Christianity and the “Removal of God”

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?

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4 thoughts on “Christianity and the “Removal of God”

  1. Thanks Kent for the post! I have been thinking much on the spiritual cost of Christendom. Many have taken Kierkegaard’s critique to heart and are actively engaged in “unlearning” modernity models of church (I am thinking especially of the Missional movement today). I do appreciate Kiekegaard’s thoughts however I do disagree a bit with his basic dichotomy.

    It seems that it is easy for us to assume the pre-Constantine church was a vibrant movement which flourished wherever it was planted. Sadly, this is not true. We even see the seeming deaththrows of the churches at Ephesus, not only in the Johanine letters but also in Rev. 2, and also at Laodicea in Rev. 3. Also, I have much sympathy towards his historical context in viewing the “professionalism” of Christianity which intellectualized it instead of making it central to their praxis. However, I do disagree with his unqualified claim of doctrine since the churches of Pergamum and Thyatira in Rev. 2 suffered from a lack of doctrinal development, as well as in Ephesus where Timothy was to continue to attack false doctrine with the true teachings of Jesus (also again the Johanine letters are great proof texting of the importance of correct doctrine).

    I fear that those who follow Kierkegaard’s teachings too closely fall into a dangerous trap of marginalizing the historical church as well as creedal authority in our times today. Obviously, it is imperative of us to constantly evaluate the motivations of our church and its various programs, however to disregard seemingly our church’s rich tradition in favor of a too romantic view of the pre-Constantine church I find is a fallacy as well.

    Thanks again Kent! God’s blessings on you and the rest of those that think and blog!

  2. In our country, not unlike Kierkegaard’s Danish society, we have to work through our apartheid legacy written in the ink of our theologians (75% of SA claim to be Christians). I find him very helpful in our conversation. Last week I used his distinction between followers and admirers to instigate some conversation. And Kent, I still use the Provocations copy you gave me!

  3. Derek, you make several good points and I agree that Kierkegaard is indeed painting a pretty one-sided picture. Actually, that is one of the points to keep in mind when reading and interpreting him. He said, “When a person who is to provide the corrective must study the weak sides of the established order scrupulously and penetratingly and then one-sidedly present the opposite – with expert one-sidedness.” We should be careful, then, not to interpret the “one-sidedness” of his prose as a weakness of his argument but as his chosen method of drawing our attention to particular problems.

    James, you put your finger right on it, and I doubt that our goal should be to extricate ourselves completely from the externals but rather to cultivate a fitting, appropriate orientation to them.

    Tom, I have thought of you often as I read Kierkegaard because I remember our conversations about S. Africa and the similarities to his context. If you have a few minutes, I think we would all benefit from hearing more about the ways in which you have used Kierkegaard fruitfully in your setting – more on that conversation you mentioned?

  4. Hey Kent,

    I posted something at http://www.sorryforapartheid.wordpress.com as a practical example of how Kierkegaard speaks to our post-Apartheid SA.

    [For the benefit of the reader, I have gone ahead and posted Tom’s comments below (Kent)]

    Wednesday evening was special. A group of friends from the Diepsloot squatter camp drove to the suburbs to be with us. We had a vey good time together. Together we decided to do questions and answers. Claypot asked a question followed by an answer from Diepsloot and then a question from Diepsloot was followed by an answer from the Pot. It was fun and we all learnt a lot.

    Eddie and I were censored (for we talk a lot) even though Eddie cleverly sneaked in a question by posing as a Claypot member – he asked “As a Claypot member I would like to know why you would like to fellowship with us?” We all had a good laugh at his subversive tactics.

    The answer to Eddie’s question left me with an intense struggle for the last few days. One of the answers was the following, “We like to fellowship with you because you have the keys to prosperity”.

    Now first of all in this sentence the word prosperity has to be deconstructed. It is not prosperity in the sense of a second and third car, an extra vacation house or other aspects that we in the suburbs would define as prosperous. For this person it means the basics needed to survive. And for him we had the keys towards this and we could teach them to also open the future with these keys.

    It’s hard for me to verbalize why I feel uneasy being placed in this position. What I do know is that Jesus gave his original disciples the ‘keys to the kingdom’ not the ‘keys to prosperity’. This whole incident reminds me of Kierkegaard’s quip that,

    Gold and silver I do not have, but I give you what I have; stand up and walk,” said Peter. Later on the clergy were saying: Gold and silver we have – but we have nothing to give. Provocations (free e-book) p.226

    For this dear brother our fellowship could help him to get access to ‘gold and silver’. And please understand me; I do believe that there is a place for economic restitution and education in the post-Apartheid South African church. It’s just that this statement shocked me into the reality of how poor the white church has become if we are only viewed as those who ‘have the keys towards prosperity”

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