Word and Spirit: A Kierkegaardian Critique of the Modern Age
by Ronald L. Hall
Full humanness is the question on Ronald L. Hall’s mind. He argues that idololatry (an unpopular word) and the misuse of freedom are gigantic wrongs. We should, he claims, bond to God, then to the world and those who inhabit it, becoming a “knight of faith.” Living fully in the world, without being owned or controlled by it, should be our vocation. This bond should not be seen as a shackle but as the most important example of our radical freedom. We should not be disheartened because ethical bonds sometimes mean suffering for us. We should accept and love ethical opportunities, even though the possibilility of error always exists. The religious-ethical life is not easy. If you believe in character as the highest good, you receive slurs for mistakes made. If you believe in freedom as the highest good, no one cares if you act against your freedom. They may even praise you. How often is a libertine called a hypocrite for declining an indulgence?
Flights to innocence and ignorance are not noble. Innocence and ignorance confine spirit, wrecking full freedom. Full freedom implies uncertainty and obligation, two words that send individuals running.
He argues that the “demonic” rejects spirit in the spiritual. Examples of the demonic include Faust and Don Giovanni, yogi junkies and religious automatons. Faust represents demonic intellectuality, the man who uses knowledge for evil. Giovanni symoblizes demonic sensuality, the man relentlessly on the make. Faust and Giovanni are mirror images. They both use language to trick and destroy. They use others merely for their fleeting and jaded gratifications. The demonic fills the world, he claims, yet it is rarely criticized.
The aesthetic “ethics” of Faust and Giovanni seeks to ruin real ethics. They pursue whatever goals they want, oblivious to the hells they create for others. “Faust feels the burden of much work to do; Don Giovanni... is giddy with the excitement of another conquest just ahead.” Language is merely their tool for deception and detachment. They think duties and commitments ends their passions and freedoms. The are both terrible at right attachments and detachments. Existences with actions and no moral thoughts are disasters--and the same goes for knowledge with no moral thoughts or actions.
Hall emphasizes the double movement, meaning an ethical-religious world view. By doing so we become more human. We should take language (speech acts) extremely seriously. We should be honest, speak with conviction, and back up the talk with commited actions. Otherwise we will lack a self and a spirit. Language is the ideal method for expressing our spirits. By contrast, music is not so good for spirit, says Hall. Music is often noise, ritual, and little else. He argues that the misuse of freedom is terrible. Ethical-religious covenants are solutions to the Faustian and Giovannian traps.
This Knight of Faith person, apparently, faces relentless obstacles in dim light, pursuing goals that can not be seen because they are on the other side of an unmapped mountain range. The obstacles have the potential to inflict wearying, even fatal, wounds, but she does not let that distract or stop her. She is full of good cheer. Worse, at some point she may
determine that some goals should be abandoned and a new set of goals pursued though yet another unmapped mountain range. Reaching the wrong goal may also be fatal. All the potential problems of risk, uncertainty, anxiety, despair, depression, and boredom bloom. The Knight can improvise
better lighting along the way and surmount obstacles. Yet despair and absence of passion loom, even forms of despair that do not feel like despair. The challenge is no leisure hike, no adventure vacation. It features nights so cold she wishes she had never been born. Cold rains fall for days, and when a sunny day comes, she is grateful because she does not think she could have taken more. The next day it begins to rain again. Biting insects torture her and when she has taken every precaution to prevent bites, they merely fly around her head for hours, buzzing annoying hymns into her ears. Pieces
of equipment she needs will be lost. She screams that it is not fair, but the universe does not respond. Endless stretches are so boring she would trade it for 16 hour days on an assembly line. Thorns and twisted ankles seek her out. She loses focus and drifts because she figures life can not get any worse. And for a while the drifting is not so bad, then tragedy strikes and she wonders how she could have been so dumb to let herself drift, but with a little luck and stronger will she may reach her goals. This book is not an easy read and many of Hall’s ideas are uniquely preposterous, but it is worth browsing.
—Book review article by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 26, 2009