Kierkegaard on Erotic Love, Divine Sorrow and True Imputation

We’re embarking on one of Kierkegaard’s bizarre thought-experiments here, on the love of God in […]

Will McDavid / 7.26.12

We’re embarking on one of Kierkegaard’s bizarre thought-experiments here, on the love of God in Christ. It’s anthropomorphic, it’s controversial, and it’s all possibly a crock of you-know-what…but it’s deeply moving and, to this blogger’s mind, it brings out some brilliant aspects of God’s love and imputation’s reality.

God’s eternal motive with regard to man is to make His love understood – just to communicate it, in the same way a romantic feels compulsion to send a love letter or an avid fan absolutely must praise the author of a book or song. God’s love for us compels him to make that love known, and yet we’re so bad at understanding this simplest and most eternal fact about our natures: that we’re the eternal objects of the most perfect Being’s love, indeed of Love itself.

These thoughts are all Kierkegaard’s, and his musings on Christian atonement employ the same vocabulary of love. While the impetus of human love is the beauty of its beloved object (which compels him towards it), God’s love uniquely finds its impetus not in the beloved’s beauty, but entirely in the Lover’s will itself (the very will out of which we were first created).  And yet the difficulty lies in the fact that we (rightly) find ourselves unlovable, and thus and manifestation of God in his essence would intimidate us to the point of absolute condemnation, stressing the difference between our current state and the majesty of God.

This difference leads to grief: romantic love rejected causes human grief, but God’s infinitely deeper grief is that we cannot even comprehend His love – we find ourselves unlovable in sin, or we try to earn God’s love, or to ascend upwards into communion with Him. And so to communicate His incommunicable fullness of love, He assumes a disguise in the Incarnation. A quintessentially Kierkegaardisn analogy attempts to illustrate this movement:

Suppose then a king who loved a humble maiden…love is exultant when it unites equals, but it is triumphant when it makes that which was unequal equal in love. — Then there awoke in the heart of the king an anxious thought; who but a king who thinks kingly thoughts would have dreamed of it! He spoke to no one about his anxiety; for if he had, each courtier would doubtless have said: “Your majesty is about to confer a favor upon the maiden, for which she can never be sufficiently grateful her whole life long.” This speech would have moved the king to wrath, so that he would have commanded the execution of the courtier for high treason against the beloved, and thus he would in still another way have found his grief increased. So he wrestled with his troubled thoughts alone. Would she be happy in the life at his side? Would she be able to summon confidence enough never to remember what the king wished only to forget, that he was king and she had been a humble maiden? For if this memory were to waken in her soul, and like a favored lover sometimes steal her thoughts away from the king, luring her reflections into the seclusion of a secret grief; or if this memory sometimes passed through her soul like the shadow of death over the grave: where would then be the glory of their love? …For even if the maiden would be content to become as nothing, this could not satisfy the king, precisely because he loved her, and because it was harder for him to be her benefactor than to lose her. And suppose she could not even understand him? (Philosophical Fragments, “God as Teacher and Savior”)

Kierkegaard’s novelty here can be troubling: who could say that God’s purpose in salvation is to make humanity equal to God? And yet it serves as wonderfully rich illustration of divine love in the atonement – a God who wanted to obliterate even our consciousness of our lowliness, lest any shadow of shame or indebtedness mar our free, uncoerced passion for Him who loves us. And thus this God wants to forget our trespasses and, beyond even that, to forget that He had “even forgotten” (Edifying Discourses, “Love Covers a Multitude of Sins”). God’s imputation is so pure, in other words, that is passes over into reality. He does not merely look at someone and imagine He sees Christ; He actually sees the real, ontic presence of Christ’s righteousness in the individual.

While undeniably moving, this theology of course is speculative, open to criticisms on any number of grounds. And yet it’s also challenging, undeniably interesting, and it goes a long way towards explaining how imputation becomes a reality. As another analogy (paraphrased from Edifying Discourses), what a person sees in another is conditioned by that person’s own life experiences, emotions, and subjectivity. And thus a sinful person sees only iniquity, as in Travis Bickle’s struggle with lust and simultaneous judgment upon it in Taxi Driver. To the pure, however, “all things are pure”, as the old saying goes, and someone who loves another will willingly overlook any number of faults.

God chooses to do this – “love is blind”, Kierkegaard claims – and yet His perspective is identical to reality, His Word is creative, and His is the only perspective that matters. And so His creative love of course causes a response of more righteous living, and yet to even think this thought is to fall into the peasant girl’s problem of wanting to ascend in status to become worthy of the king’s love, whereas the king has already valued her for precisely who she is, even disguising himself so that she may respond in love to him with no trace of shame. From this arises the divine sorrow; we see it so clearly in the Genesis story of original sin’s first consequence being the shame of covering up to preserve one’s attempts at worthiness before the King. Because perception always involves subjectivity and projection, it is always creative. In humans this creativity is false and distorts the truth; in God it transforms it. In the Kierkegaardian logic of Love voluntarily blinding its eyes to our sin and lowly stature, God doesn’t play dress-up in imputation – instead, Christ’s love and substitution for us genuinely makes us into the people we’re not. We don’t act differently; our sinful thoughts don’t vanish; we’re still justified and sinners – and yet in a grand-scheme-of things, ontic sense, we really do have Christ’s righteousness because this is how God’s creative sight views us through Jesus.  And, for Kierkegaard, that’s good news!

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8 responses to “Kierkegaard on Erotic Love, Divine Sorrow and True Imputation”

  1. Mr. T says:

    This is now where I get all my Kierkegarrd Nuggets:

  2. Zach says:

    There’s pretty solid precedent for using an illustration that lacks doctrinal purity to compare one aspect of the illustration to God’s relationship with his friends. “I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations.” So I think we can luxuriate in the beauty of Kierkegaard’s illustration.

  3. Kory says:

    I’m new to Kierkegaard…where should I start?

    • Zach says:

      You probably want to start with something on the brief side because he can be so difficult. Also, be creative in your reading. “The Sickness Unto Despair” and “The Concept of Anxiety” are great starts. “Philosophical Fragments” is another idea. All three are unique on their own terms but also provide neat introductions into the themes and modes of thought that appear throughout his work.

  4. John Zahl says:

    Fear and Trembling is a great intro too.

  5. Kory says:

    Just read the whole “God as Teacher and Savior” — it was awesome. Some great gems in there.

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