Kierkegaardian Reflections on the Present Age
Some authors make a lasting impression on one’s mind, for good or for bad. For me, one such writer is Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55), whom I first engaged while an undergraduate at Valparaiso University. While reading Kierkegaard, one cannot help but be flummoxed by large portions of his prose—there’s simply too much there to engage in its fullness. You are like a kindergartener, who is desperately trying to make sense of a chalkboard filled with Einstein’s equations but helpless to do so. But—and this is the glory of Kierkegaard—amidst the haze, one finds moments of brilliant sunshine. An image or idea breaks through the swirling clouds and, suddenly, it makes sense. For moments such as these, I find myself returning to Kierkegaard again and again.
Recently I picked up the great Danish philosopher’s essay titled “The Present Age”, and was immediately struck by the parallels between Kierkegaard’s critique of his present age (the mid-19th century) and the .problems of our present age. Three instances were especially striking:
First, that we are an age of momentary concerns. Kierkegaard writes that his age “flies into enthusiasm for a moment only to decline back into indolence.” This sums up well a culture which moves from crisis to crisis and cause to cause, rarely engaging something long enough to make a meaningful difference. Think back on almost any viral social trend—here today, gone tomorrow, and forgotten nearly as fast. In recent memory, only the Ice Bucket Challenge stands apart as a social trend which actually managed to accomplish some good before we moved back to indolence from our enthusiasm. Many contemporary “social” movements barely last a fortnight before dissolving into nothingness. Only mere weeks ago the unrest in Ferguson was championing a “national conversation” that is now long forgotten by those who could be having meaningful—though likely unpleasant—conversations about how to improve our world.
Second, Kierkegaard suggests that we are an age of publicity, writing, “A Revolutionary Age is an age of action; the present age is an age of advertisement, or an age of publicity: nothing happens, but there is instant publicity about it.” Kierkegaard really strikes a chord with me here—since when does “entertainment news” count as something worthy of my attention, or of anyone’s attention for that matter? What does one celebrity’s marriage to another celebrity (whom you’ll never meet) have to do with your life? Nothing, save serve as a distraction from our own lives. In Kierkegaard’s words, we have become a “mass, which understands nothing and does nothing”, a gallery of spectators seeking distraction, giving ourselves “over to the idea that everything which someone does, or achieves, has been done to provide the public something to gossip about….”
Third, he notes that we are an age of easy engagement: “The Age of Encyclopedists is gone, when with great pains men wrote large folios; now we have an age of intellectual tourists, small little encyclopedists, who, here and there, deal with all sciences and all existence.” Each of us is an expert while on the internet, able to hold forth on all things, conjure arguments and statistics for our perspectives, and procure an immediate understanding of any subject by consulting Google and Wikipedia. This is not to decry the value of the internet and the easy access of information, only to note that the increase in the breadth of our access to knowledge seems to have been accompanied by a corresponding decrease in the depth of our understanding. Too often we form—and buttress—opinions about important issues by quickly consulting sources of dubious merit. This is not a Left or Right problem, a Christian, Atheist, or Muslim problem, but a people problem. As Kierkegaard says, we have become “intellectual tourists,” hurriedly traversing the landmarks of culture without stopping to actually learn from and experience them.
Reading Kierkegaard, I could not help but be struck by these three similarities between his age and ours. Of course, the place at which Kierkegaard stops his reflections upon the ills of the times stands as the very place we are called to begin our work. I confess that I am all too guilty of lethargy, apathy, superficiality, and taking the path of easy engagement. And often that is where my thought process stops: my culture and I have made these mistakes, shame on us.
But we miss the force of Kierkegaard’s critique if we fail to remedy the ills of our age. The importance of recognizing our momentary enthusiasm is not to criticize the fact that we are enthusiastic, but to problematize that we allow our minds to become bored and move onto the next thing. Certainly, new problems will arise to which me ought to devote ourselves, but we must not abandon those causes which we have already fought for and hold dear. Noting our emphasis on publicity should not shame us into becoming hermits, but instead cause us to dwell upon matters of substance and practice value. And, perhaps, an awareness of what pretends to be worthwhile publicity may serve as a reminder that not everything entertaining is of lasting value. Likewise, critiquing easy engagement should not denigrate our search for truth, but spur us on toward more serious and (if need be) difficult questions. We need not necessarily return to reading and writing tomes on arcane subjects, as the scholars of the past have, but we could gain from a more continual engagement on important matters.
As Christians, we are called to redeem and rejuvenate that which the Present Age has left lifeless. We cannot merely be a people of criticism, but must live as people of action and application. Another peril of the present age involves retreating into ideologically secluded bunkers from which we can lob missiles at our “enemies” without ever having to come into contact with them. And while this aspect may seem acceptable at times, we must always remember that we are called to love those whom we see as our enemies. For it is only in this way that we may overcome the problems of the Present Age.
Photo courtesy of Trey Ratcliff.