Christian History: Neo-Orthodoxy – Soren Kierkegaard


Last time, we talked of the “modern” liberals who sought to reform Christianity in their own image. Naturally, a response would arise, but not one out of the common mold. Rather, Christian orthodoxy found reassurance in a “new” orthodoxy, one that reacted heavily against the primarily scientific/rational version of Christianity so often proposed by the other writers Schleiermacher does not fit so much in this category, but Bultmann and Tillich surely fit here! He just happened to give them, and the more “historical” theologians like Ritschl and Harnack, free license to discredit Jesus as an actual, existent person.

The liberal response, though tepid in its backtracking to modern culture, had its own opposition. Generally called the “Neo-Orthodox” (or existentialist in some cases) movement, these thinkers and theologians posed a new authoritarian theology that rests upon God alone. Although this was, in some ways, a more tting reaction to the shift of authority liberals attempted in Christianity, the single-minded nature of the response and its reactionary tone led to a subtle distortion of the nature of authority. As well, it made God completely alien to humanity – the exact opposite problem of the liberal movement.

Its initial proponents, who know nothing of labels and the like, did not even react against them; in fact, it prefigures many of the men listed above by at least a century! Soren Kierkegaard, though not influential during his own lifetime (the early 19th century in Denmark, of all places), was almost inevitably a part of the creation of the “Neo-Orthodox” movement – a reaction to a reaction, if you will.

Kierkegaard’s problem, like that of most reactions to liberalism, was that of an “easy God”, the kind of God created by an impulse to simplify Christianity.  As well, it frames the conversation in terms of the optimism of human progress and their ability to follow Christianity (as redefined). Kierkegaard’s particular demon was Danish Lutheranism, a subset that took the work of Hegel rather than Scripture, the work of humanity rather than that of God. Denmark came, like most early 19th century Christian churches, under the influence of Hegel’s forward movement of the geist through history. Hegelian philosophy saw Christ as a man who exemplified the spirit’s attributes, the zeitgeist of history, into a forward dawning age where mankind would solve its own problems. In effect, though Hegel’s philosophy did not expound this in great measure, Christian churches took the spirit of the age and shoved it into a milquetoast doctrine of love, acceptance, and “Jesus loves you”, to put it bluntly. To say it truncated Christianity would undersell the paradigm shift, I assure you.

Kierkegaard, as a result, sought to change this. God and humankind, for Kierkegaard, were not good friends – he saw an infinite gulf between humans and God, the contrast between that which is finite and that which is infinite. God’s holiness makes it impossible for God to come close to humanity’s sinfulness. How could humanity understand such a holy entity, let alone bridge the communication/relational gap, the paradoxical-religious relation which cannot even be thought? If Jesus just “loves me”, Kierkegaard thought, then what matters in how I live my life? Does anything at all? What about sin? These questions haunted Kierkegaard; that misrepresents what Scripture tells us about God. For him,

…only presumptuous thinking can make disappear in the blasphemy that in the transitory moment of finitude God and human being are certainly differentiated…

Thus, Kierkegaard’s reaction emphasizes the sinfulness of humanity, the very thing ignored by his country’s Christian church. As a reaction, it takes humanity’s finiteness as part and parcel of sinfulness – one can forgive him for this, given this was a reactionary measure rather than a systematic theology. If any, it reminds me of Martin Luther, although far less successful from a worldly perspective.

Kierkegaard almost portrays God as an inconceivable being, to the point where God’s unreasonable demands and/or commands were followed without secondary chance. The book Fear and Trembling came out of an attempt to understand why Abraham would take his only son, Isaac, and trust in God enough to sacrifice God’s own promised son. God merely tells Abraham this:

Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.”

Abraham trust that God will let the child survive; remember, though, that this isn’t guaranteed. We know the latter half of the story; Abraham does not. Imagine the anxiety and the terror, and that only belief and faith will get Abraham to the other side of the gap. If Abraham hadn’t done what God asked, would we remember him? Probably – but not in the same way. We would not recount the story as a notion of faith, nor would we remember him at all for anything other than this. But Abraham crossed the line of faith, even in fear and trembling, killing the one son whom he would probably never be able to produce again. That, in Kierkegaard’s eyes, is a “knight of faith”. In his words:

But Abraham had faith, and had faith for this life. Indeed, had his faith been but concerning the life to come, then might he more easily have cast away all, in order to hasten out of this world which was not his. . . .

But Abraham had faith and doubted not, but trusted that the improbable would come to pass. If Abraham had doubted, then would he have undertaken something else, something great and noble; for what could Abraham have undertaken but was great and noble! He would have proceeded to Mount Moriah, he would have cloven the wood, and fired it, and unsheathed his knife—he would have cried out to God: “Despise not this sacrifice; it is not, indeed, the best I have; for what is an old man against a child foretold of God; but it is the best I can give thee. Let Isaac never know that he must find consolation in his youth.” He would have plunged the steel in his own breast. And he would have been admired throughout the world, and his name would not have been forgotten; but it is one thing to be admired and another, to be a lode‑star which guides one troubled in mind.

But Abraham had faith. He prayed not for mercy and that he might prevail upon the Lord: it was only when just retribution was to be visited upon Sodom and Gomorrha that Abraham ventured to beseech Him for mercy.

God remains above and beyond us; we may be able to freely choose our actions, but God knows the right and the wrong, determined by Him. We cannot conceive our own sinfulness, but through faith, we can. God, in this sense, is the only person who can bridge the gap, specifically through incarnation. What counts is the eyes of faith – historical analysis, philosophy, and all worldly interpretants ultimately have little to no value for faith. The revelation given to the world by God was a veiled revelation, Christ appearing incognito. Only the eyes of faith can perceive and receive it. This is similar to Augustine and Zwingli, and reflects a common “conversion experience” that made it possible for them to have beliefs based on faith.

The problem, however, lies in Kierkegaard’s distinction of subjective truth. This has been misused by a number of different authors and theologians, to the point where Kierkegaard has been called “the father of existentialism”. What it means, contrary to his objectors, is that truth thus construed must have relevance to the person. Even if it is “true”, in that it accords with the state of affairs, that does not mean a passionate desire arises when, for example, one discovers that water is constructed of two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen.

Christianity, and faith, do not function in that sort of way; it cannot become a dispassionate enterprise, for why should anyone care if it were merely a “fact” of reality? What work would it require? Why would it matter if faith, contrary to what usually occurs, did not have any bearing on one’s actions or way of thinking? That is why faith is not, for Kierkegaard, a rational belief – it is a personal one, and speculative thought will not abrogate personal problems. Kierkegaard, if it was not obvious enough, believes that God objectively exists, but the truth of “faith” rather than “fact” becomes a purely subjective application. So it must be for faith to be faith. Even Scripture is a component of faith for Kierkegaard, a rule to live that is authoritative by virtue of being “attested”.

However, as most reactionaries are wont to become, their words are twisted, changed, reinterpreted and remolded to shape and t into the beliefs of those who come thereafter. As it was with Augustine, so it was with Kierkegaard, and the trap of language lay in wait to snatch the “Neo-Orthodox” movement into its claws of subjectivity and relativity applied to all of experience. As well, it brought the new era of “existentialists” who forced even greater reactions into the framework of Christianity.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.