When I first read Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death in my young twenties, I was well aware that I had discovered a special writer. The more of his works I encountered, the more I recognized the undercurrents for much of the existential literature I had already studied. After pouring myself into his collection, it was easy to see that his writing translated very well from the 1800s to our own time – very much like Dostoevsky’s novels still do today as well.
Kierkegaard’s book Stages on Life’s Way was perhaps my favorite experience of his works. When you’re attempting to absorb his meaning, there are many difficult passages and concepts – not to mention obscure references and languages that you have to make sense of. It’s clear that he loves Shakespeare and Schiller and other great dramatists, but I get the suspicion that he had just a few issues with Hegel. I think his biggest concern was the watered down Christianity that he felt was plaguing Denmark. For Kierkegaard, Christianity was something to aspire to and not necessarily simple – the cure that was worse than the poison. The religious life finds its security not in knowing, but in believing. And as our beliefs become less defined it becomes increasingly important that we hold firm to the idea of an eternal goodness as we move from each location on our journey.
Stages on Life’s Way captivated me because Kierkegaard turns his attention to the religious sphere after spending so much time on the aesthetic and ethical. Although I am not going to discuss his definition of these stages on this page, I intend to create a section on my website to discuss my understanding of his works beginning with Stages.
From my own experience, I have also arranged some of my own writing around stages of beliefs as well:
Stage 1 – Presuppositions : As children our beliefs are given to us.
Stage 2 – Ownership : As adolescents we defend these beliefs even as we break away from our parents.
Stage 3 – Questioning : As late adolescents/young adults, we begin to question the beliefs we were given.
Stage 4 – Abandoning : As young adults, the insight that comes from experience allows us to break away from black & white thinking.
Stage 5 – Integrating : As free thinkers, we replace the security of conviction with openness and compassion. We incorporate all the knowledge we’ve learned in our lifetime.
In my book A Dog’s Religion, the main character, Grant Spire, is in the painful abandonment stage where he’s torn between remaining obedient to an ideal or embracing uncertainty. As in many unhealthy relationships, the person who suffers the most is often the least conscious of the dysfunction and even a close friend can’t convince that person otherwise. The sufferer must come to this realization on his or her own, otherwise there will always be the potential for a reunion and another vicious cycle. In my observation, very few people who end up freeing themselves from literalism reverse direction and take on the shackles again. There is always another stage to work through.