some thursday drop-offs

Drop-off-AreaIt’s been a while since I shared some link love. Let me remedy that:

Encountered by One who has established kinship with us in time: celebrating Søren Kierkegaard

KierkegaardAware that today marks the 200th anniversary of the Danish philosopher/theologian Søren Kierkegaard, I invited a dear friend and Kierkegaard scholar Andrew Torrance (whose doctoral work is on Kierkegaard and Barth) to pen a few thoughts on the birthday boy and his work. I am very grateful to Andrew for taking up the invitation with these words:

It is not easy to write a short post on the 200th anniversary of such a multifaceted thinker as Søren Kierkegaard. But Kierkegaard himself provides us with a pointer for such a task. In his spiritual autobiography, The Point of View, he notes that his ‘whole authorship pertains to Christianity, to the issue: becoming a Christian’ (23). Yet his perspective on the Christian existence is also not narrow in focus. So how should one proceed from here? At this point, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Johannes Climacus provides us with further focus when he considers what is decisive about the Christian faith. Towards the end of Concluding Unscientific Postscript (where he elaborates on his work, Philosophical Fragments), Climacus makes it clear that there is no Christian faith without the eternal God entering into time to deliver persons into a relationship with God. The decisively Christian rests wholly upon the real God personally encountering individuals in history and delivering them from their self-enclosed existences into a new life of relationship with God. This new life is constituted by an outward relationship mediated by the one who, precisely by being the eternal truth, constitutes the only way to that truth.

kierkegaard 2So, in Concluding Unscientific Postscript (which Kierkegaard describes as the “turning point” in his entire authorship), Climacus asserts that it is the real person of God, rather than a mere human idea of God, that lies at the heart of the Christian faith. For Kierkegaard himself, this person is the person of Jesus Christ, the God-human. What this means is that Christians are defined by a relationship with the truth “who” cannot become a possession of the immanent human mind; ‘God cannot be an object for man, since God is subject’ (Journals and Papers, 2:1349). Yet while this truth cannot become an object of human thought, it can and does transform human thought. For Kierkegaard, becoming a Christian involves a transformative journey that is grounded in an active relationship with the God who is present with us and encounters us in Jesus Christ. As such, at the basis of Kierkegaard’s Christian vision is not an existentialist view of human becoming, nor an attack on the nominal Christianity of Danish Christendom, rather it is a commitment to the Gospel, to the person of Jesus Christ.

Accordingly, as Kierkegaard engaged with the question of becoming a Christian, he was acutely aware that he was without authority in this task. He did not for a moment believe that it was within his power to present the world with the truth of revelation, nor did he believe that he could explain how exactly persons are awakened to the truth of revelation. Why? Because any human idea that he put forward could not communicate the truth of who God is; it could not take the place of the divine subject. Kierkegaard’s words could never mediate the Christian truth and could never explain the mystery of God’s grace. Consequently, his proclamation was completely at the mercy of God who encounters us in Jesus Christ. He could only turn to the High Priest whose incarnation does not simply reveal a unity between the God and humanity but creates this unity. As another of Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms, Anti-Climacus writes, ‘That the human race is supposed to be in kinship with God is ancient paganism; but that an individual human being is God is Christianity, and this particular human being is the God-man.’ (Practice in Christianity, 82).

With this view, Kierkegaard challenged the overpowering belief that we are able to talk about God without God, reducing God to the realm of finite human understanding and language – a move that has repeatedly enabled the idea of God to become a plaything to be employed for our own human agendas. Kierkegaard saw this move as one that was enabled by the handholding “Christianity” had taken up with the variety of idealisms, Romanticisms, and post-enlightenment humanisms that exalt the powers of immanent human reason.

The problem with Kierkegaard’s emphasis on the outward relationship with God, realised in and through Jesus Christ, is that it entailed an inescapable uncertainty. When the truth is located beyond human subjectivity, in a transcendent other, the Christian cannot look to her own immanent powers of comprehension for security. In fear and trembling, she is required to trust that her faith is not simply a product of her own belief-forming imagination but is actually awakened by the reality of Jesus Christ. Paradoxically, the Christian is called to believe that she cannot truly believe without the one in whom she believes.

Kierkegaard 1Under these circumstances, Kierkegaard realised that, speculatively, he could not get beyond the possibility that his Christian life was a purely poetic existence, an existence created by his own imagination. So, to the question of whether or not he himself was a Christian, he responds,

My answer would be: I trust to God that I am a Christian; I believe that out of grace he will accept me as a Christian… The question of whether I am a Christian (and thus for every individual, whether he is a Christian) is entirely a God-relationship. (Point of View, 135)

Although, for Kierkegaard, the Christian faith entails devotion to a reality who cannot be commandeered by the human mind, this did not mean that his theology undermined the importance of human practice. Also, it did not mean that his theology called for a blind fideism. His theology called for Christian realism that did not repose in an inward ability to embrace uncertainty but turns to the reality of God who encounters us in history, the God who actively awakens us, upbuilds us and governs us in our faith. He encouraged Christians to struggle as witnesses to God in the world, with the understanding that God upholds them in their struggles, working behind them and with them. He summoned Christians to lead prayerful lives, lives in which they learned to talk about their struggles with God. He told Christians to strive to follow Christ, to be obedient, with the knowledge that when they fall short, Christ is not only their prototype but also their redeemer. He sought to foster an attitude of earnest repentance, with which Christians continually turn to God for renewal – for example, by coming to encounter God in the eucharist (in the presence of Christ). And he proclaimed these things by continually turning to the witness of Scripture, to the words through which God speaks to the world.

Ultimately, for Kierkegaard, it is not primarily our beliefs and practices that make us Christian. Again, if we find that we have become Christian it is because we are conscious of having been encountered by the God-human, Jesus Christ and have been drawn into communion with the one who, inconceivably, has established kinship with us in time.

‘Take this book back again’: the Bible and the development of a returns policy

While watching Bill Maher’s recent rant, I was reminded of, and challanged by, another, and much more impressive, ranter – Søren Kierkegaard – and the Dane’s tirade against Bible commentators:

‘The Church has long needed a prophet who in fear and trembling had the courage to forbid people to read the Bible. I am tempted, therefore, to make the following proposal. Let us collect all the Bibles and bring them out to an open place or up on a mountain and then, while we all kneel, let someone talk to God in this manner: Take this book back again. We Christians, such as we are, are not fit to involve ourselves with such a thing; it only makes us proud and unhappy. We are not ready for it. In other words, I suggest that we, like those inhabitants whose herd of pigs plunged into the water and died, beg Christ “to leave the neighborhood” (Mt. 8:34). This would at least be honest talk – something very different from the nauseating, hypocritical, scholarship that is so prevalent today.

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?

Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

I open the New Testament and read: “If you want to be perfect, then sell all your goods and give to the poor and come follow me.” Good God, if we were to actually do this, all the capitalists, the officeholders, and the entrepreneurs, the whole society in fact, would be almost beggars! We would be sunk if it were not for Christian scholarship! Praise be to everyone who works to consolidate the reputation of Christian scholarship, which helps to restrain the New Testament, this confounded book which would one, two, three, run us all down if it got loose (that is, if Christian scholarship did not restrain it)’. – Søren Kierkegaard, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard (ed. Charles E. Moore; Maryknoll: Orbis, 2003), 201–2.

‘Scottish Seeds in Antipodean Soil: the development of Presbyterian worship in Aotearoa New Zealand’

Recently, I drew attention to a public lecture that Graham Redding would be giving on the development of Presbyterian worship in Aotearoa New Zealand. Last night, to a crowded room, Graham delivered what was a fascinating lecture in which he traced the contours and patterns of worship trends in NZ Presbyterianism from its Reformation and Scottish roots, through its early colonial characteristics, to the modern era.

Drawing upon a host of indigenous examples and personalities, notably Harold Turner, Helmut Rex, John Henderson and John Dickie (pictured left), Redding concluded that ‘there is a desperate need for a revitalisation of worship in the Presbyterian Church. In my view, if such a revitalisation is to be of enduring significance, it is unlikely to take place independently of a recovery of core liturgical principles that undergird and inform the practice of Christian worship. Our church needs ministers and liturgists committed to this fundamental task’.

A copy of the full lecture, ‘Scottish Seeds in Antipodean Soil: the development of Presbyterian worship in Aotearoa New Zealand’, is available here. I’ve also uploaded a copy of the audio which can be downloaded from here.

And while I’m drawing attention to lectures, here are the links to three lectures by Walter Kaufmann on existentialism:

Advent II: On the pseudonymous activity of God

In a fascinating collection of personal papers and essays on public theology penned against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, and titled The Pseudonyms of God, Robert McAfee Brown invites us to imagine finding ourselves in a place where we are waiting for some tremendous manifestation of God’s activity. He invites us to imagine a situation where we have heard – or thought we had heard – a promise that God would intervene in our human situation, and that it was now clear that the time was at hand. Where would we look for God?

Brown suggests that we might most likely be found looking ‘in one of the great nations, where as many people as possible would be exposed to this important fact; surely in a well-established family with much influence; surely in such a way that all the resources of public opinion and mass media could be used to acquaint people with what had happened; surely it would be the most public and open and widely accessible event possible’ (pp. 84–5). He then paints a scenario more in keeping with the event of divine disclosure now known to us, but is no less in the stream of divine pseudonymity for that:

A child would be born into a backward South African tribe, the child of poor parents with almost no education. He would grow up under a government that would not acknowledge his right to citizenship. During his entire lifetime he would travel no more than about fifty miles from the village of his birth, and would spend most of that lifetime simply following his father’s trade – a hunter, perhaps, or a primitive farmer. Toward the end he would begin to gather a few followers together, talking about things that sounded so dangerous to the authorities that the police would finally move in and arrest him, at which point his following would collapse and his friends would fade back into their former jobs and situations. After a short time in prison and a rigged trial he would be shot by the prison guards as an enemy of the state. (p. 85)

Contemporaries ought not to be surprised to find the outcast – and the outcasted – God among the outcast. We must look for signs of the Servant God’s presence among those who serve. Numbered among an oppressed minority, we must expect to hear the echo of God’s voice among those who are oppressed. The pieta-like image above recalls that since 800 million of the planet’s people suffer from hunger and malnutrition, we might well expect that God’s availability is made tangible in loaves and fishes, rice and safe drinking water. Since God’s identification with the world involves God’s becoming creaturely, we ought look for God not only in ‘holy’ places or by means of ‘holy’ words, but we will look for God also in the very common, ordinary things of life, in the well over 500 million people who are living in what the World Bank has called ‘absolute poverty’, and in all those gathered up in the one great movement of divine kenosis-plerosis. ‘We will not be surprised to discover’, Brown writes, ‘that [God] suffered also, nor will we flinch when Bonhoeffer pronounces the initially disturbing words, “Only the suffering God can help,” even though it is probably the ultimate in the pseudonymous activity of God that he could be acquainted with grief’ (p. 86).

Brown then turns to Kierkegaard, and specifically to the Danes’ parable of the king and the maiden:

The servant-form is no mere outer garment, and therefore God must suffer all things, endure all things, make experience of all things. He must suffer hunger in the desert, he must thirst in the time of his agony, he must be forsaken in death, absolutely like the humblest – behold the man! His suffering is not that of his death, but his entire life is a story of suffering; and it is love that suffers, the love which gives all is itself in want (pp. 86–7).

Truly, in the economy of holy love, the locus of greatest clarity equates to the point of greatest incongruity and surprise. Jesus is God’s grand pseudonym, the supreme instance of God acting in ways contrary to our expectation, the point at which we are offered the criterion in terms of which the action of God elsewhere can be measured. And so if we miss God’s presence in the world, it will not be because God is absent. It will be because we have been looking in the wrong places.

God: the artist who completes his work

kierkegaard‘If a poet or an artist puts himself into his Productions he is criticized. But that is exactly what God does, he does so in Christ. And precisely that is Christianity. The creation was really only completed when God included himself in it. Before the coming of Christ, God was certainly in the creation, but as an invisible sign, like the watermark in paper. But the creation was completed by the Incarnation because God thereby included himself in it’. – Søren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Kierkegaard (edited by Alexander Dru. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), 324.

Kierkegaard on the conscience

‘By the aid of conscience things are so arranged that the judicial report follows at once upon every fault, and that the guilty one himself must write it. But it is written with sympathetic ink and only becomes thoroughly clear when in eternity it is held up to the light, while eternity holds audit over the consciences. Substantially everyone arrives in eternity bringing with him and delivering the most accurate account of every least insignificance which he has committed or has left undone. Therefore to hold judgment in eternity is a thing a child could manage; there is really nothing for a third person to do, everything, even to the most insignificant word is counted and in order’. – Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death (trans. Walter Lowrie; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954), 255.

Advent Reflection 12: Not an ethereal figure

‘So deeply is this need [for love] rooted in human nature, and so essentially does it belong to being human, that even he who was one with the Father and in the communion of love with the Father and the Spirit, he who loved the whole human race, our Lord Jesus Christ, even he humanly felt this need to love and be loved by an individual human being. He is indeed the God-man and thus eternally different from every human being, but still he was also a true human being, tested in everything human. On the other hand, the fact that he experienced this is the very expression of its belonging essentially to a human being. He was an actual human being and therefore can participate in everything human. He was not an ethereal figure that beckoned in the clouds without understanding or wanting to understand what humanly befalls a human being. Ah, no, he could have compassion on the crowd that lacked food, and purely humanly, he who himself had hungered in the desert. In the same way he could also sympathize with people in this need to love and to be loved, sympathize purely humanly’. – Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love (ed. Howard Vincent Hong and Edna Hatlestad Hong; trans. Howard Vincent Hong and Edna Hatlestad Hong; vol. 16; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 155.

Kierkegaard on Protestantism

One of my brighter students recently charged the Apostle Paul with ‘self-congratulatory arrogance’. It reminded me of Kierkegaard’s biting words about the form that Protestantism is taking, and perhaps increasingly so:

‘Protestantism is the crudest and most brutal plebeianism. People will not hear of there being any difference of quality between an apostle, a witness to the truth and oneself, in spite of the fact that one’s existence is completely different from theirs, as different as eating from being eaten’. – Søren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Kierkegaard (ed. Alexander Dru; New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), 245.

I wonder what the Dane would say if he spent a week or so with the average Protestant church today? Ouch! The fundamental issue, of course, is that of authority, coupled with a noxious and mendacious understanding of creaturely freedom. There can be no true freedom where there is no true authority. Where the latter is lost, the former disappears. So O’Donovan reminds us, ‘To be under authority is to be freer than to be independent’. – Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment, 132.

On Being the Church of Jesus Christ in Tumultuous Times: A Review

Joe R. Jones, ON BEING THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST IN TUMULTUOUS TIMES (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2005). Pp. xxx + 239. $27.00, ISBN: 9781597522762. A review.

Joe R. Jones, author of the massive The Grammar of Christian Faith and Doctrine, and who Stanley Hauerwas names ‘the best unknown theologian in America’ (how would Hauerwas know?), is well aware of at least two important realities that inform good theology. First, that theology is a discipline not of the academy but of the believing community which is ever to be that ‘sort of community that sustains a vigorous and continuing conversation within itself as to who has called it into being, to whom it is responsible, and what it is called to be and to do’ (p. xiii). Second, that Christian theology has its ground and end in the redeeming economy of the Triune God. These two convictions inform this collection of essays, sermons, and prayers composed over four decades.

The volume is made up of three sections. In the first, he addresses what it means to be the Church, that ‘broken body [which] must strive, in the midst of its brokenness in tumultuous times, to remember its calling and mission as an alternative community living an alternative way of life under the Lordship of Jesus Christ‘ (p. xiv). He repeatedly posits (pp. xvi, 6, 21, 35-6, 51, passim) his working definition of the Church:

The church is that liberative and redemptive
community of persons
called into being
by the Gospel of Jesus Christ
through the Holy Spirit
to witness in word and deed
to the living triune God
for the benefit of the world
to the glory of God.

Jones, a confessing pacifist ‘with many questions about how to be a pacifist’ (p. xxiv), contends that wherever Jesus’ body lives in the world, there the Church is properly a political entity with a distinct theology and ethic, and whose political witness is never for itself but is for the benefit of the world. Thus with definition above before him, Jones, in the tradition of that prisoner on Patmos, pens ‘A letter to the Churches After 9/11′ in which he reminds the church that it is ‘not called into existence by the American way of life, not called into existence in order to punish evildoers, not called into existence to endorse any given political regime, and not called into existence to protect Christians and wreak vengeance on nonchristians. But it does exist for the “benefit of the world,” though not on the world’s own terms regarding what it finds beneficial as an endorsement of the way it prefers to live’. When the Church, either ecumenically or as a particular congregation, is unclear about how to answer the key questions of its own identity ‘then its life will be a miasma of disarray and confusion’ (p. 6). Jones consistently names nationalism for the destructive and deceitful idol that it is, calling the Church to allegiance to its Lord alone, rather than serve two masters.

Jones turns in the second, third and fourth essays to a reflection on the Church’s illiteracy wherein he argues that the Christian community whose ‘language of faith has too often become hallow and empty’ has become ‘illiterate’ and ‘uneducated’ (p. 11). The Church needs to recover its ‘distinctive language’ (p. xv), its own voice – or that of her Lord’s – lest it be repeatedly ‘overwhelmed and held hostage by the nation-state and its political discourses and practices’ (p. xxiv), and whose discourse and practice form a necessary purlieus for doing theology. The witnessing Church requires a literacy in the Gospel: ‘The Gospel is not willy-nilly whatever people choose it to be. It is not just any presumably good or comforting news. But to be able to hear well and to witness well, the church must incessantly cultivate an understanding of the Gospel and the light it throws on the world. Whenever the church has neglected this cultivation, this education, it has itself become a wandering nomad, bedeviled by the mirages of passing fancies and fads’ (p. 14). He calls for a recovery of the Church’s educational processes that accentuate learning the Gospel’s content and giving it intelligent expression for the world. This doing of theology is not a luxury (or responsibility) for a few but for all the people of God. That said, the Church also needs to recover, he argues, a sense of the pastor as teacher and theologian for the community, to equip the community of theologians for ek-static movement towards and in the world as witness to God’s loving life (see pp. 21-34).

In the second of the three sections, ‘Theological Baselines for Doing Church Theology’, Jones explores, among other themes, notions of faith, soteriology, trinity, and Jewish-Christian dialogue. The essay on salvation (chapter 7) outlines the basis upon which believers have good reason to hope in an apokastasis panton. He argues that ‘the logic of a radical incarnation/atonement view centred in Jesus Christ moves resolutely to the final conclusion that all we be ultimately saved by God’s sovereign grace’ (p. 119). It is of little surprise, therefore, to read that Jones lists among his most significant influences and conversation partners, Karl Barth, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne.

Also, not a few of the essays betray Jones’ indebtedness to Søren Kierkegaard and to that Dane’s insistence that ‘to be a Christian is to learn how to be a Christian’ (p. 51). This American nonconformist does not, however, share Kierkegaard’s despairing thoughts on the Church more generally, or the latter’s over-subjectivism. Instead, Jones persuasively posits that learning how to be a Christian ‘involves being a member of a community that has characteristic discourses and practices about the narrative of God’s grace’ (p. 67). Little doubt, if Kierkegaard had a different model of Church in mind when he made his bold criticisms, he would agree with Jones here. Jones’ collection includes two fine chapters on Kierkegaard: one on Kierkegaard’s thoughts on authority and revelation; the other on Kierkegaard as ‘Spy, Judge, and Friend’ in which he outlines the basic life, contributions and contours of Kierkegaard’s thought. He laments that while Kierkegaard ‘was one of the most influential intellectuals for the twentieth century’ today ‘I find few entering divinity students that can spell his name, fewer still who have read anything of his, fewer yet that have benefited from his friendship’. He describes Kierkegaard as ‘a Spy who will push you into inward places of hiddenness you are reluctant to explore, a Judge who will indict your vagaries of life with inescapable and relentless precision and vivacity, but finally a Friend who might spiritually edify you on the multifaceted journey of becoming a Christian‘ (p. 154). He proceeds:

‘With uncanny prescience, Kierkegaard knew he would someday be famous but feared and loathed the prospect that he would fall into the hands of the professors, who would analyze and reduce his life and writings to a thumbnail sketch or footnote, or even to a voluminous narrative, but would never realize that the whole of his literature was directed even to the professor as an existing person who still had to exist somehow. He criticized professors, philosophers, and theologians unmercifully for building grand mansions of theory and thought only to live their actual, existing lives in the barnyard, feeding daily out of the pig trough. The point here is this: intellectuals are given to the pursuit and development of thought, concepts, and ideas, and they can easily fool themselves into supposing that if they have thought the thought they have also lived the thought. No, says Kierkegaard; to live the thought means to have one’s living passions and decisions shaped by the thought. Intellectuals are inclined to forget the actual passions and concrete decisions that shape their daily living, and therefore are forgetful of their actual existing. Their theories cannot – of themselves – encompass and shape the theorist’s existential reality without decision and persistence in passions’ (p. 155).

The final section is made up largely of pastoral prayers and some moving sermons, including those preached by Jones at ordination and funeral services.

While few will be convinced of all Jones’ claims, this an engaging and at times provocative miscellany properly written with one eye on the Church (and not least his own Disciples of Christ denomination the focus on which, at times, gives the reader a sense that she is reading an in-house review) and one on God as both God and Church direct their engaging gaze to the world. The reader would have been better served with the inclusion of an index and a little more editing out of repetitious material. That said, this book will assist the Church to better understand, celebrate and practice the good and missional news of Jesus Christ in tumultuous times.


Kierkegaard’s opposite?

While reading Kierkegaard, I am becoming increasingly convinced – against not a few commentators that when he is talking about universals he has Hegel in mind more than he does Kant. But I also want to suggest that Kierkegaard’s opposite is not only Hegel (and Kant), but that kind of levity and paucity of moral seriousness depicted in Monty Python’s controversial conclusion to their brilliant film The Life of Brian and Eric Idle’s invitation to ‘Always look on the bright side of life’:

If life seems jolly rotten
There’s something you’ve forgotten
And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing.
When you’re feeling in the dumps
Don’t be silly chumps
Just purse your lips and whistle – that’s the thing.

I am reminded here of the insights of one Kierkegaard scholar who noted that the malady of our age is mediocrity. It is easy to think that with all the busyness of modern life people are actually living engaged lives. In actual fact, however, very few live with passion, or on the basis of conscience. Everything is calculated in a way that whatever we do is reduced to the reasonable or unreasonable, or worse yet, to the law of least resistance. Suffering is to be avoided at all costs. In the name of unconditional freedom options remain open, but in the process, people drift along. In Kierkegaard’s words, ‘There are many people who arrive at conclusions in life much the way schoolboys do; they cheat their teachers by copying the answer book without having worked the problem themselves’.

Kierkegaard on forgiveness, pantheism and slack orators

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard challenges Hegel’s undermining of the individual and his positing of the common ethic as the highest reality. In its place, Kierkegaard posits individual faith as the highest reality, a reality which is at core personal, paradoxical and beyond empirical or philosophical challenge. It is the individual who alone stands in ‘absolute relation to the absolute’.

Kierkegaard then proceeds to discuss the sin of despairing of the forgiveness of sins itself. He suggests two reasons for such despair: weakness or defiance. Weakness, or what he calls ‘a passive suffering of the self’, describes when one ‘does not dare to believe’, while defiance is when one ‘will not believe’. Both reasons are at core a resistance to not to will to be oneself, that is, a sinner, and so dispense with, or deny, the offer of grace and reconciliation that comes in the forgiveness of sins. Kierkegaard writes, ‘When the sinner despairs of the forgiveness of sins it is almost as if he were directly picking a quarrel with God, it sounds in fact like a rejoinder when he says, “No, there is not any forgiveness of sins, it is an impossibility”; this looks like a hand-to-hand scuffle. But yet a man must remove himself to a qualitative distance from God in order to be able to say this and in order that it may be heard, and in order to fight cominus he must be eminus; so strangely constructed in an acoustic sense is the world of spirit, so strangely are the relationships of distance arranged. A man must be as far as possible removed from God for that “No” to be heard, while yet in a way he wants to pick a quarrel with God’. Kiekegaard’s point is that it is a sin to in one’s own offense turn away toward a direction other than faith. While ‘one might praise the pagan who really managed to despair, not over the world, not over himself in general, but over his sin’, true Christianity (though not Christendom) altered everything, ‘for thou shalt believe in the forgiveness of sins’. Despair of the forgiveness of sins is an offense, Kierkegaard insists, because such despair issues from a wrong view of sin whose opposite is not virtue, but faith.

In the midst of this discussion, Kierkegaard offers a punchy critique of pantheistic tendencies within Christian theology too blindly entrenched in Hegel.

The fundamental misfortune of Christendom is really Christianity, the fact that the doctrine of the God-Man (the Christian understanding of which, be it noted, is secured by the paradox and the possibility of offense) is taken in vain, the qualitative distinction between God and man is pantheistically abolished – first speculatively with an air of superiority, then vulgarly in the streets and alleys. Never anywhere has any doctrine on earth brought God and man so near together as has Christianity; neither could anyone else do it, only God Himself can, every human invention remains after all a dream, an uncertain imagination. Neither has any doctrine ever so carefully defended itself against the most shocking of all blasphemies, that after God had taken this step it then should be taken in vain, as though God and man coalesced in one and the same thing – never has any doctrine ever defended itself against this as Christianity has, which defends itself by the help of the offense. Woe unto the slack orators, woe unto the loose thinkers, and woe, woe unto all the adherents who have learnt from them and extolled them!’ – Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death (trans. Walter Lowrie; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954), 248.

Kierkegaard on reading Scripture

kierkegaard 2I wasn’t going to post on Kierkegaard today, but I came across this provocative statement in his Journal and thought it worth sharing. On face value, I suspect that many of us would disagree with what Kierkegaard is proposing here. Indeed, his own expository practice and adoration of Scripture might in itself challenge these thoughts. However, might he not be pressing on something that is important to hear in these days marked by both bibliolatry and bible neglect?

Fundamentally a reformation which did away with the Bible would now be just as valid as Luther’s doing away with the Pope. All that about the Bible has developed a religion of learning and law, a mere distraction. A little of that knowledge has gradually percolated to the simplest classes so that no one any longer reads the Bible humanly. As a result it does immeasurable harm; where life is concerned its existence is a fortification of excuses and escapes; for there is always something one has to look into first of all, and it always seems as though one had first of all to have the doctrine in perfect form before one could begin to live that is to say, one never begins.

The Bible Societies, those vapid caricatures of missions, societies which like all companies only work with money and are just as mundanely interested in spreading the Bible as other companies in their enterprises: the Bible Societies have done immeasurable harm. Christendom has long been in need of a hero who, in fear and trembling before God, had the courage to forbid people to read the Bible. That is something quite as necessary as preaching against Christianity’.

– Søren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Kierkegaard (ed. Alexander Dru; New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), 150.

The immediate context of the excerpt sheds little light on what Kierkegaard is here calling for. Some pages earlier, however, he defends the necessity for a more sustained reflection on the truths to which Scripture bears witness: ‘It has constantly been maintained that reflection inevitably destroys Christianity and is its natural enemy. I hope, now, that with God’s help it will be shown that a godfearing reflection can once again tie the knot at which a superficial reflection has been tugging for so long. The divine authority of the Bible and all that belongs to it has been done away with; it looks as though one had only to wait for the last stage of reflection in order to have done with the whole thing. But behold, reflection performs the opposite service by once more bringing the springs of Christianity into play, and in such a way that it can stand up against reflection’. This seems to be Kierkegaard’s main concern here. He is not wanting to change ‘real Christianity’ so much as call upon Christendom to repent of its failure to posit Christian faith as that which is immediate, personal, and simple, even in its paradox. He challenges believers to abandon the false dichotomy between ‘reflection and simplicity armed with reflection’. This alone, he insists, is true sense. He writes: ‘The problem is not to understand Christianity but to understand that it cannot be understood. That is the holiness of faith, and reflection is sanctified by being thus used …’.

His provocative statement regarding Scripture is, in other words, motivated, it seems, by his deep concern that believers are failing to hear, and heed, the word of God which has become domesticated to their ears. ‘It is high time’, he writes, ‘that Christianity was taken away again from men in order to teach them to appreciate it a little’.

Kierkegaard on staking all upon one throw

Over the last week or so (and probably for the next week or so), I have set myself the task of reading Søren Kierkegaard’s works. My impressions of the great Pascal of the North thus far are, to say the least, quite mixed. That said, like with Barth, when he’s right Kierkegaard’s so right, and when he’s wrong … well that’s perhaps for another post.

Yesterday I read with great profit and encouragement Fear and Trembling. Today, The Sickness Unto Death. Here’s a wee paragraph that sent me away for a think … and a strong coffee:

Doubtless most men live with far too little consciousness of themselves to have a conception of what consistency is; that is to say, they do not exist qua spirit. Their lives (either with a certain childish and lovable naïveté or in sheer banality) consist in some act or another, some ccurrence, this or that; and then they do something good, then in turn something wrong, and then it begins all over again; now they are in despair, for an afternoon, perhaps for three weeks, but then they are jovial again, and then again they are a whole day in despair. They take a hand in the game of life as it were, but they never have the experience of staking all upon one throw, never attain the conception of an infinite self-consistency. Therefore among themselves their talk is always about the particular, particular deeds, particular sins.

Kierkegaard on the Church’s freedom , and the faithfulness of depression

‘If the Church is “free” from the state, it’s all good. I can immediately fit in this situation. But if the Church is to be emancipated, then I must ask: By what means, in what way? A religious movement must be served religiously – otherwise it is a sham! Consequently, the emancipation must come about through martyrdom – bloody or bloodless. The price of purchase is the spiritual attitude. But those who wish to emancipate the Church by secular and worldly means (i.e. no martyrdom), they’ve introduced a conception of tolerance entirely consonant with that of the entire world, where tolerance equals indifference, and that is the most terrible offence against Christianity … [T]he doctrine of the established Church, its organization, are both very good indeed. Oh, but then our lives: believe me, they are indeed wretched’. – Søren Kierkegaard, Journals (January 1851)

‘In addition to my other numerous acquaintances, I have one more intimate confidant. My depression is the most faithful mistress I have known – no wonder, then, that I return the love’. – Søren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard Conference

Those with an interest in Kierkegaard may be keen to note that the Søren Kierkegaard Society of the UK is organising a conference from 18-21 June 2007 in Liverpool. The theme of the conference is ‘Kierkegaard, Culture and Christendom: Art and Media; Church and Society’.

Plenary speakers include Clare Carlisle, Harvie Ferguson, Martin Matustik and George Pattison.

More information here.

Kierkegaard on sin

For those who may be interested, Joshua from Theologoumenon is planning to post a series on Søren Kierkegaard’s view of sin. Sounds worthwhile. Also, Ben, over at Faith and Theology is running a poll on Reformed theologians. Don’t you just love theoproxy. The candidates are Calvin, Edwards, Schleiermacher, Barth and Moltmann. So far, Barth is winning (I’m sure he’d love to know that) and poor ol’ Friedrich is yet to get a vote. A bit sad really. Anyway, to cast your vote, check out Ben’s blog.

A reflection on Vincent Donovan

In The Church in the Midst of Creation, Donovan builds on his previous work, Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai, and in many ways it really cannot be appreciated without having first read that book. I was particularly reminded of one part of his earlier work where he writes about what he is observing amongst the Masai, an observation that is pertinent for his later book. He observes:

There is no use arguing that it isn’t true happiness they have, or that they aren’t really happy – because they are, at least in that momentary escape from their loneliness and hopelessness while drinking the rich butterfat milk of their Zebu cattle, or striding across the Masai plains, or dancing the beautiful dances of the nomads. St. Paul says this happiness is a sign of God among them. He was here before we ever got there. It is simply up to us to bring him out so they can recognise him.

Writing from back home in the United States, Donovan, in The Church in the Midst of Creation, has, between the Preface and the Epilogue, nine chapters in which he peruses back and forth across history seeing the way that the Roman Catholic Church has became standardised, specialised, and centralised (he argues largely because of the industrial revolution), with a uniformity imposed by the Vatican and a Christ who has become a European Christ and has shackled the Spirit. Donovan responds by proposing a cosmic, or planetary, Christ.

There are echoes here of a response he offered to a review of his previous book, Christianity Rediscovered, where he wrote that

While we have to admit that Western Christianity has monopolized Christ, and has shackled Christ in the bondage of a single culture to such an extent that the Western Christ has become a stumbling block for the Holy Spirit, Christ will remain, I believe, the point at which Christianity and Hinduism will meet, the point at which Christianity and every religion and culture will meet. It will serve no purpose at all to water down the heart of the Christian message to make it more acceptable to the world of humankind. We must bring the full brunt of the gospel message to the religions and cultures of the world. The understanding of Christ will undoubtedly change, and expand and grow as a result of this process, perhaps even in a frightening and unfamiliar manner, but it should have grown long ago out of the narrow dimensions of the Mediterranean Christ.

He develops this thought further in The Church in the Midst of Creation where he advocates the need for the Western Church to embrace a planetary Christ, a world Christ. He writes:

We have to admit that after all this existence and scientific scholarship, after nearly two thousand years of Christianity, the Christ that is worshipped in our churches, the Christ that is the basis for our church and all its faith life and activity, is no more than a Mediterranean Christ. That is as far as Christ has grown. European and American theologians see nothing wrong with that, nothing wrong with the fact that we have not even begun to think of, or search for, the meaning of a planetary Christ, a world Christ. We continue to let all our efforts revolve around a Mediterranean Christ. We of the West have monopolized Christ…. There is surely more to be revealed about the Christ than is already known. But we, trapped in our own culture with its exact and measured scientific view of the world, with our lack of sacramental vision, may not be the ones to discover it. Like Mary Magdelene, we are afraid to let go of Christ, to let Christ out of our grasp, out of our control.

This kind of thinking raises serious questions about how we understand the nature of Church as Incarnational. In what sense are Christ’s people his form in the world? This is a different question than that of whether of not the Church is a continuation of the Incarnation. With Forsyth, I contend that it is not. However, Donovan’s question, one of many raised in his book, is one that I wish to consider in this post, albeit briefly.

I think that we need to respond to this question firstly by seeing the Church as a kenotic community. There is at the heart of reconciliation the solidarity with the world which the Church does not take on as an extra-curricula activity, but which is constituted of its very existence as the kenotic community. The kenosis of Christ is the ‘self-emptying’ (Phil 2) which constitutes the inner movement of condescension and humility which characterises the life of the Son to the Father. As Jesus drew his disciples into his own ‘self-emptying’ life and ministry of obedience and service to the Father on behalf of the world, he formed them into a ‘kenotic community’. As those who bare continuous testimony to the presence of Christ in the world following Pentecost, the Church exists as the community where the world can discover and experience its own participation, reconciliation and salvation in the kenosis of God in Christ. Karl Barth noted that ‘The world does not know itself. It does not know God, nor man, nor the relationship and covenant between God and man. Hence it does not know its own origin, state or goal. It does not know what divides nor what unites. It does not know either its life and salvation or its death and destruction. It is blind to its own reality. Its existence is a groping in the dark.’

All this serves as a sober reminder that the Church does not ‘possess’ Christ as its own. To this end, Bonhoeffer observed that ‘Everything would be ruined if one were to try and reserve Christ for the Church and to allow the world only some kind of law, even if it were a Christian law. Christ dies for the world, and it is only in the midst of the world that Christ is Christ.’ It is not as though the world needs the Church in order to have Christ; the Church also needs the world in order to know Christ. In this sense, Christ’s existence in the world is ‘non-religious’ or ‘worldly’. Thus there is a certain ‘boundary-lessness’ to the Church in the world. Because Christ is the true centre, there are no longer any boundaries by which one can determine or define the existence of God in the world. So there is a need for us to be able to speak freely of the reality of the world for the Church, and of the solidarity between the Church and the world. The latter because the true community of Jesus Christ does not exist esoterically and invisibly but visibly and exoterically, so that it may be noted by the world around. Otto Weber notes,

Seen Christologically, every rejection of the world by the Community would have to place in question “docetically” the incarnation of Jesus Christ. It would have to have been the case that God did not become “true man” in Jesus Christ if the Community were intended not to be “truly” in the world. But above all, the victory of the Resurrected One over the “cosmos” (John 16:33) would have to be disregarded if the Community were supposed to understand the “world” solely as a confusing, alien reality, to be held at a distance and excluded.

The incarnational solidarity between Christ and the world binds the Church to the world and the world to the Church in a critical but positive tension of judgement and reconciliation, of sin and grace. As Barth says,

Solidarity with the world means full commitment to it, unreserved participation in its situation, in the promise given it by creation, in its responsibility for the arrogance, sloth and falsehood which reign within it, in its suffering under the resultant distress, but primarily and supremely in the free grace of God demonstrated and addressed to it in Jesus Christ, and therefore in its hope…. Solidarity with the world means that those who are genuinely pious approach the children of the world as such, that those who are genuinely righteous are not ashamed to sit down with the unrighteous as friends, that those who are genuinely wise do not hesitate to seem to be fools among fools, and that those who are genuinely holy are not too good or irreproachable to go down “into hell” in a very secular fashion…. since Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the world, [the Church] can exist in worldly fashion, not unwillingly nor with a bad conscience, but willingly and with a good conscience. It consists in the recognition that its members also bear in themselves and in some way actualise all human possibilities.

Given this, there is an obligation placed upon the Church towards the world. This obligation is the responsibility for the world, or to the world, which Christ assumed in coming to the World as the Word. So one cannot discharge obligation to God and at the same time be irresponsible toward the world.

But at the same time, there is a necessary contradiction which must be borne within the ‘same body’, a contradiction that Donovan, in my opinion, fails to take seriously enough, and which Hauerwas and Willimon bear witness to when they write:

The challenge facing today’s Christians is not the necessity to translate Christian convictions into a modern idiom, but rather to form a community, a colony of resident aliens which is so shaped by our convictions that no one even has to ask what we mean by confessing belief in God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The biggest problem facing Christian theology is not translation but enactment. No doubt, one of the major reasons for the great modern theologians who strove to translate our language for modernity was that the church had become so inept at enactment. Yet no clever theological moves can be substituted for the necessity of the church being a community of people who embody our language about God, where talk about God is used without apology, because our life together does not mock our words. The church is the visible, political enactment of our language of God by a people who can name their sin and accept God’s forgiveness and are thereby enabled to speak the truth in love. Our Sunday worship has a way of reminding us, in the most explicit and ecclesial of ways, of the source of our power, the peculiar nature of our solutions to what ails us.

Returning back now to our earlier discussion regarding that necessary contradiction between Christ and the world, we might deduce that the reconciliation of the world to God produces and sustains the contradiction for the sake of its healing. Thus, the ‘kenotic community’ exposes the contradiction by virtue of its solidarity with the world. Barth discusses the problem between the reconciliation actualised in Christ and the contemporary situation of the Christian in the world as the ‘divine problem’, and says that God takes up this ‘problem’ and solves it in the presence and action of the Holy Spirit.

Thus there remains a ‘difference in solidarity’. ‘In Jesus Christ the community and the rest of humanity constitute a differentiated, yet in this differentiation firmly integrated, whole.’ This leads to a three-part conclusion: (i) the world would be lost without Jesus Christ and his word and work; (ii) the world would not necessarily be lost if there were no Church; and (iii) the Church would be lost if it had no counterpart in the world. The ‘difference’ is the presence of Christ – ‘For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them’ (Matt 18:20).

With this theological horizon, and motivated by his conviction that God is still creating and calling the Church to participate in what is its ontological purpose for being, Donovan appeals for the people to “refound” the Church. His experience with the Masai, and what this experience has helped him to discover in Scripture, has clearly played a significant role in shaping his sense of creation’s direction. Writing out of a post-Vatican II context, he finds Scripture pointing to an ecclesiastical model with increased simplicity in its lifestyle, with less oppressive hierarchy, with less space between leaders and people at all levels, and with a keener awareness of the pressing needs of a close-by world. In his last chapter, he gives us a glimpse at how such a congregation could look. He also espouses an approach to evangelism whereby both parties are changed by God during their communicative interchange. It is with this awareness that he argues for “evangelization of culture” which includes genuinely mutual dialogue with the other major faiths of the world. His argument is interesting: that convert-making is geared to individuals and its success is measured numerically, when what is required is to evangelise the whole culture.

Unfortunately, he falls victim, I believe, to contemporary culture’s addiction to “new age” expectations. Citing as his gurus Sorokin, Rahner and Toffler, he argues that our time (written in 1989) is a time of significant change to the point where we are “an age in the process of breaking up”. His discussion is helpful in that he argues for the need for the Church to ‘grow-up’ to meet these changing conditions, but I wish that his grounding in Scripture reminded him that the new age is God’s gift in Christ and is not a pseudohistorical concept.

In light of this, NT Wright, in a discussion of Romans 9-11, offers some poignant insights into the Church’s ontological nature as that which issues from the Cross – that place/event which serves as the passionate concern of the Church, led by the Spirit, as the loving justice of God to all the world in real space and time. He writes,

And when the church really turns to face this task, as it must if it is to be true to its vocation, it will find (as Paul saw in 2 Corinthians particularly) that its role is Christ-shaped: to bear the pain and shame of the world in its own body, that the world may be healed. And with this we realize (in case it were not already apparent) that there is no room in this hermeneutic for a Christian or ecclesial triumphalism, which is precisely what Paul is opposing in Romans 11. The church is called to do and be for the world what the Messiah was and did for Israel … The church must find out the pain of the world, and must share it and bear it.

Another issue that is raised by Donovan, moreover, raises this issue of the Church community’s place in time and space. In other words, in what sense is the Church an eschatological community? Surely the Church is the community that is determined by its final destiny, the resurrection of the Incarnate Word-Son of God, Jesus Christ. The Church’s ‘now-life’ is lived in this realised sense as Christ’s presence in the Church and world is as the Coming or Last One, and it’s in this sense that his ministry is one of reconciliation, liberation and hope.

Karl Barth wrote that “We must understand that God is the measure of all reality and propriety, understand that eternity exists first and then time, and therefore the future first and then the present.” In this sense the Church is simultaneously the ‘kenotic community’ and the ‘ek-static community’. The ek-static dimension of the Church’s life is its orientation toward the ultimate destiny, by which it ‘stands out’ (ek-stasis) of its existence in solidarity with the world toward the source of its life and being in the Christ who is coming.

A brief story. Imagine that geese could talk, Kierkegaard once said, and that they arranged things so that they too could have their Church services and their worship:

Every Sunday they would assemble together and a gander would preach. The essential content of the sermon was the exalted destiny of the geese, the exalted goal for which the creator had destined geese (and every time his name was named all the geese curtsied and the ganders bowed their heads). With the help of their wings they could fly away to far countries, blessed countries, where they really were at home; for here they were just like exiles. And so every Sunday. Then the gathering broke up, and every goose waddles home. Then the next Sunday off they went to the service again, then home again. That was all. They throve and grew fat, they became plump and tender… that was all. For while the sermon sounded so exalted on Sundays, on Mondays they would tell one another of the fate of the goose who wanted to take his destiny seriously, with the help of the wings the creator had given it. And they spoke of the horrors it had to endure. But they prudently kept this knowledge among themselves. For, of course, to speak of it on Sundays was most unsuitable, for as they said, in that case it would be obvious that our service would be a mockery both of God and of ourselves. There were also among the geese some that looked ill and thin. Of them the others said, “You see, that’s what comes from being serious about wanting to fly. It is because they are always thinking of flying that they get thin and do not thrive, and do not have God’s grace as we do. That is why we get plump and fat and tender, for it is by God’s grace that one gets plump and fat and tender.

So it is with Christians, added Keirkegaard: they conclude that the domesticating grace of God is not meant to take seriously the wings of the Spirit, for to do so emaciates one’s well-being and destroys one’s peace as an earth-bound creature. Whereas, in fact, the wings are meant to be used – humans have Spirit, and thus are destined to live a transcendent life of ek-statis, the content of which is love.