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.