Mornings with Soren

When I find myself in times of trouble, I don’t usually turn to Mother Mary. “Let it be” has never been good enough. I’ve sung that song to myself many times over, reminding my heart that “when the night is cloudy, there is still a light that shines on me.” True as that may be, it represents a life-long struggle I clawed my way out of time and time again. The “Church of McCartney” might be what the doctor ordered for some but I think it’s lazy. It’s one thing to know there is a light at the end of that tunnel. It’s entirely different to think that light is obtainable.

During my sophomore year of college I had a conversation with a friend of mine. It was probably 2 a.m. and we were standing outside smoking on a chilly October night. I remember him saying out of the blue, “It’s so easy for them.” In context, he was referring to fellow students that attended a chapel service three times a week on campus. “It’s so simple, for them to just accept it all blindly. Don’t they have any questions?” For added context, the undergraduate school I attended was heavily affiliated with the Reformed Church of America. Having grown up in a religious household I thought nothing of attending a school that advertised itself as being affiliated with a Christian denomination. Most private liberal arts schools were associated with some denomination at the time of their founding. A lot of them have since let those affiliations lapse, but not my school.

For my group of friends growing up, I was by far the most “religious,” though after several moments in my life I wavered heavily later in high school. The Almighty and I began a wrestling match that lasted right up until recently. Still, at the time I graduated from high school, I had more “faith” than most of my peers. Compared to the majority of the student body in college, however, I was practically a Satanist. For starters, I’d had pre-marital sex, I swore, I drank even though I was under age, and I had no problem telling people exactly what I thought. All of this was a shock for many of my classmates who believed, truly, everything I just listed was evil. Actually evil. In their minds I was already on the road to hell. But my struggle wasn’t their struggle. I tried attending chapel each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It didn’t last past my freshman year, when the Chaplain stood up and in an attempt to sway students to sign up for mission trips during spring break, single-handedly condemned millions of people to hell because they had not yet heard the word of God.

It was at this time when I made a conscious decision to deeply explore my identity as a Christian. My peers knew Bible verses like the backs of their hands. They could pluck them out of thin air, toss them casually into conversation. Often times I recognized the verses, but also recognized their use out of context. This wasn’t new to me. Factual representation is a long dead casualty of religious doctrine. I wanted to know more about the nature of the Bible itself, its history and purpose. Fortunately I was in the exact setting to do so. I began to load my courses with religious study. Now, when I tell people I have two degrees, one in History and the other in Religious Study, they immediately assume I only studied Christianity. Especially if they identify as a Christian. This could not be further from the truth. I surrounded myself with religions I’d never had the resources or opportunity to explore growing up. Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Native American spirituality, Zoroastrianism and especially Islam. Beautiful, sweet, misunderstood Islam.

Of course I did study Christianity. In whole I found it to be very boring and in parts lazy, barbaric, misinterpreted and plain backward. In a single moment of awakening I resonated with the sentiment of my friend, it was so easy for my Christian peers to blindly accept the will of an invisible being. To assert the Bible can be considered all at once is a testament to the willingness of people to believe only what they choose. Each time someone quoted John 3:16 I would casually toss out Ezekiel 23:30 and imagine the expression on their faces when they went to look it up. It was simultaneously frustrating and disheartening. The more I studied, the further I drifted away from my faith. And as soon as I realized most of the stories contained in the good book were hand-me-downs from other traditions I all but gave up completely. It was around this time when I was introduced to Soren Kierkegaard.

Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing was a section included in Edifying Discourses in Diverse Spirits. The collection was written by Kierkegaard in 1847. In addition to Purity,  it also included What We Learn from the Lilies in the Field and the Birds in the Air, and The Gospel of Sufferings. Kierkegaard was a fierce opponent of the use of Christianity as a state religion, focused heavily on the distinction between God and man, and explored the breadth of Christian ethics. In other words, he spent the majority of his philosophical career exploring his faith. Like me. Like so many others that aren’t afraid to admit it.  Combined with my newly found fascination for Eastern philosophy his writings were an orgasmic trip through the heart of the conversation that began with the question: What does it mean to be a good human?

I was raised to think being a good human meant being a good Christian and that good behavior would bring reward to me in the afterlife. If I was not a good human, I would go to hell and burn for eternity. Sometimes, when I was in trouble as a child, my mom would make me read Bible verses in an attempt to impart some divine wisdom that would convince me to alter my behavior. Essentially I was taught to live in fear of punishment from a God that was supposed to be all-forgiving. The concept of doing good things for the sake of receiving reward bothered me, significantly. Moreover rules about what you could and could not do, with regard to self and not others, bothered me. The older I got the more difficult it was for me to justify doing something for reward after I was dead, when I could be rewarded while I was still alive.

Kierkegaard addresses this very issue in Chapter Four of Purity, entitled Barriers to Willing One Thing: The Reward-Disease. In this examination he describes what he calls double-mindedness, which he explains in this way: “…that the man who desires the Good for the sake of the reward does not will one thing, but is double-minded.” Essentially he is stating that doing good works for the sake of the expected reward is not truly willing the good. Rather, the expected reward is the goal and therefore the belief is misplaced. He continues to describe the mentality this thinking creates:

Does he, then, go like the one that is hunting for every sensation along the broad way of pleasure? No, that he does not do. Does he go like a carefree youth who lightheartedly lets his gaze wander over everything about him on his way? Alas, he is too old for that. How does he go, then? He walks so slowly under the circumstances, because of the difficulty of the way. He feels his way forward with his foot and as he finally plants his foot and takes a step, he immediately looks about at the clouds, notes the way the wind blows, and whether the smoke goes straight up from the chimney. It is, namely, the reward — earth’s reward — that he is looking for. And that reward is like the clouds and like the wind and like the smoke of the chimney. And so he asks his way continually. He gives minute attention to the faces of the passing people in order to learn how the reward stands, what the prices are, what demands the time and the people would place upon the Good if they were to give the reward.

What is he really after? Nay, do not ask him about that. Perhaps he would be able to answer every other question with the exception of that one about the way. But this question he cannot answer in definite terms, if he is to answer it sincerely, for the reason that the answer is all too readily at hand: that he wills the Good and detests vice — when vice seems to be loathsome; that he wills the approbation of good people — when they are in the majority and possess the power; that he will benefit the good cause — when it is so good as to confer some advantage upon him. Yet in sincerity he dares not say definitely what he wills. He dares not say loudly and decisively with the full voice of conviction that he wills the Good. …As a matter of fact he does occasionally will the Good — to save his face.

Perhaps more often than I should, I find myself letting my mind drift back to this analysis. When I am volunteering for a local organization, am I doing it because it is purely the right thing to do? Or am I doing it with the subconscious expectation that my peers will look at me as a good person because I am devoting some time and energy to a cause? I know of many people who do just that; they act in accordance with the normal expectations of a “good person” but in private settings dismiss the good works as something that is required, for the sake of being rewarded with social status, as opposed to performing a good work for the sake of being good. Quite frankly, that notion turns my stomach.

Which brings me back to smoking at 2 a.m. in October. I can still picture my fellow classmates, arms raised to praise songs during chapel, singing about the love God bestowed on them. It was so easy for them to believe their deeds, though false in their roots, would bring them salvation. Even though I found it frustrating, this is where Soren and I begin to differ. I have a hard time accepting that good deeds, even done out of selfishness, are not worth doing. The need to will the good for its own sake is a concept not exclusive to Christian philosophers, it is a current found in the basis of every major religion. With the exception of some Eastern traditions, that concept is still reliant on the existence of an omnipotent being providing some reward.

Removal of the all-seeing eye makes for much more convincing conversation. To be a good human, for the sake of trying to make your tiny sphere of influence a better space to occupy, is important regardless of the perceived reward. So what if the soccer mom that only attends church on Easter and Christmas volunteers for the local United Way when she can make room in her schedule? At least she’s doing it, right? Soren would say this is not truly willing the good. I can’t bring myself to buy into that idea completely. Hundreds of people sit at home and don’t lift a finger to help themselves, let alone other. How can volunteering once or twice be worse than that?

I suppose I’m being too narrow on this particular topic. Kierkegaard examines this further in other works. Regardless, it’s a good thing to reflect on. These are the conversations I enjoy the most, my daily check-in with my own moral stability. It keeps me sharp, focused. It’s not easy to direct one’s mind to not just see that good, but be the good, for the sake of it. Soren says that if you are truly on that path you will be able to recognize the opposition you encounter as evidence you are accomplishing that goal. If that is the case, I think I’m doing pretty well so far.

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