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Monday, November 16, 2009


"The most fatal thing of all is to satisfy a want which is not yet felt, so that without waiting till the want is present, one anticipates it, likely also uses stimulants to bring about something which is supposed to be a want, and then satisfies it. And this is shocking! And yet this is what they do in the religious sphere, whereby they really are cheating men out of what constitutes the significance of life, and helping people to waste life."
Soren Kierkegaard
The Attack Upon "Christendom"

This is an interesting commentary. My first instinct was to think of our hyper consumeristic society, a culture where advertising and marketing anticipates and generates our desires for corporate goods and services. But it is intriguing that Kierkegaard applies this idea to "the religious sphere."

As an existentialist, Kierkegaard believes in wrestling through our own inner worlds. Faith is a personal journey, not something that can be scripted by the church. Too often religion cheats us out of the significance of faith by averting us away from the struggle. This reminds me of what King David said: I will not sacrifice to my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.

The idea of sacrificing for anything is an obsolete notion in the U.S. Here we have our lives and faith scripted out. Marketing and advertising lines it all up for us: a meaningful life = these goods and services. Just sign the dotted line. Work a job that doesn't inspire you, or even one that you hate. Sign the dotted line. Take out as much credit as you can.

The system is artificial, though. And when it collapses, perhaps then we can struggle again. Then we can have a meaningful faith, something we have to really struggle for.


tamie said...

I really like the idea of the faith journey taking time, and the accompanying idea that certain spiritual understandings or becomings simply cannot be rushed if they're to be real and deep. When I was on the Camino, I thought a lot about cocoons. Almost every day I would spend several hours in my sleeping bag--usually in the middle of the day--not necessarily sleeping, but rather just being still. I had this notion that the sleeping bag was my cocoon, and that whatever was happening to me on the Camino needed me to be still in that time, in order for me to, you know, transform. I'm not sure whether I became a butterfly or not, but the metaphor was very meaningful to me at that time.

I had a similar thought the other day to the one you expressed in your post here--that maybe this "economic downturn" will have so many positive outcomes...

Anyway, thanks for a short but sweet post.

Cynthia said...

Sadly, living life stuck in the confines of cultural norms leads to the biggest sacrifice of all- not finding authentic self and authentic faith in Jesus.

Good quote. Kierkegaard was an incredible mind. Would have loved to have known him.

Cynthia said...

Sorry to leave another comment. I got sidetracked.

I wanted to elaborate on cultural norms a bit. In my life I have noticed many "types" of people. Some groups are on the on the fringe, some are right in the middle. I have seen people so committed to being on the fringe and cool and different that they were not living this authentic life of which Kierkegaard speaks. Authenticity of person and faith can look very different depending on who it is. It could look really cool. Or it could look like a ho hum mom. Or it could look like a politician in Washington. Or even a corporate CEO. The point is we can't always judge. We can safely assume that most people haven't fully entered the struggle of becoming authenctic. We can even criticize establishments that blatantly move us away from this search for ourselves.

Anyway. Just wanted to elaborate a bit.

Jonathan Erdman said...


The idea of authenticity is so important, and yet I find it difficult (as you suggest) to really understand in any universal sense. Like, you can kind of get a sense of an authentic person, someone who is sincere and genuine, right?

Can we take a stab at any universal characteristics of the authentic person?

Cynthia said...

You know, this is why I think it is good that you are doing your human narrative project. Like you said, perceptive people can often sense when someone is genuine and sincere. However, in real life it can be hard to break through the dailiness of it all to really get a feel for people and where they stand in the hunt for authenticity. But in great writing you can somehow get inside of people to see their stuggles. You can see more of yourself.

I also think Kierkegaard offers alot of understanding when it comes to the question of qualities of authentic people. Those that really internalize the finitude of life and thus strive to live for something that really counts.

You should read Tolstoy's short story the Death of Ivan Illyich. It is a good picture of a man who gets to the end of his life only to ask what was it all for. Really powerful. Also, this is a good question to ask when Anna Karenina comes around.

aeyn said...

What i like about this quote is not that Kierkegaard attacks Christianity...

What i like is that what he describes here fits with a larger understanding of how i view "meaningful life" (for lack of a better term).

what makes life meaningful is the struggle... the tension that comes from a need, and then the work to fulfill that need, and with that the change in needs, the loss, growth from loss, more loss, beauty in the sublime, stark austere insignificance, and yet profundity, in one's life.

one of my critiques of free-market, unregulated capitalism is that it allows people to just consume... not only allows, but encourages blatant and unchecked consumption. people can take and consume and buy and take without ever really feeling the wants/needs/struggles of life, allowing them to permeate the soul, learning from them, feeling them, growing from them, and then building to satisfy them through hard work and labor. that takes time, patience, prudence, and even wisdom to search through one's selfhood, find the tools available, and then create that significance/meaning.

and Kierkegaard here seems to be saying that "the religious sphere" does that too. not a personal relationship with one's God, mind you. but the church life, the outward display of the "walk," as it were. that is where "stimulants" are used to bring about some feelings that lack that depth that comes from true soul-wrenching work.

and the same can be applied to... going to a store to buy tomatoes year round (often times coming from Mexico or some far-away place) rather than growing them. the latter takes real work, effort, and time, but is ultimately more substantively rewarding. on many levels.

and it can be applied to many other things as well.

thanks for the thoughts, Jon, Tamie, and Cynthia. -smile-

Cynthia said...


I agree with alot of your criticism of American culture, but I think capitalism has gotten a bad rap in all of this. I challenge the idea that a truly free market, back by sound monetary practices, instills this greed and corruption that we have seen in recent history. No, what we see now is a strange combination of gov't intervention and quasi-capitalism. It doesn't work and it does allow the greed and corruption to surface. Here is a quote from an article by Ron Paul (in my opinion he has a sound philosophy of government and economy):

"Capitalism should not be condemned, since we haven't had capitalism. A system of capitalism presumes sound money, not fiat money manipulated by a central bank. Capitalism cherishes voluntary contracts and interest rates that are determined by savings, not credit creation by a central bank. It's not capitalism when the system is plagued with incomprehensible rules regarding mergers, acquisitions, and stock sales, along with wage controls, price controls, protectionism, corporate subsidies, international management of trade, complex and punishing corporate taxes, privileged government contracts to the military-industrial complex, and a foreign policy controlled by corporate interests and overseas investments. Add to this centralized federal mismanagement of farming, education, medicine, insurance, banking and welfare. This is not capitalism!

To condemn free-market capitalism because of anything going on today makes no sense. There is no evidence that capitalism exists today. We are deeply involved in an interventionist-planned economy that allows major benefits to accrue to the politically connected of both political spectrums. One may condemn the fraud and the current system, but it must be called by its proper names – Keynesian inflationism, interventionism, and corporatism."

Sorry to leave such a long "political" comment. I just think if we really want honesty in our critiques of American culture we have got to delve a little deeper into this issue of government vs truly free markets.


Jonathan Erdman said...



I agree with your critique. We tend to see eye to eye on our criticism of free market capitalism and consumerism, in particular. Not just on an intellectual level, but on a "soul" level, if you will.


But a point well made.

Fair enough. I would venture to say, however, that most conservative Republicans (like Rush Limbaugh and other "conservative" pundits) and even most people in general (worldwide) would classify the U.S. economic system as "capitalistic" in a very general sense. What Ron Paul and yourself propose is that the U.S. perhaps has never truly been capitalistic.

Contemporary conservative Repubs are pro-big business. This is basically what passes as "capitalism." If you do anything to stand in the way of Corporate America, then you are not a good capitalist, ergo you "hate freedom"!

I actually do not have a problem with free markets, provided our economy becomes more localized (like, a LOT more localized!). I have blogged a good deal about consumerism, and I think I see our consumeristic problems more as spiritual desperation or psychological neurosis than I do as a problem of economics. But economics is linked up with consumerism, so we cannot separate the two.


Jonathan Erdman said...


A major problem, I think, is our nation's obsession with expanding our economy. There are no longer "genuine needs" but only manufactured needs based on a desire to expand corporate profits specifically and the U.S. economy more generally.

So, greed links up with a form of capitalism (perhaps, Cynthia, this is not true capitalism) that encourages more greed. It is a vicious cycle.

Perhaps at the heart of it all is an economic fragmentation. We are isolated from the food we eat, the water we drink, the clothes we wear, the plastic we waste, the products we use, etc. As long as they are cheap, we buy them. As Aeyn said, we don't know where our tomatoes come from. Actually we do: they come from the grocery store. Activist and writer Derrick Jensen makes the point that if a system provides you with your food, you will fight to the death to protect that system. So, the U.S. system of economic fragmentation provides us with food and water. It makes sense, on a basic human level, that people will resist any healthy (integrated) change and fight against anyone who threatens the system.

So, if economics and spirit cannot be separated, then it is obvious that things need to change in both our system of economics and in our psyche. So, somehow we need to have the change of heart that takes us closer to our food, water, and clothing, opting for the struggle of integrating ourselves with local production of what we consume. This is far more radical than just "going green," if going green means that we still rely on big businesses and remain disconnected (fragmented) from what we use/consume.

A few thoughts.

tamie said...

And here I am, chiming in at this late date.

You know, Sartre's essay "Existentialism is a Humanism" has some interesting thoughts on defining authenticity. One of them is a kind of sense of being-towards-death, which Cynthia pointed out is a trait of authenticity that Kierkegaard also mentions.

What are other traits of authenticity? I'd need to re-read that Sartre. And ponder more.

I don't have much to add to the capitalism/consumerism discussion, other than I find myself in hearty agreement with Aeyn and Jon, and I don't have much to add to Cynthia's observations about capitalism, never having studied political theory.

Cynthia said...

I agree that Americans are far too consumeristic and far too inclinded to partake of man-created goods (inside small man-made enclosures) rather than God-created greats. I agree that a lot of this inclination toward consumerism is intended to stifle something in the soul- that quiet voice telling you that there is something more to live for if you are only willing to enter the "struggle".

I do agree with all the statements you have made regarding the need for people to essentially get back to nature. It is good for the mind, body, and soul. It is good for our community. It is good for the earth. Funny thing is that many sciences are coming around to proving this as well (nutrition science for instance).

To the economics issue I want to clearly distinguish my point of view from that of the Rush Limbaugh's of the world. While there probably points of his I would agree with (similarily, i wouldn't always disagree with what democrats say), I think he and many other of the typical 2-party system politicians are ingunuine at best and demagogues as worst.

Perhaps it would be good to do a little research on different philosophies on gov't and economics. We are a Keynesian economy. Just yesterday I was learning more about the man (John Maynard Keynes) and the economic philosophy (a middle-ground between free markets and socialism), and am more convinced than ever that this is why we see the greed and corruption we do.
So I would say I hold to a more libertarian view. Ron Paul was greatly influence by economic philosophy of the Austrian school. Those like Friedrich Hayek ("known for his defense of classical liberalism and free-market capitalism against socialist and collectivist thought") and Ludwig von Mises. Check out http://mises.org/ (good info. Bryce just told me about it yesterday). To the local farming/market issue, I would say that the libertarian, free market view actually would naturally accomodate that better than other models.

Oh, Tamie
Some of your blog post really hit the nail on the head when it comes to this idea of authenticity. I am thinking of the one on camping. You say that some people see it as an end in of itself (the cool folks decked out in all the north face gear just to be apart of the crowd) rather than the beginning of something deeper. Exploration of surroundings, self,God,and the experience of simplicity. You have many other good posts as well, just don't have time to read all of them!

Anyway, thanks for the discussion guys!

tamie said...

I was listening to my man James Finley yesterday and heard him say this, which I think is quite relevant to the original post:

This is so characteristic of the path that lies ahead—the willingness to endure unappeasable desire, the willingness to go about with unconsummated longings, knowing that we dare not give in to the temptation to close the circle in the finite. Because, although it may momentarily relieve us of the longings, in that very process we betray what our heart longs for by allowing our yearnings to dissipate upon attaining something: attaining the career, attaining the relationship, attaining the reputation. None of these things individually, nor all of them taken collectively can, in being realized, fulfill our hearts. Because of the very finiteness of these things, they are not simply less, but infinitely less than what alone will do.

How is it possible to live a more contemplative life in the midst of today’s world? To ask the question from deep inside, out of some inarticulate longing for some unimaginable yearning, is to taste in the very asking the essence of the way. It isn’t as if we keep going along desiring and aching and longing to have the longing appeased. Rather, it gets worse and worse, it gets deeper and deeper, it all starts unraveling. And we realize there’s going to be nothing to fix this for us. And to the very degree that we embrace and accept the mystery of that, we discover, unexpectedly, the fulfillment of our hearts.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Thanks Tamie, for posting this comment.

What Finley says strikes me as incredibly important. Spiritually and psychologically important, and even historically important.

In the first paragraph, Finley recognizes what many people of faith recognize: the need to pay attention and learn from our deep existential sense of the sacred, our dissatisfaction in the modern world that seems so devoid of real meaning. From my evangelistic background, this was tied in with proselytizing and evangelism: use Jesus or God to plug the hole in our hearts. So, when reduced to an evangelistic formula, it goes: if you have deep longings and the need for a deeper and more meaningful life, then Jesus is for you. It takes the form of marketing and advertising.

But this plugging-Jesus thing is precisely the problem....and it just opens up deeper issues, imho.....I love that Finley just turns it on its head and says that it is only by accepting and embracing the mystery of our longings that we can, in some way, truly embrace ourselves and live lives of meaning. Well, here is what he actually says (I will repeat it because it is so worthwhile):

To ask the question from deep inside, out of some inarticulate longing for some unimaginable yearning, is to taste in the very asking the essence of the way. It isn’t as if we keep going along desiring and aching and longing to have the longing appeased. Rather, it gets worse and worse, it gets deeper and deeper, it all starts unraveling. And we realize there’s going to be nothing to fix this for us. And to the very degree that we embrace and accept the mystery of that, we discover, unexpectedly, the fulfillment of our hearts.

I like this. The idea that God/Jesus/Christianity/religion/etc. is not here to "fix" things.