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C. Stephen Evans

Rediscoveries: Can We Be Good Without God?

In this new regular feature on the Web, we will be drawing attention to books and writers worthy of rediscovery. Some will be classics that are gathering dust on the shelf, others will be contemporary books that got lost in the shuffle (the novels of Charles Portis after True Grit, for example), still others will be quirky, one-of-a-kind gems.

Our first selection is Soren Kierkegaard's Works of Love. While several of Kierkegaard's books show up routinely on reading lists, Works of Love does not. Steve Evans, a distinguished Kierkegaard scholar and a member of B&C's editorial board, explains why this book belongs on your shelf.

July 7, 2000

Works of Love
by Soren Kierkegaard
translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong
Princeton Univ. Press 576 pp.; $26.95, paper

Modern secular thinkers find the idea that God is necessary as the foundation of morality amusing if not absurd. Many atheistic philosophers, and even some thinkers who call themselves theologians, complacently assume that some kind of purely humanistic ethic is possible, even though there is little consensus as to what such an ethic demands of us and how it is to be developed. Yet lonely voices, both from Christians and non-Christians, have occasionally sounded disturbing notes that disrupt this complacency. Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov announces that "without God, everything is permitted." Jean-Paul Sartre announces his opposition to "a kind of secular ethics which would like to abolish God with the least possible expense."1 Even Friedrich Nietzsche, while prophesying the birth of a new morality that may arise out of the death of God, claims that modern secular thinkers are oblivious to the devastating consequences for traditional morality that the demise of religious faith will entail.

Soren Kierkegaard is another of these lonely voices that disrupts the complacency of the secular mind. Kierkegaard is of course a controversial and enigmatic writer. His most- read and discussed books, such as Fear and Trembling, Either/Or, and Concluding Unscientific Postscript, are described by Kierkegaard himself as "aesthetic works" and are ascribed to pseudonyms. These pseudonyms—Johannes de Silentio, Johannes Climacus, and Johannes the Seducer, for example—take on a life of their own, like characters in a novel, with views that may or may not be shared by Kierkegaard himself. Though Kierkegaard himself writes, in The Point of View for My Work as an Author, that he was "from first to last a religious author" and that all of these pseudonymous books are written as part of a calling to "reintroduce Christianity into Christendom," these claims are widely ignored or even regarded as dishonest by secular critics. Such critics can of course make no sense of Kierkegaard's claim that his writings were shaped by a "Divine Governance."

It is fortunate, then, that Kierkegaard also wrote books as a Christian under his own name, in which the problem of interpreting a pseudonym does not appear. Perhaps the most important of all these Christian writings is Works of Love, which has recently been published by Princeton University Press in a new translation by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, as part of the Kierkegaard's Writings edition, which Howard Hong has lovingly supervised from its inception. The translation accurately captures Kierkegaard's meaning, even if it necessarily often fails to convey the beauty and power of his Danish prose.

Kierkegaard was undoubtedly a genius; he was, in fact, too much of a genius for his own good. Though he died at the age of 42, he wrote too many profound and compelling works. If he had written only Works of Love, he would be famous as a theologian and philosopher for that book alone. As it is, the poetry and drama of the aesthetic works grab the spotlight and whatever attention the world is prepared to grant to an odd Danish thinker who was a Christian besides, leaving Works of Love to languish in the shadows. That is a shame, because Works of Love is one of the classics of Christian ethics; it exhibits Kierkegaard the theologian working hand in hand with Kierkegaard the philosopher, all wrapped up in memorable prose by Kierkegaard the poet and master stylist.

Written in 1847, when the aesthetic writings were largely finished, Works of Love consists of a series of sermon-like "discourses," all inspired by biblical texts. It thus belongs to the "edifying" or "up-building" devotional writings of Kierkegaard, along with works such as Christian Discourses and Practice in Christianity. I am tempted, however, to hide this fact, since these discourses are so different from most of what passes for devotional literature today. In these pages we find theological vision, philosophical clarity, and a sustained polemic against the mind of the "natural" or "worldly" person.

The polemics in Works of Love are directed against three different audiences. There is first of all a polemic against the natural or worldly person who is what might be called an "unspoiled pagan." Here Kierkegaard wants to put into sharp contrast the celebration of love as spontaneous found in pagan philosophers and poets and the Christian claim that love is commanded:

What courage it takes to say for the first time, "You shall love," or, more correctly, what divine authority it takes to turn the natural man's conceptions and ideas upside down with this phrase! … Take a pagan who is not spoiled by having learned thoughtlessly to patter Christianity by rote or has not been spoiled by the delusion of being a Christian—and this commandment, "You shall love," will not only surprise him but will disturb him, will be an offense to him.2

The second polemical target is the emerging modern secular outlook, the person who thinks that the ethical views of Christianity can be preserved without the religious underpinnings. The target here is the "spoiled pagan," who has learned from Christianity that morality is a matter of being bound by law, but who thinks that human beings can invent their own moral law: "God and the world agree in this, that love is the fulfilling of the Law; the difference is that the world understands the Law as something it thinks up by itself."3

The secular mind regards this development as progress. We humans have abolished slavery and other forms of human oppression. It is seen as logical that the next step toward freedom requires liberation from divine authority: "There is a more or less open intent to depose God in order to install human beings—in the rights of humanity? No, that is not needed; God has already done that—in the rights of God."4 Kierkegaard claims that this supposed liberation is in fact a mutiny that is rewarded by "doubt and the vortex," the characteristic condition of the modern world. In a few deft lines he skewers the modern delusion that morality can be founded on some kind of social agreement or compact:

Or should the determination of what is the Law's requirement perhaps be an agreement among, a common decision by, all people, to which the individual then has to submit? Splendid—that is, if it is possible to find the place and fix the date for this assembling of all people (all the living, all of them?—but what about the dead?), and if it is possible, something that is equally impossible, for all of them to agree on one thing!5

The third polemical target, which partially overlaps with the second, is by far the most important for Kierkegaard, because this group still dominated Danish culture at the time, and indeed Western culture generally. This target is "Christendom," the complacent society that takes Christianity for granted since "we are all Christians," even while it has completely lost the ability to see the world through Christian eyes and act on the basis of Christian concepts. In Christendom, becoming a Christian is something that happens automatically at baptism, and being a Christian is simply identified with being a cultured, responsible citizen. In Christendom to ask whether or not being a follower of Christ might require me to break with prevailing cultural norms is to ask an embarrassingly impolite question.

With respect to the Christian ethic of love, Christendom tends to reduce the Christian duty to love to those "natural" loves that all human societies require and in turn nurture. To love as a Christian is simply to love one's parents, one's children, one's friends, and one's country. The pagan distinguishes between a loving person and a selfish person by determining whether these natural forms of love are present or not. The Christian who is really a pagan thinks that Christian love is either reducible to these "natural" loves or is at best simply added to them as "one more thing."

Kierkegaard argues that all these natural forms of love are infected with self-love, because in every case the person who is loved is selected on the basis of a relation to the self. I love my parents because they are my parents, my children because they are my children, my friends because they are my friends. Only Christian love is neighbor love, where the neighbor is defined not by a relation to myself, but by a relation to God as the "middle-term." The Christian is not allowed to exclude anyone from the category of "neighbor," and thus my moral obligations cannot be limited to family, friends, and fellow-citizens. Yet the Christian concept of neighbor is no abstraction; the Christian does not love mankind or some other generality. The neighbor is never hard to find because the neighbor (in Danish den Neeste, literally "the next one") is "the first person I see."6

The contrast between Christian love and natural human love is rooted in New Testament teachings. Indeed, Jesus does not always appear to be a great champion of "family values." When told his mother and brothers were waiting to speak to him, he appears to ignore them. Instead, "pointing to his disciples, he says, 'Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother'" (Matt. 12:48). Even more shockingly, in Luke 14:26 (a text Kierkegaard frequently cites), Jesus says that "if anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple." Kierkegaard's claims about Christian neighbor love, along with its New Testament roots, can appear to be anti-humanistic. If one reads only the first part of Works of Love, and reads that part only superficially, one might think that one must choose between neighbor love and natural human loves. In the second part, however, it becomes clear that this is a mistake. One must choose whether or not Christian love will be ultimate or not. No one can serve two masters, and if love of neighbor, which rests on love of God, is not supreme it is not present at all. God cannot just be "one more thing" in my life if he is to be God. However, when Christian neighbor love is present, it does not eliminate natural human relationships but fundamentally transforms them, so that they become truly humane for the the first time.

Married love can serve as a good illustration. Christian love does not require a husband to cease to love his wife, or a wife to cease to love her husband. It does require that husband and wife love each other first as neighbor. For when I love my spouse as my neighbor I love her as one whom I receive from God, who is the middle-term in every relationship of neighbor-love. This means that I can neither allow my spouse to become an idol for me, nor allow myself to play the role of God for my spouse. And of course in loving me as her neighbor, my wife must relate to me in exactly the same way, neither making a god of me nor attempting to become God in her relation to me.

Though Christian love is founded on the spiritual equality all humans possess as God's creations, Christian love does not attempt to establish complete worldly equality. And while the Christian applauds such social changes as the abolition of slavery, the Christian never supposes that Christian love can be exhausted by any social reforms. Kierkegaard is surely right about this, though he unfortunately slips from this insight at times to the erroneous claim that working for such social reforms is useless, a view inconsistent with his own endorsement of past reforms.

For example, he admits that women have been treated abominably by society in the past, but seems indifferent or even hostile to contemporary attempts to make the social order less unfair to women, resting content with the idea that because women and men are equally responsible to God for how they relate to each other, there is a spiritual equality between them.7 Still, if we assume he is correct to say that worldly differences of some kind will always remain, then he is surely right to say that the task of the Christian is to look beyond such differences, to love the one who is genuinely other.

Furthermore, the obligation to love is one that applies equally to all. Kierkegaard rightly resists the claim that those who have the resources to accomplish more in a worldly sense can love more. In the chapter on "mercifulness as a work of love" he argues strenuously for what might be called the agency of the poor.8 The poor are not merely objects of charity, but subjects in their own right. Naturally, Kierkegaard says, the person with worldly resources who is merciful will use those resources to alleviate the suffering of others, but the one who lacks such resources can also be merciful, for mercifulness consists in a willingness to do what one can for the sufferer, whether that be little or much. Nor is it true that the poor can do nothing. They can, for instance, exhibit mercifulness by forgiving the rich person who is indifferent to their need.

It is impossible to capture the richness of Works of Love in a brief essay. The book is divided into two distinct series of discourses. The first series begins with a reflection on the nature of love as paradoxically hidden, yet revealing itself by its fruits, a paradoxical blend of hiddenness and disclosure that parallels God's own nature as love. All of love flows from God's love, all genuine love points to God, and yet the God who is thereby revealed is always hidden as well.

Kierkegaard's emphasis on the hiddenness of God is rooted in the ancient tradition of "negative theology," which emphasizes the transcendence of God, so that when speak of God using our human language we must always stress the ways Gis is not like the things to which we compare him. Yet Kierkegaard balances this emphasis on God's hiddenness with an emphasis on God's self-disclosure, a revelation that is visible to those who have the eyes of faith. There is a parallel here between divine love and human love. God is love itself. God's essence is hidden, but God's love is revealed through his works. So also genuine human love is hidden within the inner mystery that is the human self—a self that is mysterious precisely because it is grounded in God's own mysterious reality—but human love is nevertheless made visible through works of love:

Just as the quite lake originates deep down in hidden springs no eye has seen, so also does a person's love originate even more deeply in God's love. If there were no gushing spring at the bottom, if God were not love, then there would be neither the little lake nor a human being's love … ; the mysterious origin of love in God's love prevents you from seeing its ground.9

The rest of the first series focuses mainly on the meaning of the great love command. What does it mean that you shall love, that it is you that shall love, that you shall love the neighbor? Along the way, Kierkegaard also discusses the nature of proper self-love, since the command is that you shall love the neighbor as yourself. The love-command is deepened by reflection on such themes as what it means to make love a matter of conscience.

The second series begins with the great hymn of praise to love found in 1 Corinthians 13. Here Kierkegaard thinks hard about what it might mean to say that love "believes all things" and what it means to say that love "hopes all things." Worldly wisdom warns against being gullible, against believing too much in the other. It also warns against hope, since great hopes beget great disappointment. Kierkegaard argues this fear of being duped is itself a form of dupery, since to be swindled out of love and hope is to be swindled out of the eternal, to lose what makes life worth living. The person who loves and therefore believes and hopes in the other may be let down in a worldly sense, but eternally this person has grounded himself solidly in that which never disappoints.

Kierkegaard also explores how it can be true that "love hides a multitude of sins," which is understood in terms of the practice of the loving person who consistently interprets the behavior of others in the most charitable light possible. In a very moving chapter, which undoubtedly has its origins in Kierkegaard's own love for his deceased father, the test of whether a person is genuinely loving is seen in how the person continues faithfully to remember and love the dead. Love for the dead tests love as to whether it is truly unselfish, for the lover can in this case expect no reciprocal payment from the person loved.

The polemical character of Works of Love can sometimes obscure the fact that its protest against "natural" or "worldly" understandings of love is itself grounded in a humanistic vision. The doctrine of creation is a pervasive theme in the book. Though love is a duty, the command to love ultimately points humans toward happiness, for love is present as the "foundation" or "ground" of every human personality. The book concludes with a meditation inspired by the First Epistle of John. Kierkegaard imagines the stance of the apostle as follows:

"Dear me, what is all this that would hinder you in loving, what is all this that you can win by self-love! The commandment is that you shall love, but ah, if you will understand yourself and life, then it seems that it should not need to be commanded, because to love people is the only thing worth living for, and without this love you are not really living."10

Here the apostle points us towards what Kierkegaard calls "an indicative ethic," rather than an ethic of duty. In this life duty is never completely abolished; we remain sinful and selfish, always in need of the authoritative command. But we should not forget that this command seeks only our own true good and deepest happiness. To the degree that we become loving, love is the fulfilling of the law, and thus abolishes law as law. The God who commands love does so because He is himself loving.

C. Stephen Evans, professor of philosophy at Calvin College and a member of B&C's editorial board, has published widely on Kierkegaard.


1. Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Human Emotions (Philosophical Library, 1957), p. 21.

2. Works of Love, pp. 24-5.

3. Works of Love, p. 128.

4. Works of Love, p. 115.

5. Works of Love, p. 115.

6. Works of Love, p. 154-74.

7. See Works of Love, pp. 138-53, for Kierkegaard's views on women and marriage.

8. Works of Love, pp. 315-30.

9. Works of Love, pp. 9-10.

10. Works of Love, pp. 375.

Note: For your convenience, Works of Love, by Soren Kirkegaard, is available for purchase from the ChristianityToday.com Bookstore.

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