Letting Nature Point Beyond Nature — Kierkegaard's “The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air”

Kierkegaard's book in the flowers and grass above Wimpole Hall

Last week I concluded my address with the Italian philosopher, Massimo Cacciari’s (b. 1947) hopeful words about how best to live in our own age, an age which, to my mind at least, has perhaps best been described by another other great Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) who was talking about his own times in the 1930s:

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

You will remember that Cacciari suggests given that we find ourselves in a similar situation today we would do well to concentrate not upon “the when but the how of [our] waiting. What matters is to remain vigilant, to be ready and not look back” (Massimo Cacciari, The Withholding Power, Bloomsbury Press, 2015, p. 74) and he goes on to say to us that:

“. . . there is a hope . . . that lives in your awareness of this disenchanted twilight and shows you how to be rid of your will to power; such is good hope. Being rid of the will to power  must be shown, must be embodied as in St Francis who did not preach sermons but embodied his poverty and so the meaning of his poverty. Like him, you could embody and signify some elements of your culture or your civilization that are not connected to the will to power, or better still that manifest the overthrowing of the will to power” (Massimo Cacciari, The Withholding Power, Bloomsbury Press, 2015, p. 195).

Having introduced you to Cacciari’s call it seems only fair to offer you what I think is one of the most hopeful, beautiful and accessible religious expressions of the overthrowing of the will to power that I know in my own culture and civilisation, namely Søren Kierkegaard’s (1813-1855) little book called “The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air” ( trans. Bruce H. Kirmmse, Princeton University Press, 2016).

Although it was first published in Danish in 1849 this new English translation by Bruce H. Kirmmse was only published in 2016 and in the May of that year, at the beginning of my sabbatical, I packed the book in my bag and set out on a pleasant cycle ride on my Anglo-Danish Dursley-Pedersen (see photo at the very end of this post) to rest a while at a favourite spot of mine overlooking the valley in which nestles Wimpole Hall's Home Farm. At the time I wrote on my blog that

“I really couldn't have picked a better time or place to read these three little discourses and I have the feeling that today is going to be one of those days that stays with me for the rest of my life. Really, it was that wonderful and surprising. But more of that later, perhaps . . .”.

Looking down into the valley to Wimpole Home Farm
Well, the book’s beautiful and hopeful contents have been quietly working away in my heart and mind for twenty-five months now and as I re-read the book on Tuesday in the same place I first read it (see photo at the head of this post and here), I found that my first impressions have only been strengthened.

Consequently, it strikes me that now would be a good time formally to introduce it to you — not least of all because it is now out in paperback and two copies can be found as we speak in Heffers.

So to begin this introduction here is the biblical text from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount upon which Kierkegaard centres his three short discourses followed by his prayer which stands at the very beginning of the book.


Matthew 6:24-34 THE GOSPEL FOR THE 15TH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY SUNDAY (in Bruce H. Kirmmse’s translation for the book)

NO ONE can serve two masters, for he must either hate the one and love the other, or hold fast to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore, I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat and what you will drink, nor about your bodies, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow, nor reap, nor gather into barns, and your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more than they? But who among you can add one cubit to your height, even though you worry about it? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin. But I say to you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was arrayed like one of these. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is today and is cast into the oven tomorrow, would he not much more clothe you, you of little faith! Therefore you should not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” — the pagans seek all such things. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you. Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has troubles enough of its own.


FATHER IN Heaven! That which we in the company of other people, especially in the throng of humanity, have such difficulty learning, and which, if we have learned it elsewhere, is so easily forgotten in the company of other people — what it is to be a human being and what, from a godly standpoint, is the requirement for being a human being — would that we might learn it, or, if it has been forgotten, that we might learn it anew from the lily and the bird; would that we might learn it, if not all at once, then learn at least something of it, little by little would that on this occasion we might from the lily and the bird learn silence, obedience, joy!

Letting Nature Point Beyond Nature 
Kierkegaard's “The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air”

Most of the addresses/sermons I have heard in churches over the years which have used the text from the Sermon on the Mount we heard earlier have tended to present their hearers with a rather  simplistic (to my mind) account about how simply trusting to God is enough to provide people with all their basic needs without any other activity needing to occur. That this wholly unrealistic (and false) message has been repeated to most of us at one time or another in our lives is shown by the dislike of the gospel passage that has always been expressed to me by someone whenever I have chosen to use it as a reading. In a world where so many people clearly have to struggle to get themselves decently clothed, housed and fed (including increasing numbers here in the UK as the scandalous growth in the use of food banks darkly testifies), the idea that doing nothing other than trusting in God is sufficient unto the day is going to appear at best stupid and, at worst deeply offensive.

But is this really what Jesus was asking us to learn from the lily and the bird? The answer according to Kierkegaard is “no” and from them he thinks we can learn three things: silence, obedience and joy — all ways of being-in-the-world which he believes can help us better to deal with living in general which, of course, always includes the ever challenging task of finding appropriate ways to clothe, feed and house both ourselves and our neighbours.

So let’s begin with silence which, for Kierkegaard anyway, is not the absence of all sound. He’s quite clear that for him silence is any sound of nature-doing-what-nature-does, where nature is naturing (natura naturans). So, for example, he talks about the sound of the forest trees in the wind, the sound of the sea, the barking of a farmer’s dog as well as, of course, the lily of the field and the bird of the air (pp. 22-23) as all being a kind of silence. But what does he mean by this? Well, to reveal this he contrasts these sounds of silence with the kind of sound we constantly make, namely human speech — endless, chattering human speech — which is for Kierkegaard not silence. Although he acknowledges speech is the human being’s advantage over flora and fauna he thinks it is only an advantage when we are also able to keep silent in the manner of the lily and the bird (cf. p. 21). The reason for this is that he thinks it is only in a this kind of unselfconsciousness silence that we can properly, viscerally begin to notice we are always-already before God. Kierkegaard writes (all emphases are Kierkegaard’s):

 “. . . out there with the lily and the bird you perceive that you are before God, which most often is entirely forgotten in talking with other people. For when just two of us talk together, even more so when we are ten or more, it is so easily forgotten that you and I, that we two, or that we ten, are before God. But the lily [or the bird] who is the teacher, is profound. It does not involve itself with you at all; it keeps silent, and by keeping silent it wants to signify to you that you are before God, so that you remember you are before God — so that you might earnestly and in truth become silent before God” (pp. 30-31).

Now many people in our skeptical age — and perhaps some here today — will be deeply uncomfortable about his use of the word “God” here but it is helpful to remember the mid-twentieth century Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Wieman’s (1884-1975) words that:

“Whatever else the word God may mean, it is a term used to designate that Something upon which human life is most dependent for its security, welfare and increasing abundance. That there is such a Something cannot be doubted. The mere fact that human life happens, and continues to happen, proves that this Something, however, unknown, does certainly exist” (Religious Experience and Scientific Method [1926], Southern Illinois University Press, 1954, p. 9).

I might also remind you of the religious naturalist Michael Dowd’s way of putting the matter who insists that God should not be thought of as “an invisible friend or otherworldly entity” but, instead, as “a mythic personification of reality” — a kind of “supreme fiction”.

So, minimally understood, God can simply mean here that “Something”, that “reality” upon which all things are dependent and it is before this which Kierkegaard thinks we are to become silent. It’s surely an important discipline to practice because it offers an effective way to challenge our Promethean, hubristic tendency to believe humans can and should always be seeking to theorize about, comment upon and control all things, all of the time. However, the silence of the lily and the bird serves to teach us that behind all our words and will to power we remain radically dependent, not only upon countless other entities and contingent local conditions, but ultimately upon an underlying reality, that mysterious unifying Something, “God” if you will, which is continually gifting the whole universe with its being — it’s “isness”.

Importantly it is additionally to learn from the lily and the bird a silence which isn’t pretending to remove struggle and suffering — after all despite their silence the lily and the bird still suffer in their own ways, as Kierkegaard makes clear — but, instead, it is to learn a silence in which we are able to live with a full and secure awareness of our continual dependency upon Something, some reality far greater than ourselves. The point Kierkegaard is making is that the lily and the bird seem better able to embody a deeper trust in this reality, this  Something, than we do, and it is this deeper trust which allows them to carry on as best they can no matter what the local conditions are — conditions which, of course, will always include some measure of suffering and also the death of all finite creatures.

But to what other, more obviously practical end does this silence tend? Well, for Kierkegaard it also helps us begin properly to heed the gospel’s call to “Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness”, a kingdom in which we are called to be there with each other always seeking to mitigate as best we can the most distressing aspects of suffering and death which will always be with us.

It seems to me that Kierkegaard is implying that before we can create any real, proper social, political or religious policies or programmes we must first start living with a profound sense of our dependence upon God, that Something which we find in the silence taught to us by the example of the lily and the bird.

And so Kierkegaard concludes his first discourse as follows:

“Seek first God’s kingdom; that is, become like the lily and the bird; that is become utterly silent before God: and then the rest will be added unto you” (p. 38).

Now let’s turn to the kind of obedience taught to us by the lily and the bird. We need to be aware that Kierkegaard is not asking us here to be simplistically obedient to this or that human master — after all Kierkegaard was clear that he was engaged fully with BOTH Socrates and Christ. Instead, Kierkegaard is asking us to become aware of a more primordial either/or decision which he points to via the text:

“No one can serve two masters, for he must either hate the one and love the other, or hold fast to one and despise the other.”

Now here I’m often encouraging you to resist pretty much every this worldly either/or dilemma put before you by too many theologians, philosophers and politicians. The reason for this is simple, it is because there nearly always exists a reasonable third (or more) option out there to be explored than the two being presented to you at any given moment. But here we are being brought before one of only two genuine either/or decisions I personally sense are real. If the word God is understood in the minimalist fashion I talked about a moment ago we are being asked by Kierkegaard here humbly to acknowledge the necessity of being fully obedient (or not) to reality’s rules, i.e. being obedient (or not) to that mysterious Something which is constantly allowing all things to be.

When we are prepared consciously to work with reality’s rules, when we able to say and mean “thy will be done” to “our Father” — who is simply our own culture’s traditional, mythic personification of reality — then, once again, we find ourselves engaged in a practice which can help challenge our hubris and significantly help us seek first the kingdom of God.

When we choose (often unconsciously of course) to try to work against, to disobey reality’s rules — which is surely a kind of sin — we find we are simply continuing to express our will to power which will only ever gift us a world filled with injustice, despair, conflict and destruction. 

And so Kierkegaard concludes his second discourse as follows:
“But do not forget, you shall learn from the lily and the bird; you shall become unconditionally obedient like the lily and the bird. Consider that it was the sin of a human being that — by being unwilling to serve one master, or by wanting to serve another master, or by wanting to serve two, indeed many masters — disturbed the beauty of the whole world where previously everything had been so very good; it was his sin that introduced discord into a world of unity; and consider that every sin is disobedience and every disobedience sin.”

And, lastly, let’s turn to the kind of joy taught to us by the lily and the bird. For Kierkegaard joy is something like simple life-affirming exuberance found where and whenever nature is unselfconsciously doing-what-nature-does, nature-naturing, such as in the lily’s blooming and the bird’s singing. Here, in his own words is what he thinks the lily and the bird joyfully teach us:

“There is a today; it is. Indeed and infinite emphasis is placed upon this is. There is a today — and there is no worry, absolutely none, about tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. This is not foolishness on the part of the lily and the bird, but is the joy of silence and obedience. For when you keep silence in the solemn silence of nature, then tomorrow does not exist, and when you obey as a creature obeys, then there exists no tomorrow, that unfortunate day that is the invention of garrulousness and disobedience. But when, owing to silence and obedience, tomorrow does not exist, then, in the silence and obedience, today is, it is — and then the joy is, as it is in the lily and the bird” (pp. 76-77).

In short, Kierkegaard thinks our joy should consist in something similar, and that we can find joy in being itself — that there is something not nothing — “that you came into existence, that you became a human being, that you can see, . . . hear, . . . smell, . . . taste, . . . feel” and as he tellingly reminds us, “If this is nothing to rejoice over, then there is nothing over which to rejoice.” 

There is much more I could say and in this brief address I’ve only been able to introduce you to a few of the many nuanced riches to be found this amazing little book. However, I hope what I have said here is enough to make you think about reading it and to be encouraged yourselves to learn from the lily and the bird of the air something of



                   and joy.

Still reading Kierkegaard last week whilst out on my Durlsey-Pedersen