Thursday, March 8, 2007

Thoughts on Kierkegaard

I recently finished reading two (short) works written by Soren Kierkegaard, and what I'm about to do is exactly what he wouldn't have wanted. I'm reflecting on brilliant ideas, and I don't have any plan for putting them into practice. But I will sit here and write about how doing that very thing is horrible, and how Kierkegaard was brilliant for pointing that out. So, vive les contradictions. I can't help myself; Kierkegaard is too interesting to read and not comment on. Though I will mercilessly rip quotes out of context because I like them, I am at least admitting that I'm doing this (without a proper understanding of what he really meant, because his works were sufficiently over my head). The works I read were The Present Age and a Genius and an Apostle.

Kierk offers an impressing diatribe of the culture he lived in (mid 1800's), and if I didn't know any better I would have thought he was talking about today. In the spirit of not sounding like the blurb on the back of a book, I'll just share some quotes that made the biggest impression on me...

“However well-meaning and strong the individual man may be (if he could only use his strength), he still has not the passion to be able to tear himself from the coils and seductive uncertainty of reflection.” Over thinking? Really? I never do that.

“Formerly it was agreed that a man stood or fell by his actions; nowadays, on the contrary, everyone idles about and comes off brilliantly with the help of a little reflection, knowing perfectly well what ought to be done…If some one were to overhear what people said ought to be done, and then in a spirit of irony, and for no other reason, proceeded to act accordingly every one would be amazed.” I think this one is self-explanatory. The sad part is, this is direct commentary on my discipline of choice. Few philosophers take their theories and act upon them accordingly. To those who do (and there are a noble few), you have my respect. I'm working on doing this myself.

“The distinction between good and evil is enervated by a superficial, superior and theoretical knowledge of evil, and by a supercilious cleverness which is aware that goodness is neither appreciated nor worth while in this world, that it is tantamount to stupidity. No one is any longer carried away by the desire for the good to perform great things, no one is precipitated by evil into atrocious sins, and so there is nothing for either the good or bad to talk about, and yet for that very reason people gossip all the more, since ambiguity is tremendously stimulating and much more verbose than rejoicing over goodness or repentance over evil.” How controversial this is. There really are things that are good or bad?? Relativism may not be taken seriously by philosophers (for obvious reasons), but it is all too prevalent in today's society (pop philo if you will).

“Only some one who knows how to remain essentially silent can really talk –and act essentially. Silence is the essence of inwardness, of the inner life. Mere gossip anticipates real talk, and to express what is still in thought weakens action by forestalling it…Talkativeness is afraid of the silence which reveals its emptiness.” For those who know me, this one hurts. But again, it's so true. If only we would stop talking just to talk. It's like we keep going and going because we're afraid of the void that comes when it's silent. But it's okay to be quiet, and it's better to talk only when you have something meaningful to say. Imagine how that would change things...

"'Leap, then, into the arms of God'...[but others] must make the leap themselves, for God's love is not a second-hand gift." We can't force people to believe, because faith is a choice.
We can plant seeds, and we can open ourselves up to be used by God. But ultimately, each person must choose for themselves. Forcing your faith on someone, well that's like making them wear your "faith" hand-me-downs. It's just not the same if they don't take the leap on their own.

"You who hear me must consider within yourselves whether you will bow before [Christ's] authority or not, accept and believe the words or not. But if you do not wish to do so, then for heaven's sake do not go and accept the words because they are clever or profound or wonderfully beautiful, for that is a mockery of God." This is in response to the "defenders" of the faith who wanted to make the authors of the Bible literary geniuses, and at the same time they wanted to rob them of divine authority. Kierk fought against those who thought that Paul should be appreciated for his wonderful metaphors, for the aesthetic content of what he said, not because he had any authority. He distinguishes between the genius and the Apostle. The first is great because of his natural talents, and his work should be appreciated for its content. Kierk says this of Plato: "what Plato says on immortality really is profound, reached after deep study; but then poor Plato has no authority whatsoever." The Apostle, on the other hand, is not great because of any natural talents he has. In fact, his message is great often in spite of his lack of natural endowments. His message should be revered because it is backed by divine authority, not because it is incredibly clever. Now the question remains: how does the Apostle prove that he was given divine authority? He can't, not decisively anyways... and it would be counterproductive if he could, because the telos of his message is to cultivate faith. A king, according to Kierk, can provide physical proof that the messenger was his, but God can't do this and won't, because that wouldn't allow room for people to believe in anything. So by no means should the genius and the Apostle be compared, because the are on completely different playing fields. This is what I think Kierk meant, but I could be completely wrong.

What did I take away from the readings? Well, what struck me the most was Kierk's critique of intellectuals (or at least the contemplative atmosphere that remains passionless). We spend all this time thinking, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. But we think and discern all of these principles of what we ought to do, and then we do nothing. We would rather think ourselves out of existence then bother to put our ideas into practice. Think of the ideal theorist. She has wonderful intentions, but she puts none of her theories into practical use. So what has she really contributed? Isn't this why most people don't like philosophers??

I was also struck by Kierk's condemnation of apologists. We try to fit God into a box that we can comprehend. When a skeptic makes a claim, we try to squeeze this infinite being into our own ideas and conceptions of what is right and true in order to defeat them. But with our limited abilities we can only know so much. Why do we insist on watering God down to the point where He isn't even a god at all? Let us admit that some things we will not understand, and let us not be ashamed to have faith. After all, even the non-believer has faith, though it's a faith in God's non-existence. We must humbly admit the limits of our reason. Only then will we cease to prostitute our God.

No comments: