The Task of Hope in Kierkegaard

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Mark Bernier
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     2015.
     240 pages.
     $110.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198747888.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Mark Bernier, author of The Task of Hope in Kierkegaard, believes the concept of hope has not received sufficient attention in philosophy in general, and in Kierkegaard studies in particular. In this book he seeks to fill that gap. Bernier admits that part of the reason for this gap in Kierkegaard studies is the Dane’s own lack of a focused treatise on hope. Bernier’s task is thus to take the scattered comments on hope in Kierkegaard’s writings and place them into an analytical context which will allow a systematic theory to emerge. Bernier develops such a theory in great detail, in conversation not only with Kierkegaard but also with a large gathering of secondary and philosophical literature.

Hovering in the background of the author’s argument is the famous passage from I Corinthians 13, which specifies the theological virtues as faith, hope, and love. Bernier argues, successfully I believe, that hope is actually one of the key concepts in Kierkegaard’s anthropology. Despair, analyzed in The Sickness unto Death, is the opposite of hope. Despair is refusal of the task of becoming one’s true self before God; hope is acceptance of that task. To understand hope fully and correctly, therefore, is absolutely necessary in understanding Kierkegaard’s vision of the healthy, spiritually growing self (3).

Many pages of the book are spent in close readings of Kierkegaard’s books, primarily The Sickness unto Death, Works of Love, and Fear and Trembling. This is, of course, ground that has been covered by many scholars before. The treatment here is highly competent though, and it distinguishes itself from previous work through its persistent focus on the concept of hope. Bernier’s central argument is that the task of becoming a self—the task of synthesis—can be carried out by a fallen sinner with at least a modicum of success if the energy poured into the task derives from relation to the eternal: to God. This point gestures in the direction of the distinction between “mundane” hope and “eternal” hope. I may “hope” to be wealthy or healthy or successful in this world, but true hope, for Kierkegaard, always reaches out beyond this mortal life; it has a transcendent horizon. Bernier finds the key divergence between Aristotle and Kierkegaard here: Greek eudaimonia (happiness) is oriented primarily towards this life; Christian salvation is fulfilled in eternity. The human will, for Aristotle, has a natural appetite for the good; the will, in Kierkegaard, can purposefully close itself off against faith, hope, and love, and thus against God (147). It always needs to be remembered, however, that the Christian orientation towards eternity bears fruit in this life; hope, understood correctly, is actually necessary for human flourishing on this side of the grave, because hope is necessary to live into the task of authentic selfhood. Being unwilling to live into that task will lead to various imbalances in the synthesis of the self and ultimately to hope’s opposite, despair. It is also the case that a refusal to live in hope will have negative ethical implications for our relations with other human beings; hope for oneself goes hand-in-hand with hope for others, and genuine love of neighbor (213).

In terms of criticism, my main concern is that much of what is written about Kierkegaard is exegetical, and thus ivory-towerish, with very little connection to the lives of people in contemporary society. I would have been very happy if the author had applied his insights to particular life stories as examples of how hope overcame despair, perhaps in relation to recovery from substance abuse (or at the very least if such an application had been attempted in connection with films or novels). One may hope that the author will do so in the future.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles K. Bellinger is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at Brite Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
September 14, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Benier (Ph.D., University of California, Irvine) is a lecturer at Azusa Pacific University. His research focuses primarily on Kierkegaard, Existentialism, and Philosophy of Religion, with interests in Leibniz and the early modern period. He is currently working on an anthology of the concept and history of hope.

Keywords: 

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