Carole has been Jo’s best friend since the 6th grade (6th grade!). She is an absolute delight. We love Carole. Carole married Keith. He also is a delight. We love Keith and even Carole and Keith together. Carole and Keith live in Kentucky. Several years ago, we visited Carole and Keith in Kentucky and went for a walk in the woods with them. It was on that walk that I was attacked by an infestation of harvest mites. You probably don’t know what a harvest mite is, so let me explain. They look like tiny ticks, bite like small mosquitoes and then leave an overpowering itch that frantically needs to be scratched for months (and maybe decades) afterwards. And since I am still scratching those bites years later, I need to make a proclamation or two (true, it is not the same bites; it is that those mites laid eggs in my legs that hatch every summer so the feasting can start all over). First proclamation: I hate harvest mites. Second proclamation: I hate Kentucky. Third proclamation: I hate thinking Carole and Keith are to blame for this fiasco (but I do!).
For the past fifteen weeks, we have been looking at Mark Tietjen’s book, “Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians” (IVP Academic, 2016). I have thoroughly enjoyed this book which gave me a lens through which to see Kierkegaard in a whole new light. But since day one, you may have had an itch you could not scratch, and it may be driving you crazy (trust me, I know the feeling). You may have wanted to know why in the world we need “a Christian missionary to Christians.” Yes, we can all agree that we need Christian missionaries to go into all the world, but why would we need Christian missionaries to stay home and be missionaries to other Christians? The answer is simple: lots of people think they are members of the church (hence, Christians), but the church they are members of is whacked. Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon. The driving force behind all of Kierkegaard’s writing was to open the eyes of Christians to see how “whacked” they were. This explains how Kierkegaard could say the following things about the church:
- “O Luther, you had 95 theses. . . . The matter is far more terrible—there is only one thesis. The Christianity of the New Testament does not exist at all. Here, there is nothing to reform.”
- “The human race in the course of time has taken the liberty of softening and softening Christianity until at last we have contrived to make it exactly the opposite of what it is in the New Testament.”
- “The reason why preachers are so eager to preach in a chock-full church is that if they were to say what they have to say in an empty room, they would become anxious and afraid, for they would notice that it pertains to themselves.”
- “The day when Christianity and the world become friends—yes, then Christianity is abolished.”
- “Ah, there is indeed something sadly true in the circumstance that it would be better that Christianity not be preached at all than that it be preached as it is nowadays.
Bottom line: If there is a “whacked church,” today (or if there are only “whacked Christians”), then we desperately need a true Christian missionary to speak to today’s Christians and remind us of the truth. But it is not just a problem of forgetting what Jesus said and did; it’s a problem of earnestness. Earnestness, according to Tietjen, was one of Kierkegaard’s favorite terms; and Kierkegaard was absolutely right. We are in a crisis of earnestness (or if you prefer, a crisis of authenticity). And this crisis extends in three different directions.
First, we (meaning the church today) have forgotten to be earnest and authentic with others. Without a doubt, we love people and we love them regardless if they are inside or outside of the church. We love to pretend we are better than they are. We love to criticize and mock them. We love to look down on them. And at times, we love to treat them like projects. What we don’t love is to be earnest, authentic and transparent in front of them. But our calling is to tear down walls, not to build them; and nothing builds an unmovable wall like self-righteousness. And so, if we are going to be serious about Jesus’ command to love our neighbor, then we will have to get serious about being earnest and authentic with the people around us. What would be some steps to doing that? Perhaps, we need to start by clothing ourselves in humility. Perhaps, we ought to readily confess our sin to our neighbors and apologize to them when we have wronged them. Perhaps, we should admit our own struggles and failures and disappointment and doubts. Perhaps, we need to litter our conversations with reminders of God’s grace and forgiveness. And perhaps, it is as simple as just being a good neighbor and listening to them, entering into their victories and their sadness, and joyfully serving them as opportunities arise. Let’s face it, the world has had enough of pious Christians looking down their noses at broken people, while at the same time, these pious ones are hiding their own brokenness away from the public’s view. Or perhaps, it all comes down to helping the people God puts in our path. I love this paragraph from Kierkegaard.
“If one is truly to succeed in leading a person to a specific place, one must first and foremost take care to find him where he is and begin there. This is the secret in the entire art of helping. Anyone who cannot do this is himself under a delusion if he thinks he is able to help someone else. In order truly to help someone else, I must understand more than he—but certainly first and foremost understand what he understands. If I do not do that, then my greater understanding does not help him at all. If I nevertheless want to assert my greater understanding, then it is because I am vain or proud, then basically instead of benefiting him I really want to be admired by him. But all true helping begins with a humbling. The helper must first humble himself under the person he wants to help and thereby understand that to help is not to dominate but to serve; that to help is not to be the most dominating but to be the most patient.”
Here’s where we have gone wrong: We have forgotten how to be earnest and authentic with the people around us. We want to hide our real lives behind our faith, our piety, and our trust, but in the end, our real lives contaminate our faith and move us further away from the people we are called to love. If we want to be the true church today, we must start by being earnest and authentic with those around us. But how can we do that?
Second, we have forgotten that, to be earnest and authentic with others, we first need to be earnest and honest with ourselves. How can we be authentic with others? It starts with being honest with ourselves. But being brutally honest with ourselves is hard work. Not only do we not want to see ourselves in such a light, but our sin fights against us so that we are self-deceived. We quickly say one thing, but do another without once noticing the disconnect. We talk great guns about loving our enemies; but when the time comes for us actually to love them, we choose to use those great guns instead. Sadly, we are blind to our own hypocrisy. And much of that blindness can be attributed to our refusal to be honest with ourselves. If this is to change, we will need continually to make sure whatever we say has a corresponding (and not contradictory) action. And we will need to work hard to guarantee that everything we believe will be seen in what we do and how we live; and if it is not seen, we need to confess that the problem is that we don’t really believe it. And we will need to promise ourselves that we won’t let our faith rest comfortably in our heads, but that it will work itself down into our concerns and cares, our wants and desires, and even our motives and ambitions. Our commitment must be simply this: If we believe it, we must live it and live it down to our bones. Can we do this perfectly? Of course not. But it is in the striving that we find life and earnestness. One of my favorite Kierkegaard’s quotes is this one simple line:
“Now, with God’s help, I shall become myself.”
If we want to be the true church today, we must start by being earnest and honest with ourselves. But how can we do that?
Third, we have forgotten that our spiritual lives all depend on one truth: we need to be earnest and open with God. Calvin said it this way: “Without the knowledge of God, there is no knowledge of self.” Remember here that “knowing” for Kierkegaard is not simply a matter of facts. To know God is to stand before him totally open and exposed and, yet, at the same time (thankfully), to be loved and forgiven and accepted. Tietjen writes:
“To [know] myself through God is to recognize myself as a fallen child. ‘Fallen’ connotes the effects of sin on every part of me, but ‘child’ connotes my inheritance in Christ, the one relationship through which I can become the beautiful self God created me to become.”
And there it is: honesty with God becomes honesty with oneself which empowers us to become honest and open with others. Then, Tietjen says this (and how I need to be reminded of this):
“How easily can one forget this; how quickly can one jump into patterns and habits of religiosity and quite literally lose heart, lose one’s love for God and live dishonest lives that mimic more than practice the faith we claim.”
And the solution? We start by being earnest and open with God. Tietjen writes:
“Earnestness for Kierkegaard means honesty before God. Though it may seem troubling, Kierkegaard’s initial aim is not that the reader who finds his books should become a Christian as much as it is that each person should finally become honest with God, themselves and the world, and then go on from there.”
Imagine a church that is honest with God, honest with self and honest with others. What a church that would be. May we pray to that end. And when we fail (as we will), let us also pray that God would always supply a Kierkegaard to remind us of who we are and what we are called to do; that . . .
“The truly simple way of presenting Christianity is to do it.”
En Garde with Kierkegaard
At the end of every post in this series, I want to drive home a few points by asking a few questions and giving you at least one great Kierkegaard quote to ponder.
- How would you answer the question, “Why do we need a Christian missionary to Christians today?”
- Do you agree with Kierkegaard’s assessment of the church in the following quote: “The human race in the course of time has taken the liberty of softening and softening Christianity until at last we have contrived to make it exactly the opposite of what it is in the New Testament”? Why, or why not?
- Why is it so hard to be open and honest with others?
- Why is it so hard to be open and honest with ourselves?
- Why is it so hard to be open and honest with God?
- Do you see yourself as emphasizing the “fallen” aspect or the “child” aspect in Tietjen’s comment? How does that show itself in your life?
- How have you fallen into patterns and habits of religiosity rather than truly giving yourself, heart and soul, to God? How can you break out of these patterns?
And two quotes to ponder:
“Present-day Christendom really lives as if the situation were as follows: Christ is the great hero and benefactor which has once and for all secured salvation for us; now we must merely be happy and delighted with the innocent goods of earthly life and leave the rest for him. But Christ is essentially the exemplar, that is, we are to resemble him, not merely profit from him.”
“To the frivolous Christianity is certainly not glad tidings, for it wishes first of all to make them serious.”
We will end this series on Kierkegaard in earnest next week (I know I said that last week, but this time I really mean it!). Thanks again for reading.