DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
The 19th century saw a concerted battle between Christians who derived their faith from the Bible and tradition, and those who were attempting to reframe Christianity in the light of the scientific method and a revived emphasis on the rational. Amongst these Kierkegaard was truly unique.

Kierkegaard's father was a wealthy merchant and strict Lutheran. His gloomy, guilt-ridden piety and vivid imagination strongly  influenced his son. Kierkegaard studied at the University  of Copenhagen and became familiar with the work of Hegel. 

Kierkegaard is recognised as the originator of that way of thinking about life now known as "existentialism". He thought that Hegel had watered down the meaning of human existence by approaching the realities of life through abstractions. That those abstractions ever become real depends not on them (for they remain mere concepts), but on whether or not they are realised in an individual life experience and thus endowed with existence - hence existentialism.

While at the university, he ceased to practice Lutheranism and for a time led an extravagant social life, becoming  a familiar figure in the theatrical and caf� society of Copenhagen. After his father�s death in 1838, however, he decided to resume  his theological studies. In 1840 he became engaged to the 17-year-old Regine Olson, but almost immediately began to suspect that marriage was incompatible with his own brooding, complicated nature and his growing sense of a philosophical vocation. 

He abruptly broke off the engagement in 1841, but the episode took on great significance for him, and he repeatedly alluded to it in his books. At the same time, he realized that he did not want to become a Lutheran pastor. He attacked the established Lutheran Church in Denmark, remarking that, "Pastors are royal officials; royal officials have nothing to do with Christianity." 

An inheritance from his father allowed him to devote himself entirely to writing, and in the remaining 14 years of his life he produced more than 20 books.

He wrote in Danish and although he was well known in his homeland, it was not until the 20th century that his thinking was widely taken up. Its popularity reached a peak between 1938 and 1968.

At a basic level his attitude towards life was one which proposed the falsity of relying completely on rationality, as proposed by Hegel. It's important to realise, he thought, that we differ from other life in being aware of our existence. Philosophy isn't the construction of a coherent thought-system, but the expression of an individual existence.

In a sense, he was protesting against those who tended to perceive human beings as things, one kind of object among many objects in the universe. Teilhard de Chardin has since correctly observed (in The Phenomenon of Man) that it is not self-awareness which sets humans apart from other animals. Rather, it is our capacity to think about and reflect on ourselves in a process of meta-thought which distinguishes us. Many conclude that we are far closer to other sentient beings in terms of self-awareness than Kierkegaard would have conceded.

Nevertheless, the existentialist concern for human beings as much more than objects reflected fundamental Christian teachings and turned out to be important during the twentieth century. It's particular value was in reaction against social engineering, which in its socialist, capitalist, fascist and other forms treated (and still treats) people as units to be exploited or manipulated.

At the same time, twentieth-century perceptions have rendered obsolete his insistence on the separation of humanity as entirely distinctive from other things and creatures. The principle of "complementarity" in physics, for example, stresses that all physical particles are interdependent and that they all interact with each other. All particles throughout the universe are interlinked. 

Similarly, our planet is increasingly being perceived as a single system, of which humanity is a sub-system. Both as a race and as individuals we share the same underlying form and processes with all other sub-systems. Even our awareness is essentially systemic, comprising a large number of sub-systems such as the brain, and social norms as well as disciplines like history and cybernetics. Hegel's philosophy is, according to this line of thought, a component of the sub-system we call "philosophy". 

Co-operation and co-ordination are the name of the systems game. As Fritjof Capra writes:

The more one studies the living world the more one comes to realise that the tendency to associate, establish links, live inside one another and co-operate is an essential characteristic of living organisms. [1]

So when Kierkegaard talks of "experience" as defining our existence as humans, he seems to be operating from a somewhat more subjective view of the world than either he would have liked or than can today be sustained. Our experience is, when we step back and take a good look, intimately and inextricably interwoven with the rest of existence. The "existential", the quality of being, is therefore a property not of individuals but of the planet as a whole within the context of the entire universe. 

A E McGrath points out that in philosophical parlance, the term "experience" has acquired an extended meaning:

It has come to refer to the inner life of individuals, in which those individuals become aware of their own subjective feelings and emotions. It relates to the inward and subjective world of experience, as opposed to the outward world of everyday life. [2]

While Christian tradition emphasises the uniqueness and freedom of each individual, there is also a strong thread which lays great stress on humanity's participation in and responsibility for the whole of the created world. In that respect, Kierkegaard was perhaps too close to the mechanistic perceptions of his time. Neither we nor the planet are like wind-up machines.

As a consequence of his philosophy, Kierkegaard thought that all attempts at providing Christianity with justification for its teachings were not only doomed to failure, but were irreligious in nature. He held instead that a correct approach to being a good Christian was through an attitude which placed special emphasis on life experience. Passionate faith, not thought, is what gives us our distinctive character within God's creation. Abstract theories and doctrines are concepts which can't be truly tested until they are lived out. 

This conviction surfaced again and again in the next century through those who proposed that the light of reason can take a Christian only so far. The rest of the pilgrim's journey is, as it were, in the dark. Once again, it is apparent that he ignored or did not perceive the complex pattern of inter-relatedness which gives us what we call "life". Experience is therefore multifaceted because it is inextricably bound up with all other experience, including theoretical thinking.

Today we are acutely aware both of subjectivity and of relativity. All subjective experience is unique. It can only be reported on. So when Kierkegaard refers to "experience" he can only know his experience - that unique relationship to the world that each one of us has. 

We each perceive the world through our individual lenses. While we share the same period of time, and the same culture, none of us shares either the same upbringing, the same contexts or the same perspective. The same event is perceived and interpreted differently by different individuals. You will experience an event in your way, and I in mine. Experience - the "existence" of Existentialism - is not the solid base Kierkegaard thought it was. It is relative to a host of different factors in each of us.

Looking once again behind the scenery on the Christian stage, it may be possible to notice an important similarity between traditional doctrine and Kierkegaard's thought. 

The Church at large teaches that fundamental truth rests not in reason but in revelation. We can think through certain things - but other things we must find out for ourselves by experiencing God's communications to us. This information comes first through the Bible and then through the Church's interpretation of Scripture. 

Both types are not ultimately open to reason, except in the sense that we think about what God has told us. The effect of both are a depth of conviction which derives not from consideration but from an emotional, passionate response.

Kierkegaard studied both philosophy and theology. In his time, the only philosophy taught in Danish universities was that of Hegel. The latter held that nothing is ultimately and completely real except the whole - and in that sense, thought itself is an entire system, almost like an organism. He asserted that the real is rational, and the rational is real. Only when facts are perceived in their place within the entire whole can we speak of rationality. 

In a very real sense, Hegel set Western thinkers on a course for the present integrative systems approach to the universe.

As an out-and-out radical thinker, Kierkegaard could not go with the Hegelian approach. He preferred to emphasise that the aim of the philosopher is to be an individual to the full - since in existing, not in just reflecting, is to be found truth. His phrase was "�in the crowd is untruth".

Kierkegaard maintained that systematic philosophy not only imposes  a false perspective on human existence but also, by explaining life  in terms of logical necessity, is a means of avoiding choice and responsibility. Individuals, he believed, create their own natures  through their choices, which must be made in the absence of  universal, objective standards. 

Choice lies at the very core of human existence, he said. Hegel (and, by the way, a large majority of modern psychologists) was wrong in supposing that we act as a result of the conceptual schemes (constructs) we take on board through our environment.

It is difficult today to divorce individual choice from its context. While each of us undoubtedly has an element of freedom in what we choose, we are profoundly influenced and limited by the cultural setting in which we make those choices. Our awareness of context is one reason why Christians increasingly find the traditional idea of sin difficult to sustain. 

Kierkegaard was correct in concluding that we have no absolute moral rules to work with. But he nevertheless overstated his case for the independence of human choice. It is difficult, for example, knowing a teenager's home and social background, to fully blame him or her for petty crime.

His book Stages in Life's Way (1845) proposed three main aspects to being. We begin our lives, he thought, in an aesthetic phase in which a romantic, restless desire predominates. This leads a person into a search for novelty:

Every mood, every thought, good or bad, cheerful or sad, you pursue to its utmost limit, yet in such a way that this comes to pass in abstracto rather than in concreto; in such a way that the pursuit itself is little more than a mood ... [3]

At some point, those who face life's challenges move from the aesthetic into an ethical phase, a search for universal rules of conduct. This is when a person begins to mature, begins to realise the eternal in the temporal. Perseverance brings the ethical phase to maturity in a religious phase in which obedience is to the absolute (which incorporates both the ethical and the aesthetic). When that comes about

... the chief thing is not whether one can count on one's fingers how many duties one has, but that a man has once felt the intensity of duty in such a way that the consciousness of it is for him the assurance of the eternal validity of his being. [4]

This is not a scheme of rational obedience to the absolute, but a life gamble in which religious faith is exercised in risking all. The essence of existence, therefore, is living out a faith which derives its power from the capacity to take a chance on what can't be verified by rational means. Kierkegaard correctly construed faith as trust. He took as central to his life-task the explanation of what is involved in being a Christian.

In Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846) Kierkegaard pointed out what he called the "absurdity" of Christian teaching. The way in which it tended to affront level-headed, rational people was good proof of its truth rather than of its falsity. 

So, for example, it is useless to try to explain the incarnation of Jesus because such truths can't be authenticated by reason. Truth lies in paradox and in the experience of those who will risk it. He defined truth as "�objective uncertainty held fast by the personal appropriation of the most passionate inwardness". 

What he apparently did not notice is that Christianity has always claimed to be an objective religion, based not upon visions or concepts but upon history. 

Those in his times who were attempting to rationalise belief, to find rational "proof" for various aspects of faith (including the existence or non-existence of God) - to "�bring God to light objectively", in Kierkegaard's words - were attempting the impossible because "� God is a subject, and therefore exists only for subjectivity in inwardness". God is never a "third party".

So the issue is not belief (in a truth) but in being a Christian (through experience) and in so doing opposing traditional faith and reason. In the final analysis faith as trust comes only through despair about one's own personal possibilities - and as such is a gift of God. 

The believer lies constantly out upon the deep, with 
70 000 fathoms of water under him. Long as he may lie there, he gets no comfort from the expectation that little by little (because of accumulated proofs) he will find himself on land � but until the last instant he lies above a depth of 70 000 fathoms.

Kierkegaard's overall question asked what it means to be a Christian. He was clear that this did not necessarily mean being part of the formal Church. Indeed, the individual stands over against the Church, which constantly tries to put God into a doctrinal box. It "deifies" itself by placing worth on outward appearances instead of on inward truth. 

The Christian, in contrast, can become a true Christian by God's grace and a "leap of faith" into the uncertainty of the provisional. 

Only a man of iron will can become a Christian. For only he has a will that can be broken. But a man of iron will whose will is broken by the Unconditional, i.e. by God, is a Christian.

_____________________________
[1] Hidden Connections, Doubleday, 2002
[2] Christian Theology, Blackwell, 1994
[3] Purify Your Hearts
[4] Either / Or

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