Friday, June 11, 2010

Kierkegaard's Works of Love - Part II - Mercifulness, a Work of Love, Even if It Can Give Nothing and Is Capable of Doing Nothing

Kierkegaard begins with a passage from Hebrews, "Do not neglect to do good and to share" but then quickly adds his own reading, "But also do not forget that this perpetual worldly talk about doing good and well-doing and charity and charities and gifts and gifts is almost mercilessness. SK's main thrust in this section is against the 'do-gooders' as it were. Why? Because of the mercilessness this position lays upon the 'poor.'

The poor man groans in church as he hears the pastor preach on and on about charity and doing well towards the less fortunate. He groans not that more well-doing be directed towards him but he groans against the pastor because this sermonizing of well-doing in fact becomes the great injustice. Charity in the sense of giving is derivative not primary. Mercifulness is primary and charity flows from it. SK seeks in vain where we might find space in Christian discourse about the acts of mercy that the poor themselves practice.

We shall hold to this point in our discussion of mercifulness and take care lest mercifulness be confused with external conditions, which love as such does not really have within its power; whereas true love has mercifulness in its power, just as love has a heart in its bosom. Because a person has a heart in his bosom, it does not follow that he has money in his pocket, but the first is nevertheless by far the more important and certainly decisive with respect to mercifulness. . . . It follows of itself that if the merciful person has something to give, he gives it very willingly. But this is not what we want to concentrate our attention upon but on this, that one can be merciful without having the least to give. And this is of great importance, since really to be able to be merciful is a far greater perfection than to have money and consequently to be able to give.
SK then offers alternatives to the stories of the Good Samaritan and the Widow's Mite. What if the Samaritan had no horse and no money but carried the man as far as he could, pleaded for help, then sought a safe place for the man to rest, though the man died. Would this have been less an act of mercy? Or what if the widow with her two pennies was on her way to the temple but en route she was tricked out of them or was robbed and had nothing to offering in the temple. Would her act then be dismissed? Was she required to give something material? SK cannot embrace this basic understanding because
the world has understanding only for money - and Christ only for mercifulness. . . . Of all you that you have seen there is nothing you can be so sure will never enter heaven as - money. On the other hand, there is nothing heaven is so certain about as mercifulness. Therefore you see that mercifulness infinitely stands in no relationship to money.
And so in the world it is money, money, money. All is geared towards a relationship with money rather than the primary God-relationship. If the shift towards mercy can be made then everything shifts and talk of charity towards the poor is recognized as merciless. Charity to the poor 'traps' the poor in their poverty. But mercy asks of the 'poor' that they indeed practice mercy for our sakes. Be merciful SK cries to the poor,
Do not let envious pettiness of this worldly existence finally corrupt you in such a way that you are able to forget that you can be merciful, corrupt you in such a way that a false shame squelches the best in you. . . . Be merciful, be merciful toward the rich. Remember that you have this within your power, although he has money! Therefore do not misuse this power; do not be unmerciful enough to call down the punishment of heaven upon his mercilessness! . . . For mercifulness works wonders. . . . O, how many has money made merciless - if money shall also have the power of making merciless those who have no money: then the power of money has conquered completely! But if the power of money has conquered completely, then mercifulness is altogether abolished.
In emphasizing that mercy can do nothing SK turns to the aesthetic and asks whether or not "a painter might portray mercy." SK says that it cannot be done. The painting can portray charity buy not mercy. The painting can portray the two mites given but not that that it is all the woman has. And what of the mercy one who is incapacitated? They cannot be portrayed as merciful but as the object of mercy.
And then in some repeated act of repentance SK turns again to the one can 'do nothing at all.'
Do not forget to be merciful! Be merciful. This consolation, that you can be merciful, let alone the consolation that you are that, is far greater than if I could assure you that the most powerful person will show mercy to you. Be merciful to us more fortunate ones! Your care-filled life is like a dangerous criticism of loving providence; you have it therefore in your power to make us anxious; therefore be merciful!
SK then begins to climax. The temporal demands that we always do what we can to remedy every need. But the danger becomes the possibility that mercy will not be practised in the midst of it. Mercy cannot be positioned in any place other than as a primary work of love.
The fact is that the world does not understand the eternal. Temporal existence has a temporal and to that degree an activist conception of need and also has a materialistic conception of the greatness of a gift and of the ability to do something to meet need. 'The poor, the wretched may die - therefore it is important that help be given.' No answers the eternal; the most important is that mercifulness be practised or that the help be the help of mercifulness. 'Get us money, get us hospitals, these are the most important!' No, says the eternal; the most important is mercifulness. That a man dies is, eternally understood, no misfortune, but that mercifulness has not been practised is. (emphasis mine)
The eternal will not budge on this matter. The material is irrelevant for all will die in this life. The manner is what matters. And so mercy may be in great and small gestures. But the smaller and the nothing is where mercy can be most clear as it sheds the temptation to view the 'spectacular externality which has an accidental kind of significance.'
Mericfulness is the truly significant; the hundreds of thousands or in a worldly way to do everything is the significant gift, the significant aid. But the truly significant is indeed that which must be looked at; the secondarily significant is indeed that which must be looked away from. And out of mistrust of yourself you therefore desire the removal of that from which you must look away - alas, but the world thinks it is much easier to achieve awareness of mercifulness when it gives hundreds of thousands than when it gives a halfpenny.
SK again affirms that mercy may be present in both the nothing and everything but that the everything has greater temptation to distract from mercy. Even Peter's gesture of offering neither silver nor gold but what he has in healing the lame man draws attention somewhat away from mercy towards the miracle. For mercy never become clearer than when it can do nothing at all; for then there is nothing at all to hinder seeing definitely and accurately what mercifulness is.
To learn mercy one must learn from the eternal. Temporality will always be concerned with the gift and not the giving.
These reflections return in many ways to SK's basic contour of love which is its absolute accessibility. There can be no parameters which bar love except those parameters created by the individual. No one can bar another from loving and no one can bar another from being merciful.
There are significant issues that would need to be worked through in this account. What I can say at this point is that this does not fall prey to the fault of intention, that what matters is someone psychological framework. The emphasis as I understand it is with respect to orientation. If the act is founded on external change then it remains 'temporal' and ultimately leads to mercilessness. If one is oriented to the eternal then both life and achievement are placed in context and mercy funds any act of charity.
This summary is far to vague and open to valid criticism but I don't have the energy to make it more pointed at this time. I hope to work through this text several times and so hopefully my articulations will also become more pointed.

1 comment:

Alex's Blog said...

Nice ly written.