In his doctoral thesis, On the Concept of Irony, with Continual Reference to Socrates, Kierkegaard writes of the ironist who approaches life as a spectator:
The ironist stands proudly withdrawn into himself; he lets mankind pass before him, as did Adam the animals, and finds no companionship for himself…For him life is a drama. He is himself a spectator even when performing some act…He is inspired by the virtues of self-sacrifice as a spectator is inspired by them in a theatre…He lives hypothetically and subjunctively, his life finally loses all continuity. With this he sinks completely into mood. His life becomes sheer mood.
As a student of philosophy and religion at a liberal arts university which champions “critical thinking” above all else, I am constantly tempted to adopt an ironic stance. There is always another counterargument or underrepresented perspective which must be taken into account. Every religious practice or experience can be deconstructed and explained away. Committing to a particular position makes one vulnerable to attack. It is much safer to argue hypothetically from a position that is not your own. At first, this was simply a safety measure, adopted only for the academic sphere. After three years of training in hypothetical argument, however, the ironic stance has begun to permeate to the core of my selfhood.
Especially since my mood tends toward the dark and gloomy, I want to avoid experiencing life as “sheer mood” at all costs. However, I am equally afraid of falling into violent dogmatism, false optimism, unconcerned resignation, or total despair.
I have found that the Eucharistic table provides a needed corrective to my detached attitude. The Lord’s Supper demands sincere participation. Even the Lord’s table can become a site of hardened cynicism though, when it becomes a reminder of Christian disunity or a demonstration of doctrinal disagreement.
This weekend, I spent some time with my friends at the White Rose Catholic Worker, a community about fifteen miles from my university. A young couple and their toddler homestead on a piece of land without electricity or running water. They practice radical simplicity, hospitality, participate in community organizing (for example, they are involved in an effort to stop the construction of a power line which will cut through local farmers’ land), and operate on the gift economy. They seek to interact nonviolently with people and the land, recognizing that these are inseparable actions. During this visit, we gave some extra attention and care to young chestnut and mulberry trees which they recently planted on their property. Though it will be several years before the trees will produce fruit, this is the beginning of an edible forest garden. The trees are a tangible sign of hope, and they are cared for with future generations in mind.
Communities like the White Rose provide an important form of prophetic witness. I am forced to honestly reevaluate my lifestyle when I encounter their radical, joyful, and abundant life. Of course, even they are not immune to ironic critique. The ironist can applaud or criticize their efforts without ever evaluating his own actions. Even beautiful, selfless human endeavors can be analyzed to death in the name of “critical thinking.” My body and spirit tell me that communities like the White Rose are visible signs that the Kingdom of God is in our midst; the ironist in me asks what good they are doing by living this way in their isolated corner of the world.
Who will deliver us from this infinite regress? How can we escape the grip of the ironist?
After my joyful visit to the Catholic Worker, these words of Jesus came to mind:
“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”