A Literature Survey of the Kierkegaardian Concept of “Neighbor Love”

Preserving Works of Love: A Literature Survey of the Kierkegaardian Concept of “Neighbor Love”

In Works of Love, Søren Kierkegaard, widely considered the father of existentialism, distinguishes between ‘preferential love’ and ‘neighbor love’ in the context of the biblical mandate to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”[i] He insists that in order for ‘neighbor love’ to be truly fulfilled, one is obligated to deny self and forego all preferences. This controversial claim has been the subject of extensive academic debate, since preferential love is such an inherent human experience – it’s naturally validated for a father to prefer his child’s life to that of his child’s kidnapper.

One academic perspective suggests that Works of Love requires proper interpretation in order to understand that preferential love is included within Kierkegaard’s realm of neighbor love – a viewpoint held by M. Jamie Ferreira and John Lippit. Contrarily, some scholars such as Sharon Krishek and Gene Fendt argue that it lacks intellectual integrity to write off the blatant conclusions in Works of Love as mere misinterpretations. Rather, Works of Love is basally erred and a characterization of the extreme, since Kierkegaard likes to write under pseudonyms in order to think as different characters. They espouse that to truly understand Kierkegaard’s message, Works of Love must not be read as a standalone piece, but in complement with Kierkegaard’s other works, taking the attributed author “Søren Kierkegaard” to represent another character and not Kierkegaard himself.

In the following analysis, the contested issues in Works of Love will be examined first, followed by the two hermeneutical sides of argument. Subsequently, both exegeses will be rejected in support of a third view that takes Works of Love as neither erred nor needing of interpretation. There is no mistake in Kierkegaard’s objection to preferential love, which is a necessary position to maintain in order to illuminate the Lutheran notion of man’s finitude, a stance held by scholars such as Paul Müller and Amy Hall. Only by this interpretation do Kierkegaard’s radical statements and the strange authorship of Works of Love find full cohesion.

Kierkegaard maintained that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection was God’s primary ‘work of love’ for humanity, and only through the work of Christ can genuine love be understood. Given the command to love thy neighbor as thyself, Kierkegaard says, “Only by loving God above all else can one love the neighbor (and oneself ),” because God is love.[ii] How then does one love God? Just as Christ sacrificed himself, “only in self-denial can one hold fast to God,” answers Kierkegaard.[iii] Further, perfect self-denial is a state in which “the distinction ‘mine and yours’ disappears,” until one becomes selfless, “transparent,” and “as nothing” before God, i.e., a piece of clay in a potter’s hand yet to be formed.[iv]

This concept of transparency is central in order to convey God as the author of all works of love, and not the human actors who are merely used by God to realize his love.[v] Thus, Kierkegaard establishes self-denial as the sole modality capable of arriving at transparency in order to transfer God’s love, for the sake of fulfilling the mandate to love thy neighbor. Furthermore, “Christianity has made it eternally impossible to mistake him,” says Kierkegaard, “the neighbor, to be sure, is all people.”[vi] Thus, antipodal to self-denial is self-affirmation, realized as the selfish sin to preferentially love some people instead of all people.[vii] Ergo, all works of preferential love, be they erotic or fraternal, are rejected by Kierkegaard as violations of the divine mandate.

Kierkegaard’s profession of self-denial and transparency also plays into the authorship and categorization of Works of Love, which is a subject of heavy debate. Kierkegaard acknowledged that in order for his book to be a work of love in itself, he had to actively remove himself from the position of author so that God’s authorship may come through.[viii] However, he remains the medium, the physical pen which God utilizes to write, and so he helms the role of the messenger, or, for lack of a better word, “author.” To convey the removal of self, Kierkegaard used dashes to emphasize points of excisions of his ego from parts of the text.[ix] As such, the signature of Søren Kierkegaard to Works of Love should be properly understood as a form of “second authorship,” by which Kierkegaard is neither fully speaking as himself as in his sermonic Upbuilding Discourses (first authorship), nor posited as an entirely pseudonymous character with an established viewpoint (third authorship). Moreover, Kierkegaard opens Works of Love by categorizing it as a work of “deliberation,” a term he defines in his journals as a work with maieutic intent to “rightly set all the elements into motion.”[x] Thus the authorship and style of Works of Love indicate that its intent is not to preach truth to readers, but to present content that goes into considerations of love, to thus allow readers to arrive at their own conclusions.

The first scholastic view holds that self-denial and the rejection of preferential love are misread conclusions to Works of Love. Instead, M. Jamie Ferreira claims that, “Kierkegaard’s assertions against preferential love should be interpreted as attesting to his concern with equality and not as a manifestation of his rejection of preferential love.”[xi] Arriving at this claim requires the presupposition that ought implies can. Ferreira argues that God would not command what cannot be done, and if the command to love thy neighbor were taken to be unconditional and universal in scope, we would be tasked with the impossibility of helping everyone, everywhere, at the same time, and with the same resources.[xii]

The absurdity of this commandment renders it void unless, Ferreira suggests, the meaning of neighbor love is repositioned from ‘helping everyone’ to ‘not excluding anyone’.[xiii] The burden of responsibility to love is thus not placed on the lover to go out and actively love people, but on the beloved to declare the level of desired inclusion. Indeed, in a case of the stranger in physical distress, a Samaritan’s love for neighbor will address the stranger’s distinctive needs, but it would also not have the same tenderness that would be shown to an intimate preferential relation. In fact, it would be unloving and uncalled for to express love to the stranger at an undesired level of intimacy, and it would be unloving of the stranger to request such intimacy from the Samaritan (remember that the stranger too is held to the commandment to love his neighbor).

As such, Ferreira axiomatizes Kierkegaard’s notion of neighbor love to mean “we are commanded not to let the lack of preference militate against the other’s equality as a child of God.”[xiv] Lippit adds to this by observing, “it is surely implausible to think that for Kierkegaard my love for God should be identical to my love for my annoying upstairs neighbour. The object itself makes a difference to the nature of the love.” The expression of neighbor love is instead a matter of weighing the different natures of loves through what Lippit calls a “God Filter.” For instance: Does my love for Sylvie merely serve my selfish desires? Does my friendship with Joe require me to act in a way that I know to be inconsistent with good?[xv]

This God Filter thereby places everyone in perspective of the Kierkegaardian self-denying love that wants to appreciate the agent’s needs, but avoids approving the kind of need that renders the other instrumental for satisfaction. Yet, self-denial does not degrade into self-deprivation since the “as thyself” phrase of the commandment is an important qualifier of what it means to love others, which starts by loving yourself in the right way.[xvi] To love yourself in the right way is to recognize the value and love that God has for you, and with that understanding, to love God in return and to see one’s neighbor as equally loved by God. Thus, self-denial is paradoxically the best way to love oneself, God, and the neighbor – upholding Ferreira’s claim that “there is only one true love, one kind of love, and that love is expressed. Be it for neighbor or lover, it is the same love that is expressed.”[xvii]

Opposing the previous hermeneutical approach to Works of Love, the second school of thought claims that Kierkegaard should be interpreted only for what has been clearly elucidated. Fendt questions how many readers would actually be able to do such scholastic acrobatics with Works of Love alone and if Kierkegaard meant it to be read that way.[xviii] More eloquently, Krishek concurs that Works of Love should be taken as written, and insists that while the “author’s” conclusions are inadequate, they must be posited against Kierkegaard’s others works in order to understand the truth that he meant to convey (just as how Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, and Stages of Life’s Way must be examined together to understand Kierkegaard’s realms of the aesthetic, ethical, and religious).

Firstly, while Kierkegaard was right to think that self-affirmation is intrinsically preferential, Krishek says he neglects that preferential love also involves self-denial. In many romantic loves, the lover often denies self-interest for the sake of the beloved. In reverse, neighbor love can also involve an element of self-affirmation, for it is natural to feel a sense of joy and satisfaction in helping one’s neighbor.[xix] Krishek also criticizes the apologies of Ferreira and Lippit, as they fail to explain why preference is developed between peoples in the first place. They also fail to address how self-affirmation and self-denial of love fit equally under ‘neighbor love’ in lieu of Kierkegaard’s distinctly tiered valuation of preferential and neighbor love.[xx]

To solve these quandaries and reclaim Works of Love, Krishek suggests that what Kierkegaard meant to convey must be thought of in relation to Fear and Trembling. Where Fear and Trembling is primarily concerned with the issue of faith, Krishek considers faith as synonymous to love (since faith may be thought of as one’s love for God). In Fear and Trembling, faith is described as containing elements of resignation (self-denial) and repetition. Krishek argues that Works of Love correctly recognizes resignation – one’s duty to deny oneself and treat one’s neighbor as an equal; what it misses is repetition – “the ability to find joy and hope and meaning in finitude, against the background of releasing – of renouncing or denying – the hold on it.”[xxi] In the context of Works of Love, Krishek argues preferential loves are the clearest manifestation of repetition as they affirm our relation to finitude.[xxii] God also respects our finitude, as shown in his allowance of Abraham’s preference for Isaac. Only through this dialectical dance of resignation and repetition can love be fully understood. Accordingly, a full account of what Kierkegaard means for love that is complete must see room for both self-denial and self-affirmation.

Moving on to the third and most veracious view, Works of Love is to be read and interpreted verbatim, as intended by Kierkegaard. First of all, it does not make sense that the “second authorship” method removes Kierkegaard from ownership of the conclusions in Works of Love, for if it did, then Works of Love might as well have been written pseudonymously. Rather, as Paul Müller suggests, Kierkegaard stands behind what he writes, but ‘makes himself nothing’ as he struggles towards self-renunciation, which is at the heart of Works of Love. Neighbor love is not something that human beings can fully conceive, which explains why academia has such a hard time accepting Works of Love and tries to salvage preferential love. It would perhaps be best to let Kierkegaard position himself on this matter, as is written in his journal pages:

Johannes Climacus places himself so low that he even says that he himself is not a Christian, one seems to be able to detect in Anti-Climacus that he considers himself to be a Christian on an extraordinarily high level…. I would place myself higher than Johannes Climacus, lower than Anti-Climacus. (JP 6:6433)[xxiii]

There is no doubt that Kierkegaard meant what he says in Works of Love, but it still doesn’t qualify as a first-author piece due to its maieutic, self-effacing qualities, and reconstrual of love in negative illumination of his pseudonymous characters. Therefore, Works of Love is not written to nicely orient preferential love in the framework of neighbor love as interpreted by Ferreira and Lippit, but its very rhetorical momentum is indeed to disorient the reader. As suggested by Amy Hall, Kierkegaard had designed Works of Love to drive home Luther’s recognition of humanity inability to fulfill biblical law, but simultaneous responsibility to keep striving towards it.[xxiv] Using previously discussed terms, ought does not imply can for Kierkegaard, which perfectly encapsulates the conundrum of authorship surrounding Works of Love. Kierkegaard believes that neighbor love ought to be the only correct form of love, which is compatible with his authorship, but in the spirit of self-denial and recognition of his hypocrisy and finitude, he separates himself from the narrator to allow God’s facts of love to come through and compel the reader to love neighborly despite its confusing impossibility. Indeed, when examining the New Testament on this matter, Jesus is strikingly unforgiving against preference to the point of denying his own parentage and forbidding disciples from revisiting their families.[xxv] Although some may point to Jesus’ weeping for Lazarus and selection of disciples as evidence of preference, they misapprehend the assignment of responsibility from love, e.g., a father who refuses to give his reckless 18-year-old son a car but gladly gives his responsible 16-year-old son a car does not definitively prefer or love one son more than the other. Ultimately, Jesus’ final act of dying on the cross for literally everybody, from the “disciple whom he loved” to the Pharisees whom he seemingly unpreferentially called “a brood of vipers,” is the fundamental example of neighbor love that Kierkegaard implores in Works of Love for us and himself to emulate.[xxvi]

While scholars have long been troubled by the ethos of Works of Love, its pathos and logos are immutably firm such that any apologetic interpretation or reclamation of it would be a complete aberration. Preferential and neighbor are not a singular love as suggested by Krishek, and Works of Love is not a colored presentation of love that needs to be qualified. Kierkegaard was fully aware of the impossibility of perfect neighbor love, which is part of the reason why he employed the “second authorship.” Moreover, it may be helpful to consider how Jesus too made similar statements, such as in Matthew 5 where he advises people to cut off their right hand if it leads them to sin. The absurdity or impossibility of the act doesn’t diminish its purpose; likewise, Works of Love is not an explicit how-to guide. Instead it is a “deliberation” designed to inform the reader of the cruciality of neighbor love and to prompt the reader towards the Lutheran notion to “seek and beseech the grace of obedience, and receive it continually.”[xxvii]


i. William McDonald, “Søren Kierkegaard”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N.
Zalta, 21 December 2014, <http://plato.stanford. edu/archives/win2014/entries/kierkegaard/>; Mark 12:31 (NIV).
ii. Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, trans. Howard V. Hong (New York: HarperPerennial, 2009), 57-58.
iii. Kierkegaard, 363.
iv. Kierkegaard, 26; Jeremiah 18:6 (NIV).
v. William McDonald, “Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
May 28, 2015, <http://www.iep.utm.edu/ kierkega/#SH4a>.
vi. Kierkegaard, 51-52.
vii. Ronald L. Hall, “Sharon Krishek: Kierkegaard on Faith and Love,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 67, no. 2 (2010): 114.
viii. McDonald, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
ix. McDonald, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
x. Mark Stapp, “Kierkegaard’s Work of Love” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2009), 11.
xi. John Lippitt and George Pattison, The Oxford Handbook of Kierkegaard (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford
University Press, 2013), 338-340.
xii. M. Jamie Ferreira, Love’s Grateful Striving: A Commentary on Kierkegaard’s Works of Love (New
York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 40; Lippitt and Pattison, 338-340.
xiii. Lippitt and Pattison, 338-340.
xiv. Ferreira, 251.
xv. John Lippitt, “Kierkegaard and the problem of special relationships: Ferreira, Krishek and the ‘God filter’,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 72, no. 3 (2012): 191.
xvi. Lippitt and Pattison, 338-340.
xvii. Ferreira, 203.
xviii. Stapp, 26-27.
xix. Sharon Krishek, Kierkegaard on Faith and Love (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009),
xx. Hall, 114.
xxi. Hall, 114.
xxii. Krishek, 123.
xxiii. Jan E. Evans, Unamuno and Kierkegaard: Paths to Selfhood in Fiction (Lanham, Md.: Lexington
Books, 2005), 42.; Johannes Climacus is one of the pseudonyms employed Kierkegaard to exprees
non-Christian, sola logica perspecties, whereas Anti-Climacus is the antipodous super-Christian
xxiv. Amy Laura Hall, Kierkegaard and the Treachery of Love (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 46-47.
xxv. Matthew 12:49; Luke 9:57-62 (NIV).
xxvi. John 20:2; Matthew 23:33 (NIV).
xxvii. John Nicholas Lenker, Luther’s Catechetical Writings: God’s Call to Repentance, Faith and Prayer (Minneapolis, Minnesota: The Luther Press, 1907), 107.


Emmanuel Hui ’17 is from Hong Kong. He is a double major in Religion and Biology.


Image: Children in Ethiopia by Kelsey Ham, The Williams Telos, Spring 2011.

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