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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On so-called Spinozian resignation: the case against Spinoza

Among Spinoza’s many notorious views is his necessitarianism: the view that everything that happens happens necessarily. Clearly, the view flies in the face of how we usually think. The coin comes up heads, we’re late for that appointment, we brake just in time to avoid the speeding car, and we think things might have gone some other way: it might have come up heads, we might have made the bus, we could easily have been t-boned and killed. Not so, though, Spinoza argues: nothing whatsoever could have been otherwise than it is.

Of course, most will reject this idea out of hand. And, the reasons for doing so are likely to run deeper than any commitment to abstract metaphysical doctrines, or even to simple common sense. The notion that all things that are are necessarily so doesn’t merely contradict many of our common beliefs. More than this, it can seem downright horrific. That is, a world in which all things are necessary can easily seem like one in which we’re utterly helpless, unable to make a difference: simply buffeted around by forces that are utterly indifferent to our efforts.

At this point, though, Spinoza will object. To put his point in anachronistic terms, such reflexive horror presupposes a libertarian view of freedom. As this term is used in contemporary philosophical parlance, it has nothing to do with its more common political meaning. Rather, it refers to the notion that in order for me to have done something freely, it must have been possible for me to do otherwise. And, Spinoza thinks this view of freedom is wrong. So to speak, our agency consists, not in doing what might have been otherwise, but rather in the necessities of Nature bringing something about through us—in his terms, in such a way as to be explained more through our own essence than through the essences of other things. Thus, a necessitarian world isn’t one in which we’re helpless at all.

However, all of this can easily strike one as mere intellectual parlor games. Very few philosophers —let alone laypersons—these days are likely to take necessitarianism seriously. Thus, while Spinoza’s criticisms of libertarian views of freedom might be of interest to some philosophers—since, that is, whether freedom is libertarian is a live issue in contemporary philosophy—the view in defense of which Spinoza raises them might seem like a mere historical curiosity.

I would like to shift focus, though, to a different element of Spinoza’s views on these matters—one that can to some extent be prised apart both from his views about freedom, and from his necessitarianism itself. That is, Spinoza doesn’t merely argue that horror at a necessitarian world is grounded in mistaken presuppositions about freedom. More than this, as he so often does, he considers what many of us would find to be nightmarish, and argues that, when properly understood, it is, quite the contrary, the source of the profoundest joys.

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Wonder as flicker and as mood

Consider two common ways we talk about wondering. On the one hand, there’s wondering whether, when, what, who, why, or how. In such wondering, we confront the world as a question: the unknown strikes us, and we linger before it, as if approaching what remains undisclosed. On the other hand, there’s wondering at: the experience of standing in astonishment.

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Fragility Itself: Henri Michaux’s Meidosems

As suggested by the title of the book into which the 20th century French poet and artist Henri Michaux incorporated his account of them, the strange race of beings he called the Meidosems exist in the folds. That is, folds are where the world collapses upon itself, bringing together what is otherwise apart; and withdraws from sight into the hidden-away. Likewise, unconnected multiplicities are what gather to become Meidosems. A Meidosem can be composed of any assortment of objects, undetached fragments, or even edges and surfaces—the limits of things. Some among a mass of bubbles; a tangle of vines twined about a tree, together with the veins of sap within; a nest of wires shuddering with electricity; even a scribble of lines cut through pure space—all of these can be Meidosems. Aristotle would have called them ‘mere heaps’.

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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?

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