IV. The World Well Lost

C. Celibacy

That a woman [the woman who
was a sinner (Luke 7:36-50)]
is presented as a teacher, as a pattern of piety,
can astonish no one who knows
that piety or godliness
is in its very nature a womanly quality.
Woman might be called "joie de vivre."
There is certainly a joie de vivre in man;
but fundamentally he is formed
to be spiritual and if he were alone
and left to himself he would not... know how
to set about it, and would never really get as far as beginning.
But then the
joie de vivre,
which is indefinite and vague
within him, appears outside him in another form,
in the form of woman who is
joie de vivre;
and so the joy of life awakens.2

It is not often that one can catch S.K. in an out-and-out contradiction, but here is a bad one. Woman is either a symbol of godliness that can lead a man into spirituality, or else she is a symbol of joie de vivre that can lead a man into worldliness-SIC. was not quite sure which. Eighteenth century Brethren thought displayed something of the same, or at least a related, ambiguity. Apparently S.K. and the Brethren finally came out at opposite conclusions, S.K. supporting Christian celibacy, the Brethren Christian marriage. But the significance of the comparison lies not in the divergence of their conclusions but in the agreement of their confusions. The Kierkegaardian-Brethren ambiguity must be seen in contrast to the Roman Catholic certainty that celibacy is required for the higher righteousness of "spiritual Christians" and the churchly-Protestant certainty that celibacy is as much as prohibited for normal Christian spirituality.

We will advocate the position that S.K. concluded his life as a supporter of universal Christian celibacy, but we also will strongly resist the interpretation that would make S.K. such from the outset and then draw implications regarding his solitariness and world renunciation. Any such reading of the Regina incident cannot be reconciled with certain plain and forthright statements by S.K. For example:

I do not maintain, and have never maintained that I did not marry because it was supposed to be contrary to Christianity, as though my being unmarried were a form of Christian perfection. Oh, far from it.... My greatest pleasure would have been to have married the girl to whom I was engaged.... [But] I remained unmarried, and so had the opportunity of thinking over what Christianity really meant by praising the unmarried state.3

There is nothing in S.K. to indicate anything but that this asseveration was entirely honest and was his honest understanding throughout his life. Even when, in 1854-1855, at the very end of his career, S.K. seemingly took a view that would make celibacy a Christian requirement, the situation was not changed: S.K. did not arrive at this position until thirteen years after he had broken with Regina; he never mentioned Regina in the process of presenting this final opinion; and if there was any real connection between the breaking of the engagement in 1841 and the advocating of Christian celibacy in 1854, it is by no means clear what the nature or significance of that connection might be. In short, the Regina incident, far from being the key to Kierkegaard's witness, is of very questionable help in understanding S.K.'s religious views even of marriage, let alone the religious life as a whole. His relationship to Regina involved so many purely personal factors that it hardly can be used as a source from which to derive a clear picture of his ideology.

We have called S.K.'s thoughts on marriage "confused"; this term is somewhat misleading if not unjust. S.K.'s was certainly a changing view but not by that token a chaotic one; if his statements are traced period by period a quite consistent pattern appears.

Phase I: The Regina Incident and S.K.'s Cogitations Regarding It

This, as we have suggested, was predominantly a personal matter from which S.K. did not (and explicitly refused to) generalize concerning a Christian doctrine of celibacy per se. This phase is of little help to our study, although, as we shall see, it does lend some support to Phase IV.

Phase II: The Aesthetic Pseudonyms (In Particular, those of Either/Or I and of the Banquet in Stages on Life's Way)

Here are both confused and inadequate views of marriage. Among these pseudonyms are "woman-lovers," analysts who approve of love, "woman-haters," and analysts who approve misogyny; and ultimately all of their views-those of the lovers as well as the haters-show up as inadequate and false. But this disorder ought not be laid to S.K.'s charge, for it was precisely his design to demonstrate that the aesthetic view is by nature confused and partial. Far from attempting to elucidate his own position, S.K. was deliberately using pseudonyms in order to assert that aesthetic analyses are futile.

Thus one cannot, as some would do, read, for example, the speeches of the banquet as an indication of S.K.'s own hatred of women-particularly when S.K. himself explicitly stated:

The five speeches, ... which are all of them caricatures of the most holy, are written with the idea of bringing an essential, but nevertheless false, light to bear upon woman.4

It is a very uncertain procedure to try to divine S.K.'s true opinion of women out of these pseudonyms; they were never intended to incorporate his view, and they present no consistent picture within themselves. The only positive contribution this material can make to our quest is to say, "The answer is not with me," the truth about women and marriage lies not in the aesthetic sphere.

Phase III: The Ethical Pseudonym (In Particular, Judge William, as He Appears Both in Either/Or II and Stages

We have rejected Phases I and II as being all but useless in leading us to S.K.'s true religious position regarding marriage; Phase III is much more helpful. Those commentators who tend to make Phases I and II normative and thus portray S.K. simply as a misogynist must overlook the fact that also within the writings of Søren Kierkegaard are to be found some of the most impressive pictures of conjugal happiness and some of the most profound analyses of the marriage relationship to occur anywhere. These commentators ignore the obvious fact that the banquet passage consciously is structured so that the mere appearance of the concrete and actual love relationship of Judge William and his wife immediately gives the lie to all the high-flown philosophizing of the banqueters.

Phase III presents as exalted a view of marriage as can be conceived, always from the mouth of Judge William, the ethicist, who makes such statements as these:

What I am through her, that she is through me, and we are neither of us anything by ourselves but only in union. To her I am a man, for only a married man is a genuine man.5

In paganism there was a god for love but none for marriage; in Christianity there is, if I may venture to say so, a God for marriage and none for love.6

Marriage I regard as the highest telos of the individual human existence, it is so much the highest that the man who goes without it cancels with one stroke the whole of earthly life and retains only eternity and spiritual interests.7

I do not say that marriage is the highest, I know a higher; but woe to him who would skip over marriage without justification.... [Any exception] must occur in the direction of the religious, in the direction of spirit, in such a way that being spirit makes one forget that one is also man, not spirit alone like God.8
A very obvious difference between Phase III and Phase II is that Phase III has arrived at one consistent viewpoint. Likewise, this viewpoint displays insights that are much more profound, positive, and religious than those of even the greatest "lovers" of Phase II. Judge William is still a pseudonym (and this dare not be forgotten); Phase III does not present us with S.K.'s direct and final word.

A consideration of the general relationship between S.K.'s "stages of existence" will help elucidate the relationship between the specific "phases" that concern us here. S.K. held that a decisive "either/or" falls between the aesthetic and the ethical stages but that the progression from the ethical to the religious is much more gradual and continuous. Thus one must choose between Phase II and Phase III, between the banqueters on the one hand, Judge William and wife on the other. S.K. made this dichotomy very clear. It does not follow, however, that the same sort of choice is to be posited between the ethicist Judge William on the one hand and the religious view of S.K. himself on the other. Here the relationship we would expect (and which will prove to be the case) is that Judge William represents a truth which is nevertheless a partial truth; religious-Christian considerations will not cancel or supersede Judge William's position but definitely will supplement and modify it. It is highly significant to note that, in Judge William's third and fourth statements quoted above, there are explicit hints of other considerations yet to come.

Phase IV: The Direct Religious Writings up until the Attack

In this phase are present two different conceptions which on first thought may seem contradictory but probably are not. In the first place there is the continuation of the Judge William line in which woman is praised as a spiritual helpmeet and example. The first of our two epigraphs is characteristic of the long passage of which it is a pan--this from a discourse of 1850. Another such passage occurs in For Self-Examination (1851).9 The comparative lateness of both these dates is significant.

But alongside this strain appears another, a specifically Christian note. One example will make S.K.'s thought plain:

It is quite certain and true that Christianity is suspicious of marriage, and desires that along with the many married servants it has, it might also have an unmarried person, a single man; for Christianity knows very well that with woman and love all this weakliness and love of coddling arises in a man, and that insofar as the husband himself does not bethink himself of it, the wife ordinarily pleads it with ingenuous candor whtch is exceedingly dangerous for the husband, especially for one who is required in the strictest to serve Christianity."10

There would not seem to be any necessary opposition between the affirmation

  1. that woman has an instinct for genuine religiousness which can be of inspiration to a man, and
  2. that family life inevitably involves a man in worldly concerns that make it difficult for him to act completely and solely for God.

In fact the recognition of both truths might well lead to S.K.'s customary dialectical treatment except that it proves somewhat awkward to apply the method to marriage. One hardly can be both married and not married at the same time; neither does rapid oscillation between the two quite achieve the purpose; and even being married "as though not" is somewhat impractical, although this is precisely what Paul did advocate in 1 Cor. 7:29.

The position S.K. actually took would seem to be as near to dialectical as is feasible. His was a doctrine of "vocational celibacy." Ethically understood, marriage is a moral imperative that applies universally (Phase III is not rejected). Christianly understood, marriage is proper and good, the "normal" mode. However, the cause of true religion also needs (not, "the law of the church requires") the contribution that only a celibate can make. God calls a few Christians, the "exceptions," to a specialized service that needs the specialized qualifications found only in a celibate.

Though there may be some points of contact, this view differs greatly from that of Roman Catholicism. With S.K. the call is entirely a private matter between den Enkelte and God and is so exceptional a case that no generalizations can be drawn at all. Den Enkelte must bear the full responsibility for having presumed "a teleological suspension of the ethical" (to use the language of Fear and Trembling), being willing to pay the price and risk the misunderstanding that such exceptions incur. This is a far different thing than a formal requirement of the church applied wholesale to an entire class of men as a prerequisite for achieving an elevated spiritual status. No merit accrues to the Kierkegaardian celibate; he has done no more than the married Christian has done, because each has sought simply to find the will of God for his particular life. But as God may call one man to sacrifice his fortune to the cause, another his social status, another perhaps his life, so may he call still another to sacrifice his marriage. And S.K. clearly, explicitly, and consistently interpreted his break with Regina precisely in this frame of reference; he always thought of himself as "the exception" and did his utmost to prevent his action from being generalized into a rule.

Up to this point, apart from the complicating factors of Phase I (i.e. his personal actions in regard to Regina), S.K.'s thought about Christian celibacy has followed the pattern that almost could be predicted; the development is of a piece with the rest of his religious thought. And Phase IV, which falls where we would expect to find the authentic Kierkegaardian witness, we take as being just that. This position is not typically churchly-Protestant; the fact that it so much as shows concern over the possibility of a Christian celibacy is a distinction, a distinction which, we intend to show, actually is sectarian in character.

Phase V: During the Attack (1854-1855)

Contrary to S.K.'s usual pattern, during the closing months of his life, coincident with his attack upon Christendom, he seems to have drifted past sectarianism and into a view of marriage that can be adjudged only as "cultic." In several places in the periodicals that made up the Attack and more particularly in the unpublished journals of that period, S.K. condemned marriage and childbearing per se, making such statements as:

The lower man is in the degree of consciousness, the more natural the [sexual] relationship. But the more intellectually developed a man is the more conscious life penetrates it and the closer one gets to the point where lies Christianity and whatever resembles it in religious and philosophic outlook, where continence becomes the expression of spirit.11
"Christianly it is anything but the greatest benefaction to bestow life upon the child.... Christianly it is egoism in the highest degree that because a man and a woman cannot control their lust another being must therefore sigh, perhaps for seventy years in this prisonhouse and vale of tears, and perhaps be lost eternally."12
I came into being through a crime against God's will. The offense, which in one sense, is not mine, though it makes me a criminal in the sight of God, was to give life."13
This is something new--new and shocking. Here is no natural development out of Phase IV; Phase IV suddenly and without warning has been turned upside down; what had been insisted upon as the exception now has become the rule. In addition, Phase V is not merely anti-marriage, nor even misogynist, but deeply and terribly misanthropic. There are here implications that stand in direct contradiction to both the letter and mood of what we have seen as S.K.'s primary emphases. For instance, the first quotation above denies everything S.K. had said about antiintellectualism and the equality of all men before God. And what does this bitter hatred of life and of self do to the concepts of den Enkelte, devotional immediacy, neighbor love?

This dark note was a real note, but we would not give the impression that it marked the whole tenor either of the Attack or of the journals for this period. Such definitely is not the case; the scene did not suddenly turn dark but, rather, on the horizon appeared momentarily, from time to time, this black cloud no larger than a man's hand. What it presaged is impossible to say; it appeared too late and was too fleeting to provide grounds for accurate analysis. The existence of Phase V cannot be denied, but Phase IV is the only one that qualifies as the normative Kierkegaardian position on Christian celibacy, and it is far from representing the solitariness of a total renunciation of woman and the world.

If S.K.'s thought portrays a move from a churchlike assumption about marriage as a universal duty (Phase III), through sectarian dialecticism (Phase IV), into a cultic insistence on universal celibacy (Phase V), Brethren thought represents something of the same movement--in precisely the opposite direction.

Surprisingly enough, the original Brethren advocated and practiced a system of enforced celibacy (or continence in the case of couples that already were married). The chronicles of the Ephrata community included a brief description of Brethren beginnings at Schwarzenau which said: "[The Brethren] had their goods in common, and practiced continence, though it is said they did not persevere in this zeal longer than seven years, after which they turned to women again and to the ownership of property involved therein."14 The Beisselites cited this information in the process of justifying their own practice of both communalism and continence; therefore, the entire notice would be highly suspect (as it is almost certainly mistaken regarding the seven year duration) except for the fact that it is supported by Mack Senior himself. One of the questions put to him by the Radical Pietists in 1713 asked whether the Brethren had not wavered by once rejecting the married state and then permitting it again. Mack answered:

It is true that we had to continue discussions on marriage, work, yes, and still other matters, after the [first] baptism. Before our baptism, when we were still among the [Radical] Pietists, we were not taught otherwise by those who were deemed great saints. Therefore, we had much contention until we abandoned the errors which we had absorbed.15

The fact that Mack Junior was born but four years after the church was founded and the statement above written five years after--this, plus the very tone of Mack's reply, all suggests that the period of strict Brethren celibacy was very much briefer than seven years, actually representing only the time needed for the group to get itself established and move out of the cultism from which it had come. Indeed, this cultic phase probably involved about the same length of time and the same degree of fixedness in the Brethren as it did in S.K., the difference being, of course, that it lay at the beginning of the Brethren development and at the end of S.K.'s.

But the reinstitution of marriage did not terminate Brethren discussion of celibacy. In his Rights and Ordinances of 1715, Mack Senior said:

If the unmarried state is conducted in purity of the Spirit and of the flesh in true faith in Jesus, and is kept in true humility, it is better and higher. It is closer to the image of Christ to remain unmarried. Nevertheless, if an unmarried person marries, he commits no sin, provided it occurs in the Lord Jesus, and is performed in the true belief in Jesus Christ.16

Although there are differences in approach and emphasis, Mack's is a dialectic-like solution quite similar in effect to S.K.'s Phase IV: both marriage and celibacy can be Christian; God purposes and calls some Christians for the one station and some for the other; no one can prescribe for the other person; neither should one vaunt himself over the other.

The most extended discussion of celibacy, following the same general line as Mack, is to be found in Michael Frantz (himself a married man, as Mack was). In his prolix poem he presented a discussion running for some forty-seven stanzas; what follows is a prose condensation and paraphrase:

A person does not sin by marrying; neither should one try to prevent the godly marriage of his daughter or maid. Worldlings have wives and children without number and thus increase their demands for land and wealth; this has been the pattern since Adam and Eve. As the world has debauched God's other gifts, so marriage. Not all marriages are of God. However, marriage is clean and honorable for those who are called to it. Marriage, indeed, can even be a symbol of the inner relationship to the bridegroom Christ.
Marriage should be classed along with fasting and praying, i.e., they easily can be misused. Whoever desires to practice abstention within the marriage relationship should be very careful that his mate is of the same mind. Chastity is a good gift for those who have it and who practice it humbly and quietly. Whoever abstains in marriage should abstain in all things and not make a great deal of talk about it. Whoever despises marriage is following Satan; whoever abstains from marriage must take care not to abstain also from Christ's Spirit and the light of grace.17

The dialectic attempt to approve complementary positions and hold both in harmony is particularly marked in Frantz. It should be recalled that just as Mack had had to hold his position in the face of celibacy-promoting Radical Pietists, Frantz was working in the very congregation from which the celibate Beisselites but recently had gone out. Undoubtedly these external pressures helped to keep Christian celibacy a live alternative among the Brethren for as long as was the case. Following Michael Frantz, the matter does not appear again in eighteenth century Brethren literature, except for one interesting note. History tells us that Jacob Stoll, the poet-preacher of the latter part of the century, was engaged to be married at the time the church called him to the ministry. Along with his decision to accept that call he broke off his engagement and served as a celibate18 --shades of (or rather, foreshadowings of) Søren Kierkegaard!

For the most part, however, the Brethren seem to have slipped back to the customary churchly way of simply assuming that anyone who can marry will, failing to give serious attention to as much as the possibility of a truly religious celibacy. Thus the Brethren path--just the reverse of S.K.'s--ran from cultism, through sectarianism, and into churchism.

The customary approach of Kierkegaard scholarship is to treat S.K.'s position on marriage solely as a matter of his personal psychology. However, if one were to take S.K.'s own statements (those of both Phase IV and Phase V) simply and plainly at their face value, it would become quite obvious what he considered as the primary motive. In his New Testament S.K. found a number of counsels, commands, and examples that compel a serious consideration of religious celibacy. He frequently used phrases like those found in his statements quoted above: "Christianity is suspicious of marriage," and "what Christianity really meant by praising the unmarried state"; and these, for S.K, are the equivalent of saying, "The New Testament teaches ..." In addition, he made specific reference both to the example of Jesus and the teachings of Paul.19 But to a modern scholar it is inconceivable that anyone might take the Bible seriously enough to be bothered by the fact that it promotes celibacy. So, to the couch! If S.K. did not marry, it was because he was sexually maladjusted.

But our comparison with sectarianism can be instructive at this point, for with the sectaries it is obvious that biblical injunctions were the source of their restlessness. They were too deeply committed to scriptural obedience to take the churchly-Protestant option of ignoring a sizable group of texts. But on the other hand, because of their commitment to the equality of all men before God, neither could they take the Roman Catholic option of applying marriage-approving texts to the laity and celibacy-approving texts to a superior class of Christians. They were impelled, then, into the dialectic, vocational view, for which a strong case could be made that this is an accurate interpretation of the New Testament position. And it is just possible that S.K. too was being entirely honest when he indicated that he found a justification for celibacy within the New Testament.

Ultimately, of course, neither S.K. nor the Brethren were able maintain the balance that would give marriage and celibacy equal rights, equal honor, equal emphasis; this is a very difficult dialectic to hold. And it very well may be that in the end it was personal, psychological factors that determined that S.K. should lose his balance in the direction of a cultic insistence on celibacy. It would he foolish to deny the evidence of psychological abnormalities at play within the development of Søren Kierkegaard; but it is even more foolish to overlook the role that true religious conviction played in that life--and that conviction, in its impact regarding marriage, had a quality of sectarianism just as it did in regard to so many other things.

Copyright (c) 1968