Sunday, July 20, 2008

more on S.K. and "the present age"...

A couple of days ago I posted the following quote by Soren Kierkegaard (SK):

"A passionate tumultuous age will overthrow everything, pull everything down; but a revolutionary age that is at the same time reflective and passionless transforms that expression of strength into a feat of dialectics: it leaves everything standing but cunningly empties it of significance. Instead of culminating in a rebellion, it reduces the inward reality of all relationships to a reflective tension which leaves everything standing but makes the whole of life ambiguous: so that everything continues to exist factually while by a dialectical deceit, privatissame, it supplies a secret interpretation -- that it does not exist."

First, I think it's important to point out that this is a prime example of the kind of creative irony SK often employs in his writing. Yes, it's exaggerated and over-generalized, but his point is made precisely by the over-the-top character of his language. Having said this, I would like to make a couple of observations related to this quote and our own "present age," an age that seems remarkably similar to SK's in certain respects.

I suggest that the quote is, broadly speaking, a surprisingly accurate description of today's Western religious (i.e. Christian) culture. I'm sure it could be applied to other areas of culture as well, but I would like to focus particularly on the religious sphere. It seems there is a very real sense in which the Christianity of our Western culture "does not exist." Ironically, it is not in the manner usually pronounced by the Fundamentalist preachers or culture-warriors, who are always quick to accuse America (for example) of "turning its back on God" or "forgetting that America was founded as a Christian nation" - that latter statement, of course, isn't exactly true, it's been twisted and co-opted for a particular agenda.

But SK's description is different - he is not describing the wholesale rejection of Christianity by a particular culture, but rather a "reflective and passionless" Christianity that - even though it may spare itself the chaos of a truly passionate mindset - in its "reflective tension" has, for all purposes, ceased to exist. It has all the outward appearances of Christianity, but its core has been, in SK's words, "[emptied] of significance."

How is this possible? According to SK, it is because, rather than being persons who are willing to act, we would rather reflect. We are in the privileged position of having the ability to reflect upon the possible outcomes of all our actions, and no longer have to rely upon our passion, that part of us which seems to be the catalyst that leads bold men and women to attempt daring feats of heroism - while at the same time revealing the true character of (as the famous quote by Roosevelt goes) "those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

SK looks around and sees an age full of people who would rather reflect, and defer action, until they have been able to come up with a properly beneficial decision. Certainly there is some wisdom and merit in this... but only up to a certain point. Often, reflection simply leads to no decision at all, because reflecting increases the likelihood of ambiguity (how do I know what's best?), and ambiguity makes us less likely to attempt any course of action, since we do not want to commit ourselves to making a poor choice.

[Side note: G.W. Bush's presidency illustrates this point, I think: On the one hand, there are those who still admire his "tenacity," his willingness to pick a course of action that seems right to him and see it through. On the other hand, when that course of action begins to crumble and seems less wise, it creates not only a backlash against the person, but serves as a caution to other politicians, not to rashly push ahead with any particular plan. Which is probably part of the reason things take so long to accomplish in the political sphere. And, in politics, that may be a good thing! But, ironically, people still want politicians who will make bold claims, hence the current excitement over Obama.]

So, what's my point? Simply this: Much of American Christianity has, I think, become reflective and passionless. We have become so overwhelmed with the vastness of our religion - the thousands of denominations, the variety of doctrinal arguments and sub-arguments, the ebb and flow of particular religious trends - that we have lost much of the boldness that makes faith genuinely passionate. This is certainly understandable, given the massive avalanche of information and opinion (including blogs like this one!) available to us. But in acquiescing to the reflection that comes with our present age, we have also emptied our faith of much of its significance, just as SK predicted.

This is perhaps why so many Christians, at times, see their faith as uneventful, boring, and - let's be honest - useless. We are waiting around for the right moment, trying to determine exactly the best time and place for us to "change the world" for God. We think that if we just have [fill in the blank], then we will finally be able to make a difference. But (as my pastor loves to point out), if we are always waiting for the missing pieces to fall into place before we start living, we will die having never really lived.

The difficulty is that living lives of passionate faith creates a very messy situation. We cannot predict the outcomes of our actions. We don't know if we will end up the hero or the fool. And so, it is often easier to remain paralyzed by reflection than take the leap of faith. I am certainly guilty of this in my own life! But SK would say that if we live our lives that way, we are only fooling ourselves, because the truth is: If our faith is passionless, then our faith does not exist.

Does this mean we should all quit our jobs, stand on street corners, and shout to the world that "Jesus saves!" No, I don't think so. But it does mean that, as Christians, if our faith in Christ really does exist, we have to be willing to make some passionate leaps into the dark, knowing that our finite knowledge may lead us in directions that ultimately are dead ends, and our human weakness will sometimes mean that we fall flat on our faces. But if we really believe that God is with us, and that God is trustworthy, then we can take those risks, trusting that God is right beside us as we jump.

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