Comments on Excerpts from Kierkegaard’s “Every Good and Every Perfect Gift is from Above”

for Bill Farris

Note: I am working from the excerpts of this text in A Kierkegaard Anthology, ed. Robert Bretall, trans. David Swenson & Lillian Swenson. I cannot find the text as a whole online. The danger here is not only there could be a giant passage by SK [Soren Kierkegaard] saying “one day this guy named Ashok will make all these complaints about my stuff, here are the answers to all of them,” but also that I can’t tell you about the literary structure of the text or whether Kierkegaard literally means what he says in places. The complaints I’m going to make are less about SK and more about a particular conception of faith his remarks demonstrate.

Therefore faith hopes also in this life, but… by virtue of the absurd, not by virtue of the human understanding.

The paradox in Christian truth is invariably due to the fact that it is truth as it exists for God. The standard of measure and the end is superhuman; and there is only one relationship possible: faith.

– SK, “The Journals”

It is possible for things to be too well said. SK begins his sermon with a prayer:

From Thy hand, O Lord, do we receive everything! Thou stretchest out Thy powerful hand and takest the wise in their foolishness. Thou openest it, Thy gentle hand, and satisfiest whatever lives with blessing. And even if it seems that Thine arm is shortened, then do Thou increase our faith and our confidence, so that we may hold Thee fast. And if it sometimes seems that Thou dost withdraw Thine hand from us, oh, then we know that it is only so because Thou dost close it, that Thou dost close it only in order to conceal the more abundant blessing within it, that Thou dost close it in order again to open it and satisfy everything which lives with Thy blessing. Amen.

The movement of the hand is that of Providence. Everything God does is for a greater good, and this prayer is really the sermon that follows in short. What SK is going to talk about is why it seems at certain points are prayers aren’t answered, and he’s going to respond with “our hearts weren’t in the right place, and God actually put them in the right place when our desires weren’t fulfilled.” Note the last three motions of the hand: sometimes it is open and giving; sometimes it is shortened, not quite reaching out and giving; other times it is closed and withdrawn, because there are more abundant blessings to be had. The element that doesn’t quite correspond to this is that of the wise who are really foolish literally being “in touch” with God, and sped away from this life. In discussing Socrates and classical virtue, we have talked about moderation (not wanting) and that if one who is wise should want, their knowledge means what they want really must be satisfied, and any lack is a rationalization/justification. Here, SK seems to be saying all men want, that the wise are no different from anyone else. This will turn out to be the case in the sermon.

The sermon begins with James 1: 17-22 –

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of his creatures. Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.

After quoting this, SK repeats the first sentence, “Every good and every perfect gift is from above and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither the shadow of turning,” at least four times in the sermon (it is four times in my excerpt). The first time he talks about them, he says they are “beautiful,” “eloquent,” and “moving,” so much so they can’t be blamed for not getting into our ears. So we have to “dare” three times: we “dare” to have “confidence” that they are “faithful and unfailing, tested and proved,” not just made up. The second dare is that we believe they don’t just “lift up the soul, but… sustain it.” Finally, we believe these words can help us prevent error. An apostle, a man we trust to have led a holy life, said these things, so they must have this much weight.

The second time SK brings up “Every good and perfect gift…” he says that the words are “repeated in the world, yet many go on as if they had never heard them.” This is of enormous significance, for when SK gets to those who have errant thoughts, their error and their redemption will be because they were “swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath:” the Scripture is just as descriptive as it is prescriptive. In this section, though, SK doesn’t talk about those who are in error. He depicts a bunch of people that are getting everything they want from God and are happy and precisely because of both those things, they cannot at all relate to Truth, the Scripture is pretty much meaningless for them.

Now this is risky for SK, really risky – we can’t conceive of anyone mature enough to have blessings but be reasonable enough to understand that people can really hurt, that they they can really hurt? From a standpoint in which all we consider is innocence/experience, this works: there is no innocence after the loss of Eden. But if we open up experience, we don’t even have to go outside the Christian tradition for the words “moral imagination.” At some point, God does have to give, or else Christianity isn’t really a religion: it’ll be just a code of ethics. You can argue this is dramatic buildup for SK, but I’m going to say that this is a deep problem for any serious believer – we have to give all the time; even those of us who are evil give. One has to believe that Creation does have the moral lessons within it, but if one makes that move, one can move closer to the classical conception of “nature” (the Bible never mentions this word in any way) rather than the revealed Law.

The third mention of “every good and every perfect gift…” brings up the real problems, where this sermon makes claims that either work or not. In it, SK talks about the sorrowing, who purposely limited their desires. They only asked for one thing, perhaps, and they worked to revere the truth of these words. Still, they were denied:

With humble prayers and burning desires you sought, as it were, to tempt God: This wish is so important to me; my joy, my peace, my future, all depend on this; for me it is so very important, for God it is so easy, for He is all-powerful. But the wish was not fulfilled. Vainly you sought rest; you left nothing untried in your unfruitful restlessness; you ascended the dizzy heights of anticipation to see if a possibility might not appear. If you believed that you saw such a possibility, then you were immediately ready with prayers, that by the help of these you might create the actual from the apparent.

Eventually “you” gave into “quiet longing,” and then finally gave up, and then you

…acknowledged in all humility that God had certainly not deceived you, since He accepted you, since He accepted your earthly wishes and foolish desires, exchanged them for you and gave you instead heavenly consolation and holy thoughts; that He did not treat you unfairly when He denied you your wish, but for compensation created this faith in your heart…

SK then goes through an example of somone with a bit more pride, who puts on less external begging and pleading and rather acts virtuously, but does wonder whether God tests us. That belief means heaven never listened to the prideful man’s prayers, because he was trying to “tempt” God, but lucky for all, the prideful one got humble and realized that life being “explicable” was something that would have to wait.

I’m not making these passages sound as insulting as they sounded to me when I first read them. We all know numerous people who pray for many things other than their selfish wants: in fact, I’d bet most people I know only pray for others. I also know this – because we desire to know more and love better, our prayers are intimately connected with what is right and what is moral. We don’t believe in God only because He is Providential: we believe in Him because we want to love. If the world would end in fire and ice and there was no redemption, some of us would still love and be virtuous. Providence stems from the fact that goodness is eternal, and that we make it manifest in the world. SK only depicts falling away from God in these passages as something that happens on an existential level, and we can psychoanalyze ourselves and get the exact right attitude and yay! everything’s perfect.

To his credit, it can be said that he is talking less about people here and more about the philosophical implications of Providence. On those lines, we can argue that this is a hopeful picture of humanity: we don’t let pride force us to make God give a rational explanation. We work for it ourselves and still try to be virtuous or moral. We also move beyond the things that, when not gotten, hurt us on a level that no one would want to see us hurt at. We have the strength to castigate ourselves even when we don’t deserve it, because we want to be wise rather than just satisfied.

Still: this is not an exhortation to wisdom on SK’s part. Far from it – he separates divine and human wisdom very sharply:

You wished that God’s ideas about what was profitable to you might be your ideas, but you also wished that He might be the almighty Creator of heaven and earth, so that He might rightly fulfill your wish. And yet if He were to share your ideas, then must He cease to be the almighty Father. You would in your childish impatience, as it were, corrupt God’s eternal Being, and you were blind enough to delude yourself, as if God in heaven did not know better what was profitable to you than you yourself; as if you would not sometime discover with terror that you had wished what no man would be able to bear if it came to pass. For let us a moment speak foolishly and with human wisdom… [SK goes on at length to discuss how if we conceived someone as wise, and we wanted him to change his mind about something we were nagging about, we’d eventually go “wait a second. That’s really stupid of me if I believe he’s wise.”]

This passage is closer to the tone which made me really object to this sermon: I don’t remember Jesus being this brutal, partly because “image and likeness” of God, access to Scripture, the wisdom we receive from others if not revelation all mean we DO have ideas that were influenced by God, and not at some remove that means we are hell demons at birth. The unceasing demand in this sermon that we be humble when, in fact, being moral means at key moments having pride rightly informed and a trust in one’s own wisdom does not fail to stun me. When we’re talking about philosophy in this blog, notice how we’ll talk about trends or how people might act or potential motivations, but will not go so far as to psychoanalyze everyone to find which thoughts accept Providence and which ones are sin. God forbid anyone in this sermon of Kierkegaard’s actually sinned: would his passages be even more bullying?

Still, SK gets a lot right and is a master of figuring out how we stand where we stand. He ends his sermon with another prayer:

Every good and every perfect gift is from above and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness nor shadow of turning. These words are so beautiful, so eloquent, so moving; they are so soothing and so comfortig, so simple and comprehensible, so refreshing and so healing. Therefore we will beseech Thee, O God, that Thou wilt make the ears of those who hitherto have not regarded them, willing to accept them; that Thou wilt heal the misunderstanding heart by the understanding of the word, to understand the word; that Thou wilt incline the erring thought under the saving obedience of the word; that Thou wilt give the penitent soul confidence to dare to understand the word; and that Thou wilt make those who have understood it more and more blessed therein, so that they may repeatedly understand it. Amen.

The argument against my comments is simple: SK has laid out the moral preconditions for wisdom, and now people are in a position to pursue pure Truth, i.e. “every good and perfect gift.” SK is really making a bunch of philosophic believers, and trying to eliminate the problem of believing the right thing for the wrong reason. As we are gracious, the last word and its hopeful “saving obedience” is his.

2 Comments

  1. This is alot to think about! SK may assume too much in his psychoanalysis of an individual unanswered prayer…not unlike Job’s friends…

    FTA–“The unceasing demand in this sermon that we be humble when, in fact, being moral means at key moments having pride rightly informed and a trust in one’s own wisdom does not fail to stun me.”

    Our morality is dubious unless it is decided by something bigger than ourselves: Holy writ. If it is placed in Scripture, than the pride is not in oneself. Humility is not doubting oneself–it may be rooted in willingness to do something great because you are asked. Motive is more important than action–though they are ostensibly linked together–willingness is not quite enough since “man looks on the outward appearance”: the action proves the intention.

    As long as we realize the source of “our wisdom” we are absolved from criticism for pride in it.

  2. @ Kay: I think it isn’t quite right to say that SK is like the friends of Job, though I understand that, looking at this one sermon, it might seem that way. I think what SK is really doing is reacting to those who are like Job’s friends: we might assume too much divine knowledge, and SK is trying to rectify that by emphasizing that the divine is often unknowable.

    Ashok is rightly offended, too, by SK’s seeming disregard for Scripture, Christ’s example, and those among us with admirable piety. However, SK was directly confronted with what he called the kingdom of “Christendom,” a sort of pejorative that he uses for those groups of people claiming to be Christians who are caught up in the objectivity of religion. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that SK is trying to ratchet up the subjective passion necessary for faith: he holds up Abraham as the paragon of servitude and loyalty to God. Those looking for some comfy rationalization of Abrahamic faith threaten to trivialize it thereby; it isn’t something that can be completely understood.

    But Ashok also does well in criticizing SK for pointing out that one can just ‘get the right attitude’ and be completely happy. In fact, in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript SK takes it far – really far. His emphasis on subjective passion rather than objective means and ends almost provides the auspices for the sorts of violent fundamentalism on the rise today, in more than just one religion.

Leave a Comment