Encounter with the ‘Helper who Helps’: Christians Are Bonded to a Person, Not a Principle.

The Apostle Paul, before he was the Apostle Paul, and on his way to becoming the Apostle Paul had an encounter with the living Savior, the God-man, Jesus Christ. Luke recounts this happening in Acts of the Apostles when he writes:

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.[1]

Paul came to Christ through encounter with Christ; when he was confronted with the resurrected and living reality of reality Hisself. What was Paul to do in this moment? He could have still rejected the encounter, and attempted to explain it away. But the reality was so compelling and the consequences so real that his choice was, in a sense, made for him, by the One who encountered him; seemingly out of nowhere.

This brings up the issue of how God’s Self-revelation works. For Søren Kierkegaard he held that the kind of encounter the Apostle Paul had, post-ascension, is just as powerful, if not more so, as it would have been for those who actually were physically alive and walked with Jesus during his public ministry and time on earth. The reality being, that either way, what is required is that someone have eyes of faith and ears of hearing to actually appreciate who Christ is. In other words, a pure empiricism, positivism, rationalism, and/or physicalism will never suffice in providing the kind of visio required to see that Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Here is how Andrew Torrance (in his published PhD dissertation) distills Kierkegaard’s understanding:

When an immediate contemporary of Jesus would have first met him, she would have noticed nothing more than a mere human being. In his physical appearance, in the lowly form of a servant, Jesus only served to communicate a ‘teaching’: information that a person could directly apprehend for herself. Such teaching, however, as we saw in Chapter 1, can only relatively inform a person’s immanent understanding. The life of faith, by contrast, requires a person to become totally transformed through a relationship with the eternal-historical teacher, the God in time, the one who is the truth for humanity. For this reason, the object of faith is ‘not the teaching but the teacher’. Or, as Anti-Climacus puts it, ‘The helper is the help’. The Christian is primarily called to follow a person, not a standard or a principle. So, by merely observing Jesus Christ and contemplating his message, there is no direct communication of the essential truth of Christianity. For the truth to be revealed, Jesus’ appearance must serve as an occasion for God to give a person the condition for understanding the truth. God must encounter a person and draw that person into a relationship with the eternal truth that God is in himself. In Climacus’ account, it is only through the eternal-historical events of God’s self-mediation that a person is delivered into a life of faith. As such, the only purpose that the direct teaching serves is to provide an occasion, ‘an historical point of departure’, by which a person can relate consciously to the eternal truth and develop ‘the passion of faith’. This occasion, he argues, is no more accessible to the physical contemporary of the god in human form than it is to the one who comes later. Climacus writes:

Just as the historical becomes the occasion for the contemporary to become a disciple [Discipel] – by receiving the condition, please note, from the god himself (for otherwise we speak socratically) – so the report of the contemporaries becomes the occasion for everyone coming later to become a disciple – by receiving the condition, please note, from the god himself.

So, for Climacus, the person who becomes aware of the servant god through a physical encounter holds no advantage for faith over the person who comes across him via a second-hand account….[2]

Don’t miss what’s going on here. According to A. Torrance, Kierkegaard is arguing that, for one thing, the person and work/teaching of Jesus Christ comes as a piece; with the person (eternal Logos) taking precedence, in an ontological way, over the ‘teaching’. But note, the historical teaching became and currently becomes the ‘occasion’ or point of departure wherein the encounter with the ‘Person’ takes place (think of something like Moses and the burning bush). In other words, what’s important for our purposes, is to realize that faith is not a thing, but when encounter with Christ takes place, faith comes built into that encounter, because it is a personal encounter with a real and living Person; with Jesus Christ. The encounter itself becomes the nexus from within which the bond of connection between Christ and the “encounteree” inheres. In other words, faith is contingent upon the choice of Godself to be for us in encounter with us, in the hypostatic union and mediating reality of God to human/human to God that inheres in Christ. As we meet Jesus, all that is required for that meeting to be eternally fruitful is already in place because of the character and works (for us) of the One initiating the encounter; i.e. Jesus Christ.

[1] Acts 9:1-9, NRSV.

[2] Andrew B. Torrance, The Freedom To Become A Christian: A Kierkegaardian Account of Human Transformation in Relationship with God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 78-9.

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Oh My God! Who Will Save Me from this Body of Death? A Kierkegaardian Account of Sin as ‘Despair’

I am currently reading a book on the life and theology of Strasbourg Protestant Reformer, Martin Bucer; but as is typical I also have multiple other books going at the same time. The book I will be referring to in this post is one I am working through slowly, it is a book authored by Andrew Torrance on Kierkegaard’s theology entitled: The Freedom To Become A Christian: A Kierkegaardian despairAccount of Human Transformation in Relationship with God. A. Torrance, in the section we will look at, is describing Kierkegaard’s doctrine of sin as ‘despair.’ As I picked Torrance’s book up and began to read this I was compelled to immediately sit down and write this post; so here we go.

As we will see, through Torrance’s explication, Kierkegaard sees despair as something that happens to people as God removes himself from their lives, and in a sense, leaves them to themselves. It is natural, as Augustine and the Bible so presciently note, that if humans were created for relationship with God, if they were created to find their purpose and end in Deus incarnatus, God incarnate, Jesus Christ, and then are uncoupled from that, for humans to despair. This becomes the entry point for how we ought to understand the human condition of sin, according to Kierkegaard, according to Torrance. Torrance writes:

Notably, however, although Anti-Climacus [pseudonym for Kierkegaard] describes despair as a sickness, he also affirms that it is not ‘something that happens to man … like a disease to which he succumbs’. Rather, ‘despairing lies in man himself’. It arises by way of the individual’s own volition, which God allows the human when he ‘releases it from his hand’. It arises when the individual willingly embraces a self that is not the true self but the sinful self.

Sin is: before God, or with the conception of God, in despair not to wil to be oneself, or in despair to will to be oneself. Thus sin is intensified weakness or intensified defiance: sin is the intensification of despair.

Here, Anti-Climacus presents sin as the state of the self who, ‘before God’, is in despair. In sin, a person consents to a life that is not the life for which he was created – a life of loving fellowship with God. Despair is the state of the individual who ‘before God’ chooses himself in sin. According to Anti-Climacus, there are two ways in which a person conscious before God, uses God-given volition to choose sin: ‘in despair not to will to be oneself’, and ‘in despair to will to be oneself’.

First, sin is ‘in despair not to will to be oneself’. In this case, the sinner chooses to continue in sin because she does not have the inner strength or passion to embrace what she knows to be her true selfhood before God. This either takes the form of ‘despair over the earthly’/’despair in weakness’, in which a person is distracted from devotion to God by commitment to worldly affairs, such as the question of what the immediate future might hold. Or, it takes the form of ‘despair of the eternal over oneself’/’despair over weakness’. In this case, the person recognises that it is a weakness to despair over the earthly, but then proceeds to despair over this weakness, bringing about a sense of self-hatred, which closely resembles guilt. That is, instead of faithfully humbling himself before God and seeking forgiveness, he dwells legalistically on sin and despairs that nothing can be done for him, thereby becoming further entrenched in despair and further intensifying his sin. In so doing, a person resists his actual selfhood and true selfhood before God. With this despair in mind, Kierkegaard writes,

This is … the eternal consolation in the doctrine of the forgiveness of sins: you shall believe it. For when the anguished conscience starts having burdensome thoughts, and it seems to one that in eternity it is impossible to forget: then it says, you shall not forget, you shall stop thinking of your sin; not only are you permitted to stop, not only do you dare ask God for permission to dare forget – no, you shall not forget, for you shall believe that your sin is forgiven.

Second, sin is ‘in despair to will to be oneself’. In this case, the individual chooses to cling to his own autonomy in active defiance of his true freedom before God. In this instance, ‘the self in despair wants to be master of itself or to create itself, to make his self into the self he wants to be’. With this despair, the individual is too proud to see his need for repentance and reconciliation, in unbelief seeing himself as his own god who sets the standard for what it means to be a self. Hence, the individual has no desire to die to himself or to the world, and feels no need to be forgiven for the life that he has made for himself. As a result, the individual embraces himself as a self that is dead to the true God.[1]

The first form of despair, I think, could loosely define many Christians out there; the latter form of despair sounds simply like unbelieving humanity in the main. It is interesting, and not surprising, because we are reading sin through Kierkegaard, how prominent the psychological factor is; i.e. the personalist element of Kierkegaard’s understanding of sin. I think all too often because of the forensic models of sin that evangelical and Reformed Christians have been stunted by, we lose sight of how existential, sin actually is; how relationally oriented it is.

As I read Kierkegaard’s account, mediated through Torrance, it resonates deeply with my own lived experience of sin. I have had seasons where I have desperately despaired of my sin before God; burdened down with such a sense of guilt-riddeness that it damaged my vision of and fellowship with God in Jesus Christ. I have despaired of sin so deeply, and particular sins so trenchantly, that it almost took my sanity. It wasn’t until I was able, by the Holy Spirit, through laborious wrestling with God in Scripture, and with Scripture’s reality, Jesus, that I was finally able to stand in who I am in the elected humanity of God in Jesus Christ; I was finally able to stand in the liberty by which Christ had made me free and not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.

As we read the second account of despair in Kierkegaard, I am sure we can all recognize that type of despair, at points in our old-self, but most prominently in the world at large; in the people we bump into daily at work, the mall, on the freeways, in the classroom and elsewhere. It is the despairing soul who has looked up into the heavens, presumed itself to be its own terminus, and lived a life out of that destruction. It is this soul we have been called to ambassador the reality of the evangel to. God help us!

[1] Andrew B. Torrance, The Freedom To Become A Christian: A Kierkegaardian Account of Human Transformation in Relationship with God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 30-1.

Looking Towards a Genuine Christian Spirituality with the help of Søren

I have been thinking lately about what it means to really be a Christian? Can it simply be reduced to the life of the mind—which so much of online stuff revolves around—or is there something more? Of course the immediate answer by most Christians will be: “of course it is more!” But in reality, given our fast paced busy lives, is it really? And what about us academically inclined (or sorensome would say intellectually inclined); we of most Christians have the constant temptation of falling into a trap where Christianity and Christian spirituality become a matter of nous or the mind. Those geared more intellectualistically can easily fall prey to dualist or even neo-Gnostic styled Christianity, where the material/concrete world becomes of no real significance to our Christianity (i.e. a docetic or disembodied Christianity); except for maybe the space we need to develop our “Christian ideas,” or theological constructs—we need the material world in order to hypothesize about things like God’s love, feeding the poor, and being anti-war (or whatever our inclination might be).

I would like to suggest that if we live into a disembodied or dualist type of Christianity that in fact it most likely is related to our concept of God. In other words (and I think this problem particularly plagues the West all the way down), if we think that God is this impassible/immutable untouched being in his inner life way up there hiding behind decrees, then it would be easy to mimic that conception of God in our lives, and Christian spirituality. It would be easy to think that the way we live our lives as Christians is the way we think God lives his life as God; i.e. untouched by the world outside of our immediate experiences and spheres of comfortability, and then develop theologies from that mindset. I actually believe this can explain a lot about Christianity, particularly in North American evangelical Christianity; what I like to call the “Conference Christianity.”[1]

So I just started reading Andrew Torrance’s (thank you Nick Stewart at T&T Clark for sending me the review copy) recently published PhD dissertation entitled The Freedom To Become A Christian: A Kierkegaardian Account of Human Transformation in Relationship with God. I am literally just starting it, and on page 4 Andrew writes something in description of Kierkegaard’s approach to things, and his aims towards theological development, that I think helps forward what I am trying to say about ‘what it means to be a Christian;’ with particular focus upon how a conception of God can implicate (for the good or bad) what that means. Torrance writes:

For Kierkegaard, the existence of God makes all the difference for the Christian life. It is a living God who inspires passionate commitment, humility and ‘fear and trembling.’ Furthermore, God does so in a way that human conceptions of God cannot. When Christian conceptions or propositions become the object of the Christian faith (for example, in the form of Christian doctrine), ‘Christianity’ becomes a plaything for intellectual pursuits, cultural sensibilities and political agendas. This is not, of course, to deny that Christian concepts and propositions serve a purpose. Their primary purpose, however, is to serve as a witness to God: to provide us with teaching that helps us talk about, understand and know both who God is and who we are before God. But, for Kierkegaard, they are not to take centre stage.[2]

The irony is not lost on me; here I am trying to talk about a way to maybe better think about Christian spirituality, but am doing so from a pretty academic angle. But that’s not ultimately the problem (i.e. academics), it is an errant doctrine of God. As Torrance points out, at least for Kierkegaard, if our propositions about who God is become the ‘objects’ or dominate force in the way that we approach God, then our spirituality can suffer because it depends upon our concept of God instead of  God’s own concept of himself as he’s revealed that to us in Jesus Christ. Or the dialogue between God and us becomes contingent upon us rather than God, and this can have serious consequences; i.e. namely that our Christian walks become ends in themselves dictated to be what they are by a concept of God held captive by our own propositions about God instead of his personal disclosure of who he actually is for us in Christ.

Anyway, I thought this was an interesting line of thought. There obviously is a jab embedded in my post towards a classical theistic understanding of God; an understanding that has God relating to his creation and creatures through mechanistic and impersonal decrees, rather than in personal and dialogical ways based purely upon his personal Self-revelation. I do think though that there are dangers with a classical theistic understanding of God that indeed can be deleterious for a genuinely Christian spirituality and its cultivation. And so I wrote this post to register that, and think on the fly as I do that.

[1] I am thinking about all of the conferences that have overtaken evangelical Christianity; conferences that make us feel like we are doing something, or learning something important for the Kingdom (and maybe we are); and yet it simply stays at the conference until the next conference happens. If we are able to string enough conferences out each year, they might make us feel like we are doing something important for the Kingdom; but the reality is, is that we are mostly just fooling ourselves. Conference Christianity makes us feel something, but usually it has little to do with actually living out the Christian life in concrete ways in our daily and mundane lives. I don’t know, just thinking out loud.

[2] Andrew B. Torrance, The Freedom To Become A Christian: A Kierkegaardian Account of Human Transformation in Relationship with God (London/Oxford/New York/New Dehli/Sydney: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 4.