When a religious person speaks: On the love of selfishness

When [a religious person] speaks it is only a monologue; occupied only with himself, he speaks aloud, and this is called preaching; if there is anyone listening, he knows nothing about his relation to them except that they owe him nothing, for what he must accomplish is to save himself.  Such a right reverend monologue that witnesses Christianly, when in its animation it moves the speaker, the witnessing, because he is speaking about himself, is called a sermon.  World-historical surveys, systematic conclusions, gesticulations, wiping of sweat from the brow, a stentorian voice, and pulpit pounding, along with the premeditated use of all this in order to accomplish something are easthetic reminiscences that do not even know how to accentuate fear and pity properly in the Aristotelian sense.

. . .

The religious speaker who purifies these passions through fear and compassion does not in the course of his address do the astounding thing of ripping the clouds asunder to show heaven open, the judgment day at hand, hell in the background, himself and the elect triumphantly celebrating; he does the simpler and less pretentious thing, the humble feat that is supposed to be so very easy: he lets heaven remains closed, in fear and trembling does not feel that he himself is finished, bows his head while the judgment of the discourse falls upon thought and mind.  He does not do the astounding thing that could make his next appearance lay claim to being greeted with applause; he does not thunder so that the congregation might be kept awake and saved by his discourse.  He does the simpler and less pretentious thing, the humble feat that is supposed to be so very easy: he lets God keep  the thunder and the power and the honor and speaks in such a way that even if everything miscarried he nevertheless is certain that there was one listener who was moved in earnest, the speaker himself, that even if everything miscarried and everyone stayed away there was still one person who in life’s difficult complications longed for the upbuilding moment of the discourse, the speaker himself.

. . .

Therefore, says the religious person, if you were to see him in some lonely, out-of-the-way place, deserted by everyone and positive that he accomplished nothing by his speaking, if you saw him there you would see him just as inwardly moved as ever; if you heard his discourse, you would find it as powerful as always, guileless, uncalculating, unenterprising, you would comprehend that there was one person it was bound to upbuild – the speaker himself.  He will not become weary of speaking, for attorneys and speakers who have secular aims or worldly importance with regard to eternal aims become weary when what they accomplish cannot be counted on their fingers, when crafty life does not delude them with the illusion of having accomplished something, but the religious speaker always has his primary aim: the speaker himself. (Stages on Life’s Way, 463-465)

However one might interpret this suggestion more broadly I am coming to see it as a fair characterization of Kierkegaard’s authorship.  Through the various pseudonyms that he employs and often brings in conversation with each other (particularly in CUP) one is let in on what Kierkegaard was interested in no matter the audience.  No doubt he was affected by his literary reception or lack of it but I still get the impression he would have done this work even if he did not have the means to publish them or to the extent he could carve out time to do it.

I am becoming increasingly convinced that there is an appropriate ‘selfishness’ that is the best way we can possibly hope to love our neighbour.  This selfishness can keep us from objectifying our neighbour,  keep us from vanity, and allow us a creative productivity freed from external ends.  Life is never so uncomplicated but I see this route as far more inspiring, liberating and motivating than duty and law.  It is the appropriate inverse of what we commonly perceive as Jesus’s call.  Jesus called us to lose our lives that they might be found.  But what is life lost?  Might it not be the one constructed by local law, custom and structural power?  To lose it then is to find it in the selfishness of particularity and in the process see your neighbour through those new eyes.


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