Posts Tagged ‘Søren Kierkegaard’

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology

January 18, 2018

This is the working draft of a paper I am preparing for a local Earth Day conference, but see no reason to wait until then to start a conversation.



Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology



Abstract:    In this paper I shall discuss the concept of humility, as discussed by Augustine of Hippo, Søren Kierkegaard and Diogenes Allen. In the Augustinian tradition, pride is the original and deadly sin, from which all others derive; humility is the cardinal virtue of not thinking more of oneself than is the truth. Through Kierkegaard and Allen, this theological virtue becomes an epistemological virtue as well, providing a basis for ways to think about the environment beyond the man/property/wilderness framework often found in fundamentalist theologies and libertarian economic ethics. Finally, I shall use the concept of humility to analyze and critique the environmental pronouncements and policies of my own religious tradition, the Presbyterian Church (USA).



The 18th century philosopher Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) once said that the fundamental mistake of modern theologies was their tendency to take over the dominant philosophies of their day, and try to talk about God based on those constraints. The problem in Hamman’s eyes was that these philosophies began from a more or less atheist starting point; building on this flawed foundation, any theological edifice was bound to be unstable. At the risk of anachronism, I would claim that much of 20th century Protestant American Fundamentalism falls into this trap. The philosophical foundation for writers such as Rousas Rushdoony and Jerry Falwell is a libertarian political philosophy rooted originally in John Locke. Locke’s philosophy, particularly as laid out in his Second Treatise on Civil Government, profoundly shaped the thinking and the direction of the American independence movement, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that he was the grandfather of the American Revolution. His thinking influences our culture still in ways most of us scarcely realize, and I am grateful for most of it. But when it comes to environmental thinking, his thought is unhelpful and, in its current incarnations, downright dangerous. I want here to briefly survey how Locke’s views on property and nature affect much American thought, including Fundamentalist theology. Next, I want to go back to the Augustinian tradition, and look at how the Augustinian concepts of pride and humility can give us a new starting point for discussing our relationship with nature. In particular, I will be discussing the book Finding Our Father, written by one of my favorite professors in seminary, Diogenes Allen. I will be writing this primarily as an exercise in or examination of Christian theology, but I hope the treatment will be interesting and helpful for others as well.

In his Second Treatise on Civil Government, John Locke lays out some very radical political theories. Having argued in the first treatise against the divine right of kings, in the second he argues that political power is in fact the expression of the will of the majority of the people. A nation, he says, is a group of people who have agreed to live together and work together to solve their disagreements peacefully and to protect each others’ life, liberty and property. They achieve this by creating a government which therefore ought to include representatives chosen by the people to make decisions on behalf of the rest, and who are subject to replacement by popular vote. In an era where the people were often treated as property of the monarch as much as the land they farmed was, the idea that the king, courts and Parliament existed to serve the people and carry out their will was quite literally revolutionary: it was born in response to the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, and it led to the American Revolution a generation later. Instead of considering individuals first as subjects ruled by others, Locke said each was essentially the ruler of himself or herself. No rational being owned another; rather, each owns his or her own body. Nature, by contrast, is not consciously rational, so natural resources such as water, fruit trees in the forest and so on are unowned, or common property. But if some person adds his or her own effort to the natural object, say by gathering the apples from the tree into a basket, then that formerly unowned resource is not a mixture of the natural and the efforts of some person’s body, and thus becomes by extension that person’s private property. Whenever a human shapes or changes nature, that human adds a little of his or her own body to it, and it becomes private property.

Locke does have some constraints on this natural acquisition. Importantly, he said that no one has a right to more of anything than he or she can use before it spoils. It would be irrational, a violation of the law of Reason which rules even in nature, for one person to gather all the food and hoard it until it spoils while others starve. But essentially, Locke treats the natural world as having worth only as it affects humans. People turn nature into property, and have an inalienable right to do so. Locke’s Second Treatise had a powerful influence on America’s Founding Fathers, and his philosophy both explicitly and covertly influenced our culture and still does. Explicitly, it shaped the Declaration of Independence, and Locke’s idea for a tripartite government is the foundation of our Constitution’s division into executive, legislative and judicial branches. Less explicitly, his views of property were very congenial to colonial and frontier farmers/plantation owners, justifying their wholesale conversion of wilderness to private farmland. Locke basically assumed that Nature was inexhaustible, an idea that was questionable on the British island but which seemed obviously true to the Englishmen and later Americans looking west towards apparently limitless horizons. And even today, this view of Nature is powerful, particularly in the business community: nature is raw material, and essentially limitless, unless pesky regulations get in the way.

Locke often used religious language in his political writing, referring to the law of Nature, Reason and the will of God more or less interchangeably. This made it easy for later American religious conservatives to take over his philosophy and incorporate it more or less unaltered into such theologies as Christian Reconstructionism. This represents a major and important misunderstanding of Locke’s thought, one that in turn delegitimizes this entire theological project. In his primary theological work, The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke argues that the true heart of Christianity is a moral monotheism. He has no real use for miracle stories, or the idea that one guy could die for the sins of others; his religion and thus his God is philosophical, ethical, and like the title says, reasonable. But at least since Rousas Rushdoony and continuing through Falwell and others, as well as countless Evangelical Protestant preachers, this idea that humans have a “divine” right to treat nature as an inexhaustible source of human wealth has been treated as an Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not hinder private property. For Locke, saying this was divine law was the same as saying it is reason’s law; thus, we can use reason to interpret it. For some conservative Christians, the “law of God” is more like the absolute eternal pronouncement of the Divine Lawgiver, so far beyond all human reason that even to hint that we might be harming the Earth is literally said to be rebellion against the LORD. Not only is Nature treated as an unlimited resource with value only as human property, but to say otherwise is, in some theological circles, literally a sin. And while this attitude is not the majority opinion of religious people, it has an outsized influence on American politics through the influence of well-financed lobbyists and media organizations supporting and supported by religious celebrities and mega-congregations.   Returning to Hamann’s observation, rather than start with a religious standpoint, derive their ecological theology from that and then dialog with American culture, a large swath of American fundamentalism adopted a humanistic attitude towards nature derived from Locke’s views on property as these were expressed through American culture and particularly American business culture; then, tacking on a fundamentalist Divine Commander to the rationalist foundation, they derived a theological approach to Nature that severely limits what religion can say to humans that they are not already happy to say to themselves. There can be no prophetic voice when the theology is merely an echo of the interests of economic and political powers.


Notes on “The Faith/history Problem, and Kierkegaard’s “A Priori” ‘proof’”

January 19, 2016

I removed a lot of material from this blog so I could edit it together into book form for publication through Kindle—seems they have a rule about putting out for free what they are trying to sell.  So, I need to start putting out some new material.  I’m currently working on a paper examining connections between St. Augustine of Hippo and Søren Kierkegaard.  Below are the notes I took on an article I first read when I was in my first year of doctoral study.  At the time I got an A- on the paper, which sadly was written so long ago that I was still using an actual typewriter; I no longer have the one copy of that paper, so I am rereading and reanalyzing this excellent essay from Dr. Ferreira. 


Ferreira, M. J.. 1987. “The Faith/history Problem, and Kierkegaard’s “A Priori” ‘proof’”. Religious Studies 23 (3). Cambridge University Press: 337–45.


The problem is, how can faith that a particular historical event occurred (namely, the Incarnation, life ministry and death of Christ) be decisive for faith, while at the same time insulated from the results of historical research? Ferreira compares two attempts to address this problem: Tillich’s and Kierkegaard’s. Tillich admits that the historical details of the Christ are uncertain, but claims that this is unimportant to faith because the essence of faith is that one who has been grasped by the ultimate significance of the Christ event knows that it has ultimate significance, no matter how it actually happened. However, Ferreira finds all of this too vague. Tillich is so imprecise about “how the event occurred” that it becomes unclear how one can tell the Christ event from any other event. In the dark, all cats are black; and in the murky results of historical research into the life of the Christ, any event could be the Christ-event. If all details are uncertain and this doesn’t matter, then we really have no information at all, and one event is as good as another.

Ferreira points out that three times in the Philosophical Fragments the pseudonymous author Climacus asserts that the story of the Incarnation is such that no human being could have invented it on his or her own. The only way it could occur to anyone, he says, is if the god suggested it himself. In a sense, then, his is an a priori, nonprobablistic proof for the truth of Christianity. Even if all the historical details are shown to be uncertain, and all we have is a little nota bene of historical moment that some generation has said that “the god was born among us, lived as one of us and then died,” that would have been enough to establish this faith as an alternative to recollection. And Climacus seems sincere in this claim, as he even repeats it in the Postscript. And if this argument sticks, then Climacus does have a way to claim that the Incarnation is decisive for faith, even if the details are uncertain. Whatever exactly happened, the god has put this idea into history.

At the same time, though, Climacus claims that uncertainty and risk are essential to faith. If I make the leap to believe in the truth of the Incarnation, I must believe through faith alone, despite uncertainty; but if I can know that this idea could not occur to any human heart but must have a divine origin, where is the risk? This seems to leave Climacus with a serious inconsistency. Either Christian faith is reliant on at least some historical datum, which would make it vulnerable to historical refutation, or the “proof” eliminates the uncertainty necessary for faith.

My answer: the fact that this “proof” is true can only be known by one who has accepted it in faith. As Climacus says in his “Moral,” his alternative to recollection depends on accepting several other concepts, such as Sin, the teacher as god/man and Savior, etc. and these ideas themselves cannot be known except by someone who experiences them. And if they can only be known by faith, anyone who lost that sense of faith by seeing them as certain would also loose the ability to understand these concepts truly, or to see why they could not arise in any human heart. You must first believe in order to understand.

Moral Virtue, Mental Health, and Happiness: The Moral Psychology of Kierkegaard’s Judge William

January 31, 2013

Peter J. Mehl, “Moral Virtue, Mental Health, and Happiness:  The Moral Psychology of Kierkegaard’s Judge William;” in The International Kierkegaard Commentary, vol. 4:   Either/Or, Part II, pp. 155-82



This article discusses the relationship between “ethics and the psychological sciences (both broadly construed)” as that relationship is expressed by Judge William.  In pointing to the discussion of the self and the nature of personhood, and how these influence how we understand ethics and define mental health, Mehl has clearly put his finger on something important in Kierkegaard’s writings.  E/O I is largely intended as a depiction of how the self breaks down when one does not attend to these things.  The esthete does not strive to become a self, and hence disintegrates; even A is terrified by the Seducer, who is in fact the incarnation of A’s own psychological and moral theories.  E/O II presents an ethical person writing to A, trying to explain to him the true nature of the self, why the self needs to be ethical to be healthy, and what the nature of that “ethical” is.  Later (particularly pseudonymous) writings similarly employ this basic argument:  here is the nature of the self, and for the self to be healthy one needs to adopt this sort of life.

Mehl points out that the ethical person is often not in fact happy, and the “strong autonomy” like William advocates often leaves one the least happy because William’s ethics are not in fact livable.  You can never be perfect, you can never be completely self-aware, and you can never be fully autonomous.  Striving to be so only leads to frustration and unhappiness.  On the other hand, many self-absorbed or shallow esthetes are quite happy.  Mehl points out that William rejects this because such “happiness” is not based on anything the individual can control, but rather on external circumstances.  Mehl also argues that the only thing that makes William’s “strong autonomy” either viable or desirable is that his ethics is essentially theonomous.

I think Mehl goes astray in applying today’s standards of “mental health” to William’s argument.  Today’s therapist wants the patient to be happy above all else.  William has a more Kantian notion (and it is significant that Mehl makes so little mention of Kant).  For Kant, only the ethical person is truly free, truly rational and truly a person.  The person who aims at happiness becomes unfree and irrational; and since rationality is the hallmark of personhood, the person who acts for any reason other than moral duty is not really a person.  The fact that this moral agent may be less happy than the Epicurean is of no concern to Kant; and it seems to be of little concern to Judge William as well.  I say “little” because William, unlike Kant, does have a notion of an “equilibrium between the esthetic and the ethical.”  He believes that the ethical actually makes life more beautiful and, ultimately, happier than it would have been.  However, to act for the sake of attaining that sort of happiness would be to treat the ethical as only a means to that end, and that would not be to act ethically at all.  If I marry because I am convinced that marriage will in fact be the most romantically and erotically fulfilling life for me, my commitment isn’t to the marriage or my spouse; it is to me and my happiness.  In that case, I am not ethical at all, but still esthetic.  Only if I turn my life over to the ethical and live for its sake can I experience the happiness that comes from being ethical.  In E/O I, A remarks that one who pursues happiness often misses it by pursuing it; but he is unable to understand why.  William is offering an explanation:  the one who pursues the equilibrium that will lead to true happiness will lack the necessary condition to experience it, since the condition is that one be oriented towards the ethical rather than towards the esthetic; but the one who chooses the ethical will find that the esthetic comes back as well, even though it was not chosen.

Mehl notes that William’s description of the ethical in fact is a formula for despair, since it cannot be fulfilled.  He attributes this to William’s being part of a particular theological and moral tradition.  In this, I think he is on to something.  The overall structure of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous authorship is to carry out the Pauline/Augustinian understanding of the relationship between ethics and faith:  the Law is a disciplinarian whose job is not to save, but to drive one to the Gospel.  Is that William’s understanding of his intention?  I don’t think so.   William tends to veer off before his reasoning reaches the breaking point.  His God is too ready to bless our moral efforts.  While the sermon in the “Ultimatum” may say that “as against God, we are always in the wrong,” William doesn’t really see it that way.  William doesn’t even realize the vast gulf between his own religious claims and those of the sermon he includes in his writings.  For William, we fulfill our duty to God by being ethical and by bearing God in mind while we do so.  We may fall short, through accident or ignorance or even failure of will; but William doesn’t see this as a major problem.  As long as one wills the ethical and strives with all one’s might, one can be said to have chosen “the good” and thus to be good.  The religion of Paul, who denounced all his previous striving to fulfill the Law as “garbage,” is completely alien to William.  His push for “strong autonomy” is more conceptual than theological, more Kant than Luther:  “strong autonomy” is the only true autonomy, and only the autonomous person is truly a person, truly free from the disintegrating forces of “obscure passions within” and social currents without.  Kierkegaard’s argument is that this sort of autonomy cannot stop short of “bankruptcy” except by an arbitrary choice:  Either willfully cut off ethical reasoning and accept one’s limited success in fulfilling the absolute moral law as “good enough”/Or follow the ethical to its logical conclusion, admit that one cannot fulfill its requirements, and throw oneself on God’s mercy.  William does not make this argument; he cannot, since he has “chosen” to remain partly unaware of his own moral failure and his own need for a radically religious alternative.  He can no more admit his need for the religious without thereby ceasing to be ethical than A could admit his need to choose good and evil without thereby choosing to be ethical.  That is why any discussion of the need for the religious or the ultimate unfulfillability of the ethical must wait for religious personae, such as Frater Taciturnus.


“Giving the Parson his Due”

January 23, 2013

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