How important are books? Let me count the ways or, at least, count the quotes. From C.S. Lewis: “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” From Mark Twain: “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” From Fran Lebowitz: “Think before you speak. Read before you think.” From Erasmus: “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” Let me just say it: I like Erasmus! And last, from Mortimer Adler: “In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.”
Recently, I finished Mark Tietjen’s Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians (InterVarsity, Downers Grove, 2016). Let me be honest. I have started many books written by or written about Kierkegaard, but for one reason or another, I didn’t get through most of them (usually because I got lost in the philosophical debate). Not only did I get through this one, but it also got through to me. In fact, it was a home run (hence, the title of this blog series). As a result, I thought it might be good for us to discuss this book in a series of blog posts with the hope that some of the topics discussed in this book would get through to all of us.
And yet, even now, I can hear your collective moan from the future, protesting this choice of blog topics. After all, you say: “We’re not philosophers, and we don’t want to study philosophy or even hear philosophical quotes (but Kierkegaard once said: “I stick my finger in existence–it smells of nothing!” Sorry, sometimes a quote is just too good to pass up). If that is your worry, you may relax because that is not our intent (although I do sometimes wonder what existence does smell like!). See, Kierkegaard was not only a philosopher who engaged with the philosophy of his day from a Christian perspective, but he was also a Christian who engaged with the church of his day from a Christian perspective. He felt his calling was to challenge the church to pursue Christ with all of their heart, soul, mind and strength. Or as Tietjen puts it: Kierkegaard was a Christian missionary to Christians. And in that role, he has tons of things to say to us, even though we are far removed from Kierkegaard’s day and culture. In short, though his works were written 200 years ago, some of Kierkegaard’s words are incredibly relevant and poignant to us today. Let me prove it to you.
Near the end of his life, Kierkegaard published a series of pamphlets that have been labeled “an attack upon Christendom.” In it, Kierkegaard unleashed a scathing critique of Christianity. His main problem with the churchwas that it had made being a Christian “too easy.” In Denmark at the time, all one needed to do to become a member of the church (i.e., to become a Christian) was to be born; and bingo-bango, you were blessed, baptized and booked into heaven’s best bed and breakfast for eternity. As for Christian living, why bother? In fact, why bother doing anything? You’re in. You said the prayer. You got dunked. You watched (and believed in) the “Left Behind” movies. You’re in. But for Kierkegaard, such a Christianity was completely foreign from the religion of Jesus. And as a result, Kierkegaard felt that it was his calling to make becoming a Christian much harder and to remove the stench of what Bonhoeffer will later call “cheap grace” (“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”) Believing that becoming a Christian was already way too easy, Kierkegaard wrote (here, I’m using Charles Moore’s translation from his book, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard):
“When Christianity entered into the world, people were not Christians;
and the difficulty was to become a Christian.
Nowadays, the difficulty in becoming a Christian is that
one must cease being a Christian to become a Christian.”
How does one cease “being a Christian” in order to become “a Christian?” For Kierkegaard the first step is to realize you’ve been deceiving yourself. People who consider themselves Christians simply because they said a prayer or were baptized or go to church or behave in a certain way (or vote in a certain way), in Kierkegaard’s opinion, are just deceiving themselves. More on this later. And the second step is closely related: we need to realize that “being a Christian” is a misnomer. All we can say about ourselves is that we are “becoming a Christian.” In other words, we will never arrive (this side of heaven). Instead, we will always be striving to become a Christian.
But how does “being a Christian” differ from “becoming a Christian”? Kierkegaard believes there are three main ways. First, Kierkegaard will insist faith is not merely a single task, but the task of a lifetime (we are always becoming). Our calling is to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). The Christian life is to strive, to grow, to press forward and to not give up. Faith is not something we have; it is something we are always straining towards. And when faith ceases to be an ongoing task, when we think we have arrived, when we no longer feel the need to grow in depth of insight, no longer feel the need to grow in the way of Jesus, no longer feel the need to grow in our love for God or for our neighbors, then we must realize we are deceiving ourselves and that our faith is more pretense than authentic, no matter how loudly we proclaim that it is real. For Kierkegaard there is only one kind of faith–a striving faith, a faith that is continually moving toward the goal.
Second, Kierkegaard insists that we must demonstrate our striving faith in both our beliefs and in our behaviors. It is not enough just to believe all the right things (although believing is necessary), but to live out these truths in ways that demonstrate our twin calling to love God and love our neighbor. Or to say it another way: Our calling is not just to believe that Jesus is the way, but to follow Jesus in that way. Aye, and there’s the rub. For most of us, our beliefs outrun our behavior by a significant margin, and our heart is way behind the other two (our love for self far out distances our love for God or our neighbor). For Kierkegaard, true faith shows itself in our commitment to love God and love others and to grow in love. Faith always shows itself in love.
Third, Kierkegaard insists that while ethics are good, as followers of Jesus they are not enough. See, there is a difference between ethics and religion (true faith). Yes, there is some overlap between these two, but the differences are staggering. See, ethics focuses on right and wrong; but religion focuses on holiness (wholeness) and sin (the whole concept of sin is foreign to ethics because it pertains to a whole other category). Ethics concerns itself with things like duty, ought, obligation and responsibility; religion intensifies that by reminding us that everything we do is seen by a watching God who calls us to love justice, do what is right and to be holy as he is holy. A violation of an ethical directive can be covered up by “confessing that we made a mistake.” A violation of a religious obligation requires repentance. Ethics demand us to do the right thing in a given circumstance. Religion demands us to be the right people from head to toe in every situation. Ethics call us to give ourselves to something bigger than ourselves (our nation, the state, our culture, our community). Religion calls us to give ourselves to God for God alone is King. Faith is striving to love God more and more with each passing year.
When you embrace a striving faith that is constantly on the move toward the goal of following in Jesus’ footsteps, then three things happen. First, our faith becomes much more real to us. Second, our faith becomes much more visible to the world (it is seen in our deeds of love and mercy). And third, striving faith makes being a Christian much more difficult because now it takes effort and thought and desire. You may disagree, but in my opinion, emphasizing a striving faith may not be such a bad thing.
En Garde with Kierkegaard
At the end of every post in this series, I want to drive home a few points by asking a couple of questions. And then, give you one great Kierkegaard quote to ponder.
- In your opinion, should we be making it easier or harder for people today to become a Christ follower? Why?
- If you were to make an “attack upon Christianity” similar to Kierkegaard’s pamphlets, what would you want to say?
- What do you think of the distinction between “being a Christian” and “becoming a Christian?” Does that distinction resonate with you?
- Do you believe faith is a task for a lifetime? Why or why not?
- If one’s spiritual growth (defined in all three spheres–intellect, emotion and will) and one’s growth in love become barely negligible from one year to the next, do you feel that is evidence of a significant spiritual problem? Why or why not?
- How would you define faith?
- How would you go about “ceasing to be a Christian” and, instead, striving to “become a Christian”?
Here’s this week’s Kierkegaard quote to ponder:
“There are this many children baptized every year, that many confirmed,
and how many become theological professors and Bible teachers?
There are thousands of pastors. Everything is in place–if only following Christ existed.”
More next week. Thanks for reading.