Nobody Knows Yourself When You’re Down and Out: Kierkegaard on the Mirage of Health

From his Sickness unto Death, a passage where Kierkegaard compares spiritual sickness – i.e. despair […]

Will McDavid / 6.4.12

From his Sickness unto Death, a passage where Kierkegaard compares spiritual sickness – i.e. despair – to physical unhealth, and then diagnoses seemingly everyone with a degree of this condition, even those who believe themselves healthy:

This observation will no doubt strike many as paradoxical, an exaggeration, and a gloomy and discouraging view besides. Yet it is none of these things. It is not gloomy; on the contrary it tries to shed light on what one generally banishes to a certain obscurity…Commonly a person is assumed to be healthy if he himself doesn’t say that he is ill; even more so if he says he is well. A physician, on the other hand, looks at the illness differently. And why? Because the physician has a definite and articulate conception of what it is to be healthy, and tests a person’s condition against this. The physician knows that just as there can be merely imagined sickness, so too can there be merely imagined health. For the latter, therefore, he first takes measures to bring the illness to view…Similarly with the psychic expert’s relation to despair. He knows what despair is, he is familiar with it and so is not satisfied with a person’s declaration either that he is in despair or he is not.

It’s worth noting Kierkegaard’s Lutheranism here; the focus on honesty, diagnosis and crisis as the means to a more proper relation to God smack of a theology of the cross, and guilt very decisive for him in bringing the illness to view in a “second use of the Law” way. We can also find not only Kierkegaard, but also the Christ of the Sermon on the Mount and the Cleansing of the Temple layered into Kierkegaard’s physician image. He came for the sick and not the healthy, but convincing the self-avowedly healthy of their sickness is a physician’s job as diagnostician. In the tension of minister/theologian versus Christ as physician, a good question becomes to what extent should the minister act to bring the sickness to view, and to what extent is this purely an action of Christ or the Spirit.