Kierkegaard in 7 quotations, Part V: Seeing and believing

The biblical account of Abraham’s (near) sacrifice of Isaac is a hallmark of of debates about “faith” and reason. And while it’s often useful philosophically to speak of faith in general, no one actually has faith in general. People instead have faith in very specific things. Kierkegaard was a Christian–more specifically, he was a Lutheran. He believed (more or less) what the Danish Lutheran Church taught, including the central tenet that Jesus Christ is the son of God in human flesh.

That Kierkegaard believed this, and that his believing it means that he was a Christian, is undeniable. But in the course of his life, his believing this is not entirely what made him a Christian. The fact is that Kierkegaard was born into a Lutheran family in an officially Lutheran nation. Virtually everyone he knew was Lutheran, as a matter of course, before they could even know what the word meant. In an official sense, faith did not matter to being considered a Lutheran; Christians were born, not made.

Kierkegaard tried to bridge this disjunction between Christian faith and Christian culture by considering the “requirement” of the person who claims to be a Christian. As he writes in this passage from Practice in Christianity (1848), It requires much more than his fellow Danes imagined it did.

To be the individual human being … is the greatest possible distance, the infinitely qualitative distance, from being God, and therefore it is the most profound incognito.

The majority of people living in Christendom today no doubt live in the illusion that if they had been contemporary with Christ they would have recognized him immediately despite his unrecognizability. They utterly fail to see how they betray that they do not know themselves; it totally escapes them that this conviction that they have, whereby they presumably think to glorify Christ, is blasphemy, contained in the nonsensical-undialectical climax of clerical roaring: to such a degree was Christ God that one could immediately and directly perceive it, instead of: he was true God, and therefore to such a degree God that he was unrecognizable–thus it was not flesh and blood but the opposite of flesh and blood that inspired Peter to recognize him.

The final stage in Kierkegaard’s authorship (which I’ll deal with tomorrow) is his frontal assault on “Christendom.” But he was criticizing the easy theology of bourgeois Christianity all along. The bourgeois person already believes that he is blessed by God and that, in fact, God is just like him. Christ, then, is a sort of fellow; you might like to invite him over for dinner some time. After what he’s done for you, it’s only fair to repay the favor somehow. Perhaps we should tell him not to bring a date.

The author who wanted to make things difficult for the denizens of Christendom sees Christ as a stranger. If God is really God, and not our arrogant projection of ourselves on the largest possible scale, then he must be quite different from us. We cannot see ourselves–or our customs, our politics, our national interest–in Christ. To be a Christian, Kierkegaard tells us, you have to believe in something alien from everything you know. But that’s the only thing worth believing in.

Categories Kierkegaard
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