Saturday, December 3

The Sickness

I intend to wade into the "faith vs. Works" debates quite soon, but before that a proper understanding of this sickness we are being redeemed from is necessary. For all religions offer not only a cure to man's ills but a presupposed conception of why people need salvation. A popular theory in today's post-postmodern world is that all men have a differing sickness (or perhaps no sickness at all), and accordingly formulate or pick their own philosophy or religion that best fits their needs. Religions are thus not objective in a universal sense, but only objective for those who need it. As sympathetic as I am with some parts of this idea, Christianity strays from it in one important sense: this sickness is a universal phenomenon.

Now, Christians will often ascribe this sickness as either moral ("We have all broken God's commandments") or innately spiritual ("We are all spiritually dead from Adams original sin"). I'm going to try and take a different path that borrows from both ideas:

Firstly, this sickness must be in our self. A self means what we are, quite literally what makes us "us". The word soul or spirit could also be used here to describe this substance which gives us personal identity (whether or not it is independent or dependent on the brain). Being a human being makes it inherent that we possess a self, but that does not mean that this self is necessarily affirmed or actualized in the person. Indeed, most thinkers observe most of humanity as living awry of the ideal, and describe what a human must do to be "self-affirmed".

Kierkegaard has a fundamental contribution to make here. He thinks of the self as a synthesis between temporality/eternality, possibility/necessity, and finitude/infinitude. When an imbalance occurs within this synthesis, the self is in despair. Space constraints restrict me from even briefly elaborating on that, but the point is that this sickness occurs from focusing on one aspect of the synthesis in neglect of the other (the concept of God is intertwined in the balance of the two). This despair is also universal according to Kierkegaard.

A couple of ways that people neglect one side of the synthesis is in the life philosophies of hedonism and materialism. A focus on pleasure, happiness, wealth, honour, luxury and all of that is self-defeating. A pursuit of physical pleasure only restricts the well-being of the soul, which Kierkegaard fancifully expressed when he said: "Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it." Jesus exposed the inadequacy of focusing on temporal possessions by saying "For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself" (Luke 9:25, also check out Luke 8:14 and Luke 12:15). Nevertheless, we are often infixiated with the attainment of temporary pleasure and amassing of material possessions.

Another sign of despair is the obsession with the opposite value, that of possibility, eternity, and infinity. A life lived in possibility is one without actuality, and a life without actuality is one where the life is lived in prudence and without risk. Without the "courage to be", if you will. Kierkegaard had this to say about venturing:

The world thinks it is dangerous to venture in this way, and why? Because one might lose; the prudent thing is not to venture. And yet by not venturing and which, whatever you lost, you will in any case never lose in this way, so easily, so completely, as though it were nothing - oneself. For if I have ventured wrongly, very well, life then helps me with its penalty. But if I haven't ventured at all, who helps me then? And when, into the bargain, by not venturing at all in the highest sense (and to venture in the highest sense is precisely to become aware of oneself) I cravenly gain all earthly advantages, and lose myself!


So we have a world in which everybody is living in despair, with a spiritual sickness that has resulted from the anxiety of freedom and an imbalance within the self's synthesis. The question must be asked: How can God punish us for this, and why are we morally responsible for not living as authentically as possible? The jump from despair to sin for Kierkegaard is made with the self's knowledge of a God. Sin becomes "before God, or with the conception of God, in despair not wanting to be oneself, or wanting in despair to be oneself". Sin is knowing that recourse to this sickness can be found in the words of Jesus, but not accepting it. This is why Jesus said that those who have not heard his words have a cloak for their sin (John 15:22-25). I believe Kierkegaard has a solid definition of sin, and will be useful in interpreting Jesus' solution to the sickness later on.

This has in no way meant to be thorough or conclusive, but only a first step in completing the diagnosis of the modern ages spiritual sickness. For further reading see "The Sickness unto death" by Kierkegaard, The Gospels (especially matthew and luke), and "The Courage to Be" by Paul Tillich.

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