Kierkegaard Chose…Poorly

“Here I stand…not at a crossroads — no, but at a multitude of roads, and […]

CJ Green / 9.30.16

“Here I stand…not at a crossroads — no, but at a multitude of roads, and therefore it is all the harder to choose the right one.”

— Kierkegaard, in a letter to P.W. Lund, 1835

When I first read the above line by Western religion’s favorite philosopher, I thought, well of course he faced a deluge of indecision in his white-haired smoky-armchaired nineteenth-century affluence — tea or coffee today? Hegel or Kant? Reading or writing? I found the sentiment far more endearing when I realized he’d written it at twenty-two and that I’d had the same exchange of words with a dear friend recently. Imagine young Søren, the adultescent!

He had pretty much realized he couldn’t live on his parents’ couch forever, and if he was going to make a name for himself, he had to choose one field of study. After much agony, he’d narrowed it down to science or theology. (For what it’s worth, he wasn’t considering philosophy at the time.) He called his indecision “Faustian” doubt, or, in more colloquial terms, the fear of a better option: the creeping inkling that there was more for him in life than mere theology. He feared that in choosing a course of study he was resigning to the life of an old man. But every move we make increases the impossibility of making a different one.

In Kierkegaard’s view, this fear is what Faust was trying to alleviate when, in the German legend, he surrendered to the Devil for unlimited knowledge. Kierkegaard argues that Faust’s doubt could never be alleviated by the pursuit of knowledge for the simple reason that all that can be known can be doubted. Faust represents an aspect of life that often intensifies with aging. The older we get, the more we know, and the more opportunity we have to doubt that we are really on the right track: maybe we married the wrong person; maybe we bought the wrong house; maybe our misparenting is the reason our kid acted out in class and got sent to the principal’s office and will certainly do drugs in five years’ time. SK writes:

I think that Faust represents doubt personified. He need be no more than that and Goethe probably sins against the concept when he permits Faust to convert…. In accordance with his own idea he could never turn to God because in the very instant he did so he would have to admit to himself that here in truth lay enlightenment; but in that same instant he would, in fact, have denied his character as one who doubts (from the same letter as above).

And if Faust is no longer a character who doubts, he’s not just/really “converted”; he’s no longer a person. Doubt, in its many forms (and especially the fear that there is more to be had), is consistently human. Perhaps doubt is like the weeds in Jesus’ parable: something that we have to live with. We don’t have to resolve it, and in attempting to, we’d only make matters worse.

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.

And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’

He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’

The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’

But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn’” (Mt 13:24-30 NRSV).

Inside ourselves, we have both weeds and wheat, both faith and doubt, certainty and ignorance. So we stand at the crossroads, say a quick hi to our friend Søren, and head off down the path that seems most right at the time.

Part of Kierkegaard’s own indecision, however, was not just the closing of a door or the fear of a better option but that some parts of the theological field simply didn’t suit him. There were parts he loved, of course (the individual’s quest for truth); but there were parts he resisted, even sneered at. Between science and theology, he was clearly interested in the liveliness of science, the realness of it — “life has always interested me most” — and the idea of becoming one of the many scholars in pajamas arguing about the nature of being seemed in many ways (not surprisingly) less appealing:

To me the learned theological world seems like Strandvej on a Sunday afternoon in the season when everybody goes to Bakken in Dryhaven: they tear past each other, yell and scream, laugh and make fun of each other, drive their horses to death, overturn and are run over. Finally, when they reach Bakken covered with dust and out of breath — well, they look at each other — and go home.

Despite this view of the “learned theological world,” Kierkegaard ultimately became a central part of it. Many a humanities student has found him- or herself at the heart of an impassioned but ultimately not-very-risky debate about Hegel versus Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard’s foundational writings are also quite dense; for many, he is a brick wall. It’s strange to think he eventually became the very thing he so disliked about high academia as a twenty-two-year-old. If he wanted to avoid the theological horse races, perhaps he would have been better off disappearing into the Brazilian rainforests to dig up dinosaur bones. Perhaps he chose poorly. Then again, perhaps not.

The other lesson from the parable of the wheat and the weeds is that human judgment is often insufficient. If we were to pull up the weeds, we’d pull up the wheat, too. Perhaps that means we can’t tell the difference. What seems good to us may be “worse than it seems”; and what seems regrettable to us may be exactly the thing that heals us. So if we learn anything from kid Kierkegaard, it’s that the kind of person we want to be is not always who we will choose to be. Also, that may be just fine.

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