Kierkegaard and MacDonald on Genuine Community

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!

Kierkegaard and Traditionalism

As I write this scholars of religion are milling about the book exhibit at the annual meeting at the American Academy of Religion in Chicago. The AAR meeting is one of my favorite academic conferences. There’s something for everyone there. From Wiccans to the Eastern Orthodox. I decided not to attend this year’s meeting, however, because I’m not on the program and that means I’d have to foot the bill myself. There are always a multitude of interesting papers, more than I would ever be able to get to even if none of them ran concurrently. I think what I miss most of all though is the book exhibit.

The book exhibit is wonderful. Every major academic and scholarly publisher is represented, including many foreign and esoteric presses. I’ve taken, in recent years, to carrying my Kindle with me through the rows of exhibitors. If I see a book I like, I quickly check to see if it is available on Kindle. Not only are Kindle versions often cheaper than the regular or hardcover editions (even with the substantial conference discount), but they do not add to the bulk of the luggage I have to tote back home.

Some books though, are simply not the same on a Kindle, or other electronic reading device because they’re not just text, but aesthetic objects. Such a book is The Christian Spirit from World Wisdom publishers. It’s sort of a modern version of an illuminated manuscript. No one has more (both in quantity and in quality) beautiful books than World Wisdom publishers. And no press has a more congenial staff. The year I bought The Christian Spirit I struck up a conversation with the people who were staffing the World Wisdom booth and the longer I stood there and talked, the more books they gave me. Yes, they gave me books. I can’t remember how many books I bought, somewhere around a half a dozen, I think, but they gave me at least that many for free. The conversation would turn in the direction of a subject covered in a book I had not bought, and no sooner than I would shake my head in disappointment that I really could not afford to buy yet another book, would I find it thrust into my hands for free if I would simply promise to read it.

I love the people at World Wisdom. When I arrived home and began to peruse some of my new treasures, I kept coming upon the terms “traditionalism,” and “perennialism.” The two terms are used more or less interchangeably to refer to the same movement. The movement was founded by René Guénon, Frithjof Schuon, and Ananda Coomaraswamy. It’s a religious, or spiritual, movement that is at once pluralistic and conservative. Traditionalists believe that all religions have their origin in the same transcendent source–God, but that each must be respected for its own inherent integrity. It has unfortunately been associated with rightwing movements in Europe, which is probably part of the reason it is not better known in the U.S. It’s far from clear, however, that the core beliefs and values of traditionalism cohere with such movements.

What is clear, however, is that traditionalism is in at least some vague sense politically conservative. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, one of the leading proponents of contemporary traditionalism quotes Schuon as asserting that the worst king is better than the best president. That remark gave me pause, not simply because one doesn’t expect to hear such an assertion from a contemporary Western scholar, but because it sounded so remarkably like Kierkegaard.

“A mediocre ruler,” asserts Kierkegaard, “is a much better constitution than the abstraction of 100,000 growling non-human beings” (“En maadelig Regent er en | meget bedre Forfatning end dette Abstractum, 100,000 brummende U-Msker.”  [NB4 :114 1848, SKS 20, 339]). “Every movement that really wants to be progressive,” he asserts, “must have its origin in one thing–it must be clear that God is involved, that the whole thing really issues from him” (Enhver Bevægelse, der virkelig skal være et Fremskridt, maa udgaae fra Een – at det kan være tydeligt, at Gud er med i Spillet, saa det Hele egl. udgaaer fra ham [NB4 :114 1848, SKS 20, 339]).

“Nasr had cited Kierkegaard, at the beginning of a talk he gave at a conference entitled “Tradition in the Modern World, as one of the bad guys, one of the modernist thinkers (which means “bad guy” to traditionalists).

It’s not surprising Nasr would put Kierkegaard in the class of modernist thinkers. Most people who don’t know much about Kierkegaard probably think about him that way. Even Alasdair MacIntyre presents Kierkegaard that way in his otherwise excellent book After Virtue. Most serious Kierkegaard scholars know, however, that such a view of Kierkegaard is mistaken (cf., e.g., Kierkegaard After MacIntyre). Kierkegaard’s political conservatism is, in fact, the source of a great deal of embarrassment among Kierkegaard scholars who think of themselves as politically progressive.

It’s time such scholars (and I place myself among them) acknowledged, however, that despite what we like to see as the potential of Kierkegaard’s thought to contribute to a progressive political ideology, it is unlikely that Kierkegaard would have approved of such a project himself. No “progress” is possible for Kierkegaard without God and fitting God into any organized movement, political or otherwise, is a project that Kierkegaard all too often speaks as if he believes is doomed to failure.

A monarch is a better regent, for Kierkegaard, than a mob because a monarch can, as an individual, have a personal relation to God, while a mob cannot. It’s not clear, however, whether all collectives can be fairly characterized, from Kierkegaard’s perspective, as “mobs.” Despite his bitter disappointment with “Christendom,” he seems to hold out some hope that there could be such a thing as a community of believers.

What would such a community look like? Is it something the traditionalists would recognize? Is that what they also are trying to effect in the modern world? The traditionalists’ rejection of modern secularism and their call to return to an explicit acknowledgment of what they view as man’s spiritual essence certainly coheres with the substance of Kierkegaard’s thought. It ought to be attractive as well to progressives in its pluralism. There is, I would argue, the potential for a great deal of fruitful scholarship on the relation between Kierkegaard’s political views and the contemporary traditionalist movement.