63. Kierkegaard’s Problem and Solution, Part 3

In this three-part introduction to Soren Kierkegaard I have tried, so far, to make it clear (1) what Kierkegaard’s fundamental problem is; (2) what his solution to the problem is. We have seen that disintegrated selfhood is the problem and the development of an integrated self thorugh passionate action is the solution. We have also seen how those who live in the aesthetic and ethical stages fail to achieve this solution since they are seeking to escape freedom and thus integrated selfhood. In this third and final part I would like to discuss the way of living Kierkegaard thinks can possibly, if paradoxically, help us obtain the integrated selves we seek.

This leads us to the religious stage. We have seen how both the aesthetic and ethical stages of life avoid action: the former by living in possibilities and not cancelling any of them in the direction of actualization; the latter by embedding in necessity and thus never facing possibilities to be cancelled.  It is only be living religiously that one can face the constant task of self-consciously integrating necessity and possibility over time through passionate action. But how? Well, living religiously requires a strenuous commitment to one basic idea for which one can live and die.  This is the kind of idea Kierkegaard wanted to find in his own life.  By committing ourselves to one thing we can have a “purity of heart” and integrate the personality to the highest degree.  This serious commitment will obviously take one beyond the aesthetic stage that is marked by a desire to never commit to anything, let alone one thing.  And it also moves one beyond the ethical stage not only in the strenuous, ongoing annihilation of possibilities but in the fact that the idea one may want to pursue may be at odds with the ethical norms of society.  Kierkegaard explores the relation between the religious and ethical stages in his book Fear and Trembling, a look at the Biblical story of Abraham and his willingness to suspend the norms of society and sacrifice his son Issac—all for God. The gravity of this ancient tale dramatically underscores that the commitment to this one idea should be so serious that one will be prepared to sacrifice and suffer a great deal for it—perhaps even die for it.  This makes sense given the above comments about subjectivity, that is, about the living through action of what one holds to be true.  The holding of a fundamental idea is not something one can take or leave; rather, it becomes so fused with the personality that being asked to drop it would be like being asked to die.   

So we see that the more one is prepared to die for one fundamental idea the more one is committed to it through action; and the more one is committed to the idea the more one is passionate about it. With this passionate action we have the grounds for self-integration, meaning, and real relationships.

But what kind of idea should we have? Kierkegaard believes the idea we choose should be a standard by which to judge ourselves and our efforts to reach more and more freedom. And this standard  should make things difficult for us.  He once said that his task in life was to make things more difficult.  And he has certainly done this: he has shown us how often we run from freedom and thus our selves. He has shown us that the present age he describes is actually our age with all its addictions, diversions, gossips, voyeurs, and deceivers.  He has made us realize we are all choosing inauthentic lives—perhaps because others tell us to live inauthentically.  And now it gets worse.  For Kierkegaard believes the standard by which to judge ourselves should be nothing less than God:

“But the self is intensified in proportion to the standard by which the self measures itself, and infinitely so when God is the standard.  The more conception of God, the more self; the more self, the more conception of God.  Only when a self, as this particular individual, is conscious of being before God, only then is it the infinite self; and that self sins before God.” [1]

This God is an all loving being who has, paradoxically, chosen to communicate his love to us through Jesus Christ.  This divine love should be the criterion by which we judge ourselves. But this criterion, because it is an unconditional and infinite one, makes us realize we are always in the wrong.  We get a glimpse of how our actions are based on selfish conditions.  We get a glimpse of how many cruel things we have done.  And we get a glimpse of all the things we could be doing but are not doing.  The more we think about, it begins to seem that, in comparison to infinite love, we are really failures at being good and stand no chance of being moral beings by ourselves.  In short, we realize that we are sinners who have misused our freedom. Gregory R. Beabout puts it well when he writes:

“The self fails to be itself either by running away from itself or by defiantly claiming to be more than itself. And since the self is temporal and has a history, even those attempts at self-actualization that are successful for a moment cannot change one’s past failures.  And any current success at self-actualization that fails to rectify past failures is itself a failure, either because it does not rectify past failures or because it claims that past failures are past, and hence no longer part of the self.  But since the self is temporal, this is merely one more way of not being oneself. Consequently, the self that is freedom is left entangled, aware of its own shortcomings and unable to overcome them, in short, enslaved to sin.” [2]

Now, perhaps we could just try harder to be as integrated as possible.  We could try and make amends wherever possible and do our best to avoid moral failures in the future. We could also lower the standard by which we judge ourselves and others.  Why be so hard on ourselves?  But for Kierkegaard, these solutions won’t succeed in realizing the goal of true self-integration.  Any past moral failure is one in which we did not live up to our freedom: we failed to incorporate some necessity or we ran away into necessity to avoid possibilities.  Thus our past has fragments of things that needed to be addressed and acted upon but were avoided.  How can we go back and incorporate those fragments?  How can we go back and act in a way that would adequately face the necessities and act from them?  How can we go back and annul those possibilities that we wanted to act upon but were too cowardly to do so?  We can’t and so we can’t be the integrated self we should be.

So where does that leave us?  It seems like we need total integration and yet we simply cannot achieve it given our past and future moral failures.  What are we to do?  It turns out there is nothing we can do—and this, we now realize, is where Kierkegaard has been leading us all along. The philosopher of action has been leading us to a point where we realize we cannot act. This is where Jesus comes in.  Consider Beabout once more:

“A different diagnosis and cure is offered with the Christian revelation.  In the person of Christ there is a different hope, a hope that is either freeing or offensive.  It is the offer of redemption, the offer of the forgiveness of sins. Christ is our freedom in the sense that His redemptive grace offers the forgiveness of sins, such that the misuse of freedom is abolished. Through grace the self is brought into right relation with itself, others, and God. Christ is our freedom in the sense that He restores the self to the right relation, making the freedom of self-actualization possible by divine grace.” [3]

So the failures of our past—our necessity—are wiped out and are continually wiped out insofar as we accept God’s grace. And, insofar as we are liberated from our past failures, we are then free to really pursue our future possibilities of self-realization. In God, all things are possible because he allows us to escape the inevitable failures of our past.  We can, if we feel remorse, repent, and confess, transcend the sins of the past and be forgiven. Indeed, remorse, repentance, and confession are “eternity’s emissaries to man”:[4]

“A Providence watches over each man’s wandering through life.  It provides him with two guides.  The one calls him forward.  The other calls him back. They are, however, not in opposition to each other, these two guides, nor do they leave the wanderer standing there in doubt, confused by the double call. Rather, the two are in eternal understanding with each other.  For the one beckons forward to the Good, the other calls man back from evil.  Nor are they blind guides.  Just for that reason there are two of them.  For in order to make the journey secure, they must look forward and backward.” (PH, 39-40)

Remorse helps us look back and grasp our evil deeds; repentance helps us look forward to the Good by comprehending our guilt.  Then it is up to us to confess—to give our word—which represents an action whereby we come to full consciousness of our new found self-integration: “Not God, but you, the maker of the confession, get to know something by your act of confession” (PH, 51).  Thus we see that the process of developing more and more integrated selfhood over time is made possible by the eternal aspect of our being: “[R]epentance and remorse belong to the eternal in man” (PH, 41).  The self as a developing synthesis of possibility and necessity over time can only be a synthesis because there is an eternal dimension to our being; indeed, Kierkegaard claims that without the eternal there would be no time at all. Earlier we saw that freedom is not abstract and indifferent; it is always freedom from some necessities to the realization of certain possibilities. The religious stage, where we should exclusively seek to imitate God’s love, allows us to move constantly from a truthful and rectified set of necessities to liberating possibilities. God’s unlimited freedom is, in part, our freedom.  But this freedom, this divinity in us, can only be actualized if we grasp that this freedom is not created by us. He writes:

“Such a derived, constituted, relation is the human self, a relation which relates itself to its own self, and in relating itself to its own self relates itself to another. Hence it is that there can be two forms of despair properly so called. If the human self had constituted itself, there could be a question only of one form, that of not willing to be one’s own self, of willing to get rid of oneself, but there would be no question of despairingly willing to be oneself. This formula [i.e. that the self is constituted by another] is the expression for the total dependence of the relation (the self namely), the expression for the fact that the self cannot of itself attain and remain in equilibrium and rest by itself, but only by relating itself to that Power which constituted the whole relation.”[5]

To be sure, the relation of the eternal to the temporal is a paradox, as is the leap of freedom that it mysteriously enables.  There is simply no way our minds can grasp these issues rationally. But Kierkegaard points out a way—sometimes he tries to induce such a way with his writings—to experience them existentially, that is, through feelings, moods, emotions, and actions.  For example, we can experience guilt, despair, resignation, humor, and irony; we can suffer, act, promise, deceive, confess, repent, and have remorse.  It is through these experiences and many others that the self and its successes and failures can be ascertained; it is through these that the paradoxical nature of our selfhood can be understood.  To fully realize this selfhood we must wholeheartedly acknowledge our absolute dependence on the eternal Power that sustains our free, temporal development.  If we can do this we have faith that can transcend the disintegration of sin and demonic despair.

But now we must ask the troubling question: Can we really, ourselves, acknowledge our dependence on this Power?  Can we really embrace all the paradoxes Kierkegaard has sent our way and make the leap of faith?  Many comments in Kierkegaard’s writings, both published and private, make it clear that the answer is no: it is only by God’s Grace that we can be empowered to make the leap and lead a life of integration.  Richard J. Bernstein puts it well: “We may have thought that “to be a Christian” along with other existential possibilities that Kierkegaard has poetically presented, demands inward action on our part.  But in the end, the faith demanded to be a Christian is not what it appears to be, it is not something of our own doing. Only those “kept alive in a state of death “ are “ripe for Eternity,” only they—and this is the most incomprehensible of all human paradoxes—are prepared to be saved by God’s grace.” [6]

We have seen that Kierkegaard wanted to address the problem of self-disintegration.  We have seen how passionate action was to be embraced, along with all the anxiety that accompanies freedom, as a means to self-integration.  We realized that the religious life, a life of suffering whereby we commit ourselves to one thing, preferably God, was the best life for sustaining this action.  And now we end, of course, on a paradox: Kierkegaard, the philosopher of action, tells us that without God’s Grace we remain sinners who cannot act at all.


[1] Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death (New York, Penguin, 1989), p. 112.

[2] Beabout, Freedom and its Misuses: Kierkegaard on Anxiety and Despair (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1996), p. 152.

[3] Ibid., p. 153.

[4] Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing (New York: Harper-Collins, 1956).  Hereafter, PH/page number.

[5] This quotation is from part one of his book The Sickness Unto Death and is taken from http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=2067&C=1863

[6] Richard J. Bernstein, Praxis and Action (Pennsylvania: Penn. University Press, 1999), p. 122.

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