Camping with Kierkegaard
by Patrick Lafferty
Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults. Keep back your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me.
My wife considers it a bitter irony that I am an Eagle Scout whose attraction to camping has diminished with time. How, she wonders, can someone who spent years tying knots, cooking meals, and earning merit badges with names like “orienteering,” “wilderness survival,” and, yes, “camping” now hesitate to escape the clamor of civilization?
In my defense, it’s not the experience of camping per se. Slipping into a slower gear, being spellbound by a cracking fire, letting the sounds of the backcountry cancel out the anxious noises rumbling in my brain—it all has allure. But, as mealy-mouthed as this will sound, it’s the packing part that turns my stomach—especially when you’re packing for small children. With sippy cups and snack bins, diapers and dolls, and goops galore to repel everything from mosquitos to large mammals (oh, and don’t forget the sunscreen)—for all our efforts to take a respite from modernity, it feels like we’re just trying to relocate it.
Dr Nielson reminded us last Sunday how creation’s innate adornments have much to reveal about the God who saw fit to fashion them. It’s an exhortation that successfully confronts my preference for the comfortable. In fact, his sermon and another quote I came across this week from Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (hat tip: Justin Taylor), caused me, like a bird on a branch, to dart my head in a different direction:
When the prosperous man on a dark but starlit night drives comfortably in his carriage and has the lanterns lighted, aye, then he is safe, he fears no difficulty, he carries his light with him, and it is not dark close around him. But precisely because he has the lanterns lighted, and has a strong light close to him, precisely for this reason, he cannot see the stars. For his lights obscure the stars, which the poor peasant, driving without lights, can see gloriously in the dark but starry night. So those deceived ones live in the temporal existence: either, occupied with the necessities of life, they are too busy to avail themselves of the view, or in their prosperity and good days they have, as it were, lanterns lighted, and close about them everything is so satisfactory, so pleasant, so comfortable—but the view is lacking, the prospect, the view of the stars.
Kierkegaard envisions two ways of living in this parable. One man finds light from a nearer source; the other’s light is supplied by the night sky. Both find their light, but the former’s choice blinds him to the vaster expanse above him.
People who find their contentment in what they can easily control deprive themselves of the deeper contentment to be found beyond it. They are satisfied in their manipulable circumstances and spend much of their lives clawing and scratching to preserve them. But without a sense of what is above, they are oblivious to a greater glory, even though that glory requires a greater effort to notice.
I need the view of the stars on occasion, not merely to luxuriate in a serenity only the heavens can supply, but to (re-)embrace the wider significance of life which my push-button, on-demand existence tends to obscure. There is truth my iPhone cannot tell me, glory my remote-controlled garage door will never yield. An eye cast toward what is more enduring exposes my finitude and my dependence—two notions my modern context prefers to conceal.
Must I buy a tent to take in His wonders and remember His graces? Not necessarily. But if the heavens declare in part what two timbers on a desolate hill revealed in full, how can I eschew the climes furnished to provoke praise? Would not even the stones gladly stand in for me? (Lk 19:40).