by Andrew Simmons Thursday, Jan 30
“Thus when the power-crazed person whose motto is ‘Caesar or nothing’ doesn’t become Caesar, he despairs over that. But this indicates something else: that he cannot stand being himself precisely because he failed to become Caesar…And by not becoming Caesar he despairs at not being able to be rid of himself.” –Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, p. 49
It is clear that there are and remain several underlying questions among Christians about Hell. The release of Love Wins by Rob Bell did not create the discussion, but merely stoked the fires over whether or not Hell contradicts Christian love. Some would say that a God who condemns is not one who loves; conversely, other Christians maintain the importance of hell based on moral principles. In fact, the entire discourse seems to hang on whether or not the law possesses a power over where a person goes. This is not an article about whether or not the lawful or the lawless are right in this situation. The aim of this is to add to the discussion by calling to mind the foundation of the discourse in general: the person. Whatever may occur in the afterlife, it pertains less to moralistic categories, but, rather, reflects personal development.
Now, predominately in the West, there is a reoccurring interpretation that the “image of God” and being made in God’s “likeness” are the same thing (Gen 1:26-27). As someone with an affinity for Eastern theology, this is not the case with the Eastern Christians (Catholic or Orthodox). From Fred J. Saato’s American Eastern Catholics, the image refers mainly to the characteristics of humanity that reflect God’s qualities. Likeness, however, deals with the later perfecting of these qualities (Saato, 62). What this essentially means is that we are all subject to being brought into the likeness of God. The Church Father’s understood this to be theosis. But I wish to add more with the notion of the likeness. Using Aquinas’s notion that the human person is a subject that is driven by desiring, I propose that the human person is driven towards attaining a likeness.
Whether it is impersonating our parents as kids or social icons as adults, we seek to find some symbol to adopt as the foundation for our lives. These personas to live by provide an element of security against life’s common anxiety. One can see it in the impersonating of celebrities, seeking out self-help gurus, or in adhering to any particular social leader. Yet, the symbols others seek to live by are bound to the same contingency as its pursuer. To further add onto the quote by Kierkegaard, it is not so much that one despairs of never becoming Caesar, but the despair in realizing that Caesar was never worth being in the first place. This sensation of despair is key to Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death; the text, however, is not purely psychological. The condition dubbed “the sickness unto death” is something Kierkegaard claims is only noticeable to the Christian. Death is not the disease, but, for Kierkegaard, is the perceived cure for the afflicted. It is the termination of a life with nothing left to hope for.
The sickness is a condition often ignored due to the continuous affinity to distract one from the root cause. Today, the world is gripped with constant struggles over ideals. Political activism has replaced a necessary need to ponder the reasons for why certain systems are even believed in. Yet, Kierkegaard, the ever constant social critic, does not begin the text with arguments against politics or social movements. He begins talking about what composes the human person. A person is the synthesis of two distinct concepts: the infinite and the finite. While the terminology is different, the medievals also had a similar understanding that the human person was the unity between eternity and materiality. The sickness is a great loathing for this condition. It is the struggle to accept one over the other. Yet, in failing to grasp that the person is a “both/and” and not an “either/or”, the troubled soul seeks to no longer be a united presence in the world. This, I believe, carries with it an eternal repercussion.
As the synthesis of the infinite and finite, the way one conducts himself is presumed to have an impact on this union. Aquinas states that the customs that we conduct ourselves by become something akin to a second nature (IIa-IIae, Q 49, A 1, ad 2). Whatever we fixate upon becomes a part of us. I wish to take this statement of second nature and apply it to likeness. By seeking out a likeness that is limited, we become trapped within that likeness. For Kierkegaard, one is to be grounded in Christ who brings about a paradoxical realization. When the person seeks out the likeness of Christ, it is always important to remember that Christ, in turn, sought out humanity in the Incarnation. It is not simply adopting the mask of Christ, but it is taking up a mask that returns and inversely leaves you without one. It is the assumption of a likeness that embraces the eternal. It is a rejection of what Chesterton would refer to as the limiting cell of the madman (an actual reference to Nietzsche’s madman). If anything, hell is that limiting confinement upon which is written “He [the madman] believes in himself” (Chesterton, 21).
Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. New York: Image, 2001.
Kierkegaard, Soren. The Sickness unto Death. London: Penguin, 2004.
Saato, Fred J. American Eastern Catholicism. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2006.
Andrew Simmons is now a graduate from Aquinas College! He studied for a double major in History and Theology with a minor in Catholic Studies. In 2010, during his freshman year, he converted to Catholicism. He is now plagued by questions about graduate school. The anxiety of choice!