I just finished Stephen Backhouse’s Kierkegaard: A Single Life and enjoyed learning about the famous Danish philosopher’s thinking and influence. Backhouse frames Kierkegaard in his context – one defined by Christendom. While that is certainly very different from the setting we find ourselves in Mozambique (!) I thought this one section, in particular, was very insightful:
“‘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 Christianized 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 deeply challenge precisely to the form of civilized life that Christendom represents.” (Backhouse 172)Kierkegaard himself puts it this way:
“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 all together 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 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.” (Backhouse 172-3 quoting from Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, 2872 (X3 A 34 n.d., 1850)
Ouch – for someone who has benefited from and finds much value in scholarship this last comment hits a little too close to home… but I can certainly appreciate that the temptation to let scholarship stand between us and the clarity of the biblical text is a real one. A temptation that seems especially powerful for cultures shaped by Christendom.
Backhouse neatly summarizes Soren Kierkegaard’s position like this: “The Christianity of Christendom is not the Christianity of the New Testament.” (180)
I want to continue reflecting on what the connections between Christendom, Scholarship and Christianity mean for both our host culture in Mozambique and our home culture in the United States.
Grace and Peace,