Saturday, September 30, 2006

Works of Love (Part 4): The Paradox of Forgiveness

By forgiveness, love hides a multitude of sins... This is a wonderful thought, therefore also faith's thought, because faith always relates itself to what is not seen. I believe that what is seen has come into existence from what is not seen; I see the world, but what is not seen I do not see; that I believe. Similarly, in forgiveness there is also a relation of faith of which we are rarely aware. What, then, is the unseen here? The unseen is that forgiveness takes away that which does indeed exist... The one who loves sees the sin he forgives, but he believes that forgiveness takes it away. This cannot be seen, whereas the sin can indeed be seen; on the other hand, if the sin did not exist to be seen, it could not be forgiven either. Just as one by faith believes the unseen into what is seen, so the one who loves by forgiveness believes away what is seen. Both are faith. Blessed is the believer, he believes what he cannot see; blessed is the one who loves, he believes away that which he indeed can see! -- S. Kierkegaard, Works of Love (294-5)

In this passage, Kierkegaard tells us that the act of forgiveness is a paradox in which the sin of our neighbor is both seen and not seen. And as with all other paradoxes, forgiveness requires the passion of faith - the faith to believe that what exists does not exist. Only in this way can love hide a multitude of sins.

Interestingly, Kierkegaard draws a subtle contrast between divine and human forgiveness. God's forgiveness is divine forgetting: "Forgetting, when God does it in relation to sin, is the opposite of creating, since to create is to bring forth from nothing, and to forget is to take back into nothing." Humans do not have this power to "uncreate" sin. But Kierkegaard recommends that we do the next best thing: following Isaiah 38:17, we should place the offending sins "behind our back":
"What is hidden from my eyes, that I have never seen; but what is hidden behind my back, that I have seen. The one who loves forgives in this way: he forgives, he forgets, he blots out the sin. In love he turns towards the one he forgives; but when he turns toward him, he of course cannot see what is lying behind his back." (296)

By placing the sin behind his back, the forgiver removes the obstacle that had come between him and the offender, and thus he opens the way for reconciliation. True forgiveness requires that we not see the sin when we look at the forgiven sinner. Of course, this is easier said than done. Too often, our forgiveness only goes half way. We say "you're forgiven" but, in reality, we continue to nurse our grievances. We may even remind the forgiven of their past sins in order to shame or manipulate them. In short, we refuse to put the sin behind our backs, and Kierkegaard points out that this refusal to forgive completely is also sin:
"Does not the one who unlovingly denies forgiveness increase the multitude of sins?... He enlarges the sin, makes it seem greater. Forgiveness deprives the sin of life, but to deny forgiveness provides the sin with sustenance." (297)

The unforgiving person multiplies the multitude of sins. Only forgiveness liberates both the sinner and the offended one from the bondage of sin.

Friday, September 29, 2006

The Shame of America

As the bumper-sticker says, "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention." The latest case-in-point is the detainee bill passed yesterday by Congress. Not only does this bill grant the government significant leeway in torturing terrorism suspects, it also strips these suspects of such time-honored rights as habeas corpus, even if they happen to be American citizens. To add insult to injury, the House also passed a bill that permits warrentless wiretapping by government agencies. All in the name of keeping the homeland "safe".

Are we still the land of the free and home of the brave? Are we still a nation that values freedom over security? Or have we allowed a tiny bunch of terrorists to turn us into a fearful and cowardly people? Under the guise of fighting terrorism, our rights are slowly being handed over to an Administration that refuses to acknowledge any limits to its power. The fact that this travesty is being perpetuated with the consent of Congress - an institution that should stand for democracy and the separation of powers - is even more appalling.

For more details, I refer you to Lee at verbum ipsum and D.W. Congdon at The Fire and the Rose (and for an extra dose of outrage, check out this article from

Especially with regards to the issue of torture, the church in American can no longer equivocate or remain silent. To quote from D.W.'s excellent post, the time has come for Christians to take a stand against this Administration:
We have a moral duty to oppose what is happening in our country today. To sit back and allow such things to take place is to support them. I do not have the experience or the resources to know how I can be involved, but I hope to contribute to some sort of protest through posts like this one. Finally, as the church that confesses Jesus to be the only Lord and Savior, we must deny the claim of the president to be the sovereign of this land. We must deny his claim to power, and affirm Christ a’s sole authority. We must deny the kingdom of this world that says “"might is right"” and "U.S. freedom is worth preserving at any cost",” and we must instead affirm the Kingdom of God, which nullifies all other kingdoms. As the church, we confess that God alone lays claim to our lives, because it is in God alone that we find new life. As the church of life, we thus are called to stand against the empires of death. This is our calling. May we walk in steadfast obedience as we seek the glory of God.

My hope is that the courts will put an end to this madness by reaffirming the rule of law, and that the Democrats will take back one or both houses of Congress in November. Failing that, I'm afraid our nation is headed for a full-blown Constitutional crisis.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Works of Love (Part 3): Proper Self-Love

Perhaps the trickiest part of the command “to love the neighbor as yourself” is that little phrase as yourself. What exactly does it mean? Should we love ourselves at all, or should we sacrifice everything for the neighbor? Who has priority – the neighbor or myself? The as yourself often appears to be a sort of paradox, since self-love and neighbor-love are so often in conflict. It seems that we can only love ourselves at the expense of loving the neighbor, or visa versa. Thus, it’s not surprising that most Christian thinkers have dealt with this paradox by eliminating it, refusing to take the “as” seriously. Luther, for instance, frequently asserted that we should love the neighbor more than ourselves, since any self-love is inherently selfish and sinful. Thomas Aquinas took the other route, arguing that “a man ought in charity to love himself more than his neighbor.” But Kierkegaard refuses to compromise: the Christian loves the neighbor as he loves himself – the two loves are not in competition. But how is this possible?

First, it important to understand that Kierkegaard draws a sharp distinction between selfish self-love and proper self-love. With regards to the former, he is as harsh and uncompromising as Luther. But he also says that “if anyone is unwilling to learn from Christianity to love himself in the right way, he cannot love the neighbor either.” Just as Kierkegaard is not interested in eliminating romantic love or friendship, but seeks to set these preferential loves on their proper foundation, he is determined to preserve proper self-love. So what does it mean to love oneself in the right way? Kierkegaard provides a clue by saying that “to love God is to love oneself truly.” God is the “middle term”, even in self-love. Indeed, Kierkegaard’s statement that “the love relationship requires threeness: the lover, the beloved, and the love – but the love is God” holds true even when the lover and the beloved are the same person. Thus, we can only love ourselves properly when we stand before God, an experience that is both harrowing and blessed, as described in the following passage:
“If you want to be well off and yet easily manage to become something, then forget God, never let yourself really become aware, never let it become really clear to you that it is he who has created you from nothing; proceed on the presupposition that a human being does not have time to waste on keeping in mind the one to whom he infinitely and unconditionally owes everything… So forget it and be noisy along with the crowd, laugh or cry, be busy from morning until night… Above all, be an earnest person by having forgotten the one and only earnestness, to relate yourself to God, to become nothing. Oh, but then keep in mind that this annihilation before God is so blessed that you at every moment would seek to return to this annihilation more intensely, more warmly, more fervently… The world cannot take everything, simply because it cannot give everything. That can be done only by God, who takes everything, everything, everything – in order to give everything.”

This is self-love before God! Here we understand that our very existence is a gift from the loving God, who gives us everything. Here we learn that we do not belong to ourselves; instead, we belong first to God our Creator and secondly to the neighbor, a fellow child of God, whom we are called upon to serve. Here we finally see that “whoever loses his live shall save it.” To love God is to know that one is loved by God, and thus to love oneself.

Early in Works of Love, Kierkegaard remarks that the commandment to love the neighbor as yourself, “as with a pick, wrenches open the lock of self-love and wrests it away from the person.” Notice that self-love is not eliminated, but it is radically de-centered. In faith we live outside ourselves, both in God and in the neighbor, and learn to love ourselves anew.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

By Their Fruit You Will Recognize Them

Based on several news reports (see here, here, and here), it appears that the Muslim world is doing a bang-up job of proving the Pope right. The level of hypocrisy on display is simply unbelievable:

A senior Vatican official stopped short of issuing an apology but said Pope Benedict XVI "deeply regretted" offending Muslims with his inflammatory comments about Islam last week. Not good enough, say Muslim leaders.

The pope's suggestion that compulsion and violence are inherent features of Islam has outraged the Muslim world. In Afghanistan, where apostates are subject to execution, the parliament and the Foreign Ministry demanded an apology. In Yemen, where religious conversion is punishable by death, the president has threatened to sever diplomatic ties. In the West Bank, Palestinians attacked four churches with guns and firebombs. And a Somali cleric added his two cents: "Whoever offends our Prophet Muhammad should be killed on the spot by the nearest Muslim." (from's summary of what's in major papers)

Unfortunately, it appears that the Pope has now issued a full apology. Score another point for radical Islam's on-going quest to intimidate the West. It's almost enough to make one believe the over-heated rhetoric from Republicans concerning "Islamofascism", but I'll try not to succumb to that oversimplification.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

A Few Science and Theology Links

In the interest of fairness, here's a link that defends string theory against the charges leveled by Easterbrook in the article. Rosenhouse argues the Easterbrook has mischaracterized both the objectives and methods of string theory. For instance, he says that "string theory is not an explanation for the existence of the universe. Rather, it is an attempt to explain the properties of the known subatomic particles by viewing them as the results of interactions of more fundamental objects, namely strings." He also claims that, while there's no evidence for the existence of extra dimensions, such speculation is not outrageous because three dimensions are known to exist. Thus, "physicists are hypothesizing more of the same, not anything fundamentally new." For me, this is not a convincing argument because it suggests that the number of dimensions is an arbitrary variable that can be changed at will, while physics has historically viewed it as an intrinsic property of the universe. Given the lack of experimental evidence, I see no reason why that time-tested assumption should be cast aside.

Rosenhouse goes on to say that, in contrast to dimensions, the "plane of the spirit" that Easterbrook mentions is "something that is hypothesized for no reason at all, beyond the fact that some people find it comforting to think it exists." Ah, yes, the old charge that religion only serves as an emotional crutch. Perhaps Easterbrook is not the only one guilty of "snarky" and "incoherent" characterizations of his subject matter. With respect to religious faith, Rosenhouse would do well to follow his own advice: "just confess ignorance and concede that he's not really in a position to assess the merits of the subject."

I've also been meaning to write a post on E.O. Wilson's well-intentioned, but frustrating, "letter to a Southern Baptist pastor" in The New Republic. Wilson argues that Christians and environmentalists should make common cause in protecting our fragile environment - something I agree with completely. However, Wilson exhibits such condescension towards his letter's recipient that it's hard to tell if he really wants the help of Christians after all. For one, his descriptions of religious belief are arrogant and crude in the extreme. Here's an example:
"I see no way to avoid the fundamental differences in our worldviews. You are a strict interpreter of Christian Holy Scripture; I am a secular humanist. You believe that each person's soul is immortal, making this planet a waystation to a second, eternal life; I think heaven and hell are what we create for ourselves, on this planet. For you, the belief in God made flesh to save mankind; for me, the belief in Promethean fire seized to set men free. You have found your final truth; I am still searching."

The smugness is just dripping of the page. I'm particularly struck by the last line: "You have found your final truth; I am still searching" (how brave!!). But is it true? Certainly not!! Wilson has found his final truth - it's called scientism, the belief that science represents the only legitimate way to think about the universe. Make no mistake about it, Wilson's core principles are not up for debate either, and he's just as close-minded and dogmatic as any Christian fundamentalist.

Like I said, I was going to write a full post about Wilson's letter. But Scott Carson at An Examined Life has already beat me to it. Since I couldn't hope to surpass his remarks, I'll simply provide the link and stop here.

Pope's Recent Comments on Justification

Apparently the Muslim world is shocked that Pope Benedict has a few concerns about Islam's attempts, then and now, to spread it's faith "by the sword." Having read his comments in context, I hardly see what the fuss is about. But Muslim extremists, like campus activists in the U.S., never pass-up an opportunity to be offended. So we'll probably be treated to large doses of Muslim outrage in the coming days - Mohammed cartoons redux. (Apart from the controversy, I highly recommend reading the Pope's lecture for it's own sake, as it provides a thoughtful and concise account of Catholic thinking on the relationship between faith and reason. Words that should be taken to heart by those condemning the Pope's remarks).

While the media focuses on two lines from his lecture to the Regensburg faculty, I would like to highlight something the Pope said during the same trip at the Ecumenical Celebration of Vespers. He praised the "efforts to reach a consensus on justification", and then added:

The agreement on justification remains an important task, which – in my view – is not yet fully accomplished: in theology justification is an essential theme, but in the life of the faithful today – it seems to me – it is only dimly present. Because of the dramatic events of our time, the theme of mutual forgiveness is felt with increased urgency, yet there is little perception of our fundamental need of God’s forgiveness, of our justification by him. Our modern consciousness – and in some way all of us are “modern” - is generally no longer aware of the fact that we stand as debtors before God and that sin is a reality which can be overcome only by God’s initiative. Behind this weakening of the theme of justification and of the forgiveness of sins is ultimately a weakening of our relation with God. In this sense, our first task will perhaps be to rediscover in a new way the living God present in our lives, in our time and in our society.

Given my focus of late, the Pope's comments immediately brought to mind this passage from Kierkegaard's Works of Love:

"Take away from the forgiveness of sins the battle of the anguished conscience (to which, according to Luther's excellent explanation, this whole doctrine is to lead), and then close the churches, the sooner the better, or turn them into places of amusement that stand open all day!"

Both the Pope and Kierkegaard are pointing to the fact that modern man has essentially no conception of sin, "of our fundamental need of God’s forgiveness, of our justification by him." And without the "anguished conscience", Christianity falls apart. Of course, the two men differ somewhat in how they emphasize this. Benedict seems to suggest the one can lack sin-consciousness and still live the "life of the faithful", while SK would rather "close the churches" than practice a faith without the anguished conscience (which, by the way, he had in spades). In this, they are simply reflecting their respective theological heritage. Kierkegaard, good Lutheran that he was, believes justification to be the central issue in Christianity, whereas Benedict holds a more multi-faceted view.

But there's no doubt that our churches - all of them - struggle with how to talk about human sin. To generalize, the mere mention of sin in liberal congregations is usually considered divisive and depressing, and thus omitted altogether. Conservatives, on the other hand, often give the impression of being obsessed with sin, although only with particular sins - homosexuality, adultery, drinking, depravity (conveniently, these sins only apply to certain types of people, thereby leaving the accusers in the clear). In both cases, what's missing is a sense of "radical sin" that corrupts both our good and our bad deeds. This sin permeates our entire being, forming a chasm between us and God that can only be bridged from the side of God. Understood this way, radical sin sends us fleeing to the radical grace of Christ.

Luther did not need to instill an "anguished conscience" in his parishioners - they already had it. The question for the church today is whether it needs to "make sinners of people" before it can save them. Both Barth and Bonhoeffer cautioned against a "Law first, then Gospel" strategy, and there's a great deal of merit to these arguments. But whether the Law comes first or second, we need to somehow re-acquaint "our modern consciousness" with the notion of Sin before God (and not merely sins against conventional morality). If we can't manage that, then we should get busy transforming our churches into pool halls and dance clubs.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

String Nonsense

As I've always been skeptical of string theory for both scientific and theological reasons, I was delighted to hear of Lee Smolin's book, The Problem with Physics, which exposes string theory as pseudo-scientific nonsense (the book is well-summarized in this article on For those of you who are not aware, string theory proposes to explain the origin of the universe by positing the existence of extra dimensions (some versions use as many as 25 dimensions). It's an interesting thought experiment, but there's no evidence that such extra dimensions exist. Moreover, string theory is not experimentally testable - the sine qua non of a scientific theory. Smolin therefore argues that string theory is not science, and that it more closely resembles philosophical speculation or outright science fiction. Sadly, none of these arguments have stopped string theory from gaining widespread acceptance among the faculty in physics departments around the world.

So what's go on here? My suspicion is that physics (more specifically, cosmology) has reached something of a dead-end with regards to the existence of the universe, such that any "explanation" it can offer will likely be as speculative as those provided by philosophy or religion. Indeed, there are solid philosophical reasons for thinking that science itself could never account for the existence of our particular universe, but this won't stop scientists from trying, of course.

I've long wished that scientists would learn to work within the epistemological boundaries of their discipline, and refrain from offering up such "scientific theologies" as string theory. But having spent a fair amount of time in the scientific community, I'm quite sure that we'll be treated to more of the same in the future. This is because scientists love to engage in metaphysical speculation, although they usually make the fatal mistake of confusing such thinking with actual science (for examples of this phenomenon, please consult the writings of Carl Sagan, Francis Crick, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and all the others who claim scientific proof for the non-existence of God). In their urge to destroy religion with the sword of science, these fools have ironically transformed science into a religion of its own.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Works of Love (Part II): Against a Natural Theology of Love

In the first part of Works of Love, Kierkegaard stresses that the distinctive mark of Christian love is love of the neighbor, in contrast to paganism which only loves the beloved and the friend. And who is your neighbor? Simply put, everybody. Kierkegaard is unrelenting in his refusal to limit or tone-down the scope of Christ's command "to love the neighbor as yourself." Indeed, he suggests that even if there exists only one person who you feel is not deserving of your love (a nasty enemy, perhaps), then your love for all others is suspect, no matter how devoted it may be. The man who stubbornly hates his enemy proves that he doesn't understand the essentially Christian; that is, he fails to realize that God has not granted him a choice in the matter. His Christian duty is to love the neighbor, end of story.

However, Kierkegaard is at pains to emphasize that there is nothing natural about loving the neighbor. By contrast, erotic love and friendship are quite natural, since they are based on inclinations and drives that people are eager to satisfy. Here, Kierkegaard seems to anticipate arguments, made subsequently by evolutionary biologists, that romantic love and friendship primarily serve the needs for survival and self-propagation. For instance, he frequently calls friendship an "alliance of self-love" wherein like-minded folks band together to advance their emotional interests and build self-esteem. And, at one point, he goes as far as to compare erotic love and friendship to "idol worship", since they are alternative ways of loving the self at the expense of loving the neighbor.

These are harsh words, indeed, and they have led many to dismiss WoL as far too strident. But it is important to understand that Kierkegaard is not advocating an outright rejection of romantic love or friendship. Instead, he is trying to place these preferential loves on their proper foundation, which is the love of God:
"Worldly wisdom is of the opinion that love is a relationship between persons; Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: a person - God - a person, that is, that God is the middle term. However beautiful a relationship of love has been between two people or among many, however complete all their desire and all their bliss have been for themselves in mutual sacrifice and devotion, even though everyone has praised this relationship - if God and the relationship with God have been omitted, then this, in the Christian sense, has not been love but a mutually enchanting defraudation of love.... The fundamental untruth in the merely human view of love is that love is withdrawn from the relationship with God. "

The Christian understands that all love is an unmerited gift from God, who is Love. Just as we are not our own Creators, we do not create the love that exists in our relationships with the beloved or friends. The love of God must be the "middle term".

In my opinion, all of the hard words that WoL aims against preferential love are simply meant to discourage us from lapsing into a natural theology of love. Kierkegaard is adamant that, to understand the nature of love, we should not first consult the poet, who would likely regale us with tales of lovebirds and heroic friendship. Instead, we should first ponder how God loves, since "it was God who has placed love in the human being, and it is God who in every case will determine what is love." Specifically, we must remember that he gracefully loved us first, in Christ, even when we were despicable and sinful:
"Have you never thought about God's love? If it were love's excellence to love only the extraordinary, then God would be, if I dare say so, in an awkward position, since for him the extraordinary does not exist at all. The excellence of being able to love only the extraordinary is therefore more like an accusation, not against the extraordinary nor against the love, but against the love that is able to love only the extraordinary...

Insofar as you love the beloved, you are not like God, because for God there is no preference... But when you love the neighbor, then you are like God."

Only neighborly love conforms to divine love, and thus we must incorporate this love into all of our relationships, even the most intimate. As Kierkegaard says, "Love the beloved faithfully and tenderly, but let love for the neighbor be the sanctifying element in your union's covenant with God. Love your friend honestly and devotedly, but let love for the neighbor be what you learn from each other in your friendship's confidential relationship with God."

Serious Series

As I mentioned previously, I hope to write a series of posts on the concept of Christian love as set forth in Kierkegaard's Works of Love (of course, given my sporadic posting of late, it remains to be seen whether I follow through on this promise). Interestingly, a quick glance around the theology blogosphere confirms that the urge to serialize is very widespread, as the internet is suddenly full of interesting series on a wide range of theological topics. Here's a short list:

(This list is not meant to be exhaustive, so please feel free to mention any personal favorites that have escaped my attention.)

Although it may be too much of a generalization, I think that the proliferation of these series may represent a coming-of-age of the theological blogosphere. No longer content to simply comment about current events or other random matters, people are actually using blogs to formulate and experiment with theological systems - a development that perhaps has implications for experts and non-experts alike. Blogs allow people like Ben, who has a scholarly career independent of his blog, and students like D.W. and Patrik, who clearly have bright futures as theologians, to broadcast their nascent insights to the general public. And, conversely, this format gives the rest of us an opportunity to organize our own thinking on various matters, and then get feedback from well-educated amateurs and professionals.

Much has been written about the democratization of journalism and politics that has arisen from the popularity of blogs. But I wonder if the internet will also produce an era of theological democratization, with all the possibilities and dangers that such a situation would offer. Any thoughts about where this enterprise will lead?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Works of Love (Part 1): Do Not the Pagans do the Same?

Despite its innocuous-sounding title, Kierkegaard's Works of Love is a highly polemical work. Indeed, it may be the most radical book in the entire Kierkegaard corpus, as its account of Christian ethics is extreme, shocking, and uncompromising. The book's often harsh tone has undoubtedly contributed to its cool reception through the ages (WoL has been criticized by many prominent thinkers, including Barth and Buber). But, as with all of Kierkegaard's theological works, the polemical tone was only meant to startle and awaken the reader. A detailed reading makes it quite clear that Works of Love is more than faithful to its subject matter. Indeed, as J. Garff says in his biography of Kierkegaard, this was a book that the author "held out to his readers with his right hand. The hand nearest the heart."

In this first post in my planned series on WoL, I want to highlight Kierkegaard's radical distinction between Christian and "natural" conceptions of love - a distinction that continues to be blurred in our times. Early in Works of Love, Kierkegaard remarks that "the Christian must understand everything differently than the non-Christian does." This axiom, which lies at the heart of Kierkegaard's theology, is never more true than when the subject is love. Whereas the pagan and poet celebrate romantic love and friendship (the two types of preferential love), Christianity teaches that "you shall love the neighbor as yourself":

Christian love teaches us to love all people, unconditionally all. Just as unconditionally and powerfully as erotic love intensifies in the direction that there is but one and only one beloved, just as unconditionally and powerfully does Christian love intensify in the opposite direction....

To love the beloved, asks Christianity, is that loving? – and adds, “Do not the pagans do the same?” To love the friend, is that loving? asks Christianity – “Do not the pagans do the same?” Therefore if someone thinks that the difference between paganism and Christianity is that in Christianity the beloved and friend are loved faithfully and tenderly in a quite different way than in paganism, this is a misunderstanding. Does not paganism offer examples of erotic love and friendship so perfect that the poet looks back to them for instruction? But no one in paganism loved the neighbor; no one suspected that he existed. Therefore what paganism called love, as distinguished from self-love, was preference. But if passionate preference is essentially another form of self-love, then one sees here again the truth in the saying of the venerable fathers: “that the virtues of paganism are glittering vices.”

Here, Kierkegaard is emphasizing the radical nature of Christian love, which the Christians of his day had forgotten. Instead of taking seriously the biblical commands to love their neighbor and enemy, they merely equated Christian love with the highest and most faithful expressions of preferential love (love for family, friends, and nation). To Kierkegaard, this was the ultimate betrayal, since “the essentially Christian is by no means culture’s highest." Indeed, "to the natural man it is an offense”, since love of neighbor requires that we love the wretched, the outcasts, the enemies, and those that we would rather ignore. And love them as ourselves!! Regarding this type of love, the poets are silent and the volunteers are few.

Is Kierkegaard’s message is still relevant today? Certainly. Many of our churches, both Catholic and Protestant, have deified love of family and country, calling them the highest loves. But Christian love is first and foremost love of the unloveable neighbor, which is the foundation for all other loves.