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The Road is How

All of us – without exception – hold fundamental presuppositions that mark our ultimate concerns. We believe in order to understand, and not the other way around. Reason itself is a matter of faith that is ultimately validated by an aesthetic sense of “fitness” or coherence.  In other words, if you push the idea of reason to its limits, you will find that it is based on a sense of “fit” or proportion that the mind accepts as self-evidently true. This is part of what William James called the “sentiment of rationality” (“irrationality,” on the other hand, is a state of cognitive dissonance or a sense that the relation does not fit or hold together.) 

In this short excerpt of his voluminous writings, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) explains that it is not the “what” of life that matters as much as its “how.”  How we choose to encounter reality will ultimately determine the what of that reality. Choosing to believe in the good will enable us to apprehend it and ultimately transform us into that which is good. Or as Yeshua Himself put it, “According to your faith, be it done unto you…”

There is a generally accepted metaphor that compares life to a road. To compare life to a road can indeed be fruitful in many ways, but we must consider how life is unlike a road. In a physical sense a road is an external actuality, no matter whether anyone is walking on it or not, no matter how the individual travels on it – the road is the road. But in the spiritual sense, the road comes into existence only when we walk on it. That is, the road is how it is walked.   

It would be unreasonable to define a highway by how it is walked. Whether it is the young person who walks it with his head held high or the old decrepit person who struggles along with head bowed down, whether it is the happy person hurrying to reach a goal or the worrier who creeps slowly along, whether it is the poor traveler on foot or the rich traveler in his carriage – the road, in the physical sense, is the same for all. The road is and remains the same, the same highway. But not the road of virtue. We cannot point to the road of virtue and say: There runs the road of virtue. We can only show how the road of virtue is walked, and if anyone refuses to walk that way, he is walking another road.

The dissimilarity in the metaphor shows up most clearly when the discussion is simultaneously about a physical road and a road in the spiritual sense. For example, when we read in the Gospel about the good Samaritan, there is mention of the road between Jericho and Jerusalem. The story tells of five people who walked “along the same road.” Spiritually speaking, however, each one walked his own road. The highway, alas, makes no difference; it is the spiritual that makes the difference and distinguishes the road. Let us consider more carefully how this is.

The first man was a peaceful traveler who walked along the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, along a lawful road. The second man was a robber who “walked along the same road” – and yet on an unlawful road. Then a priest came “along the same road”; he saw the poor unfortunate man who had been assaulted by the robber. Perhaps he was momentarily moved but went right on by. He walked the road of indifference. Next a Levite came “along the same road.” He saw the poor unfortunate man; he too walked past unmoved, continuing his road. The Levite walked “along the same road” but was walking his way, the way of selfishness and callousness. Finally a Samaritan came “along the same road.” He found the poor unfortunate man on the road of mercy. He showed by example how to walk the road of mercy; he demonstrated that the road, spiritually speaking, is precisely this; how one walks. This is why the Gospel says, “Go and do likewise.” Yes, there were five travelers who walked “along the same road,” and yet each one walked his own road.

The question “how one walks life’s road” makes all the difference. In other words, when life is compared to a road, the metaphor simply expresses the universal, that which everyone who is alive has in common by being alive. To that extent we are all walking along the road of life and are all walking along the same road.  But when living becomes a matter of truth, then the question becomes: How shall we walk in order to walk the right road on the road of life? The traveler who in truth walks life’s road does not ask, “Where is the road?” but asks how one ought to walk along the road. Yet, because impatience does not mind being deceived it merely asks where the road is, as if that decided everything as when the traveler finally has found the highway.

Worldly wisdom is very willing to deceive by answering correctly the question, “Where is the road?” while life’s true task is omitted, that spiritually understood the road is: how it is walked. Worldly sagacity teaches that the road goes over Gerizim, or over Moriah, or that it goes through some science or other, or that the road is certain doctrines, or certain behaviors. But all this is a deception, because the road is how it is walked.

It is indeed as Scripture says – two people can be sleeping in the same bed – the one is saved, the other is lost. Two people can go up to the same house of worship – the one goes home saved, the other is lost. Two people can recite the same creed – the one can be saved, the other is lost. How does this happen except for the fact that, spiritually speaking, it is a deception to know where the road is, because the road is: how it is walked?”

– from Provocations, Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, compiled and edited by Charles E. Moore

Studying is not an end in itself, after all, but a means to the greater end of honestly choosing in light of the reality and presence of the LORD. 

This is essentially a Jewish idea, by the way, since the sages have consistently taught that good deeds (mitzvot) must accompany learning Torah. For example, Simon the Just said:

Upon three things the world does stand: upon the Torah and upon worship and upon acts of lovingkindness.”

Living the truth is essentially relational, and our spiritual condition is inevitably revealed by our decisions – not by what we might merely profess to believe. As SK says, Christ does not call “professors” of Christianity but rather followers – and He bids them come and die.

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