Sunday, April 15, 2012

Kierkegaard on Confession I: The Individual

Soren Kierkegaard's Edifying Discourses in Various Spirits is a somewhat complicated work. It was published in 1847 under Kierkegaard's own name; thus there is a way in which it is more direct than Kierkegaard's own works. At the same time, however, it is still a work that is devoted to indirect communication: Kierkegaard does not come out and say directly what is on his mind, but slowly builds around it. An 'edifying discourse' is by its nature sermon-like; it is, in essence, a sermon written to be read aloud. It is also, however, a work that is not put forward from a position of authority the way a proper sermon would be. These upbuilding discourses are divided into three groups: the first is on confession, the second about the joy of being human, and the third about the spirit of martyrdom. Of these the first is the longest, and has had far and away the most influence, often being published separately. Its full title is An Occasional Discourse: On the Occasion of a Confession: Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, but it is usually just known by the last striking phrase: Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.

Like Catholics, Lutherans have a sacrament of Confession or Absolution, although Lutherans are somewhat more likely to consider it as simply an adjunct of Baptism. Unlike the Catholic view of Confession, which regards full repentance as consisting of contrition, confession, and satisfaction, Lutherans tend to focus much more on the second, because in their view we can never properly make amends for sins -- we must simply trust to Christ. Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, however, is not about the theology of Confession, but about preparation for confessing at Confession; it is an ethical treatise devoted to self-examination.

Part of what is required to understand the work is to recognize that in Confession we explicitly stand, as it were, before the Eternal. We change, but the Eternal is always present and never changing, and thus is the only thing that applies to us in every stage of life: "Only the Eternal is always appropriate and always present, always true." (p. 33). Because of this, we are always in some sense before the Eternal; there is no special time for Eternity. It is always there. Thus the stance we have before the Eternal in Confession is actually something we should always have. But we fail in this, and quite often, and therefore there are messengers of Eternity that lead us back: remorse and repentance. When we are in danger of self-deception, remorse guides us back. So important is remorse that if we never feel it, this is a sign that something has gone very wrong; remorse protects us from the danger of being lost in self-deception, but the danger of being lost in self-deception will arise, so we can only be utterly free of remorse when we are truly lost in self-deception already. As Kierkegaard says, "So wonderful a power is remorse, so sincere is its friendship, that to escape it entirely is the most terrible thing of all" (p. 39).

Kierkegaard speaks of the time for remorse as "the eleventh hour": there is always a lateness to remorse, a suggestion of calling us back at the last minute, saying that there is no more time to waste, that we must come back now. At whatever time it comes, it gives that time the urgency of the last hour before too late. He goes so far as to say that we must repent at this time, the eleventh hour, and no other: repentance that is not at "the eleventh hour" is merely temporal repentance, concerned only with the changes of time. True repentance occurs at the time of remorse, the eleventh hour. In other words, in true repentance we are not pretending that repentance is a matter of leisure, that we can repent in our own good time. We truly repent when we are under a summary necessity to repent. Only this repentance can be eternal. Only this repentance stands before Eternity and recognizes that Eternity is overwhelmingly present. Because of this, repentance must be prepared for; we must ready ourselves for repenting at the eleventh hour, collect our minds out of their distracted state so that we can recognize the insistent presence of the Eternal.

This, of course, is the context of the discourse: we are preparing ourselves for the office of Confession, for true repentance, collecting our minds together so as to stand before the Eternal and recognize its unchanging presence.

The Eternal met in Confession, though, is omniscient. We do not render an account of ourselves before Eternity in the way we render an account to our employers or to our friends. The Eternal was always there; there was no time when it did not know what we did. We are not reminding the Eternal of our life; we are recognizing the true character of our lives: "Not God, but you, the maker of the confession, get to know something by your act of confession." In confessing (we are not talking at all about absolution here, and in fact Kierkegaard explicitly confines himself only to the confession part of Confession) we are coming out of the fog of self-deceit, drawn back to a recognition of the never-changing presence of the Eternal. Having followed a wavering way, we return to the one thing needful.

But it's also the case that we find ourselves without mitigation. There is, Kierkegaard says, no company before the Eternal. It's not that we are alone with the Eternal, I think, so much as that we are completely unhidden before it. The Eternal knows us in full detail, in all our individuality. We go through our lives trying to hide in crowds, trying to blend into our backgrounds. But before the Eternal this is impossible: we are seen in stark contrast and perfect resolution. We are individuals, and confessing requires that we recognize ourselves as individuals, take responsibility for ourselves as individuals, and act without trying to divide ourselves: "In eternity, the individual, yes, you, my listener, and I as individuals will each be asked solely about himself as an individual, and about the individual details in his life" (211-212); Kierkegaard repeats this sentence several times. "Each one is an individual before God" (214). No one can repent for me and I cannot repent for others, and the clear and uncompromising command to repent is said directly to me. In true repentance we do not compare ourselves to others and say that we are not as bad as they are; we recognize our failing for what it is, on its own, and repent of that. In true repentance we do not compare ourselves to others and say that we are decent folk because we are like everybody else; we recognize our failing for what it is, on its own, and repent of that. Confession, however, is not the occasion for recognizing ourselves as individuals; it is the occasion for giving an account of ourselves as individuals. Thus the individuality we have in Confession is, by the very nature of Confession, demanded of our entire lives. It is for this reason that Kierkegaard dedicates the discourses to "that individual".

To be an individual requires that we live undividedly; if we divide our loyalties, if we are double-minded, we are trying to wriggle out of being an individual before the Eternal. In Confession we recognize that the demand of the Eternal is that we be pure of heart, not double-minded, but always willing one thing. And as Kierkegaard discusses throughout the discourses, there is only one thing that can be willed as one thing.


Quotations are from Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, Steere, tr. Harper (New York: 1956).

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