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Imaging Nothing: Kierkegaard and the Imago Dei

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Published: 10th Dec 2019

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Imaging Nothing: Kierkegaard and the Imago Dei


Whom should the struggler desire to resemble other than God? But if he himself is something or wants to be something, this something is sufficient to hinder the resemblance. Only when he himself becomes nothing, only then can God illuminate him so that he resembles God. However great he is, he cannot manifest God’s likeness; God can imprint himself in him only when he himself has become nothing. When the ocean is exerting all its power, that is precisely the time when it cannot reflect the image of heaven, and even the slightest motion blurs the image; but when it becomes still and deep, then the image of heaven sinks into its nothingness. – Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses


When articulating what makes the human being uniquely human, the Christian theological tradition, echoing Jewish and Muslim traditions, has turned most often to the language of “the image of God,” or imago dei. The classic text here is of course Genesis 1:27: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” This declaration occurs at the end of the first creation narrative in Genesis, and its purpose is to signal the uniqueness of the human being in relation to the rest of the created order. Unlike the fish of the sea or the birds of the air, unlike vegetable and plant life, unlike all other creatures that either creep upon the earth or soar in the heavens, the human being alone somehow images God.

Now, exactly how the human being images God, or what this image consists in, has never received a stable interpretation or consensus. In his commentary on Genesis, Claus Westermann catalogues no less than nine prominent interpretations of Genesis 1:27 over the centuries.[1] My aim here is not to sort through these options and determine their relative merits. I want simply to throw another option into the mix, one that arrives at a slant in relation to the mainstream theological tradition of reflecting on the uniqueness of the human being as that creature that images God.

Interestingly, Søren Kierkegaard does not turn to Genesis when he wants to develop a sustained discourse on the unique being of the human being. He turns rather to another biblical text in which the human being is situated amidst the created order, namely, Matthew 6:25-34, the central verses of which are the following:

Consider the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to your span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is and tomorrow is cast into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, Oh you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow…but seek first the kingdom and its righteousness…

Kierkegaard wrote three rounds of “upbuilding discourses” on this passage, one in 1847, one in 1848, and another in 1849. In what follows, I will turn primarily to the 1847 discourses. In the second of the three 1847 discourses, Kierkegaard does make allusion to Genesis 1:27 and offers a brief, and what I would call apophatic, interpretation of the imago dei. Because God is essentially invisible, unable to be captured or represented through any kind of positive image or concept, it follows, writes Kierkegaard, that “the image of what is invisible will itself be invisible.”[2] Imaging God, the human being images nothing, nothing visible, nothing that could stand out as a positive image or representation. The human being is called to be the invisible image of the invisible God.

Just what this means and how it relates to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, wholly visible phenomena, is my concern in what follows. To anticipate where I am going, I can say this: what the bird and the lily hold open to site for the human being is a mode of existing unstructured by anxiety, by concern for “tomorrow.” The bird and the lily live wholly for “today.” The bird takes flight and the lily blooms without temporal projects or concerns, entirely abandoned to the joy of existing today. In this, the bird and the lily are visible and external images of what the human being is to become invisibly and inwardly, namely, the site of an unconditional affirmation of existence. This is an affirmation that has no grounds and produces no results on what might be called the economic plane of human reality, that plane on which human beings calculate and store up capital and concern themselves with securing their lives through comparison, achievement, and identity. To image God, then, is to dispossess the self in such a way that it becomes nothing but the site of an unconditional affirmation of today, a today that does not project itself into tomorrow. The image of God is not a native or self-possessed capability that places the human being at the top of a hierarchically ordered creation. It has no positive or stable content. It is an act of dispossession, a becoming nothing, which is to become an open site where even the frailest and most insignificant of creatures, the lily for instance, receives an unconditional affirmation.

One note on Kierkegaard’s discourses before turning to them. The genre of these discourses is not direct theoretical reflection or argumentative reasoning. They take as their point of departure not a theoretical problematic but an existential difficulty, the difficulty of coming into contact with one’s own humanity. In the prayer that opens the 1849 discourses, Kierkegaard prays, “Father in heaven! In the company of others, and especially in a crowd, it is so hard to discover what it is to be a human being…May we therefore learn it from the lily and the bird.”[3] The logic and movement of the discourses is not so much argumentative or theoretical as it is therapeutic, a progressively deepening challenge to the illusions in which we entrap ourselves, illusions productive of anxieties that prevent us from embracing our humanity. This is why, ironically, the discourses ask us not to look first at ourselves to discover ourselves, so mired as we are in illusions about ourselves, but at the birds of the air and lilies of the field. This is also why anything I say in this paper can only be a kind of preface to undergoing the work of the discourses themselves, just as the discourses themselves are only a kind of preface to letting the birds and lilies become our teachers. The real work happens beyond text, “out there” with the birds and the lilies, in the silent intimacy of the heart.

The bulk of what I will say here will be a reading of the 1847 discourses, taking each in turn.[4] I will briefly turn to the 1849 to conclude. What is important to see is how the discourses are organized by a movement of progressive deepening. They begin playfully and gently in order make the reader feel welcome and understood, and then they take the reader ever more deeply into both the glory and the difficulty of being human.


The first of the three 1847 discourses is titled “Be Content with Being Human.” It begins by opening up a place of empathy for the reader who is in the midst of experiencing life’s sorrows and anxieties. Kierkegaard knows that the pain of life’s troubles is often exacerbated by well-meaning people who try to offer comfort or solidarity, and he also knows that in the midst of worry and concern an anxious person might not able or ready to receive comfort from even the most sensitive and empathic of persons. He writes, “The happy do not understand them, and when those who are strong offer comfort they seem precisely to place themselves far above them by doing so, while what other anxiety sufferers have to offer only depresses them further.”[5] Kierkegaard continues: “So if that’s how it is, then it’s best to look for other teachers who do not address us in such a way as to show they don’t understand, whose exhortations don’t contain some secret criticism, who do not look at us judgingly, and whose comfort does not serve more to stir us up than to calm us down.”[6]

The first discourse sends the anxious reader out from human company, out from the noise of human society, out into nature where the lilies of the field and the birds of the air can become confidants and teachers for the anxious. Kierkegaard writes, “In relation to these teachers, so cheap that they ask for neither money nor deference, no misunderstanding is possible, because they keep silent—out of consideration for the anxious…[their] silence honors anxiety and the anxious person.”[7] And how is it that the lilies and the birds become teachers to the anxious? They do so simply by offering themselves to human sight and consideration—first simply as lovely distractions from whatever troubles a person might bring with them, but then more profoundly as images of an existence unstructured by anxiety.

In particular, what the lilies and the birds are free of is the anxiety of comparison and anxiety over the future, two anxieties which turn out to be intimately related. Go out there among the common lilies of the field, Kierkegaard counsels, the wild lilies that no gardener has cultivated, and what you will see is that each lily stands there glorious and happy with itself, unconcerned about whether it is better or worse than the lilies it stands next to. And then turn your eyes from the earth to the heavens and notice the birds. Notice how they fly so joyfully, how they gather food for today but keep no stockpile for tomorrow, seemingly unaware that there even is a tomorrow.

The bird and the lily, Kierkegaard writes, “live without anticipating the future, unaware of time, in the moment.”[8] What this means is that these creatures live in relation to time and in relation to each other without “representation.”[9] The bird flies and gathers its food in a continuously existing present that it does not in turn re-present to itself by placing the present in relation to a recollected past and an anticipated future. The bird knows no recollected past or anticipated future. It knows only the instant of its present. Likewise, the singular lily standing in the field amidst thousands of other lilies does not have a representation of itself, an identity we might say, that would allow it to compare itself with other lilies and judge whether it as good or beautiful or clever as its field-mates. It stands sheerly in and as the presence that it is, a presence that is unmediated by any representation, by any abstraction from the present moment that would allow it exchange its “real needs” for “represented future needs.”[10] One could say that the bird and the lily belong immediately to the real. They simply are what they are without any possibility of being otherwise. They entrust themselves entirely to the precarity of their existence, without hesitation. They are entirely content to be creatures, content with their finitude. It is another matter with us human beings.

What Kierkegaard would have us notice about ourselves by way of noticing the lily and the bird is that everything we human beings do, think, and feel is mediated through a capacity for representation and therefore comparison. Whereas the lily and the bird belong to the present moment immediately, we human beings mediate the present moment to ourselves by bringing it in relation to a recollected past and an anticipated future. “The earthly person who looks to the future learns from time how to use time, and when their store is full of what has been gathered in the past so that they are well provided for in the present, then they go on to sow again for a future harvest so that they can again fill their store in time to come.[11] Human beings are capable of representing time to themselves, using time to create their own present, which means that they are capable of comparing one day to another, comparing past, present, and future. Such capacity for comparison and representation is the basis of our entire economic life. What are money and trade and credit and stock futures and insurance and mortgages but elaborate systems of representation and comparison?

What is crucial to see is how such comparisons, such representations, even though they concretely structure everything we do as human beings, operate at a remove from reality, as mediations of reality. The human being is a site in which representations of reality create a whole plane of existence that exceeds the immediately real, or that entangles the immediately real in a set of essentially unfounded comparisons, comparisons not necessitated by any “natural order of things.” One day is compared to the next, one person is compared to another, one thing to another thing. This, in turn, opens the possibility of dis-contentment and anxiety, which are modes of existing that wildly distort actual and real needs into fantasized and projected needs. And when this happens, when I live on the basis of a fantasied security or wholeness that I spend my days striving after, a sense of lack comes to permeate and drive existence. I come to live on the basis of what I perceive am not—not as good, not as popular, not as desirable, not as smart, not as successful, not as wealthy—rather than what I am. I in turn subjugate others and enlist them as objects in the futile project of my self-mediation. Only the human being can live with such a sense of discontentment and lack. Only the human being can entrap itself in its own representations, pealing itself away from its moment of existing and holding itself hostage by way of self-imposed fantasies of what it needs. (Parenthetically, all of this can be summed up in one word, namely, capitalism).

Kierkegaard’s discourse stages the tragi-comedy of living on the basis of represented lack by playfully imagining a lowly lily comparing itself to a crown imperial flower and a wild wood pigeon comparing itself to “tame doves” who are domesticated and well-fed by a farmer.[12] In each instance, the lack that is generated through comparison, which is “nothing real,[13] causes the creature to rush headlong into its own destruction. The lily withers by allowing itself to be uprooted, and the wild pigeon ends up on the farmer’s dinner table by trespassing into the tame doves’ territory. Rather than be content with their own “loveliness”[14] and “possibilities,”[15] these creatures, which stage for the reader its own human folly, chase after fantasized possibilities.

At the heart of this discontentment, Kierkegaard finds a rebellion against creaturliness. We cling to our representations, our projected needs, because we are afraid of being creatures, afraid of not being our own masters. He writes, “This is what is comes down to: to be content with being human, to be content with being the lowly one, the creature that is as incapable of keeping itself alive as it is of creating itself.”[16] To be content with being human would to be to consent with              “““`out hesitation to the precariousness of existence, to the uncertainty that tomorrow will ever arrive. It would be to find peace and joy in existence precisely as finite and incapable of grounding itself, essentially frail, fleeting, and vulnerable, yet pregnant with possibility nonetheless.[17] It would be to live without entrapping oneself in representations and comparisons that turn existence into a sad swamp of anxiety and lack.

What this means is that the passage into our humanity, into the reality of our humanity, is one that passes beyond representation, or one that opens up a beyond within our representations. Such passage is a difficult movement of dispossessing ourselves of those comparisons that alienate us from ourselves and place us in a futile rebellion against our finitude, a rebellion that Kierkegaard calls despair. As I will show, it is in this passage, in this letting go of self that makes room for an unconditional affirmation of each frail instant of existence, that the human being images God.


The second of the 1847 discourses is titled, “The Glory of Being Human.” Whereas the first discourse seeks simply to open up to view the distinction between reality and representation, along with the tragi-comedy of human beings clinging to their representations, the second discourse complicates this picture by asking the reader to contemplate the glory of the human capacity for representation. It is here where Kierkegaard resists any naïve or romantic notion that human beings could simply do what birds and lilies do, namely, exist entirely free of a mediated relationship to reality. Human existence ineluctably unfolds as a process of re-presentation. And while this is the source of the discontentment and lack that burdens the human realm, it is also what makes the human being uniquely “glorious.” Clarifying this ambiguity is the work of the second discourse.

Human beings have a capacity for representation that birds and lilies do not have. What Kierkegaard points to, however, what he finds glorious, is not the content that human beings generate through their capacity for representation—the whole realm of culture, for instance. Any determinate content inevitably supplies material for the anxious and despairing game of comparison. What is glorious, rather, is that the capacity for representation places human beings before the task of overcoming or releasing the representations we inevitably generate. In other words, what is uniquely glorious about the human being is that, because of our capacity for representation, we face the difficult task of dispossession. The bird and the lily do not face this difficulty. They always already are dispossessed of a representational relation to reality. This is what Kierkegaard calls their “fortunate privilege.” Human beings, by contrast, have to become dispossessed. This is our burden—but also our glory, that we are tasked with such an enormous difficulty:

Birds do not worry about what to eat. But is this, in fact, a perfection? Is being heedless of danger, not noticing it, not knowing it’s there, a perfection? Is being sure-footed because one is blind or walking with a firm tread because one is sleepwalking a perfection? Not at all. It would be truer to say that it is a perfection to know the danger, to look it in the eye, and to be awake to it. Thus, it is a perfection to be able to worry about what to eat precisely in order to overcome such fear, and to let faith and confidence drive fear out so that one truthfully doesn’t worry about what to eat, because one has acquired the carefree outlook of faith. For only being carefree in faith is, in a godly sense, the kind of hovering of which the birds’ easy flight is a beautiful but imperfect image.[18]

The human being enacts its unique glory as it transforms its capacity for representation into what the poet John Keats called “negative capability”—the capability, as he puts it, of “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”[19] To be able to worry, and yet not worry, to be able to compare, and yet not compare, to be able to plan, and yet not plan, to be able to control, and yet not control, to be able to speak, and yet to learn the “art of becoming silent”[20]—that is the glorious difficulty to which the human being is called. It is here, in this difficulty, where the human vocation to image God resides.

It is in this second of the 1847 discourses, “The Glory of Being Human,” that Kierkegaard turns explicitly to the language of the “the image of God.” His main concern in taking up this language is to distinguish the “pagan” or philosophical sense of image from what he calls the “Christian” sense. The ancient Greeks also regarded the human being as an image of divinity. What is characteristic of the Greek sense of image, however, is that for them an image has the status of a representation. What this means is that the human being images divinity in an essentially external and visible way, through its external form, capabilities, and their rational mastery. Unlike the brute beasts that creep low to the earth on all fours, the human being stands upright, transcending a base attachment to materiality. And its upright carriage is what lifts the human mind to contemplate lofty and heavenly things, the eternal forms of which all earthly forms are but meager copies, lacking the fullness of being. This is why, for the Greeks, the athletic, virile, rational man is the one in whom the image of the gods shines most potently. A man’s man, ready to protect the city at all costs, ready to sacrifice himself on the sports field or on the battle field, a rational man, not subject to the material and bodily passions of women, in control of his sexuality as the always dominate partner—here we can catch sight of the glory of divinity.

Now, of course, something like this sense of image has found its way deeply into Christian theology—in particular the prioritizing of rationality and its normative location in men. Kierkegaard, however, regards this as the complete antithesis of the Christian sense of the image of God. In what is perhaps the most crucial passage of the second 1847 discourse, he writes the following:

The upright carriage was a mark of distinction, but to be able to cast oneself down in worship is still more glorious…This is what is expected of us: not that we should come and assume dominion, which is also glorious and for which we are suited, but that we should worship the Creator…This nature cannot do, since it can at most remind human beings to do it. It is glorious to be clothed like the lily; even more glorious to be the ruler who stands erect; but it is most glorious to be nothing through the act of worship…Worship is not having dominion, and yet it is precisely in worshipping that a human being is like God…The pagan was not aware of God and therefore sought the likeness in having dominion. But that is not where the likeness lies—on the contrary, that is to claim it in vain…Human beings and God are not alike in a direct way but inversely. Only when God has become the eternal and omnipresent object of worship in an infinite sense and the human being has become and forever remains a worshipper, only then are they like each other. If human beings want to be like God by exercising dominion, then they have forgotten God, and God has departed from them, leaving human beings to play at being God in God’s absence.[21]

What is especially interesting here is how, in distinguishing the “Christian” sense of image from its pagan sense, Kierkegaard also moves against the plain sense of Genesis 1 where the imago dei is affirmed in the context of the command given to human beings to assume dominion over the created order. Kierkegaard denies that the imago dei has anything to do with the exercise of dominion. The human being images God not as it rises to claim superiority at the top of a hierarchically ordered creation, not as it structures existence through its power of representation, even if it be benevolent representation, but as it casts itself down in worship, and to worship is to become nothing, to become a withdrawal from the whole regime of representation and comparison. This is to consent absolutely to one’s creauturliness, which is to consent absolutely to one’s non-sovereignty, to a givenness and passivity, an absolute dependence, that remains always prior to and the condition of the human capacity for representation.

This in turn means that an affirmation of the reality of human existence is an affirmation of that which has no ground in itself, of what must be affirmed and embraced in the absence of objective certainty and mastery—an affirmation that Kierkegaard calls “faith.” Again, this is what sets the human being apart from the birds and the lilies, but not in a hierarchical way. The human being is the site where the essentially finite and precarious nature of existence is not simply immediately undergone, as it is in the existence of every lily and bird, but also marked, confronted, reckoned with, and if there is faith, consented to—but if there is not faith, then the human being either dulls itself to the passion of existence, most typically by becoming a good capitalist producer and consumer, or else rages against existence, punishing existence for its uncertainty and precarity. Both are forms of despair.

The radical thought lurking here is that it is in and through a consent to non-sovereignty that the human being becomes an image of God. It is in the human being who becomes nothing, who withdraws from a calculated relationship to existence, that God shines darkly and invisibly. What I think Kierkegaard is getting at here, even though he does not spell this out directly in this discourse, is that God’s relation to creation is not one of dominion. Implicit in the existential imperative to “become nothing” is a notion of creatio ex nihilo that disallows a hierarchal relationship between creator and creature—as if “to create” was synonymous with “to produce,” “production” signifying the exercise of mastery over some material. Creatio ex nihilo marks an absolute distinction between “creation” and “production.” Arising ex nihilo, the created order has no prior or proper subsistence over which God could exercise dominion or mastery. The act of creation is not a struggle to impose form on independently existing matter. It is non-necessary, gratuitous enablement, a foundationless summons into being. As Jean-Luc Nancy puts it, “The idea of creatio ex nihilo, inasmuch as it is clearly distinguished from any form of production or fabrication, essentially covers the the dual motif of an absence of necessity and the existence of a given without reason, having neither foundation nor principle for its gift (a ‘gift’ for which, doubtless, no concept of gift can prove to be adequate).”[22]

Creation, then, is not an act of sovereignty, at least if sovereignty is thought along the lines of hierarchy, dominion, and production. God is not the sovereign of the world, the guarantee of its ultimate capital worth. God is that by which the world exists only through an abyssal enablement. By becoming nothing, the human being becomes the site where this non-hierarchical enablement is enacted and therefore “imaged.” The human being is thus called to become a site of non-productive creativity—“play,” one might call it. This is to become the very site of God, a site where there can be no investment toward a calculated future.

In a journal entry on creatio ex nihilo, Kierkegaard does speak of creation as an act of divine “omnipotence.” As with all of his concepts, however, he inscribes a dialectical fold into his conception of omnipotence: divine power exercises itself only by withdrawing itself. Active only through its withdrawal, divine power is not the exercise of dominion over the creature. It is the gifting of freedom to the creature:

Above all the highest which can be done for a being, greater than anything else one can do for it, is to make it free. In order to do just that, omnipotence is required. This seems strange, since it is precisely omnipotence which supposedly makes dependent. But if one will reflect on omnipotence, one will see precisely that it also must contain the determination of being able to withdraw itself again in the expression of omnipotence, in such a way that precisely for this reason that which has come into being through omnipotence can be independent…Only omnipotence can withdraw itself at the same time it gives itself away, and this relationship is the very independence of the receiver. God’s omnipotence is therefore God’s goodness. For goodness is to give away totally; but in such a way that, by omnipotently retracting itself, it makes the recipient independent. All finite power makes dependent; only omnipotence can make independent: from nothing bring forth that which acquires subsistence in itself through the continual withdrawing of omnipotence itself.[23]

In the first of 1847 discourses, “Be Content with Being Human,” Kierkegaard writes, “Dependence on God is the only independence, for God is without weight—only earthly things and especially earthly treasures have weight—and therefore those who are entirely dependent on God are light.”[24] Divine omnipotence withdraws from itself as a principle of sovereignty that would weigh existence down with the demand for capital, including the demand for religious capital that Kierkegaard attacked as “Christendom.” Divine power withdraws in order to be the enabling ground of the creature’s freedom, its lightness, its flight. Such an enabling ground is in fact an un-ground, the way air un-grounds the bird’s flight through its weightlessness. The act of creation is a letting-be of the creature, a setting to flight, an abandon.

What “becoming nothing” means, then, is not some kind of abstract nihilism. It means becoming the site of the divine withdrawal through which creation is abandoned into existence, which is to become a site of gratuitous affirmation. It means becoming again the nihil out of which creation continually emerges ex nihilo, from nothing, for no reason at all, from no necessity, from no foundation, as a joyous surprise. It means becoming a nihil with out –ism, which is to become an existent that is capable of affirming and embracing its finite and uncertain existence, its sufferings and pleasures, “without why,” as Marguerite Porete and Meister Eckhart put it. God is imaged at that site where sovereignty is renounced in order to make way for gratuitous affirmation.

The possibility of such gratuitous affirmation is what the third of Kierkegaard’s 1847 discourses seeks to open.


The final 1847 discourse is titled “The Blessedness Promised to Being Human.” The path to blessedness, however, is not direct. It must pass through what Kierkegaard calls “melancholy.” In this third discourse, there is a significant shift in mood. Rather than approaching the lily and the bird as emblems of the playful exuberance of life, he approaches as them as emblems of the tragic simultaneity of life and death:

There is indeed beauty, there is youth and delight in nature; life is indeed manifold and teeming, there is joy and rejoicing—but there is also something like a deep unfathomable sorrow that none of the creatures out there suspect, and precisely the fact that none of them suspect it is melancholy in human eyes. To be so lovely, to flower like that, to flutter about, and to build one’s nest with the beloved like that, to live like that—and then to die like that! Is this life, or is it death?[25]

Looking at this year’s blooming lilies, human beings, because of our capacity for representation, are able to remember last year’s lilies, lilies that have withered and died, and therefore we are able to be conscious of the reality that the destiny of all life is death, or that life is inextricably bound up with death. Last year’s lilies leave a trace in our memory, they linger, and this lingering produces the longing of melancholy. “[We] cannot forget the bird and the lily; it is as if [we] want to rescue them from death by keeping them alive in memory and save them for a longer life—and therein is melancholy.”[26] Death as an abstract concept or figure is fearful enough, but when death clothes itself as the trace of what we have loved and lost, it grips us to the core. “Death comes in a more fearsome guise as the grim reaper, but we are grasped even more forcefully when it comes clothed in loveliness as a lily.”[27]

Melancholy, for Kierkegaard, sharpens the focus on what is essentially human. It is disclosive of the fact that human being confronts an aporia as it stands in existence. What is constitutive of human existence is the essentially unanswerable question, “Is this life, or is it death?” What is more primary, natality or mortality? Attending to the frail and fleeting life of birds and lilies, we are reduced to silence by such a question. Such an aporia, or “objective uncertainty,” as Kierkegaard’s Johannes Climacus names it, is what calls forth the constitutive crisis of the human being, namely, that it must choose the meaning of its existence, and do so in the absence of any objective certainty. The “inward, invisible glory”[28] of the human being can be spoken of more specifically and pointedly as the exigency of a choice, a fundamental or radical choice about how to comport oneself in an existence that, as life-death, offers us no objective certainties about its meaning.

Kierkegaard’s discourse, using the language of Matthew 6, goes on to describe this choice as the choice “between God and mammon.”[29] It is crucial to see that “God” and “mammon” here do not refer to external objects of choice. The choice between God and mammon is not a choice between two things. It is a choice about what comes prior to any choice about things. Choosing either God or mammon, I choose not some ultimate object but rather how I will exist in each moment of my existence. The decision between God and mammon is a decision about what structures my subjectivity in its most basic comportment. It is a decision about what comes “first,” about what styles all subsequent choices.

“Mammom” in the context of Kierkegaard’s discourses signifies the whole realm of representation and comparison that grounds the economic life of human beings. It signifies what human beings make of the world as opposed to what the world is as God’s creation. Not to choose God is therefore de facto to choose mammon. And to choose mammon is to choose to live on the basis of what human beings fantasize and project for themselves. It is to posit the human ego as originary, as “first,” and so it is to choose the futile project of trying to ground that ego through achievement and identity. For Kierkegaard, no matter how you style it, such a choice always ends up in despair.

What then does it mean to choose God? To seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, as the gospel text puts it? Crucially, Kierkegaard says that to seek the kingdom of God and its righteousness is actually not to seek anything at all, if by seeking one means going out into the world either to find something or to implement some plan or project. Rather, to seek God first, to seek God as the first, as the originary ground of subjectivity, is to “remain where you are, in the place assigned to you, for every kind of seeking that leaves this place behind is already a form of unrighteousness.”[30] What is this place that has been assigned to us where we are to remain? It is creation as a realm of “perishability.”[31] It is existence as life-death, existence as finite. That is where we are to remain, the place we are to consent to without hesitation. And to remain here, to affirm ourselves here, to affirm ourselves as part of a world that lives only as it dies, is to choose God:

So while the visible world declines and sinks down in perishability, you shall nevertheless remain in your place and begin by first seeking the kingdom of God. We flee the earthquake for a safer place, forest fires drive us to unwooded regions, and floods make us seek out higher ground, but if it is the case that the entire visible world is sinking in perishability, then there is no other place for us to flee to, and that is precisely why we have to stay where we are and seek first the kingdom of God.[32]

What is this decision to remain? This decision to take up our place in a world sinking in perishability? What is chosen by choosing not to flee this world for another one but to remain absolutely in this world even as it dies and we with it? How is God imaged in this decision? What I want to suggest is that this decision to remain is the enactment of gratuitous affirmation, a Yes to life even though it is bound up inextricably with death, a Yes to life as frail, as un-masterable, as perishing. Choosing God, what comes first in everything is an unconditional affirmation, an affirmation that does not first calculate and anticipate a good outcome, but an affirmation that lets go of the need to ground itself in outcomes. This would be an affirmation capable of abiding the best and the worst. It would be an affirmation capable of finding God’s love everywhere, in everything, even in death.

When God is sought first, when what is most basic in each moment of existing is a gratuitous affirmation, an affirmation without why, then “all these things shall be added unto you,” as the gospel text puts it. Kierkegaard interprets this passage not as a promise that if you seek God then everything will turn out all right. He interprets it as saying that when you seek God first, when an unconditional affirmation comes first, then all these things, all the pursuits and plans and achievements and failures and worries that make up our lives, all these things will become excess or gratuity for you. They will become “the rest,”[33] the remainder, what overflows beyond any necessity. When you seek God first, when you seek the one thing necessary, an unconditional affirmation of each naked instant of existing, then the whole order of creation, all of its joy and all of its pain, comes to have the status of a gratuity.

In sense, it all becomes meaningless, or the meaning we are liberated to find in it all overflows any teleology, any theodicy, any harmony, any narrative. “How highly the kingdom of God is to be valued, then,” Kierkegaard writes, “if we can talk like that in relation to [‘the rest’]—so carelessly, so curiously, so sublimely.”[34] He continues: “So let ‘the rest’ be needed for a long or short time; let it come in abundance or but little; let all these things have their moment, their time to be let alone or to be possessed, their moment when they are talked about, until, in death, they are eternally forgotten.”[35] The point is not to shun “the rest” or to disengage from the pursuits that make up our lives. The point is to open up within our representations—our plans, our projects, our discourses, our needs, our desires—space for what precedes and exceeds them. This is to open up within ourselves a liberating nothingness, the nothingness of gratuitous affirmation. It is in choosing this nothingness, indeed becoming this nothingness, that we image God. God, in other words, is the love by which we love and take joy in our frail, meaningless lives, which today are, but tomorrow will be cast into the oven.

In this difficult task, the task of saying yes to today, yes to whatever arrives, we have, thanks be to God, the kindest and loveliest of teachers, the lily and the bird. In the 1849 discourses, Kierkegaard counsels the reader to turn to these teachers in order to learn an unconditional joy:

Learn from the lily…and learn from the bird, for they are masters in the art of existing, of being today, of being joy…The lily and the bird also have their sorrows, as the whole of nature has sorrows. Doesn’t all creation groan under the perishability to which it is subjected against its will? For everything is subjected to perishability!…And even if the lily avoids the fate of being cast straightaway into the oven, it must nevertheless wither after having beforehand suffered one thing and another. And even if it was granted to the bird that it should die of old age, it must one day die and be separated from those it loves after having beforehand suffered one thing and another. Ah!…And yet the lily and the bird are unconditionally joyful, and here you see properly the truth of the gospel saying that you ought to learn joy from the lily and the bird. You could not ask for better teachers than those who, although they bear the burden of an infinitely deep sorrow, are nevertheless unconditionally joyful and are joy itself.

How the lily and the bird deal with this looks almost like a miracle: in deepest sorrow to be unconditionally joyful; to be when tomorrow is so frightful, that is, to be unconditionally joyful today.[36]

The joy that is able to bloom today even when it is a day of death is the joy of remaining present to oneself:

For if you remain in God, whether you live or die, whether it goes well with you or badly, as long as you live and whether you die today or only after seventy years, and whether your death is in the ocean’s deepest depths or you are blown into thin air, you are never outside God, you remain—that is, you are present to yourself, in God, and therefore, even on the day of your death, you are today in paradise. The bird and the lily live only for a day, but even a very short day is nevertheless joy, because…they truly are today and are present to themselves in this today.[37]

Such joyful self-presence is not the uncertain and anxious pleasure of re-presentation, the pleasure of presenting oneself to oneself by way of one’s achievements and their recognition. The pursuit of such represented presence is always despair, no matter how glittering or brilliant the achievement. To remain present to oneself “in God” rather than “in mammon” is to remain present to oneself as nothing. It is to be the site of an apophatic affirmation. As Kierkegaard puts it in an 1844 discourse on patience:

The child is astonished at insignificant things. The adult has laid aside childish things; he has seen the wondrous, but it amazes him no more; there is nothing new under the sun and nothing marvelous in life. If, however, a person knew how to make himself truly what he truly is—nothing—knew how to set the seal of patience on what he had understood—ah, then his life, whether he is the greatest or the lowliest, would even today be a joyful surprise.[38]

So what is to image God? It is to image nothing, nothing but the unconditional affirmation by which all things exist. Coming from God, creation has no representational telos. We are not here to build kingdoms for ourselves or even kingdoms for God. We are here for no particular reason at all, the way a child plays for no particular reason at all. God therefore shines through creation not visibly and directly, not through its external beauty and power or those who know how to harness these to impressive and awe inspiring ends. God shines in creation invisibly and darkly, in that creature who consents to be nothing, who lives not for the future it is able to produce but for the today it receives as a gift. God is imaged by that creature who even though capable of dominion dispossess that capability and takes its place among the most insignificant and superfluous of creatures, the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.


The obvious criticism to be levelled against the vision I have unfolded here is that it promotes quietism. Are we simply to remain content with our lots, no matter how unjust? Are we not to raise a protest against the structural imposition of suffering? Is the struggle for liberation unthinkable within such a vision?

While it is true that Kierkegaard is not a liberation theologian and that certain strands of his thinking lend themselves to a political conservatism, his thought also contains energies that can generate radical political critique. In particular, the analysis of “concern for tomorrow” in the 1847 and 1848 discourses can be read as an analysis of the structural possibility of injustice and inequality. As David Kangas puts it, “The realm of concern…coincides in an interesting way with the realm of what Marx called ‘ideology’: that which is in essence representational comes to determine actuality…For Marx, there is the bottomless possibility of a disfigured social and human existence.”[39] When “tomorrow” is generated by the representational power of one segment of humanity—whether humanity is divided along gender, race, or class lines—the “others” of this privileged class will inevitably be enlisted as objects through which such a “tomorrow” is mediated into the present. The analysis of “concern,” then, is one way to think through the possibility disfigured social relations—in particular why they are so pervasive and embedded. Structural injustice is not simply “external.” It is nourished in the intimate anxieties of every human heart.

Such an analysis, in turn, opens onto the difficulty of upending unjust structures. Resistance cannot simply be a matter of shifting the terms of the representational plane. The representational plane will always get re-cycled in the name of some produced and projected future. It will always install subjects who need objects through which to mediate themselves. Resistance in the pursuit of liberation demands something more difficult and risky—an opening of the representational plane to what precedes and exceeds it. Especially within a neo-liberal capitalist regime in which every possible representation, even the most progressive of visions, is digested into nourishment for the pursuit of capital, this is an enormous difficulty, one that requires an ever vigilant awareness of how the pursuit of freedom nourishes itself on un-freedom in ever more complicated and hidden ways.

It is only a particular kind of liberal and now neo-liberal vision in which the pursuit of liberation is identical to the pursuit of representational success. A Kierkegaardian theology of resistance might position itself otherwise, without the need for success. James Cone, himself a reader of Kierkegaard, puts it this way:

In black theology, blacks are encouraged to revolt against the structures of white social and political power by affirming blackness, but not because blacks have a chance of ‘winning.’ What could the concept of ‘winning’ possibly mean? Blacks do what they do because and only because they can do no other; and black theology says simply that such action is in harmony with divine revelation.[40]

“Affirming blackness” does not mean affirming any particular representable future. The very notion of a representable future is a function of whiteness, one might say. To affirm blackness, rather, is to refuse to live by virtue of the whiteness that projects its light into the future. It is to live instead by way of a kind of kind of errant wandering, an unconditional affirmation of today in which God shines, darkly. As Kierkegaard puts it, this is “to become nothing before God, and nevertheless infinitely, unconditionally engaged.”[41]

[1] Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Continental Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 148-58.

[2] Kierkegaard, Spiritual Writings: Gift, Creation, Love: Selections from the Upbuilding Discourses, trans. George Pattison (New York: Harper Perennial, 2010), 124. Hereafter SW.

[3] SW, 179.

[4] My reading of these discourses is indebted to David Kangas’ essay, “Being Human: Kierkegaard’s 1847 Discourses on the Lilies of the Field and the Birds of the Air,” Konturen, volume 7, August 2015, 64-83.

[5] SW, 87.

[6] SW, 87.

[7] SW, 87.

[8] SW, 100.

[9] See SW, 108. The English translations of these discourses (Pattison and the Hongs) use “imagination” and its cognates to translate what I am rendering here as “representation.” The Danish is Forestillingen, which I prefer to translate as “representation” and its cognates in order to communicate the sense of a produced or mediated present.

[10] SW, 108.

[11] SW, 100.

[12] SW, 94-106.

[13] SW, 107.

[14] SW, 204.

[15] SW, 205.

[16] SW, 106.

[17] SW, 205.

[18] SW, 126-7.

[19] Keats, The Love Poems of John Keats: In Praise of Beauty (New York: St Martins Press, 2007), xi.

[20] SW, 184.

[21] SW, 125.

[22] Nancy, Dis-Enclosre: The Deconstruction of Christianty, trans. Bettina Bergo, Gabriel Malenfant, and Michael B. Smith (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 24.

[23] Kierkegaard, Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers. 6 vols. Ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1967-1978), 1251. The number listed in reference to these volumes is a journal entry rather than a page number.

[24] SW, 111.

[25] SW, 137.

[26] SW, 138.

[27] SW, 138.

[28] SW, 145.

[29] SW, 142.

[30] SW, 147.

[31] SW, 147.

[32] SW, 147-8.

[33] SW, 148.

[34] SW, 148.

[35] SW, 149.

[36] SW, 218-9.

[37] SW, 224.

[38] Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 226.

[39] Kangas, “Being Human,” 71.

[40] Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (New York: Orbis Books, 1986), 17.

[41] Kierkegaard, Judge for Yourself! trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 106.

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