Consider Søren Kierkegaard’s reflections on God’s nearness and remoteness and the manner in which the church’s outward “successes” may in fact signal its “removal of God.” What does the church today need to hear from Kierkegaard?
The law for God’s nearness and remoteness is as follows: The more the outward externals, the appearances, indicate that God cannot possibly be present here, the closer he is. The opposite is also true: the more the outward externals, the appearances, indicate that God is very near, the farther away he is.
…At the time when there were no churches and the Christians gathered together in catacombs as refugees and lawbreakers, God was close. Then came the churches, so many churches, such great splendid churches and to the same degree God was distanced. For God’s nearness is inversely related to externals, and this ascending scale (churches, many churches, splendid churches) is an increase in the sphere of appearance.
Before Christianity became a doctrine, when it was only one or two affirmations expressed in one’s life, God was closer. And with every increase and embellishment of doctrine, with every increase of ‘success’, God was distanced. When there were no clergy and the Christians were all brothers, God was closer than when clergymen, many clergymen, a powerful ecclesiastical order, came into being. For clergymen are an increase in appearance, and God always relates inversely to outward show.
This is how Christendom has step by step become so distant from God. Christianity’s history is one of alienation from God through the gradual strengthening of appearance. Or it might be said Christianity’s history is one of the progressive removal of God – tactfully and politely by building churches and monumental buildings, by a monstrous doctrinal system, with an incalculable host of preachers and professors. Established Christianity is about as far away from God as one can possibly get (Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton University Press), Vol III: 433ff).
Ouch! Against the intellectualism, formalism, and Pharisaism that characterized the Danish Lutheranism of his day, Kierkegaard sought to reintroduce Christianity, to “disabuse people of the illusion that they are Christian” and, in doing so, to serve Christianity. He sought to provide, one commentator has said, “a kind of map that would, for the sake of Christian truth, steer people away from Christendom.” Although his context differs from our own, we still need to incline our ears to Kierkegaard’s piercing diagnoses.
So what does the Christian church today need to hear from Kierkegaard?