Here is a quote for The Sickness Unto Death:


That the definition of sin includes the possibility of offence: a general observation about offence

The sin/faith opposition is the Christian one which transforms all ethical concepts in a Christian way and distils one more decoction from them. At the root of the opposition lies the crucial Christian specification: before God; and tat in turn has the crucial Christian characteristic: the absurd, the paradox, the possibility of offence. And it is of the utmost importance that this is demonstrated in every specification of the Christian, since offence is the Christian protection against all speculative philosophy.  In what, then, do we find the possibility of offence here? In the fact that a person should have the reality of his being, as a particular human being, directly before God, and accordingly, again, and by the same token, that man’s sin should be of concern to God. This notion of the single human being before God never occurs to speculative thought; it only universalizes particular humans phantastically into the human race. It was exactly for this reason that a disbelieving Christianity came up with the idea that sin is sin, that it is neither here nor there whether it is before God. In other words, it wanted to get rid of the specification ‘before God’, and to that end invented a new wisdom, which nevertheless, curiously enough, was neither more nor less than what the higher wisdom generally is – the old paganism.

One hears so much nowadays about people being offended by Christianity because it is so dark and dismal, being offended by its severity, etc. The best advised course would be simply to tell them that the real reason why people are offended by Christianity is that it is too elevated, that its standard of measurement is not the human standard, that it wants to make man into something so extraordinary that he cannot grasp the thought of it. A quite elementary psychological account of the nature of offence will make this clear, and also show how infinitely silly is the behaviour of those who have defended Christianity by removing the offence; how stupidly or shamelessly people have ignored Christ’s own directions, which often and so anxiously warn against offence, that is, which point out that its possibility is there and is meant to be there. For if it were not, then it would not be an eternally essential component in Christianity, which would mean it was human nonsense of Christ, instead of removing it, to go about anxiously warning us against it.

If I were to imagine a poor day-labourer and the mightiest emperor who ever lived, and this mightiest emperor took it into his head to send for the day-labourer – who never had dreamed, and ‘neither had it entered into his heart’, that the emperor knew of his existence, and who would therefore count himself indescribably happy just to be allowed to see the emperor, something he could recount to his children and grandchildren as the most important event in his life – if the emperor were to send for him and tell him that he wanted to have him as his son-in-law, what then? Then, humanly, the day-labourer would be somewhat, or very much, at a loss, shame-faced and embarrassed; humanly it would strike him (and this is the human aspect) as something exceedingly odd, something insane about which he least of all would dare say anything to any other person, since in his own mind he himself was already inclined to the explanation that the emperor wanted to make a fool of him – something his neighbours near and far would very soon be much occupied with, so that the day-labourer would be a laughing-stock for the whole city, with his picture in the paper, the story of his betrothal to the emperor’s daughter sold by the ballad-wives. Yet, being the emperor’s son-in-law, that could well soon be a public fact, so that the day-labourer would have the evidence of his own senses to confirm whether the emperor was serious or whether he wanted merely to make fun of the poor fellow, make him unhappy for rest of his life, and help him on the way to a mad-house. For here we have the quid nimis [excess] which can so infinitely easily turn into its opposite. Just a small kindness; that would make sense to the day-labourer, that would be understood in the market-town by its highly respected cultured public, by all the ballad wives, in short by the five times one hundred thousand people who lived in that market-town, which in pure numbers, to be sure, was even a large city, while in regard to its grasp of and feeling for the extraordinary was a very small market-town – but this, becoming a son-in-law, that was much too much. And suppose now that it was not a question of public fact, but a private one, so that its facticity could not help the day-labourer to be sure, but faith was the only facticity, and everything therefore entrusted to faith; a question of whether he had humble courage enough to dare to believe it (for brazen courage cannot help one believe). How many day-labourers do you think would then have the courage? But the person who lacked that courage would be offended; for him the extraordinary would almost sound as though it were a mockery of him. He might perhaps honestly and openly admit: ‘This sort of thing is too exalted for me. I can’t make sense of it; to put it bluntly, it strikes me as foolishness.’

And now Christianity! Christianity teaches that this single human being, and so every single human being, whether husband, wife, servant girl, cabinet minister, merchant, barber, student, etc., this single human being is before God – this single human being, who might be proud to have spoken once in his life with the king, this human being who hasn’t the least illusion of being on an intimate footing with this or that person, this human being is before God, can talk with God any time he wants, certain of being heard; in short this human being has an invitation to live on the most intimate footing with God! Furthermore, for this person’s sake, for the sake of this very person too, God comes to the world, lets himself be born, suffers, dies; and this suffering God, he well-nigh begs and implores this human being to accept the help offered to him! Truly, if there is anything one should lose one’s mind over, this is it! Every person who does not have the humble courage to dare to believe it is offended. But why is he offended? Because it is too exalted for him, because he cannot make sense of it, because he cannot be open and frank in the face of it, and therefore must have it removed, made into nothing, into madness and nonsense, for it is as if it were about to choke him.

For what is offence? Offence is unhappy admiration. It is therefore related to envy, but is an envy turned towards oneself, in an even stricter sense worst when it is turned towards itself. The natural man’s narrow-mindedness cannot bring itself to accept the extraordinary that God has intended for him, and so the natural man is offended.

The degree of offence then depends on how much passion a person has in his admiration. More prosaic people who lack imagination and passion, who are thus not properly fitted to admire, they too are offended, but they confine themselves to saying: ‘I can’t makes sense of such a thing; I leave it be.’ These are the sceptics. But the more passion and imagination a person has, the nearer he is in a certain sense, that is to say in terms of possibility, to being able to be a believer, nota bene, to humbling himself in adoration under extraordinary, and the more passionate the offence, which in the end can be satisfied with nothing less than getting this exterminated, annihilated, trampled in the dust.

If you want to learn to understand offence, then study human envy, a study I offer as an extra course, and fancy myself to have a studied thoroughly. Envy is concealed admiration. A man who admires something but feels he cannot be happy surrendering himself to it, that man chooses to be envious of what he admires. He then speaks another language. In this language of his the thing he admires is said to be nothing, something stupid and humiliating and peculiar and exaggerated. Admiration is happy self-surrender, envy is unhappy self-assertion.

So too with offence: that which in an interpersonal relationship is admiration/envy, in the relation between God and man is adoration/offence. The summa summarum [sum total]  of all human wisdom is this ‘golden’, or perhaps rather plated, ne quid nimis [nothing to excess], too much or too little spoils everything. This is bandied about as wisdom, rewarded by admiration; its rate of exchange never fluctuates, the whole of mankind guarantees its worth. Then if once in a while there lives a genius who goes just a little beyond, he is declared insane, by the wise. But Christianity  goes a huge gigantic stride beyond this ne quid nimis, into the absurd: that is where Christianity begins – and offence.

One can see now how extraordinarily (supposing any extraordinariness remains) – how extraordinarily stupid it is to defend Christianity, how little knowledge of humanity it betrays, how it connives if only unconsciously with offence by making Christianity out to be some miserable object that in the end must be rescued by a defence. It is therefore certain and true that the person who first thought of defending Christianity in Christendom is de facto a Judas No. 2; he too betrays with a kiss, except his treason is that of stupidity. To defend something is always to discredit it. Let a man have a warehouse full of gold, let him be willing to give away a ducat to every one of the poor – but let him also be stupid enough to begin this charitable undertaking of his with a defence in which he offers three good reasons in justification; and it will almost come to the point of people finding it doubtful whether indeed he is doing something good. But now for Christianity. Yes, the person who defends that has never believed in it. If he does believe, then the enthusiasm of faith is not a defence, no, it is the assault and the victory; a believer is a victor.

This is how it is with the Christian and offence. That its possibility is present in the Christian definition of sin is quite right. It is: before God. A pagan, natural man, is very willing to admit that there is sin, but this ‘before God’, which is really what makes it sin, that for him is much too much. It seems to him (though in another way than that shown here) to make much too much out of being a human being. Just a little less and he is willing to go along with it – but ‘too much is too much’.

I was going to posit a bunch of stuff about how Kierkegaard is basically right (with correctives needed here and there) if we pay close attention to his own qualifiers and our observations are bounded by his personal context.

RATHER! I submit this extended quote to the readers of the blog for a thoroughgoing critique/analysis. Comment on Facebook or here. Either way…

I hope you enjoyed this extended quote from The Sickness Unto Death.

P.S. Quote derived from Kierkegaard, Soren. Translated by Alastair Hannay. Penguin Books Great Ideas Edition. 1989.

P.P.S. That is, admittedly, not scholarly citing procedure.

  1. I was gellin’ with this quote until he started talking about defending one’s faith, which (I’ll have you know) offended me. I understand what he’s getting at, but he’s setting up a false dichotomy of words, that a defense is not a true offensive and victorious faith, much like the recent phrase that “Religion =/= Gospel.” Well…sure.

    To be more clear, the best defense is a strong offense and vice versa.

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