The nephew of the deceased interrupted the service at the graveside to object to the entire procedure. “No Turk, Jew, or Muslim, would be forced to submit, against his will, to the rites of a religion which he had rejected,” he cried out. “What is this ‘official Christianity’ then?” asked the young man. “It is the great Whore, Babylon, with whom all the kings of the earth have fornicated, the wine of whose whoredom has made drunk all the peoples of the earth. . ..” The young doctor explained that the deceased had refused to participate in the official worship of God and so, accordingly will have reduced his sins, in his own estimate, by one – “namely the sin of participating in making a fool of God by calling the Christianity of the New Testament what is not the Christianity of the New Testament.” 1
Søren Aabye Kierkegaard was laid to rest, struck down in his prime, yet for the Bishop watching events from the secrecy of his office across from the grave site – it was none too soon. Kierkegaard maintained that the “clergyman is perfectly trained to introduce Christianity in such a way that it means nothing.” Church leaders, he claimed, cannot even recognize their failure to attain a similitude to the New Testament Church. Those who call themselves leaders are only serving their own interests. These esteemed gentlemen had attained the heights of respectability as they had played the whore with the spirit of the age. Kierkegaard had named both the presiding Bishop of the Church of Denmark and now his predecessor as the most insidious of influences against true Christianity. As he lay dying he had turned his own brother, a clergyman of the official Church, away as he would not be seen to retreat from his repudiation of a false Christianity in his final hour.
It is not that the Bible is hard to understand; understanding is not the problem, he argued, but obedience. “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. . . if I do that my whole life will be ruined.”2 Kierkegaard’s understanding is that the Bible, as in James’ portrayal, is a mirror which reflects one’s true image. Scripture is a mirror for self-examination. To be left alone with God and the New Testament should give rise to pure dread and this in turn should give rise to authentic Christianity.
The impetus behind Kierkegaard’s writing was to introduce Christianity into Christendom. His goal is not general reform but to call individuals from out of the herd mentality of the established church. In Kierkegaard’s estimate, “the only unforgivable high treason against Christianity is the single individual’s taking his relation to it for granted.”3 The institutionalization of Christianity allows for entry into the church as a normative part of citizenship and respectability. Kierkegaard pictures the High Right Reverend in his fine robes and lofty position preaching on Jesus command to rich young ruler to give up everything to come follow Him – and no one laughs at the disparity. There is a certain dull minded blindness fostered by large numbers (the herd).
It is not that Kierkegaard can presume to pass these judgments from a place of having attained what he is picturing. His concern is to speak the truth from one still on the journey toward an authentic Christianity. His goal is a departure from that which is clearly not Christianity and, through his writing, to picture what that authentic Christianity would entail.
I am convinced that each of us are called to the existential crisis detailed by Kierkegaard. Having spent twenty years in Japan it was only on our return to the States that the corruption of New Testament Christianity, at least in our sphere of experience, became starkly clear. The arrogance and inhumanity meted out to us by the “Lords humble servants” would cause a shudder of revulsion from good “pagans.” Those who call themselves “Christian leaders” and who set themselves up as the model to be followed in training leaders are as venal as Kierkegaard’s contemporaries. Yet, as with Kierkegaard, it is not that one can experience this revulsion without personal implications. These individuals have risen to the top, not by accident, but because they are the end product of the system that has shaped them. The same church or Christendom that has produced individuals so empty of anything resembling authentic Christianity is the pervasive system. The twisted individual leaders we have encountered locally are simply the offspring of a reinvigorated American Christendom that has gone whoring after wealth and power. But the issue of whether evangelical or conservative Christianity retains any legitimacy is ultimately a personal issue. To the degree that my own faith has been fostered by this system, I recognize that these harsh judgments fall upon myself. This is precisely the Kierkegaardian point of departure.
It is, he says, dreadful to fall into the hands of the living God. It is only when we are stripped of the pretense of a “cultural Christianity” that we can encounter the reality of the New Testament. The “scheming swindler” in each of us would rather pad and complicate direct exposure to the Word. Here the service of scholarship can be called upon to distance one from the Bible. “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.” “Turn the other cheek,” – ah yes, this is a special circumstance mitigated when the state might call you to murder for a higher cause. “Give away all you have and come follow me,” – well of course one must be reasonable. Each of us as subjective individuals made to stand naked before this Word begin to feel the impossibility – the hard thing that authentic Christianity calls us to. The radical nature of the call must be experienced as we are called out “from among them.” This, though, is not the last word but only the beginning in taking up a yoke that turns out to be ever so light.
The genius of Kierkegaard shines through most clearly in his description of the passage from the Sickness unto Death which is definitive of the human condition. If one recognizes the desperate sickness with which he is inflicted this is the beginning of departure from the heavy yoke with which he is burdened. “Man is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short it is a synthesis.” But it is a synthesis or relation not yet achieved. The relation is the third term which is experienced in its absence. The force of this absence is experienced as that which would unify the self. It is God that is displaced in this negative self-relation and what takes hold in His absence is death or the drive toward death. The capacity for the infinite (God – displaced) makes death and despair something on the order of a negative infinite force. To not despair is to not recognize the negative force toward which one is oriented. “So then it is an infinite advantage to be able to despair; and yet it is not only the greatest misfortune and misery to be in despair; no, it is perdition.”4 Kierkegaard describes it as on the order of a disease that is continually being contracted. The past is immediately brought to bear on the present through a continual act of the will contracting the disease. Kierkegaard here echoes a realization of Jacques Lacan, the disease does not end in death; rather there is a continual being given over to death, and an incapacity to end the suffering. “On the contrary, the torment of despair is precisely this, not to be able to die. So it has much in common with the situation of the moribund when he lies and struggles with death, and cannot die. So to be sick unto death is, not to be able to die — yet not as though there were hope of life; no the hopelessness in this case is that even the last hope, death, is not available.”5 The despair which has become so great that death is one’s only hope describes the realization of the disease. This despair is precisely self-consuming as it is an impotent self-consumption which is not able to do what it wills. It is despair because he cannot get rid of himself or make himself nothing. If the one in despair does not recognize that it is precisely over himself that he is in despair (that is if he projects the despair onto some circumstance of life) the sickness has not yet been properly understood. This describes the majority of persons, according to Kierkegaard, as most spend their energies in deceiving and distracting themselves from realizing the nature of the disease with which they have been afflicted. The problem of Christendom is that it aids in propagating the deception.
The depth of Kierkegaard’s psychological analysis is unrivaled in the history of Christian thought, and it is precisely here that his notion of Christianity as Subjectivity is to be understood. The disease which afflicts us is not a malaise of the heart or head but a sickness of the self. The self is the sickness – and it is a sickness unto death. A church geared to hide the sickness through the busyness of the herd cannot claim similitude to New Testament Christianity and cannot even hope for reform. Reform within institutionalized Christianity would amount to rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship. “This cannot be God’s idea but is a foppish human device, which is why, instead of fear and trembling and much spiritual trial, there is: hurrah, bravo, applause, balloting, bumbling, hubbub, noise – and false alarm.”6 The single individual, called out from the “untruth of the crowd,” must stand before God alone. Like Kierkegaard, it may be with great hesitancy that one call himself a Christian. This is in contrast to the thousands of Christians who “have known definitely that they were Christians but did not know definitely what it means to be a Christian.”7 At least it needs to be understood that being a Christian entails the stark reality that Christ bids us to come and die.
1 Stephen Backhouse, Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Zondervan: 2016) 30-31. I am following this wonderful new biography.
2 Quoted in Backhouse referencing Kierkegaard’s journals, 173.
3 Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments (Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong, Edna H. Hong) 16.
4 Kierkegaard, (Kindle Locations 133-134).
5 Kierkegaard (Kindle Locations 180-186).
6 For Self-Examination/Judge For Yourself! (Two books in one volume. Edited and translated y Howard V. Hong, Edna H. Hong.) 213.
7 From the essay “Armed Neutrality.”