Kierkegaard: Judge for Yourself!

July 12, 2009

Judge for Yourself! (1851)
Søren Kierkegaard (Princeton, 1990)
127 p.  First reading.

Shortly after the completion of his Concluding Unscientific Postscript Kierkegaard published two short works under the title Judge for Yourself! They were issued under his own name, and belong to his “direct communication”.  Written as orations (though not, he insists, as sermons), they bear a marked similarity to his Upbuilding Discourses.  Both intend to awaken and deepen the reader’s Christian commitment, and in certain passages we hear the approaching rumblings of his later “attack on Christendom”.

The first piece, “Becoming Sober”, launches itself from 1 Peter 4:7 (“But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer”).  At Pentecost, when Peter preached to the people of Jerusalem, they accused him of drunkenness, yet here he suggests that they themselves are drunk.  And this is the relation of the Christian and the non-Christian: each appears to the other to be intoxicated, the former because of his enthusiasm, and the latter because of his sluggish apathy.  To be a Christian, says Kierkegaard, is “in reliance upon God to venture to relinquish probability”.  He has contempt for calculations of “probability” in faith not, as is sometimes said, because he had a fetish for the irrational, but because so long as one dwells on the probable one remains in the realm of the impersonal and objective, but true religion includes the subjective, for it is encounter between subjects. Probability commits one only “up to a point”, and consequently he who is over-reliant on probability lives a life that is inconstant, drowsy, and apathetic, like a drunkard:

. . . he becomes spiritually dizzy when he has lost himself in a knowing of another kind, or, as he says, in objective knowing — call to him, and you will see that he will seem to be awakening from a dream; just like a drunk man, he must, so to speak, rub his eyes, collect himself, remember his name.

To “become sober” is therefore to come to oneself through an encounter with God, the transcendent and infinite other. Only by knowing oneself before God is one completely sober.  Only by venturing into the open spaces, away from the supports of popular opinion or probability, does one’s former drunkenness become evident.  However important doctrine may be to religion, no doctrine can make one venture forth to this encounter.  A decisive act is required, with attendant risks.  Christianity has strength in the world only because some are willing to make this act and live as witnesses to the truth.  When mature, the lives and the words of such witnesses, their saying and their doing, are in harmony; they are sober.

The second piece, titled “Christ as the Prototype”, is based on the last section of Matthew 6 (“No man can serve two masters…”).  Christianity sets before us, says Kierkegaard, a surpassingly high ideal, of which Christ is the supreme model and prototype.  He lived the truth that no man can serve two masters: “He belonged to nothing and to no one, was in no alliance with anything or with anybody, was a stranger in this world, in poverty and lowliness, without a nest, without a den, without a place where he could lay his head.  Just like a straight line that touches the circle at only one point, so was he in the world and yet outside the world, serving only one master.”  Those who follow him, those who live in the world but serve God alone, will, like him, be persecuted by the powers of the age.  It is for this reason that the temptation to temper the demands of Christianity, to dilute and soften, is so seductive.  When something other than Christ is the prototype we reap benefits: we feel good about ourselves, we need not confront our failures, we can relax and get on with our fellows. What could be better? But the temptation lures us to ruin, for without a challenging ideal, without Christ at the center, and without imitation of Christ, Christianity becomes boring. It becomes unable to change lives, and falls prey to the spirit of the age. We see the truth of this time and again.  It is necessary, therefore, that the challenge of Christian discipleship not be blunted.  Let us be manly enough to set ourselves a high standard, even though it means that we fall short.  To those who suffer doubts, Kierkegaard prescribes this same remedy: imitation of Christ, for by venturing out and taking up one’s cross the mob of doubts is cleared away and silenced.

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