In Chapter 13 of the letter to the Romans, Paul starts by talking about our duty to abide by the rules of our society. (The same as Jesus’ principle of ‘render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s’.) In his list of examples, all the duties are stated as things or actions we owe; and therefore, he concludes with the admonition: Don’t live in debt. Then, as if that thought sparked a connection he hadn’t considered before, he pivots: Romans 13:8 Owe no one anything, unless to love one another: for he that loves another has fulfilled the law.
Paul continues by explaining this idea:
Romans 13:9-10 For, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not lust; and if there be any other commandment, it is summed up in this word, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
Love works no ill to its neighbour; love therefore [is the] whole law.
I like to think that, as Paul was trying to write the conclusion of the letter, this was a sudden flash of insight: The perfect summary of all the arguments he crafted throughout the letter, contrasting the saving power of Faith against the futility of seeking salvation in the Law. From this point on (Chapter 14 and 15) he expounds how we can apply this principle of Law-fulfilling Love within the Church.
If we look at this statement as the perfect summary, then it is little wonder how full it is with meaning. It is also little wonder that Søren Kierkegaard spends a whole Chapter of his Works of Love on this subject.
Give honor to whom honor is due
This is one of those debts we owe, according to Paul.
In the mid 1980’s I was working as an Antenna and Microwave Engineer. My love for Electromagnetics was growing stronger and I started earnestly studying the works of Oliver Heaviside (published from 1885 through 1912). It turns out that anyone that learned Maxwell’s equations in College, over the last century, most likely learned them the way Heaviside (not Maxwell) wrote them. (Although most students are not taught this.)
I am still in awe of Heaviside’s sheer mathematical genius. Clearly, God gifted him with an extraordinary intellect. And even though I could never compare to Heaviside in that department, I learned to think like him. Eventually, when I became a Professor at the University, I incorporated Heaviside’s way of thinking into my classes.
In the same sense, I am in awe of Kierkegaard’s depth of thinking, comprehension, and radical commitment to Christianity. This is why I often cite him in this blog.
This series I am starting today is based on the first half of Chapter III of Kierkegaard’s Works of Love. I will be quoting him from Hong and Hong’s translation in Kierkegaard’s Writings, Volume 16; Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
Give honor to whom honor is due applies, above all, to God
We cannot begin to talk about Love or the Law without first talking about God. That statement is probably self-evident. But Kierkegaard has a very specific reason to introduce this idea early on: When later he is going to describe Christian love between two people, he is going to point out that such a thing does not exist. He is going to insist that Love in the Christian sense must always involve three people. Between me and you stands the “middle term”, God. Our relationship is meaningless (insofar as being Christian Love) if it is me to you and you to me. It has to be me to God, you to God, and then through Him we can love each other.
It will take SK a while to get to that. Specially because it is a definition of the word love that is very different from the concept of (romantic) love in our society. Just think about the last rom com that presented love that way.
This difference between the way the world understands something and the way God intended it to be is not an easy thing to explain because both sides are using the same language, the same words, to reach different conclusions. At every step we are stymied by the difference in worldview… But more than that, we are stymied by the categorical difference between the two worldviews: One is finite, the other infinite.
You see, we can talk about all sorts of things in this world… And precisely because they are things, our conversation about them need not involve them – or rather, we need not be interacting with those things right now, just to talk about them. Our comprehension of them from past experience is sufficient.
Even if I am talking about another person, my experiences with that person suffice. That person need not be present for me to tell you about them. Or rather, I need not be talking to that person at the same time I am talking to you, for my description of our relationship to be accurate. If you want to verify my narrative, or are moved to go meet that person, after our conversation, you can go do that on your own.
The point is that, in such conversations, I stand separate from the subject of the conversation. In a sense, I can turn that subject into an object. It has no power to affect me or constrain me or influence me in anyway… right now. But that is because the things and even the people of this world are finite. But God is infinite. God is omnipresent.
I cannot talk about or even think about God without at the same time being in His presence. In fact, if I want to, for the sake of “objectivity”, separate myself from Him, I have to lie to myself. For such separation is impossible.
But why would I want to separate myself from God? Kierkegaard’s words in this regard, written in 1847 might as well have been written today:
“And now since people are so eager to be something, it is no wonder that however much they talk about God’s love they are reluctant to become really involved with him, because his requirement and his criterion reduce them to nothing.”
Acknowledging God is present, right here and now, ought to be a terrifying thought. Just imagine standing right next to a tree about to be hit with a 200,000-ampere lighting strike. Imagine standing on the other side of the five-foot thick concrete and steel container wall of a nuclear reactor. Imagine standing next to the One who created the Sun itself.
“Use one-tenth of the power that is granted to you; when you use it to the utmost, then turn your back upon God and compare yourself with other human beings—in a very short time you will be advanced among the people. But turn around, turn toward God, use the ten-tenths, if possible extort the most extreme emergency aid—and you will still be as nothing, at an infinite distance from having achieved something, in infinite debt!“
Compared to God, anything I have ever done, anything I have ever thought, everything I have ever desired… is as nothing.
The paradox of Faith
There is a paradox in the discussion above. Even though it is absolutely true – by the very definition of the word God – not everybody believes it. It is a paradox, because all sorts of people use the word God in conversation and debate and argument. Certainly, radical atheists do… And yet they do not see the meaninglessness of their arguments: because the God that they talk about is not God but a god constrained to be whatever they have defined it to be.
It is a paradox because the only way I can understand the importance of how I stand in relation to God is if I believe in Him. That is, if I am already, consciously, willingly, standing before Him.
We are faced with the most important Truth in the universe, and it is incommunicable. Jesus faced this problem squarely:
John 6:43-45 43 Jesus therefore answered and said to them, Murmur not among yourselves. No one can come to me except the Father who has sent me draw him, and I will raise him up in the last day. It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God. Every one that has heard from the Father [himself], and has learned [of him], comes to me…
You have to have heard from the Father already in order to recognize His words from Jesus’ lips.
John 7: 14-17 But when it was now the middle of the feast, Jesus went up into the temple and taught. The Jews therefore wondered, saying, How knows this [man] letters, having never learned? Jesus therefore answered them and said, My doctrine is not mine, but [that] of him that has sent me. If any one desire to practise his will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is of God, or [that] I speak from myself.
You have to want to do God’s will, already, in order to recognize the Truth that comes from Him.
John 8:43-47 Why do ye not know my speech? Because ye cannot hear my word. Ye are of the devil, as [your] father, and ye desire to do the lusts of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has not stood in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks falsehood, he speaks of what is his own; for he is a liar and its father: and because I speak the truth, ye do not believe me.
Which of you convinces me of sin? If I speak truth, why do ye not believe me? He that is of God hears the words of God: therefore ye hear [them] not, because ye are not of God.
You have to have chosen to belong to God in order to be able to come to Him.
John 10:8,14 All whoever came before me are thieves and robbers; but the sheep did not hear them… I am the good shepherd; and I know those that are mine, and am known of those that are mine…
Faith is a paradox. Impossible for man… but not impossible for God. Any human being who desires to practice God’s will, will hear His voice and learn the Truth from Him. The guarantee, the resolution of the paradox, is that the same God who knows my heart will act to bring it to pass. He has already proven He will do whatever it takes.
In the same sense, the disciples’ work is a paradox too. Preaching the Gospel is a paradox because I am called to do it, I am called to speak the words, I must tell you that God loves you and wants you in His family forever, but if you, my listener, have not taken the step already to open your heart to the voice of the Father – who has been speaking since the Beginning – those words will have no effect.
As SK says it:
“This is why one can say that in a certain sense it does not help to speak to a person about the highest, because an entirely different revolution – than any talking can produce – must take place.”
But even if we are not understood we can still warn
Knowing that the odds are against us, knowing that the competing and opposing voice of the world is persistent and overwhelming, is immaterial. We are called to proclaim the Gospel and honestly tell the world the Truth; even if it is by “reverse psychology”:
If you want to be someone great in the world… go ahead and turn your back on God.
“In other words, if you want to be well off and yet easily manage to become something, then forget God, never let yourself really become aware, never let it become really clear to you that it is he who has created you from nothing; proceed on the presupposition that a human being does not have time to waste on keeping in mind the one to whom he infinitely and unconditionally owes everything.
But one is never entitled to ask another about that; so forget it and be noisy along with the crowd, laugh or cry, be busy from morning until night, be loved and respected and esteemed as a friend, as a public official, as a king, as a pallbearer. Above all, be an earnest person by having forgotten the one and only earnestness: to relate yourself to God, to become nothing.”
Isn’t this what Jesus called His disciples to understand?
Matthew 10:37-39 He who loves father or mother above me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter above me is not worthy of me. And he who does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. He that finds his life shall lose it, and he who has lost his life for my sake shall find it.
This is why Jesus told His disciples, more than once, to count the cost. SK goes on, expressing the same truth, knowing full well that, as Paul said, it will sound foolish to the world. Again: The fact is that if you want to keep and grow your life in the world, there is one guaranteed route: turn your back on God… because the alternative is to become nothing before God.
“Oh, but then keep in mind—yet it does not help to talk—but would to God that you might understand what you lost: that this annihilation before God is so blessed that you at every moment would seek to return to this annihilation more intensely, more warmly, more fervently than the blood returns to the place from which it was forcibly expelled.
But to worldly wisdom this, of course, is and must be the greatest foolishness.
Therefore never hold fast to God (we must indeed speak this way if we want to express plainly the secret of the halfheartedness that with false words pretends that it, too, holds fast to God), “never hold fast to God, because by holding fast to him you lose what no one who holds fast to the world ever lost, not even the person who lost the most—you lose unconditionally everything.”
This is indeed true, inasmuch as the world cannot take everything, simply because it cannot give everything. That can be done only by God, who takes everything, everything, everything—in order to give everything—who does not piecemeal take little or much or exceedingly much but takes infinitely everything if you truly hold fast to him. “Therefore, flee from him. Even to approach a king, if you want to be something, can be dangerous enough, and the proximity of a powerfully endowed intellect is dangerous, but it is infinitely more dangerous to draw near to God.”“