Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Kierkegaard's 3rd Dimension of Humanness

As mentioned in a previous post, while I think it is ill-advised to embrace all of Kierkegaard's thought, he nonetheless has much to teach us that is fruitful. Kierkegaard's philosophy of the human is one such area.

Kierkegaard believed there were four 'dimensions' of humanness. The first two dimensions are the self, and the world. We are currently in the season of high school and college commencements, and part of this annual ritual is the commencement speech. As Esther Meek has eloquently pointed out, commencement speeches are often preoccupied exclusively with Kierkegaard's first two dimensions of humanness. She laments that while these two dimensions are obviously legitimate, it is short-sighted to reduce all that we are as humans to 'me and my world'. She rightly speculates that one result of doing this is that commencement speeches today don't sound much different than their counterparts 30 years ago. Is it little wonder that so few of us remember anything at all about the commencement speeches we heard when we were wearing the caps and gowns?

Kierkegaard knew that humanness was not limited to these two dimensions. In particular, he saw a third dimension to humanness that he called 'The Void'. Put simply, The Void is that dimension of humanity that most confronts us with our own mortality, or contingency as Meek puts it. The Void is a dimension that makes itself known in our lives each time we are forced to grapple with the myriad of things that are outside of our control that nonetheless significantly impact our lives, and even our very existence. Uncertainty about the future, a debilitating disease, the loss of a job and the security it brings, marital strife, a troubled child, driving in hazardous road conditions, mid-life crises, the death of someone close to you, and infertility are just a few real-life events that happen to people everyday that bring Kierkegaard's 3rd dimension of humanness squarely into play. It is the dimension where fear, affliction, anxiety, and doubt often find their safest home. It is what the secular world sometimes calls 'the abyss', and it's what St. John of the Cross called 'the Dark Night of the Soul'.

The Void is a place where we have to come to terms with the fact that we are not the non-contingent and non-dependent Creator that we so often deceive ourselves into adopting as a practical matter in our day to day living. To borrow from Van Til, The Void is the place where we most have to wrestle with the Creator-creature distinction, and the fact that we are utterly dependent beings and that God is in charge. Meek puts this very well:

[O]ne only begins to know God truly if one truthfully acknowledges one’s own creatureliness, one’s own contingency, the fact that we are, in the metaphor of the Psalmist, a vapor. In our brokenness, we’d rather delude ourselves concerning our invincibility. An experience of The Void powerfully exposes our contingency, leaving us no corner of presumption in which we may continue to hide. In it I know truthfully, authentically, that if I am not sovereignly, graciously, held on to by Someone Who is not contingent, I am dead meat.

Thus, it is often through experiencing The Void dimension of humanness that we rediscover what it means to be authentically human, because it is here where we are most directly confronted with our created and finite status and where our ability to avoid and hide from this confrontation is most taken away from us. Therefore, this 3rd dimension is often pivotal in moving us to Kierkegaard's fourth and final dimension of humanness - being in covenant relationship with the non-contingent, sovereign, loving Lord. Given our proclivity and downright lust to be our own sovereign (Gen. 3) rather than being covenantally loyal to the true Sovereign, it makes sense that being in right relationship with God often requires the pruning of The Void to get our hearts and minds correctly oriented to the truth of our condition and of God's character and presence.

Commencement speakers would be wise to move their treatment beyond the first two dimensions, and tackle The Void in their words to the next generation. I think they will find that teenagers and young adults are already quite familiar with this dimension and would welcome an articulate treatment that brings some sense into the rampant anxiety and fear that so many of them feel even on graduation day.


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