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Kierkegaard on suffering and guilt


To: Matthew M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Kierkegaard on suffering and guilt
Date: 2nd July 2010 13:57

Dear Matthew,

Thank you for your email of 21 June, with your essay for the Associate Award, entitled, ''Suffering and Guilt are essential to Religious existence'. Discuss.'

You have evidently made a valiant effort to grapple with Kierkegaard, and from the evidence of what you have written, to a considerable extent you have succeeded in getting 'inside' his philosophy and seen the phenomenon of religion in the way that Kierkegaard sees it.

However, although I can read this and see it as making sense in terms of Kierkegaard's three stages of the Aesthetic, the Ethical and the Religious, I don't feel the least bit persuaded. Making a persuasive case is the minimum you would have to do, whether you ultimately agree with Kierkegaard or not. (If you are critiquing or attacking an argument or a theory, you still need to make it *appear* persuasive, otherwise you simply lose the interest of the reader.)

In fact, I can't actually tell from your essay whether agree with Kierkegaard or not. It is OK to have an essay which is mostly expository. However, you at least need to flag the places where objections might be made, and indicate how the writer would respond to those objections.

Let's look at the question again. 'Suffering and guilt are essential to religious existence.' Are they? Is that what you think?

As it happens, this week I have been involved in launching a new project from the International Society for Philosophers, called ISFP Publishing. One of the books on our list (of four) is provocatively entitled, 'The Divine Inspiration of Porn and the Beginning of Sexual Metaphysics.' The author's thesis is that porn would not be porn without a sense of guilt and sin, and that the existence of guilt and sin prove the existence of God.

The Christian idea of 'Original Sin' and the notion that, whatever one does in this life, one cannot overcome the fact that we are all sinners, seems hardly to be a mere historical accident. As if, in another possible world, if the Bible had not included the story of Adam and Eve, religion would have developed in an entirely different way.

Why does the thought of the 'alternative Bible' sound so preposterous? Or does it? Maybe not. Maybe, one is just so used to the association of guilt and sin with religion that it is difficult to imagine this connection severed.

And yet, one certainly could imagine as explorers finding a hidden kingdom whose inhabitants worship their deity in an attitude of unrestricted joy. Their 'morals', such as they are, are lax by our standards but they still behave in an ethically respectful way to one another. They don't feel guilt, period. The Polynesian islanders, which Captain Cook came upon, appear to have been like this, although maybe that appearance was deceptive.

Why do these islanders appear to us as mere children? What do we see that they have missed? That's a question for Kierkegaard. The question isn't whether you can have 'some' conception of a 'deity' in the absence of suffering and guilt, but rather whether a human being who lacks this is fully 'grown up', from a religious perspective.

I think that to make your essay work effectively, you need to consider these kinds of questions, naive though they may seem to be from an existentialist/ Kierkegaardian perspective.

In other words, what I'm saying is that -- without writing tens or hundreds of thousands of words -- you need to find some way to make the transition from the Aesthetic to the Ethical and from the Ethical to the Religious compelling. Kierkegaard, as you note, is giving a kind of 'phenomenology' of human existence. But, in so doing, he is trying to construct a compelling argument. How does that argument work? How can he think that, by attending to his observations concerning these three forms of spheres of existence, we will be *compelled* to see the necessity of suffering and guilt for 'religion' that truly merits that name?

One of the things that you can do which would make Kierkegaard's case look stronger is to look at alternative ideas of what 'religion' is. One view which Kierkegaard argues against is the idea that what religion is essentially about is a 'belief' about something that happened in the past, a view which the Christianity of his day (and still in ours) seems to hold paramount importance.

Consider the idea that God has provided us with lots of great benefits, and has instructed us on how we should live. Therefore, we should show gratitude. That's what religious 'worship' is. Many people, possibly the majority of persons who call themselves 'religious', believe this. But according to Kierkegaard, they are all mistaken. Take a typical Church goer happily singing hymns on a Sunday morning. How would Kierkegaard show them that they'd got it all wrong?

All the best,