Brothers in Ebullience?
by Vernard Eller
This letter was originally published by The Christian Century Foundation, Chicago, IL, in The Christian Century, on October 17, 1962. It is reproduced here with their kind permission.
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This letter is subtitled "Answering Donald Cunningham's Protest re Browning-Kierkegaard." Those who love Browning, Pippa, and Kierkegaard will have no trouble placing it in context.Ed.
"BROWNING: An English Kierkegaard," by M. Whitcomb Hess (May 2, 1962), to me is a revelation; I had long a devotee of both authors but had failed to consider them in juxtaposition. Now I have delved further, and I can say only that Mrs. Hess did not go far enough. There are many more--and more specific--points of affinity than she calls to attention.
But then came Donald Cunningham‘s letter to the editor (June 27) contending that the lines spoken by Pippa ("God's in his heaven--All‘s right with the world!") put the British poet "miles away from Kierkegaard." I rise to the defense of Pippa, Browning, Kierkegaard, and Mrs. Hess! I maintain that here is only one point at which the two authors stand closest together.
Pippa's song has been used by preachers without number--most of whom have never read the complete poem--as a horrible example of the Pollyannaism that Christianity is not. Indeed, the damning of Pippa has become the standard maneuver through which modern liberals let it be known that they have learned the lesson of neo-orthodoxy. But thus are both Pippa and her poet papa grievously calumniated. Taken in context, this song sings something far deeper than the "innocent faith" (read, "naiveté") of Mr. Cunningham's accusation.
Be aware that Pippa is an impoverished and exploited orphan girl slaving in a silk mill under hours and conditions that society has since outlawed. She is among those whom Kierkegaard described: "...when he has drudged and toiled and moiled he has perhaps earned precisely what is needful to keep him alive, in order again to be able to toil and moil." Pippa knows well that all is not right with the world, knows it better than does Mr. Cunningham or any other reader of The Christian Century; and Robert Browning fulfills his obligation by making it obvious that Pippa has this knowledge.
In the total setting of the poem, then, Pippa's song must be taken to mean: not unmindful of, but precisely in spite of all the suffering, injustice, evil, and sin that here besets us, if we can still believe that God is in his seat of authority (i.e., if we can still refer all of existence to him and receive it as coming from him, then, behold, all is right with the world. This is a far cry from the simple (and, indeed, simple minded) assertion assertion that everything as it now stands is A-OK. Surely there is here not the slightest hint of God being "relegated to heaven." No, Pippa passes with honors.
Now, to Kierkegaard. There can be no argument that his favorite verse in his favorite book of the Bible was James 1:17: "Every good and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning." It is significant that one of the first two discourses he ever published and his last discourse were expositions of this very verse. All told, Kierkegaard gives four complete discourses and nine shorter passages to exposition of these words; we are here at the center of Kierkegaard's religious thought. In his exposition he takes pains to insist that the verse cannot mean that the things one experiences as good and perfect are to be attributed to God or, conversely, that whatever is accepted as being from God must of necessity be good and perfect. This would be of no religious value whatsoever, for the individual would then face the impossible task of sorting the items of his existence into those which were gifts from God and those which were merely slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. No, Kierkegaard's reading is this:
Is then the apostolic word ... a dark and difficult saying? ... If you doubted whether it came from God, or whether it was a good and perfect gift, have you dared to make the test? And when the easy play of happiness beckoned you, have you thanked God? And when you were so strong that it seemed as if you needed no assistance, have you thanked God? And when your allotted share was small, have you thanked God? And when your wish was denied you, have you thanked God? And when you must deny yourself your wish, have you thanked God? And when men did you wrong and offended you, have you thanked God? We do not say that the wrong done you by men thereby ceased to be a wrong, for that would be an untrue and foolish speech! Whether it was wrong, you must yourself decide; but have you referred the wrong and the offense to God, and by your thanksgiving received it from Him as a good and perfect gift? Have you done this? Then surely you have worthily interpreted the apostolic word to the honor of God, to your own salvation; for it is beautiful for a man to pray, and many promises are held out to the one who prays without ceasing; but it is even more blessed to return thanks. Then surely have you worthily interpreted that apostolic word, more gloriously than if all the angels. spoke in glowing tongues. (Edifying Discourses, 1943, by Søren Kierkegaard, 1:48-49.)
But does not the assertion that anything received in thanksgiving as from God is a good and perfect gift mean precisely that when God is in his heaven all is right with the world? Is not Pippa's song precisely the thanksgiving to which Kierkegaard exhorts?
The truth of the matter is that Robert Browning, the Ebullient Englishman, was more aware of suffering, sorrow and sin--the dark side of life--than most critics give him credit for. However, he remained ebullient, for he was a man of faith. And the truth of the matter is that Søren Kierkegaard, the Despondent Dane whom many know only as the siren of somber shades, was much more ebullient than most critics give him credit for. He too was a man of faith. Miles apart? Browning and Kierkegaard stand arm in arm--or, rather, they march upward toward the light singing a hymn of thanksgiving, the Dane's basso profundo blending with the Englishman‘s lyric tenor. And the little soprano between them, whose hands they hold and whose song they sing, is: Pippa.