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Posts Tagged ‘sacrifice’

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The biblical call to love

Although I wrote an earlier post this year on Christian love, it remains a little clumsy and I’d like to do a lot more thinking on the subject. One thing that seizes me about biblical love is that it is characterised by other-oriented, self-giving. So although Jesus cites the second commandment as “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Matt 22:39), suggesting some basis in self-love for neighbour-love, the temptation is to hastily set this up as the standard by which all acts of self-giving are measured. So Jesus also calls us to “do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt 7:12), rather than “as they do to you.” He states paradoxically that “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt 10:39), that life and security are found not in seeking but forsaking. Perhaps this forsaking is what Paul has in mind when he places it in the context of the church: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Phil 2:3; cf. Rom 12:10; 1 Cor 10:24).

These are all based on Jesus’ own example. So, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Paul also notes, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Similarly, it is only because of God’s love that our love for one another is possible. So “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). And “Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).

Trinity and reciprocity

A problem, however, arises. God is God and people are people. How can the latter love as the former? I consider the Trinity. Good theology will have us know that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have dwelt in reciprocated love from all eternity. The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Spirit and the Spirit loves the Father (and all the other combinations), based not on any feature of the beloved Trinitarian person but each of the lover’s free decision to love. So the idea expressed in the last verse above (and throughout the Old Testament), that God loves the sinner regardless of their qualities, would be an oddity if in the Trinity one person’s love of another depended on its being reciprocated. But, is it an either/or? Having only done the rudimentaries, my reading on the Trinity is yet limited; nonetheless, allow me this: God is not a binity. Perhaps it is this not-so-superfluous third that makes all Trinitarian love possible. Is it at all acceptable to suppose that the Father’s love for the Son “enables” the Son to love the Spirit, regardless of that love being reciprocated?

Before shouting “heresy!” consider, it is too easy to make freedom the defining attribute of God. Where Western anthropology has often accorded human libertarian agency an honourable seat in the definition of what it means to be human, it was inevitable that the ideal of freedom would also be applied to God. This was perhaps also a response to hyper-hyper-Calvinist (of course, no longer Calvinist) definitions of God which placed the god of necessity above God himself, i.e. God acts this way and he could do no other as he is under necessity. In this case, freedom is much to be preferred. Yet, there remains the danger that freedom too stands above God in defining him. Rather, nothing, not even God’s freedom, stands above him in defining him as he cannot be defined; he comes to us on his own terms. (Ignore the contradiction(s) in that last line of argument). Additionally, God is one. No person of the Trinity acts as a libertarian individual but all act together. So while we say that that Son loved that Spirit, and distinctions are necessary, and this relationship is unique from say the Son’s love for the Father, the Father is not absent from the love between Son and Spirit. If he is, we very quickly divide the Godhead and plummet into paganism. Thus, in freedom the Trinitarian persons love each other, independent of its being reciprocated, but made possible by the very nature of God.

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This provides context for the call to non-reciprocated love in Christianity. Christians are still called to love their enemies, not based on whether their enemies will reciprocate but on God’s perfection (Matt 5:48). As the love between two persons of the Trinity is non-existent without the third, so also is our call to love our enemies impossible without first being reconciled to God and living in Trinitarian community.¹ So the event of Christ’s death for all and his resurrection which provides the hope for all things finally being worked out, propels the believers to live lives as a part of this story (e.g. Rom 6:3-11). So also, God does not call individual believers but a community to himself: In radically acting as if another believer is better than their self, this believer is part of a whole community which seeks to do this, that, ideally, this believer is not only the giver but receiver of grace from other believers. Finally, the work of the Spirit in the lives of believers means the community actually experiences the Trinitarian love of God. How often have I been enabled to see a forlorn aspect of one of my relationships from a completely different, empowered, loving angle after emerging from prayer!

(Before proceeding, it would be a little ridiculous to set up non-reciprocated love as an ideal. The Bible is testament to the fact that God’s people have always struggled to love God, others, themselves, and their environment. I can only say that notwithstanding the life of Jesus, there are many more beautiful examples out there, and with the help of the body of Christ and the work of the Spirit, I somehow hope to join these!).

The awkward contradiction! (?)

After all that, I finally arrive at the reason for writing this post: To offer some scattered thoughts on Christian dating. My main concern is this: If the church is called to self-sacrificial love, and so too the individual in Christian marriage attempts to look to the other ahead of their self, is there a way to go about dating that puts the other before the self? Or is dating based on self-interest? For one individual to say that their interest in dating another is based on concern for that other above the individual’s self is a bold claim! It assumes either that in dating this other they will somehow benefit from the individual’s offer, or at least that the other is interested in the individual without that other having explicitly revealed it or even realised it. Conversely, dating based on self-interest seems to make a lot of sense. People seek intimacy. The silverscreen and the highway billboard both point to its fulfillment in romantic love.² Go, therefore, and make dinner arrangements. However, other- and self-interest is a false dichotomy; any absolute notion of either deserves rejection. I remain unimpressed with this critique of altruism, that nothing is truly altruistic because, although it parades as other-centred, it is sourced in the individual and therefore cannot exist for any reason other than for serving that individual. Every desire is self-interested, etc. But this assumes a perfectly bounded individual. There is no instance and never will be of an individual existing on their own terms. You cannot say individual without saying individual-in-(and-of-)the-world (chur Heidegger), or individual-in-relation-to-others. We are completely contingent on others for our coming-to-be. We live in the same world and share the same atoms. Thus, our other-centred concerns are never a direct result of our libertarian agency and neither are our supposedly self-interested ones; we live on the line between other and self, discovering otherness sometimes even within ourselves.

At least in a limited sense though, dating is based on self-interest. Is it possible to say that the individual does not primarily enter into dating for the sake of the other but their self? Assume so, because my argument depends on this! If so, though, does it not run counter to the call to other-centred Christian love? I can now think of two reasons why this does not matter. Firstly, if something good comes of dating, i.e. marriage, then the other-centred love worked towards in this context will continually overlook the need for the initial stages of the relationship to be attributed to one party. It is not a matter of whether she liked him first, etc, as their current love is independent of any initiation but based in continually putting the other ahead of the self. She is just stoked that he responded to her and he’s just stoked that she liked him in the first place. Secondly, although I hope that Christian love always seeks to acknowledge and minimise any power imbalance between lover and beloved, an other-centred, non-reciprocated romantic love will inevitably result in power imbalance. In a healthy relationship there will be power imbalances due to the strengths and weaknesses of each involved, and sometimes one party will give more and receive less, but in the course of love these are to be worked out. Yet to seek an other in dating where all their needs are put before the individual’s is actually to do a disservice to that other. Imagine basing a relationship solely on the  desire to honour the other’s feelings towards you despite you having no romantic interest in that other. The other is not actually honoured because their love lacks reciprocation. Of course, much dating will start like this, but you would hope that both individuals would at least hold within themselves the possibility for romantic interest in the other, and if transitioning into a relationship you would hope that at least some of that romantic interest had been realised! So “self-interest” becomes very valid in Christian dating: Is there a possibility that my romantic interest will be returned?

In sum, Jesus calls his disciples to radical, other-centred love, based on his own example. This also is the case with the Trinity, and our inclusion into Trinitarian community allows us begin to love others regardless of whether this is reciprocated. A problem, however, emerges with Christian dating, as it is typically founded on self- rather than other-interest. Yet this self-interest is not ultimate and, unwittingly or no, a necessary constituent of other-centered romantic love.

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¹Of course, there are examples of enemy-love outside of Christianity and these need be examined individually.

²To make matters worse/better, there is some biblical support for this! So the story in Genesis 2 presents God making Eve because Adam would be lonely without her. But this is not the only biblical meditation on romantic love. Jesus notes there will be no marriage in heaven (Matt 22:30). The eunuchs, sexual outcasts excluded from marriage, are accorded a special place in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 19:12). As Paul writes to the Corinthians, the future has come into the now through Jesus and the Spirit, making the eschatological reality of celibacy possible, even beneficial (1 Cor 7:25-38). This is not to say that romantic love is this-worldly and it will have no meaning in the new heavens and new earth. I am of the opinion that it’s value will be affirmed, fulfilled, and redefined. However, as a Christian, my life is continually re-oriented around what Jesus has done, is doing, and will do. The question of marriage of celibacy is monumentally relative to the reality of Jesus.

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As of 2009, Romans 8:28 was the third most read verse on Biblegateway. Try to guess the others before peeking! Anyway, you probably know it:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Jesus Culture subtly restates it in Your Love Never Fails: “You make all things work together for my good.” I wonder if this has become the dominant direction in which this verse has been taken for middle-class Christians? The community of “those who love God” has become the individual, and God’s eschatological, cosmological, redemptive good has become middle class comforts. But it isn’t all for bad. I won’t deny the consolation that this verse can be for anyone who suffers. Regardless, what’s Paul’s context? The following verse reads, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.” What is conforming to Jesus’ image? Can it be anything other than following in his footsteps to the cross, “sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:10-11)?

As much of the early church experienced persecution, it was likely the church at Rome had undergone or were anticipating some future persecution. In the same way that God works all things together for the good of the church, Paul cites Psalm 44 a few verses on, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered” (Rom 8:36). Yet as Jesus died for the ungodly, not the righteous (5:6-8), the church is to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (12:14), giving themselves as living sacrifices to God (12:1; cf. Phil 2:17). I would love Romans 8:28 to be my favourite verse, but I’m not sure I’ve yet accepted all that it entails!

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Not too long ago I finished Alain Badiou’s In Praise of Love, a wee book with an accomplished philosopher’s take on the subject. Tomorrow I am required to write “a contemporary restatement on how the death of Jesus shows the love of God.” In defining what love is, I’ve found Badiou’s critiques of the contemporary, capitalist, individualist love to be of great prophetic value. He writes of a dating site with the slogan, “Get love without chance!”:

I believe this hype reflects a safety-first concept of “love”. It is love comprehensively insured against all risks: you will have love, but will have assessed the prospective relationship so thoroughly, will have selected your partner carefully by searching online — by obtaining , of course, a photo, details of his or her tastes, date of birth, horoscope sign, etc. — and putting it all in the mix you can tell yourself: “This is a risk-free option!” … Clearly, inasmuch as love is a pleasure almost everyone is looking for, the thing that gives meaning and intensity to almost everyone’s life, I am convinced that love cannot be a gift given on the basis of a complete lack of risk.¹

I was reminded of this by a quote from Jürgen Moltmann in the course reader: “Were God incapable of suffering then he would also be incapable of love.” Love, as putting another’s needs before oneself, requires risk, sacrifice, and even suffering.

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¹Alain Badiou and Nicolas Truong, In Praise of Love (2009), translated by Peter Bush (London, England: Serpent’s Tail, 2012), 6-7.

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Haven’t been around for a while but just found some time (ha!) to take a look at Alain Badiou’s In Praise of Love, which I paid too much for when in one of those need-to-buy-a-book moods.  Despite some philosophical jargon, it’s quite accessible. I’ve been reading it slowly to stimulate my thoughts on love, which brings me to the current post, recasting some previous thoughts on the subject. It should also be noted that this is almost primarily a textual exercise, working in the ideal, as my experience in both love romantic and love universal is lacking.

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Love in the New Testament is first defined in relation to God: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1Jn 4:10).¹ Paul has similar thoughts, demonstrating God’s initiation and humility in love: “Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).

Although divine love is founded on an unequal relationship, human love should be equal and reciprocal, as is shown in the Jesus’ words on the greatest commandments: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:39). To points can be made here. Firstly, love of yourself provides the measure by which your neighbour should be loved. To put it negatively, hate of others is firstly hate of self. Slavoj Žižek makes this related observation:

I don’t think that the so-called fundamentalist Islamic terror is grounded in the terrorist’s conviction of their superiority and in their desire to safeguard their cultural-religious identity from the onslaught of global consumerist civilisation and so on and so on … The problem with … fundamentalist terrorists is not that we consider them inferior to us but rather that they themselves secretly consider themselves inferior.

Secondly, at least regarding the romantic, love to be love requires reciprocity. It’s cliche but: in love there is the desire to love and be loved, so to truly love others we must allow them to love us too. To love another is love yourself is to accept another’s love for you.

* * *

Yet love is not always reciprocated! As shown above, love comes first from God and then overflows into human relationships. Further, not only does God’s love for us inform these relationships but in Christianity the self’s love for another is an extension of their primary love for God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Mt 22:37-39). John also makes this connection in suggesting that hating another is equivalent to hating God: “I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness” (1Jn 2:8-9).

What is not reciprocated in human love is already there in abundance in divine-human love. This is how the golden rule, as an adaption of the neighbour-love commandment, can also ignore reciprocity: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Mt 7:12). Rather than basing neigbour-love on self-love, neighbour-love here is based on an ideal. Regardless of whether you are treated the way you would most like to be, treat others in this way. The call to enemy-love in the New Testament is an even clearer illustration of this sacrificing human reciprocity to express divine love (Mt 5:43-48; Rom 12:19-21).

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Finally, although love requires two giving parties, two places in the Bible I can think of make room for the consummation of the dialectic, when  two become one. Paul writes, “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh” (Rom 9:3). This is akin to Moses’ words, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written” (Ex 32:31-32). Here self-giving love is not only not reciprocated by others but, out of love, sunders itself from the power which makes it possible. God gives his love so completely that the one who receives this love can only also give themselves completely, so completely that the self initiates its own annihilation in the other. The standard characterisation of love as exclusive and preferential can be expanded here: Precisely because of love’s exclusivity with and preferentiality for the divine, it overflows to the inclusive and universal.

But to what extent, as the utmost expression of love, is self-annihilation its end?  Jesus’ paradoxical call to follow him contains a surprise twist: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:25). Following Jesus here is a complete self-denial; any hint of intentions towards self-preservation in one’s acts and one is not really following him. It is self-annihilation in the other. But the paradox is that salvation comes only through this act of self-annihilation. Completely forsaking one’s rights, privileges and self is paradoxically the only way one comes by them in the first place. Even when the self cuts off all reciprocity through sacrifice, it miraculously receives it back. This is evident in the hymn in Philippians 2:6-11:

Though he was in the form of God,
[he] did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

God dies. He sacrifices all there is to sacrifice, in complete self-annihilation. Yet he receives it all back and more. The obvious difficulty with this is that self-annihilation is not really self-annihilation if the self sees some reward coming to it after implementing its actions. But this is to miss the point of the paradox: In complete devotion to the other, the self forsakes all consideration of its own preservation, cutting itsself off in the state of giving, not the anticipation of receiving. The self’s reception of salvation is not transactional; but rather the Lord, who gave so that it could give, justifies it out of a desire to keep on giving.

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In the passage to which this hymn is connected, Paul admonishes the  Philippians: “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” (Php 2:3). The picture of divine love is replicated in the Christian community. Here, as in the above examples, reciprocity is suspended through the sacrifice of putting others’ needs before one’s own, yet the action is reciprocated, as other members of the community treat their others in the same way.

Love is a dialectic: sacrifice is not made first possible through the love already received from the other to which the sacrifice is directed, but it ‘leaps’ forward on the basis of divine love, seeking to express this love with another but with no guarantee of the love’s return or reciprocation. Yet it is reciprocated, and in this way it is contained in divine love.

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¹All citations from the NRSV

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“I am convinced that God is love; for me this thought has a primal lyrical validity. When it is present to me, I am unspeakably happy; when it is absent, I long for it more vehemently than the lover for the object of his love. But I do not have faith; this courage I lack. To me God’s love, in both the direct and the converse sense, is incommensurable with the whole of actuality. Knowing that, I am not so cowardly that I whimper and complain, but neither am I so perfidious as to deny that faith is something far higher […] I do not trouble God with my little troubles, details do not concern me; I gaze only at my love and keep its virgin flame pure and clear. Faith is convinced that God is concerned about the smallest things. I am satisfied with a left-handed marriage in this life; faith is humble enough to insist on the right hand, for I do not deny that this is humility and will never deny it.”

Johannes de Silentio¹ in Kierkegaard’s Fear and trembling (p.34)².

* * *

After a slow start in his own lifetime, Kierkegaard’s writings have had a profound effect on secular philosophy. Sarte was influenced by Kierkegaard’s detailings of the the anxiety involved in making choices. Heidegger found value in Kierkegaard’s notion of becoming a self and took a cue from the Dane when he wrote about what it means to exist authentically. More generally, a reader conversant in postmodernism will find ideas in Kierkegaard’s writings which inform their own, like the many explorations of the subject’s relation to truth. But reading Kierkegaard, a professing Christian himself, also has deep religious value. Martin Buber saw this and, so I’m told, Karl Barth.

This was my experience in reading Fear and trembling again recently. It was my third time and I’ve hopefully come a long way since that first fateful attempt to read philosophy without any background. I can even say that I arrived at places which allowed me to see holes in the philosophy I hadn’t seen before. One example which you may have noted in reading the quote above is Silentio’s reverential insistence on the im/possibility of faith. Kierkegaard, possibly quite ironically, writes Silentio as seeing faith higher than love, contra Paul (1Cor 13:13) and Jesus (Mat 22.37-40)³. Not only that, but faith in Fear and trembling has been elevated to such a height that it is only attainable by the few.

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Quite serendipitously I have enjoyed the coincidence of formulating an important question on the nature of prayer during my re-reading of Fear and trembling. In my own prayer life and the thoughts surrounding it, the problem of whether petitionary prayer should be humble resignation to the will of God or bold, childlike requests returns perennially. If I’m applying for a job (*mumble, cough, etc*) do I submit to whatever may be as a the outworking of the will of God (I don’t get this job but another opportunity presents itself) or do I daringly believe and receive from the Lord this job I have applied for? But Camo, the two can exist beside each other! Yes reader, but only to an extent. The moment I subtitle my prayer for this application with “but only if it’s your will” is the moment I throw away everything I just asked for. How? It demonstrates my conception of God as a being who is ultimately indifferent to particular requests. What if God’s will was not something we adhered to but that which we took active, constructive participation in?

I had this conversation with our new youth pastor last night to see what his thoughts were on it. The most difficulty I have with this idea is due to Jesus’s words in Matthew:

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

(6:7-10, NRSV)

If the Father knows what we need and we’re praying generally for his will to be done, then what use is prayer!? Is it just a gesture, some awkward conversation to make when you have nothing else to say? But my friend pointed me to the crux of what Jesus is saying here. It’s not a blind acceptance of reality in line with God’s will but a pointing to the God at the center of our prayers. If we displace this center then our prayers become just the expressions of our selfish desires. I’m not saying that we can no longer consider ourselves in centered prayer — the job may be close to home and have convenient working hours for your lifestyle — but that centered prayer brings our own bold requests into the greater context of the Kingdom of God: What we expect and ask for, we do so with the trust that we are taking part in the co-construction of God’s plans and their fulfillment4.

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Is this what Jesus meant when he gave Peter the keys to the kingdom, with authority to loose and bind on earth and heaven (Mat 16:19)? My friend gave examples of Jesus’ teaching on prayer:

Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

(Mat 7:7-11 NRSV)

In Luke, Jesus goes even further, speaking on the need for persistence in prayer (18:1) and going as far to ironically compare God with an unjust judge (vv.2-8) and an angry neighbour (11:5-8). I have written elsewhere about this, looking at examples such as Abraham beseeching God to withhold judgement on Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:20ff).

* * *

How does this relate to Fear and trembling? Silentio’s understanding of the spheres of existence are applicable to this model of prayer. In short, possibly erroneous terms, three spheres are referenced in Fear and trembling, the aesthetic, ethical and religious. The mysterious ‘A’ explores the aesthetic in Kierkegaard’s Either/or, although this may be quite different to the way Silentio understands it.  My understanding of the aesthetic is to live for yourself according to your own desires without a lot of care for God or others. The ethical is quite the opposite, almost equivalent to the idea of law in Christian theology (I do, however, admit the massive space for interpretation of ‘law’). To live ethically is to live responsibly, with thought of others’ needs and social contracts, generally putting those before your own (There is a more specific Hegelian definition Kierkegaard is referring to but I’m not yet familiar enough with it!). In Either/or, Judge Vilhelm answers A by saying that to live ethically is the only way to be truly aesthetic, to have peace with God and your community. The religious does not appear in Either/or but it can be understood as a return to the aesthetic through faith. In Fear and trembling, the religious person, or ‘knight of faith’ is the one who seeks not their own or another’s good but the good of both God and their self. Just with that formulation a lot of people will immediately have problems. Who is this Silentio and why is Kierkegaard corrupting the youth through his bad theology? The formulation is based on the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac: Abraham cannot sacrifice Isaac aesthetically because he wants to have descendants. He cannot do it ethically because it will destroy his family. He can only do it religiously, because God commands him, without explanation, to do it.

Silentio goes on to compare Abraham’s sacrifice to Jephthah’s (Jdg 11), who made a rash vow to sacrifice the first thing coming out of his house when returning home if the Lord gave him victory against the Ammonites: “What good would it be for Jephthah to win the victory by means of a promise if he did not keep it — would not the victory be taken away from the people again?” (p.58). Jephthah can justify his sacrifice to the people but Abraham cannot. His is, as far as they know, arbitrary and downright evil (not that there is a non-evil form of sacrifice). There is an important idea Kierkegaard develops in what is required for sacrifice: resignation. This is what makes the ethical higher than the aesthetic. A possible aesthetic Jephthah would just say, “Screw you guys, I won the battle but now I will defy God and keep my daughter.” But the ethical Jephthah tragically gives up his daughter (figuratively everything) for the greater good of the community of which he is a part. He fully surrenders himself to God and people (or God through people). Silentio makes the point that this is not, however, unpraiseworthy. In Kierkegaard’s trademark denunciation of the society of his day he writes of the monastic life:

To enter a monastery is not the highest, but by no means do I therefore believe that everyone in our day, when no one enters the monastery, is greater than the deep and earnest souls who found rest in a monastery.

(p. 100)

Veng Abbey Church, on the site of the old Veng Abbey. Protestant Northern Europe generally found other uses for their monasteries after the Reformation. Kierkegaard's snide comments about monasteries, expressed by more than one of his pseudonyms, may be indicative of general Protestant rejection of monastic life during his Zeitgeist.

Veng Abbey Church, on the site of the old Veng Abbey. Protestant Northern Europe generally found other uses for their monasteries after the Reformation. Kierkegaard’s snide comments about monasteries, expressed by more than one of his pseudonyms, may be indicative of general Protestant rejection of monastic life during his Zeitgeist, as much as he tried to distance himself from that culture.

The monastery here is a symbol for resigning all worldly ambition and asset to God. For Silentio, to renounce everything is not as high as faith, but it is still an admirable, even a necessary step on the road to faith. What, then, is faith? Faith is that which gives everything to God and then asks for it all back. For Silentio, this is the paradox of Abraham: He finally receives from God the promised heir through which his descendants will come and then God asks him to get rid of him! Abraham’s faith is in simultaneously giving Isaac up to God and trusting God to stay true to his promise.

* * *

This is where Kierkegaard meets my thoughts on prayer: The aesthetic, ethical and religious line up roughly with different ways of praying. To pray aesthetically is to ask God to meet your own needs without much thought of him or others (cf. the prayers Bruce is asked in Bruce Almighty like winning the lotto). To pray ethically is to pray just that the Lord’s will be done, to give your whole life to him by qualifying all your requests with “but only if it’s your will”. To pray ethically is not a bad thing and it is a necessary area to move through and return to continually through your walk with God. To pray religiously, in faith, is to give yourself fully to God but dare also to receive that which you ask for.

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¹Number one rule of Kierkegaard scholarship: Don’t talk about Kierkegaard. Or, do so but keep in mind that he constructs characters who may have views differing markedly from his own.

²Kierkegaard, S. (1983). Fear and trembling/Repetition (H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (1843).

³Love I believe to be the center of Christian theology and practice, although I don’t make a big case for it here and the two passages need to of course be understood as situated within the wider biblical story. The English words ‘love’ and ‘believe’ are etymologically related.

4Enter the contentious issue of car park theology: How consumerist has our faith become when we start asking God to find us a car park at a mall? Yet this is the very illustration I have been looking for. If car parks are the only thing we ever ask of God then what kind of god is that? But if we pray for car parks within the wider context of participating in the Kingdom of God, if this is just a small expression of the God who is continually making his way into every area of our lives then I don’t only have no problem with it but see it as a positively good thing.

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Through some USB travels, I’ve further re-found two poems written in 2010. Thistles for you, mind the cheese, written after about a five hour trip (if you know Christchurch) across the hills from Sumner to Halswell Quarry, raising the question of why thistles aren’t considered beautiful. Pieces of heart, after an Ocarina of Time renaissance, in which not just me but my whole being experienced again the best game of all time, exploring the possibility that Link and Saria were really into each other but kind of put that aside to take part in something larger.

* * *

Thistles for you

The generations have disdained
you and counted you
among weeds. Do you stab at us
in anger? But
your bite

is not
without beauty. Perhaps
you protect it fiercely. And still
the beholder pierces your heart,
your every intent.

Is that light-hearted
purple the sound of
your laughter? Have I
all this time missed
the bright celebrations on a hillside

of gorse? No midsummer
lavender or joyous yellow ran down
when the spear entered
your side, but a bleeding scarlet
and colourless

water, both more full, more empty; more
deep, more faint. My soul
descried a
“This is for you.” And this all,
your misery, your slaying,

is the highest image of beauty:
The best of us are lost
and the worst of us are
perfect, as a withering thistle
testifies.

* * *

Pieces of Heart

Saria, the woodland peace is here
only by virtue of us;
each fresh shrub, each aged
oak bears our friendship.

And the mist is the breath of
your prayers, and your tears
for the ashen pine humbly drop like
dewdrops. Hope,

Saria, for though the bloodied
kindle under furious flambeaux, hear,
even now in the distance, our rain
song surges

the skies before dawn. On the tip
of this blade I balance all
that is pure, and pommel
time’s shortcomings for us

and freedom, Saria. The heart
is soft and vulnerable, yet it beats
hardest; I am only the air of
a warm exhale, only

a herald for renewal.
When the wind ensuing
my deathstroke reveals to
the world

salvation, I will have glory
but not your love. Your love
for a moment is more
difficult than the gamut

of pallid swords and chilled skin-bags
that afflict our
reality. Yet, I will strive
against fate, though it shatters
our hearts, though we fight

hell.

Link and Saria

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“Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell’s despair.”

So sung a little Clod of Clay,
Trodden with the cattle’s feet,
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:

“Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven’s despite.”

The clod and the pebble by William Blake

* * *

The cover of Songs of innocence and experience

William Blake was an English poet writing in the Romantic period. Romanticism, was a literary/arts movement that reacted against the over-rationalisation and machinations¹ of Enlightenment thinking². My understanding of Romanticism is that it gave priority to the emotional and subjective, valued a return to nature³, placed worth on folk traditions (though many (most?) of Romantic writers/artists still came from the higher classes), and created an ideal world apart from the reality of everyday life.

This last aspect of Romanticism is particularly important in understanding Blake’s verse. Throughout his childhood he experienced visions and visitations that largely affected his work. His material life was also characterised by suffering, enemies and financial strain, a life that one would want to escape from. A quote of his encapsulates his Romantic orientation: “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s”4.

This poem, The clod and the pebble, is included in Blake’s collection, Songs of experience. The collection, written four years after his Songs of innocence, was in part a reaction to his previous work. The two were later collated as a single work, Songs of innocence and experience. Whereas the poems around innocence paint a picture of what it means to be naive, innocent and young, taking joy in all things, being without responsibility and approaching life spontaneously, the later poems focus on those who are ‘experienced’, that is, knowing the struggles of life and the responsibility that comes with it.

* * *

What follows now is an analysis of the poem. If you don’t get the poem yet, you may want to read it a couple more times and try your hand, otherwise I’m giving you all the answers. One of the sad reasons that poetry isn’t as valued by modern society as it has been in the past is that people no longer work for it. You need to work to understand and appreciate poetry so if I’m going to give you all the answers then you’re only perpetuating its death…

Poem as it appears in an illuminated edition of Blake's works

For me this poem speaks of love in a rational sense versus love in an experiential sense. Notice that the smooth-bodied Pebble, having a clearly relatively easier life than the betrodden Clod, is pessimistic towards love. His love is a selfish love, love for one’s own means only, a love which he, in his comfortable lifestlye, would have long been a part of. The Clod, however, having not only a rougher life of being continually stood upon, but also made up of a less noble substance, can testify that love is good and it is selfless. The poem brings to light the discrepancy between the ideal and the real. In the ideal sense, love does not exist: Everyone is out to serve their own interests and anything purported to be loving is only the substance of myth. Nietzshe writes along similar lines in Thus spoke Zarathustra, “You crowd together with your neighbour and have beautiful words for it. But I tell you: Your love of your neighbour is your bad love of yourselves. You flee to your neighbour away from yourselves and would like to make a virtue of it: but I see through your ‘selflessness'”. The real, the actual loving, cannot be justified by words, because the world of words is dominated by idealists. The Clod has no time for the ideal; he rather spends his time in the real, in the action of loving, and if anyone wish to contend with him, they must contend also in the real. They must show by their actions that love is nothing, else their words are nothing. The cattle will not listen to the Pebble’s definition of love; rather they know the Clod’s definition of love through experience as he has given himself for them to tread upon day in and day out.

A very interesting structural feature of the poem is that the Pebble has the last word. The poem opens beautifully, giving us a definition of what it means to love. Why does Blake choose the counter-resolution of ending instead with the Pebble’s cynical definition of love? Firstly I think this is indicative of the silent nature of love. The Pebble’s voice gives the lasting impression of the poem while the Clod retains his sacrificial love. He has no time to debate on the meaning of love; he is too busy loving. His opening dialogue was not reactionary; rather he was spontaneously speaking out in joy of the love he had experienced in giving. The Pebble, on hearing this, then reacts with pessimism. Secondly, this indicates the persistence of the ideal in our thinking, persistence because the poem ends on this note, when our real lives run counter to what we think or idealise.

* * *

This is a note on metre in Blake’s poem. Most people will find this part quite boring (there are no pictures) so I give you full permission to skip ahead of it =)

The majority of this poem is written in iambic tetrameter, having four feet per line (tetrameter), each foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (iambic): “Love SEEK-eth NOT it-SELF to PLEASE”. Blake however omits the unstressed syllable at the beginning of line two, three and four in the second stanza. This does not greatly interrupt the flow of the poem, as each line still contains the same number of stressed beats. I don’t think it would’ve have been difficult for Blake to include some unstressed syllables in the stanza either, for example: “Be-TROD-den WITH the CAT-tle’s FEET, /But HEARD a PEB-ble OF the BROOK /And WAR-bled OUT these MET-res MEET” (The extra syllables to complete the iambs have been indicated in bold).

I would conclude that Blake either omitted the syllables out of carelessness or choice. If choice, then possibly he is indicating action in a break from the dialogue by focussing on the distinction between the Clod and the Pebble. This affect is achieved because the absence of the preceding unstressed syllable speeds the lines a up a tad and begins them more aggressively. Also contributing to this is the fact that two of these lines begin with a verb. On the other hand, carelessness I think is more probable. But maybe that’s not the right word. There is a simplicity about Blake’s verse in the volume in which this poem is included, Songs of innocence and experience. Blake was probably not too concerned about meeting metrical convention as he was in communicating his ideas through his metaphorical aphorisms. Perhaps ‘carefreeness’  is more aptly applied in this sense than carelessness. This possibility is reinforced by the extra unstressed syllable in line two of the third stanza: “To BIND a-NO-ther to ITS de-LIGHT”.

* * *

I have a few poems in mind that I would like to explore. I am open to requests, depending on the depth and quality of the poem! Ha!

* * *

¹A clever pun

²While it’s still fashionable to bag the Enlightenment, I will remain on that bandwagon

³Wordsworth, a true lover of nature, epitomises this tenet of Romanticism. His famous poem, The world is too much with us, is a good example of this.

4This for me has a similar ring to Voltaire’s “If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him”. Blake refers to Voltaire both directly and indirectly in his poetry. This poem of his addressing Voltaire is an example of the anti-rationalist heart of Romanticism.

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