AUGUST 8, 2010, 9:00 PM

The Rigor of Love

The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.

Can the experience of faith be shared by those unable to believe in the existence of a transcendent God? Might there be a faith of the faithless?

For a non-Christian, such as myself, but one out of sympathy with the triumphal evangelical atheism of the age, the core commandment of Tags: Christian faith has always been a source of both fascinated intrigue and perplexity. What is the status and force of that deceptively simple fiveKierkegaard, love, Philosophy word command: “you shall love your neighbor”? With Gary Gutting’s wise counsel on the relation between philosophy and faith still ringing in our ears, I’d like to explore the possible meaning of these words through a reflection on a hugely important and influential philosopher not yet even mentioned so far in The Stone: Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55). In the conclusion to “Works of Love” (1847) — which some Paradoxically, non-Christian consider the central work in Kierkegaard’s extensive and often faith might be said to reveal the true nature of the faith that pseudonymous authorship — he ponders the nature of the Christ sought to proclaim. commandment of love that he has been wrestling with throughout the book. He stresses the strenuousness and, in the word most repeated in these pages, the rigor of love. As such, Christian love is not, as many non-believers contend, some sort of “coddling love,” which spares believers any particular effort. Such love can be characterized as “pleasant days or delightful days without self-made cares.” This easy and fanciful idea of love reduces Christianity to “a second childhood” and renders faith infantile. Kierkegaard then introduces the concept of “the Christian like-for-like,” which is the central and decisive category of “Works of Love.” The latter is introduced by distinguishing it from what Kierkegaard calls “the Jewish like-for-like,” by which he means “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”: namely a conception of obligation based on the equality and reciprocity of self and other. Although, as a cursory reading of Franz Rosenzweig’s “The Star of Redemption” — one of the great works of German-Jewish thought — could easily show, this is a stereotypical and limited picture of Judaism, Kierkegaard’s point is that Christian love cannot be reduced to what he calls the “worldly” conception of love where you do unto others what others do unto you and no more. The Christian like-for-like brackets out the question of what others may owe to me and instead, “makes every relationship to other human beings into a God-relationship.” This move coincides with a shift from the external to the inward. Although the Christian, for

” as he emphasizes — have faith. “you have only to do with yourself before God. When Jesus heard this he declared that he had not experienced a person of such great faith in the whole of Israel. this is reality.”(Matthew.” Once again.” he or she views those relationships from the standpoint of inwardness. that you — “precisely you. mediated through the relationship to God. grievously tormented.” “Essentially. the Gospel is first a gospel. “sick with the palsy. the move to inwardness does not turn human beings away from the world.” he continues.” then Kierkegaard would reply. “Christianly understood you have absolutely nothing to do with what others do to you. As Kierkegaard puts it emphatically in Part One of “Works of Love”: Worldly wisdom thinks that love is a relationship between man and man. he did not feel worthy that Jesus should enter his house. To judge others is to view matters from the standpoint of externality rather than inwardness. If someone were to say. as you believed. As Kierkegaard writes. Kierkegaard Love is that disciplined act of writes that it does not belong to Christian doctrine to vouchsafe absolute spiritual daring that eviscerates the old self. namely the absolute difference between the human and the divine. Rather. “must remain in the world and the relationships of earthly life allotted to him. On this view. “a new version of what other men call reality. Kierkegaard writes. Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: man-God-man. He tells the story from the Gospels (versions appears in Matthew and Luke) of the Roman centurion in Capernaum who approached Jesus and asked him to cure his servant or boy. as you believed. I should abstain from any judgment of what others might or might not do.” The point of the story is that the centurion.” The address of Kierkegaard’s writing has a specific direction: the second person singular. What others owe to me is none of my business. that is. “it is absolutely certain that I have faith because I have been baptized in the church and follow its rituals and ordinances.”(Matthew. but can also be thought of as the act of proclamation or pledging. “Be it done for you. but do not notice the log that is in your own eye. although he was not baptized as a Christian. And maybe there are not as many true Christians around as one might have thought. “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye. 8:6) After Jesus said that he would visit the boy. that God is the middle term.” The New Testament Greek for “gospel” is euaggelion . He added.” This story reveals the essential insecurity of faith. Such a proclamation is as true for the . “Be it done for you. the centurion confessed that. It is arrogance and impertinence. which can mean good tidings. faith is a proclamation or pledge that brings the inward subject of faith into being over against an external everydayness. The rigor of Christianity is a conception of love based on radical inequality. as a representative of the occupying imperial authority with soldiers under his command. you. it is rather. and this is the line that interests Kierkegaard. nonetheless believed. This is how Kierkegaard interprets Jesus’s words from the Sermon on the Mount. that is.Kierkegaard. This is why it is very hard to be Christian. “in his faith. 7:3) The log in my own eye does not permit me to judge the speck in the other’s. the sense is ambiguous.

you in particular. Even — and indeed especially — those who are denominationally faithless can have an experience of faith.” Withdrawn into inwardness and solitude (“If you have never been solitary. Love is shaped in relation to what. it awaits the result in the very moment of its promulgation.” citing Paul. because their faith is not supported by the supposed guarantee of baptism.” (Emphasis mine) Kierkegaard insists — and one feels here the force of his polemic against the irreligious. “The commandment of love can only proceed from the mouth of the lover. Kierkegaard writes. “When a man is gripped by love. If faith needs to be underpinned by some sort of doctrinal security. But what is implicit in this minimal-sounding weakness. in my parlance. with duration. Faith has the character of a continuous “striving … in which you get occasion to be tried every day. then. As Rosenzweig writes.non-Christian as for the Christian. regular church attendance or some notion that virtue will be rewarded with happiness if not here on earth. external force.” By contrast. To proclaim faith is to abandon such external or worldly guarantees. essentially secular order of so-called Christendom.” He goes on to contrast this with law. As Kierkegaard puts in earlier in “Works of Love. creedal dogma. as Kierkegaard insists. he feels that this is like being in infinite debt.”(Romans. then inwardness becomes externalized and the strenuous rigor of faith evaporates. “there is rigor in it. 13:8) that only finds its power to act through an admission of It sounds simple. then love is the experience of a countermovement to sin that is orientated around a demand that exceeds the capacity or ability of the self. Faith is a subjective strength “Owe no one anything. believe. It has no coercive. is the experience of faith? Kierkegaard writes. the commandment of love “knows only the moment. Thus. but the certainty of faith. with a future.” We might say love is that disciplined act of absolute spiritual daring that eviscerates the old self of externality so something new and inward can come into being. it is arguably more true for the non-Christian. “which reckons with times. you must win at every moment with God’s help. If sin is the theological name for the essential ontological indebtedness of the self. non-Christian faith might be said to reveal the true nature of the faith that Christ sought to proclaim. command is a conception of love as an experience of infinite debt — a debt that it is impossible to repay. but. you have never discovered that God . or the certainty that you. then in the afterlife.” To be is to be in debt — I owe therefore I am. and again the second person singular direction of address should be noted: “It is eternally certain that it will be done for you as you believe. can be called an infinite demand. paradoxically. and the double emphasis on the “moment” that finds an echo in Rosenzweig should be noted. consequently not in some external way. “God’s relationship to a human being is the infinitizing at every moment of that which at every moment is in a man. except to love one another.” This is why faith and the commandment of love that it seeks to sustain is not law. What sort of certainty. in his case what he saw as the pseudoChristianity of the Danish National Church — that no pastor or priest has the right to say that one has faith or not according to doctrines like baptism and the like. Indeed.” The commandment of love is mild and merciful.

” In what Kierkegaard calls “the urban confusion” of external life. This is why the bracketing out of externality is essential: “externality is too dense a body for resonance. Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company Privacy Policy NYTimes. listening for the repetition of the eternal. God is nothing more than the name for the repetition of each word that the subject utters.” Simon Critchley is chair of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York. Such an experience of faith is not only shared by those who are faithless from a creedal or denominational perspective. “The Faith of the Faithless. “the slightest sound. as you believed. guarantees and rewards: “Be it done for you. and part-time professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.” We need to cultivate the inner or Read previous contributions to this series.” is duplicated and resounds back loudly into the subject’s ears. but can — in my view — be had by them in an exemplary manner. At this point. but the asymmetry of the like-to-unlike. it is nigh impossible to hear this repetitive echo of the infinite demand. God is a vast echo chamber where each sound. It is a subjective strength that only finds its power to act through an admission of weakness. what he is counseling is not “to sit in the anxiety of death. in the penultimate paragraph of “Works of Love” Kierkegaard shifts to auditory imagery.” is forthcoming from Harvard University Press in 2011.” What is rather being called for is a rigorous and activist conception of faith that proclaims itself into being at each instant without guarantee or security and which abides with the infinite demand of love. each and every word and action of the self resounds through the infinite demand of God. Like the Roman centurion of whom Kierkegaard writes. NY 10018 . day in and day dialog with Simon Critchley and the author David Shields. inward ear that infinitizes the words and actions of the self.exists. RELATED Watch a 2009 620 Eighth Avenue New York. As Go to All Posts » Kierkegaard makes clear. Faith is not a like-for-like relationship of equals. Faith is an enactment of the self in relation to an infinite demand that both exceeds my power and yet requires all my power. He is the author of several books. anxiety and regret and other topics. and the sensual ear is too hard-of-hearing to Related More From The Stone catch the eternal’s repetition. including “Infinitely Demanding. in which they discuss living in the present. But it is a repetition that resounds with “the intensification of infinity.” Kierkegaard writes).” His new book. it is perhaps the faithless who can best sustain the rigor of faith without requiring security.

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