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Friday, May 22, 2009

Kierkegaard and the Self: The Fantasy of the Infinite

We have been discussing Kierkegaard’s notion of the self. In the prior post, we saw that Kierkegaard defined the “self” as “spirit.” Theologically, this the “soul” or, I would suggest, the imago dei, the image of God. It is a beautiful gift, and one that must be cultivated and explored. We must treat this gift with care and love because it is so easy to lose ourselves in the world—in the busy activity, in the various roles we fulfill, and in the general fragmentation that is characteristic of the post-industrial world dominated by the desire for economic expansion.

Protestant theology of self with its emphasis on total depravity, tends to imagine that the self is completely beyond hope and in need of divine intervention. When this theology gets translated at a popular level, the result tends to be that people are looking to escape themselves with wistful thinking about the divine, or one might potentially look to a quick and easy religious experience as something that has “transformed” them.

The problem with popular Protestant theology in this regard is that it ultimately serves as an escape from truly facing our self; it also can cheat us out of the beauty and joy of exploring the “inward person” (Cf. Ephesians 3:16, eso anthropon).

To know God deeper, we must know self deeper. We must discover our uniqueness and cultivate our own awareness of our selves. “Self-consciousness is decisive with regard to the self. The more consciousness, the more self; the more consciousness, the more will; the more will, the more self. The person who has no will at all is not a self.” (p. 29, Sickness Unto Death, Hong translation)

As I mentioned in the last post, to emphasize the beauty of the self is not to say that the relation to God is any less important. This is not true, at least in part because God is in and through all things. (Cf. Acts 17:28 and Ephesians 4:6) To truly understand the creation and its interconnectedness simply is to know God. (Cf. Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”)

For Kierkegaard the God relation is important: “The self is the conscious synthesis of infinitude and finitude that relates itself to itself, whose task is to become itself, which can only be done through the relationship to God….the self is healthy and free from despair only when, precisely by having despaired, it rests transparently in God.” (p. 30) Kierkegaard in this regard stands true to the Protestant tradition; however, I think he still is able to recognize something very crucial: that the relation to God is warped if it leads us away from the self. Kierkegaard calls this “the fantastic.” The fantastic is a way of thinking about God (“the infinite”) in such a way that disconnects us from the self.

“The fantastic is generally that which leads a person out into the infinite in such a way that it only leads him away from himself and thereby prevents him from coming back to himself.” (p. 31)

Kierkegaard describes this state of being as an “intoxication.” The idea is that when one disconnects from self, no matter how good the intoxication may feel or no matter how “truthful” the doctrine/dogma may be, the result is still despair; the result is loss of self. When the connection with self is lost, the relation to God is perverse. Indeed, such a state of being is quite serious and alarming, because for Kierkegaard, this fantastic state can consume a person and leave them permanently disconnected from the self.

“When feeling or knowing or willing has become fantastic, the entire self can eventually become that….The God-relation is an infinitizing, but in fantasy this infinitizing can so sweep a man off his feet that his state is simply an intoxication….he cannot come back to himself, become himself.” (p. 32)

I think that Kierkegaard’s discussion of losing the self in a God-relation fantasy has good explanatory scope when examining the religious fundamentalist zeal of the contemporary world, especially in regards to the violence that such fervor can produce. The violence of religious fundamentalism varies in degree, from the terrorist suicide bombings to the subtle but no less damaging forms of judgmentalism, elitism, exclusivism, and isolation. Yet in its many violent forms, one can also detect that the violent religious zealot is also doing violence to their self. The self is alienated and disconnected from itself, lost in the fantastic.

As I discuss this, I wonder about the possible connection between violence and loss of self. Specifically, I am wondering if there is a sense in which the loss of self, the disconnection from self, is such a violent violation that it necessarily results in violence perpetrated toward others.

In closing, we return to Kierkegaard…..to be lost in the fantastic does not always manifest itself in ways that are obvious to the masses. It is in the context of discussing the fantastic that Kierkegaard discusses how easy it is to get along in the world without a self.

“But to be fantastic in this way, and thus to be in despair, does not mean that a person cannot go on living fairly well….It may not be detected that in a deeper sense he lacks a self. Such things do not create much of a stir in the world, for a self is the last thing the world cares about and the most dangerous thing of all for a person to show signs of having. The greatest hazard of all, losing the self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss—an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc.—is sure to be noticed.” (p. 32-33)


john doyle said...

"the “soul” or, I would suggest, the imago dei, the image of God."

I'm no Hegel scholar, but in his master-bondsman discourse Hegel presents a split self. There's the self that is an active agent in the world, and then there's this self-reflectiveness of which Kierkegaard speaks. The two selves constantly struggle for supremacy, oscillating back and forth in dominance. Effective self-agency finds itself in action, whereas self-awareness finds itself in contemplation: one always thrives at the expense of the other. For Hegel, personal development consists in finding some way of finding some sort of synthesis between the two, between doing and being.

The writer of Genesis 1 presents the active side of God as the creator of entire realities. It would seem that this active selfhood, this ability to be a proactive agent of creation, that man shares with God as the climactic event of the creation. But it's at the very announcement of the imago that God, for the first time, speaks of himself (or of themselves actually) -- "let us create man in our image". So in recognizing a being like himself perhaps God too comes to self-awareness -- one needs an other in order to recognize one's self. It's another aspect of Hegel's thought that all of history consists of God trying to reconcile his (their?) proactive self-agency and his (their?) reflexive self-awareness.

john doyle said...

When God says "let us create," maybe he's speaking from the position of the split self, the Doer first reflecting on its own Self as if it were an Other.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Sorry to be a few days in getting to your comment. I kind of checked out of the internet world for the weekend.....but this is an interesting discussion point, and one we should explore, because I'm not sure I've thought it through.

It is interesting, because from what I know of Kierkegaard, I actually think he would favor the active self-agency. For Kierkegaard, the self finds itself through a defining commitment. So, in Fear and Trembling, Abraham "suspends the ethical" and raises the knife to kill his own son. It is a moment of irrationality; it is a suspension of ethical and moral considerations, but it is a decisive moment of choice. Through choices like these we know ourselves as selves.

In these last two posts, I think I may have read too much of my own infatuation with the contemplative/reflective life into Kierkegaard. So, in this regard, I think perhaps I may have misrepresented Kierkegaard in a subtle way. Most of the substance of my posts on Kierkegaard should be good, though. The self loses itself in the world, by mindlessly becoming absorbed by the other. The self also loses itself in a "fantasy of the infinite." But for Kierkegaard, the defining commitment of the self to make a decision as a self and to take action, against all other consideration and even in the face of madness, this defining commitment is the moment that a self is most truly a self.

So, in the Hegelian dynamic, Kierkegaard definitely comes down on the side of self-reflectiveness.

Personally, I like both sides: the self-reflective/contemplative and the active self-agent. I don't know that I think that they are in tension. I think they can work together. A self might better detach from being absorbed in the other by contemplation, but the self must also use action in order to define herself as a self.

I suppose I would disagree with Hegel that one must thrive at the expense of the other.....though I would agree with Hegel that personal development consists in finding a synthesis between doing and being. I think that many of the contemplative traditions believe that reflection/meditation/withdrawal/etc. helps the self understand the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things. So, in my opinion, understanding this interconnectedness/interdependence leads one back into the world with a (re)new(ed) vision for changing the world and eliminating the divisions and disconnects in the world.

So Ghandi, for example, believed in contemplation and simplicity, and yet this always translated into action, which I think further deepened his personal contemplation. His contemplative life seemed to deepen his love for the world, while at the same time awakening his hatred for the systems of oppression that were damaging and fracturing people.

john doyle said...

Nicely said, Erdman.

Jonathan Erdman said...


I think your reflections on Genesis 1 only deepen my thinking about the radical nature of our interconnectedness, and hence our need to engage the world. Bringing "change" to the world is so often set in ethical terms: we ought to make a difference. But if we are radically interdependent, then it is not an ethical obligation that is most basic; rather, we desire and act to change the world because it is only within the world (and in the other) that we can recognize our self. As you say, this seems even true for God in Genesis 1 "in recognizing a being like himself perhaps God too comes to self-awareness -- one needs an other in order to recognize one's self." This is a radical thought, for much of the theological tradition. Without one in God's image, God doesn't recognize self.

Much of Christian theology recognizes that the creation was created "for/to the glory of God." Take the Westminster Catechism:

Question 1: What is the chief and highest end of man?

Answer: Man's chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.

Perhaps the "glorifying" of God is (at least in part) God's ability to become a self? A radical re-interpretation, but it makes sense to me. Intriguing.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Here is a link to the Westinster Catechism.

Jonathan Erdman said...

And by "Westinster," I mean "Westminster"!


Anonymous said...

I have been reading your paper on Truth in the Gospel of John and have found some new and worthwhile leads in my study of the subject.
I would very much like to know what you think of my thoughts at my web site, www.Truth-defined.com.

Thank you

Anonymous said...

I have been reading your paper on Truth in the Gospel of John and have found some new and worthwhile leads in my study of the subject.
I would very much like to know what you think of my thoughts at my web site, www.Truth-defined.com.

Thank you

Jonathan Erdman said...

Hi 1314,

I checked out your website, and I wondered if I might start with a technical clarification.

Here is what I found at your site: What is this New Theory of Truth? That there is only One True Proposition that is available to mankind. What is that Proposition?
“Jesus Christ is God.”

It seems like this stance might be somewhat self-defeating. On the one hand, you say that there is only one true proposition, but on the other hands, you provide two propositions, both of which (presumably) are true:
"Jesus Christ is God"
"there is only One True Proposition that is available to mankind."

So, if both of the above propositions are "true," then (as far as I can see) this means that there are in fact two true propositions available to humankind.

As I said, that's on the more technical level.

Ben Masters said...

Hello Jonathan,
I stumbled back on the page where I had posted a request in June 09, 2009. I am sorry for the delay in answering. I hope you do not hold it against me for the oversight. I never check my gmail email.
Your question is an extremely important one. We are accustomed to thinking of truth as being the property of valid propositions. In actual fact it is a title for God, a synTitle for the word God. All other propositions are Neither True Nor False, in degrees from erroneous to inerrant, the latter of which are found only in the scriptures.
I would request that you read some more of my pages to get a more complete view. It is a complicated topic, and I have tried to cover the objections to it on my website. Others have asked me the same question, and I believe I have answered it logically there.
In any case, the statement "There is only one True Prop" is neither true nor false. It is inerrant because it is another way of saying "No other name has been given among men by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12)
Another way of seeing this is that Knowing Truth is Knowing God, and this is possible only by Knowing who Christ is. Everlasting life is nothing less than knowing the Truth that Christ is Lord. No other knowledge can give us this etenal Truth.
I hope that is a start and I await your reply.

website: Truth-Defined.com

Thank you again.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Hello Ben,

It's been a few years since my last comment, so I do not recall the particulars of your position. From my memory, however, and from your recent comment, I'm not sure it is a theory that resonates with me. In the past, I have extensively studied apologetics and the major schools of philosophy therein. The least attractive positions to me are those that seek to merely assume the truth of Christian. It sounds to me, in fact, as though you assume the propositions of Christianity themselves as basic truths.

The reason this is so unattractive to me, at this point in my life, is that it runs the danger of thinking and living within a vacuum. When we do Christian theoretical exercises in isolation from God's world, the people God created, or the societies that God inhabits, then there is no external accountability for our theoretical endeavors. A very practical example of the problem I see is for those Christians who say that the Bible is their sole authority. I believe it because "the Bible tells me so." This leads to one person, or a small community of people, determining what the Bible means, without external references to the greater world around them, and then believing that they possess a special truth from God. They become God's chosen people, which sanctions them to perform God's chosen mission. This approach is very close to gnosticism in that it assumes special access to special truths that nobody else can see.

At this point, I think real truth is much more humble and in fact quite ungrounded. If there is any ground to truth, I think it would be found in the simple and humble gratitude we have as we live each moment as though it were a gift from God. In this sense, it is a form of trust. Ironically, true truth seems to be the letting go of truth. Whether or not anyone can access The Truth, I have my doubts, because as soon as someone thinks they have It, they have assumed the knowledge of God. Perhaps truth belongs to God alone? Even Christ "emptied" (kenosis) himself of Divinity, in order to assume frail flesh, as Paul teaches in Philippians 2. I wonder if perhaps our approach to truth should not be similar. Perhaps any attempt at truth is merely a repetition of the Tower of Babel, an attempt to reach the heavens, rather than be content with God's place for us on earth.