Reading Works of Love
Sometimes things are hidden in plain sight. I haven’t blogged for a few weeks because the books I’ve been reading have either been disappointing (Stephen Greenblatt’s Swerve), endless (Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem: a Biography, which is superb, but I’m barely half way through it), or predictable (Harold Bloom’s latest on the King James Bible. I’m enjoying it, but, well, basta Bloom).
Yet the extraordinary books I’m privileged to teach have been in front of me the whole time. Right now, my students and I are discussing Soren Kierkegaard’s masterpiece Works of Love, which, I would argue, is one of the most important discussions of love in the western canon. Kierkegaard structures the book as a series of essays that interpret Biblical passages about love. As Lent gives way to the Triduum and Easter, and Christians prepare to celebrate the love of God shown in the death and resurrection of the Son, Kierkegaard’s words are particularly timely.
In the first essay of Works of Love, where Kierkegaard interprets Jesus’s words that each tree is known by its own fruits (Luke 6:44), the Dane remarks:
But the holy works of our text are not spoken to encourage us to get busy judging one another; they are rather spoken warningly to the individual, to you, my reader, and to me, to encourage each one not to let his love become unfruitful but to work so that it is capable of being recognized by others or not. For one is not to work in order that love becomes known by its fruits but to make love capable of being recognized by its fruits. … For the divine authority of the Gospel speaks not to one man about another man, not to you, the reader, about me, or to me about you – no, when the gospel speaks it speaks to the single individual. It does not speak about us men, you and me, but it speaks to us men, you and me, and it speaks about the requirement that love shall be known by its fruits (31).
In theological terms, I would take issue with Kierkegaard’s emphasis on the single individual. For Kierkegaard, the practice of Christianity is a solitary enterprise. On my reading of him, there is little room for the Church, understood as the community of believers, to make a contribution to the individual’s discipleship. Kierkegaard famously believes that true Christianity cannot be taught, it can only be witnessed.
My theological reservations aside, I can’t help but agree with the literary picture Kierkegaard draws. The books that lodge themselves in our memory, the books that we discuss, the books that change us, do so because they speak to us rather than about us. Now obviously, the Biblical text and sacred art more generally have no monopoly on speaking to us rather than about us. And yet how often do we keep the art that speaks to us at bay by focusing solely on its historical context or formal characteristics? (To be clear, I certainly think studying historical contexts and formal characteristics can help us recognize how the art speaks to us.) By thinking that great art speaks about someone else in some other context instead of thinking that it speaks to us in our context, we drain it of its power.
Kierkegaard warns us – he warns me – that the dangers of quarantining art are all the more dangerous when we quarantine love. “Christianity says it is a duty to be in debt and thereby says it is an act – not an expression about, not a theoretical conception of love” (182). For Kierkegaard, the fruit of love is our need for love, and the best metaphor for this need is an infinite debt that we cannot and do not want to repay. Our duty to love, he tells us, must be limitless. But even though our duty to love is limitless, the source of love remains hidden, and we can never know if an act is truly an act of love because we cannot see motivation. Indeed, “there must be an eternal vigilance, early and late, so that love never comes to dwell upon itself or to compare itself with love in other men or to compare itself with the deeds it has accomplished” (174, his italics). There is much, much more to say about Works of Love. And, as with every important work, there is much to critique and much to learn. Each time I read the book it hits me like a ton of bricks.
My students tend to be divided on the book, even if they almost universally enjoy reading it. Many think Kierkegaard’s basic picture is right, even if they are not quite ready to change their lives accordingly. (How many of us are?) But a strong minority think Kierkegaard’s picture is simply impossible and that no one is up to the eternal vigilance that Kierkegaard’s views of love require. I also see this divide in their general approach to the books we read. Some see (at least some of) the books we read as speaking to them. Others only see the books as speaking about someone else.
At the end of each term, I give my students a final oral exam. My final question asks them what they take away from the course, what idea or figure sticks with them. During one exam, a student’s eyes lit up when I asked the question. She said the Works of Love was her favorite text. She exclaimed, “Imagine if everyone lived as Kierkegaard says we should!” Imagine that.