(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The seventh son of a wealthy wool merchant, Søren Kierkegaard resided all his life in the large family dwelling in central Copenhagen, where he was prominent as a literary figure. An unhappy love affair, quarrels with other writers, and, in his last years, disputes with the Church—all documented in lengthy journals—make up the story of his life. Graduated in theology, he put off taking orders (Lutheran); still, an overriding sense of what the Gospel can mean to those who embrace it with faith and love led him to sandwich between his various poetical and philosophical writings a number of “Edifying Discourses,” of which the present book is a memorable example.

Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing is a penitential sermon intended to accompany the office of Confession. To be sure, it is an amplified sermon, not meant to be preached but to be read; still, it is a sermon, with a text, appropriate divisions, long, somnolent stretches, and a conclusion exhorting the reader to change his or her ways. The sermon, which enjoins holiness, deserves a place in the literature of Christian perfection. “Purity of heart,” Søren Kierkegaard’s name for holiness, is conceived as right willing, that is, willing the Good, or what God wills—“the one thing needful.” The text comes from James 4:8: “Draw nigh to God and He will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts ye double-minded.” “Double-minded” (Greek dipsychos, a term peculiar to Jewish-Christian wisdom literature) means doubting, wavering, uncertain, and especially division of interest between the world and God. Appropriately in a preconfessional sermon, the preacher’s main concern is to expose double-mindedness (or, as we might say, bad faith, not in the sense of deceiving others but in the deeper sense of deceiving oneself). In any case, the opposite of double-mindedness, that is, willing one thing, does not lend itself to any elaboration. For Kierkegaard, it is equivalent to obeying the secret voice of conscience.

The divisions of the sermon (obscured by extraneous section headings in the American version) are conveniently stated by the author in more places than one. The argument falls into two main parts: a shorter part in which it is maintained that to will one thing one must lift one’s eyes to the heavens, for there is nothing on earth that can be willed with an undivided will; and a much longer part in which typical duplicities that creep into the creaturely will when it tries to conform itself to the will of the Creator are systematically exposed. In this second part, the author further distinguishes between willing and doing. The problem when one tries to will what heaven wills is that self-interest keeps creeping in.

The first, relatively short, part of the sermon, called “Willing the Good,” is of interest mainly in view of the claim of secular humanists that doubters can give meaning and weight to their lives by willing one thing without any reference to the Good. Select a cause, give it your all, and save your soul in so doing. Whether it is the best cause will always be debatable, but all that you need ask is whether it is a cause with which you have enough affinity to be authentic in the role you will be undertaking to play. A life is too precious to waste in drifting with the tide. Be somebody! Maybe you will find out that you are strong enough not even to need a cause to lean on. Choose your goal and follow it ruthlessly to the end!

How far does willing one thing—any one thing—equal purity of heart? Suppose the extreme case, Kierkegaard proposes. Can the unmitigated seeker after pleasure or wealth or power win a halo merely in virtue of the consistency with which the goal is pursued? No doubt such a person can—in the eyes of the double-minded. If halos were for average persons to bestow, quite possibly they would immortalize great sinners who have done what the bestower would sneakingly have liked to do. Questions arise, however. When one devotes oneself to pleasure or power or wealth or fame, is that person in fact willing one thing? First, may that person not be mistaken about the world? How can anyone will one thing in a world where everything changes, often into its opposite? “Carried to its extreme limit,” says Kierkegaard, “what is pleasure other than disgust? What is earthly honor at its dizzy pinnacle other than contempt for existence? What are riches, the highest superabundance of riches, other than poverty?” Second, is not such a person’s conception of self mistaken? One may imagine, perhaps, that one is self-made, the only one strong enough to overcome the indolence and mediocrity that enslave the human spirit. In thinking so, however, one is surely deluded. Moreover, Kierkegaard remarks, “if you should meet him in what he himself would call a weak moment, but which, alas, you would have to call a better moment,” you might find him envying “that man of single purpose who even in all his frailty still wills the Good.”

The second, much longer, part of the sermon is called “Willing the Good in Truth.” It is addressed to upright souls, to conventional Christians, to those who, like the Pharisee in the parable, are in the habit of addressing God with a certain complacency, and who are not like other people—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like yon publican. Its purpose is to show that good people ought not to get into the habit of approaching God too familiarly, not because of minor lapses but because of what might appear to one standing on the other side as treachery or double-dealing.

In division A of this second part, the sermon appeals to the hearers to get themselves together: “If it be possible for a man to will the Good in truth, then he must be at one with himself in willing to renounce all double-mindedness.” In developing this point, the preacher suggests that we ask ourselves whether we serve the Good with a single eye or with an eye out for rewards and punishments. Only briefly does Kierkegaard touch the question...

(The entire section is 2483 words.)