Next year (May 5, 2013, to be precise) will mark the bicentennial of Søren Kierkegaard’s birth. There will be scads of written tributes, conferences, and public lectures devoted to remembrance of this Danish thinker. I’d like to get out in front of it all and suggest that Kierkegaard’s most incisive relevance today may be as a prophetic voice for the Christian church in America. This seems appropriate, because the church (in Denmark) was the target of Kierkegaard’s criticism, in his notorious “attack upon Christendom,” during the final years of his life (1854-55). He targeted—with a fanatic relentlessness—the gate-keepers of institutional Christianity: bishops, pastors, and (of course) theology professors. Kierkegaard wondered: if Jesus were to walk into a church today, would he recognize it as consistent with the New Testament? Kierkegaard thought no. He bluntly proclaimed that, in Denmark, “Christianity does not exist at all.” (1) Christianity had become “Christendom”—something altogether different from what Jesus had initiated.
Kierkegaard was convinced that the message of the gospels, and the way of life to which Christ called his followers—a life marked by suffering, self-denial, and “works of love”—had been turned into a culturally and institutionally-encumbered religion which sanctions materialism, justifies religious careerism, and which substituted genuine religious faith for nationalistic fervor. Kierkegaard claimed that, above all, he simply wanted a public admission by its institutional gate-keepers that the Christianity of the New Testament no longer exists. (2)
For Kierkegaard, every human being is tasked with the responsibility of becoming a “theological self,” which means to relate properly to God, to others and to oneself. Selfhood is both a responsibility and a process which is deeply relational and which culminates, for Kierkegaard, in an authentic embrace of Christianity. This involves recognizing one’s deep need for God, accepting God’s forgiveness, and being willing to follow the way of Christ. This is a “narrow way,” which leads to suffering and to “collisions” with the world. For Kierkegaard, being a Christian is not a matter of mere orthodoxy or church membership, but of relating to God through the passion of faith (which he called “subjectivity”). Christianity is an existential journey—a quest. You don’t become a Christian: you are always becoming a Christian.
This understanding of Christian faith as passionate subjectivity and as an existential quest serves as a constructive thorn-in-the-side to the self-preserving tendencies of religious institutionalism. Elements of American Christianity still resemble the situation of Kierkegaard’s Christendom. It may seem cliché, but the temptations toward consumerism, triumphalism, ideological colonialism, and nationalism are still with us: they still confound the mission of the church and can still lead to a confusion of the meaning of the gospel. Furthermore, a consensus is emerging: the American church has reached a tipping point toward numerical decline and a loss of social influence. Diana Butler Bass, in her recent book, Christianity After Religion, argues persuasively that the decline of American Christianity, in its heavily “institutionalized” manifestations, must be taken seriously. In this time of fissure, a new opportunity is emerging for re-thinking the nature of Christianity and for embracing a new “spiritual awakening.” (3) The church may be entering a kairos moment: it’s been graced with an opportunity to re-think its purpose and the ways in which it will carry out its purpose in the world. It’s been graced with the chance to, in the words of theologian Douglas John Hall, “disestablish itself” and theologically re-imagine its existence in ways that might be more consistent with the New Testament. (4) This re-thinking can be painful and may require great sacrifices. It will certainly net some new challenges. But it will also create new opportunities for capturing a fresh, powerful vision for testifying to the gospel.
There is much in American Christianity to admire and celebrate (even its institutional forms). And there are countless, traditional and institutional communities of God, representing every denomination, who are filled with earnest, grace-filled, mission-inspired people. Furthermore, it would be naïve to suggest that one could extract all institutional elements from a social collective. Institutions are necessary—and they aren’t all bad. The “dis-establishment” of Christianity may not mean an exodus from buildings, age-specific ministries, monological sermons, and finance and strategy committees (though it might). The primary issue isn’t the “externals”—the organizational practices and material structures—but the inward disposition. In other words, what the Bible calls the “heart.”
Along these lines, it’s worth noting that Kierkegaard was sceptical of “movements.” While he was appreciative of reformist impulses, such as the Moravian pietism he experienced first-hand, (alongside his continued loyalty to the state-church), he didn’t fully embrace sectarian movements. Revolutions have a way of substituting one idol (and one ideology) for another. Kierkegaard believed that the most important issue was authenticity: inwardness—that is, the development of the person as a self before God. Transformations of external circumstances, the kind which revolutions attempt, do not necessarily address—and they certainly don’t solve—the question of one’s inward relation to God. For reformist-minded Christians, this is a good reminder. But it would be naive to suggest there isn’t a connection between internal dispositions and external structures.
Diana Butler Bass may be right that we are entering a fresh period of renewal: one made necessary by the slow death of institutional Christianity. We can observe serious attempts at creative, new visions: “fresh expressions” of the ecclesia in our complex social world. For them, communities, which would be called “church,” must extract themselves from the sometimes-debilitating institutional strictures that can soften or squelch the prophetic word of God. In the context of American neo-evangelicalism, we see examples of attempts to re-think the nature and function of the church in the emergent, “simple church,” and missional church movements (three distinct, but overlapping expressions). Furthermore, the rising influence of immigrant religious communities is transforming the landscape of American Christian homogeneity—and as a result, is unsettling established ideologies and de-centering power relations. More creative impulses and prophetic voices will arise in coming years as people try to embody and reflect “New Testament Christianity” in a changing world.
Nonetheless, if Butler Bass (and the statistics she cites) is right, Christianity is in the midst of a shift. Kierkegaard offers us great insight in navigating this difficult terrain by advocating a cruciform, Christ-centered, epistemologically humble, and holistic (faith organically tied to action) understanding of Christianity’s purpose in the world. In a journal entry, Kierkegaard sums up our best course of action: “Let us not then—in order to divert!—convene synods or—in order to gain postponement!—appoint commissions. No, if something like this [reform] is to be done, then let a universal day of repentance and prayer be prescribed.” Kierkegaard isn’t the cure for Christianity: Christ and the Spirit of God are. But for those who wish to re-think church in our contemporary, complex, post-everything society, they will find in Kierkegaard a provocative and inspiring–if at times, perplexing–dialogue partner. Perhaps 2013, the 200th anniversary of his birth, will be a good time to seek him out.