D. Anthony Storm's Commentary on Kierkegaard

Fifth Period: Direct Communication (1848-51)

For Self-Examination

  • For Self-Examination: Recommended to the Present Age
  • Til Selvprøvelse. Samtiden Anbefalet
  • 1851
  • KW21, SKS13, SV12

This work and Judge For Yourself! are very direct and approachable, and were published under Kierkegaard's own name. One can see how he became less concerned with philosophical and esthetic issues and more singular of intent toward the religious. Moreover, the book begins with a prayer that he may "win men" for God. But, he says, he speaks "without authority". This expression, which he used elsewhere, implies that he does not write with the authority of scripture or of one who is inspired. After his Practice in Christianity, which was directed to the church—actually to re-introduce Christianity into Christendom, he returns to the theme of the inward and personal, that is, to the individual before God. In the preface, he recommends that these works be read aloud. The subtitle of this work, "Recommended to the Present Age", refers to Kierkegaard's view of his own time period contrasted with the previous (revolutionary) age (see Two Ages). In short, the present age is reflective, but lacks passion. By reflective, Kierkegaard did not only mean knowledgeable, but self-referential, and hence inert.

The three sections comprise a sort of trinity, since the first part is entitled "What is Required in Order to Look at Oneself with True Blessing in the Mirror of the Word?" and the two following sections are on Christ and the Holy Spirit respectively. In part one, Kierkegaard wants his reader to be referential to God. Here the reflective is precipitated by God toward the self so that the self may direct itself toward God. Kierkegaard's emphasis on the individual is not egoistic philosophy. Rather, only individuals are accountable before God, not nations or corporations, etc.—though surely people who hold power in those institutions are to be judged. This is based on James 1.22ff., and the focus is on the written Word of God.

The first requirement is that you must not look at the mirror, observe the mirror, but must see yourself in the mirror.... The second requirement is that in order to see yourself in the mirror when you read God's Word you must (so that you actually do come to see yourself in the mirror) remember to say to yourself incessantly: It is I to whom it is speaking; it is I to whom it is speaking.... Finally, if you want to look at yourself in the mirror with true blessing, you must not promptly forget how you looked, you must not be the forgetful hearer (or reader) of whom the apostle says: He looked at his bodily face in a mirror but promptly forgot how he looked (p. 25, 35, 44).

Part two is entitled "Christ is the Way". Kierkegaard uses the ascension narrative in the Acts of the Apostles as his text. He begins by addressing the narrowness of the way. This was a theme he would pursue again when he attacked "official Christianity", since the Danish (Lutheran) Church considered all Danes to be Christians by birth, and thereby making the narrow path as broad as possible. Kierkegaard addresses the life of Christ, that it was narrow from the beginning.

And this way, which is Christ, this narrow way—it is narrow in its beginning. He is born in poverty and wretchedness.... The way is narrow from the very beginning, for he knew his fate in advance from the very beginning!... And this way, which is Christ, this narrow way, as it goes on, becomes narrower and narrower to the end, to death.... Then he is nailed to the cross—then just one more sigh and it is over. One more sigh, the deepest, the most terrifying My God, my God, why have you forsaken me! This humiliation is the last of the suffering.... And he, he had claimed to be the only begotten Son of the Father, one with the Father. —One with the Father, but if they are one, how then can the Father forsake him at any moment! And yet he says: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me! Thus it was not true that he was one with the Father. Oh, what extremity of superhuman suffering! Oh, a human heart would have burst a little sooner—only the God-man must suffer all through this final suffering. —Then he dies. Do remember, my listener, what we said at the beginning. This way is narrow—is it not true? But we go on, and Christ is the way. Christ is the way: he climbs the mountain, a cloud takes him from the disciples' sight; he ascends into heaven—and he is the way! (p. 58f., 64f.).

Kierkegaard also addressed the theme of narrowness in "The Gospel of Sufferings". One discourse is entitled "The Joy in the Thought that it is not the Way which is Narrow, but the Narrowness which is the Way" (see Upbuilding Discourses In Various Spirits). He proceeds to address the imitation of Christ and the element of doubt.

Yes, but who has doubted? I wonder, have any of those doubted whose lives bore the marks of imitation? I wonder, have any of those doubted who had forsaken all to follow Christ? I wonder, have any of those doubted who were marked by persecution—and when imitation is a given, this follows.... So some have doubted. But then there were some who sought to refute doubt with reasons. As a matter of fact, the connection was actually this: first of all they tried to demonstrate the truth of Christianity with reasons or by advancing reasons in relation to Christianity. And these reasons fostered doubt and doubt became the stronger. The demonstration of Christianity really lies in imitation. This was taken away. Then the need for "reasons" was felt, but these reasons, or that there are reasons, are already a kind of doubt—and thus doubt arose and lived on reasons. It was not observed that the more reasons one advances, the more one nourishes doubt and the stronger it becomes, that offering doubt reasons in order to kill it is just like offering the tasty food it likes best of all to a hungry monster one wishes to eliminate.... First of all go out and become an imitator of Christ in the stricter sense—only someone like that has the right to speak up—and none of these has doubted (p. 67f., 70).

The theme of doubt was already taken up in Philosophical Fragments, Concluding Unscientific Postscript and the unfinished Johannes Climacus.

Part three is called "It is the Spirit Who Gives Life". Kierkegaard uses the Pentecost scene in Acts of the Apostles as his text.

My listener, with regard to Christianity, there is nothing to which every person is by nature more inclined than to take it in vain. Neither is there anything that is at all Christian, not one single Christian qualification that by some slight modification, by removing some more specific middle term, does not become something entirely different, something about which one must say, "This has arisen in the heart of man"—and thus is taken in vain. On the other hand, there is nothing against which Christianity has protected itself with greater vigilance and zeal than against being taken in vain.... It is said that "Christianity is gentle comfort, is this doctrine of the grounds of gentle comfort." Well, it cannot be denied—that is, if you will first of all die, die to, but this is not so gentle!... God forbid that I should say anything else, but yet, yet—before this rest for the soul falls to your lot and in order that it can fall to your lot, it is required that you first of all die, die to (something the inviter also says, something his whole life on earth expressed every single day and every single hour of the day)—is this so inviting?

Likewise with this Christian teaching: It is the Spirit who gives life. To what feeling does a person cling more firmly than to the feeling of being alive; what does one crave more strongly and violently than really to feel life in oneself; from what does one shrink more than to die!... But before the Spirit who gives life can come, you must die to.... The Spirit brings faith, the faith—that is, faith in the strictest sense of the word, this gift of the Holy Spirit—only after death has come in between. We human beings are not very precise with words; we often talk about faith when in the strictly Christian sense it is not faith.... Faith is against understanding; faith is on the other side of death. And when you died or died to yourself, to the world, then you also died to all immediacy in yourself, also to your understanding. It is when all confidence in yourself or in human support, and also in God in an immediate way, is extinct, when every probability is extinct, when it is dark as on a dark night—it is indeed death we are describing—then comes the life-giving Spirit and brings faith. This faith is stronger than the whole world; it has the power of eternity; it is the Spirit's gift from God, it is your victory over the world in which you more than conquer....

Finally the Spirit also brings love. Elsewhere [in Works of Love] I have tried to show what cannot be sufficiently stressed and never made clear enough, that what we extol under the name of love is self-love, and that the whole of Christianity becomes confused for us when we do not pay attention to this (p. 75f., 81ff.).

In sum, Kierkegaard's writing at this period is inward and subjective as it usually was, but is as direct as possible—so direct that he invites the reader to read aloud, so direct that he invites the reader to examine himself and let God change him.