I am about halfway through Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits (UDiVS)and I have to say it is one of the least enjoyable reads so far. Now perhaps the fault is my own and perhaps I should not even bother reading it. Kierkegaard knew well that his ‘religious’ writings were not interesting and were not intended to be. Most of them were written with the hope that perhaps an individual who was suffering might read them and through reading find some joy. This is not my interest or posture in reading. I am precisely looking for the interesting and innovative.
Now it is becoming clear to me that when Kierkegaard speaks of suffering he means very explicitly existential suffering. The suffering people experience when they find themselves pulled and torn by paradoxes of life that result from humans being a synthesis of body and spirit. There is a certain heaviness that hangs over humanity with some experiencing a greater darkness. This suffering may be due to actual experiences of rejection or injustice but this sort of suffering comes to any who seek eternity in the midst of the temporal. This is all sort of a paraphrase of how Kierkegaard talks about suffering.
I am also becoming more convinced that Kierkegaard probably really did suffer whether in some form of a clinical depression or just basic anxiety over life. I read his ‘upbuilding’ discourses, like many of his other writings, as his own processing of belief and experience. Faith speaks both of joy and suffering. What could that mean? This is the content of much of UDiVS. Part of my increasing trouble with these discourses is the manner in which they are not interested and in fact reject any primacy in effecting change in external conditions. So for instance,
Thus is one who is born a slave, in compliance with Apostle’s heartfelt admonition (for Christ did not come in order to abolish slavery, although this will follow and be a result of His coming), he is not concerned about it, and merely chooses freedom if it is offered: then he bears the heavy burden lightly. How heavy this burden is, the unhappy slave knows best, and human sympathy understands it with him. If he groans under the burden, as humanity groans with him, then he bears the burden heavily. If he patiently submits to his fate, and patiently hopes for freedom, then he still does bear the burden lightly. But the meek, who has had the courage really to believe in spiritual freedom, bear the heavy burden lightly: he neither relinquishes the hope of freedom, nor does he expect it (The Gospel of Suffering, 37).
What I can appreciate is that there may be a way of living in the midst of suffering that can actually alleviate the experience of suffering (that is, without changing conditions). What I do not understand is why this can only be attained through the posture of resignation. Isn’t the image of Christ one of resolute orientation (setting his face towards Jerusalem to encounter the crux of powers) towards the possibility of freedom?
So what I wonder about is the extent to which Kierkegaard’s message in his upbuilding discourses would offer comfort to those who already have a level of freedom and need to deal only with existential suffering or whether this message could actually help bring joy to someone in the midst of material and social bondage. And if it did bring joy would this joy actually be an illusion? For instance, would it teach the wife suffering domestic abuse to bear her burden with joy and patience? Or would it create a strong base of individuality (that is a presence of being differentiated from the abuser) that could actually see the possibility of freedom that is before her and empower her to take it? If the latter is not the case then I think Kierkegaard’s notion of the individual in these expressions needs further development. I sense that the ‘individual’ is still a privileged individual who can be a ‘slave’ or ‘depressed’ (not to diminish these states) but who still carries a basic ‘ontological’ sense of their individuality as universal and valid. Kierkegaard’s individual in these discourses still strikes me as basically a privileged individual. And this would be in keeping with his biography as one who certainly suffered (internally and externally) but was always able to function with a certain autonomy and social power.
I don’t see this observation so much rejecting Kierkegaard’s overall aims but, as it is increasingly customary these days, it may be necessary to read Kierkegaard against himself and expose his ‘individual’ as not so much standing alone before God but as standing with a sort of minimum social power by which one is able to endure a level of psychological anguish. The shift must be in making explicit the seizing of freedom that is available as the person enters into differentiated and empowered individuality.
And so with a great number of other readers I would have to say that Kierkegaard’s religious writings are certainly not among my favourite.