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.


P.S. (an after-thought) said...

Sounds like something that a certain segment of American Christianity could take a lesson from. There is a lot of highly harsh rhetoric from certain commentators aimed at other groups, both calling themselves Christian.

In another side of this: there is a human tendency to label people, to make them "other." And if they are other, then we are not responsible for them, and/or, they brought their problems on themselves. We don't have empathy.

But Christian Love would have us love the "other" as ourselves in a sacrificial way.

Lee said...

Nice post, Thomas. This is a topic that's close to my heart, so I'm looking forward to your series.

At the outset, let me just register my worry that SK (and others like Nygren) may be drawing the distinction between agape and other forms of love too sharply to do justice to the full NT witness. For one example, take the prominence of friendship in John's gospel. I've got some more thoughts on this, but will probably wait til you crank out a couple more posts. ;)

Louis said...

Have you read Kierkegaard scholar, M. Jamie Ferriera's interpretation of Works of Love?

Her interpretation has done much to discredit earlier misreadings of this great book.

Thomas Adams said...

P.S. -- You're absolutely right that labeling people as "the other" does not absolve us of responsibility for them. In fact, SK would argue that neighborly love is only possible when we acknowledge people as true "others"; that is, as worthy of love apart from any preferences or inclinations on our part. In contrast, the beloved and the friend are not really “others”, since our love for them is based on our own sense of self. Thus, they represent the other I, and not a true you. This is not to suggest that we should cease to love the beloved or friend – far from it. It simply means that we must not view these people as mere extensions of ourselves, since this would infringe upon their intrinsic otherness.

Lee – I appreciate your concerns, and I hope to address them in future posts. At one point in WoL, SK remarks that “in the whole New Testament there is not a single verse about friendship in the sense in which the poet celebrates it and paganism cultivated it.” This statement is clearly too extreme because, as you point out, the theme of friendship is prominent in the Gospel of John (especially John 15). But what exactly does Christ mean by “friend” in this context? There’s no doubt that he was a friend to the disciples and that he valued their company, but was friendship really the basis of their relationship? I would argue that Jesus’ love of the disciples was closer to neighborly love than friendly love (that is, closer to agape than eros).

Louis – I picked up Ferreira’s book the other day from the library. I haven’t read much of it yet, but I’m hoping that it will shed light on some of the difficult passages in WoL.