Søren Kierkegaard, Ultimatum in Either/Or
Translated by Walter Lowrie. Foreword by Howard A. Johnson
Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1971.
Second Printing 1974. Volume II. pp. IX–XIX; pp. 341–356; 370 pages. ISBN 0-691-01977-0.
Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) does not present himself as the author of Ultimatum in his book, Either/Or, first published in 1843. Instead, he uses a pseudonym, Judge William, whose letters to a young romanticist are edited by Victor Eremita (another pseudonym). Judge William writes his letters as an effort to “rescue” (v) the young man from his aesthetic view of living. Judge William’s letter contains a Jutland pastor’s sermon, Ultimatum, the final plea made to the romantic mind of a sensuous man who is 7 years younger than Judge William. What Kierkegaard seems to be doing in the way I read him is to create a dialogue between his own ego and his alter ego as he wages his personal war against marrying Regina Olsen. The romantic ego of Volume I of Either/Or confronts his alter ego of Judge William in Volume II, the letters as a debate of issues of an aesthetic love face-to-face with an ethical love. In Ultimatum the Jutland pastor’s sermon adds the theological dimension to love. The progression of love moves from the temporal to the ethical to the eternal—a fascinating encounter with the meaning of love.
Finite (Either) versus Infinite (Or)
The Jutland pastor’s sermon presents the idea that “against God we are always in the wrong” (343). What does this mean? In Job 40:2, we are told: “Thou shalt not contend with God” (346). What does this mean? We are told “the meaning of this is that you shall not wish to prove yourself in the right before Him. There is only one way of supporting the claim that you are in the right before God—by learning that you are in the wrong” (346). Sin has its historical significance from one generation to another, dating back to Adam and Eve, to the sin of the elect, to the corruption of Jerusalem. The innocent share the same judgment as the guilty, because judgment falls upon the righteous and unrighteous. No one has a claim to a reward and satisfaction from righteousness whether in the belief that all was done that could be done for God. No matter what, “we are always in the wrong” (349). To be in the wrong is both “painful” and “edifying” (350). Why?
Enter love. In an act of love, we forget the position of wrongness and turn to a position of love, believing ourselves always in the wrong, because love rises above the knowledge of whether we are right or wrong. The Jutland pastor claims: “It was not by the toil of thought you attained this recognition, neither was it forced upon you, for it is in love that you find yourself in freedom” (351). Knowledge does not lead to the conviction of always being in the wrong.
Only love wishes to be in the wrong, because love of God places God always in the right (351). Pain and loss have only one real compensation—a joy in a love of God through which a person may rise above himself and the world. Love of God is foremost and this love is more important than the knowledge or reflection of being right or wrong (352). At this point of love of God, the Jutland pastor asserts: “Then your soul turned away from the finite to the infinite; there it found its object, there your love became a happy love” (352).
Man’s doubt of God might emerge from finding himself in pain and anguish regardless of trying to worship God and choosing to do what you can for God. Disasters crash upon the soul and doubt may enter the soul. How could God allow concentration camps to exist? How could God allow wars, massacres, poverty, or disease? If man’s relationship to God is based upon righteousness in history, what happens to this relationship when Evil stomps upon souls? The Jutland pastor sees this doubt of God as a finite response to God. Doubt alarms through particular events and acts of Evil. Only in seeing the self as always in the wrong through a love of the infinite will man be able to rise above doubt. The Jutland pastor insists: “Whenever the affliction of doubt would make him sad, he thereupon raises himself above the finite into the infinite; for the thought that he is always in the wrong is the wing whereby he soars above finitude, it is the longing wherewith he seeks God, it is the love wherein he finds God” (354). He adds: “Against God we are always in the wrong” (354).
Joyful Always in the Love of God
What Kierkegaard is wrestling with is the leap from finite awareness of Evil, judgment, limitations, unrighteousness, and efforts of righteousness to the infinite faith in love. Though Job suffered, he loved God more than his suffering. Though Jews felt the horrors of the Holocaust, they loved God more than the horrors that pushed Doubt of God’s existence to the forefront of finite existence. To reach for God’s love is to reach for the joy of the infinite love of God. The longing to seek God ushers in the love of finding God. The longing to rise to the infinite through the finite existence we all share is the longing to experience the love of God in all the perplexities of finite reality, because the infinite leap to love God erases any perception that God is wrong.
Imagine a mother who visits her child on death row. Though her child has committed a grievous crime, she loves her child in spite of the crime. Her love seeks the infinite in her child, though she finds herself in the finite world of a prison. Her love transcends the crime. She loves infinitely. She loves God also and sees God not in the wrong but herself in the wrong, because her finite existence cannot but by faith touch the infinite joy of her love of God.
The Jutland pastor claims: “Though you were to knock, but it was not opened unto you, though you were to seek but you did not find, though you were to labor but acquired nothing, though you were to plant and water but saw no blessing, though heaven were to remain closed and the witness failed to appear, you are joyful in your work nevertheless; though the punishment which the iniquity of the fathers had called down were to fall upon you, you are joyful nevertheless, for against God we are always in the wrong” (355).
Love as a Choice of Eternal Validity
Man progresses in life; he lives as a being in movement in the process of becoming. The personal self becomes a civic self and a religious self, all the stages a part of the movement towards an eternal validity (266). The particular man seeks to become the universal man in the particular, the infinite in the finite, the joyful lover of God who believes God is always in the right. The interior world of faith becomes crucial as the leap of faith from the finite self to the infinite self gives the human being an eternal validity. Kierkegaard writes: “The genuine ethical individual therefore possesses calmness and assurance because he has not duties outside himself but in himself” (259).
The leap of faith that brings man to an infinite relationship to God also must be found within the self. The Jutland pastor stresses: “Only by an infinite relationship to God could the doubt be calmed, only by an infinitely free relationship to God could his anxiety be transformed into joy. He is in an infinite relationship to God when he recognizes that God is always in the right, in an infinitely free relationship to God when he recognizes that he himself is always in the wrong” (354).
Peace and happiness and rest only come in a man’s insistence to love God, man’s soul turning from “the finite to the infinite” (352). The choice to love God is made. The leap of faith has occurred. The infinite has cut into the finite. God’s wisdom, God’s holiness, God’s might, and God’s presence all point to the infinite love in the finite world.
The Jutland pastor asks: “Why was it you wished to be in the wrong with respect to a person? Because you loved. Why did you find this edifying? Because you loved. The more you loved, the less time you had to deliberate whether you were in the right or not; your love had only one wish, that you might constantly be in the wrong. So also in your relation to God. You loved God, and hence your soul could find repose and joy only in the thought that you must always be in the wrong” (351).
Such a love for God is manifested by Jesus Christ on the cross. Despite his pain, his agony, his death, and his sense of being forsaken, he loved God, he loved the infinite Presence of God within himself and within all who persecuted him not realizing their own eternal validity. Infinite love that forgives and offers grace is what the cross symbolizes, because man is always in the wrong, but Christ in his infinite love points to God who is always in the right.