Who knew there were so many idioms about geese! You can be loose as a goose. You can cook someone’s goose. You can kill the goose that lays the golden egg. You can lay a goose egg. You can even be a silly goose. We all know that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, that a wild goose never lays a tame egg; and we know people who would never ever say boo to a goose. You can go on a wild goose chase. You can get goose bumps, and you can even get goosed (but we won’t go there). All that to say, geese are pretty cool. But that’s not just my opinion; Kierkegaard thought so, too.
We are looking at Mark Tietjen’s excellent book, Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians (IVP Academic, 2016). Specifically, we are looking at his chapter on “Christian Witness,” especially his conversation on indirect communication. Direct communication says it plainly. It seeks to pass on information. Indirect communication is evocative communication; it seeks to draw out of its audience some response or another. And for Kierkegaard, the best way (his favorite way), to be indirect was to tell a story—or maybe better, to tell a parable. And while there are many parables that are worthy of mention here, my top three favorite Kierkegaard parables concern geese. So today, instead of discussing Tietjen’s fourth chapter, let’s go on a wild goose chase.
Let’s entitle our first wild-goose chase, “The Call of the Wild Geese.” Here is Michael Frost’s retelling of the parable (And I am quoting here directly from Frost’s book, Exiles (2006, Hendrickson Publishers).
“Noticing that a flock of wild geese has settled on his property on their long flight south for the winter, Kierkegaard was intrigued when they didn’t fly on as the weather turned colder. In fact, this flock sheltered in his yard and waited out a relatively mild winter on his pond. At first, the Danish philosopher was delighted to have his own resident family of geese. Then, he was disturbed to notice how, with the onset of each subsequent winter, as other wild geese flew south, his geese would rankle and squawk and fuss among themselves. The honk of the wild geese flying overhead awakened within his geese some primal urge to fly, but they never did. Some flapped their big wings and took to the air briefly, but they returned and enjoyed the safety of the farm. Then, Kierkegaard reports, came a winter when the honking wild geese overhead raised no reaction at all from the land-bound flock. They pecked at the earth, oblivious to the call of the wild overhead.”
“Whoever has ears, let them hear.” Our second wild-goose chase is entitled, “The Taming of the Wild Goose.” Kierkegaard writes:
“Anyone who knows even a little bit about bird-life knows that there is a kind of understanding between wild geese and tame geese, regardless of how different they are. When the flight of the wild geese is heard in the air and there are tame geese down on the ground, the tame geese are instantly aware of it and, to a certain degree, they understand what it means; this is why they also start up, beat their wings, cry out and fly along the ground a piece in awkward, confused disorder—then, it is over.
There was once a wild goose. In the autumn, about the time for migration, it became aware of some tame geese. It became enamored of them, thought it a shame to fly away from them, and hoped to win them over so that they would decide to go along with him on the flight. To that end, it became involved with them in every possible way, tried to entice them to rise a little higher and then again, a little higher in their flight, that they might, if possible, accompany it in the flight, saved from the wretched, mediocre life of waddling around on the earth as respectable, tame geese.
In the beginning the tame geese thought it very entertaining and liked the wild goose. But soon they became tired of it, drove it away with sharp words, censured it as a visionary fool devoid of experience and wisdom. Alas, unfortunately, the wild goose had become so involved with the tame geese that they had gradually gained power over it, their opinion meant something to it—and summa summarum the wild goose finally became a tame goose.
In a certain sense there was something splendid about what the wild goose wanted, but it was, nevertheless, a mistake, for—this is the law—a tame goose never becomes a wild goose, but a wild goose can certainly become a tame goose. If what the wild goose did is to be commended in any way, it must, above all, unconditionally watch out for one thing—that it hold on to itself; as soon as it notices that the tame geese have any kind of power over it—then away, away in migratory flight. The law for genius is this: A tame goose never becomes a wild goose but, on the other hand, a wild goose can certainly become a tame goose—therefore, watch out!”
“Whoever has ears, let them hear.” Our last wild-goose chase is called, “The Tame Geese.” Kierkegaard writes:
“A certain flock of geese lived together in a barnyard with high walls around it. Because the corn was good and the barnyard was secure, these geese would
never take a risk.
One day a philosopher goose came among them. He was a very good philosopher, and every week they listened quietly and attentively to his learned discourses. ‘My fellow travelers on the way of life,’ he would say, ‘can you seriously imagine that this barnyard, with great high walls around it, is all there is to existence? I tell you, there is another and a greater world outside, a world of which we are only dimly aware. Our forefathers knew of this outside world—for did they not stretch their wings and fly across the trackless wastes of desert and ocean, of green valley and wooded hill? But alas, here we remain in this barnyard, our wings folded and tucked into our sides, as we are content to puddle in the mud, never lifting our eyes to the heavens which should be our home.’
The geese thought this was very fine lecturing. ‘How poetical,’ they thought. ‘How profoundly existential. What a flawless summary of the mystery of existence.’ Often the philosopher spoke of the advantages of flight, calling on the geese to be what they were. After all, they had wings, he pointed out. What were wings for, but to fly with? Often, he reflected on the beauty and the wonder of life outside the barnyard and the freedom of the skies. And every week, the geese were uplifted, inspired, moved by the philosopher’s message. They hung on his every word. They devoted hours, weeks, months to a thoroughgoing analysis and critical evaluation of his doctrines. They produced learned treatises on the ethical and spiritual implications of flight. All this they did. But one thing they never did. They did not fly! For the corn was good, and the barnyard was secure!”
“Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
En Garde with Kierkegaard
At the end of every post in this series, I want to drive home a few points by asking a few questions and giving you at least one great Kierkegaard quote to ponder.
- Parables are often meant to sting. What is the sting (the slap-in-the-face, the warning, or the rebuke) to you personally (and to the church) in the first parable, “The Call of the Wild Geese?”
- Where did the second parable, “The Taming of the Wild Goose,” challenge your faith?
- How is the third parable, “The Tame Geese” like our church services?
- Which of the three parables was your favorite? Why?
- Maybe some help would be helpful. In response to the first parable, “The Call of the Wild Geese,” Michael Frost writes:
“Some churches will still hear the wild honking; and their feathers will bristle, their heart will skip a beat, their lungs fill with air, ready for the long flight ahead of them. But their feet don’t leave the ground. They love to read about the Christian heroes who have forged new movements, addressed grand plans, planted new churches, fed the hungry, fought for justice, but they prefer the security of the farm. Sadly, some other Christians can’t even hear the call at all.”
What do you feel this parable is calling you to do?
6. As a further explanation to the second parable, “The Taming of the Wild Goose,” Kierkegaard wrote:
“It is true that the true Christian who is under the Spirit is as different from the ordinary man as the wild goose is from the tame goose. But Christianity does indeed specifically teach what a person can become in life. Consequently, there is hope here that a tame goose can become a wild goose. Therefore, remain with them, these tame geese, stay with them, occupied with only one thing—wanting to win them for the transformation—but for God in heaven’s sake watch out for one thing—as soon as you see that the tame geese begin to have power over you, away, away in migratory flight, so that it does not all end with you becoming like a tame goose, blissfully sunk in wretched mediocrity.”
What do you feel this parable is calling you to do? (Just an aside here, that last line — “blissfully sunk in wretched mediocrity” – sums up huge parts of my spiritual life.)
- Kierkegaard also added an explanation to the third parable, “The Tame Geese.” He wrote:
“So also with Christendom’s worship services. Man, too, has wings; wings that were intended to help him actually rise aloft. But we amuse ourselves in a quiet hour of Sunday daydreaming, and otherwise stay right where we are—and on Monday regard our good lives as a proof of God’s grace to get plump, fat, delicate, get layered with fat—that is, accumulate money, get to be somebody in the world, beget many children, be successful, etc. And those who actually become involved with God and who, therefore, are obliged to suffer, and have torments, troubles, and grief (it cannot be otherwise, nor is it, according to the New Testament)—of these we say: There is proof that they do not have the grace of God. And if someone reads this, he will say: This is delightful—and that’s the end of it. He will waddle home to his family, will remain or will strive with all his might to become plump, delicate, fat—but on Sunday the pastor will preach and he will listen—just exactly like the geese.”
Where are you like the geese in the parable, preferring to be “a hearer of the Word only” and never taking off to live out the challenge of the Gospel?
Bonus parable: (Unfortunately not about geese; but fortunately, about ducks, although I wonder if this might simply be a paraphrase or a retelling of one of our parables.)
“There was a little town of Ducks. Every Sunday the ducks waddle out of their houses and waddle down Main Street to their church. They waddle into the sanctuary and squat in their proper pews. The duck choir waddles in and takes its place, then the duck minister comes forward and opens the duck Bible (Ducks, like all other creatures on earth, seem to have their own special version of the Scriptures.) He reads to them: ‘Ducks! God has given you wings! With wings you can fly! With wings you can mount up and soar like eagles. No walls can confine you! No fences can hold you! You have wings. God has given you wings and you can fly like birds!’ All the ducks shouted ‘Amen!’ And then they all waddled home.”
And a quote from Kierkegaard to ponder:
“A mirror, it is true, has the feature that a person can see his image in it, but then one must stand still. If one hastily hurries by, one gets to see nothing.”