Kierkegaard's God and the Good Life

Kierkegaard's God and the Good Life


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Kierkegaard's God and the Good Life by Stephen Minister

Kierkegaard's God and the Good Life focuses on faith and love, two central topics in Kierkegaard's writings, to grapple with complex questions at the intersection of religion and ethics. Here, leading scholars reflect on Kierkegaard's understanding of God, the religious life, and what it means to exist ethically. The contributors then shift to psychology, hope, knowledge, and the emotions as they offer critical and constructive readings for contemporary philosophical debates in the philosophy of religion, moral philosophy, and epistemology. Together, they show how Kierkegaard continues to be an important resource for understandings of religious existence, public discourse, social life, and how to live virtuously.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253029362
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 09/11/2017
Series: Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion Series
Pages: 292
Sales rank: 1,268,381
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Stephen Minister is Clara Lea Olsen Professor of Ethical Values and associate professor of philosophy at Augustana University in South Dakota. He is the author of De-Facing the Other: Reason, Ethics, and Politics after Difference.

J. Aaron Simmons is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Furman University in Greenville, SC. He is author of God and the Other: Ethics and Politics After the Theological Turn and author (with Bruce Ellis Benson) of The New Phenomenology: A Philosophical Introduction.

Michael Strawser is Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Central Florida. He is author of Both/And: Reading Kierkegaard from Irony to Edification and Kierkegaard and the Philosophy of Love.

Read an Excerpt


Love as the End of Human Existence

Sharon Krishek

In this chapter I explore the crucial significance of love for human flourishing. I claim that according to Kierkegaard, love is a divinely inspired potential that humans must actualize for the purpose of living a good life. This has a twofold reason: such an actualization is a fulfillment of one's nature, and it brings the human lover closer to God. I develop this thesis on the basis of a metaphorical picture that appears at the beginning of Kierkegaard's Works of Love and illustrate its existential implications by interpreting Tolstoy's novella "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" in light of it.

Love and Life

Often elusive and mysterious but always prevailing, love is undoubtedly central to human life. It pervades our existence, infusing it with meaningfulness and joy. Kierkegaard would doubtless have agreed with this observation, for as he writes at the conclusion of his Works of Love (1847), "to love people is the only thing worth living for" and "without this love you are not really living" (WL, 375). What does it mean to live one's life while not really living it? Tolstoy's well-known novella "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" arguably presents an answer. The novella depicts the dark suffering of the dying Ivan Ilyich as he struggles with the threatening understanding "that he had not lived his life as he should have done."

In this chapter I would like to present a reading of the novella in the light of a metaphorical passage that opens Kierkegaard's Works of Love. I believe that the two texts complement and enhance each other. The philosophical idea presented in Kierkegaard's text provides a productive framework for understanding the novella, and the human experience brought vividly to life in Tolstoy's text validates the Kierkegaardian idea. Thus, reading these two texts together, I hope to shed light both on the novella (and in particular its enigmatic ending) and on Kierkegaard's reflection regarding the wrongness of a life devoid of love. I begin by discussing what I take to be a key idea at the basis of Kierkegaard's understanding of love. According to my interpretation, the metaphorical picture at the opening of Works of Love (which depicts love as a quiet lake that originates in a hidden spring) presents love as a divinely inspired potential that we humans are required to actualize. In light of this analysis, I offer a reading of Tolstoy's novella that, rather than emphasizing the role of death in revealing the (lack of) meaning in Ivan Ilyich's life, focuses on the role of love in constituting such a meaning. By so doing, I hope to demonstrate how Kierkegaard's understanding of love provides the philosophical ground needed to explain the reason for Ivan Ilyich's sufferings, as well as his release from them. Seeing this, I hope that we can better understand why Kierkegaard claims that when one's life is devoid of loving, one is "not really living." This, in turn, will hopefully demonstrate the crucial significance of love to human flourishing.

The Love-Potential

In the first deliberation of Works of Love, a text devoted to a detailed exploration of the biblical duty to love one's neighbor, Kierkegaard offers a rather mysterious depiction of love:

Just as the quiet lake originates deep down in hidden springs no eye has seen, so also does a person's love originate even more deeply in God's love. ... Just as the quiet lake originates darkly in the deep spring, so a human being's love originates mysteriously in God's love. Just as the quiet lake invites you to contemplate it but by the reflected image of darkness prevents you from seeing through it, so also the mysterious origin of love in God's love prevents you from seeing its ground (WL, 9–10).

There are two forces in action here, God's love and a human being's love, which are likened to a spring and a quiet lake, respectively. The spring is hidden, lying deep, far beneath what the human eye can grasp. What we can see is a lake that flows out of it, but its accessibility must not mislead us: If we attempt to measure its depth and to look for its ground, we will find ourselves confused and disoriented. In the same way, human love — since it originates in God's love — is, in an important sense, unfathomable and elusive. However deeply one penetrates into "the life of love" (as Kierkegaard describes it), however seriously one contemplates it, there is still something mysterious left. By using this metaphor, then, Kierkegaard in effect is saying that human love cannot be fully explained in behavioral, sociological, psychological, or biological terms — nor can it simply be reduced to any of these humanly comprehensible phenomena.

The mystery of love is also mentioned in another metaphorical image that Kierkegaard presents a little earlier in the book: "There is a place in a person's innermost being; from this place flows the life of love. ... But you cannot see this place; however deeply you penetrate, the origin eludes you in remoteness and hiddenness" (WL, 8). Putting these two images together (the one of the spring and the lake and the one of the secret place within us), I suggest that something like the following picture emerges. On the one hand, we have the ultimate source of all love, God's love. On the other hand, we have human love. And in between, somehow linking these two poles, is that hidden place within us, holding, as it were, God's love within us. What does this mean?

We can think of this picture as describing three levels of love. The upper level, somewhat external and in any case the most visible, is human love. We see this love, in all sorts of ways, around us. We read about it in novels and journals, see many representations of it on movie screens, hear about it, talk about it, and feel it ourselves — constantly. In short, we encounter it all the time, in various forms: romantic love, friendship, parental love, neighborly love. In other words, human love, whether others' or our own, often forms part of our daily experience. The primary level — the deepest and most hidden — is God's love. We can imagine it as a colossal force that obviously transcends us and evades our "possession" (by not being subject to our understanding or will). However, this extraordinary force is also, in some mysterious way, within us. This brings us to the middle, intermediate level of love: the secret place within us that links the divine source of love with its visible human manifestations.

Given the metaphorical status of this picture, the "secret place" at issue is best understood (so I suggest) as a spiritual or mental faculty responsible for our capacity of loving. That is to say, it is a faculty, a power, that is "in ourselves" in the sense that it belongs to us and, more strongly, is essential to our human nature. Since God (according to Kierkegaard) has endowed us with the power to do what is most typical of him, we may say that it is in this way that he has created us in his image. Thus, loving is the nature of humans due to their having been created by God. Moreover, although we are not the source of this capacity, and might not even be fully conscious or aware of it (hence its "secrecy"), having it "in us" (in the relevant sense) makes us nevertheless responsible for either fulfilling it or not. We may therefore call this intermediate level of love "the potential for loving" (or the love-potential): it is a crucial capacity, placed or implanted in us by God (to use Kierkegaard's words [see, for example, WL, 126, 163]) and responsible for whatever loving we realize in our lives.

Understanding the spring/lake metaphor in this way may also serve to explain the logic behind Kierkegaard's distinction between "love" and "works of love." As he states twice, his book is "not about love but about works of love" (WL, 3, 207, emphasis in the original). Against the background of our interpretation of the metaphor as depicting a unique potential belonging to human beings, we can say that "love" refers to the potential, while "works" refers to the enactment or actualization of that potential. Having the capacity to love, having this divinely inspired potential, is not enough. We have to work to bring this potential to light, to make it blossom, to give it form. Thus when Kierkegaard says that his discussion is not about "love" but rather about "works of love," what he means to say, I think, is that he is not interested in a metaphysical or conceptual inquiry regarding the nature of our love-potential (namely, the connection of this potential to God, its ontological status, its various characteristics). Rather, he is interested in the way in which one ought to actualize this potential, and thus in the nature of the work required for this. Let me say a few words about the nature of this work.

It seems that for Kierkegaard, the way to actualize one's love-potential into a genuine instance of love is by self-denial. Distinguishing between preferential love (which makes preferences and is directed only to a few) and neighborly love (which does not make any preferences and is directed equally to all), he claims that the first is nothing but self-love, and that only the latter is genuine. Thus, Kierkegaard holds that in order to love genuinely, we need to love in the neighborly way. Essentially, this means that we need to shape our preferential loves (for our romantic beloveds and close friends, for example) — which Kierkegaard does take to be legitimate — in the image and nature of neighborly love. This is a problematic thesis, however, as it is not clear how to make the exclusivity and self-attentiveness that are essential to preferential loves meet the demands of neigh-borly love for equality and self-denial. It is not my concern here to elaborate on this problem, so I shall only suggest briefly an alternative way of actualizing one's love-potential. A major threat that neighborly love is meant to address (given its goal to morally purify natural and spontaneous — i.e., preferential — loves) is that of selfishness. As preferential forms of love are motivated not only by a desire to address the needs of the beloved but also by a desire to address the needs of the lover, the risk that the latter motivation will blur the former is tangible. Hence Kierkegaard's demand for self-denial; however, love that is based on self-denial alone (as Kierkegaard indeed insists should be the case) cannot pay heed to self-regarding needs (mental and bodily alike). Yet without such heed being paid, it is not clear how preferential love (say, romantic love, which is essentially motivated by erotic desire) can exist at all. When it comes to shaping one's loves, then, self-denial is not enough. Thus, a different approach should be taken, and this, I suggest, should be the approach of Kierkegaardian faith. Faith, as Kierkegaard famously presents it in Fear and Trembling, is the ability to affirm one's attachment to some X (a son, a beloved, or more generally the world) while uncompromisingly renouncing X, accepting that X escapes one's secure hold. Thus, renunciation ("infinite resignation," as Kierkegaard calls it) precludes "ownership": renouncing X, one cannot consider oneself as having any rights over X. Accordingly, renunciation of X necessarily precludes a conception of X as a means to satisfying one's needs (i.e., selfishness), since the latter assumes (even if only implicitly) some degree of ownership of X. In this sense renunciation is akin to self-denial. But faith goes further than self-denial, and having renounced X, it "returns" to X, allowing for a renewed attachment to it. Such an attachment to X is purified from selfishness (through renunciation) but also takes unreserved joy in it — joy that necessarily involves self-affirmation. Hence the double movement of faith permits a realization of love such that the needs of the lover are met, but without compromising the demands of self-denial.

Returning now to the main point of our discussion, Kierkegaard is asking us, then, to take as a given that love is a divine force placed within us, one that drives us toward what we experience as the "life of love." According to my interpretation, this "force" is crucially embedded within us only as a potential, which can be actualized or not, and, if the former, can be actualized in various forms and to different degrees. Let us now go a step further. Underlying Kierkegaard's project is the assumption that it is desirable to actualize our love-potential by performing works of love. It seems that for Kierkegaard, there is a strong connection between loving well and living well. Or, to put it differently, the failure to love properly results, in his view, in an unhappy life. We will shortly see how this proves to be true in Tolstoy's novella, but first we need to ask: why does Kierkegaard find it desirable for us to carry out works of love?

One possible way to answer this question is by an appeal to the Aristotelian theory of happiness. According to this theory, as presented in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, the realization of one's nature, which amounts to a full actualization of one's essential potentialities, is a condition for the good life. If we agree with this basic outline of the Aristotelian conception of what constitutes the good life, then we can easily see why Kierkegaard, given our interpretation of the spring/lake metaphor, considers the undertaking of the work of love to be a desirable project. As sketched above, my claim is that the Kierkegaardian distinction between love and its works can be understood as referring to a distinction between the potential for loving (which is essential to our nature as God's created) and the actualization of this potential (through the works of love). Against the background of the Aristotelian theory, we can see why carrying out the work of love — which, after all, amounts to an actualization of our nature — is crucial for our happiness.

However, we must not disregard the significant fact that the potential that Kierkegaard focuses on is the love-potential. Namely, it is meaningful that the human capacity in need of realization is not just one human capacity among others but specifically the capacity for loving. What is so unique about loving? As we already said, this is the major characteristic of God, so that having this capacity is part of being created in God's image. Accordingly, we may claim that a realization of the capacity for loving — more than a realization of any other human capacity — is what brings us closest to God. In this sense, to love is not only to fulfill one's nature but also to enter into a relationship with God. Being in such a relationship is, from Kierkegaard's point of view, a necessary condition for a good, satisfying, joyful life. Thus, if to love is to fulfill a relationship with God, and fulfilling a relationship with God is what makes one's life satisfying and meaningful, we see yet again the vital connection between loving and living well, between loving and happiness.

Therefore, in terms of both structure (the realization of one's potentialities as a condition for the good life) and content (the realization of one's potential for loving in particular as a condition for the good life), we see why according to Kierkegaard loving is essential for a worthy life — or, to use his words again, why not loving amounts to "not really living." Having these thoughts in mind, it is now time to turn to Tolstoy's novella, to see how these Kierkegaardian insights regarding the essentiality of loving for the desirable kind of living throw light on the life, and death, of Ivan Ilyich.

The Love of Ivan Ilyich

Tolstoy's novella "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," which was published in 1886, is considered one of the heights of his writing. The novella tells the story of its protagonist's dying, and by this it tells the gloomy tale of a life that was "ordinary and dreadful in the extreme," the wasted life of someone who could easily be one of our acquaintances (not to mention one of us). At the same time, the novella ends quite enigmatically: having gone through a physical and mental ordeal, and having reached painful conclusions about the emptiness and worthlessness of his life, Ivan Ilyich dies in a state of joy. How could this be? To answer this question, let us take a closer look at the novella and begin by asking: What kind of life did Ivan Ilyich lead?


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Table of Contents

Abbreviations for Books by Kierkegaard

Part One: Faith and Love
1. Love as the End of Human Existence / Sharon Krishek
2. Love Is the Highest Good / Michael Strawser
3. Erotic Wisdom: On God, Passion, Faith, and Falling in Love / Pia Søltoft
4. The Integration of Neighbor-Love and Special Loves in Kierkegaard and von Hildebrand / John J. Davenport
5. Kierkegaard, Weil, and Agapic Moral Fideism / Mark A. Tietjen

Part Two: Moral Psychology and Ethical Existence
6. Kierkegaard’s Virtues? Humility and Gratitude as the Grounds of Contentment, Patience, and Hope in Kierkegaard’s Moral Psychology / John Lippitt
7. The Heart of Knowledge: Kierkegaard on Passion and Understanding / Rick Anthony Furtak
8. From Hegel to Google: Kierkegaard and the Perils of "the System" / Christopher B. Barnett
9. An Ethics for Adults? Kierkegaard and the Ambiguity of Exaltation / Stephen Minister

Part Three: Existence Before God
10. Difficult Faith and Living Well / Edward F. Mooney
11. Kierkegaard and the Early Church on Christian Knowledge and Its Existential Implications / M.G. Piety
12. Thunderstruck: Divine Irony in Kierkegaard’s Job / Grant Julin
13. Kierkegaard and Pentecostal Philosophy / J. Aaron Simmons


What People are Saying About This

translator of Kierkegaard's Discourses at the Communion on Fridays - Sylvia Walsh

Invites the reader to think anew about what Kierkegaard was saying and what we can learn from him in the context of our time, particularly what it means to become a Christian in terms of the moral task of love and living a life worthy of a human being.

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