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.

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Unchristlike Christianity

One traditional distinction in philosophical and theological reflection about love is that between eros and agape. At the most basic level, this distinction has been framed in terms of the relation between the value we see in the things and persons we love on the one hand, and the love we have for them on the other. In eros, we love the beloved because of some value we see in them: their beauty, their goodness, or their virtue, for example. In agape, in contrast, the order of explanation is reversed: we see value in the beloved because we love them.

Of course, in the sources of these two conceptions of love—respectively, the works of Plato and the Bible—each is developed so as to involve more than what’s contained in these characterizations.

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Why the supernatural?

One common idea about religion is that religious worldviews are ones in which we endorse the existence of the supernatural—phenomena capable of affecting the world around us to alter the course of natural events: for example, divinities, spirits, or apersonal animistic forces. What, though, is the supernatural?

The concept of the supernatural involves more than just a distinction between this world—the one all around us—and another. By that we could mean any number of things, and some of them clearly aren’t contenders. In making such a distinction, we could mean something as innocuous as the difference between Earth and Mars. Or “world” can signify a network of concerns and endeavors—the business world, for example, or the art world, the world of the student or farmer. But clearly, one need not endorse the existence of the supernatural in order to believe in other worlds in these senses, and think that they sometimes impinge upon ours.

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Spinoza and Humility before God

Humility tends to draw suspicious looks. If all it comes to is avoiding arrogance, then of course we’ll cheer it on. But anything more, and something unsavory can seem afoot. The humble concede, submit, and obey. We’re humble, yes, when absolutely necessary—to dot our moral i’s and cross our political t’s. But those who talk about making humility a fundamental life aspiration can seem as if they’ve gone too far: as if what they aspire to is groveling, and thus are on a path to self-destruction, resignation, or worse, to the betrayal of others out of slavish fear. Indeed, so much of our history has been spent trying to extract ourselves from under various boots that the aspiration to humility can thus seem positively reactionary: as if those who have it long for the ‘good old days’ when we were content to be trampled by oppressive power.

Such skepticism about humility as a positive value tends to make for a humility that’s reluctant. If an excess of humility walks us over a cliff, we must, then, only be humble with care, not letting our humility interfere with furthering our own interests, or standing in brave solidarity with others. Is the skeptic right, though? Is humility a dangerous proposition?


Why isn’t God a stupid weakling?

The notion of a personal God has made it possible to envision the human relation to God as one of love. This is one of the notion’s most important roles in traditional religion—not merely in abstract theology, but in the lived experience of a great many religious people. The notion that they enjoy a love relationship with God serves as both hermeneutic aid and source of solace for them. That is, through it, they can imagine their relation to God in terms taken from their lives with other people. And, in conceiving of that relation as the central pillar around which the rest of their life turns, they can extend these terms to aid them in understanding the fundamental stakes of that life. They see every bit of it in terms of things like devotion, obligation, trust, caretaking, faithfulness, and the like. In doing so, they find of the kind of solace they find in their love relationships with other people—except that, because of God’s place as the greatest among all persons and all love objects, it strikes them as being of incomparably greater significance: at its best, the fullness of a life led in all its respects as an expression of love.