The following is an essay by G.K. Chesterton, which was introduced to me this past weekend by the inimitable Father Brian Foos at the Anglican conference in Dallas. He read it during one of the workshops, and although you'd have to hear him read it to get the full effect, it remains one of the finest pieces of prose in English on any reading. Enjoy.
A Piece of Chalk
by G.K. Chesterton
(from an essay in TREMENDOUS TRIFLES. The original essay appeared in the DAILY NEWS, November 4, 1905)
I remember one splendid morning, all blue and silver, in the summer holidays when I reluctantly tore myself away from the task of doing nothing in particular, and put on a hat of some sort and picked up a walking-stick, and put six very bright-coloured chalks in my pocket. I then went into the kitchen (which, along with the rest of the house, belonged to a very square and sensible old woman in a Sussex village), and asked the owner and occupant of the kitchen if she had any brown paper. She had a great deal; in fact, she had too much; and she mistook the purpose and the rationale of the existence of brown paper. She seemed to have an idea that if a person wanted brown paper he must be wanting to tie up parcels; which was the last thing I wanted to do; indeed, it is a thing which I have found to be beyond my mental capacity. Hence she dwelt very much on the varying qualities of toughness and endurance in the material. I explained to her that I only wanted to draw pictures on it, and that I did not want them to endure in the least; and that from my point of view, therefore, it was a question, not of tough consistency, but of responsive surface, a thing comparatively irrelevant in a parcel. When she understood that I wanted to draw she offered to overwhelm me with note-paper.
I then tried to explain the rather delicate logical shade, that I not only liked brown paper, but liked the quality of brownness in paper, just as I like the quality of brownness in October woods, or in beer. Brown paper represents the primal twilight of the first toil of creation, and with a bright-coloured chalk or two you can pick out points of fire in it, sparks of gold, and blood-red, and sea-green, like the first fierce stars that sprang out of divine darkness. All this I said (in an off-hand way) to the old woman; and I put the brown paper in my pocket along with the chalks, and possibly other things. I suppose every one must have reflected how primeval and how poetical are the things that one carries in one's pocket; the pocket-knife, for instance, the type of all human tools, the infant of the sword. Once I planned to write a book of poems entirely about things in my pockets. But I found it would be too long; and the age of the great epics is past.
With my stick and my knife, my chalks and my brown paper, I went out on to the great downs. . .
I crossed one swell of living turf after another, looking for a place to sit down and draw. Do not, for heaven's sake, imagine I was going to sketch from Nature. I was going to draw devils and seraphim, and blind old gods that men worshipped before the dawn of right, and saints in robes of angry crimson, and seas of strange green, and all the sacred or monstrous symbols that look so well in bright colours on brown paper. They are much better worth drawing than Nature; also they are much easier to draw. When a cow came slouching by in the field next to me, a mere artist might have drawn it; but I always get wrong in the hind legs of quadrupeds. So I drew the soul of a cow; which I saw there plainly walking before me in the sunlight; and the soul was all purple and silver, and had seven horns and the mystery that belongs to all beasts. But though I could not with a crayon get the best out of the landscape, it does not follow that the landscape was not getting the best out of me. And this, I think, is the mistake that people make about the old poets who lived before Wordsworth, and were supposed not to care very much about Nature because they did not describe it much.
They preferred writing about great men to writing about great hills; but they sat on the great hills to write it. The gave out much less about Nature, but they drank in, perhaps, much more. They painted the white robes of their holy virgins with the blinding snow, at which they had stared all day. . . The greenness of a thousand green leaves clustered into the live green figure of Robin Hood. The blueness of a score of forgotten skies became the blue robes of the Virgin. The inspiration went in like sunbeams and came out like Apollo.
But as I sat scrawling these silly figures on the brown paper, it began to dawn on me, to my great disgust, that I had left one chalk, and that a most exquisite and essential chalk, behind. I searched all my pockets, but I could not find any white chalk. Now, those who are acquainted with all the philosophy (nay, religion) which is typified in the art of drawing on brown paper, know that white is positive and essential. I cannot avoid remarking here upon a moral significance. One of the wise and awful truths which this brown-paper art reveals, is this, that white is a colour. It is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black. When, so to speak, your pencil grows red-hot, it draws roses; when it grows white-hot, it draws stars. And one of the two or three defiant verities of the best religious morality, of real Christianity, for example, is exactly this same thing; the chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a colour. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. Mercy does not mean not being cruel, or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun, which one has either seen or not seen.
Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc. In a word, God paints in many colours; but he never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white. In a sense our age has realised this fact, and expressed it in our sullen costume. For if it were really true that white was a blank and colourless thing, negative and non-committal, then white would be used instead of black and grey for the funereal dress of this pessimistic period. Which is not the case.
Meanwhile I could not find my chalk.
I sat on the hill in a sort of despair. There was no town near at which it was even remotely probable there would be such a thing as an artist's colourman. And yet, without any white, my absurd little pictures would be as pointless as the world would be if there were no good people in it. I stared stupidly round, racking my brain for expedients. Then I suddenly stood up and roared with laughter, again and again, so that the cows stared at me and called a committee. Imagine a man in the Sahara regretting that he had no sand for his hour-glass. Imagine a gentleman in mid-ocean wishing that he had brought some salt water with him for his chemical experiments. I was sitting on an immense warehouse of white chalk. The landscape was made entirely of white chalk. White chalk was piled more miles until it met the sky. I stooped and broke a piece of the rock I sat on: it did not mark so well as the shop chalks do, but it gave the effect. And I stood there in a trance of pleasure, realising that this Southern England is not only a grand peninsula, and a tradition and a civilisation; it is something even more admirable. It is a piece of chalk.
I just posted this on my Xanga, but it needs to be posted here too:
I exhort anyone reading this to check out Dr. Leithart's blog. Since General Assembly last Wednesday, he has unleashed a Gatling gun of polemic brilliance, including no less than 17 posts in the last 3 days. You can't get much better than this: go douse your brain in the torrent of genius at www.leithart.com.
In one of his posts, he critiques sloganizing "bicovenantalism" and "monocovenantalism," which made me a little sheepish. I think he's absolutely right, of course, but I still sometimes use the terms as convenient shorthand.
In response to Davey's comment below, I know, I know...I want to post more Cavanaugh. All this PCA mess has sidetracked me. But I brought the book with me to Dallas, and I'll try to do that this weekend.
So, I hadn't realized how much I disliked the traditional Southern Presbyterian theology, or how far beyond it I'd gone, until I heard a textbook exposition of its covenant and sacramental theology this morning from the mouth of Dr. Morton Smith in our church pulpit (just filling in this morning--not our normal preacher). I finally understood bicovenantalism, in all its gloomy glory, and it seems that perhaps the reason I didn't understand before exactly what the anti-Covenant of Works people were so insistent about was that I never quite realized what the Covenant of Works people actually believed...or never really believed that they believed that. (none of this, by the way, to diss Dr. Smith, he is a good and godly man, and well-learned in his tradition; it's just his tradition I'm bashing)
What am I on about, anyway? Well, good question. I'm going to try to see how much I can clarify.
Let's see if I can synopsize their paradigm.
In the beginning, God created Man, and entered into a covenant with him ("covenant of works") as His creature. Man was a creature bound to obedience to God, upon fulfilment of which, a status of sonship might be earned. Now, man failed to obey this standard, to fulfill his side of the covenant. So God enters into a new covenant ("covenant of grace"), one which he will fulfill both sides of, so that this mess won't happen again. The purpose of this covenant is to atone for, that is, undo, the sin which destroyed the original covenant. Such atonement is found at last in the sacrifice of Christ, who, at the same time, by his perfect obedience, fulfills the original covenant, thus earning the sonship status. Both this atonement (passive obedience) and the active obedience are then imputed to believers, thus removing the barrier of their sin, and allowing them to partake in the status of sonship, just as if they had fulfilled the covenant of works. Now what? Well, they rest in this status, receiving it on no other ground than their faith in Christ to save them, and receive the additional benefits of grace which God bestows in this covenant--primarily, sanctification and glorification.
Nifty little system, isn't it? Surprisingly neat. Quite simple, actually. I don't know now if I ever held to this, or understood it really...or if I just progressed on to its contrary without ever holding and relinquishing it. Point is, that now, even as I typed it up, I saw problem after problem with it. Just riddled with problems. Problems oozing out of its dried-up pores. Of course, I also realized that all those problems, other smarter people had already pointed out, people like the inimitable Rich Lusk. So there's no point in going into them. But, since that's what I set out to do in this post, I will go into the two that hit me in the middle of the church service--like, gesticulate-violently-for-a-pencil-and-grab-it-and-scribble-down-in-all-caps-on-the-nearest-sheet-of-paper hit me.
The first is--did you notice what it says--the covenant of works is only with man as a creature, not as a son. The covenant of works is a state of pure nature. How is man special, then, distinct from the rest of creation...well, he has the image of God (of course, I would contend that this means he is ipso facto not in a state of pure nature). But, basically, this sets up the notion of a nature/grace dichotomy, which would otherwise be impossible. I mean, to me, the notion of man relating to God in a state of pure nature, not in the context of covenantal sonship, is unthinkable. But then, to some people, it might make perfectly good sense...I don't know. However, it's not just a toss-up--doesn't Scripture after all say, "and Adam was the son of God" (Luke 3:38)? Not, of course, that prooftexting is really the way to go. But I'm not going to attempt here to establish the case for why Adam be seen as in a covenant of sonship, only point out the implications of what's being set forth.
Because, here's another problem. Christ fulfills the covenant of works for us, but he does so in a relationship of sonship--Christ does not take the position of a natural man. So what's up here?
And, here's the worst part: all that Christ does, then, is gets us up to the point where Adam would've been anyway, if he hadn't sinned. Pretty much. That's all. That's nice, and all...but that's an awful lot of history that doesn't really go anywhere.
And this brings me to the next point...over-atonementism. Notice that, in this model, the main thing the covenant has to do is to undo the effects of sin, to atone for the sin so that it's no longer a barrier. That is the covenant's raison d'etre--atonement. Dr. Smith traced this throughout the Old Covenant, emphasizing throughout its key purpose as that of atonement, and particularly emphasizing the Day of Atonement. To which I respond: if that was the only point, why other sacrifices, like thank-offerings and fellowship-offerings? Why other festival days, like the Feast of Weeks or Feast of Booths?
If atonement is all that there is, all that God is concerned with, then the Bible has been sucked dry--the gospel has been spread thin. Of course, atonement is necessary, of course, it is glorious, of course, even if this were all that there was, it would be Good News of infinite proportions. But God gives us even more in Scripture, so much more. He is interested in doing more than covering our sins--he is interested in adorning our lives with beauty and holiness, of bringing us into Trinitarian fellowship with him, of making us partake of life, life in abundance. I always had trouble seeing growing up why exactly the Resurrection was _necessary_. If the Atonement's the whole point, then...well, Christ's death was sufficient, by itself (note that during the sermon, which was ostensibly on Communion, Dr. Smith represented the significance of communion as exclusively pertaining to the Atonement). Yet, "if Christ were not raised from the dead, we are of all men most miserable," says Paul. Yea, we are still in our sins, he says. Why? Because Christ did not merely fulfill the Covenant of Works on our behalf. He acted as God's son, living as the son that Adam was to be, and, in his resurrection, was justified, and glorified, and exalted to the right hand of God, so that in Him, we too might be justified, glorified, and exalted to the right hand of God, that the powers of the world to come might come down and transform history, which now, in this understanding, has a clear telos, the fulfillment of one covenant of grace, one covenant of sonship, one narrative of the glorification of the world.
Almighty and everlasting God, who by thy Holy Spirit didst preside in the Council of the blessed Apostles, and hast promised, through thy Son Jesus Christ, to be with thy Church to the end of the world; we beseech thee to be with the Council of thy Church, assembled in thy Name and Presence. Save us from all error, ignorance, pride, and prejudice; and of thy great mercy vouchsafe, we beseech thee, so to direct, sanctify, and govern us in our work, by the mighty power of the Holy Ghost, that the comfortable Gospel of Christ may be truly preached, truly received, and truly followed, in all places, to the breaking down the kingdom of sin, Satan, and death; till at length the whole of thy dispersed sheep, being gathered into one fold, shall become partakers of everlasting life; through the merits and death of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.
O Gracious Father, we humbly beseech thee for thy holy Catholic Church; that thou wouldest be pleased to fill it with all truth, in all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, establish it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of him who died and rose again, and ever liveth to make intercession for us, Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord. Amen.
O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Saviour, the Prince of Peace; Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions. Take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatsoever else may hinder us from godly union and concord: that as there is but one Body and one Spirit, and one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Seems that "departed glory" is too kind to describe some Reformed people nowadays--seems like "Ham" might be more accurate, the mocker, or "Shimei," who cursed and mocked King David.
Read it if you must. But only if you have a strong stomach.
One is reminded of the boys who mocked Elisha in the book of Kings, and were then devoured by bears...or of the fates of any who mocked God's prophets, for that matter.
May God have mercy on their souls.
I know not what to say about the late PCA General Assembly...or rather, I know what I want to say, but I'm not sure of anything I could say right now that would not be guilty of the same divisiveness and disrespect to the body of Christ that I am afraid so many leaders in the PCA have made themselves guilty of.
For now, I recommend a couple links:
Video of the debate (long): http://www.pcaga.com/schedule.asp
R. Scott Clark's blow-by-blow (warning, don't read the rest of the blog unless you want to get so angry you smash your computer screen): http://www.oceansideurc.org/display/ShowJournal?moduleId=993496¤tPage=2
Leithart the Magnificent: http://www.leithart.com/
All that's happening brings vividly to mind the impassioned laments of John Henry Newman in Apologia Pro Vita Sua,, which I've been reading this week.
Pro Christi Ecclesia Testamentoque,
So, on my Xanga I advertised Cavanaugh's book Torture and Eucharist, which I just finished, as flat-out UNBELIEVABLE, and on my Facebook as one of the greatest books I ever read. I'm hoping to say a lot more about it here, as I meditate on it and let it all gestate. I'm thinking that, at the moment, I ought to put up some kind of paragraph-long excerpt, but 'tis hard to choose. I would love to post a quote from Chapter 5, which I think is hands-down the greatest chapter in any book I've ever read, but, I probably wouldn't stop until I'd typed up the whole chapter.
So here's a quote from Chapter 1:
"The body of the martyr is thus the battleground for a larger contest of rival imaginations, that of the state and that of the church. A crucial difference in these imaginations is that the imagination of the church is essentially eschatological; the church is not a rival polis but points to an alternative time and space, a mingling of heaven and earth. A strong apocalyptic element is associated with martyrdom from early on in Christian history, at least by the time Acts and Revelation were written. About to be stoned to death, Stephen, the first martyr, raised his eyes and declared 'Look, I see the heavens opened!' This was more than a vision of his final resting place; it was instead the outpouring of heaven upon the earth, a foretste of the final consummation of the Kingdom of God. Martyrdom is a bridge between heaven and earth not becuase the martyr is soon to travel one way to her eternal reward, but because heaven has been brought to earth in the form of one who, in imitating Jesus the Christ, has cheated earthly death of its sting. A martyr is one who lives imaginatively as if death does not exist. The eschatological imagination of martyrdom is not a vertical ascension to another place and time, a distant heaven; the movement instead brings a foretaste of heavenly space-time to earth.
"...The church is thus a vision of things unseen, but the church is never wholly visible, either in the sense of being entirely subjectively holy or being an institutional rival to the state. In its eschatological imagination, the church waits on Christ's second coming, straining forward toward full consummation of the Kingdom. Its task on earth is a hope-filled witness to the opening of heaven, the revelation of things which the earthly eye now sees only dimly."
So, here's a not-entirely-unbiased-and-sometimes-probably-less-than-entirely-accurate introduction to the life and thought of Kierkegaard that I typed up for a couple friends.
I think this is a must-read for all Christians**.
First of all, I will try to outline a few of Kierkegaard’s major targets and opponents—only by properly understanding his historical context and what he was endeavoring to critique can we form any clear notion of what his arguments were.
First of all, above all, his opponent was Hegelianism, or what he calls “The System” in the Preface to Fear and Trembling. This was the prevailing philosophy of the day, the product of Georg W.F. Hegel's philosophy developed in the first years of the 1800s.
Hegel's philosophy was semi-pantheistic, as well as strongly rationalistic. The Divine, for Hegel, was the Absolute Mind, which was manifested in the world throughout history. The supernatural, for Hegel, could be reduced to and analyzed in the natural. Furthermore, history, as an unfolding of the divine, could be viewed as a predictable process, following a necessary development, and more importantly, Christianity could be fit into this scheme, so as to give the Church a sense of complacency and a rational justification for its faith. Moreover, in the Hegelian system, pantheist as it was, the individual was reduced to merely a cipher in the great stream of history. The individual became unimportant--the unified mass was what was important. (Note that Marx was a prominent Hegelian thinker) Kierkegaard, as a young student, was thoroughly
The orthodox Christianity of the day did not of course accept this unbiblical system whole-hog, however, like any very prominent intellectual movement, the Church assimilated many of its major teachings into its theological outlook. So there was an increasing tendency to naturalize Christianity--it was simply the natural outworking of history, it embodied universal principles of ethics, it was thoroughly rational and sensible... The Hegelian scheme of history was adopted to suit Christian purposes, and the Hegelian de-emphasis on the individual undermined the importance of individual faith.
Moreover, the Church in that time in Denmark was the Lutheran Establishment Church dating back to the Reformation. It was complacent, lukewarm, and pervasive. Everyone was a Christian, which meant, in many important ways, no one was. I insert the following parable from Kierkegaard's journals to illustrate:
The Domestic Goose
A Moral Tale
“Try to imagine for a moment that geese could talk—that they had so arranged things that they too had their divine worship and their church-going.
“Every Sunday they would meet together and a gander would preach.
“The sermon was essentially the same each time—it told of the glorious destiny of geese, of the noble end for which their maker had created them—and every time his name was mentioned all the geese curtsied and all the ganders bowed their heads. They were to use their wings to fly away to the distant pastures to which they really belonged; for they were only pilgrims on this earth.
“The same thing happened each Sunday. Thereupon the meeting broke up and they all waddled home, only to meet again next Sunday for divine worship and waddle off home again—but that was as far as they ever got. They throve and grew fat, plump and delicious—and at Michaelmas they were eaten—and that was as far as they ever got. It never came to anything. For while their conversation on Sundays was high-sounding, on Mondays they would tell each other what had happened to the goose who had taken the end set before them quite seriously, and in spite of many tribulations had tried to use the wings its creator had bestowed upon it.
“All that was indeed common knowledge among the geese, but of course no one mentioned the subject on Sundays, for as they observed, it would then have been obvious that to attend divine service would have been to fool both God and themselves.
“Among the geese were several who looked ill and wan, and all the other geese said—there, you see what comes of taking flying seriously. It is all because they go about meditating on flying that they get thin and wan and are not blessed by the grace of God as we are; for that is why we grow fat, plump and delicious.
“And so next Sunday off they went to divine service, and the old gander preached of the glorious end for which their Maker (and at that point all the geese curtsied and the ganders bowed their heads) had created them, and of why they were given wings.
“And the same is true of divine worship in Christianity.”
Notice that part of the problem was an imbalance of natural and supernatural, or, as Kierkegaard would phrase it throughout his works, finite and infinite. Full-blown Hegelians tended toward a complete naturalization of religion; for the orthodox churches, the supernatural was not done away with, it was just comfortably transported to another realm. Most of life was to be lived in the natural world, and the Christian could comfortably carry on there without his Christianity being too heavily involved--his faith related only to the hereafter. With Christian distinctives thus made wholly otherworldly, the average Christian life was free to be lived without passion or any particular distinction.
Many of the bishops, with their Hegelianized postmillenialism, were just making the problem worse, Kierkegaard thought. So he set out to shake the Danish church out of its complacency. As he wrote in one place in his journals, “It is high time that Christianity was taken away from men in order to teach them to appreciate it a little.”
It is also important to understand just a bit of Kierkegaard's life to understand his works. He was born into a wealthy and important Danish family in 1813. His father was a significant and highly respected personage, and educated Soren thoroughly. Unfortunately, his father was a somewhat messed-up individual. While outwardly he had everything together, inwardly he struggled with guilt and depression. His wife was not Soren's actual mother--that wife had died right after Soren and his brother were born, and the father had then quickly married a maidservant with whom he'd been having an affair. The father had struggled with the guilt of this all his life, and when Soren learned of it, in his early 20s, he was devastated and disillusioned. The Christian faith he had been raised on no longer seemed as firm a foundation, and Soren began to struggle with guilt of his own. He was tormented over his purpose in life, at times feeling that he was cursed, or that he was chosen by God for some high and lonely calling...or some combination of both. A normal existence he knew he could never lead...his mind and soul were too uniquely constituted.
For these reasons, he broke off his engagement with the woman he madly loved (and who madly loved him), Regine Olsen. He wanted to spare her from sharing his fate in life, which did not, he think, admit of sharing with another. So he pretended not to love her, leaving a scar on his own soul which never fully healed, and allusions to her of various sorts appear in his writings. All this time, he was a student of philosophy at the University of Copenhagen. Shortly afterward, though, he went to Berlin to study under the great Hegelians there. Soon, he'd had all he could take, though, and returned to Denmark. There, between 1843 and 1845, he embarked on his first great barrage of writing. At this time, he was still a very tormented individual, sure he was a Christian but uncertain of how to relate to God. His profoundest philosophical works, in which he attacked Hegelianism and its crippling effects on Christianity head-on, date from this period: Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, Philosophical Fragments, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, etc. He stirred up a fair amount of controversy in Denmark with these works (all written pseudonymously), but nothing compared to what was to come later. In 1848, Kierkegaard underwent a sort of second conversion experience, in which he finally felt clearly God's grace upon him and was filled with much greater peace and confidence than ever before. The next few years saw him put out more writings in the form of psychological, spiritual, or ethical expositions, or more pastoral sorts of works (though he was not himself a pastor, being convinced that the Established Church would never accept him nor could he accept it). Important works of this second period are The Sickness Unto Death, Works of Love, and Training in Christianity. In them, many of the same themes as before show up, but oriented for a somewhat different purpose.
During all this time, though, the chasm between him and the Established Church was continuing to grow, though he tried to remain as peacable as possible as long as Bishop Mynster, a close family friend, remained head of the Danish Church. When he died and was succeeded in 1854, though, by Martensen, Kierkegaard launched a full-scale attack on the evils of the Church in Denmark (later published as the Attack on Christendom) until his sudden death in 1855. When he died, he was at last at peace with God, but not, in general, with the world around him.
So what did Kierkegaard argue for?
One of his greatest concerns was that Christians strive for an intensely personal faith. Christians had learn to put their trust in forms and externals so much that faith seemed effortless--your Christian faith just leaned on a whole bunch of external helps and other people, that you didn't have to work for it at all. In Fear and Trembling, as in a number of other works, Kierkegaard sought to portray faith as something which, in its truest form, was extremely rare and precious. This faith was an intensely personal faith, based on a close relationship with God himself, rather than a rather abstract and vague allegiance to a religion. To have it required that one first recognize that God could take everything away from you, everything that you relied upon for your faith, and you would still be called upon to trust in Him completely, to trust in Him for his sake alone and not because of any of the crutches upon which you ordinarily rely. Moreover, this faith, as Kierkegaard emphasized in his knight of faith analogy in Fear and Trembling, could not merely be a resignation to God's will--natural religion could go that far. The supernatural element came when one took the next step and said, "No, I trust that God is with me and he will be gracious to me, not merely in the life to come, but in the here and now." (Note, it was this kind of faith which Kierkegaard struggled so hard for himself, and had not perhaps yet attained to when he wrote Fear and Trembling.) Note also another factor here--Kierkegaard was an opponent of a very otherworldly Christianity. Christians should not be content to put their faith only in a reward to come in the afterlife; Christianity had to be lived, with passion, every day, in this world, in this life. The true man of faith had his feet firmly on the ground, had faith in God for this life, lived every day in His presence.
This sort of living with passion, this absolute relation to God, characterized Kierkegaard's existentialism. He is often considered the founder of existentialism, and grouped together with folks like Nietzsche and Sartre. While this is fair to an extent, such comparisons usually neglect the radical difference that Kierkegaard's Christianity. While Kierkegaard too insists that the individual must learn to live authentically, in a true relation to himself, and that he must find meaning for himself and live passionately for it, this is all found in the individual's relationship with God. For a secular existentialist like Sartre, ultimate meaning and authenticity is impossible and reduces to subjectivism. Kierkegaard's notion of authenticity is well-exhibited in this quote from his journals: “Everyone would like to have lived at the same time as great men and great events: God knows how many really live at the same time as themselves. To do that (and so neither in hope or fear of the future, nor in the past) is to understand oneself and be at peace, and that is only possible through one’s relation to God, or it is one’s relation to God.”
One of the corollaries to this notion of faith was a redefinition of the Christian's relation to other areas of life, such as ethics. Hegelianism had taught Christians to naturalize and universalize ethics. Ethical codes were the universal rational manifestation of how man should live. Religion, ethics, faith…all of it was universalized, naturalized, depersonalized. Kierkegaard wanted to bring it back to the source--God himself. What defines right? Not some abstract ethical code. What God commands. The believer is not to see himself as preeminently loyal to some standard, but as loyal to God personally. God himself requires of us a full dependence on him, an absolute relationship with him (hence the "absolute relation to the absolute" in Fear and Trembling); the commands he gives us are in the context of that loyalty, that relationship, and they should not be abstracted from it. For that reason, God can sometimes, as with Abraham, ask us to act in ways contrary to what we normally ought to, to show us that what is most important is our faith in Him, our relationship with Him. This is what is meant by "teleological suspension of the ethical." It is not relativism. It is not the assertion that we can dispense with the Bible's commandments whenever we think we have a special mission from God. I doubt Kierkegaard would think that the average person should ever expect such an exception to actually apply to him; however, this doctrine is nevertheless important and necessary in order that we rightly understand the nature of our ethical obligations, and do not abstract them from our relationship to God.
Kierkegaard was also concerned with Hegelianism's insistence on explaining and understanding everything, including Christianity. Supposedly, it sought to defend Christianity--providing scientific and rational proof for it. But by rationalizing it thus, it killed it. It made something supernatural into something merely natural. Kierkegaard insisted on protecting Christianity from such "defense"--it was beyond "defense," beyond "understanding." Modernity, he felt, was obsessed with understanding everything, and that simply couldn't be done.
Again, from his journals: “Until now, people have always expressed themselves in the following way: the knowledge that one cannot understand this or the other thing does not satisfy science, the aim of which is to understand. Here is the mistake; people ought to say the very opposite: if human science refuses to understand that there is something which it cannot understand, or better still, that there is something about which it clearly understands that it cannot understand it—then all is confusion. For it is the duty of the human understanding to understand that there are things which it cannot understand, and what those things are.”
He said, famously, in Fear and Trembling, that "faith begins at the very point where understanding leaves off." As long as we believe in something on the basis of certain arguments or proofs, our beliefs can only be as strong as those arguments or proofs, and none of these are ultimately strong enough to justify the kind of belief that God requires of us. Or, as Kierkegaard puts it in Philosophical Fragments, no finite proof can serve as a sufficient condition for an infinite belief--some kind of leap must be made. This is the famous Kierkegaard "leap of faith"--you follow understanding to the point where it can go no further, and then by faith you commitment yourself to a belief that defies reason and understanding--on the strength of the absurd.
Kierkegaard puts the problem this way:
“A man says to himself: here is an historical fact which teaches me that in regard to my eternal happiness I must have recourse to Jesus Christ. Now I must certainly preserve myself from taking the wrong turning into scientific enquiry and research, as to whether it is quite certainly historical; for it is historical right enough: and if it were ten times as certain in all its details it would still be no help: for directly I cannot be helped.
“and so I say to myself: I choose; that historical fact means so much to me that I decide to stake my whole life upon that if. Then he lives; lives entirely full of the idea, risking his life for it: and his life is the proof that he believes. He did not have a few proofs, and so believed and then began to life. No, the very reverse.
“That is called risking; and without risk faith is an impossibility.”
A final issue, related to this, which appears over and over in Training in Christianity, as well as other places, is the issue of Christianity and history. Christians, partly on account of Hegelianism, partly based just on a blind trust in their traditions, allowed history to make them comfortable in their faith and soften the offense of the gospel. In Training in Christianity, Kierkegaard over and over comes back to the declaration, "Blessed is he who is not offended in me." All throughout the gospels, he says, is this possibility of offense, and the fact that most did take offense at Jesus. We, by viewing Christ through the lens of history, and with the benefit of hindsight and the success of Christianity, and resting comfortably upon the declarations of the Church, wouldn't dream of taking offense. We have removed the offense! Of course Christ is God and man. Of course he taught that the only way to the Father was through Him. Yes, yes, we know it all. And of course it's all true--history has vindicated it. But Kierkegaard challenges his readers not to take all this for granted, but to imagine Christ as he might have appeared to a first-century Jew, to see the magnitude of the offense, the ridiculousness of Christ's message, and still believe--not because it was obvious, but because it was absurd. Kierkegaard challenged the Christians of his day to encounter Christ as he came in all his lowliness, in all his paradoxical shockingness, in the 1st century, not as he appeared rich, comfortable, and well-dressed in the churches of Christendom.
These are a few of the key points in Kierkegaard's thought. Obviously I have left out much, and obviously I have slanted a great deal to fit my particular perception. There are many more philosophical concerns in Kierkegaard's thought that I have not touched on, that most scholars would consider preeminent. While these are important, however, I believe from my reading that almost all of Kierkegaard's animating beliefs were preeminently theological--who is God and how do we relate to Him? How are we to live in the light of His existence, and His presence in our lives?
Of course, it is also important to remember that Kierkegaard was very individualistic, and opposed to many things about the Church and Sacraments that we value very highly. However, I do not think this is reason to neglect the truth of so much of what he had to say, or to fail to let his admonitions challenge us when we become too comfortable.
**With the exception of those who have less than 168 hours a week in leisure time.