Thursday, February 16, 2017

Kierkegaard’s Socratic Task: Delivering a Christianity of Inward Faith

Kierkegaard learned from Socrates the value of (being) the single individual, especially in the subjective pursuit of truth. Before Socrates, truth (and morality) was to be found externally, in culture and tradition, and thus in an objective sense. Kierkegaard learned from Socrates the value of the individual’s subjectivity in the pursuit of truth; that truth can be internal without devolving into relativist nihilism. The Danish philosopher appropriated what he had learned from Socrates methodologically in the self-declared “Socratic task” of auditing “the definition of what it is to be a Christian.”[i] Behind Kierkegaard’s authorship is “the task of becoming a Christian.”[ii] This applies to helping others—as a Socratic midwife!—to become Christian and, relatedly, to Kierkegaard’s own willingness accept the inexpressible grace of being sacrificed by the Danish Church—those self-declared Christians actually oriented to money. Kierkegaard ironically exclaims, “I am not a Christian.”[iii] Such irony! “I do not call myself a Christian,” Kierkegaard wrote strategically, “but I can make it manifest that the others are that even less.”[iv] Herein lies the acceptance of being sacrificed in the interest of truth. Kierkegaard observed that “’Christendom’ lies in an abyss of sophistry that is even much, much worse than when the Sophists flourished in Greece.”[v] The success of comfortable pastors justifying their earthly wealth theologically under the auspices of the Prosperity Gospel renders the Socratic Kierkegaard still relevant today.[vi] Fortunately, Kierkegaard would assure us that the individual Christian can still find truth within rather than outwardly comprehending the doctrines that the pastors, whose claim to being Christians is dubious at best, claim to know. In this essay, I show how Kierkegaard appropriates Socrates’ method in service of this point. The Danish philosopher gained from his Greek model the tools with which to undercut the doctrines as knowable (by the theologians and pastors), so he could privilege becoming and being a Christian as a matter of personally discovered inward faith yet without positive epistemological content getting in the way.
For Socrates, rather than demonstrating a thesis, the result to be achieved is “purely negative . . . no positive definition has survived the critical examination.”[vii] Socrates, the gadfly of Athens, picks apart Euthyphro’s presumed knowledge of piety while claiming to be ignorant, and yet ironically it is Euthyphro’s knowledge that is found wanting. To be sure, Socrates leaves nothing positive (i.e., aporia), and yet, ironically, this is wisdom! Kierkegaard takes on Socrates’ role as the single individual who does not fit into the crowd, insisting that he himself is not a Christian as he reduced the leaders of the crowd to aporia. The Danish church functionaries must have viewed this project as a provocation.
Socrates’ privileging of the subjective of the individual over Greek tradition resulted in the charge of “corrupting the youth.” Likewise, Kierkegaard’s question, “what does it mean to be a Christian,” was provocative to his contemporaries (e.g., pastors and theologians) for whom there was no reason to ask the question; they were satisfied with the externals.[viii] Indeed, Kierkegaard wrote of the late Bishop Mynster that he had been all too satisfied in his paid position to qualify as an “authentic truth-witness.”[ix]
The subjective quest for truth inwardly is inherently threatening to the self-appointed guardians of doctrinal truth because the mind and heart of the single individual is beyond reach. The individual Christian can believe that Jesus is her savior as a matter of faith and yet not be able to communicate the paradox even to her pastor, who is ensconced in the universal below the individual of faith. Kierkegaard argues in Fear and Trembling that the absurd of faith is above the universal (e.g., the ethical, the rational, language, etc.). Put another way, an individual taking the god’s commands on faith is above being able to comprehend them. The self-contradiction from the divine-commands revealed to Abraham cannot be made sense of, much less communicated to the crowd.
Communicating faith would distort its inner nature, as language is of the universal, so clerics and theologians cannot get at the faith held by individuals. Therefore, theologians cannot compare what an individual accepts in the inwardness of her private heart to the value of comprehending doctrines, so no judgment can legitimately be made. This can only be frustrating to clerics for whom the subjectivity beyond reach of other people can only be perceived as an obstacle to be overcome. Whereas the typical pastor looks to the collective of his congregation, Kierkegaard esteems the single individual above the crowd. Similar to ethics to Socrates, inward faith to Kierkegaard cannot be delegated to the collective but must reside within the individual.[x]
Emphasizing the element of subjectivity that Socrates introduced into the field of ethics, Kierkegaard claims “there is something infinitely important and valuable in each individual, but to get at this one must occasionally get away from the crowd. . . . one must focus instead on one’s own inwardness and religiosity.”[xi] This subterranean ground of faith is unfathomable by the theologians whose doctrinal knowledge—a corruption—is subject to the irony and negative aporia that Kierkegaard appropriates from Socrates.
In Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard applies Socrates’ method of aporia to the doctrine of the Incarnation. On the chopping-block are the “Sophist” theologians who have claimed quite astonishingly to know the absolutely different unknown, which cannot be known even though reason is drawn to the frontier. Socrates claims in Phaedrus that he does not contemplate the gods because he is trying to know himself, and he is ignorant of himself. Kierkegaard sees in this a paradox: namely, the desire “to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.”[xii] Specifically, “(t)he understanding wants to grasp what is unknown, and is constantly frustrated when it encounters what is unknown. This unknown must be something that is absolutely different, since if it were similar to us, we could know it by recognizing certain aspects that we’re familiar with. The human mind can’t grasp what’s absolutely different.”[xiii] If Kierkegaard, and by implication, Socrates are correct, such knowledge cannot possibly be requisite to salvation, for such knowledge is impossible. Put another way, if the god extends beyond the limits of human reason and perception, then the divine must eclipse the grasp of the human mind, and must instead be grasped inwardly by the human heart in faith that surpasses all understanding.
In the doctrine of the Incarnation, the god-man is “the unity of God and an individual human being.”[xiv] This involves an unresolvable paradox: the eternal and infinite god becoming temporal and finite. “The God-man is the paradox, absolutely the paradox. Therefore it is altogether certain that the understanding must come to a standstill on it.”[xv] How is it that a particular human being can be the god? Doesn’t this ignore the abyss that separates Creation from its Creator? Socrates was “on guard duty,” Kierkegaard points out, “keeping watch so that the deep gulf of qualitative difference between [God and mankind] was maintained . . . that God and man did not merge in some way . . . into one.”[xvi] So unlike Hegel, Kierkegaard claims the contradiction in the absolute paradox of the god becoming flesh as Jesus cannot be mediated in the sense of being synthesized within a higher organic structure. The paradox must simply be accepted on faith in the heart of the individual Christian—something beyond the reach of the cleric and thus inherently suspect.
Similarly, in Stages on Life’s Way, Kierkegaard is amazed that theologians think they have understood the doctrine of Jesus forgiving sins. “Surely,” Kierkegaard has Socrates say, “what you are asking about is a difficult matter, and it has always amazed me that so many could believe that they understood a teaching such as that; but it has amazed me even more that some people have even understood much more.”[xvii] For instance, theologians think that the post-forgiveness state is identical to the initial immediacy between the god and humans, and yet how do those Christian “thinkers” know this? The faith grasped inwardly in the heart of the individual is on much more solid ground—on this ground I will build my Church, Jesus says of Peter’s inward faith not built on understanding. Doctrines such as the Incarnation and the Forgiveness of Sins “are to be accepted in inwardness and passion” rather than understood and comprehended.[xviii] Hence Kierkegaard applied Socratic aporia to any positive content of the understanding regarding the theological doctrines.
So—and this is extremely relevant in churches today!—rather than delivering expository sermons, pastors should be conversational, Kierkegaard insisted, as the Socratic dialogues are. Like Socrates and Kierkegaard, the sermonizer should be a midwife of sorts, rather than a source of doctrinal “knowledge,” urging parishioners to look inward for faith that surpasses all understanding. A good pastor should take look back to Socrates as “the occasion for the student to arrive at the truth.”[xix]  Socrates doesn’t teach the truth.  Likewise, Kierkegaard points out that Jesus “is the occasion for his followers to learn the truth.”[xx] So Socrates’ notion of midwifery can be useful for contemporary clerics. For Socrates, the idea is that “though his questioning and conversation, the individual is led to find the truth within himself. . . . So also with the sermon, the pastor instead of simply preaching some external fact or bit of knowledge, encourages the individual members of the congregation to find the truth of Christianity in themselves—each in their own way. Every follower of Christ must appropriate the Christian message for him or herself.”[xxi] A preacher can only go so far externally, and each Christian is thus tasked with having to search his or her heart for glimpses of the truth held inwardly.
In conclusion, the truth according to both Socrates and Kierkegaard is something inward—something that a person must appropriate for himself. Because the truth is presumed to exist, and is the object of the quest for faith, the subjectivity does not devolve into relativism and nihilism. In other words, truth keeps subjectivity from becoming its own anchor. Truth is above the universal, which includes ethics and even language; hence, to Kierkegaard, “Christianity is concerned with the inwardness of each and every individual; it’s about the passion of the individual in the face of certain ideas that are paradoxical, absurd, and contradictory.”[xxii] Reasoning can only go part of the route, and thus doctrinal Christianity too falls short. Using Socrates’ method, Kierkegaard wanted to “undermine the different positive doctrines about Christianity” in order to return to the paradox, absurdity, and contradiction that are intrinsic in Christianity “as a sort of inward disposition that focuses on the individual subject.”[xxiii] This point is relevant to clergy today, as sermons can indeed be reoriented to honor and facilitate (as a midwife) the individual’s inner birth of faith. In other words, the Socratic Kierkegaard connection is indeed still relevant, as Christianity still has its externally and collectively oriented doctrinal truth-sayers who presume even just that truth can be known, even at the expense of the single individual's leap of faith in accepting, like Abraham, the absurd and also the absolutely paradoxical; both of which transcend the limits of human cognition and perception and thus cannot be comprehended.

[i] Soren Kierkegaard, The Moment, in The Moment and Late Writings, Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, trans.  (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 341
[ii] Soren Kierkegaard, The Point of View: On My work as an Author, the Point of View for my Work as an Author, Armed Neutrality, Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, trans. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 55.
[iii] Soren Kierkegaard, The Moment, in The Moment and Late Writings, Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, trans.  (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 340.
[iv] Ibid., 341.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] On the historical shift in theological interpretation from anti-wealth to pro-wealth, see Skip Worden, God's Gold (Seattle, WA: Amazon, 2016).
[vii] Jon Stewart, University of Copenhagen, Lecture (2016).
[viii] Peter Sajda, from Jon Stewart, University of Copenhagen, Lecture (2016).
[ix] Soren Kierkegaard, The Moment, in The Moment and Late Writings, Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, trans.  (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998).
[x] Peter Sajda, from Jon Stewart, University of Copenhagen, Lecture (2016).
[xi] Jon Stewart, University of Copenhagen, Lecture (2016).
[xii] Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, trans. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), 37.
[xiii] Jon Stewart, University of Copenhagen, Lecture (2016).
[xiv] Soren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity, Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, trans.  (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 82.
[xv] Ibid.
[xvi] Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening, Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, trans. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 99.
[xvii] Soren Kierkegaard, Stages on Life’s Way, Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, trans. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), 482.
[xviii] Jon Stewart, University of Copenhagen, Lecture (2016).
[xix] Ibid.
[xx] Ibid.
[xxi] Ibid.
[xxii] Ibid.
[xxiii] Ibid.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Being Partisan in the Pulpit: Going the Extra Mile

The Johnson Amendment, which became law in the U.S. in 1954 and was named for Lyndon Johnson, then a U.S. Senator, “is a provision in the tax code that prohibits tax-exempt organizations from openly supporting political candidates. In the words of the tax code, ‘all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”[1] I submit that it is in a cleric’s interest to expand this prohibition to include advocating for (or opposing) particular public policies. This general principle would of course be subject to exceptions in which a proposed or enacted policy is strongly anathema to the religious principles of the given religious organization or religion.

Generally speaking, it is in the medium- and long-term interest of both clerics and their religious organizations to resist the temptation to preach along partisan lines. That such preaching is a temptation should signal the presence of a bad odor, and yet it is almost always overlooked or dismissed out of hand. Besides turning off members who are good fits religiously speaking but do not agree with the particular political ideology being preached, the stain of partisan ideology can make the cleric seem self-obsessed. In other words, that such preachments are convenient to the speakers themselves can easily be translated into self-idolatry in religious terms.

One cleric, not of one of the Abrahamic religions, in my hometown once told me that according to his religion, certain social structures are sacred. In particular, only those sociological/economic/political systems that are egalitarian and thus just in this way can be sacred. The use of this overtly religious term takes human artifacts to have divine status. By implication, the social, economic, or political ideology in play is also divine. I submit that such a position counts as self-idolatry—the worship of the human as itself being sacred, or divine. Put another way, if the societal systems we design are sacred, then the makers themselves must also be sacred—essentially little gods admiring their handiwork. I submit that when the cleric preaches on socio-economic and political policies or systems thereof as sacred, he is engaging in self-idolatry. Religion for him has become too comfortable, too easy. Absent is the wholly other, or absolutely different, quality of the divine, which is transcendent as well as immanent. Declaring a human artifact to be sacred eclipses the transcendent.

Unfortunately, the temptation to make the preachment as fitting as possible to the preacher’s own ideology can easily exploit good exceptions, where the public policy is anathema to a major religious teaching. Roman Catholicism’s doctrine of humanae vitae (i.e., on the sanctity of human life) arguably justifies preaching in opposition to abortion and capital punishment. To be sure, the doctrine’s salience relative to the Incarnation and the Resurrection can be subject to critique, such that the political opposition may actually be ideological in nature. In other words, the doctrine of the sanctity of human life—which does not imply that human beings are sacred!—could be used as a subterfuge allowing for the true, subterranean motive: political influence in line with a particular moral/political ideology.

Even if the allowance of good exceptions has a tendency of being exploited, it is indeed possible that public policies run contrary to significant religious beliefs, and such opposition is legitimate in the pulpit.  The task for the conscientious cleric writing a sermon is to be on guard—like the disciples presumably on the night Jesus is handed over to the Roman guard—for the slithering motions of self-idolatry under the subterfuge of pious religion.

[1] Randall Balmer, “The Peril of Being Partisan at the Pulpit,” Stars and Stripes, February 7, 2017.