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.