Despite what I’ve discussed in the past few posts regarding Kierkegaard’s thought, there is one thing that should be painfully obvious…at least it was to Kierkegaard: the vast majority of people don’t put much thought into their lives. Most people just drift along in their lives, making choices based on whatever shiny object comes their way, like a kid with ADHD in a toy store, or Pinocchio in Playland…or pretty much anyone in America who goes to Hardee’s because of the sexy women in their commercials, or drinks Dos Equis Beer because they take their philosophy of life from the most interesting man alive: “Stay thirsty, my friend!”
Kierkegaard divided people in society using the imagery of a horse-drawn cart. Thinking people have a goal or direction in life—they choose to drive the cart; but then there are the other people who have no real goal or center to their lives—instead of driving their cart, they just sit in the back, getting drunk on whiskey, while the horse wanders about where it will. Or as Kierkegaard put it: “…the existing person is the driver, that is, if existing is not to be what people usually call existing, because then the existing person is no driver but a drunken peasant who lies in the wagon and sleep and lets the horses shift for themselves” (CUP 311-312).
And so, Kierkegaard’s first challenge to anyone is to “put down that crappy Pabst Blue Ribbon, sober up, and learn how to drive your life!” But once that happy juice is put down, the next question becomes, “What kind of driver will you be?” Once you learn to reject the swill that society is trying to get you to buy into, and start to take control of your own life, how will you live your life? Kierkegaard saw essentially four options to this question. In fact, they are not completely separate options; they can be different stages in one’s life journey. Regardless, Kierkegaard labeled them as the Aesthetic Stage, the Demonic Stage, the Ethical Stage, and the Religious Stage.
The Aesthetic Stage
The person in the aesthetic stage has essentially learned to pull himself up with his own boot-straps and make something of his life. In some ways, one can see this as akin to “the American dream”—you can be anything you want to be, and you don’t have to have your life dictated by society. As Vardy put it, “The aesthetic life can be devoted to any temporal goal—power, money, reputation, hobbies—but above all, the person in the aesthetic stage must be in control of their own lives and must achieve by their own standards” (37). This person, as Frank Sinatra sang, “did it my way,” and is relatively successful in achieving those goals. But those temporal goals are just that…temporal. And once that sinks in, the person in the aesthetic stage can go in one of two directions.
The Demonic Stage
The “dark direction” can be what Kierkegaard calls the demonic stage. This is essentially the aesthetic stage on HGH and any other steroid you can think of. Vardy compare this stage to Nietzsche’s “Superman”—someone who flips off society and does (quite literally for Kierkegaard) whatever the hell he wants to do. Nothing and no one will ever tell him what to do, and anyone—even God—who tries to do so will be met with a defensive wall a mile high and a whole arsenal of weaponry being launched over that wall. As Vardy states, “A person in the demonic state is ‘closed in’ on her-or himself because this individual cannot bear to have her or his identity challenged by the divine. By living in the demonic stage, the individual stands outside the ethical” (44).
This, I believe, gives an interesting take on precisely what the demonic really is—ultimately what is being describe is a spoiled child in a grown up body with as many weapons at his disposal has he can accumulate in order for his self-preservation. And isn’t the root of evil and the demonic really just the refusal to let anyone be above you, and thus be in a position to tell you what to do or if you are wrong? This is why people in the demonic stage, much like those spoiled brats who turn into spoiled adults, are so unhappy.
Without any boundaries or limitations regarding what is right and wrong, that person, even though he may be in “complete control” regarding doing whatever he wants, is ultimately aimless and rootless, without any real sense of direction. I believe that we, being made in God’s image, have the freedom to choose which direction in life we want, given the ones offered to us—and so our freedom is limited. Yet we do not have the freedom to create our own direction. That kind of “freedom” is no freedom at all—for it forces one to close in on oneself, forever spiraling downward.
The Ethical Stage
But there is another option, which is admittedly better than the demonic stage, but still is, for Kierkegaard, ultimately despairing: the ethical stage. One might wonder, “Is Kierkegaard saying that trying to be ethical is not a good thing?” In a way, yes he is! Well, let’s be clear: he’s saying it is not the best thing.
So let’s ask, “What does it means to live ethically?” Most people would say it means to live according to a certain standard of morality or virtue that any reasonable person full-well knows. Therefore, “to sin” means to commit an immoral act, and to “live ethically” means to do certain things in your life that conform to that moral standard of behavior. Most Christians thus assume that the goal of the Christian life is for one to be forgiven of the unethical things one has done, and then be given the chance to “start over” and, with Christ’s help, do those ethical things that God wants you to do. Does this sound “sort of right, but sort of not right”? You’re not alone.
Kierkegaard said the problem with this view was that it equated “duty to ethics” with “duty to God.” The two are not always the same. For oftentimes, “ethics” really are just the moral standards of a given society, and they can change from time to time, culture to culture. One cannot mistake “living according to a given moral standard” with “living a life of faith to God.” Of course there is some overlap, but the two are not the same. As Vardy states, “Indeed living the ethical life is all too often to lead a life of conformity, to conform oneself to the state, the community or, perhaps, the Church—but not to God” (51).
Simply put, if one equates the Christian faith with simple adherence to a certain standard of moral behavior, then one is equating the Christian faith with nothing more than rule-keeping, and slavery to an impersonal rule-book. That is why as very “virtuous” man in a given society may ultimately be a very sinful man in God’s eyes. For as Kierkegaard states, “the opposite of sin is by no means virtue…No, the opposite of sin is faith which is why in Romans 14:23 it says ‘whosoever is not of faith, is sin.’ And this is one of the most crucial definitions for the whole of Christianity: that the opposite of sin is not virtue, but faith” (Sickness Unto Death, 114-115).
Faith vs. Sin, not Virtue vs. Sin
Think about that quote—it truly is mind-blowing! That is why Abraham, when he set his mind to sacrifice Isaac (an immoral act that all of us would find horrific) was not “sinning.” He was doing the opposite—he was stepping out in faith. That is why God credited it to him as righteousness. Here’s another mind-blower: even if God let Abraham go through with sacrificing Isaac, that act, however “immoral” when judged by our own standards, would not have been considered “sin” in God’s eyes. It would have been a faithful and righteous act.
That might be an extreme example, but we see such a dynamic throughout the Bible and throughout our lives. Jeremiah was considered “immoral” by the moral standards of 6th Century BC Judah because he spoke treason against the king of Judah, who was YHWH’s anointed—but he was faithful to God and a righteous man. Paul was considered “immoral” by his fellow Jews because he ate with Gentiles and accepted them without forcing them to submit to the Torah—but he was faithful to Christ and a righteous man.
Martin Luther King Jr. was considered “immoral” because he spoke out against what we now admit was a “racist morality” in America. On top of that, he was “immoral” in that he plagiarized part of his doctoral thesis and slept around with some women. Nevertheless, he was faithful to what God had called him to do, and he was a righteous man.
It’s not that ethics and morality are irrelevant. It’s that they are not the whole ball of wax. God does not judge us solely on our moral/immoral acts according to a certain society’s standard. He judges us on our decision to walk in faith. This lead us to the final stage for Kierkegaard: the religious stage. How does one get to this stage? As Vardy explains, “Human beings learn to live behind the mask of public opinion, the identity they have constructed for themselves, and think that this gives them security. Once it is recognized that this mask is no more than a construct, and that underneath the ‘happy and secure’ exterior there is only emptiness, then the individual may begin…to take the religious dimension seriously” (56).
In other words, a man might be self-possessed enough to live his life to achieve any goal, and that man might be the most morally straight-laced ethical man in that society—but those things aren’t enough. Those things do not get to the heart of what it means to be human. Those things will ultimately lead to despair. But for Kierkegaard, that despair is essential: despair must come before faith, just like crucifixion must come before resurrection.
The Challenge to Christians in America
This is something many Christians in America need to really wrestle with. We love to wear the crosses around our necks, have crosses hung in our homes, put cross-embroidered Bible covers on our Bibles—that makes us feel good about ourselves, and we like to think God is pleased with us for that. The only thing is, we really don’t like to let ourselves be nailed up to those damned things! But, as Kierkegaard points out, that is the only way to resurrection, faith, and a relationship with God.
Christ was nailed to the cross and suffered because he remained faithful to God, even though he was condemned as an immoral sinner by the society around him. His faithfulness led him to confrontation with the world, condemnation as someone who was immoral, and suffering. So what does it mean to be like Christ? Confrontation, being condemned, and suffering—if those three descriptions are not part of your Christian life, then perhaps further reflection of your life is in order.
Many self-professed Christians are really just admirers of Christ, not followers of him. As Vardy puts it, “Faith is, essentially, a life—a life lived in imitation of Christ and as a follower of Christ. It involves becoming a self, an individual whose life is informed by an awareness of one’s dependence on and accountability to God. The ‘admirer’ of Christ is not the follower. Admirers can look on Christ objectively, they may talk about Christ, they may applaud him—but their admiration does not lead to following him day by day. Only the follower is the disciple” (63).
So what stage do you find yourself in? A drunken peasant in the back the cart of your life? A driven aesthetic? Someone flirting with the demonic? A proud ethical kind of guy? Or a broken, but ironically faithful and empowered follower of the crucified and resurrected Lord of Creation?