But What About Me?
Soren Kierkegaard and the Pursuit of Greatness
Emeritus Professor of Philosophy
Trinity International University
Deerfield, IL 60015
“Each of us, first as a child and then as an adult, clings to an irrational belief in our specialness” (Irvin D. Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy, 96).
Soren Kierkegaard lived in Denmark from 1813-1855. He is often referred to as the father of existentialism, and because existentialism has had a bad reputation among some Christians, Kierkegaard has also had a bad reputation among these Christians. His books, however, are extraordinarily rich in psychological and spiritual insights. One of his aims was to restore the Danish church to New Testament Christianity. His analysis of what he saw as “crowd Christianity” is pertinent to the idea of being a Christian hero. Like Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death and Friedrich Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals, Kierkegaard described the insidious ways in which Christians try to be something special. In the end, though, all depends on grace, Kierkegaard declared.
Grace: “The more one does his best to do good works with the idea of becoming saved, all the more anxious does he become, and his life becomes sheer self-torment. Far happier is the sinner who sighs briefly and to the point, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner’” (Soren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, II, 173). “Every person has heaven’s salvation only by the grace and mercy of God” (Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, 271).
Pursuing greatness: “Ordinarily, most people aim their ideals at the Great, the Extraordinary, which they never attain” (The Diary of Soren Kierkegaard, 51).
Ways in which we insidiously pursue greatness
Pursuing reward instead of the good: “The good is one thing; the reward is something else” (Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, 37). We must love the good “without regard for reward” (UDVS, 39). When we love the good for the sake of reward, we are not really loving the good. The situation is like loving someone for their money—we are not really loving them, but their money. The most common reward for “loving” the good is other people’s admiration. This reward is very alluring: “It is a common human craving to be looked upon as someone great; and the common fakery is to pass oneself off for something more than one is” (For Self-Examination, 59). We are constantly offered opportunities for admiration—from acquaintances, co-workers, and family.
Congratulating ourselves: “Suppose a man wills the good simply in order that he may score the victory, then he wills the good for the sake of the reward. . . . The reward which he insists upon is a sense of pride. . . . Actually he does not care to serve the good” (Purity of Heart, 99, 100).
A test: Imagine that the reward is absent, that is, imagine that we are not admired or that we do not admire ourselves for doing the good.
Comparing: “Comparison may either tempt a man to an earthly and fortuitous despondency because the one who compares must admit to himself that he is behind many others, or it may tempt him to pride because, humanly speaking, he seems to be ahead of many others” (Purity of Heart, 216).
Engaging in self-justification: When we pursue reward, congratulate ourselves, and compare ourselves to others, we are justifying ourselves in the same way in which the Pharisee justified himself when he prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people” (Luke 18:11). It is identical to the “works-righteousness” that Paul mentions as being contrary to grace: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, . . . not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–9). We like to pursue reward, congratulate ourselves, and compare, though. That is, we like to justify ourselves. We like to think of ourselves as special in ways that do not involve God’s grace.
Being busy: “In the busy life, in all the dealings from morning to night, it is not such a scrupulous matter whether a person completely wills the good” UDVS, 66). Busyness is addicting: “This busyness is indeed like a spell” (UDVS, 66). In busyness we have “a distracted mind” (UDVS, 67), that is, we use busyness to evade the good.
Pursuing worldly exploits: “Let worldly exploits become greater and greater, more and more extraordinary, more and more complicated, but do not forget that what a person gains by taking part in them, indeed, by managing the greatest of human enterprises, is not worth picking up on the beaten path compared with being superfluous in the world but sharing with God” (Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, 372).
Being a crowd Christian
Playing the game of Christianity: “Where all are Christians, the situation is this: to call oneself a Christian is the means whereby one secures oneself against all sorts of inconveniences and discomforts. . . . And orthodoxy flourishes in the land, no heresy, no schism, orthodoxy everywhere, the orthodoxy that consists in playing the game of Christianity” (Attack upon ‘Christendom’, 27-28). “The situation is this. If everyone around defines himself as being a Christian just like ‘the other,’ then no one, if it is looked at this way, is really confessing Christ” (Practice in Christianity, 219). “For where there are many, there is externality, comparison, and indulgence, and excuse and evasion” (Purity of Heart, 211).
Being an external person: “Most people live in the opposite way. They are busy with being something when someone is watching them. If possible, they are something in their own eyes as soon as others are watching them, but inwardly, where the absolute requirement is watching them, they have no taste for accentuating the personal I” (Concluding Unscientific Postscript, I, 503).
The external person “does not dare to believe in himself, finds it too hazardous to be himself and far easier and safer to be like the others, to become a copy, a number, a mass man” (The Sickness unto Death, 33-34).
Hiding from God: “The most pernicious of all evasions is—hidden in the crowd, to want, as it were, to avoid God’s inspection of oneself as a single individual, avoid hearing God’s voice as a single individual, as Adam once did when his bad conscience fooled him into thinking that he could hide among the trees” (UDVS, 128).
“Oblivion and indulgence from that which is eternal” (Purity of Heart, 192).
Being good: “‘Being good’ can be a form of defiance, a way of telling God that I need no help to become what I should be” (C. Stephen Evans, Soren Kierkegaard’s Christian Psychology, 60).
Illusion: “When Christianity came into the world the task was simply to proclaim Christianity. . . . “In ‘Christendom’ the situation is a different one. What we have before us is not Christianity but a prodigious illusion, and the people are not pagans but live in the blissful conceit that they are Christians. So if in this situation Christianity is to be introduced, first of all the illusion must be disposed of” (Attack upon ‘Christendom’, 97).
The remedy for pursuing greatness in false ways
Honesty: “Oh, there is nothing as deceitful and as cunning as a human heart, resourceful in seeking escapes and finding excuses; and there surely is nothing as difficult and as rare as genuine honesty before God” (Christian Discourses, 85).
“Above all learn from Job to become honest with yourself so that you do not deceive yourself with imagined power, with which you experience imagined victory in imagined struggle” (Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, 123).
Being an individual: “To be a single individual . . . is a human being’s only true and highest significance” (Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 149).
Being an individual is “the decisive Christian category.” With this category, “the cause of Christianity stands or falls” (Point of View, 133,134).
“In eternity each shall render account as an individual” (Purity of Heart, 185).
"Each man himself, as an individual, should render his account to God” (Purity of Heart, 185).
Greatness: “True greatness is accessible to all” (Fear and Trembling, 81).
True Christian heroism: We are all “special” because God loves us.
Quotations are taken from the Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong translations of Kierkegaard’s books, published by Princeton University Press, except for Soren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, published by Indiana University Press, and except for Purity of Heart, which was translated by Douglas Steere and published by Harper and Row in 1956.