Kierkegaard and Radical Discipleship 9a
CHAPTER IX a
The preceding chapter treated S.K.'s World Negative, those elements of secular sociality that the Christian is to renounce. We have seen, however, that even in regard to these conscious "negatives," S.K.'s renunciation was anything but a sweeping, out-of-hand rejection. The present chapter is the direct counterpart of the preceding one, this the treatment of S.K.'s World Positive, those elements of secular sociality that the Christian is to affirm and promote. The material is classed under two main headings: "The Simple Life" comprises the positive Christian relationship to the world of things, "Neighbor Love" to the world of people.
When the prosperous man on a dark but star-lit night drives comfortably in his carriage and has the lanterns lighted, aye, then he is safe, he fears no difficulty, he carries his light with him, and it is not dark close around him; but precisely because he has the lanterns lighted, and has a strong light close to him, precisely far this reason he cannot see the stars, for his lights obscure the stars, which the poor peasant driving without lights can see gloriously in the dark but starry night. So those deceived ones live in the temporal existence: either, occupied with the necessities of life, they are too busy to avail themselves of the view, or in their prosperity and good days they have, as it were, lanterns lighted, and close about them everything is so satisfactory, so pleasant, so comfortable--but the view is lacking, the prospect, the view of the stars.
Our present topic can be introduced in the form of a question. Put in terms of the parable above, it is: If the lanterns of worldly interest obscure the view, what is the mode of existence that best reveals the stars? The Brethren answer was: the simple life. As in the case of "nonconformity to the world," "the simple life" became a technical designation only in the nineteenth century, although the emphasis had been present from the sect's beginning. The same emphasis is to be found in S.K., although, again, the phrase itself is not.
The simple life is a positive conception, its major focus being not so much upon what must be given up as upon what is gained when one deliberately suppresses material values in order to give preeminence to things of the spirit. The "constitutional precedent" for the Brethren teaching always has been the well-known passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:25-34, with its injunctions: "Take no thought for your life"; "Be not anxious"; "Behold the fowls of the air"; "Consider the lilies of the field"; "Seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness." And a glance at the index Kierkegaard and the Bible makes it apparent that this same text is probably the one biblical passage most used by S.K.; he gave full-fledged exposition (not simply an allusion) to this selection, or to parts of it, at nineteen different points in his published works.
The simple-life theme made its earliest appearance in Brethren literature in a hymn, "The Christian Pilgrim," found in the sect's first hymnal, compiled in Germany. 3 The idea was a favorite of Michael Frantz. In his long poem is a series of stanzas on the theme "An idol I have made for myself..." The idols he lists are eating, drinking, splendid clothes, pride in the fact that one wears simple garb (note well!), crops, trees, houses, delight in natural creatures (livestock?). But his best statement, giving greater accent to the positive, is in a shorter poem (only fourteen stanzas long) entitled "A Hymn of Brotherly Love and Community":
In the quietness of God's willSauer Junior also wrote effectively concerning the simple life, saying at one point in a poem that a Christian does not presume to spread himself any further than he can cover with his own blankets. But his most outstanding treatment of the subject was an article in one of his periodicals. In 1764 he established Geistliche Magazien, a little monthly of edification and exhortation which he distributed free of charge as a Christian service. In an issue of the first year appeared a brief essay on "The Usefulness of Poverty"; the fact that it was written as "an after-piece to fill up the remaining space" and refers to the lead article is evidence enough that Sauer Junior was himself the author. The following is a digest of its main themes:One indeed finds the most beautiful treasure--A treasure greater than all treasures--If the heart is a clean place.This treasure is onlyIn hearts which are clean of the love of the world.One must beforehand sell everything,Then he car' buy this treasure.He must indeed industriously pursue it,Dig for it day and night.If, then, one has sold everything,He will find the treasure directly in the act....Whoever has a bare, small house--in accordance with what is necessary--His clothing and the bread of nourishment,Who has a stronger faith with love's gifts,Free from guilt, wholly without need,With children and wife, sound in body--
Men rebel against being poor. They do not consider their poverty as a position in which God has placed them and so use it according to his will. But if one accepted his position, he would thereby become free from it. And if he has fallen into the vicious sort of poverty, he should seek to escape the sin, not the poverty. If he will, he can become free in however little it is God has given him, knowing that He who cares for the birds certainly will not forsake him. His position even carries spiritual advantages: Not having gold, he is not responsible for his use of it. He is better off for not eating dainty foods. He does not do as much calling and so is healthier. Not being honored, he is correspondingly less often insulted-particularly behind his back. He does not have to worry about fashions and keeping up with the neighbors.It is obvious that the ideal of the simple life was a comparative and a voluntary poverty, neither grinding destitution nor a condition one accepts as a grudging necessity. It also seems clear that this is not the equivalent of what customarily is known as "the ascetic life." Material things are counted as good and not renounced as being evil; sacrifice is not valued in and for itself. The simple life is, rather, a life duly proportioned so that spiritual values are given the preeminence they deserve. Here, then, is a dialectic tension between the good of the gifts God has created and the good of God himself.
The important thing is godliness, and the poor man has the easier road to it. Every man must at some time face suffering, and the poor man knows better how to do this because he has not trusted in temporal supports. One needs a sense of what are the true and what are the false values in life, and a poor man has fewer of the latter to renounce. The rich man, on the other hand, must give an account of his riches, how he obtained them, how he used them--as per the story of Dives and Lazarus. All men must become spiritually poor, and the poor man can do this more easily. In addition, rich men tend to use and exploit their neighbors.
But ultimately, poverty can prove a blessing only to one who has been converted. When converted, God will direct one what to give up and will give him the power to do so. All men do not come to God in the same way; poverty is not the means of conversion for all men.
The heart of the Brethren position is strikingly illustrated by a little story told about Mack Junior. As an old man this saint and patriarch of the church somewhere had acquired a silken lounging robe which he wore around the house. Some of the Brethren became concerned that such adornment did not fit well with the church's teaching regarding the simple life. Patriarch or not, a committee was delegated to wait upon Brother Mack. These visitors found him at work in his garden, clothed in the very symbol of luxury they had come to condemn. Brother Mack rose to greet them, wiping his dirty hands on the very fabric of his splendor. Spontaneously the committee decided that even silk, if treated with such careless disdain, so obviously regarded "as though not," hardly posed a spiritual threat. An edifying conversation ensued; the point of the visit failed to get mentioned; and the committee reported back that Elder Mack still was well within the order of the church.
It quickly can be admitted that the Brethren would not have considered the comportment of Søren Kierkegaard as being within that order. He lived what we already have called a life of luxury, tending to pamper his rather extravagant whims in such matters as food, drink, clothing, housing, and personal regimen. However, neither was that mode of living ever advanced by S.K. as an example of what he intended by the simple life. S.K.'s words rather than his behavior must be the source for our study.
S.K.'s words on this theme were many; ten different discourses can be counted as dealing directly with the subject. And although it seems an unlikely combination, the emphasis shows up clearly in the pseudonyms. In fact, Climacus offers two very concise definitions of the doctrine, yet couched in anything but the language of devotion and edification:
Now if for any individual an eternal happiness is his highest good, this will mean that all finite satisfactions are volitionally relegated to the status of what may have to be renounced in favor of an eternal happiness.These are reiterations of the Brethren view, although it is doubtful that any of the Brethren would have known what Climacus was talking about, and it is clear that the definitions themselves violate the first canon of the simple life, namely, that it be simple. However, S.K. (not Climacus) earlier had said the same thing in a much more appropriate way: "'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die,' ... is the cowardly joy of the life of sensuality, the despicable order of things where one lives in order to eat and drink, instead of eating and drinking in order to live." This statement goes to the heart of the matter, and S.K.'s development of the idea displays it as very similar to that of the Brethren.
In order that the individual may sustain an absolute relationship to the absolute telos he must first have exercised him-self in the renunciation of relative ends, and only then can there be a question of the ideal task: the simultaneous maintenance of an absolute relationship to the absolute, and a relative relationship to the relative.
His most effective presentation--unless it be the parable of the carriage lanterns and the stars--is probably the parable of the stock dove. He told of a wild dove of the forest which always was able to find adequate sustenance (because God provides for the birds of the air) but which, of course, never was able to know for sure where the next meal was coming from, or whether there would be a next meal. Thus not out of any real deprivation but out of fear of future deprivation the wild dove became jealous of the farmer's domesticated doves; they lived assured by the presence of the farmer's abundant granary and by the fact that the farmer fed them regularly from it. In the end, anxiety over material security led the wild dove to trade its forest freedom for the farmer's dovecot, and it promptly found itself on the farmer's table.
In his more formal explication S.K. saw that the first and most basic principle of the simple life is the attitude in which one holds his belongings:
In connection with abundance, thought can take from the rich man the thought of possession, the thought that he owns and possesses his wealth and abundance as his.... He has no anxiety in gathering abundance, for he does not care to gather abundance; he has no anxiety in retaining, for it is easy enough to retain what one has not, and he is as one who has not; he has no anxiety for the fact that others possess more, for he is as one who possesses nothing; he knows without anxiety that others possess less, for he is as one who possesses nothing; and he has no anxiety about what he shall leave his heirs.It should be recalled that these words are addressed to the wealthy Christian and are intended to affirm that the sheer possession of material goods is not an absolute bar to one's being a Christian. At this point S.K.'s view is perhaps not completely incompatible with that often designated as "the Protestant ethic," an interpretation which has been at least somewhat typical of churchly thought. However, even here S.K. has begun to move beyond it, in that there is no talk about earning money to the glory of God or being called by God to accumulate wealth.
But S.K., as the Brethren, was not content to leave the simple life only on the level of an "as though not" attitude; this easily could become an invitation to hypocrisy. Re went a step further:
Christianity has never taught that to be literally a lowly man is ynonymous with being a Christian, nor that from the literal condition of lowliness there is a direct transition as a matter of course to becoming a Christian; neither has it taught that if the man of worldly position were to give up all his power, he therefore would be a Christian. But from literal lowliness to the point of becoming a Christian there is however only one step. The position of being literally a lowly man is by no means an unfavorable preparation for becoming a Christian.S.K. here aligned himself with the concluding paragraph of Sauer Junior's essay: poverty, in and of itself, is of no particular spiritual significance or value; neither is the way of poverty legalistically prescribed as the condition for becoming a Christian. Rather, the crux of the matter, S.K. saw, was in the voluntary quality of the discipline--voluntary in the radical sense that makes it an end in itself and not a "work" in the interests of a higher righteousness or an ascetic regimen, for "voluntarily to give up all is Christianity, ... is to be convinced of the glory of the good which Christianity promises."
In at least one place in his writings S.K. seemed to take a position even more radical than that of the simple life; he branded worldly goods as "themselves invidious":
All earthly and worldly goods are in themselves selfish, invidious; the possession of them, being invidious or envious, must of necessity made others poorer: what I have, another cannot have; the more I have, the less another has. The unrighteous mammon (and this term might well he applied to all earthly goods, including worldly honor, power, etc.) is itself unrighteous, does injustice (irrespective of whether it is unlawfully acquired or possessed), cannot in and for itself be acquired or possessed equally.... Even though a man may be willing to communicate in his earthly goods--yet every instant when he is employed in acquiring them or is dwelling upon the possession of them he is selfish, as that thing is which he possesses or acquires.... In a sense this selfishness does not inhere in him, it inheres in the essential nature of the earthly goods.... No, the way, the perfect way of making rich is to communicate the goods of the spirit, being oneself, moreover, solely employed in acquiring and possessing these goods.Even here, in the most radical statement of his position, it should be noted that S.K.'s critique still has to do ultimately with the question of religious allegiance; it is not the materiality of "things" but the inevitable spiritual concomitants of their "possession" that concerned him. Thus, although his view is a long way indeed from the so-called Protestant ethic, it does not by that token fall into the category of Catholic "monasticism," as Lowrie would suggest. It does not presuppose a matter/spirit dualism, meritorious sacrifice, or anything of the sort. Not "Protestant" and not Catholic, it does rather clearly and cleanly fall into the tertium quid of Protestant sectarianism.
The persuasive logic and strong New Testament overtones of S.K.'s argument make it hard to rebut, yet it is difficult to say just how he would have seen it working out in practice. On the face of it his thought would seem to point toward one form or another of voluntary Christian communalism. And there is evidence that S.K. at least toyed with the idea. In dreaming about a truly Christian society he said: "The form of the world would be like--well, I know not with what I should liken it. It would resemble an enormous version of the town of Christenfeld [which was an experiment in Christian communalism]. The same sources that cited the first, brief period of Brethren celibacy indicated that communalism was part of the same regimen. Now communalism certainly is not a necessary or normative aspect of sectarianism per se, yet clearly it is within sectarianism that communal experiments tend to appear. Essentially neither S.K. nor the Brethren are to be identified as exponents of communalism; however, the very fact that both even were willing to entertain the notion is a mark of