In 1847 the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard published his “Christian reflections” on “the works of love.” I have come to believe that Kierkegaard has been largely misunderstood, misrepresented, and therefore ignored by many Christians, to their own detriment. So for these reasons, and due to my own interest in what he has to teach about the “works of love,” I will be presenting a series of meditations as I read through this book.Kierkegaard prefaced his “Works of Love” with a few short statements. The first thing he did was to call attention to the genre of the book as “reflections.” In his career Kierkegaard wrote using several distinctly differing styles and for different purposes. For this reason some of the works he wrote were even pseudonymous with such as Johannes de Silentio, Constantin Constantius, Hilarius Bookbinder, and Anti-Climacus. The “Works of Love” were published under his real name. So what did he mean by the designation “reflections”? In a journal entry of the same year that “Works of Love” was published he wrote that “reflections,” in contrast to “an edifying discourse,”
“…awaken and provoke men and sharpen thought. The time of reflections is indeed prior to action, and their purpose therefore is to rightly set all the elements into motion…An edifying discourse about love presupposes that men know essentially what love is and seeks to win them to it, to move them. But this is in fact not the case. Therefore the “reflections” must first fetch them up out of the cellar, call to them, turn their comfortable way of thinking topsy-turvy with the dialectic of truth.” (Translator’s Introduction, p. xx) (I have edited this passage by omitting some middle material.)
Are we ready to get carried “out of the cellar” by Kierkegaard’s “dialectic of truth?” It sounds dangerous doesn’t it! (The reader need not worry at this point concerning “dialectic of truth” as you will not need to even know what that means.) I only hope I can narrate and present Kierkegaard’s words accurately enough so that his blessed “dialectic” works on us notwithstanding our lack of philosophical knowledge! (This is supposedly one of Kierkegaard’s most accessible works, which is why I am reading it).
The next thing Kierkegaard says in the preface is that the work is meant to be “understood slowly,” and advises the reader not to be “hasty and curious.” Perhaps this purpose of method will translate fairly well into a series of blog posts!
He then addresses the ideal reader of the work as “That single individual” as one who will “ponder lovingly” and “thoughtfully.” The use of “single individual’ is of extreme importance for understanding Kierkegaard’s place in philosophical and religious thought, and also for our personal response to the “Works of Love”. To more fully explain this would be beyond the scope of these posts, so hopefully the interested reader may profit somewhat from the following short statement of Kierkegaard:
“The individual is the category through which, from a religious point or view, our age, our race and its history must pass…as though I, were an unimportant servant who, if possible, was to help the masses trying to go through the narrow pass, ‘the individual,’ through which, be it noted no one can ever go without first becoming ‘the individual.'” (Notes, p. 356) (Edited, as mentioned above.)
C. Stephen Evans explains that,
“Almost from the beginning of his authorship Kierkegaard had waged a battle against what he called ‘Christendom.’ Christendom, epitomized in the state church of Denmark, represented establishment Christianity. In Christendom we are all Christians, but our Christianity comes cheaply and means nothing. If you are born in a Christian country and you aren’t Jewish, then you must be a Christian. To be a distinguished Christian is simply to be a distinguished citizen, to live a decent, tasteful life, but one that is in no way distinctive. For Kierkegaard, the error of Christendom was the most dangerous error of all with respect to true Christianity. As long as people are lulled into thinking they are already Christians by being born into Christendom, they are prevented from becoming true Christians.” (Soren Kierkegaard’s Christian Psychology, p. 17)
In his preface Kierkegaard then moved to a comment reiterating that the book contained “Christian reflections; therefore they are not about love but about the works of love.” He then concluded the short preface with the following qualification:
“These are reflections on the works of love – not as if hereby all love’s works were mentioned and described – far from it, not even as if a single one described were described once for all – God be praised, far from it! That which in its vast abundance is essentially inexhaustible is also essentially indescribable in its smallest act, simply because essentially it is everywhere wholly present and essentially cannot be described.” Autumn 1847 S.K.
All references to “Works of Love” are to the Harper Perennial Edition shown above.
Please feel free to comment, ask questions, etc. Maybe we can help each other to get “out of the cellar!”
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