By John Ballard
This morning I came across something I put into a blog post about eight years ago and decided to re-blog it. Since that time my circumstances have changed. I was a solo blogger then, but when I lost control of my blog a few years ago I joined this eclectic group at Newshoggers, a collection as diverse as they come in age, geography and origins of faith and culture, but held together by political bonds almost as durable as faith itself.
Newshoggers at the moment is in a kind of slump because we all seem to have too much on our plate to summon the concentration it takes to put up six or eight well-crafted posts a week. And with Facebook, Twitter and multiple email accounts in everybody's life it's becoming a juggling act to handle the demands of ordinary living.That said, I also recognize an important quality of this group, a diversity of belief systems, that is an enduring example of one of our core values, a shared tolerance of diversity.
One of the disturbing trends of the last decade or so has been an escalation of intolerance. Oddly, some of the most virulent attitudes seem to be showing up in the least likely places -- institutions of faith, academic institutions (from elementary school on up), the scientific community and political assemblies, both parliamentary and constitutional. Social media may be a factor as we are able to receive encouragement in real time from extended support groups which often consist of people we might not even recognize if they walked into the same room because we don't know the sounds of their voices or how they look in person.
So trusting the tolerance of my fellow Hoggers I copy here, for Easter Day, reflections I wrote several years ago. It should be mentioned that since that time Fr. Neuhaus, whose open-minded, sweet spirit was the heartbeat ot the magazine, has died and it has drifted from it's original progressive moorings to the quagmire of cynical political Conservatism now polluting even that gentle corner of the Catholic Church. (The Catholic Worker movement, ever a thorn in the side of Mother Church, hangs on by a thread, but that is another story.)
Readers bored by theology may skip this post and proceed to other reading. I have many friends in the Church - using that word in its universal sense - who are charitable enough to tolerate my understanding of the faith, although they do not agree with either my understanding of scripture or my positions on social issues. Being too tight to pay for a subscription, I read First Things on-line instead. (The current issue is never available, being used as an incentive to attract new subscribers, but past issues are available.)
Last month's commentary on Kierkegaard is long but insightful. First Things, of course, is the mouthpiece of Richard John Neuhaus, representing the forward edge of one school of contemporary Roman Catholic thought. Whatever else might be true of Neuhaus, he does his homework and speaks with clarity and intelligence a language that ordinary people can grasp, if they have the patience and inclination.
In the same way that I watch cable or public TV programs simply because they are not broken up by commercial messages, I take time to read some essays, not because I am in full agreement, but simply because they stay on task and don't seem to be pushing a hidden agenda. For me, any mention of Kierkegaard is noteworthy, as I consider myself a Christian Existentialist. Think Kierkegaard without the rage.
There are Christians who call themselves Kierkegaardians, much as others call themselves Augustinians or Thomists or Barthians. But Kierkegaard provides no school of thought, and most emphatically no "system," that can be a secure resting place for one's Christian identity.
So true. Part of being what Neuhaus calls Kiergegaarian is having to live adrift in the universe, with no institutional place to call home.
Kierkegaard offers only a mode of being, of thinking, of living that has no end other than the end of being "contemporaneous" with Jesus Christ, true man and true God, who has no end. The certifying mark that one has accepted what he offers -- or, more precisely, what Christ offers -- is martyrdom, and Kierkegaard yearned to be a martyr. The word martyr, one recalls, means witness. If Kierkegaard was not to be given the privilege of literally shedding his blood, he would bear witness in other ways. He welcomed the derision of those surrounding him, recognizing in them the same crowd that surrounded the cross of his contemporary, Jesus Christ.
Soren Kierkegaard provoked nearly everyone he encountered, especially churchmen, by his stubborn refusal to allow Christendom to overrun Christianity. His anguished life is by no means a model to copy, but his insights are no less valid. If truth were dependent on exemplary messengers, it might never be known at all. Neuhaus's essay considers the notion that the message of Kierkegaard is usually considered too insubstantial to survive youthful idealism. Hence the title Kiergegaard for Grownups. He finishes with what I find to be an excellent attribution.
Kierkegaard was eccentric in the precise meaning of that word -- off center, even out of the center. He believed that the center of his time and place, and of any time and place, is where the easy lies are told. He was Hiin Enkelte writing for the singular individual who might understand him. Many have read him to experience the frisson of youthful dissent from establishment ways of thinking and being, and have then set him aside upon assuming what are taken to be the responsibilities of adulthood. That, I believe, is a grave mistake. Kierkegaard is for the young, but he is also for grownups who have attained the wisdom of knowing how fragile and partial is our knowing in the face of the absolute, who are prepared to begin ever anew the lifelong discipline that is training in Christianity.
Reading over the essay these two paragraphs now seem to be important. The churning, boiling extremisms of religion both at home and abroad seem to be increasing. America points to the extremists of Islam and is blind to the swelling tide of Christian extremism that is washing over our own country. Many of my Christian friends beam with pride when they see politicians or others in high places flaunting piety. [This was written when the second George Bush was president...my, how times have changed.] Sorry, but it makes me want to roll my eyes. [This past Friday President Obama hosted a joint Christian/Jewish Passover Seder at the White House. I'm sure many of those same Christians are now the ones rolling their eyes.]
Christendom is the enemy of Christianity�it is, Kierkegaard says repeatedly, the "blasphemy"�that stands in the way of encountering Christ as our contemporary. Christendom assumes that Christ is far in the past, having laid the foundation for the wonderful thing that has historically resulted, Christendom. Of course we are all good Christians because we are all good Danes. It is a package deal and Christ and Christianity are part of the package. If we are good Danes (or good Americans), if we work hard and abide by the rules, the church, which is an integral part of the social order, will guarantee the delivery to heaven of the package that is our lives. But Christ is not in the distant past, protests Kierkegaard. He confronts us now, and a decision must be made. "In relation to the absolute there is only one tense: the present. For him who is not contemporary with the absolute�for him it has no existence.
This encounter with Christ the contemporary is not to be confused with today�s evangelical Protestant language about conversion as a decisive moment in which one "accepts Jesus Christ as one�s personal Lord and Savior." Kierkegaard did not, of course, know about the nineteenth-century American revivalism from which today�s evangelicalism issues, but he had some acquaintance with the enthusiasms that were in his day associated with "pietism." As he inveighed against Christendom, it seems likely he would also inveigh against Evangelicaldom today. As he would inveigh against Christianity of any sort�whether it calls itself liberal or conservative, orthodox or progressive�that neatly accommodates itself to its cultural context. To decide for Christ our contemporary is always a decision to be a cultural alien, to join Christ on his way of suffering and death as an outsider.
I will not insult the reader by connecting the dots of these reflections with the madness we have all witnessed over the last two or three years, underscored by the surreal images produced by GOP primary contests before someone finally shook the Etch-A-Sketch.