Simon Podmore begins this book on Søren Kierkegaard with an extended discussion of Jacob Epstein’s sculpture Jacob and the Angel (1941). He writes, “the statue does not depict Jacob struggling as such, but rather a Jacob who has struggled and who now hangs drained and weary in the embrace of the angel. This is not Jacob conquering God; nor is it the angel asking to be released. The angel holds a depleted Jacob up; Jacob does not have the angel in his grasp.” Podmore’s interpretation of this sculpture sums up his reading of Kierkegaard’s notion of “spiritual trial” (Anfægtelse) remarkably succinctly given that it takes him 270 pages to unpack it. Anfægtelse, which could also mean temptation, trial, or struggle, takes place when the believer wrestles with God and with the self, seeking to overcome his or her own weakness and to know God’s presence more intimately, especially in the face of God’s apparent absence. Even though mystics sometimes talk about being “overshadowed and overwhelmed” by God, Podmore writes, spiritual trial “also reveals a sense that God’s omnipotence withdraws, out of love, in order to create the space for something other than God to become itself.” The Spirit is restless, Kierkegaard said, and this restlessness produces Anfægtelse which, however painful it may be, is a genuine and ultimately positive expression of sincere spirituality.
As he elaborates on the notion of spiritual trial, Podmore takes us on a journey through what Kierkegaard called “the old Devotional books,” represented here by Johnannes Tauler (1300-1361), the anonymous Theologia Deutsch (late 14th century), Martin Luther (1483-1546), Johann Arndt (1555-1621) and Jakob Böhme (1575-1624). These mystics developed their own notions of Anfechtung, or struggling with God, which Kierkegaard drew on heavily. If it does not end in sin, Anfechtung culminates in Gelassenheit, meaning releasement, or becoming nothing before God. “To die to self,” Tauler wrote, means “to totally give up all self-seeking, all multiplicity. … And whosoever totally dies to self, such a one is wholly made alive in God and without any separation.” Before one reaches that point, however, Tauler warns that s/he must pass through “the winter of the soul, … when the heart has gone cold; when it has neither grace, nor God, nor any Godlike things.” “Christ’s soul had to visit hell before it came to heaven,” the Theologia Deutsch put it, and “this is also the path for man’s soul.” Luther experienced this state as one of deep melancholy, or depression, but the Theologia Deutsch reminds us that one must not despair when one feels like this, because God does not abandon us in our suffering: “No, He takes him to Himself and the result is that man does not ask for anything but the eternal Good alone and knows that the eternal Good is exceedingly precious. Yes, it becomes his ecstasy, his peace, his joy, his rest, his fullness.”
When Kierkegaard thought of spiritual trial, his first thoughts were always of Abraham and Job, whose trials were so extreme that he thought of them as “ordeals”, not as simple trials or temptations. When God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, he was asking him to sin against universal concepts of good and evil. For Abraham, “the ethical is itself the “temptation”: it tempts him away from the will of God and back into the realm of the universal”. Job’s experience is also exceptional. Had he admitted that God was probably right while knowing in his heart that he was innocent, Job would have sinned against God by judging Him. Instead, Job insisted that there must have been something he was missing: if God would only explain Himself everything would become clear. In many ways, Job’s problem is the same as Martin Luther’s famous contrast between the deus absconditus and the deus revelatus – the God of reason and experience might seem to be a harsh and unforgiving deity, but the Bible reveals God as loving and merciful. Luther’s struggle was to hold on to the God of the Bible through faith and not to imagine that God is evil even though He saves so few and condemns so many. The key to surviving spiritual trial, Kierkegaard taught, is to hold on and to trust God even when it seems like He is your enemy, just as Jesus trusted His Father who was sending Him to His death.
Podmore is careful to emphasize that not every Christian should experience spiritual trials, and this is not the only path to holiness. Moreover, he reminds us of Daphne Hampson’s argument that “while men have been able to cultivate a will that is then mortified in relation to God, women have themselves been denied a robust sense of self through their calling (by men) to cultivate virtues of selflessness: self-sacrifice, humility, self-denial, self-emptying (kenosis). Kenosis thereby becomes disempowering for women insofar as it contains no “grammar” for resistance”. Gelassenheit leaves no place for fighting for justice. Podmore concludes, therefore, that “a theology of spiritual trial might also resist the temptation to resolve all desolation into consolation. It is tempting to sublimate spiritual trial (Anfechtung) through releasement (Gelassenheit), but, even in imitatio Christi of “nevertheless, not my will but your will be done”, the nevertheless passes over a vast abyss between self-will and Divine Will. … Full consummation of Gelassenheit, or of transfiguration of the Self as Spirit, resting transparently grounded in God and reflecting the image of God in inverse resemblance, may remain an eschatological vanishing point for those who, for now, struggle to hold on to God in the darkness of night.”