One of my favorite TV shows of all time (although now, sadly, it is showing signs of age) is “The Prisoner.” Patrick McGoohan is one of Britain’s top-secret agents who unexpectedly resigns. He slams his fist down on his boss’ desk, storms out of the building and goes home to pack in order to leave the country. As he is packing, he is abducted and taken to “The Village.” The Village looks almost like a resort where everyone seems free enough; but make no mistake, it is a prison, and his keepers want information. But who are his keepers? And whose side are they on? No one is willing to say. Interestingly, there are no names in The Village, only numbers. McGoohan is Number Six. The warden is Number Two. The show always begins with the same dialogue:
Number 6: “Where am I? Number 2: “In The Village.”
Number 6: “What do you want?” Number 2: “Information.”
Number 6: “Whose side are you on?” Number 2: “That would be telling. We want information.
Number 6: “You won’t get it!” Number 2: “By hook or by crook, we will.”
Number 6: “Who are you?” Number 2: “The new Number 2.”
Number 6: “Who is Number 1?” Number 2: “You are Number 6.”
Number 6: “I am not a number! I AM A FREE MAN!” Number 2: [Laughter]
As I said, it is dated; but at the time it was cutting-edge stuff. In fact, one episode (“Living in Harmony”) was banned from airing in the US because its theme was considered too subversive. It was a great show, but by now, I am sure you are also seeking information, like, why in the world are we talking about a long-dead series? There are two answers. First, because while the series is long past its prime, the questions with which it dealt still live on; themes like “Who are we?” What does it mean to be a person?” and “What does it mean to be free?” The second reason may be a bit weak, but I am willing to bet big money that Kierkegaard would have loved, “The Prisoner”!
You can call Kierkegaard a philosopher. You can call him a theologian. You can even call him a social critic, but most people today believe that Kierkegaard’s great contribution revolved around what it meant to be human, and as a result, most people believe Kierkegaard was more of a psychologist, than anything else. We are looking at Mark Tietjen’s excellent book, Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians (IVP Academic, 2016); and today, we want to look at Kierkegaard’s view of the self. And this is no small matter because, out of our understanding of the self, flows everything else. Let me prove my point. Here are four different takes on the question at hand. Consider each one and then think of how each would define the good life.
Aristotle: Humans are rational animals
Descartes: Humans are thinking creatures (“I think, therefore, I am.”)
Judeo-Christian: Humans are made in the image of God.
Sartre: Humans are a cosmic accident (“Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance.”)
I think you will agree that if we followed each of these four to their proper conclusion, you would arrive at four very different perspectives. If we are animals, the good life is whatever feels good. If we are thinking beings, the good life is whatever we think it should be. If we are made in the image of God, the good life is what God says it should be. And if we are a cosmic accident, then the good life is anything you want it to be. Bottom line: Our view of who we are shapes everything and being able to answer the question, “What does it mean to be human?” is of paramount importance.
So, how would Kierkegaard define the human self? Based on everything we know about Kierkegaard so far in this series, it should be clear that, as a Christ follower, Kierkegaard would want to argue that since God created humanity in his own image, we are all marked with dignity and infinite worth. Now, that sounds great, but there is a dark shadow here. Let me point it out with a question: What attribute of God do we see most clearly in God’s creation? Most people would argue that creation reveals the power of God. Think about it. God spoke, and it was so. That’s power. God called it into existence, and it became. That’s power. God decreed, and it happened. That’s power. For most people, creation reveals God’s power. But Kierkegaard would disagree. Yes, God could have chosen to create humanity as an expression of his power, but he didn’t. Instead, God creates humanity out of a deep love. And that, as they say, changes everything, or at least it changes five things (I’ll enumerate them to make them stand out).
(1) If God created us out of love, then no matter what else we say about the human self, we must say that we were made for relationships. In fact, at the moment of our creation, we immediately find ourselves in a relationship with God, just as, at the moment of birth, a child is immediately placed in a relationship with his or her parents.
(2) And just as the newborn has no say in his or her new relationship(s), so we also have no say. We are automatically related to God whether we like it or not.
(3) And just as there are certain expectations placed on a new child coming into a family, so too, are there expectations placed on us as humans made in God’s image. But again, these expectations are not rooted in ought and obligation (they are not demands placed on us by our all-powerful creator), but instead they are rooted in God’s love (if that is hard to grasp, think of the difference between the expectations of an employer for an employee and the expectation of a mother for her firstborn). Kierkegaard writes:
“Omnipotence does not require anything [of humans]; it never occurs to omnipotence that a human being is anything other than nothing. . . . But the loving God, who in incomprehensible love, made you something for him, lovingly requires something of you.”
And what is the goal of God’s expectations for us?
(4) Simply this: that we become the very best person we could be (the same as the expectation a mom has for her newborn daughter). The goal of humanity, then, is for us to become truly ourselves (or perhaps, better said, to become truly human, which is to say, to be truly human in a loving relationship with God). And how do we become the best version of ourselves we can be? Our fallen selves want us to believe that we become our true selves by doing whatever our hearts want. But Kierkegaard will not buy such silliness. As creatures made by a loving God, we are not autonomous beings subject ultimately to ourselves.
(5) Instead, we are made not only to relate to God, but to follow in God’s way. And we are to do so, not out of ought or obligation or fear or dread (“Oh, be careful little hands what you do, for the Father up above, is ready to pounce and shove. . . .”), but instead we follow God out of love. See, we are not our own. We have been bought with a price: God’s love. We are creations of a loving God who desires only what is best for us and delights in us when we pursue a relationship with him, a relationship that transforms us into the very best version of ourselves we could imagine.
So, who are we? Are we merely numbers in a vast universe? Are we prisoners trapped in a world where sin and death and meaningless rule over us? Are we eternally lost, fighting against an unknown enemy who is bent on our submission? Kierkegaard would deny all of these assertions, holding fast to the belief that the God who has placed us in this world, in spite of our worst fears, is actually a God of love and is (actually) on our side and is engaged in a work, not to enslave us or to break us, but to free us. But if you want information on the topic of human freedom, you won’t get it from me, by hook or by crook. That’s reserved for next week!
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 one great Kierkegaard quote to ponder.
- How important do you think it is to know who we are—to have a definition of the human self that answers your deepest questions about our identity as a human—or is such a definition only “philosophical?”
- When you think of God’s creation, especially God’s creation of humans, do you tend to think of it in terms of God’s power or God’s love? Do you think it makes that big of a difference?
- What does it mean for your spiritual life that God has lovingly created you?
- What significance is there in knowing that we were made for relationships? How should that shape us? How should that shape how we do church?
- Kierkegaard will argue that “God has expectations for each one of us by virtue of our creation.” What impact does such a statement have on you?
- What would be required of you if you set out today to become the best version of yourself?
- What elements would you want to include in your definition of the human self?
And last, three Kierkegaard quotes to ponder. First:
“The most common form of despair is not being who you are.”
“If you want to be loathsome to God, just run with the herd.”
“Face the facts of being what you are, for that is what changes what you are.”
More on the human “self” next week. Thanks for reading.