The author of Camping with Kierkegaard, J. Aaron Simmons, has conflicting feelings about "camping with Kierkegaard." He is a friend of mine, so I will call him Aaron from here on. Aaron writes:
"In many ways, Kierkegaard is the last person I want to take camping with me. However, his work (and the work of other existential philosophers) is, I believe, a profound resource for living well both in the office and at the campsite. I go camping, fishing, mountain biking, hiking, off-roading, etc., because these activities allow me to prioritize faithful living wherever I am. In some sense, by spending time in the mountains, by rivers, and on trails, I am able to bring the mountains and rivers back with me to the office in ways that transform the everyday into something more compelling. As Kierkegaard says, the 'knight of faith' is able to find the 'sublime in the pedestrian.' I may fail to do that most days, but the hope remains a motivation that propels me forward."
For my part, I am reading Aaron's book in snatches and loving every snatch. His paragraphs are my campfires and my candlelight. The book serves as bedtime reading, morning reading, taking a break from gardening reading, needing a break from myself reading, and wondering what it's all about reading. The book links philosophy with being outdoors and the thoughts that arise from engagement with hills, rivers, mountains, fish, and bikes. No separation of the human from the larger web of life exists; rather, it offers philosophy from within the web.
Relational Existentialism: Individual Integrity without Individualism
Yes, it's existential in spirit. The book dives deeply into personal self-inquiry in the Kierkegaardian spirit. It raises questions like: 'What is faith?' Answer: It's a way of living. 'What is risk?' Answer: It's something that defines our every existence. 'What is the appropriate direction of risk?' Answer: To live in responsiveness to a compelling mystery that calls us, a call that cannot be placed within a mental frame. Is this mystery to be trusted?' Answer: Yes, it lovingly meets us here and now amid our finitude. 'Is there an end to the journey?' Answer: Well, kind of, but the end is also the beginning, right here and now, which is where we always are. Aaron articulates all this with much greater nuance and persuasiveness.
As existential as the book is, it's not solipsistic; it's relationally existential. It explores personal relations—with wife, son, father, mother, and more—and eco-relations, and, in at least one chapter, the relationship with, let's say, the "deep moreness": the God in whose presence we can dance, pray, and hike. This is the compelling mystery referred to earlier. This God is both challenging and loving, especially for individuals who make gods out of success, fame, and fortune. Aaron puts it this way:
When we strive to become faithful instead of seeking to be a success, we imitate a God who kenotically meets us where we are and then invites us onward and upward, rather than a God who tells us that if we just do this or that, then we will be perfect enough to meet the divine. This is a God that I can take seriously because it is a God who is trouble for assholes. This is a God who is trouble for our pretensions to certainty. This is a God who is unimpressed by our bank accounts, our Instagram followers, our degrees, and, yes, even our religious “holiness.” This is a God who goes fishing and invites us to grab our rod and come along.
The Problem with Assholes: Advantaged Entitlement
Aaron says God has trouble with assholes. Assholes are individuals who forget the essence of relationality. As he puts it:
"The asshole lives his or her life in active resistance to, and rejection of, what Martin Heidegger terms 'Being-with.' For Heidegger, 'Being-with' others is constitutive of who we are. He means this in a descriptive way, pointing out that our concepts, our use of language, our affirmations of meaning are all inherently social. In other words, they are navigated in relationship with others. Thus, we never start from zero when it comes to our understanding of ourselves and the world. We inherit a world already formed, meaningful, and intelligible in particular ways. These ways are then handed over to us as described in concrete languages, cultivated in shared practices, and fixed in social histories. 'Being-with' is a background assumption that makes 'being-me' possible in specific ways as I try to stand out against the inherited social context."
Out of this forgetfulness of relationality, assholes live inhospitable lives. They allow themselves to enjoy special advantages systematically; they do so out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and they are immunized by this sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people. Not only individuals but also cultures and systems can partake of, as it were, "assholitude." Aaron is clear on this. Part of the book is about how to live well, and part critiques unkind ways of living. You might think of it as a book about how to live a life of faith and avoid being an asshole.
The Knight of Faith: Freedom from the Need for Applause
What might it mean to live this life in a cultural context in which we are taught to measure our worth in terms of the recognition we receive from others? It is, says Aaron, to be humble and this is not at all easy. We must go against the crowd in order to walk in humility and, at the same time, maintain a healthy degree of positive self-regard. As Aaron puts it:
We struggle with self-confidence precisely because we have allowed arrogance to become culturally normative. In other words, folks who might otherwise be appropriately humble tend to feel like they are worthless because they don’t walk around with their chests puffed out like so many others do.
In order to find our way into humility, or let humility find us, we must gain internal distance from cultural norms, often posed in economic terms, which stress personal achievement over faithful living, self-promotion over self-acceptance, the latter of which includes an inner joy: the joy of finitude.
With help from Kierkegaard, Aaron offers an image of what this might look like. A person who lives in this way is akin to Kierkegaard's Knight of Faith who "finds the sublime in the pedestrian" and does not seek attention for himself or herself. I offer four quotes to give you a sense of the knight:
"Simply put, the knight of faith’s identity is not defined by success, but by faithfulness. As we have seen repeatedly as we camp together with Kierkegaard, faithfulness is not about having or obtaining or being something, but rather is about continually becoming what already critically defines your identity as directed beyond itself."
"The knight of faith is able to get lost in the crowd, as it were, precisely because faithfulness is not a matter of popular applause and brand recognition.
The knight of faith can attend to his job, go to church, take walks in the woods, and navigate the commonplace realities of social life while still somehow finding 'pleasure in everything.
The knight of faith has existentiell hopes, but yet is not defined by them. He is “just the same” because he is already what he hoped to be: faithful. Nonetheless, he is not yet finished with becoming faithful because a task for a lifetime is not something that admits of historical finality."
In short, a knight of faith is humble, unpretentious, in process - and often unnoticed and not worried about it. This knight places her trust in a divine mystery, God, who is unimpressed, says Aaron, with our bank accounts, Instagram followers, degrees, and religious holiness.
Hospitable Excellence: Moving Aside to Allow Others to Pass
Aaron would add, I believe, that this God is unimpressed with our publications, speaking engagements, and academic achievements, however excellent they may or may not be. God is about another kind of excellence, which Aaron calls hospitable excellence.
'Those who display hospitable excellence encourage others to keep going even if it means that they need to slow down. Those who are arrogantly mediocre think that others need to clear the road as they pass because they are the only people that matter. This is the way that the success-orientation of our world so often works. Assholes tend to think that the world is made for them. In this approach to life, they not only refuse to realize their own frailties, but also they fail to open spaces for other people to become great at the thing that they present themselves as having mastered. Hospitable people want others to get better so that the community can progress beyond where it is. Inhospitable people are threatened by the excellence of others and so try to prevent others from growing. Hospitable people move aside to allow others to pass. Inhospitable people make sure that they get to set the pace and force everyone else to adjust."
I am not sure what Aaron means by "arrogantly mediocre,' other than that they think they are the only people that matter. They are assholes in the technical sense. But I do understand what he means to slow down to help others keep pace. The whole idea that it is good to slow down, because others count as much as we do, and because our aim is to build something like beloved community, not climb a ladder of success leaving others behind - that makes sense to me. It's the relational side of Aaron's existentialism.
Hot Chocolate with Aaron: Topics to Explore around the Campfire
As I read Camping with Kierkegaard, I have been camping with Aaron, at least in my imagination. He has helped me understand and appreciate so many philosophers and writers: Kierkegaard, yes, and also Aristotle, Nietzsche, Emerson, Thoreau, Heidegger, Sartre, Judith Butler and Jean Chrétien. He's introduced me to some music, too. I also appreciate the Zen-like haiku that crop up throughout the book: "I like dogwood trees because they have a tendency to grow in the most unexpected places. In the early Spring, they make their presence known when everything else is still hiding." The haiku come up out of the blue, like a dogwood tree, and add presence to the insights. All are part of the hiking
At the end of his book, Aaron describes the end of a great day.
It has been a great day in the mountains and now I am back at camp. The fire is in that early stage when the flames are flickering and yet might still fizzle out and require rekindling...Nothing tastes better than hot chocolate around the campfire after a 15-mile day of backpacking. It is as if your body enacts the “yes-saying” that Nietzsche claims is the condition of real living and that Derrida claims to be included in the welcome of deconstruction. Yes. Yes. So much yes.
As he and I sit by the campfire, drinking the hot chocolate, I bring up some subjects I'd like to explore with him, some of which did not emerge earlier, but all of which are relevant to all that's been said during the day.
The Inherent Value of Nature and Existence
Aaron articulates the notion of 'being-with-nature,' emphasizing the constancy of natural elements like rivers. However, at times he implies that our agency can craft the entirety of our experience. Contrary to this, I argue, through the lens of Whitehead, that nature has intrinsic value beyond human attribution. This applies to both the non-human and human worlds. When Aaron fishes for trout, the trout’s inherent value isn’t just human-defined; they have their own existence and importance. We are not the sole arbiters of value; we find ourselves within an already-valued world.
Tragic Beauty in the Web of Life
Aaron shows an appreciation for the aesthetic dimensions of life, yet there's a kind of beauty he may have overlooked: the tragic beauty inherent in life’s complexities. Life sustains itself through cycles of death and renewal, of conflicting values and incompatible goods. I’d relish the chance to discuss this poignant notion of tragic beauty with him.
God as Companion and Sufferer
Aaron presents a vision of God as an agent calling us into hope, but what of God as the compassionate sufferer? Whitehead describes God as "the fellow sufferer who understands." Could we, in our journey of faith, also recognize God as a source of empathetic tenderness? I'm curious to hear Aaron's take on this aspect of the divine.
The Art of Contemplative Prayer
Aaron talks about prayer as a “wounded word” that challenges our self-sufficiency. But what about the contemplative aspect of prayer, the still, receptive listening to the God who is akin to the wind? This is prayer not as interrogation, but as presence—a presence deeply rooted in the here and now. He describes trout fishing in this way. It's not just about catching a fish; it's about being with the water. I'd be interested to explore this subject with him.
Each of the questions above is influenced by a philosopher Aaron doesn't mention, but who has influenced me, Alfred North Whitehead. Aaron makes me want to write a book called Camping with Whitehead, but I think it would sound much like his own - except not half as well-written, funny, or interesting.
Recall the questions raised earlier: What is faith? What is risk? What is the appropriate direction of risk? Is the mystery to be trusted? If I am right about how Aaron would answer those questions, then Whiteheadians like me and existentialists like Aaron very much agree. And truth be told, we would agree on much more, including the idea that in claiming our existence, we not only hear a call but we feel a joy: the sheer joy of being alive, which lies at the heart of every moment, if only we have hearts to feel. One of the themes not mentioned above, but very important to Aaron, Nietzsche, Derrida, Whitehead, and me is the idea that there is a yes to life and a yes in life. For me, and perhaps for Aaron, God is the Yes within the yes.
Still, there are questions that challenge me and perhaps Aaron, too.
Who gets to hike?
Aaron and I are both middle-class, white males who have relatively stable families and income. We have the luxury of hiking. But what of those who cannot as easily "get away" in order to gain perspective and replenish? What of single parents? Of people stuck in urban settings of steel and concrete? Of people who can't afford the bikes and the equipment? And, of course, of people in situations of poverty and oppression? Are we, people of privilege, among the entitled assholes whom we criticize? The toughness of this question leads me wonder about the structural obstacles to hiking, the racial implications of hiking, and the urban alternatives to hiking (gardening, for example) that might give others outdoor opportunities. I would like to see a book called Inner City Gardening with Kierkegaard. It would focus on the relevance of Kierkegaard to beloved community.
Let "beloved community" mean a community that is creative, compassionate, participatory, inclusive, multi-religious, humane to animals, and good for the earth - with no one left behind. This, I think, is the aspirational ideal. It is the very opposite of a community dominated by assholes. Much of Aaron's book is about finding individual integrity: the knight of faith who is true to the calling, moment by moment, thus becoming himself or herself. But the calling itself is toward social integrity or, better, eco-social integrity. It is about our living in community with others and with the more than human world. How might we hikers better "hike for a better world" and not just for personal integrity?
These are just many of the areas I would like to explore with Aaron as we sit around the campfire, drinking our hot chocolate. And in relation to the last challenge, I hope we do what he emphasizes: leave the world of conversation and act on our better convictions, faithfully. His book provides fertile ground for continued learning.
Bottom line? Aaron would warn us of that language. It bespeaks an economic outlook, based on exchange, when we need a world in which gift, not transaction, is the norm. Still, I use the phrase. Here is the bottom line. It is well worth your time to camp with Kierkegaard, even as he will challenge you, and to camp with Aaron Simmons, too.