Arts and Culture

The Absurdity of Christmas

Søren Kierkegaard
(Photo © Wikimedia Commons/United States Public Domain )

THERE ARE SEVERAL reasons why I look forward to Christmas each year. Like many I look forward to the celebration at dinners and parties, the exchange of gifts, the gathering of family and friends, the widespread good cheer that can be easily observed among most people.

But I also look forward to Christmas because of awe and wonder at the incarnation, at the mystery of the Son of God becoming human.

For some reason, which I do not completely understand, this advent I have been thinking about a philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), whose thought I teach in a few of my philosophy courses at St. John’s University.

Known as the “Father of Existentialism” Kierkegaard had wonderful insights into freedom and faith. I wish to share my understanding of those insights with readers of this column in the hope that reflecting on them might help readers experience anew how awesome and wonderful the mystery of the incarnation is.

Kierkegaard claimed that the incarnation is the crucifixion of the intellect. I believe he meant that we can neither prove it nor completely understand it but that we always can go deeper in our reflections on the incarnation and never exhaust its meaning and beauty.

Kierkegaard thought that there were basically three ways of living or three stages on life’s way. He called them the esthetic, the ethical and the religious. The esthetic was commitment to sense pleasure – the best food, the best wine, the best theatre, the best sexual experience. Freedom on this stage was doing whatever you feel like doing.

There was no sense of any transcendent. Nor was there any depth in this way of living. If a person were to live totally on this stage, the logical outcome would be suicide. No matter what the sense pleasure is, it does not completely fulfill us. The person on this stage is looking for salvation and fulfillment where it cannot be found.

Though suicide is the logical outcome for living on the esthetic stage, the person does not have to commit suicide. He or she can leap to the ethical stage on which the emphasis is on law, duty and commitment.

There is a strong sense of obligation on this stage and the person on this stage believes that anything that is good on the esthetic level is present and better on the ethical stage. However, the person on this stage does not find fulfillment in laws or rules. He or she can leap to the religious stage which is the best way to live.

Whenever someone refers to the “Kierkegaardian leap,” he or she probably means a leap of faith to the religious stage.

According to Kierkegaard, the religious stage has four characteristics inward, subjective, leap and absurd. Inward means that it is deep. It is not something casual or that is basically superficial. It involves the whole person, it involves the redirection of a person’s life. It is the unifying force behind a person’s various activities.

By subjective Kierkegaard does not mean arbitrary but rather personal. The human person encounters the personal God. By a leap Kierkegaard means that the person risks everything. The leap involves the person’s deepest self and the risk involves a person’s entire life.

The characteristic absurd does not mean that this way of living makes no sense, which is what we usually mean when we describe something as absurd. Rather by absurd Kierkegaard means that it makes so much sense that we cannot understand it completely. There is so much meaning in any mystery that we cannot grasp the meaning and mystery fully. There is so much meaning that our minds cannot wrap around it totally. It involves enormous mystery.

I think there are four ways that the third stage is absurd. First, Christ is absurd. How can someone be both divine and human? That seems absurd. But it is true. Second, why would someone make a leap of faith to Christ, whom we cannot understand completely? That would seem to be an absurd act and yet, it is based on a profound truth. The incarnation is absurd, but true.

Third, how can one man’s death be so important that the entire human race is saved by that death? That is absurd but true. How can a human act of faith, a leap of faith, a temporal act that might take only a moment, be so significant that it gains that person an eternity of happiness with God? That seems absurd but it is true.

Of course, all four “absurdities” are related to the profound truth that God is love and that God has surrounded our lives with love.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.

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