Cultural Christianity’s Shielding Itself From Its Source: Søren Kierkegaard’s Critique of Soft Cultural Christianity

Christianity in America, in the West, and pretty much everywhere, at one point or another, and in one period of history or another always ends up collapsing in its particular culture so deeply that it is hard to distinguish between what is actually Christian and what isn’t. I think it would be safe to say that we currently inhabit a time in human history, and in my personal experience in North kierkegaardAmerica, wherein Christianity has really become more of a folk and cultural expression rather than an expression that is given its primary shape by the Gospel and biblical reality itself.

Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard experienced this same type of Christianity in his own day and age in 19th century Denmark. There are many parallels between the type of folk and/or cultural Christianity that he critiqued, and the cultural Christian in 21st century North America that needs similar critique. It is critique, primarily, of Christians who have fallen victim to the spirit of this age by syncretistically conflating this age, and all of its mores, or lack thereof, with the Gospel itself. It is a critique of a cultural Christianity that shies away from the determinations and implications of the Gospel in favor of a softer, gentler, more “gracious” Gospel that is like warm buttermilk and sandwiches to the soul.

Stephen Backhouse in his recently released book Kierkegaard: A Single Life (which I’ll be writing a review of soon), offers insight on Kierkegaard’s critique of his Danish Christianity. In Backhouse’s development of Kierkegaard’s critique he offers two quotes that illustrate just how Kierkegaard went about his critique. I offer this up with hopes of spurring us on unto love and good works. Backhouse writes:

Søren’s long-held antipathy to Christendom hardens during the silent years, as does his conviction that it is now beyond redemption. Ultimately, it is the Christendom over which Mynster [Kierkegaard’s family pastor] and his successors preside that is the issue, more than any one priest. The official relationship of state and church, whereby clergymen were effectively civil servants of the country and agents of civilization is clearly a problem for Kierkegaard:

A modern clergyman [is] an active, adroit, quick person who knows how to introduce a little Christianity very mildly, attractively, and in beautiful language, etc.—but as mildly as possible. In the New Testament Christianity is the deepest wound that can be dealt to a man, designed to collide with everything on the most appalling scale—and now the clergyman is perfectly trained to introduce Christianity in such a way that it means nothing; and when he can do it perfectly, he is a paragon like Mynster. How disgusting!

Yet “Christendom” does not begin and end with the established church. In short, the “established church” might well be Christendom, but not all “Christendoms” are established churches. Christendom is a way of being, thinking, and feeling that has far more to do with the cultural appropriation of Christianity than it does with any specific legal agreement between church and state. Christendom is what happens when people presume they are Christians as a matter of inherited tradition, as a matter of nationality, or because they agree with a number of common-sense propositions and Christianised moral guidelines. Kierkegaard sees Christendom as a process by which groups adopt, absorb, and neuter Christianity into oblivion, all the while assuming they are still Christian. Christendom is adept at shielding itself from its own source, for Christianity’s original documents offer a deep challenge precisely to the form of civilized life that Christendom represents.

The matter is quite simple. The New Testament is very easy to understand. But we human beings are really a bunch of scheming swindlers; we pretend to be unable to understand it because we understand very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly at once. But in order to make it up to the New Testament a little, lest it become angry with us and find us altogether wrong, we flatter it, tell it that it is so tremendously profound, so wonderfully beautiful, so unfathomably sublime, and all that, somewhat as a little child pretends it cannot understand what has been commanded and then is cunning enough to flatter Papa. Therefore we humans pretend to be unable to understand the N.T.; we do not want to understand it. Here Christian scholarship has its place. Christian scholarship is the human race’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the N.T., to ensure that one can continue to be a Christian without letting the N.T. come too close…. I open the N.T. and read: “If you want to be perfect, then sell all your goods and give to the poor and come and follow me.” Good God, all the capitalists, the officeholders, and the pensioners, the whole race no less, would be almost beggars: we would be sunk if it were not for … scholarship!

During this time, Søren begins to sound out medicinal, frequently gastroenterological, ways of talking about the situation. An 1854 entry reads simply: “Christianity in repose, stagnant Christianity, creates an obstruction, and this formidable obstruction is the sickness of Christendom.”[1]

What Kierkegaard critiques is what I inhabit, by and large, in North American evangelicalism, in particular, and in North American Christendom in general. We need to repent, and not be afraid to say so. We need to understand the Ultimate we are up against in the living God, in the Lord Jesus Christ and simply cry out Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy!

 

[1] Stephen Backhouse, Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2016), 171-73.

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