There is a surprisingly rigorous insistence in Kierkegaard’s Practice in Christianity on something like a preferential option for the poor. And it does better than some versions of the preferential option at explaining the dialectic between universality and preference—i.e., at responding to the common objection that, since God loves everyone equally, God can’t possibly love the poor more than the rich. An absolute universality is K.’s starting point, in fact: love doesn’t count as love unless it blows away every natural distinction, unless it completely eliminates every hint of preference. But that absolute universality is offensive enough to the established order that it comes to appear as a preference for the poor.
A subtheme in this book is that human compassion—what passes for compassion among human beings—is intrinsically cruel. It only shows compassion to those who don’t really need it; those who do need it, the truly suffering, the “indescribably wretched,” are cast into the desert and ignored. Because divine compassion is genuinely universal, it shows human compassion for what it is: self-serving partiality. Thus divine compassion inevitably appears as a judgment on the well-off, the ones who claim to be showing compassion, and in favor of the forgotten. Plus, since divine compassion is infinite (whereas human compassion is only ever “to a certain degree”) and drives God to actually become one of the poorest and weakest, the well-off have no interest in joining him. On the contrary, “it is urgent for the world to preserve the appearance of being compassion; this now makes the divine compassion into an untruth—ergo this divine compassion must go” (60).
What appears as partiality (divine compassion) is actually universality; what appears as universality (human compassion) is actually partiality.
That said, this is an extremely peculiar ‘option for the poor’ in that it apparently does nothing for the poor. It’s manifestly not an issue of improving their condition, of relieving their suffering, etc.; if anything, it’s the opposite: joining Jesus, for the poor as for anyone, means more alienation, more suffering, more debasement. Part of K.’s argument in this book is that Christianity can only be believed in spite of its essential, unavoidable offensiveness, and this would seem to be the way that offensiveness looks to the poor—that while changing everything for them (or claiming to), it changes nothing.
Can this be called an option for the poor?
For some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, I find metaphors involving weight extremely moving and compelling. It’s a fairly common trope, at least since Augustine—who talked occasionally about how the pondus voluntatis et amoris, the weight of desire and love, was the real ordering principle in the cosmos. I ran into it again recently in Dante (who probably gets it directly from Augustine). Beatrice has to explain to him, when they first pass into Paradise, how his body is able to speed upwards towards and beyond the moon: because the weight of love allows one to fly, as surely as a waterfall pours faithfully to the earth.
And now this wonderful passage, from Kierkegaard’s discourse on the birds of the air:
And yet, yet human language has not ever, and thought has not ever, invented a more beautiful symbol of independence than the poor bird of the air. And yet, yet no speech can be more curious than to say that it must be very hard and heavy to be—light as the bird! To be dependent on one’s treasure—that is dependence and hard and heavy slavery; to be dependent on God, completely dependent—that is independence…. Dependence on God is the only independence, because God has no gravity; only the things of this earth, especially earthly treasure, have that—therefore the person who is completely dependent on him is light. (Upbuilding Discourses, 182)
One of my courses this fall is on what’s called Kierkegaard’s ‘second authorship,’ which begins, more or less, with A Literary Review—a very long review, about a hundred pages, of a contemporary novel. It’s a really enjoyable read, and actually very suggestive as a genre: he manages to portray the details and spirit of the novel really well, at the same time as he spins out some interesting philosophical threads he sees reflected in the action. For those interested writing ‘constructive commentaries,’ who, like me, prefer to think within the thinking of another, the form of this book is a really interesting example.
Anyway, here’s one amusing snippet. The novel being reviewed tells two stories of two families belonging to two ages, and part of K’s procedure is to specify the general spirit of each age—’The Age of Revolution’ and ‘The Present Age.’
As against the age of revolution, which acted, the present age is the age of advertisement, the age of miscellaneous announcements: nothing happens, but what does happen is instant notification. An uprising in the present age is the most unthinkable of all; such a show of energy would strike the calculating sensibleness of the age as ludicrous. A political virtuoso, on the other hand, might be able to perform a feat of artistry that was amazing in quite another way. He could word an invitation, proposing a general meeting for the purpose of deciding on a revolution, so carefully that even the censor would have to pass it. And then on the evening in question he could give the gathering an impression so deceptive that it seemed as thought they had achieved the uprising; whereupon they would disperse quite peacefully, having spent a very pleasant evening. (62)
Or another, more relevant selection:
A profound religious renunciation of the world, and of what is of the world, adhered to in daily self-denial, would be unthinkable to the youth of our time; yet every second theology graduate would be virtuoso enough to do something far more marvellous: he would be able to propose a social foundation with no less a goal than to save all who are lost. The age of great and good actions is past; the present age is the age of anticipation. (ibid.)