The Personalist Project

Do you admire Pope Francis?

Are you sure that’s a good thing?

Here’s what Soren Kierkegaard has to say about admirers in his short work, Provocations:

… Admirers are related to the admired only through the excitement of the imagination.  To them he is like an actor on the stage except that, this being real life, the effect he produces is somewhat stronger.  But for their part, admirers make the same demands that are made in the theater: to sit safe and calm.

What’s the alternative, then?  Kierkegaard addresses that, too:

What, then, is the difference betwee an admirer and a follower?  A follower is or strives to be what he admires.  An admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached.  He fails to see that what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires. 

(I’m not saying, of course, that we should be “followers” of the Pope as if he were God.  But through him we see something—the Good—that has a claim on us, requiring us to be more than spectators.)

Kierkegaard continues:

… Admirers are only all too willing to serve Christ as long as proper caution is exercised, less one personally come in contact with danger. 

"I'm not contagious, but the Pope didn't know that."

                 "I'm not contagious, but the Pope didn't know that."

…And Christ’s life indeed makes it manifest, terrifyingly manifest, what dreadful untruth it is to admire the truth instead of following it.  When there is no danger, when there is a dead calm, when everything is favorable to our Christianity, it is all too easy to confuse an admirer with a follower.  And this can happen very quietly.  The admirer can be in the delusion that the position he takes is the true one, when all he is doing is playing it safe. …

Here’s an important point: an admirer need not be an intentional hypocrite.  He may “approve” of the truth.  He may even speak out for it on Facebook, making generous use of caps lock.

He may be on the side of all that is good and wholesome, sincerely oblivious to truth’s built-in demands.  Yet it’s not a harmless weakness:

The admirer is infatuated with the false security of greatness; but if there is any inconvenience or trouble, he pulls back.  Admiring the truth, instead of following it, is just as dubious a fire as the fire of erotic love, which at the turn of the hand can be changed into exactly the opposite, to hate, jealousy, and revenge.

... [A follower] renounces nothing, gives up nothing, will not reconstruct his life, will not be what he admires.

It’s reported every so often that people don’t have heroes anymore. But maybe that’s not the problem.  We’re easily inspired by people who run soup kitchens in Detroit or fly to the Philippines to help the hurricane victims.  (I can't resist posting this delightful picture of my old classmate, Fr. Jeremy, who did just that last month.)  

But we can slip into regarding them as a separate species.  Admiration seems like a desire to become like them, when in fact it protects us from the expectation of doing exactly that.  People used to say, a little defensively, “I’m no Mother Teresa.”  Some are probably already gushing, “I’m no Pope Francis, but I think he’s just so inspiring.”

Are we immune?  There are two types of people who should especially guard against thinking so.  (I fall squarely into both categories, so this isn’t gratuitous badmouthing of anybody.)

  • The academic: If we are accustomed to dealing in ideas, ideologies, and intellectual trends, we might fail to realize that approving of good principles and competently refuting bad ones does not count as doing good and avoiding evil, or even “being on the right side” in any meaningful way.
  • The “keeping it (excessively) real” type: the ones who say, “Good for St. So-and-So, walking a hundred miles through the howling desert to say Mass.  I’m proud of myself if I make it out from under the electric blanket in time for the 11:30."  Or  “Good for Mrs. So-and-So who makes an entire gingerbread village for her twelve children every Christmas.  My kids are lucky if I remember to get to the Dollar Store for stocking stuffers.”

As I mentioned here, moving beyond admiration need not take the form of mimicry.  We're not required to do the exact same good deeds in the exact same way.  And even Kierkegaard--not an indulgent man--allowed that "striving" to be like the object of your admiration counts for something.  

But don't settle for being a spiritual couch potato.  

Comments (2)

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#1, Dec 13, 2013 10:43am

Ouch. That hits me where it a good way, much as does Francis' writing! (I'm only two thirds through the exhortation, still trying to avoid other people's interpretations and read what it has to say to me...challenging stuff!)

Jules van Schaijik

#2, Dec 13, 2013 11:43am

Great post Devra.  It fits very well with our motto: tua res agitur.

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