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.