“Giving the Parson his Due”

I’ve started a second project, this one looking at Kierkegaard’s different understandings of “sin.”  As part of this process, I began reading and summarizing articles I found that were helpful to me.  I thought they might be helpful to someone else as well, and in any case I want to post something as regularly as I can and this is what I have.

 

Robert L. Perkins, “Either/Or/Or:  Giving the Parson his Due;” in The International Kierkegaard Commentary, vol. 4:   Either/Or, Part II, pp. 207-231

 

 

Argues that the Judge’s religion is based on sentimentality and an undue confidence that God blesses our particular social arrangements, inclinations etc.  once we have referred them to God.  This would agree with the claim that the Judge’s ethics is essentially religious, in a sense; but it is a stunted, complacent and unreflective religion.  By contrast, the Parson argues that “as against God we are always in the wrong.”  Every social arrangement, every institution, etc. as well as every personal stand is at best pragmatic and utilitarian, useful, as good as we can make it; but it always could have been better and should have been better.  You shall love justice, you shall do justice; but you never do justice perfectly, which means you are never just.  This is an Upbuilding thought, because the idea that we could be in the right actually would drive us from God in the same way that the thought of being “in the right” against a friend can drive a wedge between friends.  To love is to want to be in the wrong, to want to be the one who is responsible for any distance (and then to seek to do away with that distance as much as possible).  The book and sermon end with the line, “Only the truth which builds up is true for you,” as if this were a throwaway line, a simple conclusion; in fact, it is really the conclusion of the whole and, reading of Kierkegaard’s journals reveals, a real epistemic claim.

REACTION:  What would happen if we accepted this as a serious criterion of “truth”?  Until now, it has been more of an existential slogan:  I will seek that which is upbuilding for me, and will settle for no truth that is merely objectively true.  In Kierkegaard’s writings, “objectively true” usually means either tautological, or empirically (and hence merely probably) true.  Perkins points out that Kierkegaard does not deny that there are other sorts of truth; but he does claim it is literally true.  And conversely, Perkins says, any putative truth that destroys your humanity is a lie for you (p. 230).

Clearly, this is not the rationalist truth or the empiricist truth.  It is not coherence theory or correspondence theory.  The closest it comes to is pragmatic theory, as stated by James.  There are differences, however.  James states that his definition of truth is in fact the “real” one, if everyone just thought about it.  When we say something is true, we mean that it is useful for achieving some purpose:  explaining some phenomenon, connecting our other truths into a coherent whole, helping us to solve some problem or to live better lives, or something of that sort.  Unlike some pragmatists, James allows for a “will to believe” and accepts such claims as free will or the existence of God if those claims help one who accepts them to live a happier or more productive life.  At the same time, he claims that our truths should live in peace with one another; if two of our truths seem to be in conflict, we need to find a way to understand one or both of them in a way that eliminates the conflict.  For example, writing in Pragmatism about belief in God, he says that this is not to be taken in a way that conflicts with scientific thinking:  “Remember Vivekananda’s use of the Atman: it is indeed not a scientific use, for we can make no particular deductions from it. It is emotional and spiritual altogether.”[1]  Other times, he chooses a particular religious belief on pragmatic criteria, as when he chooses “meliorism” between the extreme claims of either pessimism (the world is and always will be wretched) and optimism (the world’s salvation is inevitable).  The claim that the world could be saved (but might not, based at least in part on human actions) seems to James to agree with our own sense experience as well as the need for truths that inspire us to action.  Kierkegaard does not care to reconcile our objective truths with our subjective truths; instead, he seeks to draw a sharp line between what we can know and what is merely probable, and between that which is best left to probability versus that which demands a choice.  In James’ terms, “subjective truth” applies only to living, forced, and momentous choices. [2]   In fact, James developed his theory of truth partly in reaction to Kierkegaard, as his reference to Kierkegaard in Pragmatism reveals.[3]  James intends his theory to encompass both the insights of the empiricist tradition as these were being refined by pragmatists like Peirce and Dewey, and a notion of subjective truth similar to that offered by Kierkegaard.  However, James seems more concerned with the happiness of the individual, and considers this an important criterion for some kinds of pragmatic truth claims.  When Kierkegaard writes of the truth that “builds up,” he does not primarily mean “makes you happy.”  As Judge William points out, the esthete may be very happy, simply because life has not yet revealed the fragility and ultimate falsehood of the basis of his or her life.[4]  To be “built up” is something else, more related to becoming a full individual; Kierkegaard’s most direct statements of its meaning are that to be “built up” is to be strengthened in one’s relationship to God.  When one is more correctly related to God, one becomes less anxious, more free and autonomous, less controlled by social forces or “obscure passions within” and more of an individual.  However, it seems more true to say that these are the fruits of being correctly related to God than to say that to be “built up” is to become a certain sort of individual who will consequentially relate to God.  At times in Kierkegaard’s writings, it seems as if individuality is identical with a true God-relationship, while at other times it seems as if true individuality were the result of the God-relationship. However, given that Kierkegaard’s notions of individuality often seem to require a person with gifts for self-reflection and intellectual achievement, while we are all children of God and can choose to live in a relationship with God, it seems that (on his own criteria) it is more upbuilding to see the God-relationship as original and foundational.  We can, however, evaluate the God-relationship by asking whether it is leading towards greater selfhood, greater autonomy, greater integration of the personality, and overall better functioning; if it is destructive of the self, leads towards injustice rather than justice, hate rather than love, fear rather than faith, self-flagellation and wallowing in guilt rather than confidence in God’s love and redeeming power, then perhaps what you are related to is not actually God after all.


[1] William James, Pragmatism:  a new name for some old ways of thinking, (1907) Lecture VIII:  “Pragmatism and Religion.”

[2] William James, “The Will to Believe,” pt. I, in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Religion (NY:  Longmans, Green & Co., 1912)

[3] Pragmatism, Lecture VI, “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth.”

[4] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, pt. II; edited and translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1987) pp. 191-92

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