I've been studying Kierkegaard's Works of Love thoroughly of late, in preparation for a presentation in Ethics class tomorrow, and I've decided to use the opportunity to get back into Kierkegaard in a serious way, and to get a real handle on what is a profound treasure-trove of Christian ethical insight. For now, I'm posting here the summary of the first six sections (the assigned reading) that I typed up for my classmates.
Soren Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, written in 1847 as part of the second phase of his authorship, under his own name, is one of his most pastoral writings, and one of the most powerful meditations on the meaning of the command “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
In Luke 10, Christ tells his most famous parable in answer to a question about the meaning of just this command, a question from someone “desiring to justify himself.” Christ cuts through all our self-justifying attempts to limit neighbor-love only to people whom we know and already love, to people who are lovable, and to cases where doing so is feasible and convenient. No, loving the neighbor means loving the stranger, loving the enemy, loving the one whom no one else will love, loving when it is out of the way and inconvenient. Christ also cuts off the self-justification that, while it may be happy to universalize love of neighbor, does so by an abstract or sentimental love, which fails to manifest itself in concrete action. No, the Good Samaritan loves his neighbor precisely in taking diligent action to aid that neighbor.
These crucial features of neighbor love that Christ’s parable shows us, as well as many more, appear throughout Kierkegaard’s Works of Love. Kierkegaard, like Jesus, had a razor-sharp eye for the sinner’s effort to justify himself, even in the midst of doing good. In this text, he repeatedly calls attention to the ways in which, by loving some people more than others, or by loving others instead of God, or by loving God instead of loving others, or by loving others with externals only, or with internals only, we in fact merely indulge in various perverted forms of self-love, and justify it to ourselves as true love. However, this is not to say that Kierkegaard falls into the trap of Edwards and makes self-love as such the antithesis of true love; rather, he takes very seriously the “as yourself” part of the commandment, and repeatedly insists that Christian love of God contains in itself the proper form of love of self. While maintaining the Augustinian emphasis that love of God is the source and centre of all true Christian love, without which any love will go astray, he constantly resists the temptation to make this a basis for marginalizing or instrumentalizing the neighbor; it is not that we love the other merely as a tool for loving God (as Augustine occasionally seems to say), but more that loving God is the only way that we can rightly love the other.
Kierkegaard’s summary statement of all this, in “Love is the Fulfilling of the Law,” is “Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: a person--God--a person, that is, that God is the middle term....if God and the relationship with God have been omitted, then this, in the Christian sense, has not been love but a mutually enchanting defraudation of love. To love God is to love oneself truly; to help another person to love God is to love another person; to be helped by another person to love God is to be loved.”
I could say much more by way of introduction, but I will save that for class, and use the remainder of this post to summarize as briefly as possible (though it will still take a while) each of the sections we read, and raise a question for discussion after each one.
Love’s Hidden Life and Its Recognizability By Its Fruits
In this first section, Kierkegaard explores the paradox of the simultaneous visibility and invisibility of love. On the one hand, love cannot be reduced to any external set of actions, because no merely external action is sufficient to prove that love is present; we could be deceived by hypocrisy. Moreover, love must be hidden, in that its true source lies in God, who is invisible. On the other hand, love is surely not merely a disposition; to be love, it must manifest itself in works of love, it must be recognizable by its fruits. But Kierkegaard resists a consequentialist ethic by insisting, not that the fruits actually be recognized, but that they must be able to be recognized. The tension between the hiddenness and visibility of love cannot be cleanly resolved; instead, Kierkegaard says that we must “believe in love,” and that only one who has love will be able to do so and recognize love in another.
Discussion question: How do you like the way that Kierkegaard deals with this tension? Is there a better way? Is it true that no set of actions, taken alone, necessarily manifests love?
You Shall Love
Here Kierkegaard introduces the command “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and explores the significance of the “as yourself,” which teaches a proper self-love, and not a perverse form that hides itself in a slavish devotion to the other, a devotion which secretly fulfills selfish desires. This command, Kierkegaard thinks, is striking and is original with Christianity, which is the first to dare to command love. Such a command seems repugnant to our sensibilities which glorify spontaneous, unforced love. But Kierkegaard maintains that “only when it is a duty to love, only then is love eternally secured against every change, eternally made free in blessed independence, eternally and happily secured against despair.” (29)
Discussion question: Is Kierkegaard right in saying that this notion of a command to love is original to Christianity?
You Shall Love the Neighbor
Here Kierkegaard expounds upon the notion of neighbor, which means, without exception, everyone. But the command to love the neighbor, Kierkegaard provocatively continues, is not merely something that we can add on top of the other kinds of love we are already engaged in, as if to say, “Oh right. I’ve been loving my wife and my friends, but I shouldn’t forget to love the neighbor too.” No, neighbor-love becomes the ruling category, to which all other loves must be subordinate. I must love my wife because she is a neighbor; no doubt there will still be unique duties here, but they will be specifications of the law of neighbor-love, not manifestations of a different duty of love altogether. Kierkegaard is as merciless in Edwards of purging Christian love of preferentiality; however, as we shall see, he does not thereby purge the neighbor of a face, as Edwards does.
You Shall Love the Neighbor
Here, Kierkegaard cuts off any attempt to make the neighbor-love command a kind of general basis for social reform. The command is not directed to society at large, but to each one of us. This is important because otherwise, if we attempt to show love to the neighbor by directly tackling the inequalities of earthly life, we may fail to attack the source of the inequality at the root, may fail to learn to see in the neighbor what in God’s eye he is. He illustrates this powerfully with Christ’s parable about the man inviting all the poor beggars to a banquet--the revolutionary thing here is not that he feeds the poor, but that he calls it a banquet, a celebration among friends and equals. “The one who feeds the poor--but still has not been victorious over his mind in such a way that he calls this meal a banquet--sees the poor and the lowly only as the poor and the lowly. The one who gives the banquet sees the neighbor in the poor and the lowly--however ludicrous this may seem in the eyes of the world.” (83)
Discussion Question: This section is perhaps the most problematic, because, however much we may value the point Kierkegaard is trying to make, it seems that he goes too far in this section by saying at times that Christianity is not concerned with resolving the external, temporal inequality; it simply sets it in proper perspective by focusing on the eternal equality. What do you think of this?
Love is the Fulfilling of the Law
Kierkegaard resists here the Law-Gospel distinction to which Lutheranism has oft fallen prey, and argues that the command of love is not an overturning of any of the Law’s provisions, but is in fact the proper specification of them; where, with all their multiplicity, they remained somewhat indefinite and unclear, the love command makes all clear. Then Kierkegaard brings the verse “Love is the fulfilling of the Law” into dialogue with the idea that “Christ is the end of the law.” Here, then, he develops his argument about how all other loves, when pursued as ends in themselves, collide with the Christian duty to love, since for the Christian, they must all be oriented around love of God. Christian love is true love of the other, because it is only possible to love the other truly by loving him through God, according to God’s requirements; but the other will often not see this love as love, but as hate, because it subordinates the desires of the other to God’s will, rather than making them paramount.
Discussion Question: In this view, is the other instrumentalized, made simply a means, an object of limited value that must always be sacrificed in order to properly love God? I think clearly not, but Kierkegaard is often read this way--what do you think?
Love is a Matter of Conscience
Here Kierkegaard’s point is again, from a somewhat different angle, to emphasize that the change which Christian love aims for is not a reconfiguration of external social relations. Rather, it is the change of relations at their very heart, at the internal level of conscience, before God, not before man. Christianity “does not wish to bring about any external change at all in the external sphere; it wants to seize it, purify it, sanctify it, and in this way make everything new while everything is still old. The Christian may very well marry, may very well love his wife, especially in the way he ought to love her, may ery well have a friend and love his native land; but yet in all this there must be a basic understanding between himself and God in the essentially Christian, and this is Christianity.” (145)
Discussion Question: Similar concerns as those of IIC arise here. It may be fine to say that Christianity aims not at externals, but at internals, knowing that this is the only true way to make a change in externals. But Kierkegaard seems to go to far in saying that Christianity doesn’t even care about externals. What do you think?