Two ways of being lost: Kierkegaard on anxiety and religion

What, if anything, do Kierkegaard’s reflections on anxiety have to teach us about the religious impulse? If you read many common interpretations of his book The Concept of Anxiety, the answer you could easily come away with is: nothing, unless you’re already a devout Christian. That is, many such interpretations treat the book’s religious themes as, to put it bluntly, inside baseball for Christian theologians.

Of course, it’s undeniable that Kierkegaard is tackling matters of Christian theology in the book. Its aim, as stated in its subtitle, is to undertake ‘a simple psychologically orienting deliberation on the dogmatic issue of hereditary sin.’ In other words, it’s a treatise on the proper Christian interpretation of the story of the Fall–the first sin of Adam and Eve, as recounted in chapter 3 of Genesis. Thus, all of the book’s ‘psychologically orienting’ reflections on anxiety–insightful as they might be independently of this context–are, for Kierkegaard, just means to this end.

If this weren’t inside baseball enough, Kierkegaard tries, in the course of the book, to correct the errors in rival interpretations of the Fall: for example, those of philosophers or theologians like Augustine, Hegel, and various obscure 19th century Danish Hegelians. The dizzying array of references to such thinkers–especially early in the book–represents, in fact, one of the major roadblocks for many readers approaching the book for the first time.

One common way to interpret the text, then–for those, that is, who don’t have any particular interest in such inside baseball–is to detach means from ends: in other words, to present Kierkegaard’s reflections on anxiety as much as possible independently from the theological thickets in which he embeds them. This way of appropriating Kierkegaard was championed, for example, by Jean-Paul Sartre, a consummate atheist who adopted many of Kierkegaard’s ideas–including from The Concept of Anxiety–while essentially stripping them of the religious significance he accorded them.

I think there’s a middle path here. To be sure, The Concept of Anxiety is about the Fall and original sin. However, through his consideration of these topics, Kierkegaard proposes a unique conception of what Christianity is. To understand just how unusual this conception is, we must grasp how he envisions the fundamental problem to which Christianity offers the solution. As with many traditional views, the basic human problem–and, the basic religious problem–is, for him, that we are lost. However, it’s hard to overstate just how dramatically different Kierkegaard’s understanding of our lostness is from those found in the main currents of Christian theology. In breaking from them, he ends up, I think, with a fascinating picture of the religious dimension of human life.

The key here lies in Kierkegaard’s beef with Augustine. On the Augustinian picture, through committing the first sin, Adam and Eve corrupted the perfect, immortal nature with which God endowed them. As a result, they passed down to us–i.e. all of their descendants–this corrupted nature, so that, when left to our own devices, we’re incapable of anything other than sin.

Now, the solution offered by Christianity is the grace of God: that gift through which we are ‘justified’–i.e. cleansed of our sins through the blood of Christ, and deemed righteous by God. However, what is the problem to which this is supposed to be the solution?

As I said above, it’s that we are in a certain sense lost in the world. But for Augustine, the sense in which we are lost is that we are moral garbage. That is, the sense in which we are lost has to do with the fact that Adam and Eve lost certain aspects of the nature with which God created them–viz, those that allowed that allowed them to be anything but completely wicked.

This interpretation of our lostness has decisively shaped Christianity ever since Augustine. First of all, it has tended to make Christians think that the religious life trades in certainties. First and foremost, there is the certainty that we are sinners, which has often endowed Christianity with a certain morbid self-preoccupation: the self-flagellating obsession with one’s own moral dirtiness, an inner filth. In part because of the groundwork Augustine laid, this morbid self-preoccupation has used the body or the flesh as the primary metaphor for this inner filth–not to mention fixated on sexual matters in doing so. At the extreme, the fruit of this Augustinian legacy is the guilty, self-hating Christian who copulates, masturbates, and indulges in other vices in the shadows, the pleasure of transgression mingling with, and often indistinguishable from, poignant pangs of self-loathing–in short, some the very tendencies of extant Christianity that often inspires people to run away in horror toward the secularist rejection of all things religious.

But beyond this, the Augustinian certainty that we are moral garbage has tended to then breed a certain conception of what kind of solution Christianity offers to this predicament: namely, an escape from this condition. This solution has taken various forms in the history of Christianity, through its various doctrines of justification. For some, justification is at least partly accomplished through liturgical means: e.g. participation in sacraments like baptism. For others, all of this is irrelevant, and justification accomplished through faith, understood as a kind of surrogate certainty. In other words, the corrective to our own sinfulness, which constantly leads us to mistake the bad for the good, is a faith that re-orients us to the genuinely good, allowing us to overcome our own in-built sinfulness.

However justification is conceived, in the Augustinian tradition it’s the solution to lostness as Augustine conceived it. In the words of “Amazing Grace,” “I once was lost, and now I’m found.” In other words, the sense in which we are lost, for Augustine, is that God has lost us–because of Adam and Eve’s sin, we have always already strayed away from him into wickedness. And through the grace by means of which God justifies us, he finds us: he brings us back into the kind of communion with him that makes it possible for us to escape the moral filth into which Adam and Eve sent us.

Kierkegaard, though, thinks Augustine’s picture of our lostness is altogether too optimistic. That is, Augustine’s starting point is a certain kind of moral certainty. True, it’s the moral certainty that we’re moral garbage, but it’s certainty nonetheless. For Kierkegaard, in contrast, we are lost in a much deeper sense than this–one that concerns the lack of fit between two inescapable aspects of human life.

The first aspect is that we are creatures of what he calls spirit. A person, that is, is a being whose activities are all aspects of a single project–the project of satisfying a single demand: the demand to answer the question of who to be. We respond to this demand in various ways. Every time I form a belief, I’m doing so in one way: by taking a stand on what is true, I take a stand on what beliefs about the world to have. Every time I make a decision or carry one out, I respond to the demand in a different way: by taking a stand on what to do, I take a stand on what intentions to have toward the world. In any emotional attitude I take up toward the world, I respond to the demand in yet another way: by taking a stand on what matters and on how it matters, I take a stand on how to feel. In each of these ways, we answer the question of who to be on our own behalf.

To live a human life is to be caught up in this one, all-encompassing project. It’s all-encompassing in the sense that all of our encounters with the world constitute the engine for our labors in pursuit of it. That is, we experience the world and it impacts on us, and our responses to these encounters are our various answers to the question of who to be: our beliefs, choices, actions, and feelings. However, the project is also all-encompassing in the sense that it’s unavoidable. First, of all, it’s a project that in the strongest sense can’t be completed. At every moment, the question of who to be is in place for us, and will be so as long as we exist. Of course, someday the project will end. However, an end is not, by itself, a completion. Most other projects at the very least have completion conditions. For example, though it might be beyond any of us, the project of curing cancer is one that could be complete in the sense that there’s something it would be to cure cancer: i.e. there are conditions such that if we were to satisfy them, we would thereby have cured cancer. Not so with the project of figuring out who to be. It’s a project that has no completion conditions: we just keep on answering the question of who to be, and at some point we simply stop–usually, when we die. At the same time, there’s no such thing as being relieved of this project. I can set myself to the project of writing a novel, and then simply abandon it and go on with my life. But there is no going on with my life without figuring out who to be–what to believe, what to do, how to feel. Perhaps if I were to fall into a deep coma, I could be said to have stopped doing so, but that wouldn’t be a case of ‘going on with my life’ so much as continuing to simply be alive in the biological sense while at the same time deprived of living in the sense we usually mean it.

Now, from one angle, the all-encompassing character of the project of figuring out who to be is what endows all of our affairs with a certain special, even wonderful character, making us into beings who are self-determining in a particular sense: beings with freedom, as Kierkegaard put it. That is, the answers we give to the question of who to be have, as it were, a kind of creative power: they make us who we are. By answering the question of what’s true, I make myself into someone who has certain beliefs; by answering the question of what to do, I make myself into someone who has certain intentions; and by answering the question of what matters and how it matters, I make myself into someone who feels certain ways.

However, not only are we creatures of spirit in the above sense, caught up without any relief in this incompletable project of figuring out who to be, but in our pursuit of this project, we are also in a certain sense rudderless. That is, we are, Kierkegaard thinks, at a loss to achieve the kind of complete certainty that would allow us to rest easy with any of the answers we give to the question of who to be. If we are awake to our epistemic situation we will realize that we must treat any of our beliefs, intentions, or feelings as tentative–subject to revision in the face of considerations we haven’t yet countenanced, or that we don’t even currently have the conceptual resources to understand.

This might make it sound as if Kierkegaard is a kind of normative skeptic: that no reason for believing, choosing, or feeling in a particular way could ever be completely decisive. And, indeed, Kierkegaard has often been thought of as this sort of radical skeptic. However, this is a mistake. Rather, what he proposes is a striking form of epistemic humility–one implied by our nature as creatures of spirit in the above sense. That is, no matter how decisive we think our reasons are for answering the question of who to be in a particular way, as soon as we answer the question in that way on the basis of those reasons, immediately the question re-asserts itself, carrying with it the burden of evaluating those reasons we’ve taken to be decisive. Suppose, for example, that I take certain reasons bearing on the question of whether to do A to be decisive. Because of this, I answer the question in the affirmative, thereby deciding to do A, and making myself into a being who intends to do A. As soon as I do so, immediately, the question of whether to do A re-asserts itself–effectively, as the question of whether to carry out my intention to do A. To face up to this question resolutely, I must have leave myself open to the possibility of reasons that count against doing A that I haven’t considered–in other words, to the possibility of re-evaluating my decision. In one sense, I’ve settled the question, of course. However, I can’t treat it as settled once and for all. To do so would be to fail to recognize my own epistemic situation: the fact that the question of whether to do A, and thus the demand to evaluate reasons counting for and against doing A, is still in place.

Kierkegaard calls the relevant awareness of our epistemic situation anxiety. To use his famous image, anxiety is like facing a yawning abyss. The experience is dizzying, a mixture of exhilaration and horror–what he calls ‘sympathy’ and ‘antipathy’. The exhilaration comes from the radical openness that this experience entails: the fact that, no matter how I’ve answered the question of who to be–no matter which possible answer I’ve embraced–all the other possible answers are still there before me, available for me to opt for them upon re-assessment. But this exhilaration is at the same time mixed with horror: no answer I give to the question of who to be relieves me in any respect of the demand to answer it, and thus to evaluate possible answers. If, to take another example, I answer the question of whether P is true in the affirmative, thereby coming to believe that P, as soon as I do, the question of whether P is true re-asserts itself, carrying with it the question of whether the reasons I took to be decisive really are.

In other words, not only is the project of figuring out who to be incompletable and inescapable: more than this, I can never even be said to have made any progress in the project. There isn’t the tiniest bit of relief: no question I can take to be resolved once and for all. I am lost in the sense that I cannot, without a distorted view of my own epistemic situation, think of my answers to the question of who to be as fixed Archimedean by means of which I can orient myself in my life. To use Heidegger’s apt image for this situation: I am falling–forever falling through empty space, without any unrevisable answers to which I can cling to for support.

For Kierkegaard, this is the problem to which Christianity offers the solution. This is the fundamental religious problem of human life. It isn’t that we are inescapably wicked, festering bits of moral filth. Rather, we are in a certain sense in a far worse situation. The very thing that makes us creatures of spirit (self-determining beings whose answers to the question of who to be determine what they are) also saddles us with a project–the project of living a life, of which all of our other projects are just aspects–that we cannot complete, escape, or even make progress in.

Of course, Kierkegaard’s vision of the solution to this problem, this fundamental human predicament, is a Christian one. It is, in particular, a solution in which we aren’t relieved of the human predicament, but in which, through the grace of God, we find a way of facing up to this predicament wisely. Before we can understand and assess that solution, though, we have to recognize the nature of the problem: Kierkegaard’s unique vision of what’s really behind the religious impulse in the first place.

2 thoughts on “Two ways of being lost: Kierkegaard on anxiety and religion

  1. Joe

    I enjoyed reading this, Mandel. Couple things: (1) From what I gather, it seems that Augustine’s view is different from Kierkegaard’s. However, is it incompatible? I read this last night and it struck me that perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch to see both A and K as having somewhat compatible lines of thought more or less. Where I see the possibility of an incompatibility creeping in is Augustine emphasis on the moral degeneracy of human beings after the fall, but even there we might take ‘morality’ in a certain way still avoids incompatibility. (I’m not by any means knowledgeable enough on Augustine to comment more specifically, but I’m thinking of his view on the being/non-being and goodness/evil as convertible (more or less). (2) Regarding the moral certainty: I think that’s a very insightful point you make, but I’m wondering if that sort of certainty is a problem or a point of genuine departure. Would Kierkegaard also claim that the incompletion/incompletability/unanswerability of the issue of who to be is certain? What I’m getting at is that the moral certainty in the Augustinian case seems to be negative, for being morally certain that I am a moral degenerate is being morally certain that I am *not* perfect. If this is right, is even this something that Kierkegaard finds to be problematic? (3) I didn’t quite get how, at the end, Kierkegaard’s solution is actually a solution. Did you mean that it’s a solution not in the sense of an *answer* to the question of who to be that plagues all of humanity since the fall, but more in the sense of a way to deal with that question? So, to put it metaphorically, it’s not a cure for the illness, but a treatment plan that will help you live with the illness, as it were.

    In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed this. Wish we could meet up and talk more. Please don’t feel in any way obligated to respond to my questions. (I mean that). I hope you and Sunny are well. Miss you both.


    1. Mandel Cabrera

      Joe, thanks so much for this. Sorry it took some time to respond: I was a bit exhausted after a long teaching/work week.

      I’d like to think more about your idea. I, too, don’t know Augustine well enough to be very confident of any response on his behalf.

      Frankly, I was thinking more about a certain Augustinian strain in Christianity that puts a lot of emphasis on our moral degeneracy, and which is too quick to think that what grace provides us is either a kind of moral certainty, or a kind of substitute for moral certainty in *faith*. Kierkegaard, of course, puts a lot of stock in faith. However, it seems to me that Christians sometimes think of faith on the model of certainty, so to speak: as if to have faith is simply (perhaps out of a kind of trust in God) to treat God’s commands as absolutely certain, but in the absence of good reasons for treating them so. I don’t think Kierkegaard is into this notion of faith. Kierkegaardian faith doesn’t put aside or ignore the burden of finding good reasons for our beliefs, actions, and emotions. To do so would simply be dogmatism, and it fails to acknowledge the limits on our rational capacities. When we do so, we lapse into what Kierkegaard calls the ‘aesthetic sphere’: we become creatures of mere impulse, living shallow lives because we fail to acknowledge that the burden of finding reasons is real, that we can’t ignore it.

      I’m not sure that Kierkegaard would say that we can be certain of our own uncertainty, in part because I’m not sure “uncertainty” is the right term here. This would make it sound as if Kierkegaard is a kind of radical epistemic skeptic about normative issues: that what he’s claiming is that we can never be certain that any reasons we see for believing, acting, or feeling in some particular way are decisive. As I said to Maria in response to her comment on Facebook, I don’t think this is quite right. Rather, I see Kierkegaard as proposing a perfectionist ideal in something like Stanley Cavell’s sense: that even when we have what we take to be decisive reasons for our intentions, beliefs, and feelings, we must nevertheless treat those reasons as subject to re-evaluation, as in principle defeasible. This was what was behind my talk of ‘treating the question as still in place’. Somehow, I think that ‘uncertainty’ is not really the right term, but that what’s being proposed is better understood as a kind of epistemic humility. However, I’m not sure I can clearly distinguish this from the radical skepticism about normative issues.

      I’d love to talk more, and, more importantly, to just catch up! It would be fun to have an online video chat sometime. Yonsei is using Zoom, so I could set up a Zoom meeting, or we could try something over Skype or another platform. Let me know if/when you have time! I hope you’re doing well. You guys still come up regularly in conversation – both with Sunny, and with the UIC folks; everyone misses you!


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