Posts Tagged ‘kierkegaard’

This post is an attempt to draw out some of my implicit beliefs on the nature of reality. My main sources are my experience of the world, which consists in an ever-developing and reveloping, exveloping and enveloping faith in the God of Jesus to whom the Bible attests; my piecemeal reading of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Buber, all of whom in their irreducibly individual ways helped me see the validity of individual experience as a scientific category and all sciences as experiential categories; and every blessed contribution, intentional or no, from the conversations I’ve participated in in person, on the Internet, or passively through reading Wikipedia articles and book reviews on Amazon. I have not read the relevant literature, something which is neither to be celebrated nor can it be avoided.

The nature of language and comprehension is often highlighted in discussing the limits of our ability to interpret the world around us. We might say that (A) I have my own thoughts, which (B) I write up in a blog post, and then (C) my audiences interpret according to their own categories. Effectively, everyone is perpetually misunderstood. Between A and B I need to translate my metarational, metalinguistic experience of an idea into the rational, linguistic vernacular. Already something of the idea is lost because it is translated into that which is not the idea. At the most basic level, A is related to B but not identical to it. The “same” happens between B and C. A static text is comprehended in different ways by different people according to their histories of experiencing various words, word combinations, genres, etc. No one comprehension of an “etc” is the same. They are all related in that we could say a similar comprehension is happening, wherever it happens, but everyone interprets their “etc”s in the context of their history of having read “etc”s and the various places in which those “etc”s have appeared. To comprehend an “etc” is to call to mind a whole history of comprehension in which other “etc”s have occurred.

This is simple and indisputable. But it is too simple. For example, A, B, and C do not exist as discrete stages, instances, etc. This is an interpretation of a common occurrence. But it does not take into account (1) what takes place before A and after C, (2) the further infinite divisions between A, B, and C, and (3) the connections, sameness, and basic unity of the instances A, B, and C. I have deliberately posited another three with which to engage to hint to the ultimate arbitrarity of isolating anything. 1 is patent. The origin of a text stretches infinitely before an author and continues infinitely after them. There is no need here for recourse to a deterministic understanding of cause and effect, nor even a linear one. Regardless of the truth of such understandings, here we can at least see that A-B-C, in whatever way, is fundamentally related to that which occurs, exists, etc, outside of A-B-C so that our identification of A-B-C is again arbitrary. 2 follows the same insight. If we can isolate A, B, and C, then we can isolate say Ai, Aii, and Aiii — maybe three discrete thoughts which contribute to an idea. We can also say that every moment, which again is just an interpretation and does not exist, destroys the unity of the thing so that a text is not the same in one moment as it is the next moment because it occurs in an infinitely different world. Nonetheless, this discretion is infinite. This leads easily to 3, which requires a clarification of infinity. 3 means not only that A-B-C take place in a wider, “infinite,” context, but that their basic discretion, and the discretion of “parts” within A, B, and C, threatens the truth that they constitute a single whole (within a whole). “Infinity” is thus invoked to underscore the paradoxical (?) nature of unity and distinction with reference to any thing. Everything is related to another thing. There is something common they share, which might be called being because they all be. They are thus finitely related. But because no thing which we identify is the same, all things take place in infinity ((in)finity?). That is, all difference is infinite difference.

Moreover, all difference manifests in identity and all identity manifests in difference. In light of the foregoing, this, to me, appears paradoxical. We might ask what the relationship between the categories of identity and difference is — what identity do they share? However, we would soon find that whatever identities these categories, and the infinite particularities and generalities which they represent, share, these identities are compromised by difference. The uncovered fossil in the dormancies of deep earth is infinitely different from the “same” fossil which it is three seconds later. It occurs in time, a time in which everything is constantly changing so that, despite the fossil’s basic sameness its relation to every around it, including that of which it is made up, consists in infinite difference. Conversely, we might ask what the distinction between the categories of identity and difference is. But we would soon find that there is too much the same between the fossil and itself, the fossil and itself a year ago, a century ago, centuries ago, its infinite past in the food it ate and the genes it shared, and its infinite future in the renewal of all being. Identity and difference thus become two opposed categories with which we need to make reference to understand the infinity of being.

At this point, this affirmation and denial must be transferred to human interpretation. Our interpretation of the world is an interpretation. Numbers do not exist. They arise from our wonder, fear, greed, and love for the world, among infinite other things. Other species probably have their own use of some kind of numbers or meta-numbers but that should be no surprise because we share a common origin with them and a common world. Yet, numbers and every interpretation exists. Everything is true in the sense that every interpretation of the world arises within the world, as a product of the world, and in response to the world. The world is such that it responds to itself. Even falsities must be affirmed as truths because they are true insofar as they are related to that which they falsely attest and perform particular functions in the world. To say that human beings are faster than cheetahs is to, while obviously untrue according to the whole, affirm the truth of the concept “human beings,” “faster than” and “cheetahs.” To say the opposite, while obviously true according to the whole, is to rely on the false concepts of “human beings,” “faster than,” and “cheetahs.” Which human beings, which cheetahs? Which measure of speed and which definition of speed does this rely on? Such a statement inevitably excludes the whole world in which they categories take place and open-endedness of all categories, however stubborn they may be. It is true then, but only in the sense that it functions in a particular context, a function it will never be able to fulfil “perfectly,” that is with complete, one-sided identity, because such perfection does not exist. Numbers are true in this sense, then, that they make reference to the world (i.e., themselves), in a particular way and fulfill a particular function in the world (again in relation to themselves), but are utterly false and depraved in the sense that they attempt to swallow all being in one humanistic, hubristic movement which purports to attest to the eternal unalterable “truths” of the world. Yet they are also completely true in that they arise in response to particularities in the world.

That’s all for now. I need to get back to study and this post is probably more for my own benefit than for others’. These are thoughts which are still developing and ones I would like to explore further when I have time.

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Over the years I have observed two kinds of singleness. Here’s a quick meditation on either. Feel free to add what you think. The two are neither mutually exclusive nor comprehensive.

Firstly, there is singleness in general, as Cat Stevens sings, “Another Saturday night and I ain’t got nobody.” Singleness in general is being in the state of singleness with no direction towards a particular person. It can be real chill, freeing, and comfortable, especially if the single has no great desire to make anything romantically happen any time soon. This singleness is perfect for taking a break from any prospect of love. Where singleness in general is directed romantically, the single dwells in possibility. The world is yours, oyster. How long will it last though? With no particular, the single is thrust into the possibility of the boring and everyday. Though the single pines for the transcendent in a human subject, in drifting through the totality of romantic possibilities and having no overwhelming interest in any of them, they are confronted with the banality of love, that is, they desire to go into a relationship yet with a considerable blow to their expectations.

Secondly, there is singleness in particular, the most beautiful and dangerous kind. Centred on a particular person, singleness in particular begins and ends with passion. In passion it seeks to be with someone, but when this seeking fails, in passion it must follow a wholly other path, whether one that redirects the “love” which it took part in to a new, non-romantic subject, or one that inverts its enamouredness to revenge itself on the world. So the English poet, John Donne, when his wife died penned these lines:

Since she whom I loved hath paid her last debt
To Nature, and to hers, and my good is dead,
And her soul early into heaven ravishèd,
Wholly on heavenly things my mind is set.

(Holy Sonnet 17)

Since his love has gone to heaven, heaven becomes his love. Later, Kierkegaard was devastated when he broke off his engagement with Regine Olsen, and proceeded to beat a sizable dent into the surface of Western philosophy, largely influenced by his continual dealing with the emotional aftermath. Although there is no obvious sense of a particular here, the famous opening soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Richard III details love’s inversion:

I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

He goes on to say how he will set his two brothers against each other, so that he may attain the throne. He makes clear the connection between his ugliness (and therefore inopportunity for romantic love) and ambition for power. Finally, without saying too much in case you’re yet to watch Breaking Bad, at the beginning of Season 3, Jesse Pinkman claims his identity as the “bad guy,” somewhat in connection with his singleness in particular:

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One of my recent posts explored the possibility of God’s particularity. With some more time to think about it, I was assailed by a host of further thoughts yesterday at the laundromat. I’ve never had so much fun waiting for my undies to get clean. Before starting, I should mention that this is really just a bit of fun, although it would be awesome to explore it properly one day. I’m constrained firstly by my classical approach, employing Greco-German categories. If anyone can figure out a way of looking at this sideways then I heartily welcome you. Secondly, although research would undoubtedly be helpful, this is a lazy attempt to create my own solutions and problems to problems and solutions I have come across where I may very well be misrepresenting the concepts so much that I am in actuality saying nothing. Onwards!

* * *


Is God particular or universal? Clearly it would be helpful to first define these two terms. If I’m right, a universal is that which encompasses a set of particulars. So I can say that a particular friend is a friend only with reference to the concept of friendship, though that friend is only a particularised expression of that universal. They are not equal to friendship but occupy some part of it. However, friendship is not the universal, that is, not all things can be defined as a part of friendship. It is therefore necessary to find a universal which encompasses both friendship and that which is not friendship. This is probably an imperfect suggestion but we’ll roll with it for example’s sake: Love. Is it possible to say that love is a universal as all things friendship and all things romance, though they cannot be completely referred to each other, can both be completely referred to love? (For example’s sake just say yes. Thanks). And onwards until all things are under one universal. It might be being. All things are. So love and hate, for example, are particulars of the universal being because they both exist.

The problem with being as the universal (and here’s where some Heidegger or Hegel would have probably helped me!) is that it excludes non-being, that which is not. But in that case, how can non-being even be referenced? If there is nothing then there is nothing to reference. Being is the universal for all that is. It sounds too simple. Non-being, paradoxically is being. It is potential being, possibility. Non-being exists, for example, as that which can be thought or posited though it does yet exist. But not only is its possibility in human reason but in all that is becoming. When being through becoming moves towards non-being then that non-being is actualised into being. Thus being is a universal insofar as non-being is exists within it as possibility.¹

In sum, being is the universal; all else, in reference to being without exhausting its totality, is particular.

* * *

God, then, must be defined in terms of the universal as he encompasses all things and all things have their being in him. The first difficulty with this is that if God is free and sovereign then is he constrained by his being, thus negating these, or does he choose it freely, which apparently would first require being…? In other words, to define God in terms of being is to reduce him to something, so that this designation is always provisional.

If God is universal then whence cometh creation? Creation is a collection of particularities which occupies a space on God’s universality. The problem with this is that creation as finite occupies the spatio-temporal whereas God occupies the eternal. If creation operates within time then when in eternity did God create? If creation operates within space then where in eternity did God create? In creation, God moves from being to becoming. God as the I am, changeless and eternal, brings change and temporality through the act of creation, birthing a history to accompany his being. God as being, all that there is, brings non-being into being, and it occupies a space. This is the pantheistic problem: That which is not is brought into being to occupy a space within/outside all that is (God). How can God, when he is all that there is, bring that which is not him into being? The only, probably heretical, suggestion I have is that God withdraws from or extends a part of himself and calls it not-God.

Both further create the problem that being moves into becoming, and becoming is a problem because it is change. If God is being then at what point (there is no point!) does he become? But if God is eternally becoming then this is essential to his nature and is not change. God’s becoming is rooted in his being, which always is, and thus he is changeless. As Anti-Climacus put it: “The being of God means that everything is possible, or that everything is possible means the being of God.”² If only being then there would be no possibility, only actuality. Possibility requires becoming. This nuances the main problem with God as particular: At any given time not all things make reference to him; there is that which is outside of him. But this is God only as actuality; as regards possibility he is a universal because all things are possibile, yet he is in actuality possibility so that, paradoxically, as regards his actuality he is both universal and particular.

* * *


Here are some further thoughts, addressing mainly the problem of sin in terms of what has just been stated. God creates in freedom. He is under no necessity to create but enters into necessity through the act of creating. As Hosea records, the dual pain and love of God:

They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.

(Hosea 11:5-9).

Israel has forsaken Yahweh so he too will forsake them. But even after the hurt they have caused him he cannot give them up. In creating, God limits himself to a necessity within that creation, the necessity to care for it and even depend upon it. Ostensibly the freedom to forsake creation is ever-present, but, rather, God has already forsaken his freedom through the choice to create. In creation he loves and cannot do otherwise. God freely creates and creation freely loves him.

For creation to love freely there must be the possibility of not loving, which is not in accordance with God’s will, and therefore sin. God cannot sin because sin is that which is against his will. He can do all things but none of them are sin because he only does what he wills. In creation, however, God enters into covenant, a covenant inherent to the act of creation itself. God loves his creation and is thus obligated to it. He does not sin, but that which he does in accordance with his will is not only understood on his own terms but mediated through creation. No interaction with creation is sin yet creation may ask him otherwise. He freely forsakes his will that creation may take some part in it. This is prayer, the construction of God’s will mediated through his creation. Creation, however, sins because he has given it freedom to do so. It is not himself that sins but that which is not-God, which has been given a share of God’s freedom yet acts otherwise to this freedom.

* * *

¹It is very optimistic of me to suggest that all non-being can be actualised. As this is all speculative at this point, this definition excludes that which can never be actualised. Yet if it cannot be actualised it probably cannot exist as possibility either (imagination doesn’t count, contra Anselm!).

²Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening (1849), translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 40.

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Here’s one of my favourite passages from Kierkegaard, Anti-Climacus on defending Christianity in The Sickness unto Death:

Now we see how extraordinarily stupid … it is to defend Christianity, how little knowledge of human nature it manifests, how it connives even if unconsciously, with offense that in the end has to be rescued by a champion … To defend something is always to disparage it. Suppose that someone has a warehouse full of gold, and suppose he is willing to give every ducat to the poor–but in addition, suppose he is stupid enough to begin this charitable enterprise of his with a defense in which he justifies it on three grounds: people will almost come to doubt that he is doing any good.¹

He writes later in the book:

A pastor certainly ought to be a believer. A believer! And a believer, after all, is a lover; as a matter of fact, when it comes to enthusiasm, the most rapturous lover of all lovers is but a stripling compared with a believer. Imagine a lover. Is it not true that he would be capable of speaking about his beloved all day long and all night, too, day in and day out? But do you believe it could ever be possible for him, do you not think he would find it loathsome to speak in such a manner that he would try to demonstrate by means of three reasons that there is something to being love … Is it not obvious that the person who is really in love would never dream of wanting to prove it by three reasons or to defend it, for he is something that is more than all reasons and any defense: he is in love.²

Of course, it’s important to read Kierkegaard in context. Anti-Climacus is ironically making a defence against a primarily rational Christianity which has lost sight of its core. I wonder how possible it is to read this then as a denouncement of all defences or if Anti-Climacus is more so pointing out that defence does not add anything to the love between a believer and God. Love is completely affirmed internally so that to confer dependence onto the external is to undermine this internal logic. To focus completely on justifying faith to others subverts the argument by robbing faith of its extra-rational totality.

* * *

¹Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening (1849), translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 87.

²Ibid., 103-4.

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Been thinking a little lately.¹ Came across this interview on Peter Enns’ blog with this guy just about to release a book on apologetics. He takes a leaf out of Kierkegaard’s tree:

It all hinges on Kierkegaard’s distinction between a genius and an apostle. Kierkegaard sees quite clearly that the modern form of authority for belief derives from genius – or what we might call “experts,” leaders in their fields. We believe what they tell us to believe because they know more than the rest of us they are more brilliant, intelligent, rational, insightful, etc.

Kierkegaard contrasts this with the Christian source of belief which comes from apostles, who differ from genius in that they do not ground their authority in their own talents or merits. Their message comes from God so the reasons they give are grounded differently than those of the genius.

Been thinking a little lately on role models. Kierkegaard, of course is one of them, not sure if I’ve read enough much else to have any other real role models, but, regardless, whence cometh the basis for this modelling? I like the boys and girls who can perform impressive intellectual acrobatics. I appreciate their gnosis so much … that I sometimes forget their praxis. And now Paul. N T Wright, a leading authority in Pauline studies, writes of Paul:

I persist in regarding him as the intellectual equal of Plato, Aristotle, or Seneca, even though the demands of his overall vocation, coupled with his dense style, mean that what we possess of his thought is compressed into a fraction of their written compass.²

Is there something missing here? I’ve always thought it would be awesome to lock myself in a cupboard for the rest of life, a no doubt spacious cupboard with some stimulating greats of theology, philosophy, and literature, and produce something disturbing… But to be truly disturbing requires steps beyond the world of mind.


* * *

¹Tots should be doing ‘xam prep right now but got the tired-and-borings (what!?), as well as being inspired by how many posts some of these heavyweights on the blogs pump out a day. So might try a something new little, and see how long it works. A lecturer in teacher’s college said “Do less better.” Maybe I’ll do more but it’ll be better because the posts are less-sized.

²N. T. Wright, Paul: In Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2005), x.

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Philippians has for a long time been one of my favourite books in the Bible. I’m not sure if I can justify that. Maybe it’s just because of the overall encouraging message set against the backdrop of persecution and eschatological anticipation. I jumped at the chance then to do my assignment on it for biblical interpretation — that and the fact that it was the shortest out of the books we had to choose from. Reading Philippians this morning was a good time to reflect on one of the book’s most influential verses for my own faith and what that looks like in terms of the whole:

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.


Coming to this as a serious new Christian in a Pentecostal context there was only one way to interpret the passage: After Paul has given the model for faith and overseen young Christians as they come to terms with how to live that faith, they must then be weaned off their dependence on him and depend solely on God’s Spirit at work within them, existentially working out the faithful life in their individual relationship with God. This interpretation was no doubt consolidated by my enthusiasm for Kierkegaard and his use of “fear and trembling” for the title of his most famous work, one dealing with how the individual through relationship to God is an exception to the ethical context they find themselves in.

But there are some problems with this approach, especially considering the weight of importance Paul puts on the Christian community in writing to the Philippians. In reading the letter as a whole this sense of the individual working out their salvation in distinction to those who forsake the inner call of the Spirit is not as forthcoming as this reading of 2:12-13 would suggest. Au contraire, the sense is of the faith community at Philippi as a whole working in relationship with God.

2:12-13, starting with the “Therefore”, actually conclude the previous section where Paul sets out life in community demonstrated in the example of Jesus’ incarnation:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.


As in v.13, God working within is the point from where the community works out their salvation, so at the beginning of this passage “encouragement in Christ” and “sharing in the Spirit” are the points from where the community learns to love each other in godly love. When Paul lays out the model of Jesus’ incarnation (vv.5-11) he only demonstrates in greater detail the point with which he has already begun. Therefore, a few verses later when Paul compares Timothy with selfish people, “All of them are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (v.21), the interests of Jesus here referred to are actually those concering the welfare of the community at Philippi: “I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare” (v.20). The point is that a primary concern of the Spirit working among the Philippians is not to justify them each as individuals in their relationships with God but to live and love together as community.²

Ok, so Paul in Philippians definitely shows the importance of right living in community but isn’t the community just a collection of individuals whose communal love stems from each of their individual relationships with God? The love does not exist in the community itself but in the collective of individuals who existentially come to terms with the importance of expressing that love. But I don’t see much of a problem in saying that the community itself is something more than a collection of individuals. There is something that cannot be accounted for in community by simply tallying the individual spiritual values of all contained within it. What if the category of the individual for Paul is something completely different to the category we employ today?

Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.


Here it is interesting that Paul uses the same context to make his point: Whether he is present or absent should not affect the faithful state of the Philippian community. But in comparison with 2:12-13 there is no possibility of misreading it as the individual’s relationship to God when external support is withdrawn. In this case the external support (Paul) may be with the Philippians or not but the Spirit will lead them as a community into unity with “one mind”: “Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you” (3:15). There will be differences among individuals within the community but these are not so much differences between some individuals and other individuals. They are differences between these individuals within the community and the mind of the community as essentially beyond a collection of individuals. The mature within the community mediate the one mind in spirit and together as a community, and the exceptions who are earnest in their commitment to the community will receive help from the Spirit to become fully a part of that community’s revelation.

The community as defined by the Spirit precedes the individuals within it, having a being both distinct from yet dependent on the individuals within it. This has been an attempt to explore that relationship, with more emphasis on the collective which individualistic Christianity, though sincere and a productive ground for people who would otherwise be caught up in the institutions of the status quo, largely ignores. I welcome any alternative readings of the passages and further discussion on the issue.

* * *

¹All scripture quotations taken from NRSV

²Cf. Jesus’ focus on being reconciled to others before reconciliation with God: “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:23-24). Perhaps more difficult are his words on not being forgiven unless we forgive others (Mt 6:15).

³Little “spirit” here can also be read as “Spirit”. The Greek does not distinguish between the two. Also, it is unhealthy to say that Paul meant one or the other because saying this dismisses the possibility that Paul could be talking about both with a particular emphasis on one. Also notable is the use of the plural “you” in the Greek here and throughout Philippians.

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In Fear and trembling, Johannes de Silentio puts forth a definition of sin using Hegelian terms. Sinning, however, first requires a unique movement:

As soon as the single individual asserts himself in his singularity before the universal, he sins, and only by acknowledging this can he be reconciled again with the universal. Every time single individual, after having entered the universal, feels an impulse to assert himself as the single individual, he is in spiritual trial […]

(p.54, emphasis mine)¹

In other words, to know what is right and do otherwise is to sin. Temptation (spiritual trial) is the desire to do otherwise. But note this clause of interest, ‘after having entered the universal’. To have knowledge of right and wrong here is to enter the universal, or ethical, that is knowledge of others and their value. The original movement is not so much choice as knowledge, although someone who returns to the aesthetic, a self-oriented worldview, may not consider themselves in ethical terms as a sinner but on their own terms. For reasons I am still discovering in Kierkegaard’s philosophy, the universal/ethical is defined by disclosure, or speaking:

The ethical as such is the universal; as the universal it is in turn the disclosed. The single individual, qualified as immediate, sensate, and psychical, is the hidden. Thus his ethical task is to work himself out of his hiddenness and to become disclosed in the universal.


I read the need for disclosure as an entering into the sphere of language which, in vulgar, pre-modern terms, represents the collective values and beliefs, etc, of humanity². Silence characterises the aesthetic because to live aesthetically is to live on your own terms, taking pleasure in the accidental rather than that which is shared essentially, universally. But Fear and trembling is written on the premise that there is a sphere higher than the universal where the individual lives not on their own or humanity’s terms but God’s. This, the religious sphere, takes place at the same site as the aesthetic, the individual. With these in mind, Abraham, the paragon of faith, cannot speak:

Abraham cannot be mediated; in other words, he cannot speak. As soon as I speak, I express the universal, and if I do not do so, no one can understand me. As soon as Abraham wants to express the universal, he must declare that his situation is a spiritual trial […], for he has no higher expression of the universal that ranks above the universal he violates.


Silentio shows that Abraham cannot be understood in universal terms. God calls him to sacrifice Isaac but ostensibly quite arbitrarily. Only Abraham himself can understand it (p.113ff), on the premise that it is right because God himself demands it. In ethical terms Abraham can only be a murderer (p.30). Even if Silentio presented a good case for an absolute duty to God (doing as God asks regardless of circumstance), this would not clear up the ambiguity, from outsider’s perspective, as to whether it really was God who called Abraham to sacrifice his son or whether it is a dark aesthetic desire. If Abraham was to attempt to explain himself in universal terms then he could only bring judgement upon himself. This is the value of not speaking. Mark Taylor puts sums it up simply:

The radical individuality of the believer’s relation to God is the basis of faithful silence. Such individuality cannot be articulated in or mediated by language.³

* * *

I want now to extract this entering the universal from Kierkegaard’s Hegelian terminology and find a usage applicable outside of this limited context. I have a formal definition but it must be noted that Kierkegaard here acts only as a stimulus — my definition misrepresents him a little. Here it is: To enter the universal is to subject something to a set of criteria in such a way that it is necessary to make a positive or negative qualification of that something in relation to the criteria4. Before moving on from Kierkegaard it may be helpful to see this in relation to Fear and trembling. If Abraham enters the universal he is subjected to a set of criteria determining what constitutes ethical action. He must be either qualified positively, as an ethical person, or negatively, in this case as a murderer. Once Abraham enters the universal though, he can only remain there. His relation to the criteria may change if he makes a convincing argument, like Silentio’s tragic hero, which could be something like God bringing a famine upon the land if Abraham did not give him Isaac. This would be understood ethically, as it affects people throughout the land, and thus puts Abraham in a positive relation to the criteria. The criteria will never disappear though. The only circumstances under which they would disappear would be something like memory loss, the whole tragedy quietly slipping from the minds of the people, akin to the adage time heals all wounds.

So badass.

Where else might entering the universal be understood? I think of the opening scene in The Godfather III where Michael Corleone is standing in a church receiving honours for his charity work. There is a flashback to the end of the previous film where Michael watches a man he has ordered to shoot his unwitting brother Fredo while out fishing. In the present the archbishop speaks to Michael, “Do you, Michael, promise to be faithful to the noble purposes of this order, to have a special care to the poor, the needy, and those who are ill?” “Yes I promise,” Michael replies. For those familiar with Michael’s ruthless and determined rise to head of the Corleone family in the previous two movies this film, set years later, presents an interesting question. Has Michael really reformed? Or, Is his promise genuine? The flashback in the present scene, along with the entirety of the previous two films, acts as a kind of disclosure. Now, based on the evidence we have available, we must make the judgement against the criterium of Michael’s genuineness. The possibility of forgoing the question completely is not allowed. Michael has entered the universal and we cannot get him out of there unless we either ignore or forget him. The distinguishing feature of entering the universal is that the criteria to which something (an action, individual/collation of actions, etc) has been subjected is more lasting and significant than the judgement which presupposes that criteria.

* * *

What value does silence have? Is it so Abraham and the Corleone family can do dirty things behind our backs without having to face our judgement? Possibly. One of the desert fathers, Jacob the Deacon, records the legend of St Pelagia and St Nonnus, illustrating the value of silence:

As we were all listening with enjoyment to his holy teaching, suddenly there passed by in front of us the foremost actress of Antioch, the star of the local theatre. She was seated on a donkey and accompanied by a great and fanciful procession. She seemed to be clothed in nothing but gold and pearls and other precious stones. Even her feet were covered with gold and pearls. The male and female slaves accompanying her were extravagantly clothed in costly garments, and the torcs round their necks were all of gold. Some of them went before, others followed after.
The worldly crowd could not get enough of their beauty and attractiveness. As they passed by us the air was filled with the scent of musk and other most delicious perfumes, but when the bishops saw her passing by so immodestly, with her head bare, and the outlines of her body clearly visible, nothing over her shoulders as well as her head, and yet the object of such adulation, they all fell silent, groaned and sighed, and averted their eyes as if being forced to witness some grave sin.

[…]The most blessed Nonnus, however, looked at her long and hard, and even after she had passed by he looked after her for as long as she remained in sight. Not till then did he turn round and speak to the other bishops.
“Weren’t you delighted to see such beauty as hers?”
They answered nothing. He leant his head down on to his knees and shed tears into the handkerchief which he held on his lap between his holy hands. He sighed deeply and turned again to the bishops.
“Weren’t you delighted to see such beauty as hers?”
Again they answered nothing.5

In Silentio’s terms, all the bishops bar Nonnus have entered the universal. They are judging themselves against an ethical criterium of lust. If they willingly look at Pelagia then they take part in the sin of lust but if they look away then they maintain their purity. Nonnus, on the other hand, has not made the movement. He does not subject himself to the criteria and therefore has remained silent. This silence can be construed aesthetically: Nonnus wanted a brief break from priestly responsibilities so made the most of the opportune moment. But that’s probably not the point Jacob is trying to make. Nonnus’ silence allows him to act in faith, according to the religious, rather than the ethical. The religious thus sees Pelagia as beautiful regardless of the categories of sin and purity because these belong to the ethical. To ‘speak’ is to enter into those categories, whereas those categories do not exist over the individual reconciled to God.

The obvious value of silence here is not an issue of personal purity. It is that an essentially trans-ethical action has positive ethical implications. Silentio’s model of faith is very earthly. It cannot stop at otherworldly interests but wants to take the world with it. Thus Abraham sacrifices Isaac to God yet in faith receives the son whom he loves back again. Faith is a restoration of the aesthetic. The aesthetic objectifies everything for its own advantage. In the case of Pelagia, an aesthetic admirer might take a look for the sake of a stiffy. The ethical looks away for the good of Pelagia and the observer. But the religious looks to Pelagia with the aesthetic appreciation of her beauty and the ethical acknowledgement of her humanity6.

* * *

¹Kierkegaard, S. (1983). Fear and trembling/Repetition (H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (1843).

²That is, 19th Century, Northern European beliefs and values. Silentio explicitly dismisses the value of attempting to step out of his own worldview: “Or if Abraham perhaps did not do at all what the story tells, if perhaps because of the local conditions of that day it was something entirely different, then let us forget him, for what is the value of going to the trouble of remembering that past which cannot become a present” (p.30).

³Mark Taylor, cited here, pp. 61-62. Seriously I can’t be bothered with a proper reference.

4This is clearly very wordy and it will probably only make sense to most with use of the supplementary explanation. If anyone has any suggestions for reform of the statement after reading the rest of the post then let me know in the comments section.

5Retrieved here

6Readers may point out that the ethical in this case was just as objectifying as the aesthetic. Taken. Maybe it’s that many intentions ethical in orientation have an unethical expression. It also depends on where you’re coming from as to what constitutes the ethical. I get caught up too easily in the categories, but the point remains that there is a higher expression in silence and the individual which allows us to see the world differently.

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