Friday, May 18, 2012

Kierkegaard on Confession V: Rendering Account

The point of Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing is to prepare for confession. Most of the discourse, however, has been dealing with the general background for this preparation: what it is to be pure of heart, to will one thing, to commit wholly. To bring all this into preparation for confession, however, we need to individualize it. That is, in the context of all the prior discussion of willing the Good, the individual must face certain questions. The final part of Purity of Heart is devoted to asking a linked series of questions leading up to confession.

We start with the interrelated questions: What kind of life do you live? Do you will only one thing? What is this one thing? The latter two questions follow directly from the first; what kind of life we live depends on whether we are double-minded or pure of heart, and purity of heart is to will one thing. But as we saw in discussing double-mindedness, not everything can really be willed as one thing. Most of the goods that could be willed, in fact, can only be willed in a fractured or limited way. The only thing that can be willed as one thing is the Good itself.

This allows us to revise the questions. Now they are: What kind of life do you live? Do you or do you not truthfully will one thing? This has nothing to do with your vocation, or your profession, or your social status. It is about whether you are an individual -- in a sense, quite literally. You are asked, or perhaps better, asked to ask yourself, whether you are undivided. This is the question Kierkegaard's edifying discourse puts to the reader, the question the reader puts to himself or herself while reading the edifying discourse aloud. And the answer, the truthful answer, is the preparation for confession.

The question, then, comes down to another question: Do you live in such a way that you are consciously an individual? Again, you must get out of your mind any notion that this involves social status, or originality, or how impressive you are in any way. We should also probably not think of 'existentialist' answers as we usually think of them, or whether you make your own way or do your own thing. No, the question being put forward here is not an inquisitive question, not trying to find out what you are. The question being put forward here is a challenge of sorts: it is a putting of yourself to the question. It is a question set to prepare you to render an account before Eternity.

This is, incidentally, why the 'conscious' is important. You cannot render an account by hiding yourself. We each, every single one of us, stand before Eternity, and Eternity demands that we lived undivided, as individuals. It does not matter what our role in life is, it does not matter what our fortune has been, we are there to render an account, whether we are peasant or king, fortunate or unfortunate, and faced with the demand of Eternity, everything in our lives comes to this point: whether we can say that we consciously live as individuals when we face the accounting of Eternity. And this is something we can each recognize in ourselves, at every moment:

For, after all, what is eternity's accounting other than that the voice of conscience is forever installed with its eternal right to be the exclusive voice? What is it other than that throughout eternity an infinite stillness reigns wherein the conscience may talk with the individual about or of evil, and about the fact that during his life he did not wish to be an individual? What is it other than that within eternity there is infinite space so that each person, as an individual, is apart with his conscience? (p. 186)

We all stand before conscience -- not before our evasions and self-deceptions, but before our consciousness of the unrelenting demand of Eternity that we will with purity of heart. We can try to hide from it in the crowd, try to press it out with they busy-ness of life, but it is always there. Make whatever clamor you please; the psalmist notes that God laughs at it (Ps. 2:4). The question remains. Do you always live as an individual, as undivided? If you are married, is this intimate relation part of the even more intimate relation of willing the Good itself? Are you undivided in your love? This is the key question. Note that it is not a question about whether you make the other person happy, or whether your marriage stands up to some arbitrary criteria. The question is: Are you married with purity of heart? Do you live as an individual, willing one thing, acting without double-mindedness? If you have a family, it is the same question: Do you live truthfully, consciously, as an individual? In your relations with the crowd of people around you, do you live as an individual? All eloquence stripped away, all evasion and deception, all fancy spin in light of the values of the world, do you at this very present moment live as an individual?

In light of this question, and only in light of this question, we can ask: What is your occupation in life? This is not a question about whether you advise kings or dig ditches, not about whether you are rich or poor, not about whether you work until you are tired or have plenty of time for play, not about whether you are 'successful' or 'unsuccessful'. The question is in a sense an iteration of the previous question: Is it the occupation of an individual? Is it something you do with purity of heart? Or is it something you do with double-mindedness, with excuses, with evasion, with deception? Is your occupation something you do in a way wholly consistent with your responsibility before Eternity as an individual? And we can ask the same question about the means we use to carry out our occupation. And again with your attitude toward others: Are you at one with all by willing one thing? For the Good, the only thing that can be willed at one thing, is the Good for all; to will it as one thing is to be one with all. Even if you are locked in a dungeon, or on a desert island, if you will the Good as one, you are at one with all humanity in the one thing that matters.

Over and over we can ask questions, and over and over they are by this point the same question: Do you consciously live, at this moment, at every moment, as an individual responsible before Eternity, undivided, willing one thing? This question, and its answer, are the preparation for Confession. It is a hard and heavy question, a question that hammers. But it is the question demanded if we are to prepare for Confession.

We see here, incidentally, how Kierkegaard would respond to the atheistic existentialisms of the twentieth century. They, too, wish to bring home the fact that we are individuals, responsible as individuals: but they want it without the one thing. They attempt to make us individuals by putting us through a process of necessary and endless division, of projects, that can never in the end drown out the fact that only the Good itself can be willed with one thing. You cannot be undivided without willing one thing, and you cannot be willing one thing while willing things incapable of being one thing willed, and you cannot be an individual, or be living as an individual, unless you live undividedly. They attempt to have individuals without purity of heart; but without purity of heart you cannot be anything other than double-minded.

And that is Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, Kierkegaard's philosophical treatise on preparing for the office of Confession.

Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, Steere, tr. Harper (1956).

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