Pulling Ourselves Together

I gave a paper entitled “Pulling Ourselves Together: Kierkegaard and the Catechesis of Contagion” at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion last month. Several people told me I should try to publish the paper, but I fear that might be difficult because it is not a traditional academic paper, but actually contains edifying elements. So I decided that rather than racking my brains trying to think of an appropriate journal, I would simply post it to this blog. I haven’t posted the whole paper, though, because while it is short, at ten pages, it is still considerably longer than the average post to this blog. What I’ve done instead is simply posted the first part and then provided a link to the pdf of the entire paper at the end in case you are sufficiently intrigued by the beginning and decide you would like to read all the way to the end.

Vær så god!

“You may have heard,” writes Kierkegaard in “To Preserve One’s Soul In Patience,”

“how someone who had thoughtlessly frittered away his life and never understood anything but wasted the power of his soul in vanities, how he lay on his sick bed and the frightfulness of disease encompassed him and the singularly fearful battle began, how he then, for the first time in his life, understood something, understood that it was death he struggled with, and how he then pulled himself together in a purpose that was powerful enough to move a world, how he attained a marvelous collectedness for wrenching himself out of the sufferings in order to use the last moment to catch up on some of what he had neglected, to bring order to some of the chaos he had caused during a long life, to contrive something for those he would leave behind. You may have heard it from those who were there with him, who with sadness, but also deeply moved, had to confess that in those few hours he had lived more than in all the rest of his life, more than is lived in years and days as people ordinarily live” (Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, p. 181).

Not since the flu pandemic of 1918, which took more lives than WWI, has an illness aroused so much anxiety and fear as the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet this global tragedy is also an opportunity for us to understand, perhaps for the first time, how we struggle with death from the moment we come to understand our mortality, even if we spend most of our lives in denial concerning this struggle. Our current crisis provides us, according to Kierkegaard, with an opportunity to reevaluate our lives, to catch up on what we have neglected, to bring order to some of the chaos we may have caused during our lives, to contrive something for those we will eventually leave behind, to live more than in all the rest of our lives, “more than is lived in years and days as people ordinarily live.”

This paper argues that the confrontation with our mortality that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced upon us can, according to Kierkegaard, be a means of powerful spiritual instruction, instruction on what is truly meaningful in existence and how we may live our lives, however long or short they may be, so fully, so completely enfolded in the embrace of Grace that even the specter of death is no longer frightening.

Pulling Ourselves Together,” delivered at the 2021 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion.

Haverford Kierkegaard Seminar

Duck Pond, Haverford College
The Duck Pond, Haverford College

I had one of the best teaching experiences of my career last term. I taught an upper-level Kierkegaard seminar at Haverford College. Haverford, for those of you who do not know, is one of the best small liberal arts colleges in the country. It’s ranked number twelve on U.S. News and World Report’s list of 239 “National Liberal Arts Colleges in the U.S.

Haverford is a college based in the Quaker tradition. “The Quaker religion,” observes William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, “is impossible to overpraise.” There’s always been a strong connection between Quakers and Kierkegaard because both emphasize the importance of the individual’s relation to God. My undergraduate professor and mentor, Bob Horn, the man who introduced me to Kierkegaard, taught briefly at Haverford before settling, finally, at Earlham College, another excellent Quaker institution, and the one from which I received my undergraduate degree.

Bob is a Kierkegaard scholar, and one of the most knowledgable people on Kierkegaard whom I have ever met. His Positivity and Dialectic, an examination of the thought of Hans Lassen Martensen, one of Kierkegaard’s teachers, is an essential resource for Kierkegaard scholars. Bob was succeeded at Haverford by Josiah Tompson, another Kierkegaard scholar. Thompson published The Lonely Labyrinth, an examination of Kierkegaard pseudonymous works, and Kierkegaard: A Collection of Critical Essays.

I knew first hand how intellectually stimulating is the environment of a small liberal arts college. A college with a Quaker history is even more inspiring, however, because there the emphasis is not merely on the development of the mind, but also of the spirit. I also knew of the Haverford-Kierkegaard connection, hence I was very excited when I was offered the opportunity to become, even if only briefly, a part of that tradition.

Jerry Miller, author of the critically acclaimed Stain Removal: Ethics and Race, and the chair of Haverford’s philosophy department, went out of his way to make me feel welcome, as did Kathleen Wright, a tenured full professor at Haverford and a specialist on German idealism and Heidegger, who generously allowed me to share her office.

I could not have had a better group of students. We did a series of short essays in preparation for the term paper. Those essays were mostly summaries of various portions of the texts we were reading at the time they were assigned. This, I explained to them, was to help them become familiar with the practice of providing background for one’s argument before making the argument itself.

They were all good writers. Where they really shone, however, was in their term papers. Each one chose a challenging and important topic, and each did such a good job with the topic that I think their papers could actually be helpful to scholars wrestling with the same issues, so I asked them if I could post their papers to this blog. The students whose papers are mentioned below generously agreed to allow me to do that and to include their names. What follows is a short summary of each paper, along with a link to a pdf of the paper.

I’m going to present the papers in alphabetical order based on the student’s last name. First is Courtney Ahmed’s paper. Courtney’s paper, “Love in Philosophical Crumbs,” examines an issue that has always been of particular interest to me: the relation between human love and divine love. Here is the intro to Courtney’s paper. Remember, this is an undergraduate paper!

In Philosophical Crumbs, Søren Kierkegaard asserts the idea that Christian faith rests on the unequivocal acceptance that the eternal God’s temporal appearance in lowest human form was purely an act of love. Acceptance of this fact has the power to transform those who are able to both grasp and set aside its sheer implausibility. Is it possible, however, for one to understand and accept God’s love— the fundamental premise of Christianity— and thereby effect the transformation of faith without experiencing human love as a precursor? I will argue through the lens of Kierkegaard that no, it is impossible to know what it means to be loved by God unless one has experienced love manifested in human relationships.

Ian Andolsek was a senior philosophy major who actually wrote his senior thesis on Kierkegaard. Andolsek’s paper, “Towards a Deontic Kierkegaardian Virtue Ethics,” is not only well written, it displays an impressive grasp of the breadth of theoretical ethics. The following paragraph is extracted from early in the paper. I chose to post it, rather than the intro because I think it contains more information concerning the substance of Andolsek’s paper.

Kierkegaard’s ethical project is motivated by his strongly held the conviction that the purpose of ethics has been nearly universally misunderstood, from the Ancients, to Kant, to most notably, Hegel. My picture will present Kierkegaard as an analytically rigorous ethical philosopher who extends a cogent and compelling critique of Hegel’s ethical view in the Philosophy of Right to construct a positive ethical framework.

John Chip’s paper, “The Role of Aesthetics in Soren Kierkegaard’s Ethics and Beyond,” addresses an issue that could not be more important to those of use who love Kierkegaard not merely for the substance of his thought, but for the beauty of his prose style. Here is Chip’s intro:

Soren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher active in the 19th century. In this paper, I will explore Kierkegaard’s concept of aesthetics and its relation to ethics and religion and argue that, contrary to Kierkegaard’s claims, aesthetics can have a positive role in an ethical-religious life. First, I will discuss Kierkegaard’s primary concerns and summarize Kierkegaard’s views on how the conception of aesthetics functions in the ethical and religious life. Then, I will identify passages in which it is possible to understand aesthetics playing a positive role in an ethical-religious life.

Kevin Connolly’s paper “The Search for Eternal Happiness – Can Individual_s Subjects Assist One Another?” does just what it says. It examines the extent to which people can help one another in coming to understand eternal, unchanging truth. This is a hugely important topic in Kierkegaard scholarship because Kierkegaard often speaks as if he thinks people can have no role in helping one another to come to understand this truth. But if he really does believe this, then why, Connolly asks, did he write? Here is Connolly’s introduction.

In his Philosophical Crumbs and Concluding Unscientific Postscript, the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard describes the pursuit of an “eternal happiness” as being an essentially individual enterprise rooted in ethical-religious development. Although some readers may be inclined to interpret Kierkegaard as claiming that individual subjects can do nothing to assist one another in making ethical-religious progress, such a view is incommensurate with several other positions Kierkegaard takes throughout these works. Specifically, this paper will show this viewpoint to be incongruous with the many remarks Kierkegaard makes concerning a subject’s decision-making and relationship with God, an understanding of how interpersonal communication works, and his commentary pertaining to religious addresses. It will thereafter be clear that Kierkegaard believes that subjects can indirectly assist others by inducing them to act and forge their own way toward ethical-religious development, but cannot themselves guide them along a pre-charted path to ethical-religious development.

Leonor Suarez’s paper, “How Does One Learn that They are Outside of the Truth_?” looks at the issue of whether it is possible to come to know one is outside the truth without God’s help, which is to say that it looks at the relation between what Kierkegaard calls “guilt consciousness” and “sin consciousness.” Suarez’s intro is so short that rather than present it here, I’ll just direct you to the paper. You will not be disappointed!

 

My Kierkegaard seminar at Haverford was something special. It’s an experience I hope I will be able to repeat someday.

A Problem with Hannay’s Postscript

I have said before, and I will say again, that Alastair Hannay’s translations of Kierkegaard for Penguin are superior to the Hongs’ translations for Princeton. I will probably do some posts comparing them again. That is not the purpose of the present post, however. I’m teaching a seminar on Kierkegaard now at Haverford College where we’re reading Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Crumbs, and his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs. We’re using my translation of the Crumbs from Oxford and Hannay’s translation of the Postscript from Cambridge. In the course of my reading through this new translation of the Postscript, I have discovered a number of problems with it.

The most serious and most perplexing problem is Hannay’s systematically translating Kierkegaard’s Opvakt as “reborn.” Opvakt literally means “awakened.” It comes from the verb opvække, that, according to Ferrall-Repp means “to awake, rouse, excite, stir up.” An Opvækkelse is similarly defined by Ferrall-Repp as an “awakening.” Kierkegaard uses the expression en Opvakt to refer to a follower of the charismatic Danish priest Nikolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig (see the commentary to SKS).

One might be tempted to argue that while “awakened” is the most literal translation of Opvakt, it is awkward in English to refer to the members of a particular religious movement as “awakened.” Unfortunately, “reborn” isn’t much better if it is better at all. The idiomatic expression in English would be “born again.”

The more serious difficulty, however, with the translation of Opvakt as “reborn” is that it is misleading, so misleading, in fact, that it is likely to make readers dependent on English translations of Kierkegaard conclude that his thought is incoherent. Kierkegaard speaks in the following passage from the Philosophical Crumbs of a “rebirth” of the individual who receives the condition for understanding the truth from the god in time.

To the extent that the disciple was in error and now receives the truth as well as the condition for understanding it, a change takes place in him that is like the transition from not being to being. But this transition from not being to being is precisely that of birth [Fødselens]. He who exists already can hardly be born, and yet he is born. Let us call this transition rebirth [Gjenfødslen](96).

The expression for “rebirth” is Gjenfødslen. Gjenfødslen comes from adding the prefix Gjen (which comes from Igien, which means “again”) to Fødsel, which, according to Ferrall-Repp. is defined as “delivery, parturation, birth, nativity.”

This “rebirth” is an unqualifiedly positive thing. It is, indeed, precisely the temporal point of departure for a person’s “eternal consciousness” the possibility of which was posed as “the problem of the Crumbs.

Kierkegaard’s “Gjenfødslen” is a positive phenomenon, indeed, THE positive phenomenon. Kierkegaard has little respect, however, for the followers of Grundtvig, so his references to them as Opvakt are all pejorative.

What is the poor reader dependent on English translations of Kierkegaard to make of this? When he reads the Crumbs, he’ll find that “rebirth” is equivalent to an individual’s encounter with God in the person of Christ. When he proceeds, however, to the Postscript, he’ll read that “[t]he one who is reborn … is not relating to God” (381, emphasis added).

This isn’t the only misleading reference in Hannay’s translation to someone who is “reborn.” There is also a reference on page 383 to “the impudent assurance in the fact of God of the one reborn.” There’s another reference on page 424 to “the one who is reborn impertinently retain[ing] God.” When I did a search on “reborn” on my electronic copy of the book, I got 25 hits. Some of the pages, such as 429, have multiple references because Kierkegaard goes on at some length in those places about what is wrong with the followers Grundtvig –– except that the reader very likely won’t know that’s what Kierkegaard is doing, but will assume he’s critiquing the views he developed himself in the Philosophical Crumbs.

Kierkegaard is not critiquing his own earlier views, or worse, contradicting himself. “Rebirth” is a literal translation of Gjenfødslen. It is not, however, a literal translation of Opvakt, and given that Kierkegaard uses Opvakt only pejoratively and Gjenfødslen only positively, a translator needs to be careful to preserve that terminological distinction in order to avoid confusing the reader and perhaps compelling him to conclude that Kierkegaard just wasn’t all that rigorous a thinker.

I thought it was important to alert readers to this problem because people who read my translation of Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Crumbs will very likely be inclined to read Hannay’s translation of the Postscript since Hannay also translates Kierkegaard’s Smuler as “crumbs.”

Hannay got Smuler right, but he got Opvakt wrong.