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Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing by Sören Kierkegaard


Sören Kierkegaard is one of the towering Christian existential thinkers of the mid-nineteenth century. While his literary style was experimental, his writings call for Christian morality; a defense of faith and religion. Among his many books are Training in Christianity, Sickness Unto Death, and Fear and Trembling. This book was first published by Harper in 1938. It was translated from the Danish and contains an introductory essay by Douglas V. Steere. Prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Willie Brock.


Chapter 12: What Then Must I Do? The Listenerís Role in a Devotional Address


My listener! This talk was brought forth upon the occasion of the office of Confession. If after the opening references to this occasion no more has been said of it, yet it has never been forgotten in the talk. For what has been given is most intimately connected with what is appropriate to an address of invitation to such an occasion. From its single point of departure -- to will one thing, the talk has moved out in different directions, ever returning, however, to this point of departure. It has at the same time scanned the earth, making note of human differences. From time to time it has depicted the individual error and the state of soul of one who has lost his way. This has been done on a magnified scale, so that man may the better become aware of, and look out for, what, in the trivial circumstances of daily life so rarely appears unmixed that it is much harder to detect than are these instances that are "writ large." As it has proceeded, the talk, holding tenaciously to the demand -- to will one thing -- has taught how to recognize many errors, disappointments, deceptions, and self-deceptions. It has striven to track down double-mindedness into its hidden ways, and to ferret out its secret. By striving at every possible point to make itself intelligible, the talk has sought to bring these things within the reach of each listener. But the intelligibility of the talk, and the listenerís understanding of it, are still not the talkís true aim. This by no means gives the meditation its proper emphasis. For in order to achieve its proper emphasis the task must unequivocally demand something of the listener. It must demand not merely what has previously been requested, that the reader should share in the work with the speaker -- now the talk must unconditionally demand the readerís own decisive activity, and all depends upon this.

So, my listener, turn your attention now to the occasion, while consciousness of sin sharpens the need until it becomes the one thing necessary; while the earnestness of this holy place strengthens the will in holy determination, while the all-knowing Oneís presence makes self-deception impossible, consider your own life! The talk, which is without authority, will not have the presumption to pass judgment upon you. By vigorously pondering the occasion you will stand before a higher judge, where no man dares judge another since he himself is one of the accused. The talk does not address itself to you as if to a particularly designated person, for it does not know who you are. But if you weigh the occasion vigorously, then it will be to you, whoever you may be, it will be as if it spoke precisely to you. This is not due to any merit in the talk. It is the product of your own activity that for your own sake the talk is helpful to you; and it will be because of your own activity that you will be the one to whom the intimate "thou" is spoken. This is your own activity, it really is. Alas, above all let us not be drawn away from the decision by any attention to the speaker and the artistry of the talk. If this happens, then busyness and double-mindedness are again to blame that the emphasis in the composition is wrongly placed. In this case the devotional speaker is admired for his art, his eloquence, while that decision of which each man is capable, and that which it may be well to note, is the highest thing of all, is completely ignored. In a devotional sense, to be eloquent is a mere frill in the same way that to be beautiful is a happy privilege, but is still a non-essential frill. In a devotional sense, earnestness: to listen in order to act, this is the highest thing of all, and, God be praised, every man is capable of it if he so wills. Yet busyness places its most weighty emphasis upon the frills, the capacity to please, and looks upon earnestness as nothing at all. In a contemptuous and frivolous fashion, busyness thinks that to be eloquent is the highest thing of all and that the task of the listener is to pass judgment on whether the speaker has this gift.

In order that no irregularity may be admitted or no double-mindedness left unmentioned, let me then at this point, where the demand is being made for a personís own activity, briefly illustrate the relation between the speaker and the listener in a devotional address. Let me in order once again to take up arms against double-mindedness, make this illustration by borrowing a picture from worldly art. And do not let the two senses in which this may be taken disturb you or give you grounds for accusing the address of impropriety. For if you have dared to attend an exhibition of worldly art, then by doing this, you yourself must have come to understand what is meant by spiritual. Therefore you must have considered the spiritual with the worldly art even though it was the means of your first distinct recognition of the difference between the two. If you did not, discord and double-mindedness are in your own heart, so that you live for periods of time on the worldly plane with only an occasional thought of the spiritual. It is so on the stage, as you know well enough, that someone sits and prompts by whispers; he is the inconspicuous one, he is, and wishes to be overlooked. But then there is another, he strides out prominently, he draws every eye to himself. For that reason he has been given his name, that is: actor.(The Danish word for "actor," Skuespiller, means literally show or display Ė player. [Tr.]) He impersonates a distinct individual. In the skillful sense of this illusory art, each word becomes true when embodied in him, true through him -- and yet he is told what he shall say by the hidden one that sits and whispers. No one is so foolish as to regard the prompter as more important than the actor.

Now forget this light talk about art. Alas, in regard to things spiritual, the foolishness of many is this, that they in the secular sense look upon the speaker as an actor, and the listeners as theatergoers who are to pass judgment upon the artist. But the speaker is not the actor -- not in the remotest sense. No, the speaker is the prompter. There are no mere theatergoers present, for each listener will be looking into his own heart. The stage is eternity, and the listener, if he is the true listener (and if he is not, he is at fault) stands before God during the talk. The prompter whispers to the actor what he is to say, but the actorís repetition of it is the main concern -- is the solemn charm of the art. The speaker whispers the word to the listeners. But the main concern is earnestness: that the listeners by themselves, with themselves, and to themselves, in the silence before God, may speak with the help of this address.

The address is not given for the speakerís sake, in order that men may praise or blame him. The listenerís repetition of it is what is aimed at. If the speaker has the responsibility for what he whispers, then the listener has an equally great responsibility not to fall short in his task. In the theater, the play is staged before an audience who are called theatergoers; but at the devotional address, God himself is present. In the most earnest sense, God is the critical theatergoer, who looks on to see how the lines are spoken and how they are listened to: hence here the customary audience is wanting. The speaker is then the prompter, and the listener stands openly before God. The listener, if I may say so, is the actor, who in all truth acts before God.

Oh, let us never forget this, let us not reduce the spiritual to the worldly. Even though we may earnestly think of the spiritual and the worldly together, let us forever distinguish between them. As soon as the spiritual is looked upon in worldly fashion (an observation for which one has the same foolishness to thank as that which would look upon the prompter in a play as more important than the actor) then the speaker becomes an actor and the listeners become critical theatergoers. In the same way, from the secular point of view, the devotional address is simply held for a group of attenders and God is no more present than he is in the theater. Godís presence is the decisive thing that changes all. As soon as God is present, each man in the presence of God has the task of paying attention to himself. The speaker must see that during the address he pays attention to himself, to what he says; the listener, that during the address he pays attention to himself, to how he listens, and whether during the address he, in his inner self, secretly talks with God. If this were not done, then the listeners would be presuming to share Godís task with him, God and the listeners together would watch the speaker and pass judgment upon him. So it is with the true relationship of speaker and listener in a devotional address.

Or to put it in another way, it is as if a subordinate functionary of the church, who is without authority should read aloud the prescribed prayer. Properly speaking, it is not the church functionary who prays. The one who prays is the listener who sits in the church and opens himself to God while he listens to the reading of the prayer. Yet the listener does not speak, his voice is not heard, nor does he pray softly to himself; but silently and with his heart he is praying in the presence of God by means of the audible voice of the one who reads out the prayer, and whispers to him what he shall say. Yet this is not earnestness: that one man shall tell another or dictate to another what he shall say. But this is earnestness: that the other man now should tell it to God speaking for himself. Now we have come to a clear understanding about this, and the demand will only be repeated in order that the speaker may focus his mind actively upon the occasion of the address.

The talk asks you, then, or you ask yourself by means of the talk, what kind of life do you live, do you will only one thing, and what is this one thing? The talk does not expect that you will name off any goal that only pretends to be one thing. For it does not intend to address itself to anyone with whom it would not be able to deal seriously, for the reason that such a man has cut himself off from any earnest consideration of the occasion of the address. There is still another reason: a man can, to be sure, have an extremely different, yes, have a precisely opposite opinion from ours, and one can nevertheless deal earnestly with him if one assumes that finally there may be a point of agreement, a unity in some universal human sense, call it what you will. But if he is mad, then one cannot deal with him, for he shies away from just that final point, in which one at last may hope to find agreement with him. One can dispute with a man, dispute to the furthest limit, as long as one assumes, that in the end there is a point in common, an agreement in some universal human sense: in self-respect. But when, in his worldly strivings he sets out like a madman in a desperate attempt to despise himself, and in the face of this is brazen about it and lauds himself for his infamy, then one can undertake no disputing with him. For like a madman, and even more terribly, he shies away from this final thing (self-respect) in which one might at last hope to find agreement with him.

The talk assumes, then, that you will the Good and asks you now, what kind of life you live, whether or not you truthfully will only one thing. It does not ask inquisitively about your calling in life, about the number of workers you employ, or about how many you have under you in your office, or if you happen to be in the service of the state. No, the talk is not inquisitive. It asks you above all else, it asks you first and foremost, whether you really live in such a way that you are capable of answering that question, in such a way that the question truthfully exists for you. Because in order to be able earnestly to answer that serious question, a man must already have made a choice in life, he must have chosen the invisible, chosen that which is within. He must have lived so that he has hours and times in which he collects his mind, so that his life can win the transparency that is a condition for being able to put the question to himself and for being able to answer it -- if, of course, it is legitimate to demand that a man shall know whereof he speaks. To put such a question to the man that is so busy in his earthly work, and outside of this in joining the crowd in its noisemaking, would be folly that would lead only to fresh folly -- through the answer.

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