I recently discovered a thinker whose views are very similar to Kierkegaard’s and that has given me an opportunity to share once again my thoughts on Kierkegaard’s views on the nature of genuine community. Kierkegaard famously disparages what he refers to as “the crowd” and its “leveling” tendencies, but that does not mean he had a negative view of all collectivities. He makes very few references to positive collectivities, but that was likely first because he felt they were exceptionally rare, and second, and more importantly, because he felt describing such collectivities wasn’t his specific life’s task. His task, as he conceived it, was to encourage people to separate from the crowd, to become individuals.
Christianity, writes Kierkegaard in Works of Love, turns our attention completely away from the external, turns it inward (WOL, 376). In the stillness of God’s house, he writes in Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, “[t]here is no fellowship—each one is by himself; there is no call for united effort—each one is called to individual responsibility” (TDIO, p. 10).
And yet, he continues later in the same work, “in the stillness, what beautiful harmony with everyone! Oh, in this solitude, what beautiful fellowship with everyone!” (TDIO, p. 38).
It may appear that Kierkegaard is contradicting himself here, but I don’t think he is. I think what he means is that in the stillness before God, there is no “fellowship” in the sense that there is no escaping into the crowd, no hiding behind others, no opportunity for leveling reassurances that after all, it is unreasonable to expect moral perfection.
“God wants each individual,”writes Kierkegaard, for the sake of certainty and of equality and of responsibility, to learn for himself the Law’s requirement. When this is the case, there is durability in existence, because God has a firm hold on it. There is no vortex, because each individual begins, not with ‘the others’ and therefore not with evasions and excuses, but begins with the God-relationship and therefore stands firm (WOL, p. 118).
God is the “middle term” for Kierkegaard in any genuinely loving relationship, whether that relationship is one of preferential love or neighbor love. But when God is the middle term, then genuine community is possible.
That brings me to my discovery. I take painting lessons. I have to drive more than an hour every Saturday to get to my painting class. I enjoy the drive because the landscape through which I drive is mostly rural. Still, the drive is nicer if I have something to listen to. Sadly, the radio in my 1999 Mazda Protegé long ago bit the dust, so I have to stream whatever I listen to on my phone with the help of a small bluetooth speaker. I like to listen to books, when possible. I found something called The Hope of the Gospels, by George MacDonald on YouTube. I’d never heard of MacDonald, but I like theological works, so I thought I would give it a try.
It was amazing! MacDonald’s writing is every bit as beautiful and inspiring as Kierkegaard’s best edifying writing and there is an uncanny similarity of views between the two.
“Although I say, every man stands alone in God,” writes MacDonald in Miracles of Our Lord, “I yet say two or many can meet in God as they cannot meet save in God; nay, that only in God can two or many truly meet; only as they recognize their oneness with God can they become one with each other” (The Complete Works of George MacDonald, p. 13,394)
What MacDonald is describing is precisely the “beautiful fellowship” with others that a genuine God relationship not only makes possible according to Kierkegaard, but actually necessary.
“Christianity,” according to Kierkegaard, “turns our attention completely away from the external, turns it inward, and makes every one of your relationships to other people into a God-relationship (WOL, p. 376). “God just repeats everything you say and do to other people; he repeats it with the magnification of infinity. God repeats the words of grace or of judgment that you say about another; he says the same thing word for word about you (WOL, pp. 384-385).
But this unity of the divine and the human as exemplified in the neighbor is not merely for purposes of judgment.
“Love is a need, the deepest need, in the person in whom there is love for the neighbor,” writes Kierkegaard, “he does not need people just to have someone to love, but he needs to love people. Yet there is no pride or haughtiness in this wealth, because God is the middle term, and eternity’s shall binds and guides this great need so that it does not go astray and turn into pride. But there are no limits to the objects, because the neighbor is all human beings, unconditionally every human being” (WOL, p. 67).
“All communities are for the divine sake of individual life,” writes MacDonald, “for the sake of the love and truth that is in each heart, and is not cumulative—cannot be in two as one result. But all that is precious in the individual heart depends for existence on the relation the individual bears to other individuals: alone—how can he love? alone—where is his truth? It is for and by the individuals that the individual lives. A community is the true development of individual relations. Its very possibility lies in the conscience of its men and women. No setting right can be done in the mass. There are no masses save in corruption. Vital organizations result alone from individualities and consequent necessities, which fitting the one into the other, and working for each other, make combination not only possible but unavoidable. Then the truth which has informed in the community reacts on the individual to perfect his individuality. In a word, the man, in virtue of standing alone in God, stands with his fellows, and receives from them divine influences without which he cannot be made perfect” ( The Complete Works of George MacDonald, p. 13,393).
Kierkegaard could not have said it better himself!
I am devouring everything MacDonald wrote, at least all the theological writings. Theological writings were not all he wrote. Kierkegaard and MadDonald have more in common than the substance of their theologies. Kierkegaard, as is widely known, loved fairy tales. MacDonald loved them as well. In fact, he actually wrote fairy tales and it appears his fantastical works were enormously influential on a number of later thinkers including J.R.R.Tolkein and C.S. Lewis.
Unfortunately, the only hard copy edition of MacDonald’s collected theological writings that I have been able to find is part of his much larger complete works that retails on Abebooks.com for $1,980.53, which is just a little more than my current book-buying budget allows. Fortunately, there is an ebook version of MacDonald’s complete works that is available through Amazon for a measly $1.99!
It is profoundly mysterious to me that MacDonald is not better known. There is a George MacDonald Society, but I’ve never seen any sessions devoted to his works at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. I’ve been attending the annual meetings of the AAR for more than twenty years and I had never run across his name before. I would’t go so far as to argue that no attention has ever been paid to MacDonald at the AAR, but if there has been any attention given to MacDonald, it has been very slight, and it appears no attention whatever has been given to the relation between MacDonald’s thought and Kierkegaards.
That has got to change!
Dear Prof. Piety,
I couldn’t agree more! In reading your post, I was reminded that Charles Williams urged Walter Lowrie to write ‘How Kierkegaard got into English’ (cf. appendix to Repetition 1941).
Perhaps there is a possibility that the Journal of Inkling Studies would accept a special issue: https://inklings-studies.org/
A third person, who I think it would be fruitful to bring into conversation with both Kierkegaard and MacDonald, would be Simone Weil. There are many parallels as well as apparent differences between them. They complement and build on each other’s thought, without necessarily having any direct awareness (although Weil does reference Kierkegaard briefly in her notebooks and seems to have engaged with him more widely).
Thanks for reminding me about Weil. Her name keeps coming up, but I have to confess I know very little about her. I am going to have to correct that, because, people are always mentioning her to me as someone whose thought I would like. Can you recommend specific works?
Last year I completed my Masters dissertation on her soteriology in relation to her doctrine of creation, so I’ve been spending a lot of time with her recently. I’m also active in the George MacDonald Society, though Weil is my principal focus at the moment. The best place to start is the collection “Waiting on God” (or Jersak’s translation, “Awaiting God,” which also includes the “Letter to a Priest”). Begin with the letter titled “Spiritual Autobiography”, then read her essays “On the Love of God and Affliction” and “On the Our Father” (a distilled version of her later thought). That gives you an introduction to both her person and thought. Brad Jersak also has three excellent talks about her on Soundcloud/ YouTube, which I can recommend.
Thank you so much. This is wonderfully helpful!
This is wonderful! I made my discoveries in the opposite order–MacDonald over 20 years ago, and Kierkegaard just last year, but I, too, am excited by the parallels between their thought.
Those parallels are pretty impressive, aren’t they! Sadly, Kierkegaard has been the victim of some very bad PR. There are many people who think he wasn’t even religious because of his attacks on the Danish Lutheran Church. And most people know him for his difficult philosophical works with very off-putting names such as The Sickness Unto Death and Fear and Trembling, rather than for his edifying works such as Works of Love and all the beautiful “edifying discourses.” Stick to the older translations, when possible, or Altair Hannay’s translations for Penguin. The Hongs’ translations lose most of the lyrical beauty of the originals.
Thanks for this lovely comment!