The Rigor of Love

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

For a non-Christian, such as myself, but one out of sympathy with the triumphal evangelical atheism of the age, the core commandment of Christian faith has always been a source of both fascinated intrigue and perplexity. What is the status and force of that deceptively simple five-word command: “you shall love your neighbor”? With Gary Gutting’s wise counsel on the relation between philosophy and faith still ringing in our ears, I’d like to explore the possible meaning of these words through a reflection on a hugely important and influential philosopher not yet even mentioned so far in The Stone: Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55).

In the conclusion to “Works of Love” (1847) — which some consider the central work in Kierkegaard’s extensive and often pseudonymous authorship — he ponders the nature of the commandment of love that he has been wrestling with throughout the book. He stresses the strenuousness and, in the word most repeated in these pages, the rigor of love. As such, Christian love is not, as many non-believers contend, some sort of  “coddling love,” which spares believers any particular effort. Such love can be characterized as “pleasant days or delightful days without self-made cares.” This easy and fanciful idea of love reduces Christianity to “a second childhood” and renders faith infantile.

Kierkegaard then introduces the concept of “the Christian like-for-like,” which is the central and decisive category of “Works of Love.” The latter is introduced by distinguishing it from what Kierkegaard calls “the Jewish like-for-like,” by which he means “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”: namely a conception of obligation based on the equality and reciprocity of self and other. Although, as a cursory reading of Franz Rosenzweig’s “The Star of Redemption” — one of the great works of German-Jewish thought — could easily show, this is a stereotypical and limited picture of Judaism, Kierkegaard’s point is that Christian love cannot be reduced to what he calls the “worldly” conception of love where you do unto others what others do unto you and no more. The Christian like-for-like brackets out the question of what others may owe to me and instead, “makes every relationship to other human beings into a God-relationship.”

This move coincides with a shift from the external to the inward. Although the Christian, for Kierkegaard, “must remain in the world and the relationships of earthly life allotted to him,” he or she views those relationships from the standpoint of inwardness, that is, mediated through the relationship to God. As Kierkegaard puts it emphatically in Part One of “Works of Love”:

Worldly wisdom thinks that love is a relationship between man and man. Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: man-God-man, that is, that God is the middle term.

The rigor of Christianity is a conception of love based on radical inequality, namely the absolute difference between the human and the divine. This is how Kierkegaard interprets Jesus’s words from the Sermon on the Mount, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye.”(Matthew, 7:3) The log in my own eye does not permit me to judge the speck in the other’s. Rather, I should abstain from any judgment of what others might or might not do. To judge others is to view matters from the standpoint of externality rather than inwardness. It is arrogance and impertinence. What others owe to me is none of my business.

This is why it is very hard to be Christian. And maybe there are not as many true Christians around as one might have thought. Kierkegaard writes, “Christianly understood you have absolutely nothing to do with what others do to you.” “Essentially,” he continues, “you have only to do with yourself before God.” Once again, the move to inwardness does not turn human beings away from the world, it is rather, “a new version of what other men call reality, this is reality.”

The address of Kierkegaard’s writing has a specific direction: the second person singular, you. He tells the story from the Gospels (versions appears in Matthew and Luke) of the Roman centurion in Capernaum who approached Jesus and asked him to cure his servant or boy, the sense is ambiguous, “sick with the palsy, grievously tormented.”(Matthew, 8:6) After Jesus said that he would visit the boy, the centurion confessed that, as a representative of the occupying imperial authority with soldiers under his command, he did not feel worthy that Jesus should enter his house. When Jesus heard this he declared that he had not experienced a person of such great faith in the whole of Israel. He added, and this is the line that interests Kierkegaard, “Be it done for you, as you believed.”

This story reveals the essential insecurity of faith. Kierkegaard writes that it does not belong to Christian doctrine to vouchsafe that you — “precisely you,” as he emphasizes — have faith. If someone were to say, “it is absolutely certain that I have faith because I have been baptized in the church and follow its rituals and ordinances,” then Kierkegaard would reply, “Be it done for you, as you believed.” The point of the story is that the centurion, although he was not baptized as a Christian, nonetheless believed. As Kierkegaard writes, “in his faith, the Gospel is first a gospel.” The New Testament Greek for “gospel” is euaggelion, which can mean good tidings, but can also be thought of as the act of proclamation or pledging.  On this view, faith is a proclamation or pledge that brings the inward subject of faith into being over against an external everydayness. Such a proclamation is as true for the non-Christian as for the Christian. Indeed, it is arguably more true for the non-Christian, because their faith is not supported by the supposed guarantee of baptism, creedal dogma, regular church attendance or some notion that virtue will be rewarded with happiness if not here on earth, then in the afterlife. Thus, paradoxically, non-Christian faith might be said to reveal the true nature of the faith that Christ sought to proclaim. Even — and indeed especially — those who are denominationally faithless can have an experience of faith. If faith needs to be underpinned by some sort of doctrinal security, then inwardness becomes externalized and the strenuous rigor of faith evaporates.

What sort of certainty, then, is the experience of faith? Kierkegaard writes, and again the second person singular direction of address should be noted: “It is eternally certain that it will be done for you as you believe, but the certainty of faith, or the certainty that you, you in particular, believe, you must win at every moment with God’s help, consequently not in some external way.” (Emphasis mine)

Kierkegaard insists — and one feels here the force of his polemic against the irreligious, essentially secular order of so-called Christendom, in his case what he saw as the pseudo-Christianity of the Danish National Church — that no pastor or priest has the right to say that one has faith or not according to doctrines like baptism and the like. To proclaim faith is to abandon such external or worldly guarantees. Faith has the character of a continuous “striving … in which you get occasion to be tried every day.” This is why faith and the commandment of love that it seeks to sustain is not law. It has no coercive, external force. As Rosenzweig writes, “The commandment of love can only proceed from the mouth of the lover.” He goes on to contrast this with law, “which reckons with times, with a future, with duration.” By contrast, the commandment of love “knows only the moment; it awaits the result in the very moment of its promulgation.” The commandment of love is mild and merciful, but, as Kierkegaard insists, “there is rigor in it.” We might say love is that disciplined act of absolute spiritual daring that eviscerates the old self of externality so something new and inward can come into being. 

As Kierkegaard puts in earlier in “Works of Love,” citing Paul, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.”(Romans, 13:8) It sounds simple. But what is implicit in this minimal-sounding command is a conception of love as an experience of infinite debt — a debt that it is impossible to repay, “When a man is gripped by love, he feels that this is like being in infinite debt.” To be is to be in debt — I owe therefore I am.

If sin is the theological name for the essential ontological indebtedness of the self, then love is the experience of a countermovement to sin that is orientated around a demand that exceeds the capacity or ability of the self. Love is shaped in relation to what, in my parlance, can be called an infinite demand. Kierkegaard writes, and the double emphasis on the “moment” that finds an echo in Rosenzweig should be noted, “God’s relationship to a human being is the infinitizing at every moment of that which at every moment is in a man.” Withdrawn into inwardness and solitude (“If you have never been solitary, you have never discovered that God exists,” Kierkegaard writes), each and every word and action of the self resounds through the infinite demand of God.

At this point, in the penultimate paragraph of “Works of Love Kierkegaard shifts to auditory imagery. God is a vast echo chamber where each sound, “the slightest sound,” is duplicated and resounds back loudly into the subject’s ears. God is nothing more than the name for the repetition of each word that the subject utters. But it is a repetition that resounds with “the intensification of infinity.” In what Kierkegaard calls “the urban confusion” of external life, it is nigh impossible to hear this repetitive echo of the infinite demand. This is why the bracketing out of externality is essential: “externality is too dense a body for resonance, and the sensual ear is too hard-of-hearing to catch the eternal’s repetition.” We need to cultivate the inner or inward ear that infinitizes the words and actions of the self. As Kierkegaard makes clear, what he is counseling is not “to sit in the anxiety of death, day in and day out, listening for the repetition of the eternal.” What is rather being called for is a rigorous and activist conception of faith that proclaims itself into being at each instant without guarantee or security and which abides with the infinite demand of love.

Faith is not a like-for-like relationship of equals, but the asymmetry of the like-to-unlike. It is a subjective strength that only finds its power to act through an admission of weakness. Faith is an enactment of the self in relation to an infinite demand that both exceeds my power and yet requires all my power. Such an experience of faith is not only shared by those who are faithless from a creedal or denominational perspective, but can — in my view — be had by them in an exemplary manner. Like the Roman centurion of whom Kierkegaard writes, it is perhaps the faithless who can best sustain the rigor of faith without requiring security, guarantees and rewards: “Be it done for you, as you believed.”

Simon Critchley is chair of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York, and part-time professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He is the author of several books, including “Infinitely Demanding.” His new book, “The Faith of the Faithless,” is forthcoming from Harvard University Press in 2011.


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