Consider the Lilies

Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55) was one of only a few philosophers to devote serious thought to the question of the most effective way of communicating ethico-religious truths—that is, the truths we live by. In response to that question, the Danish thinker devised a novel method of indirect communication that involved the intricate use of pseudonyms. He published all his classic works under pen names. For every one of these dazzling theological/philosophical tracts, however, the virtuoso of inwardness would also publish, under his own name, a more straightforward book intended for “upbuilding” or “edification.”

Ours has become a therapeutic culture, one in which we chatter endlessly about strategies for self-development. Meanwhile, the very idea of “edification” seems to have been packed off to the idea museum. And yet it is from Kierkegaard’s shelf of edifying and Christian works that the Oxford theologian George Pattison has culled selections for the aptly titled Spiritual Writings. A renowned scholar, George Pattison rightly notes that while Kierkegaard’s image is tightly bound to darkling topics such as anxiety, despair, and depression, his religious outlook was at bottom one of “basic trust in the goodness of the life we have been given and faith in the power of love to overcome whatever might threaten such trust or mar such goodness.”

For all the lyricism of his work, Kierkegaard’s dizzying abstractions, irony, and authorial tricks can sometimes give one a headache. But there is, as Pattison observes, a more direct, Socratic style in Kierkegaard’s edifying and Christian works, where he frequently addresses the reader as “my listener” (including himself among his listeners). Indeed, it is as though he believed that, when it comes to our relationship with God, it is not more knowledge that we need but rather a deepening of our inner lives. Or again, it is not new ideas that we are desperate for, but a new relationship to those ideas, as well as a fresh awareness of the ways in which we talk ourselves out of the inconvenient truths of Christianity.

Spiritual Writings is divided into three parts: “The Gift,” “Creation,” and “Love.” Each of its selections orbits around a biblical text, such as the passage about the birds of the air and lilies of the field (Matthew 6:24). Kierkegaard reminds us that one of the greatest obstacles to taking our eternal lives seriously is the universal tendency to drive ourselves to spiritual distraction by endlessly comparing ourselves to others. Consider the lilies of the field, Kierkegaard all but sighs:

Ah! But in constant association with human beings, in the multitude of differences between them and all the different ways they interact with one another, in busily or anxiously finding out how to compare them, one forgets what it is to be a human being: the differences between one human being and another cause one to forget it. But in the field, with the lilies, where the sky is arched high above…it is like breathing properly, where the great thoughts of the clouds dispel all pettiness.

One of the greatest of thoughts is the thought of eternity. Fix that idea properly in your mind, Kierkegaard tells us, and some of the worries that haunt you will vanish. “Human beings have the eternal within them and therefore it is impossible for them to be entirely in what is purely momentary. The more they try to avoid the eternal, the farther they are from living in the present day.”

According to Kierkegaard, we have a lot more control over what we think than we are inclined to believe. In The Sickness unto Death, he observed, “And this is how perhaps the great majority of men live: they work gradually at eclipsing their ethical and ethical-religious comprehension.” Why? Because we have some inner sense that that knowledge is going to demand sacrifices that our “lower nature does not much care for.” On the other hand, we work ourselves up into states of anxiety, with, as noted above, comparisons with others, but also with the thinking about tomorrow: “What is anxiety? It is the next day.” But take a lesson from the birds: they plant no troubles for themselves by worrying whether they will have enough seed to eat tomorrow.

Pattison has assigned himself an arduous task. It is very hard to isolate Kierkegaard’s spiritual writings from his other lines of thought, because almost everything he wrote was infused with a concern about our spiritual fettle. There are many uplifting pages in those difficult pseudonymous works on which his reputation as a philosopher is based. And there are also bracing lines from his journals—such as this (one of my favorites):

The majority of men...live and die under the impression that life is simply a matter of understanding more and more, and that if it were granted to them to live longer, that life would continue to be one long continuous growth in understanding. How many of them ever experience the maturity of discovering that there comes a critical moment where everything is reversed, after which the point becomes to understand more and more that there is something which cannot be understood?

We need to accept that there is something in our lives, something important, that we cannot understand, much less control. This is of course a very hard lesson—a lesson that, according to Kierkegaard, “the majority of men” never really master. Many of the texts collected in this book were written precisely to help “the listener” learn it.

Spiritual Writings demonstrates that edification needn’t be dull or unintellectual, and that it can be rigorous and encouraging at the same time. Pattison has assembled and ably translated passages that will both nurture and challenge readers by reminding them, forcefully and persuasively, of what they already know about the difficulties of the Christian life and the distractions that draw us away from it.

Published in the 2012-01-27 issue: 
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Gordon Marino is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College. His “The Existentialist’s Survival Guide” will be published by HarperOne in April.  You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/GordonMarino.

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