I’m currently plodding my way through Søren Kierkegaard’s Postscripts (among a few others). In part two, when he talks about becoming subjective, he talks about the ethical, inwardness, and the World-historical. His main concern seems to be the idea of doing things for recognition, or to “leave your mark on history.” Things done with even the smallest nod in the direction of the masses or the historical are not, in Kierkegaard’s mind, the ethical. Kierkegaard points out that, “In order to study the ethical, every human being is assigned to himself.” He insists that “The ethical is inwardness.” And it is in this inwardness that the single individual is formed. Ultimately, it is to become nothing. We must “dare to become nothing at all, to become a single individual from whom God ethically requires everything… World-historically, to be a single individual is nothing at all, infinitely nothing—and yet this is a human being’s only true and highest significance, and thus higher than any other significance, which is a phantom, not, to be sure, in itself, but always a phantom if it is supposed to be the highest.”
I find it interesting in these first couple of verses in the text from Mark 6 how when the apostles returned from their mission trip and they begin to tell Jesus all of the things that they had done—all the people healed, all the demons cast out, all the places they preached repentance and the responses they received… all the good and wonderful things that had been accomplished—when they tell all this to Jesus, he responds with an invitation to get away to a quite place and rest. No ata-boys, no high-fives, no pats on the back, just an invitation to “come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”
It’s the whole idea of being nothing when the whole world wants us to be something. And of course, it’s not just the world that wants us to be something; there is in each one of us a drive that longs to be something as well. We tend to measure success from the outside—accomplishments, accolades, number of pages in a CV. It is the externals that get us recognized. Yet it seems these words of Jesus are calling us to the internal, to what Kierkegaard calls inwardness. After all, to be a single individual is about who we are not what we do. And to figure that out is to lay hold of the highest significance.
According to Kierkegaard, humanity has been charged with the task of becoming human. This is the task of the ethical. Just how we go about this task is of ultimate significance. The way of the World-historical, the way of recognition and success may seem on the outside to hold great promise, but in the end it is merely a phantom, a chimera. Over and over again the Gospels seem to tell us that we are to choose the path of self-denial, of becoming least, of lowliness and humility, of becoming nothing. And it seems to me that this is a path of inwardness, one of quite reflection and rest. And that’s just what Jesus invites us to enjoy in him.