At this point, the argument begins to shift from “wonder” to “striving.” The movement is not completely clear, and the emphasis is upon the distinction between the two aspect of seeking after God.
As I have been considering the schema of this sermon, it seems to me that Kierkegaard is working through his three-tiered understanding of human existence as Aesthetic, Ethical, and Religious stages. In this sermon, he writes of wonder, striving, and confession. This is a tentative understanding and I will have to consider it at some more length.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes the aesthetic stage as, “characterized by the following: immersion in sensuous experience; valorization of possibility over actuality; egotism; fragmentation of the subject of experience; nihilistic wielding of irony and scepticism; and flight from boredom.” This seems to match with the discussion of wonder.
To return to the sermon, Kierkegaard considers what happens to the one who realizes that wonder may be founded on a deception, “Now wonder and wish are about to undergo a test.” The original relationship between the subject and the unknown was an “immediate relationship.” It was direct, and apparently naïve.
But at this point, he cannot seek as he did before, “blindly.” He knows that he cannot just meander and then fasten upon that which is esthetically pleasing and incomprehensible, the “unknown” which gives rise to “wonder.”
He has an interesting metaphor to describe this movement of the one who no longer moves by chance but now must strive: the change from the flight of birds to the crouching of four-footed beasts. Even more painful is the movement from the one who “dash[es] recklessly into the unknown” to the only who has “gained the security of a pedestrian on the highway of mediocrity.” This second stage reminds me of a back-hand to Judge Wilhelm of Either/Or.
The seeker who has moved past wonder is one for whom “enchantment” is over. Here he then makes an interesting statement concerning ethics or bare morality – if that is indeed what he is critiquing here. If we assume Kierkegaard is looking at bare moralism from the paradoxical perspective of one who has comes to know God in faith (and confession), that is a state of grace as opposed to an earned state of moral merit before God, then his words are jarring and damning:
And then in the next moment the thing sought is nothing, and that is why he is able to do everything himself.
The critique of moralism from the perspective of faith, is that the moralist believes he can do “everything.” The pre-conversion Paul was perfect as to the law. That is not the jarring observation. If is the first clause of the sentence, “the thing sought is nothing.” Moralism becomes a degrading of God: if God can be reached by my direct moral effort, then what is God? What sort of “infinite” can be scaled with mediocre sobriety?
This is the content of life which returns with each generation.
At this point, Kierkegaard comes to consider the life which simply gives way to this morality, “a security possessed which also deceives, a remoteness from all decision where one may be lost without even dreaming of such a possibility. Let the terrible in life take its prey, oh, this illusory security is a more terrible monster!”
This reminds of Thoreau’s dictum, I did not want to come to die to find that I had never lived.
Here Kierkegaard is useful, because avoidance of this trap is most often merely a retreat into the aesthetic: it is posture which cannot be sustained for long because it is either self-destructive or purely deception. Kierkegaard will contend that the solution is a movement toward God. But he has not come to that solution yet in the sermon.