D. Anthony Storm's Commentary on Kierkegaard

Fifth Period: Direct Communication (1848-51)

An Upbuilding Discourse

  • An Upbuilding Discourse
  • En opbyggelig Tale
  • 1850
  • KW18, SKS12, SV12

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.

Many of the discourses share this same dedication:

To the late Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard formerly a clothing merchant here in the city, my father, these discourses are dedicated.

This discourse is entitled "The Woman that was a Sinner", and is based on Luke 7.37ff. It also has the same preface as other discourses. In addition, one of the Three Discourses at the Communion on Fridays is based on this story.

Kierkegaard has never been known to express a feminist approach. In that regard he was a child of his time. Yet in this discourse he insists that this woman caught in adultery is a teacher.

That a woman is presented as a teacher, as a pattern of piety, can astonish no one who knows piety, can astonish no one who knows that piety or godliness is in its very nature a womanly quality. If women are to "keep silent in the Churches" and to that extent are not to teach—well, that means precisely to keep silent before God, and precisely this belongs essentially to true godliness, and this also thou must be able to learn from a woman.... From a woman thou dost learn the hushed, profound, God-fearing sorrow which is silent before God, from Mary; for it is true that the sword pierced through her heart, as was prophesied, but she was not in despair, either at the prophecy, or at its coming to pass. From a woman thou dost learn concern for one thing needful, from Mary the sister of Lazarus, who sat silent at the feet of Christ, with her heart's choice, the one thing needful. So canst thou also learn from a woman the right sort of sorrow for sin, from the woman that was a sinner, from her whose many sins, long, long ago, not only passed into oblivion but were forgotten, but who herself eternally became unforgettable (p. 261).

The woman's traditional role was silence. Kierkegaard advocates the same thing for everyone before God. In a footnote to this passage, Walter Lowrie reminds us that there is great significance in the statement that the woman's sins were "forgotten", because Kierkegaard had undergone a great religious reawakening in 1848, when he realized that his sins were both forgiven and forgotten.

Let it be granted that man has more seriousness with respect to thought, yet with respect to feeling, passion, decision, with respect to not creating an obstacle to oneself and the decision by thoughts, proposals, resolutions, with respect to not deceiving oneself by coming quite close to decision but without coming to a decision, in these respects woman has more seriousness; but, in fact, decision (especially in a godly sense, and more especially in relation to sorrow for sin) is precisely what seriousness means (p. 262).

Since Kierkegaard was extremely critical of philosophical speculation, and repeatedly asserted the necessity of passion in one's faith-decision toward God, he is not in any way denigrating woman by saying that men are more serious with respect to thought. Man's thought creates many obstacles. It possesses a great tendency for evasiveness. Woman is more single of mind and heart. This is high praise indeed coming from the author of Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.

Kierkegaard then proposes the main theme of the discourse.

First, we can learn to become, like her, indifferent to everything else, in absolute sorrow for our sins, yet in such a way that one thing is important to us, and absolutely important: to find forgiveness (p. 262).

Kierkegaard asserts that sorrow for sin is rare. Regrets are common, even for a man to be haunted by his actions; but single-mindedness in sorrow over sins is rare. But as in Purity of Heart, we must will one thing: forgiveness. Sorrow over sins is rare. But the unrelenting searching for forgiveness is rare too. To some extent Kierkegaard returns to some of the concerns of The Sickness Unto Death. There are those who are unaware of the singleness of their despair, who think that they have several anxieties, when in fact they should merely sorrow over their sins.

And the sinful woman had become indifferent to everything, to everything temporal, earthly, worldly, to pride, honor, prosperity, the future, kindred, friends, man's judgment; and all other cares, whatever name they may have, she could have borne lightly, almost as nothing, for she was concerned absolutely about one thing, her sin (p. 265).

Kierkegaard says that even concern for others and the excuse that one cares for others can provide a reason to avoid the one necessity: to sorrow for one's sins and seek forgiveness. Kierkegaard is determined to maintain that God has dealings only with individuals. Our concern over our sins and forgiveness is not selfishness, though it involves the self. However, it involves a full surrender to God, and this can only be done if one consciously and wholly gives one's full self to God. This cannot be done without self-involvement. This woman was so intent on forgiveness, that she did not care that there were party-goers and religious people present. In fact she uses a festive occasion to weep for her sins. Moreover, Kierkegaard says that her true repentance involved not trying to do anything to earn forgiveness. She did not talk or engage the company in any way. She did not plead or offer to perform any service. Then Christ tells a parable about two debtors, one of whom owed more than the other.

Then she hears Him say, "Her sins, which are many, are forgiven"—that she hears. He says even more. He goes on to say, "because she loved much". I assume that this last word she did not hear at all; it perhaps might have troubled her that there was a "because," and as applied to her it might perhaps have alarmed her to hear itself praised thus. Hence I assume that she did not hear it, or perhaps she heard it but heard amiss, so that she thought He said, "because He loved much," so that what was said had reference to His infinite love, that because it was so infinite, therefore, her many sins were forgiven her, which she could so perfectly well understand, for it was as if she herself had said it (p. 268).

Kierkegaard emphasizes again that she did nothing at all. He closes with a word of encouragement. The woman who was a sinner received the forgiveness of Christ before the atonement. We, who live after the crucifixion, can more easily believe because we know that He gave His life for us. His actions have spoken to us.