Kierkegaard was born 200 years ago today. I pay a small tribute by reflecting on a quotation from his writings.
I never talk to my neighbours; I’d rather not get involved.
This is not a Kierkegaard quote. It’s a Morrissey quote (from the Smiths’ “Death of a Disco Dancer”). But with an economy of words that always escapes Kierkegaard, the line expresses negatively what Kierkegaard says positively in this passage from Works of Love (1847):
There is indeed a big dispute going on in the world about what should be called the highest. But whatever it is called now, whatever variations there are, it is unbelievable how much prolixity is involved in taking hold of it. Christianity, however, immediately teaches a person the shortest way to find the highest: Shut your door and pray to God—because God is surely the highest. If someone goes out into the world to try to find the beloved or the friend, he can go a long way—and go in vain, can wander the world around—and in vain. But Christianity is never responsible for having a person go even a single step in vain, because when you open the door that you shut in order to pray to God and go out the very first person you meet is the neighbor, whom you shall love.
In all of my teaching, the one Christian doctrine that students object to most vigorously is neighbor love. Students can accept the virgin birth, the Trinity, the resurrection, and the eucharist with no trouble. These doctrines, which challenge ordinary logic, are unobjectionable. But the idea that they might have an obligation to love a drug addict slumped in a doorway? No way. When they read someone like Kierkegaard or Martin Luther King suggest as much, students who hadn’t spoken all semester suddenly can rattle off reasons why the teaching must be rejected.
This is as Kierkegaard thought it would be. Christianity is offense. Enlightenment reason refuses the teaching on the Incarnation. Bourgeois morality refuses the teaching on loving the neighbor. But the bourgeoisie is good at convincing itself of its righteousness. (“As long as you don’t kill anyone,” my students say, distilling the whole of the law to the one commandment that is easiest to keep. Who among us would have the cheek to say, “As long as you don’t covet anything”?) In an angry moment, Kierkegaard would call such rationalization “playing at Christianity.”
The word Kierkegaard uses for “neighbor” in this passage is “Næste,” next. The obligation is to love the person right next to you: the first person you see. Well-meaning Sunday school teachers sometimes say that “you shall love your neighbor” doesn’t just mean the people who live next door to you. But in saying this, they actually lead their pupils astray. It’s true that there are a lot of people who live far away whom you must love, but just loving the ones right next to you would be a good start, and in fact, it’s a pretty challenging task all on its own. People suffering in faraway locales don’t bother you with their loud music. They don’t take your parking space. They don’t sneer at you on the sidewalk. They don’t look you in the eye and ask for money. They don’t steal the covers or leave dirty dishes in the sink. They don’t break promises to you. The obstacles to loving the most proximate are perhaps greater than the obstacles to loving the most distant.
It’s impossible to improve on the Sermon on the Mount or the love command. But Jesus’ words are so familiar that hearing them yet again has little effect on the listener. So Kierkegaard says the same thing as Jesus but in a different way. He makes the teaching intelligible to modern people without dulling Christianity’s moral challenge in the least. If the attack on “Christendom” was Kierkegaard at his worst, this is him at his best. It’s a good way to remember him.