The One Necessary Thing: Kierkegaard on Human Possibility

Our world is one that glorifies in unlimited possibilities, choices and options, not seeing that most of the time ‘having options’ is just a sign of confusion or uncertainty. Our confusion over ‘who we are’, ‘what to be’ and ‘what to do’ is a sign of our ensarement in this morass of unlimited possibilities. We feel called to ‘choose’, but according to what criterion? One day we follow one criterion, another day we follow another, but they keep on losing their luster. We bounce from attraction to attraction, thinking we might find the right hook, but instead we get hooked and dragged that much further away from ourselves. At the end, all the possibilities and criterion presented to us in this world seem arbitrary, lifeless. None of them sticks, and in our chasing them down we seem to have wasted everything.

Soren Kierkegaard gave the famous name “the sickness unto death” to this fatal escapade into countless possibilities and options that alienates us from ourselves. Worse, the hell of false criteria is so captivating and enslaving that we do not even recognize we are in despair. Many land on some mode of not willing to be themselves to such a degree that they do not even despair of their despair. We come to our mortal end having not become ourselves: the gravest consequence a life could have to face, indeed, a terrible self-damnation.

Boredom is maybe the most obvious form of this sickness: faced with the unfinished and potential quality of our self, we seek to find a distraction from the task of becoming who we are, even knowing our distractions will fail us and make it harder to come back to ourselves. In boredom, we do not will to be ourselves or any self. We stand ourselves up, leave ourselves behind. Lost in an endless string of maybes (‘maybe this will be fun’, ‘maybe this is a good idea’, ‘maybe this will solve the problem’) we never catch on to the One Necessary Thing.

Self-will is another form of the sickness: the wish to transform ourselves according to how we want, to compose our own self. The self pays attention to itself, its own significance and enterprises. It busies itself with imaginary constructions, with a “simulated earnestness.” It sees itself as its own task, its own work of art, its own project of existence to outline in the abyss (we can think of Nietzsche here). It proclaims itself the criteria for filling out its potential — but its criteria is only ever finite, shifting, built on sand. Such a self thinks it is the master of itself, but really it is master over nothing — a fact which brings despair. And yet this nothing is turned into delight, the dead-end legitimized as the virtue of the dead-end path. The self wants to enjoy “the total satisfaction of making itself into itself, of developing itself, of being itself,” yet right when it seems nearest to completion, the whole thing dissolves into air. Self-will and “going to the limits of the possible,” as an existential project, leave us empty.

For Kierkegaard, there is only one decision worth making: take possibility back into the necessary, be aware of oneself and one’s limitations, be stripped of fantastical self-projections and imagined criteria; and so rely on God entirely to give the self its possibility and criterion.

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What constitutes the self rightly is the power to obey: to bring its finitude under the one criterion of infinitude. That is the one choice, made in prayer: the choice for the eternal in the self, which only the eternal can give. This is where, humanly speaking, there is no possibility left: where the only question is whether or not the person will believe. The believing self has faith that God will give its possibility back to it, for “with God all things are possible.” But the self renounces control over this possibility. It is God who will synthesize the necessities of my life with the possible He makes possible: my contribution to the Kingdom of God.

To “will to be oneself,” for Kierkegaard, is to remain steadfast in this faith. It is to “rest transparently in the power that established” the self, that is, to rest in the eternal and receive our self (and our self-becoming) from God alone.

To switch idioms, Kierkegaard is talking about where finite freedom and infinite freedom coincide, where my finite act and the act of infinite consciousness are one. That is why he speaks of personality as a “synthesis of finitude and infinitude” which manifests an “infinite possibility.” Something of the eternal light shines through us in the light we shine. That light is fueled and empowered by God alone; yet simultaneously, it is a real gift, it is our light.

Philosophically, we can debate what all this means, and we may find other idioms to articulate it more clearly, but the lesson is clear: only by resting transparently (prayerfully) in the transcendent power of being can we ‘choose’ rightly and ‘be’ ourselves, as well as ‘imagine’ and ‘create’ in a manner that is not vain. Only through this rest is the synthesis of possibility and necessity for the self established and achieved. Put otherwise: the self we are tasked with becoming is accomplished by God’s action in us. He alone makes us persons, endowed with the infinite we are to be.

What we should stress here is something quite strange for the modern mind: such resting in God amounts to the elimination of possibilities — the purification of alternate routes and imagined scenarios down to the one necessary thing, which is to believe that with God all things are possible. Again, to repeat Kierkegaard, “the critical decision does not come until a person is brought to his extremity, when, humanly speaking, there is no possibility. Then the question is… whether he will believe” (Sickness unto Death, p 38).

Of course this resting, this belief, is not a matter of inactivity — quite the contrary! Faith is the only real act possible, our only “power” the power to obey. Yet from this faith flows a bounty of activity grounded in God, a living spring of water irrigating our work in the kingdom of heaven, according to God’s will. For when the seed of the Word of God falls on good soil, it produces “a crop a hundred times as great” (Lk 8:8).

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The one necessary thing (Lk 10:42), then, is to entrust oneself in faith to God the source of being and action, such that God gives the self its act of becoming. This is proper worship in the fullest sense: a participation in the creative cosmos infused by the light of God. Sri Aurobindo would speak here of the soul or “psychic being” governing the physical, vital, and mental levels of our being. Then we possess a clarity bequeathed by the grace of the Divine alone, for we have found that soul-spark within, unified with the Divine. When we are wholly reliant on the eternal in the self, we come “in flow” with the divinization of earth, the sanctification of the cosmos. We catch a foretaste of the transfiguration of created being into light. Our path and the work we have to do then is “sure,” not because we have in mind the right plan to execute, but “sure” through the earnestness, thoroughness, and steadfastness of our entrustment to God. We are “sure” — trustworthy — because we have eliminated every other possibility and taken the criterion of God’s infinitude as our own and only one.

Kierkegaard’s point in talking about “becoming a self” is that once we commit to say Yes to God — and resolve to commit ourselves to it repeatedly in faith, that is: we vigilantly will to be ourselves as God wills — the course of our life takes on a direction that progressively eradicates choices and the imagining of any other possibility (all of which pale in comparison to Christ). We have to discern here a total surrender which places the entire fact of the future in God’s hands, an obedience to the infinite grounding power that consents to let finitude be shaped entirely at God’s hand. This is to live into the Mystery such that there is no confusion or option left, but only the peace, boldness and clarity that comes from saying, thinking, and enacting the Yes to God.

Finally, we can think about the Incarnation in these terms. As wholly divine, Christ did not have ‘potentiality’ like we do. He did not have options or things to choose on his own. “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he sees the Father doing.” “I have come not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent me.” Jesus’ earthly being and will are a pure act of obedience to God’s heavenly being and will. For Jesus, not a single moment went by that His action was not unified with the actus purus of God (classically speaking, there is no potentiality in God). All of his human ‘potential’ was given over to the unum necessarium: love and obedience to God, bearing a superabundance of fruit. Christ manifests in fullness what Kierkegaard calls “infinite possibility,” for in him the humanly possible and the holy possible are perfectly united. God’s synthesis of finitude and infinitude, human and divine will, shines before us in all its glory in Jesus Christ, the “light of the world” (Jn 8:12) and “light unto the nations” (Is 59:6), “the light shining in the darkness” that the darkness has not put out (Jn 1:5).

by Timothy Lavenz
July 12-13, 2022

1 thought on “The One Necessary Thing: Kierkegaard on Human Possibility

  1. Pingback: God knows us better than we will ever know ourselves | Marian Weigh

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