By Michael W. Austin
The death of his mother deeply affected this man and the substance of his writings. He became disenchanted with organized religion, harshly criticizing it while at the same time embracing a deep personal faith in God. In his writings, he often uses layers of irony and imagery to illustrate deep truths about life, the human condition, and the struggle between faith and doubt. He also writes in order to awaken, provoke, and move people to act. He explores love in its various forms—the love between parents and children, romantic love, and divine love.
Fans of U2 will recognize this brief description of the life and work of Bono, the band’s lead singer. However, this description also aptly applies to the life and work of another man.
Søren Kierkegaard, the influential nineteenth-century Danish philosopher (1813–1855) has other things in common with U2’s frontman. Both men have used their creative energies to explore issues of morality, faith, and love in thought-provoking ways. In the 1990s, Bono took to dressing up as the devilish character Macphisto in order to illustrate what stardom can do to the rock star. Bono has created other unique personas such as the Fly and Mirrorball Man, and has written a song—“Until the End of the World”—from the perspective of Judas, the betrayer of Christ. Kierkegaard also writes from a variety of perspectives, using different characters in the quest to understand humanity and God. Both men emphasize that love is more than mere words or feelings. Consider the following, taken from Bono’s appearance on Oprah in September of 2002:
After LiveAid [in 1985], I went there [Africa] to work with my wife. We spent a month in Ethiopia in the middle of the famine. I saw stuff there that reorganized the way I saw the world. I didn’t know quite what to do about it. You can throw pennies at the problem, but at a certain point, I felt God is not looking for alms, God is looking for action. You can’t fix every problem, but the ones that you can, we have to…distance cannot decide who is our neighbor to love. Love thy neighbor. We can’t afford not to. The world is too close.
Kierkegaard would echo these sentiments. For him, authentic love is the love of our neighbor, which essentially means all people. This authentic love is not a mysterious feeling, an introspective mood of the soul, or an empty promise. Rather, authentic love is “sheer action.”1 We know we authentically love when we act for the sake of others. Kierkegaard brings this understanding of love into our more intimate relationships as well, including the marriage relationship. Many of Kierkegaard’s thoughts on love can be found in the music of U2. Bono and Søren both have something to tell us about the nature of authentic love and its contribution to a good and happy life.
THE PROBLEM: POETIC LOVE IS SELF-LOVE
In his book Works of Love, Kierkegaard tells us that love, including erotic love, comes from deep within us, from the heart. For him, erotic love includes, but is not limited to, sexual love. We use the phrase “romantic love” to capture what he has in mind. According to Kierkegaard, the poetic understanding of love, that is, the love praised in literature and music, is a counterfeit version of love. It is a love of mere words that neglects action. This poetic understanding of love is based on preferences for the person who is the object of such love. Poets sing the praises of romantic love as preferential love, as loving one person in distinction from all others. This understanding of romantic love focuses on the intensity of the emotions and desires that surround this type of love. Kierkegaard is quite wary of this.
Why is Kierkegaard wary of the poet’s view of love? If love is founded only on our preferences, feelings, and desires, a danger lurks. The danger is that such love is only a form of self-love, rather than a love centered on the well-being of the one we profess to love. How could this be? Kierkegaard answers this question for us…
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