Thursday, 20 December 2012
The Sickness unto Death
And now for something completely different...Soren Kierkegaard was an early/mid 19th century Danish theologian, famous as one of the founding figures of what came to be called existentialism before this philosophical school became associated with atheism in the 20th century.
Kierkegaard trained in theology and toyed with the idea of becoming a pastor in the State Church of Denmark, finally deciding not to follow through. He also toyed with marriage before breaking off the engagement. In the end he lived most of his life on the proceeds of an inheritance from his father, acting as a theological and intellectual gadfly, at odds with his church and his society.
Over his life he published a number of theological works Many were published under fanciful pseudonyms that seemed designed to suggest he was not fully committed to their content, that they were coats he tried on to see how they looked. The Sickness unto Death is published under the name Anti-Climacus, "edited by Soren Kierkegaard".
Unlike John Stott, Kierkegaard does not set out to make his writing accessible. The Sickness unto Death is a mere 130 pages long, but it took me over a week to struggle through it and I'm not sure I really understood it properly. Yet I've been thinking about it ever since, puzzling over its meaning and its significance. Here's the best I can make of it.
Appropriately, Kierkegaard himself starts with a puzzle. In John 11, when Jesus was asked to come and attend to Lazarus, he assured his disciples, "this sickness is not unto death". Yet Lazarus did in fact die, and even though Jesus raised him again he surely died a second time. So what did Jesus mean?
For in human terms death is the last thing of all, and in human terms hope exists only as long as there is life; but to Christian eyes death is by no means the last thing of all, just another minor event in that which is all, an eternal life....
But then Christianity has discovered in its turn a misery which humanity as such does not know exists. This misery is the sickness unto death.
This misery is what Kierkegaard labels "despair". By this he doesn't mean the type of mental illness we would call depression, from which he himself appears to have suffered. He means the existential despair of being separated from God which he holds is a universal human experience. This separation is what death means for a Christian.
Different people, he says, experience despair in different ways. Some are not even aware of it. They go on living upright, respectable lives, even think they are Christians, without once experiencing the pang of conscious despair. Yet their despair is all the more real for their lack of awareness of it.
For others, they experience despair but work hard to deny it, pushing it away and trying to go on with their lives as if it doesn't exist.
As a third option, some people accept that they are in despair and wallow in it, willfully maintaining their seperation from God with full awareness of what they are doing.
It doesn't seem to be an option to not be in despair, only to become conscious of your despair and act appropriately. So what is the solution? Kierkegaard doesn't spell it out in so many words, but in the second part of the book he equates despair with sin.
Sin is: before God in despair not to want to be oneself, or before God in despair to want to be oneself.
In following this definition of sin, he throws aside much of what we would normally understand to be good and evil. Certainly, he says, all the things we commonly think of as sinful are part of sin - murder, adultery, theft, etc - but these things are sin because they are contrary to God's command. They are not intrinsically sinful because there is no such thing as intrinsic sin. They are only sinful in relation to God.
But often this fact, that the opposite of sin is by no means virtue, has been overlooked. The latter (the idea that virtue is the opposite of sin) is partly a pagan view, which is content with a merely human standard, and which for that very reason does not know what sin is, that all sin is before God. No, the opposite of sin is faith, which is why in Romans 14:23 it says: 'whatsoever is not of faith, is sin'. And this is one of the most crucial definitions for the whole of Christianity: that the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith.
This then is his answer. There is no middle ground, no moderate way, no set of deeds we can do which will solve our despair. We cannot work our way through it, or reason our way past it, or push it away. We would be foolish to embrace it as if it were a good thing. We can only stand before God in full consciousness of our despair - that is of our sin - and trust his mercy. We can only have faith. Nothing else will do.