Love’s Hidden Life and Its Recognisability by Its Fruits
Kierkegaard begins the first chapter of Works of Love by providing a definition of deception quite nuanced in its difference from what is normally expressed by that term. In beautifully characteristic Kierkegaardian style, he takes a concept with which we feel familiar, which we feel needs no explanation, and he turns it on its head–and precisely by turning it on its head, he turns it upright.
SK asserts that not only does deception involve believing what is untrue, but also that one who does not believe what is true is at least equally if not more greatly deceived–and “to cheat oneself out of love is the most terrible deception.” Kierkegaard is here laying groundwork for what will be a major theme throughout this first chapter, the central theme of one later chapter, and an underlying theme throughout the book–one must believe in love. Again, what this means is by no means that fluttering, fleeting, fanciful emotion that the world might refer to by using that phrase, “believe in love!” Rather, it is the disposition that one must develop if he is ever to discover what Christian love means. It is the humility to submit to one’s Christian duty in loving all men; it is the trust to God, to the eternal, to make such love possible; and it is the willingness to believe that love exists in others, even when its fruits are not clear or not as beautiful and consistent as we might wish them to be. (Here, as in many other places, no doubt, I shall have to resist the temptation to transcribe lengthy portions of Kierkegaard’s own text–what I can condense and relate only in the most broad and imprecise snippets, he communicates with such clarity, precision, and delightful literary skill that one feels almost irreverent–and certainly inadequate–in attempting to paraphrase or summarize anything at all.)
At any rate, the reason that SK prefaces this chapter with an exploration of deception is that only when having understood properly that one must believe in love can anyone apprehend the truth that love is essentially and fundamentally hidden and yet still recognisable by its fruits. Such dialectical movements towards deriving balance from apparent tensions and towards becoming comfortable with paradox are also beautifully, characteristically Kierkegaardian. In my experience, understanding these movements is essential to understanding his writings, as readers must be comfortable with accepting mediating positions rather than those extremes towards which mankind seems more easily and naturally drawn. Indeed, the fact that many of SK’s ideas are balanced does not make them weaker, nor does it make them more palatable to human nature–as we shall see, true Christian love is an offence to the merely human, and only by God’s grace in helping us beyond that offense can we genuinely offer to others the kind of love Kierkegaard describes.
I am, however, getting far ahead of myself, while also neglecting the material in the chapter at hand. Such is the nature of the book that this jumping ahead is almost unavoidable, as each portion of the writings is both foundational for and illuminated by what follows. But to return to love’s hiddenness …
I believe anyone who has ever experienced love to any degree must admit that there is something of the myth in it–rationalize too strictly, scrutinize too carefully, and something of the (trite cliche though it may be, perhaps) “magic” of love is lost. Here I’m afraid I shall simply have to indulge in some lengthy quotation, both because I am ill equipped to address this further on my own, and because I feel that Kierkegaard’s own words need little explanation:
… as the rays of the sun invite men to observe by their help the glory of the world but reproachfully punish with blindness the presumptuous who try to turn about in order inquisitively and impudently to discover the origin of the light; … so also it is the desire and prayer of love that … no one inquisitively and impudently will disturbingly thrust his way in to see what he cannot see anyway, the joy and blessing which, however, he forfeits by his curiosity. … the suffering is most painful and most devastating when someone, instead of rejoicing in the manifestations of love, wants the pleasure of penetrating into it, that is, by disturbing it.
We who petulantly and childishly demand from almost everything a “how” or a “why” balk at the thought that there may be secrets that ought not to be grasped for or explanations that need not be given. Little do we care that striving to provide such explanations on our own may often be the root of much disillusionment, demystifying, and despair.
SK teaches us that just as we must admit our inability to comprehend the totality of God’s nature or to express His character in human terms, so must we be satisfied to let love keep the precious secrets of its source–because that source, if love be truly love, is God Himself:
As the quiet lake is fed deep down by the flow of hidden springs, which no eye sees, so a human being’s love is grounded, still more deeply, in God’s love. If there were no spring at the bottom, if God were not love, then there would be neither a little lake nor a man’s love.
This does not mean that love is always, essentially, unobservable, however. SK does write, after all, about works of love–and he tells us next that love is known by its fruits. These fruits are not words alone–important though it is to express the words of an emotion that “is not your possession, but the other’s.” Nor can even motives or actions themselves be thought conclusive proofs of one’s love. But though love may not ever become known by its fruits, it remains true that all true love is capable of becoming known by its fruits. And one ought not to strive towards the fulfillment of this capability, but rather to ensure simply that the capability exists. This involves an overhauling of one’s whole way of thinking–it is dispositional, radical, and something quite foreign to human nature. For love may indeed produce words, actions, and proper motives, but genuine love produces these things from a new heart, for “Love, to be sure, proceeds from the heart, but let us not in our haste about this forget that love forms the heart.”
Again, there is much more to be said about all the vast and varying things encompassed in that statement–it is hoped that those things will become clearer as Kierkegaard progresses. For now, though even chapter one has not here been fully discussed, it shall suffice to proceed to the next chapter with this basic groundwork–that love is hidden, must thus be believed in, and is yet capable of being known by its fruits.