Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.

Reading Kierkegaard after Christchurch


Collectively, globally, humanly, we are experiencing a heightened awareness of our despair. I, along with millions of others, was rendered speechless with horror and lamentation. Fifty (so far) Muslim worshippers murdered and countless others injured by a white supremacist, a white man who has exchanged his humanity for the desolation of the inhumane. On the other side of the earth, I despair, but nothing like those who have suffered this attack, who have lost loved ones in this murderous spree. I do not know that actual despair, myself. I can only lament as I can in solidarity with the mourners.

Kierkegaard says that the possibility to despair sets all of us apart from the animal world. It is an advantage. Humanity is distinct to have the capacity and ability to experience despair, because despair requires a kind of self and self-relation and the self is spirit. To have the possibility of despair, to understand despair “in the abstract”, writes Kierkegaard, is “a merit” to us. Animals, as far as we know, do not have that capacity, that merit. I would add that our possibility to despair so much is partly because the animal world does not have the capacity for human cruelty and human hate and human destruction. Animals don’t have the capacity for the cruelty of the murderer and his kind.

The possibility of despair is luxuriously abstract. Yes, let us understand ourselves in safety and reading The Sickness Unto Death in a comfortable chair, enjoying a quiet moment with tea on a rainy morning. Let us enjoy the merit of our possibility to despair and reflect upon it, ourselves. Let us even put down our book and thoughtfully stare out the rain-streaked window and think about such things. Our wet window is so far away, so possibly different from the mosque windows smashed by terrified worshipers seeking escape from a murderous white supremacist.

Kierkegaard writes that to be in actual despair is “the greatest misfortune and misery”. He calls it, in a word, “ruin”. The actuality of despair is very real and very apparent right now, especially because of our interconnected, online world. In Christchurch, we see and hear ruin. We lament over the ruin we cannot imagine, but a ruin that is very, very real, right before our eyes. Because of a white man’s hate, lives are ruined. Each of us experiences our own despair, but to witness such hatred and experience such despair on such a horrific scale is impossible to fathom. In relating to ourselves and each other, we discern our insufficiency to comprehend and handle such events, such reflection with ourselves and others.

Despair is not misfortune (though to be in despair is to be in the greatest misfortune and misery). Despair is an imbalance in the relation of the spirit, of the self, to itself. “Despair is an aspect of the spirit”. It is something of the eternal, because the self is eternal. Thus, it is timeless, it is outside of time, as is the possible. One cannot be rid of despair anymore than one can be rid of oneself. And yet, the possibility of despair and the actuality of despair come together in the horror of murders in the mosques. Even to write philosophically, to write philosophically about this cruelty seems clinically disinterested – when, in truth, we must remain painfully interested, because it is about our humanity, ourselves.

In all of this, is important to realize and understand that Kierkegaard is writing in mid-nineteenth century Denmark, within a particular understanding of Christianity. He is writing out of his Christian experience and context, over against the Danish State Church, the Copenhagen bourgeoisie, and Hegelian philosophy. He is writing to a very particular, small audience compared to who read him today. When Kierkegaard delineates the various kinds and categories of despair, he is writing with the goal of explaining despair in Christian and non-Christian terms.

It is necessary to say that because the horror and despair of Christchurch can only be read so far within Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard is ultimately writing about a qualitative distinction about Christian despair, a despair that does not consider a religiously-pluralistic world. He is writing for comfortable Danish Christians who refuse to acknowledge or are ignorant of the ultimate agony of life. And existentialists like Camus took what they liked from what they read of Kierkegaard and took it their own very valid and useful directions.

Reading Kierkegaard in a religiously-pluralistic world has real and important limits. Kierkegaard is writing ultimately about despair within and in relation to the Christian. Kierkegaard, writing about his own religion’s, his Christianity’s relationship to despair ultimately cannot write about Muslim despair because he is writing ultimately about the qualitative relationship of despairing individual to the Christian understanding of God. When he writes in this section that the Christian has advantage over “natural man” it is because of the particular kind of awareness of despair. “To be cured of despair is the Christian’s blessedness.” The Christian is blessed because of the Christian’s relation to despair in relation to the “power” that grounds the relation of the self to itself. Kierkegaard is writing within a particular understanding of relating.

But how shall the Christian act in relation to the despair of their Islamic neighbor? In humility and lovingkindness as however it is desired and desires to be received. Be there for them in their despair, for despair is eternal and universal, no matter how we understand its origin or solution. How shall the Christian act toward other Christians? As Najeeba Syeed urges, talk to them about Islamophobia. It is a primary responsibility of each Christian in relation to themselves, the world, and their God to fight hate against one’s neighbor – especially Islamophobia. To do otherwise is to inflict more and perpetuate despair upon individuals. White supremacy, as I will argue later, is its own kind of despair, but it is a kind of despair that is packed into the despair that is an aspect of Christendom.

I had struggled to write about this section, “The Possibility and Actuality of Despair”. I didn’t know how to tackle Kierkegaard’s argument about the Christian’s understanding of despair in respect to the non-Christian’s. Christchurch made it all the more important to write about despair, our collective despair, but almost as importantly, I was pushed to rethink and reframe despair. I was humbled to not delineate despair for others and to, instead, mourn alongside the actual despair with the ummah, with families, with individuals cut down as they worship Allah.

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By Burke
Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.


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