And yet another!
Kierkegaard and the Power of Sin
by Jason A. Mahn
Oxford University Press, 288 pp., $74.00
I have to admit to an either/or, love/hate relationship with the works of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. At times I can read a book of his and be absorbed for days and nights with what you can call either his torturous or beautifully rich (or both) examinations of what it means to be a Christian. At other times I wonder, is the Christian life really that complicated? At those times I empathize with the character, Sir Francis Hinsley in Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One (1948), who says, “Kierkegaard, Kafka, Connolly, Compton Burnett, Sartre, ‘Scottie’ Wilson. Who are they? What do they want?”
- H. Auden in his anthology, The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard (1952) said, in answer to the first question, that Kierkegaard “was neither a poet nor a philosopher, but a preacher, an expounder and defender of Christian doctrine and Christian conduct.” In answer to the second question, he writes that to “the bourgeois Protestantism of the Denmark of his time,” Kierkegaard says, “ ‘You imagine that you are all Christians and contented because you have forgotten that each of you is an existing individual. When you remember that, you will be forced to realize that you are pagans and in despair.’ To himself [and to all Romantics, Jason Mahn would say] he says, ‘As long as your suffering makes you defiant or despairing, as long as you identify your suffering with yourself as an existing individual, and are defiantly or despairingly the exception, you are not a Christian.’”
Auden, I think, tended to simplify things in his essays—Kierkegaard, it seems to me, was all three P’s: poet, philosopher, and preacher– but his simplifications, if realized for what they are, still point to significant truths that have been often forgotten about the figures he writes about, especially in the academy. I had a philosophy professor who said it was amazing how many Kierkegaard scholars can write about the melancholy Dane, as he is called, and never grapple with the basic issues that Kierkegaard devoted his life to, Christianity and sin and grace. Instead of seeing philosophy as the love of wisdom, they see it as an exploration of the ambiguity of language. Kierkegaard himself said that he wrote his pseudonymous works with his “left hand,” that is, with the point of view of doubt and questioning that was meant to stir the complacent state church into life, but that he wrote the works he published under his own name with his “right hand,” that is, he preached what he saw to be the gospel in them. He even wrote a book about how his work should be interpreted but scholars tend to question such books nowadays in a spirit of what D. H. Lawrence called, trust the tale, not the teller. Which is all fine and good, but shouldn’t we at least take seriously what the teller says he was trying to say?
Which is what Jason A. Mahn, Assistant Professor of Religion at Augustana College, does in his book, Fortunate Fallibility, a part of the Reflection and Theory in the Study of Religion Series put out by the American Academy of Religion and Oxford University Press. In his preface, Mahn writes that he had, for ten years, been marking the margins of philosophy and theology books with notations about the idea of the felix culpa, or happy fault of Christian tradition. “The scratches,” as he calls the notes, “marked moments when authors played with the idea that life East of Eden, with all its drifting and doubt, not to mention despair and death, might be preferred to what looks like ready-made obedience and pre-canned paradise.” He admits that when he first started to think about the topic and then grew interested in Kierkegaard, he did so for the same reason, that is, so he could look “fashionably enigmatic with our otherwise all too simple faith.” “With Kierkegaard,” he writes, in one of my favorite lines of the book, “and a bed-head hairstyle, I too could be in the church but not of it—a Christian with ironic reserve.”
Kierkegaard, though, if read seriously, that is, if read in such a way that you allow his work to perhaps change your life, does not let you stay in your complacent state, religious or romantic. (I knew a great admirer of Nietzsche, who could not read Kierkegaard because, he said, it was too painful, and he didn’t mean the style.) Mahn grew out of his fashionable “ironic reserve” and learned that
beneath romantic fascinations with transgression and philosophical justifications of moral evil—both of which pass under the name fortunate Fall—resides wondrous Christian testimony about God’s unsettling grace by ironically praising that which is furthest from redemption: “O happy fault, which merited such and so great a Redeemer!” The first mention of felix culpa belongs not to those at the margins of faith but to the Church’s central proclamation of life redeemed. The curiously positive things that Kierkegaard writes about anxiety, fallibility, and the possibility of offense are no less centered, if also obscurely, in the heart of the Christian tradition.
Mahn goes on in his introduction to say that, “This book does not so much think about Kierkegaard as with him in order to work through the role of sin and temptation in the life of Christian faith.” He does so via three major works of Kierkegaard’s, The Concept of Anxiety (1844), The Sickness Unto Death (1849), and Practice in Christianity (1850).
But unfortunately, Mahn often uses, for me, an impenetrable jungle of postmodern jargon. I know the book is written for academic philosophers and theologians familiar with, as they say, the literature, but I nevertheless find it somewhat disheartening to have to wade through the verbiage that Mahn has had to learn. One example that comes to mind is when he uses the term “disambiguate.” I scratched my head over that one until I realized he meant “clarify.” Now, why on earth use a word such as “disambiguate” when “clarify” is, well, so much more clear? There are many such words and passages but the book is redeemed (from the point of view of a layman who has a BA equivalent in philosophy, meaning I studied philosophy for two years in a seminary that didn’t have a gym) by all the times Mahn says, in other words . . . . Then comes a more understandable explanation. Also, as the book goes on I found it more and more readable, that is, I didn’t have to work at it so hard—I’m not sure if this was because I was picking up on the academic jargon or if the writing was improving, probably a little of both.
Mahn’s basic argument is that Kierkegaard sees sin not in the simple terms of a bad moral decision—what I guess is called the “Adamic myth” in the literature—but in the more complex terms of a tragic position we find ourselves in. This leads Mahn to talk about fortunate fallibility, that the possibility of our falling, not just the fall itself, is fortunate, because it drives us back to a God who became a man to redeem us but in such a way that his mercy overcomes all sin. And he does so in such a way that he binds himself to the human race; once he has committed himself to salvation history there’s no going back for God. And what has he bound himself to? Utter weakness on the cross, the shame, the spittle.
And Mahn shows how important this latter was to Kierkegaard who said Christ comes to save us but we must first realize how weak he became so that we give ourselves a chance to be offended by him. This stinking shadow of Christ, as Flannery O’Connor phrased it, is God become man, our savior? If we aren’t tempted to be offended, to turn away from such a savior, Kierkegaard says, then we haven’t even really looked at him.
The temptations are, according to Kierkegaard, to accept Christ in a complacent way, in a way that doesn’t inconvenience us, turning our faces away from the suffering of Christ, or to embrace suffering in the way of the Romantic hero who clings to his suffering as the proof of his vitality, his creativeness, his freedom. The first, it seems to me, is the way of the Pharisee, the latter the way of Prometheus, of the modern artist as cult figure.
But why speak of fallibility instead of fault? Mahn answers,
. . . given the implications of cheap grace that felix culpa accrues in its modern idealist and romantic forms, I claim that Kierkegaard more accurately returns to the Church’s original proclamation by portraying human fallibility, not the Fall as such, as necessary and happy.
In the end, he says, Kierkegaard wanted to keep the faith both orthodox and paradoxical.
It has sometimes struck me that the projects, if you will, of Kierkegaard and Flannery O’Connor are very similar. Both worked within a culture that considered itself Christian (19th century Denmark, on the one hand, the Bible Belt, on the other) and both tried to get their cultures to really see Christ as he was and is, to open themselves to the moment of grace as O’Connor called it, when the character sees what’s really going on, as when the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” sees that the Misfit is one of her children or when Mrs. Turpin in “Revelation” sees the procession of saints of all colors dancing into heaven. O’Connor said she had to shout to get the deaf to hear, and Kierkegaard, it seems to me, had to complicate what his society accepted as simple.
The question is, does their method work? Did they really do what they set out to do, and I think you have to say, not really, not on the whole. In my experience, most Christians, at least when they first encounter O’Connor, think she is far from a Christian writer and often don’t return to her work. And from what I’ve seen and heard from the academy, I think the same is true for Kierkegaard; even in his own lifetime he complained that people read his left-hand works (the doubting questioning ones by his pseudonymous authors) as coming from his right hand and vice versa. That is, they read him all wrong even after he explained what he was trying to do.
That said, I could never wish that Kierkegaard or O’Connor had not written as they had. For the few people willing to seek beyond the confines of their culture or intellectual zeitgeist, both writers (Joakim Garff, Kierkegaard’s definitive biographer, said that he was primarily–more than poet, philosopher or preacher–a writer) do accomplish what they set out to do, which is to get “Christians” to count the cost of their Christianity and not take it for granted, to be open to the moments of grace.
Mahn is such a person and helps the reader, interested in theology and philosophy as bound up with the way we live our lives, learn what Kierkegaard has to teach.
On my reading, Kierkegaard’s writings place the reader at the right juncture to be surprised by joy. He cultivates a posture of waiting that is as attentive and hopeful as those looking East on Easter Eve. His writings also give language to the startling reversals already shifting underfoot: Christ lets sin have full scope and yet surpasses it in his mercy. The wages of sin are death, and yet it gives us such and so great a redeemer. The possibility of sin is unleashed by Christ so that we can receive the blessing of not being offended.
Or as the Scottish poet Edwin Muir wrote in his beautiful poem, “One Foot in Eden,” “Strange blessings never in Paradise/ Fall from these beclouded skies.”