It had been too long since I had spent any concentrated time with the writings of Søren Kierkegaard – but this summer saw something of a revival in my love and attention toward his works. This revival was partly inspired by a family vacation to Denmark and Copenhagen, which included a visit (for me, at least) to the Kierkegaard family burial plot in Assistens Cemetery as well as some time at a Kierkegaard conference at the University of Copenhagen.
This revival of attention to Kierkegaard’s writings led me to offer some reflections on two prayers of Kierkegaard at the annual retreat of The Presbyterian College, held this past weekend in the Laurentian Mountains, north of Montreal
The first prayer I reflected on is one that sits as a kind of prelude at the beginning of Kierkegaard’s book Works of Love. It is a beautifully Trinitarian prayer, and one that reprises some of the great themes of Christian faith and identity. But as with almost everything that Kierkegaard’s mind and pen touch upon, there is also something fresh and challenging in the prayerful words he offers. (The full prayer is shared at the bottom of this post.)
First a few comments about the classic themes that Kierkegaard touches on. He points out that we cannot speak properly of love if we fail to remember the God who is love; that we cannot speak properly of love if we fail to remember the Son who gave his life for our redemption in love; and that we cannot speak properly of love if we fail to remember the Spirit, who always points away from himself, toward Jesus, revealing love.
So in this opening part of the prayer, there is both a remembering of love (of God) and a modelling of love, since Jesus becomes the one who shows us how to love – self-sacrificially. And the Spirit teaches us to love by pointing away from ourselves toward the God who is love, and toward the Son who embodies love for the world.
Kierkegaard also mentions, in passing, what he defines as a need in love. This need in love, or the need of love, is that it come to outward expression. Love originates in the deep spring of the Divine mystery itself. And human love originates in the mysterious recesses of the person’s own being. Yet there is a need in love that it be expressed outwardly in word and action. Love’s need is that it become more than thought and intention and feeling; love’s need is that it touch the lives of others so that they might be built up in faith and life.
Finally there is that portion of Kierkegaard’s prayer that particularly captured my attention as I offered reflections for students at the beginning of a new academic year:
O Eternal Love, you who are everywhere present and never without witness where you are called upon, be not without witness in what will be said [in the following pages] about love or about works of love.
Here Kierkegaard prays that the God of love – the triune God who is love and who extends love – would find a witness in the book that he is writing about love. Kierkegaard prays that his book about love would not be a failure, for it would indeed be a failure if it did not bear witness to love and to the God who is love.
I have paraphrased these words of Kierkegaard in order to draw them into meaningful intersection with the lives of theological students at the outset of a new year. Like this:
O Eternal Love, you who are everywhere present and never without witness where you are called upon, be not without witness in our lives and our studies and our research in the academic year ahead.
What does it look like when the God of love finds a witness in our lives as students of theology? Let me offer these preliminary thoughts:
We are invited to show love for the texts we read, and the authors of those texts.
Sometimes texts are hard to understand, or authors’ arguments seem unnecessarily complex. Or texts may grate against us. More strongly, a text may stand in opposition to something we believe or hold dear. To show love in relation to such a text, and its author, is to engage honestly with them, to represent their arguments faithfully, and to try and understand why they are saying what they are saying. But to love in this context also means offering our own thoughtful and critical responses to the words and arguments of others – love means having the courage (sometimes it really does take courage) to say: I disagree, and here’s why!
We are invited to love our professors.
We love our professors by listening respectfully to them and by trying to understand both their instruction and the traditions of scholarship within which they stand. We love them by understanding that they are by no means perfect (either personally or professionally), and by not expecting them to be perfect. But we also love them by questioning their arguments and pointing to the blind spots we perceive in their theological, historical, or scriptural frameworks. Again, it can be intimidating to do so, but who ever said love was easy? Sometimes (and this is hard) we love our professors by asking more of them! And we love them by praying for them – that they would be led, as we would be led, into the fullness of truth and life in Christ.
We are invited to love our colleagues.
We share in classes with fellow students, some of whom come from other religious traditions, or from other Christian denominations. And sometimes we find it easier to love those of other religious traditions than we do those of other Christian churches, which may teach differently about who Christ is or what it means to follow him. To love our colleagues is to show respect for their points of view, to listen carefully to them, and to respond to what they are saying rather than to what they are not saying. It is also to speak confidently and graciously about our own thoughts and convictions. To love our fellow students is to support them in their own learning (particularly, perhaps, if they are struggling), to offer encouragement, and to lift them up to Christ in our prayers and in our supporting them. We also display love (perhaps counterintuitively) in a willingness to be supported and helped and prayed for through the course of the year – sometimes loves need is expressed in a willingness to be loved.
We are invited to love ourselves.
Kierkegaard, in Works of Love, makes much of the “as yourself” in the love command of Jesus – you shall love your neighbour as yourself. While our traditions may have been more preoccupied, historically, with ferreting out self-love in order to root it out, Kierkegaard pushes back and insists that the love of self is fundamental to living in the love of God. We love ourselves when we are patient with ourselves in our learning; when we give ourselves time to understand ideas; when we acknowledge the limits of our time and energy; when we take time for rest and Sabbath; and, when we understand that our identity and call are not tied to our grades. We show love for ourselves when we seek our Lord in prayer, and dwell regularly in his love.
Perhaps for me there is an element of self-love in my return to Kierkegaard’s writings, for there are few writers who challenge me, correct me, inspire and me, and encourage me in the way that he does.
Here is Kierkegaard’s prayer, offered in love. May the God of love not be without witness in our lives.
How could one speak properly about love if you were forgotten, you God of love, source of all love in heaven and on earth; you who are love, so that one who loves is what he is only by being in you! How could one speak properly about love if you were forgotten, you who revealed what love is, you our Savior and Redeemer, who gave yourself in order to save all. How could one speak properly of love if you were forgotten, you Spirit of love, who take nothing of your own but remind us of that love-sacrifice, remind the believer to love as he is loved and his neighbour as himself! O Eternal Love, you who are everywhere present and never without witness where you are called upon, be not without witness in what will be said [in the following pages] about love or about works of love. There are indeed only some works that humans specifically and narrowly calls works of love, but in heaven no work can be pleasing unless it is a work of love; sincere in self-renunciation, a need in love itself, and for that reason without any claim of meritoriousness!