Transcending Earthly Distinctions

I have been slowly working through Soren Kierkegaard’s treatise, Works of Love. The majority of the book examines the biblical mandate you shall love your neighbor. The book has been quite challenging to read. I say this not because it is Kierkegaard’s most difficult book to comprehend. No. For that, see The Concept of Anxiety. Works of Love is challenging for the personal depth of the individual. This challenge is not merely conceptual but rather ought to have a significant impact on how one operates and functions on a daily basis.

 

I came to a brief section of the book which discusses the distinctions made in what Kierkegaard calls “earthly love.” This form of love is not the type referred to in the biblical order to love thy neighbor. Earthly love, especially in the romantic sense, comes and goes (sometimes with ease). It is temporal. It fades. And, more importantly, earthly love is often founded on distinctions. Humanity lives, thrives, and operates (supposedly) well off formulated distinctions. These may result from differences among gender, race, social class, nationality, or lifestyle. While these distinctions seem to naturally form, they often subconsciously influence how one is capable of loving. Can one learn to love beyond these distinctions? Kierkegaard posits a affirmative response, but one must be able to transcend these earthly distinctions.

 

When the Bible teaches to love one’s neighbor, Kierkegaard asserts a love that is itself separate from the earthly love so prevalently seen in our daily routine. Eternal love is loving one’s neighbor in the imitation of the love God has for humanity. God loves all. God’s salvific plan is available to all. It has no prejudice, no segregation. It is unbiased and pure. This form of love teaches that “everyone shall lift (one)self above earthly distinctions.”[1] All people are equally called to transcend earthly distinctions. The poor must transcend the poorness. The rich shall transcend the richness. This does not negate their earthly situation; it simply maintains unity amongst people which society may stipulate are different.

 

The problem lies in one’s inability to lift oneself above earthly distinction. The poor compartmentalize themselves in their situation inasmuch as the rich. These temporal distinctions prohibit eternal love from properly manifesting amongst the earthly condition. This issue is not one which must be glanced through with haste. I posit that the ignorance of the point that Kierkegaard is making plays a significant role in the misunderstanding between different peoples. Whether it be race riots, gender wars, or even the much debated healthcare reform that currently has America embedded in its own constructed classes, the misunderstanding of different types of people stems from the enmeshment in earthly love. The rich man may never know what it is like to sleep one a park bench (a now illegal action in the city of Denver) inasmuch as the poor man may never know what it is like to drive an expensive car. Neither of these lifestyles is inherently wrong. But the lack of understanding between these two men still yet persists. What is dialog amongst Democrats and Republicans if neither attempts to understand the other side? Disagreement may still manifest, but a better comprehension and understanding of each other may catapult discussions. There exists in our world a severe lack of eternal love for one another. The rich’s neighbor is the other rich. The white man’s love is for those in his same social class. While hatred here may not be explicit, the implicit lack of eternal love reduces our ability to understand one another and therefore help one another. To what end are you capable and willing to transcend the earthly distinctions you operate by?

 

You shall love your neighbor.


[1] Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, trans. Howard and Edna Hong (New York: HarperPerennial, 2009), 83. Italic correction mine.

4 thoughts on “Transcending Earthly Distinctions

  1. colin says:

    Mike: This is the first chance I’ve had to see you interact with Kierkegaard and it really seems to make sense. I hope you’re able to pursue further Kierkegaard scholarship.

    I think his distinction between earthly and eternal love is appropriate, and as Christians this is something that we always need to be reminded of. For that, I thank you both. It is our tendency as fallen beings to focus too much on this earthly tent to the point that we become consumed with our differences. I think it was Chesterton who once said the problem with modern debates is that we always begin by stating what we disagree about. This is also true in too many of our relationships, conversations, and encounters with friends and acquaintances. Our focus is constantly on our differences. When we do this, we miss the most fundamental thing that all of humanity has in common: We all bear the image of our Creator. Perhaps this has caused too many (of whom I am worst of all) Christians to lose a genuine eternal love for their fellow man. We cannot do this if we take Jesus’ words seriously in John 13 and 17 especially.

    I do think it’s still appropriate to mention that “earthly distinctions” are God-given in the sense that we all have distinctly created physical characteristics, personalities, and talents. I’m no expert of the nature of our resurrected bodies, but I do believe we will still have distinctions. The difference is that we will no longer have to contend with our fallen natures, and we will finally be able to strike the balance between unity and diversity. Do you think Kierkegaard would agree with that hope, or would he desire that all distinctions are removed? What I’m getting at is that “eternal love” may actually embrace distinctions – not simply for the sake of diversity – but because God made us to be distinct from each other. That is why our nation’s unofficial motto, E Pluribus Unum is such a wonderful ideal we aspire to despite being an impossible one to live up to.

    A final thought that further complicates things is the relationship between people and ideas. I admittedly struggle with this given my interest in politics. While we are called to love all people (and Kierkegaard’s explanation of eternal love helps us understand what this should look like), we are not called to love all ideas. In fact, some ideas are so evil as to warrant hating them. That would not be a problem if ideas floated around in a Platonic sense. However, ideas are held by real flesh and blood people, so my struggle is constantly how to properly address a false or even evil idea in an appropriate way, without giving up on the concept and practice of eternal love for all people. Do you have any ideas on this?

    You are one of my most thoughtful friends, I always enjoy hearing your ideas.

  2. michaeldstark says:

    Colin,
    Thank you for your thoughtful response. I enjoy engaging with you in light of your expertise in history and political philosophy. You nailed it when you said that earthly distinctions are God-given. I do not disagree on this point and I don’t think SK would either. He focuses on the individual at large and is quite concerned with the subjective interpretations on life. Yet, while earthly distinctions come naturally and form existentially, they too often are used as barriers between people. SK would not want earthly distinctions removed for the sake of making all people similar. Rather, he wants to eliminate the hatred and lack of understanding that results from these distinctions. For a biblical example of this, look to the Pauline teaching of God’s love transcending the boundaries built between the Jews and the Gentiles. He never says “Don’t act like a Gentile.” He merely wants the two groupings to understand one another and be united in God’s church.

    In response to your question of ideas, especially in the political realm, I again find much agreement with you. Ideas have immediate and sometimes adverse effects on society. While you and I disagree on some of the political ideas being tossed around (or passed) in the last few years, we both would agree that these ideas have consequences (whether good or bad). I do firmly hold that all ideas must be studied, grappled with, and responded to. The goodness of the idea does not here matter. Goodness (or wickedness) of ideas can only be properly asserted after one studies the idea and its implications. I do not find it unacceptable that people hate something such socialism. What I find inappropriate is people attacking socialism (or some other political philosophy) without properly understanding it and understanding the point of view of the person positing the notion. The latter half of the conjunction here is important and correlates directly with what SK is trying to get across. Much conflict comes from misunderstanding (or a refusal to understand) another person’s reasoning for positing the idea.

  3. annaraysmasterkey says:

    Interesting thoughts on platforms for debate, I enjoyed Colin’s reference to Chesterton. The ‘He who shouts longest wins’ tactics of debate in our world are only one step away from ‘He who analyses longest’. Personally, I believe that true understanding of the dynamics of love as a measurable energy can only come through realising that the mind is the servant of the emotions, not the other way around. For example, malevolence is not an energy, it is lack of another energy – Malevolence has no volition of it’s own, but Love does. In other words, you can analyse how love works as an energy via your mind, but you can only comprehend it as a constant via your heart. The right tool for the right job – the mental level cannot feel, the emotional level cannot analyse. There are beggars and kings that understand this and thus they understand and respect each other’s choices. Vive la difference.

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