Sunday, August 05, 2007

Neuhaus on Kierkegaard

[First posted November, 2004...One of my referrals hit this three-year-old post. I had forgotten about it and decided that it still looks pretty good.]

Readers bored by theology may skip this post and proceed to yesterday's stuff.
I have many friends in the Church - using that word in its universal sense - who are charitable enough to tolerate my understanding of the faith, although they do not agree with either my understanding of scripture or my positions on social issues. Being too tight to pay for a subscription, I read First Things on line instead. (The current issue is never available, being used as an incentive to attract new subscribers, but past issues are available.)

Last month's commentary on Kierkegaard is long but insightful. First Things, of course, is the mouthpiece of Richard John Neuhaus, representing the forward edge of one school of contemporary Roman Catholic thought. Whatever else might be true of Neuhaus, he does his homework and speaks with clarity and intelligence a language that ordinary people can grasp, if they have the patience and inclination.

In the same way that I watch cable or public TV programs simply because they are not broken up by commercial messages, I take time to read some essays, not because I am in full agreement, but simply because they stay on task and don't seem to be pushing a hidden agenda. For me, any mention of Kierkegaard is noteworthy, as I consider myself a Christian Existentialist. Think Kierkegaard without the rage.

There are Christians who call themselves Kierkegaardians, much as others call themselves Augustinians or Thomists or Barthians. But Kierkegaard provides no school of thought, and most emphatically no "system," that can be a secure resting place for one's Christian identity.


So true. Part of being what Neuhaus calls Kiergegaarian is having to live adrift in the universe, with no institutional place to call home.


Kierkegaard offers only a mode of being, of thinking, of living that has no end other than the end of being "contemporaneous" with Jesus Christ, true man and true God, who has no end. The certifying mark that one has accepted what he offers -- or, more precisely, what Christ offers -- is martyrdom, and Kierkegaard yearned to be a martyr. The word martyr, one recalls, means witness. If Kierkegaard was not to be given the privilege of literally shedding his blood, he would bear witness in other ways. He welcomed the derision of those surrounding him, recognizing in them the same crowd that surrounded the cross of his contemporary, Jesus Christ.


Soren Kierkegaard provoked nearly everyone he encountered, especially churchmen, by his stubborn refusal to allow Christendom to overrun Christianity. His anguished life is by no means a model to copy, but his insights are no less valid. If truth were dependent on exemplary messengers, it might never be known at all.

Neuhaus's essay considers the notion that the message of Kierkegaard is usually considered too insubstantial to survive youthful idealism. Hence the title Kiergegaard for Grownups. He finishes with what I find to be an excellent attribution.


Kierkegaard was eccentric in the precise meaning of that word -- off center, even out of the center. He believed that the center of his time and place, and of any time and place, is where the easy lies are told. He was Hiin Enkelte writing for the singular individual who might understand him. Many have read him to experience the frisson of youthful dissent from establishment ways of thinking and being, and have then set him aside upon assuming what are taken to be the
responsibilities of adulthood. That, I believe, is a grave mistake. Kierkegaard is for the young, but he is also for grownups who have attained the wisdom of knowing how fragile and partial is our knowing in the face of the absolute, who are prepared to begin ever anew the lifelong discipline that is training in Christianity.

Reading over the essay these two paragraphs now seem to be important. The churning, boiling extremisms of religion both at home and abroad seem to be increasing. America points to the extremists of Islam and is blind to the swelling tide of Christian extremism that is washing over our own country. Many of my Christian friends beam with pride when they see politicians or others in high places flaunting piety. Sorry, but it makes me want to roll my eyes.
Christendom is the enemy of Christianity—it is, Kierkegaard says repeatedly, the "blasphemy"—that stands in the way of encountering Christ as our contemporary. Christendom assumes that Christ is far in the past, having laid the foundation for the wonderful thing that has historically resulted, Christendom. Of course we are all good Christians because we are all good Danes. It is a package deal and Christ and Christianity are part of the package. If we are good Danes (or good Americans), if we work hard and abide by the rules, the church, which is an integral part of the social order, will guarantee the delivery to heaven of the package that is our lives. But Christ is not in the distant past, protests Kierkegaard. He confronts us now, and a decision must be made. "In relation to the absolute there is only one tense: the present. For him who is not contemporary with the absolute—for him it has no existence."
This encounter with Christ the contemporary is not to be confused with today’s evangelical Protestant language about conversion as a decisive moment in which one "accepts Jesus Christ as one’s personal Lord and Savior." Kierkegaard did not, of course, know about the nineteenth-century American revivalism from which today’s evangelicalism issues, but he had some acquaintance with the enthusiasms that were in his day associated with "pietism." As he inveighed against Christendom, it seems likely he would also inveigh against Evangelicaldom today. As he would inveigh against Christianity of any sort—whether it calls itself liberal or conservative, orthodox or progressive—that neatly accommodates itself to its cultural context. To decide for Christ our contemporary is always a decision to be a cultural alien, to join Christ on his way of suffering and death as an outsider.

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