D. Anthony Storm's Commentary on Kierkegaard

Fifth Period: Direct Communication (1848-51)

The Lily Of The Field, The Bird Of The Air

  • The Lily of the Field, The Bird of the Air: Three Devotional Discourses
  • Lilien paa Marken og Fuglen under Himlen: Tre gudelige Taler
  • 1849
  • KW18, SKS11, SV11

Note: Princeton University Press has published this work in a volume entitled Without Authority. However, the page numbers cited here are keyed to Walter Lowrie's translation accompanying Christian Discourses, 1940, 1971.

Most of Kierkegaard's direct religious writings are called "discourses", as is this work. (See Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses for an overview of Kierkegaard's religious discourses). They are for upbuilding, but are "without authority". As in the description on "The Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle" (see Two Minor Ethical-Religious Essays), the apostle was in relation to the absolute, whereas he, a mere man (though certainly a genius), spoke with, and possessed, no authority—merely sagacity. Kierkegaard's unique plan of attack through his pseudonymous authorship had been to "wound from behind", which was part of his "godly deception". His philosophical works were meant to insinuate themselves into men's minds. His upbuilding discourses, on the other hand, accompanied the pseudonymous works, and formed a contrast to them by being direct and religious. They were, however—and are still—often neglected in favor of the philosophical works. This was a disappointment to Kierkegaard. For more on this see Kierkegaard's Authorial Method.

The Lily of the Field, The Bird of the Air was published on the same day as the second edition of Either/Or. Kierkegaard was hesitant to publish an esthetic work when he was in the midst of exclusively writing religious works. But as he needed the income, he thought it best to publish these religious works to accompany them. Like the three discourses that were published under the title Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, which accompanied Stages On Life's Way, these three discourses seem to coincide with Kierkegaard's three stages of life—also known as spheres of existence. The first discourse is in part on silence as communication, and specifically how the birds and lilies speak and are comprehended as opposed to how the poet speaks and is comprehended. The poet would naturally represent the esthetic stage. The second discourse is on obedience, which of course epitomizes the ethical stage. The last discourse is on joy, which is a transcendant quality—or, perhaps better put, a transcendant experience—and thus would suggest the religious sphere.

The three discourses take for their text the Gospel of Matthew. From the beginning of the first discourse Kierkegaard is anxious to convey to his reader that he is not writing of the beauties of nature from the standpoint of the poet, but as a religious writer. He considered his pseudonymous philosophical authorship to have been that of a poet. And the poet says, "I cannot understand the Gospel; between us there is a difference of language which would kill me if I could understand it" (p. 320).

For at bottom the poet's life is despair of being able to become the thing he wishes; and this despair begets 'the wish'. But the wish is the invention of disconsolateness. For it is true that the wish consoles for an instant, but upon closer inspection it is nevertheless evident that it does not console; and hence we say that the wish is the consolation which disconsolateness invents. Strange self-contradiction! Yes, but the poet himself is this same contradiction. The poet is the child of pain, whom the father calls son of joy. It is in pain that the wish arises in the poet; and this wish, this ardent wish, gladdens man's heart more than wine cheers it... (p. 320).

Kierkegaard dismisses any poetizing of the birds and lilies. Their function is to teach man. They teach us by their silence, that we are to be silent before God as well. From this silence we learn reverence, and are invited to fulfill the Scripture, "Seek ye first God's kingdom and his righteousness". In this realization the individual finds himself alone before God. One of Kierkegaard's main categories of is that of the individual as opposed to the "numeric masses". In this work especially, it is the individual alone before God.

...out there with the lilies and the birds thou dost sense that thou art before God, a fact which is generally so entirely forgotten in speech and conversation with other men. For when there are two of us only that talk together, not to say ten or more, it is so easily forgotten that thou and I, we two, or we ten, are before God. But the lily who is the teacher is profound. It does not enter into conversation with thee, it keeps silent, and by keeping silent it would signify to thee that thou art before God, that thou shouldst remember that thou art before God—that thou also in seriousness and truth mightest become silent before God (p. 328).

Kierkegaard returns to the theme of the poet.

For it is true that poet-speech is different exceedingly from common human speech, is so solemn that in comparison with common human speech it is almost like silence, but nevertheless it is not silence. Nor does the silence of the poet seek to be dumb, but on the contrary it seeks to express itself in speech...as a poet speaks. ...regret makes him eloquent....

The second discourse uses as its text "No man can serve two masters". Readers of Kierkegaard will find several of his familiar themes. He begins by positing an either/or.

There is an either/or: either God/or...the rest is indifferent. Whatsoever a man chooses, when he does not choose God, he has missed either/or, or he is in perdition with his either/or. So then: either God/ (p. 333).

Again he returns to the theme of the individual versus the masses.

But the smaller the number [of people] is, so much the less social, in the conventional sense, does this intercourse become; that is to say, the more cordial the intercourse becomes, so much the more does either/or begin to be the law for the relationship; and intercourse with God is in the deepest sense and absolutely non-social. Take merely the case of two lovers, a relationship which is also non-social.... But God who never dies is still closer to thee, infinitely closer, than two lovers are to one another....

What then does this either/or signify? what does God demand? For either/or is a demand—as indeed the lovers demand love when ones says to the other, Either/or. But God is not related to thee as a lover, neither art thou related to Him as a lover. The relationship is a different one: that of the creature to the Creator. What then does he demand by this either/or? He demands obedience, unconditional obedience (p.334f.).

The lilies and the birds obey God naturally. They do exactly what they were created to do without wavering. Since we have volition and intelligence—not to mention a divided and corrupt nature—we need to learn obedience. The lilies and birds are thus teachers of obedience by example. "In nature all is obedience, unconditional obedience" (p. 336f.).

The obedience of the lily and the bird are perfected in that they achieve their perfection at the very moment when their destruction begins. All of nature achieves a point of ripeness or perfection. After this moment begins the period of gradual decay. The lily and the bird submit to this process. The enjoyment of this brief moment of fruition is in a sense a very esthetic pleasure. Life is brief as are our joys. Much of the pleasure of life is lived in recollection: a former love, youth lost and so forth. But examined from a religious standpoint, the lily and the bird are obedient in that they conform to the design of their Maker. We too must yield to this design, but willingly.

[The lily's] coming into being becomes its destruction, indeed it seems as if it came into existence and became beautiful only to be destroyed—yet the obedient lily obediently submits to this, it knows that such is God's will, and it shoots up.... A man, or we men, in the situation of the lily would be in despair at the thought that coming into existence and destruction was one thing, and therefore would prevent ourselves by despair from becoming what we might become, though it were but for an instant. With the lily it is otherwise. It was absolutely obedient, hence it became itself in its beauty, it became actually its whole possibility, undisturbed, absolutely undisturbed by the thought that the same instant was its death. Oh, if as between lily and lily there were a difference in beauty, this lily must be accorded the prize; it had one beauty the more, that of being so beautiful in spite of the certainty of destruction at the same instant. And, verily, with destruction before its eyes, to have courage and faith to come into being in all its beauty—that only absolute obedience is capable of (p. 339f.).

In the esthetic view, the beauty of the flower in bloom and the ripeness of fruit are momentary, and that is beauty enough, even though the peak of beauty be followed by decay. But for spiritual beings like ourselves who are immortal, the submission to mortality and mortality itself are temporary and yield to immortality.

The incontrovertible obedience that the lilies and birds manifest is simplicity itself. And where there is simplicity, Kierkegaard argues, there is no possibility of deception.

But one thing there is which all Satan's cunning and all the snares of temptation cannot take by surprise, and that is simplicity. What Satan spies with keenness of sight as his prey (but what is never found in the lilies and the birds), what all temptation aims at, certain of its prey (but what is never found in the lilies and the birds)—is the ambiguous (p. 344).

Since obedience is required, and since ambiguity must be dispelled to grasp the object of obedience, proofs of God and of the tenets of faith must be rejected. As readers of Kierkegaard know, he rejected all apologetics as an affront to God and an excuse to make the existential leap of faith less of a leap, that is, to make the likelihood of the object of faith more probable. The simplicity of obedience is grounded in the simplicity of faith.

What then does the Gospel do? The Gospel, which is the wisdom of child-training, does not enter into strife with man about thoughts and words, in order to prove to him that this is so; the Gospel knows full well that it is not thus the thing is accomplished, that it is not as though a man first understands that it is so as it is said to be, and thereupon resolves unconditionally to obey, but conversely, that by obeying unconditionally a man first comes to understand that it is so as the Gospel says (p. 345f.).

Kierkegaard agreed with the theology of Anselm (1033-1109) who said Credo ut intelligam, "I believe so that I might understand". If one encounters a body of water, for example, one can examine the water first, and subject it to the scrutiny of science, or one can go down into the water and swim. Though the scientific method is essential in examining the artifacts of this world, the supernatural cannot be approached except by faith.

The third discourse is on joy. Kierkegaard resumes the theme of the momentariness of the lily and the bird. They obey God in their simplicity even though their existence is transitory. But they also rejoice.

Does not the whole creation groan under the corruption to which it was subjected against its will? It is all of it subjected to corruption! The stars, firmly as they are fixed in heaven, yea, even that which is fixed most firmly, shall none the less change place by falling, and that which never changed its place shall nevertheless one day change by toppling into the abyss; and all this world with all that is within it shall be changed as one changes a garment when it is put off, a prey to corruption!... This is the groan—for to be subjected to corruption is what a groan signifies: to be in confinement, in bondage, in prison. And the content of the groan is: Corruption, corruption!

And yet the lilies of the field and the birds of the air are unconditionally joyful... (p. 351f.).

This joy is achieved by being in the moment. The lily, if it knows that it will soon fade after it blooms, is joyful because it enjoys the present.

What is joy? or what is it to be joyful? It is to be present to oneself; but to be truly present to oneself is this thing of 'today', that is, this thing of being today, of truly being today. And in the same degree that it is more true that thou art today, in the same degree that thou art quite present to thyself in being today, in that very same degree is the baleful tomorrow non-existent for thee. Joy is the present tense, with the whole emphasis upon the present (p. 349f.).

Then let the heavens fall and the stars change their place in the overturning of all things, let the bird die and the lily fade—yet thy joy in worship outlives, and thou in thy joy dost outlive, even now today, every destruction (p. 355).