentalists who have a certain violence and intolerant hatred in their tone for anyone who would hold alternative views than they. I doubt God even cares whether we believe in the so-called "creationism" or if we believe in evolution because if He cared He'd be beholden to time and revision. God is, in fact, transcendent of all things created for He is the author and sovereign of all that exists.

No matter how vast the span of time it took to produce you and me, we exist: we have lives, histories, pains and joys, etc. and, by all accounts, unique beings. Our mythologies are less important than our ability to want self-improvement if we but be honest with ourselves. We are someone else's neighbour as much as they are ours:

While most commentators regard Kierkegaard's view to be that sin is what separates human beings absolutely from God, thereby lending weight to the view that Kierkegaard endorses a particularly dour version of Christianity, a more defensible interpretation is that it is the transcendent God's capacity to forgive the unforgivable that marks the absolute difference. Our struggle to accept divine forgiveness can become mired in despair, including the second-order despair over the impossibility of forgiveness of our sins and the demonic despair of defiance in which we refuse to accept forgiveness. On the other hand, faith in divine forgiveness can manifest in joy, at the realization that for God anything is possible, including our “rebirth” as spiritual selves with “eternal validity”. (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kierkegaard/)

Jay