Tag: soren kierkegaard

Power, Politics, and Faith

I have a running theory that political ideologies are always at odds with the Christian faith. In other words, political ideologies are always attempting to displace loyalty to any other forms of faith. Especially religious faith, and even more especially orthodox Christianity.

But let’s put this more simply by way of practical examples.

Let’s say I’m a moderately liberal Democrat in the US in the 21st century. This might mean that I hold to certain policy positions such as:

  • We should expand healthcare to as may people as possible, especially those in financial need
  • We should implement a carbon tax and other policies that reduce carbon emissions in order to help mitigate climate change
  • We should support a woman’s right to choose an abortion and provide the means by which to obtain an abortion
  • We should provide the opportunity of a quality education (including and up to higher education) to all US residents
  • We should require more oversight of police authorities – especially as it relates to the use of force on US residents – and adequately fund other means of community protection and care (mental health workers, social workers, etc.)

These are just a few examples, but you get the picture. I could have done the same thing for someone who identifies as a libertarian, a moderate Republican, or a democratic socialist.

If we’re trying to see why a political ideology like this or any other is at odds with the Christian faith, we have to ask two questions:

  1. Are these policies in accordance with, opposed to, or neutral towards the Christian faith? (and a secondary question to this might be – how would we know where these policies stand in relation to orthodoxy? hint: we’d first need to know what is required of us if we call ourselves “Christian”)
  2. What are the means by which these policies be implemented? In other words, is the how we pursue implementing these policies in accordance with, opposed to, or neutral towards the Christian faith?

Question two, I think, may get at my point more deeply than question one. That’s not to say that question one is unimportant. On the contrary, it could be argued that the in history of US politics, the focus has been on some version question one. E.g., what policies should we implement, and do these policies help make a more just and equitable society that supports the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The reason that question two is more important is a Kierkegaardian stance. His concern is less about the content of faith (perhaps because of the time and place in which he lived) and more about the “how” of Christian faith. What is our relation to the things we believe? Do we hold those beliefs abstractly in objectively (in our heads)? Or do we actively and subjectively attempt to live in the implications of our beliefs?

This is why political ideologies are at odds with the Christian faith. There are no political affiliations I know of that do not attempt to implement policies via power. It may be authoritarian power or democratic power, but it is power nonetheless. To implement societal change – new laws or ordinances, abolishing old laws, etc. – power is required.

Not so with Christianity. In fact, I think it is arguable that attempting to follow the way of Jesus is to relinquish the right to use power to effect change. Rather than use power, the Christian way to effect communal (and yes, even societal) change ought to be what humans often think of as weak and foolish. That is: faith, hope, charity, and forgiveness.

Political ideologies, regardless of their content, are always attempting to displace Christian faith and practice. One attempts to change the world via power and policy. The other attempts to change the world via love and forgiveness.

The question is, which one do we have the courage and faith to align our lives with?

More on Catechesis/Discipleship

I received some good thoughts from a friend in response to my last post.

First, he noted that one of the difficulties of counter-catechesis in American life is that American spheres of formation often have a perceivable endpoint. For politics, we can vote. For capitalism, we can consume. For patriotism, we can support/serve.

Second, he briefly mentioned the difficulty of the Benedict Option — particularly, that it is often seen as a version of escape and the relinquishing of influence in our communities.

American Catechesis

To the first response, I understand and agree, to a point. Old-school systematic catechism also perceived (and perceives?) an endpoint. My first memories of church, before we scooted over to the charismatic/Pentecostal traditions, are from St. Luke-Simpson UMC in Lake Charles, LA. I can specifically recall some of the older children starting to go through catechism, and before we moved to the charismatic church a few miles away, I assumed I’d go through the UMC catechism too (and was excited about that!).

But the whole point of that catechism was for confirmation within the church. After those classes, one becomes a full-fledged member of that local body, and of the United Methodist Church.

There was no such system, as far as I was aware, in any of the following churches we attended. Most of them were charismatic or Pentecostal, but all of them focused on inner, experiential change with a focus on right belief. That focus rarely came with systematic teaching or discipleship. Instead, it was simply assumed that serious members of the church attended Sunday school and services on Sunday morning and Wednesday evening. Adolescents attended youth group. Children attended “kids’ church” — but to my recollection, there was no systematic basis for teaching the tenets of the faith.

Here is where the difficulty comes in. On one hand, the Evangelical-Pentecostal-charismatic mix of traditions I grew up in recognized something essential. That is, spiritual growth is relational and ongoing. Confirmation/catechism can, in some cases, miss this point. The danger is that it can assume completion of catechism and baptism or communion are the “final steps” of the process. Then, spiritual growth (or discipleship, or sanctification, or whatever your tradition calls it) is stunted. This leaves a gap in the formation of character, which can be filled by some of those spheres mentioned above (politics, consumerism, individualism, patriotism, etc.).

So, in one sense, the Evangelical-Pentecostal-charismatic traditions get it right. There is little desire for a systematic catechesis because of a fear that it seems like there is no more to do after it’s complete.

On the other hand, my assessment is that the traditions without a systematic catechism have done very little to replace it with a robust alternative. Instead, we have relied on emotional appeals and a heavy emphasis on personal devotion in the form of “quiet time.” (To clarify, I don’t think we ought to divorce spirituality from personal devotion or emotion — those can be important parts of spiritual growth.)

What, then, are we left with? Christians without a deep foundation of theological and creedal understanding. And again, what fills in these theological gaps? The spheres of politics, patriotism, and consumerism. And in some sense, we could argue this is even more dangerous. Because when this happens, those spheres distort the emotions and the personal devotion of the Christian, and it becomes really easy to conflate American ways of life or political commitments with what Jesus seems to ask of his followers.

So maybe what I’m talking about is two-fold. For those churches that already offer a systematic catechism, we need a more robust and continual discipleship which continues to form the character and worldview of its members. For those without a systematic foundation in Christian theology and thought, we ought to start providing a catechesis based on the creeds.

I still think my initial point in the first post is true — we need a strong catechesis, coupled with a continual discipleship.

What I’m not sure about is how many people will actually be willing to give their time to this. It’s much, much easier to continue to adhere to the systems in which we have already been catechized. The pull of American politics, consumerism, individualism, and the like are strong. Maybe that’s why Kierkegaard was so stringent about the fact that the mob is untruth.

The Benedict Option

I was going to respond to my friend’s concerns about the BenOp here, but I’ll leave that for next time. This post already got a little longer than I anticipated.

Philosophy in a Crisis

As we’re all slowly coming to grips with the craziness that is COVID-19, one of the things that will likely be on our minds is the question “What really matters?”

Personally, I’ve been thinking through the particular problem of whether the abstract subjects of philosophy and theology have much to offer in a time like this. When there are people being infected by and dying from a new virus, states and countries are locking down and issuing shelter-in-place orders, and people are hoarding supplies like it’s the end of the world, what can an obscure branch of philosophy called epistemology provide us? On first glance, it’s easy to think the answer to that is simply “Nothing.” People are fighting for their lives in hospitals, losing their freedoms, or anxious that our day of reckoning has come. Asking the questions “What is knowledge?” and “How is knowledge possible?” seems a little silly.

But maybe it’s not that simple.

Let’s take the problem of what we know about SARS-CoV2. Now, I can’t personally say that I know all that much. Maybe *slightly* more than the average person, assuming the information sources I have are accurately reporting research, and the research being done is abiding by the appropriate scientific standards. But let’s talk about data for a second. If you’re anything like me, you’re seeing many different datasets, graphs, or other visualizations every day. (I’m starting to limit myself now due to a rising sense of anxiety about my lack of control over the whole situation, but I digress.) The problem with all of this data, simply stated, is two-fold:

  1. Our data collection methods are probably not built to accurately get all the information we’re trying to get. Testing in the United States is only just now ramping up. Which means that all the information we had up to this point was likely TERRIBLY inaccurate. There weren’t only 14,000 COVID-19 cases a couple days ago. That was just confirmed tests, and lots of people who showed the right symptoms were being told to go home and take care of themselves because no tests were available! That’s a problem, because we all think we have some kind of knowledge about reality (the number of cases), but the available data told us almost nothing except that 14,000 people (41,000 as of today) got tested positive. Examining the data further may tell us things like where testing is happening the most, but will tell us almost nothing about what we actually want to know.
  2. “Data” is never just data. For data to be meaningful, it must be interpreted. This is why we have graphs, charts, and whole industries built around data visualization. Because humans are really bad at looking at a million single pieces of information and compiling them together for meaningful analysis. And every time you look at a chart or a graph, you know what’s really happening? You’re looking at that information through the lens of the person + computer that compiled the data. You’re seeing information that has been filtered. You’re seeing charts that have intentionally removed bad pieces of information. And you know how got that data? See #1 above. That data was collected with data collection methods that were inherently flawed somehow.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love looking at data. My favorite math class I ever took was statistics, and in my previous job, I tried to use data frequently to help make better decisions for my team. But we were working with a set of 2000+ students and a relatively small set of variables — most of which had values that had been determined for months or years. When it comes to this pandemic, we are right in the middle of it. Things are changing every day, and we don’t even know all of the right questions to ask yet that will help us see things a little more clearly. We’ll never know how many people were really infected, and we’ll also never know how much our current efforts of social distancing and shutting down the economy were. That’s the nature of the finite human condition.

So again, we might ask, what use is philosophy in a crisis? It’s quite useful — just maybe not in the way we would like it to be. When we ask how we “know” things, it helps us to see through shoddy claims just a tiny bit better. It allows us to think through our own systems for what we accept as verifiable fact, logical claims, warranted claims, and unwarranted assumptions.

This is why Kierkegaard is my philosophical hero. He had a clear, systematized understanding of what constituted objective and subjective knowledge, and why those distinctions were important. Maybe reading long philosophical tomes is boring. But it can help us to learn how to think with clarity, both in a crisis and when things feel “normal.”

Forsaking Christianity for the “Greater Good”

3:16: How would you summarize Kierkegaard’s Socratic point of view?

PM: I think that Kierkegaard saw himself as trying to help the citizens of nineteenth-century Copenhagen in much the same way as Socrates had helped the citizens of fifth-century Athens. He seems to have aimed his writings at a particular group of people who, under the illusion that they were leading Christian lives, had to be addressed in a specific manner so that they might overcome this illusion and change their lives accordingly. But while Kierkegaard held a lifelong interest in Socrates and selected his life as a model for his own, he also sometimes worried that relating to others as Socrates did might be incompatible with living an authentic Christian life. He worried that in playing the role of philosophical midwife for his fellow citizens, he himself might be sidestepping difficulties that every Christian must personally confront. If the Christian is to model his or her life after the life of Christ, then, Kierkegaard thought, doing this will include being open about the sort of life one is trying to live regardless of what others might think. In fact, he thought Christians should expect the world to reject what they believe (to find Christian beliefs absurd or ludicrous or perhaps even blasphemous) and, in many cases, to persecute them accordingly. Yet, in order to play the part of Socrates, he would sometimes have to be personally elusive, employing various forms of indirection to shine a light on others’ lives while keeping his own life an enigma. Withholding or concealing oneself is thus sometimes a Socratic requirement, while revealing or disclosing oneself seems to be an essential feature of an authentic Christian life. So I think Kierkegaard sometimes felt a tension within himself, between a Socratic part of his nature and that part of him that placed his trust in Christ.

From the “Pursuing Kierkegaard” interview with Paul Muench on 3:16 AM, emphasis added

I am no Kierkegaard, and no “philosopher” (If by philosopher we mean some genius with academic and perhaps cultural clout, which is often how we use the term — wrongly. But I digress.). But I have sometimes wondered whether my own desires — to “be” a philosopher or a theologian, to be a teacher, to write and to think and to be someone who does those kinds of things — are actually just a way for me to avoid the difficult, internal work of what it means to “become a Christian” (as Kierkegaard would say). Kierkegaard was truly brilliant, but I think he struggled with this in ways that I get but can never fully comprehend. It’s almost as if he forsook his personal religious conviction in order to bring to light the peculiar religious situation of nineteenth-century Denmark. It’s a remarkable way to live, and a remarkable choice to make.

Knowledge is Not Equal to Possession

To know what a human soul is, what this means, is still a long way from beginning to gain one’s soul in patience, and it is a knowledge that exhibits its difference from that gaining inasmuch as it does indeed grow in impatience. And even though this knowledge may have its significance, it often deceived a person the very same way the world does, in that he thought he possessed it, whereas it was his knowledge that possessed him.

Søren Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, “To Gain One’s Soul in Patience”

SK here is reflecting on Luke 21:19: “In your patience you will gain your souls.” (Side note: this is the weird Scripture reference in That Thing You Do! when Guy asks his uncle when the records they just recorded will be made. He responds “Luke 21:19,” and the bass player simply responds by quoting the verse (in what I think is KJV) — “In your patience possess ye your souls”)

Whether Kierkegaard and I seem to have the same concerns about knowledge, or whether reading him has formed how I personally think about knowledge and its temptations, I do not know. This particular discourse was difficult to read, but the gist of it was simple. He reflects on the fact that we gain our souls in patience. For SK, it is the act of being patient itself that is the way in which we gain our souls. The “in” here is key for him — he doesn’t think it is “through” or “by” patience, for that would indicate that we can practice patience, gain our soul, and then be done with patience. No, quite the opposite. It is, in some ways, the act of patience wherein our souls are gained.

Near the end of the discourse, he flips over to those who come at this discussion by asking what a soul is in the first place (which is where the quote above comes from). The question of knowledge is simply another way of being impatient for SK. And, in some ways, it’s an even more devious form of impatience, because it covers itself up by being distanced and seeming wise by asking the question. Those who ask such questions are simply delaying the requirement of the verse itself. It’s another way of attempting to turn what should be subjective knowledge into objective knowledge.

This is probably the ultimate temptation for academics like myself. I want knowledge, and as much of it as possible, before making a decision about how I ought to live. But that’s not really the point. The point is that in some cases, the doing is the knowing.

Kierkegaard’s Reflections on Job — On Becoming a Human Being

In the Upbuilding Discourses, SK reflects on two simple verses in Job:

Then Job arose, and tore his robe, and shaved his head, and fell upon the ground, and worshiped, saying: Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord took away; blessed be the name of the Lord (1:20-21)

First, he gives a general reflection on the passage, and Job’s significance for humanity at all times:

When one generation has finished its service, completed its work, fought through its struggle, Job has accompanied it; when the new generation with its incalculable ranks, each individual in his place, stands ready to begin the pilgrimage, Job is there again, takes his place, which is the outpost of humanity. If the generation sees nothing but happy days in prosperous times, then Job faithfully accompanies it; but if the single individual experiences the terror in thought, is anguished over the thought of what horror and distress life can have in store, over the thought that no one knows when the hour of despair may strike for him, then his troubled thought seeks out Job, rests in him, is calmed by him. (110)

He then focuses in on the final two clauses of the verse: “The Lord gave, and the Lord took away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

The Lord gave:

With thankfulness resting in his soul in quiet sadness, he said a gentle and friendly farewell to everything all together, and in this farewell everything vanished like a beautiful recollection — indeed, it was as if it were not the Lord who took it away but Job who gave it back to him. (116)

Then, speaking of the person who, when faced with a Job-like situation, cannot be thankful for the goodness of what was given in the first place:

What his soul had delighted in, it now thirsted for, and ingratitude punished him by picturing it to him as more delightful than it had ever been. What he once had been able to do, he now wanted to be able to do again, and ingratitude punished him with fantasies that had never had any truth. Then he condemned his soul, living, to be starved out in the insatiable craving of the lack. (117)

The Lord took away:

How powerless is the assailant’s arm, how worthless the schemer’s cleverness; how almost pitiable is all human power when it wants to plunge the weak person into despairing submission by wrenching everything from him and in his faith he says: It is not you, you can do nothing; it is the Lord who takes away. (121)

Blessed be the name of the Lord:

Just as faith and hope without love are but sounding brass and tinkling cymbal, so all the joy proclaimed in the world in which sorrow is not heard along with it is but sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal that tickle the ears but are repulsive to the soul. (122)

What I really love about Kierkegaard’s work in the Upbuilding Discourses (and this might be my favorite one so far — it’s written in a trio from 1843, at the peak of the early part of his writing career) is his interest in entering into the realities of human life. Kierkegaard is demanding and time consuming to read. He can be difficult at times, and his work is often complex and hard to follow.

But his work here is clearly filled with passion and interest for what it means to be human, and what it means to live in real life. These discourses are some of the few early works that he wrote in his own name, and not under a pseudonym, which I take to mean that this is what he wanted people to remember him for. That all our philosophizing and theologizing and rationalizing has a telos: to become a human being.

Remarks on Knowledge from Kierkegaard in the Upbuilding Discourses

Kierkegaard’s infamous claim, that “Subjectivity is truth” is, in my opinion, commonly misunderstood. As we all know, my thesis was on this very concept — that Kierkegaard basically argues that there are more ways of knowing things (specifically, ethical and religious truths) than simply having head-knowledge of them (roughly defined, via Kierkegaard, as either strict or loose objectivity).

In my thesis, I focused on Kierkegaard’s books written by the Johannes Climacus pseudonym. This pseudonym seemed to be meant to address the philosophical problems (especially as it relates to knowledge and faith) that surround religious faith. What I didn’t realize is that he addresses these concerns elsewhere — under his own name! Throughout the course of the first half of his writing career, he published like crazy, both under pseudonyms and his own name. The writings under his own name mostly included what he called “upbuilding discourses”: short religiously-themed tracts that were reflections on scriptural passages. Theoretically — although there is some debate about this — the writings under his own name were meant to be understood as Kierkegaard’s own. The pseudonyms did not necessarily function this way. To facilitate dialogue and play the Devil’s advocate in philosophical and artistic circles, Kierkegaard often wrote in favor of mutually exclusive philosophical positions.

But, that’s neither here nor there for this particular post. I’m writing now because, as I was reading through one of the discourses (“Strengthening in the Inner Being”), I found a couple of short paragraphs on knowledge that struck me. Bear with me for a moment, as Kierkegaard’s notoriously clunky writing comes out in full force here:

Through every deeper reflection that makes him older than the moment and lets him grasp the eternal, a person assures himself that he has an actual relation to a world, and that consequently this relation cannot be mere knowledge about this world and about himself as a part of it, since such knowledge is no relation, simply because in this knowledge he himself is indifferent toward this world and this world is indifferent through his knowledge of it. Not until the moment when there awakens in his soul a concern about what meaning the world has for him and he for the world… only then does the inner being announce its presence in this concern.

This concern is not calmed by a more detailed or a more comprehensive knowledge;  it craves another kind of knowledge, a knowledge that does not remain as knowledge for a single moment but is transformed into an action the moment it is possessed

Clunky, right? I don’t blame you if your eyes glazed over. What I see going on here is Kierkegaard riffing (in the middle of what could be thought of as a pseudo-sermon) on what “counts” as knowledge. When a person deeply reflects on the world, and attempts to “grasp the eternal,” this creates a strange situation where a person is “indifferent” to the world, and the world is “indifferent” to the person. In other words, head-knowledge of something in some ways separates us from the thing we are trying to know. We objectivize the thing we are trying to know, and therefore cannot truly know it. And pursuit of a more comprehensive knowledge of that thing that we are trying to know doesn’t mitigate this problem. My knowledge, for it to really be knowledge, must translate into action.

Basically, I can be reflective on the world all I want. I can try to know it, objectify it, understand it. But until I subjectively know that thing that I want to know — by experience or by action — I don’t truly know it at all. How many of us walk around all day “knowing” that God exists (or doesn’t exist), knowing that the Bible is true, that Jesus is Lord, etc., etc., but do not consciously live in that reality? And if we don’t live in that reality, we do not ultimately know those things as true.

Kierkegaard on Rome, and Perhaps on the Internet

In his upbuilding discourse entitled, “Strengthening in the Inner Being,” Kierkegaard describes Rome during Paul’s time as follows,

In the world’s capital, in proud Rome, where all the splendor and glory of the world were concentrated, where everything was procured whereby human sagacity and rapaciousness tempt the moment in the anxiety of despair, everything to astonish the sensate person, where every day witnessed something extraordinary, something horrible, and the next day had forgotten it upon seeing something even more extraordinary…

In the capital city of the world, in tumultuous Rome, where nothing could withstand the unbridled power of time, which swallowed everything as quickly as it made its appearance, which consigned everything to forgetfulness without leaving a trace…

This sounds an awful lot like the internet in the present day. The internet has become the place in which we are lost in the power of the moment. It is where wealth, power, prestige, the social, the intellectual, and the political congregate. It is so easy to get lost in its grip, because it has “everything to astonish the sensate person, where every day witnessed something extraordinary, something horrible.” And further, the next day, those horrible, extraordinary are forgotten and replaced by “something even more extraordinary.”

I’d be willing to bet that Kierkegaard is not only attempting to describe Rome in Paul’s time, but modernity in his own time. What I’m guessing he didn’t understand is that his description would only gain in power as modern humans globalized and became interconnected in ways unfathomable in the mid-1800s.

He goes on to describe the difficulty with which humans remain “strengthened in the inner being” when faced with adversity or given good fortune, because humans are so likely to focus in on their current situation as being definitive of what life is really like. What I wonder is — how difficult is it to maintain a strong inner being when the internet and the ubiquity of the social is so easily distracting? How can I become a whole person, or work towards the telos of the human life, if my attention is constantly pulled this way and that?

Habits and Love

Three thinkers, centuries (or millennia) apart:

What one sees depends upon how one sees; all observation is not just a receiving, a discovering, but also a bringing forth, and insofar as it is that, how the observer himself is constituted is indeed decisive.

Søren Kierkegaard, “Love Will Hide a Multitude of Sins” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses

You are what you love, but you might not love what you think.

James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love

My interior life is a foreign country.

Augustine, Confessions

The orientation of our desires is often determined by the cultural stories in which we are caught. The question is, what are those stories? Are we formed by the gospel? Are we formed by American nationalism, by capitalism, by racism, by the media? The answer, really, is “yes.” All of them

If Kierkegaard is right — if how the observer (our “self”) is constituted is decisive for what we see when we observe our surroundings or the people  that we are close to, then our formation is paramount. If I’m formed to be a consumer, then what I see around me will look like obstacles or pathways to my obtaining the things that I want to possess. If, however, I’m formed to be a disciple, then the people and the situations around me are opportunities for displaying self-sacrificial love.


If given the chance, this quote will be attached as an epigraph to my thesis:

One makes God’s Word into something impersonal, objective, a doctrine — instead of its being the voice of God that you shall hear… And one relates impersonally (objectively to this impersonal thing); and at the peak of a culture of the world, at the head of the cultured public, scholarly research, one asserts defiantly that this is earnestness and culture. If possible, we pityingly put those personal subjective wretches into the corner!

Kierkegaard – For Self-Examination