Kierkegaard and why we need a Church

Over the past year in a couple of the classes I’ve taken, I’ve had the pleasure of dabbling is some of the middle and late works of Søren Kierkegaard.  Kierkegaard is a literary genius—passionate, ironic, employing different genres and pseudonyms to keep his readers always just a bit off balance.

Some of the characters he creates are Christians, others not, and it’s always tricky to figure out where exactly the writer himself stands in the midst of his literary labyrinths.  But by the end of his life, Kierkegaard was both writing openly as a Christian and saying some pretty challenging things about Christianity.

Kierkegaard is often associated with fideism and at times he seems to be arguing that Christians necessarily must embrace logical contradictions, which seems neither very Biblical nor very sensible to me.  But there are ways of talking Kierkegaard down off his fideistic ledge and separating what is profound and challenging in his work from what is rhetorical excess.  Not everything a character says, after all, should be attributed to the author.

To understand Kierkegaard and appreciate all he has to offer as a philosopher, one has to take into account who his enemies are, what he’s writing to oppose.  Kierkegaard hits the religious and philosophical errors he sees around him as hard as he can, sometimes allowing his pseudonymous authors to go to opposite extremes to make their point.  At times this makes him sound a bit unbalanced.

To see what I mean, take, for example, someone surrounded by Christians who talk only about Good Friday:  pain and suffering day and night with never a hint that anything important happened after Joseph of Arimathea put the Lord’s body in a tomb.  If such a person wanted his gloomy neighbors to embrace a fuller picture of Christianity, he would likely talk almost exclusively about Easter, the Resurrection, joy, gladness, and little emphasize the Cross.  If we were to read such a person’s writings in isolation we would end up with a Christianity just as unbalanced as the one we started out with, albeit in the opposite way.  At times, Kierkegaard can whack one error so hard that he doesn’t seem to remember that other, opposite errors are possible.

Such is the case with Kierkegaard’s at times excessive individualism.  One of Kierkegaard’s major enemies throughout his life was “Christendom.”  In Kierkegaard’s Denmark, everyone was a Lutheran, and consequently Lutheranism meant nothing much.  Being Lutheran was more or less synonymous with being Danish, something which one acquired through no effort of one’s own and without any deep sense of commitment.  According to Kierkegaard being a “Christian” in “Christendom” is easy and, consequently, empty.

For Kierkegaard Christianity had been lost in “Christendom.”  He realized that following Jesus is not something we do just because everyone else is doing it or because of some label on our identity card.  The teachings of the Gospels are monumentally challenging:  follow the commandments and—you aren’t finished yet—sell everything you own and come follow me; be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect; love your enemies; take up your Cross… you get the picture.

Kierkegaard realized that Christianity requires a commitment from the very depths of one’s soul, a leap of faith that holds nothing back.  Because he thought the greatest obstacle to our making such a total commitment was the sort of religious-ethical inertia that said “just be a good Danish citizen like all the others,” he hammered away at the requirement that I as an individual commit myself to following the Lord.  He doesn’t say much about community or Church, not because there’s no place for those concepts in his philosophy, but because he’s fighting the error that confuses groupthink with Christianity.

Today Christendom is dead, but groupthink is alive and well and as great a threat to following Jesus as it ever was.  The great irony today, however, is that those following the herd are those most likely to trumpet their individualism.  Everybody is an individual these days.  We don’t accept any outside authority telling us what to do; the New York Times tells us not to.

Unfortunately, in rejecting all authority but our own sovereign will we have so internalized so many secular myths and assumptions—about Progress (good) and Authority (bad), about Individuality (good) and Institutions (bad), about Dogma (bad) and Independence (good)—that the only creativity we’re capable of is what the remote control can offer us.  All our choices have cost us our freedom.

I’ve mentioned before on these pages Christian Smith’s insightful study on American spirituality, Soul Searching:  The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.  Central to Smith’s provocative findings is the claim that we have a de facto cultural creed, which he calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  Be nice.  Be healthy.  Feel good.  Dogma’s not important.  Just be nice.  We all believe basically the same things anyway.

I would argue that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism plays more or less the same role in our culture as state Christianity did in Kierkegaard’s Denmark.  And it poses the same sort of threat to the challenging and robust Christianity of the Gospels as did the Danish state Lutheranism of Kierkegaard’s day.

And I’d further argue that the greatest bulwark we have against slipping into the cultural groupthink that Kierkegaard despised is precisely the institution that the nature of his project forces him at times to criticize—the Church.  Not the Danish state church, of course.  The problem with state churches is that they inevitably become accessories of one particular culture; they become the Bureau of Religious Affairs.

If the Church is to provide us with the radical freedom from the Zeitgeist that the Gospel demands, it must be, well, catholic.  This means that in addition to being multi-cultural and multi-ethnic (in the literal and not the merely politically correct sense), it must not become too tied to any particular moment in time, especially the present moment.  Chesterton once referred to tradition as “the democracy of the dead,” and our Tradition is the Holy Spirit’s way of ensuring that the Church remains truly catholic, that it does not simply float along on the fashionable currents of the day like driftwood in a stream.

This means that the Church will find itself in tension with every culture and every age, as it does in our own culture and in our own age.  But, as we should know from reading Kierkegaard, when this tension disappears—when Christianity becomes a garment we wear lightly without much cost or sweat—we have probably left the message of the Gospels somewhere behind.

Yes, the Church asks a lot of us today.  She’s a magistra who doesn’t hand out any easy A’s.  And that’s exactly how you know that her course is worth taking.

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22 Responses to Kierkegaard and why we need a Church

  1. Qualis Rex says:

    Great points, Anthony. But I would argue that while Christendom is dead in Denmark (as in most of Europe) it is indeed alive in other countries and sociieties; Italy, Ireland, Latin America and even pockets of the middle-East. Meaning, in certain locations, Christianity is much more of an identity, either because it is part of the national history, or because it is almost a tribal distinction from the larger society (i.e. Assyrians, Chaldeans, Copts etc).

    The tension you speak of is I believe equally present in Christians living in such societies as it is with Christians living in a pluralistic/secular society. I will say that Christians who come from “Christendom” do seem to posess more qualities and attributes one would associate with the early Christian church with regards to charity, humility and kindness, whereas Christians of the other stripe tend more towards justice, temperence and diligence. I think both have the propensity towards faith.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      This is what I get for not defining my terms!

      I think you’re right about Christianity as a cultural identity being stronger in some places than others. I’m not sure that Kierkegaard ever precisely defines what he means by “Christendom” either, how important, say, state support of Christianity is for the concept as he uses it.

      I also am probably not as hard on “Christendom” as Kierkegaard would be; I think you’re right that the different situations in which Christianity finds itself bring out different virtues and also different vices in Christians. Christianity does have to become to some degree embodied in culture (or a subculture, as the case may be) in order to be real, to be not simply an abstraction.

      We are, after all, an incarnational and sacramental faith. That’s another aspect of Christianity Kierkegaard doesn’t address at all adequately in my view.

      • Qualis Rex says:

        Christian “subculture”? Oh, MAN! I was cool and didn’t even know it! I’ve always wanted to be part of a subculture, and by golly this tears it.

        Oooops. Just said “by golly”. Guess I’m not as cool as I thought. Oh, well…back to the drawing board. Wonder if there is any opening in the “anarchist unicyclers” subculture…

      • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

        Perhaps one could say “minority culture” to avoid being put in the anarchist unicycler category… Though it might not make you feel as cool.

  2. Joe Simmons, SJ says:

    Bravo, Tony. Encore!

  3. crystal says:

    I’ve just been reading an article about Kierkegaard and radical orthodoxy/the church by Steven Shakespeare. A quote …

    “Milbank is right to stress Kierkegaard’s irreducible and radical Christian critique of secular forms of thought and culture. However, Kierkegaard does not replace secularism with a rehashed Christendom, which appeals to the authority of the church, the Bible or the metanarrative resources of creed and dogma. Climacus writes that

    No anonymous author can more slyly hide himself, and no maieutic can more carefully recede from a direct relation than God can. He is in the creation, everywhere in the creation, but he is not there directly, and only when the single individual turns inward into himself (consequently only in the inwardness of self-activity) does he become aware and capable of seeing God.
    The direct relationship to God is simply paganism, and only when the break has taken place, only then can there be a God-relationship. (Kierkegaard, 1992b, p. 243)

    This is just the sort of individualism that Pickstock resists in Kierkegaard’s texts. But such a judgement is superficial. The Postscript is as much about how our individual subjectivity has to be wounded and contested as it is an affirmation of the necessity of subjective appropriation for faith. The analogy here is not the dangerously univocal one implied by radical orthodox accounts of participation, but the indirect witness to God’s authorship of creation in our own risky and fragile attempts at communication.”

    For those interested, the article is in the book Deconstructing Radical Orthodoxy: Postmodern Theology, Rhetoric And Truth , chapter nine: Better Well Hanged Than Ill-Wed? Kierkegaard and Radical Orthodoxy

    • Henry says:

      My relationship with Christ, as a Catholic Christian, is “personal” but not “individualistic” because we Catholics adhere to the method and conduit Christ instituted to reach us – namely His Church. My sister, however, sees her relationship as more “individualistic” because she believes she can follow Christ without a “church” – which is understandable for her because she is a Protestant.

      I would recommend that one actually read the writings of Radical Orthodoxy first and then read the writings of their critics. Reading the critics first reminds me of those heterodox Catholics who read works criticizing “Humane Vitae” or “Dominus Iesus” without actually having read the document itself. Seems a** backwards to me!

      • crystal says:

        Hi Henry,

        I agree with your sister 🙂

        I have read a little of what John Milbank has to say – it was that which made me want to look at some critics of radical orthodoxy.

      • Henry says:

        I’ll tell you the same thing I told my sister: “Well, it certainly is easier to follow a Jesus of your own creation isn’t it? …Well, I still love you despite that massive flaw!”

        Have you also read Catherine Pickstock? Her book “After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy” was great! “Truth in Aquinas” by John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock was also very good and I think it is best read along with Josef Pieper’s “Living the Truth.”

        Pax,

        Henry

      • crystal says:

        I’m not sure why you think the Jesus I follow is any more my own creation than anybody else’s is their’s …. I came to know about him mostly through a Jesuit retreat and with the help of a spiritual director and through reading the NT and through prayer.

        No I haven’t read her. To be honest, I find what the radical orthodoxy people write kind of depressing, so I don’t really want to read more of what they have to say.

      • Henry says:

        Crystal,

        It’s precisely because any of us can create and follow a “Christ of our own creation” that the authentic Christ left us a visible Church (and I am referring to the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” discussed in Lumen Gentium) who is both mother and teacher.

        And it is for this reason that the late great Pope John Paul II said the following in his homily at Brisbane, Australia: “There are people who mistakenly suppose that Christ can be separated from the Church, that one can devote one’s entire life to Christ without reference to the Church. In so doing, they forget the truth proclaimed by St. Paul in the words: ‘A man never hates his own body, but he feeds and looks after it; and this is the way Christ treats the Church, because we are parts of his body’. As I stated in my recent Apostolic Letter on St. Augustine: ‘Since he is the only mediator and redeemer of mankind, Christ is the head of the Church; Christ and the Church are one sole mystic person, the total Christ’.

        So, loving Christ means loving the Church. The Church exists for Christ, so as to continue His presence and witness in the world. Christ is the Spouse and Saviour of the Church. He is her Founder and her Head. The more we come to know and love the Church, the nearer we shall be to Christ.”

        Pax,

        Henry

      • crystal says:

        I’m just reading a paper, The Mysticism of Ignatius of Loyola, and one thing it points out about Ignatius is the tension he chose to live with between the validity of religious experience and the authority of the church.

        I’m not saying the church doesn’t have a role in the relationship between people and God, but it seems to me that the radical orthodoxy movement tends to almost identify the church as Jesus, and to devalue the authenticity and worth of personal religious experience. I agree with Eric Gregory (Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship) when he writes that “The kingdom of God is much bigger than the church”.

      • Henry says:

        Since I teach the Faith to Adult converts (which we both are!) I am rarely surprised, but your response did surprise me for three reasons.

        First, I was surprised that you cited someone trained in the thought of St. Augustine because when answering question number 4 (Who are your most detested figures in history?) in Susan Jacoby’s questionnaire, you wrote (note the bold): – Hitler and his Nazi buddies (and other despots who caused massive suffering). Those responsible for the Catholic Inquisitions. Pius XII for not standing up against the Holocaust. Augustine for just war theory, original sin, predestination, and sooo many other things. So, citing Eric Gregory seems out of character for you.

        Second, after doing some swift research on Eric Gregory, I also discovered that he has evangelical Baptist roots and that he’s not a clergy or a systematic theologian. Well I don’t know Mr. Gregory’s views on the Church but I do know that Evangelical theologian Paul F. M. Zahl insists that “Evangelical Christianity is by its nature low-church.”

        Third, we began our little virtual discussion with you agreeing with a Protestant understanding of the Church and you now seek to close it by citing another Protestant – are you adverse to learning what the Church actually teaches about Herself? I am asking because you rarely cite the CCC, the Compendium, or Magisterial documents.

        Now I hate to point out the obvious, but how do you know that Mr. Gregory’s view is actually true? We’ve gone in a circle haven’t we? And this is exactly my point – a point either I am not explaining well or that you are intentionally deciding not to see. And yes, I agree with Cura that it’s a balancing act! That why Christ left us a Church that is both Mother and Teacher.

        If you are interested in perhaps looking at what the Vicar of Christ says about the Church, take a look at this article: http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features2007/ratzinger_churchgatw_july07.asp

        Pax.

  4. Paddy Gilger, SJ says:

    Tony! Quit stealing my thunder! 🙂 Great thoughts hermano.

  5. Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

    In a somewhat related vein, some might find of interest the comments from this Chicago priest on the recent Pew Survey which showed some fairly disappointing results about Americans’ level of religious knowledge.

    http://wordonfire.org/WoF-Blog/WoF-Blog/September-2010/Culture-The-Catholic-Difference.aspx

    Fr. Barron is beginning a new program this Sunday morning on WGN… a hopeful sign despite the challenges we face.

  6. Sean says:

    Very insightful comments! I made it through the MAAP degree at Loyola without taking Kierkegaard, so it’s all new to me.

    Good luck with the last year of philosophy — as our mutual friend says, “finish strong!”

  7. Pierre Trudeau says:

    Brilliant article. Your articulation of the necessity for a universal, or “catholic”, church is a beautiful expression of something I’ve felt for very long but have been consistently unable to express.

    I think the article addresses a contradiction Kierkegaard may point out today if we were still around. While the Catholic faith, and any faith for that matter, requires a personal commitment to be genuine, all societies, and particularly the increasingly secular Western world, is in desperate need of religion and other institutions. Religions help societies recognize that some things must remain sacred and, in doing so, help us recognize some of the worse human tendencies as profane. A world without religion will eventually lead to a numbing of what is indeed despicable human behavior and what should be respected. To elaborate, the church advocates for the dignity of all human life and, in turn, discourages the acts of abortion and euthanasia in our world. Without this Catholic doctrine and other similar doctrine from other religions, the world would be more dulled to the profanity of such heinous acts. We must find a happy medium that balances a society’s need for a moral compass and the needs for its members to make a personal commitment of faith.

    However, I disagree about your comments regarding religion needing to transcend mere ethnicity or nationality. I feel that many people (i.e. Irish, Italians, Polish) are proud of their “Italian Catholic” or “Polish Catholic” heritage and, in many respects, this helps people to feel a real connection with their family and nation, in other words: a common goal. I don’t think that’s necessarily bad.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Good point, Pierre: it’s not necessarily bad for people to feel connected to their heritage. It’s really only bad if the “Italian” or the “Polish” becomes more important than the “Catholic.”

  8. Tom Geraldo says:

    Great points, I completely agree with your analysis of the Church’s need for greater individualism. In a time when everyone follows the group, while fighting to control their individuality, Christians have lost fervor. We live in a society of moral relativism, which you mentioned, where people simply live up to the standards of others, rather then God’s Standard. How much better would our world be if people looked to Jesus as their model, rather then their favorite television character. More in more people are content with maintaining the status quo, rather then extennding their faith into every aspect of their life. How would you suggest modern Christians avoid a loss of fervor, and maintain Christ in everyday life?

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Tom, That’s a fantastic question, and there are lots of different answers. I think that participation in the sacramental life of the Church (Eucharist and confession) is an absolute essential. Daily prayer is also very, very important. This means listening to God as he calls us to serve him and our Church in our own unique way.

      I think it’s also important to be continually educating ourselves in our faith — learning what the Church teaches and why, learning something about the great Christians who have come before us (the saints), and especially getting to know Jesus better through the Gospels (and not the silly versions of Jesus we sometimes see on the History Channel or in movies). Finally, I think it’s important that we don’t pick and choose among which teachings of Jesus and the Church we follow and which we ignore. Christianity requires a total commitment, especially to those teachings which might not be popular today.

  9. […] comforts and insulate itself from challenge.  In this respect, he’s not all that different from Søren Kierkegaard, who critiques the same people but with greater nuance and entirely different […]

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