I think I am nearing the end of my commentaries on Kierkegaard, of whom I have no special liking, but whom I feel has been influential on both certain religious groups and also existential philosophy. I want to say first that most religions require renunciation of a sort–Jews have Kosher; Catholics have lent; Muslims have Ramadan; Buddhist and Hindus are vegetarian. Though these involve different rites, I argue that the root idea is the same: to teach the faithful of their reliance on God. After all, to not eat all foods available (and certainly there are things a person could “give up” besides food) is a kind of mild privation, which forces a person to look inward when she picks out her groceries. Anyway, whatever renunciation is, Kierkegaard says,
It is said that faith is needed in order to renounce everything: yes, even more strangely one hears people complain that they have lost faith and on consulting the scale to see where they are, we find curiously enough that they have come no further than the point where they should be making the infinite movement of resignation. Through resignation I renounce everything, this movement is one I do by myself, and when I do not do it that is because I am cowardly and weak and lack the enthusiasm and have no sense of the importance of the high dignity afforded to every human being, to be his own censor, a dignity greater than to be Censor General for the whole Roman Republic…
Now, it is true that many religions do teach a renunciation of “the world.” I have mixed feelings about this: I feel like the religious believer has a duty to transform the world to God’s Kingdom on Earth. Judaism teaches this because Jewish religious law is the law of a Holy Covenant, in which the Jews live as a Holy Nation to be a model to other Nations. In Christianity, Jesus says in the Lord’s prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in Heaven,” and the Puritans added the strain of their faith to United States tradition by believing they were “A City on a Hill,” a chosen people like God’s first chosen people, the Jews. Of course, Islam also teaches people to live as an ummah, a religious community. So to, Hindus gather to celebrate religious holidays, and I believe Buddhist monasteries function with the idea that Buddhism is not a solitary people. All of these religions teach against “selfishness.”
Yet there is a sense in all of these religion that, in monotheistic terms, the world exists in a “fallen state.” God created the World good, but humankind brought evil and death into the world. In Hinduism and Buddhism, the teaching is more extreme: suffering is the natural state of things, from which the believer tries to escape. So there is a tension: does one “save” the world by recreating it, or accept it as it is? Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov describes a philosopher who the more he loves the world the less he loves his neighbor. Dostoyevsky insists that the world itself cannot, maybe should not, be saved. In marked contrast, Camus is quoted by Joseph Telushkin as saying that if a person can save a single child in danger of suffering, though the world is not saved it is made better for that one child. These seems like a great, “Duh,” but Dostoyevsky leaves the reader wondering why a person would do anything for anybody besides herself.
With all due respect to Dostoyevsky, I think he would best look at the attempt of ancient Israel to be God’s Kingdom on Earth. I do not mean that Jewish law would make a great model for a Constitution today. I mean that the precept to “love your neighbor,” and “love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with your God,” were meant for today and not just in the past. “Thy Kingdom come,” should be the teaching of Christians, though it is a harder path than apathy. In this country there is the example of the many societies in the eighteen thirties pointing their activities towards social betterment. When America was young, many people believed that was the chance of the New World to show a perfected humanity. It is true that there was a slavery then, but there were also the first anti-slavery societies. Women did not vote, but the first feminist societies were set up to argue that women should be allowed to vote. And many of these societies had religion at their base. To overcome the woes of today, Americans need hope and optimism, rooted in the past and not rooted against it.
Anyway, speaking of renunciation, Kierkegaard quickly recants of his good intentions,
Through faith I don’t renounce anything, on the contrary in faith. I receive everything everything, exactly in the way it is said that one whose faith is like a mustard seed can move mountains. It takes purely human courage to renounce the whole of temporality in order to win eternity, but I do indeed win it and cannot in all eternity renounce that, for that would be a self-contradiction; but it is a paradoxical and humble courage then to grasp the whole the temporality on the faith in the absurd, and that courage is the courage of faith.
Then for the fateful misunderstanding of any scripture (after a brief mention of Abraham),
That rich young man [the rich young man who would not give up his belongings to follow Christ], by virtue of his resignation, should have given everything away, but once he had done so the knight of faith would have to say to him: ‘On the strength of the absurd you shall get every penny back, believe that!’ And these words should by no means be a matter of indifference to the one rich young man; for if he gave his possessions away because he was bored with them, then his resignation was in a sorry state.
This is merely stupid: if the rich young man gave up his wealth with no belief that the money was gone, it would not be a gift. He would be unworthy of Jesus’ compassion by the standards the Gospels set. That is why Jesus said, “It is harder for a camel to go through the head of a needle than for a rich man to go to Heaven.” This is despite the fact that in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, if a person is a keeper of wealth (as opposed to being kept by wealth) this is lawful. The distinction is subtle: does the rich person give, and are her cares primarily with his possessions, or does she care for others? A rabbi once told a group of us that to have money and not give is “a lack.”
In Judaism we are bid to “give justice to the poor,” the essence of “charity” to Muslims and Christians. Though many words have been spent in Christian circles about faith, Paul says of Charity (Love), Faith and Hope, “The greatest of these is Charity.” Yet Charity should not be held to mean merely giving. It should mean an outpouring of love for one’s fellow human being. Muslim’s “poor tax” is a nucleus of what welfare is in industrial societies. As for Jews, the Talmudic teaching is,
In a city where there are both Jews and Gentiles, the collectors of alms collect from both; they feed the poor of both, visit the sick of both, bury both, comfort the mourners whether they be Jews or Gentiles, and restore the lost goods of both, mipnei darchei shalom: to promote peace and cooperation.
I admit that “to promote peace and cooperation” for Jews as well as non-Jews sounds selfish on the face of it, yet I deny that Jews have done less for society in America than Christians, whether serving in the army or in the Civil Rights Movement.
The point is that the Path on which one comes to God should involve renunciation; one should view ones belongings as being on loan from God, instead of your due. And this was the sin of “the rich young man” whom Jesus wanted to give away all of his belongings. Jesus believed the young man was kept by his possessions and not the other way around.