“Christendom has done away with Christianity, without being quite aware of it,” Kierkegaard wrote in 1850, “the consequence is that if anything is to be done, one must again try to introduce Christianity into Christendom.”
This notion of “introducing Christianity into Christendom” is near the heart of Kierkegaard’s project. It helps explain Kierkegaard’s curious method of “indirect communication,” his term for the way he expressed his ideas in an ‘elusive’ and almost poetic way. Kierkegaard favoured “indirect communication” because he was concerned not with delivering abstract objective truths, but rather, wanted his writings to act as a “mirror” for “the single individual.” He did not want to engage the individual in a disinterested objective manner; that would work against his goal of “introducing Christianity into Christendom.” Rather, Kierkegaard wanted to engage the individual, existentially, inwardly, at the core of their being, he wanted to spur his readers to decision, to action, to inwardness.
Near the end of his life, Kierkegaard abandoned his method of indirect communication in favour of “direct communication.” He had become so appalled at the state of the Danish Church that he felt compelled to speak out directly; he could no longer remain silent or indirect, he had to venture. Kierkegaard demanded that the Danish Church admit that the Christianity it preached was not the Christianity of the New Testament.
Of course, the Danish Church, with Bishop Mynster at the head, admitted no such thing. Realizing that nothing was forthcoming from the statue church, Kierkegaard launched his ‘attack upon Christendom.’ A full out literary assault spanning several months, waged in newspapers and pamphlets. Kierkegaard saw this attack as an unbalanced “corrective,” necessary because of the urgency of the situation:
He who must apply a ‘corrective’ must study accurately and profoundly the weak side of the Establishment, and then vigorously and one-sidedly present the opposite. Precisely in this consists the corrective.
To Kierkegaard, the “corrective” was so necessary because Christianity had become confused with Christendom. What is the difference between Christianity and Christendom? Some people assume that the two are interchangeable, that Christendom is filled with Christians and that it is Christians who have built Christendom. Quite frankly, that is rubbish.
Christianity is simply this: “go, sell all your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven, and then come and follow me.” Sell all you have and follow Jesus. Renounce all and follow Jesus. That’s it. It’s infinitely simple and infinitely difficult. There is a wonderful quote from Kierkegaard’s journals that captures this marvellously:
The matter is quite simple. The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.
I open the New Testament and read: “If you want to be perfect, then sell all your goods and give to the poor and come follow me.” Good God, if we were to actually do this, all the capitalists, the officeholders, and the entrepreneurs, the whole society in fact, would be almost beggars! We would be sunk if it were not for Christian scholarship! Praise be to everyone who works to consolidate the reputation of Christian scholarship, which helps to restrain the New Testament, this confounded book which would one, two, three, run us all down if it got loose (that is, if Christian scholarship did not restrain it).
What then is Christendom? Christiandom is a “Christian society” where all are “Christians as a matter of course.” It is Christ with a dose of pragmatism. Christ muzzled and muffled and drowned out by layers of politics, self preservation, and “surely he couldn’t have meant that.”
The Attack Upon Christendom
In Kierkegaard’s 1850, Training (or Practice) in Christianity, he launches a thinly veiled assault on Christendom, showing how Christendom has distorted, undermined or “done away with” Christianity. Kierkegaard’s attack on Christendom speaks prophetically, even today, almost two centuries later, in the last gasp of Christendom.
Christendom sees itself, rather than Christ as the truth. It has turned Christianity into a system, an institution or a set of doctrines.
The challenge of becoming a Christian is the same for every generation: the individual must become contemporaneous with Christ through faith and become a follower. The individual must constantly reevaluate his life according to the life of Christ and strive to reflect His image ever more faithfully.
Christendom does something qualitatively different. It turns Christ into a distant historical figure who is the founder of a great new system, the foundation of our glorious civilization. Christendom has effectively killed Christ and erected a tower of Babel on His tomb. To be a Christian in Christendom is to serve and worship this idol, not to Christ:
Every generation has to begin all over again with Christ and thus to present His life as the paradigm; but instead of this, Christendom has taken the liberty of interpreting the whole relationship simply historically, beginning by letting Him be dead—and then it triumphs! Since that time Christianity has been increasing in numbers year by year—and what wonder; for people are only too eager to take part when there is nothing whatever to do but triumph and join the parade.
Gone is the paradoxical Christ the God-man who says “Sell all you have and come and follow me.” Nay, he vanishes into the mist of history where he can demand nothing of us. Christianity becomes as easy as “thrusting a foot into a stocking.”
Christendom sees itself as the pinnacle, the achievement of Christianity. This is the argument from 1800 years: (the time since the birth of Christ at Kierkegaard’s time) if we look at the consequences of Christ’s life, the great achievement of civilization, it is clear that he was God.
There are several things going on with the “argument from 1800 years.” First of all, its important to note that it was not just Kierkegaard’s contemporaries who were arguing for Christianity from the achievements of civilization, this is an argument that gets made in Christendom today. We see it in American exceptionalism or in the defenders of “Western Civilization” and “Judeo-Christian values:” look at what our society/civilization has achieved, look at the less superior nations/civilizations around the world, surely we must have been founded on Devine Principles. This is often accompanied by a glossing over the darker parts of one’s history or even a defence of such evils as slavery, scientific racism/eugenics, colonialism, imperialism, ect. One has to ask the defender of Christendom, were these realities also founded on the Devine Principles which produced such an exemplary civilization?
It’s important to note the Hegelian undertones of this “argument from 1800 years.” In his biography, Kierkegaard: A Single Life, Stephen Blackhouse points out that this notion of cultural superiority was prevalent at Kierkegaard’s time and tied to the Hegelian notion of progress:
“The revelation of God was not be found in any divine text, but in the development of a Culture’s History. The unfolding Spirit is first encountered in a society’s art, this artistic expression is then given meaning and explanation in a society’s religion, finally, and it is philosophy which explains the religion. The Spirit is ever developing and this Devine Mind is revealed in mankind’s highest achievements. To see the latest and best manifestation of the Devine Mind in the world, all one has to do is look at the latest and best manifestations of the world’s civilization… As with the rest of Europe, much of Danish scene at this time saw authors, philosophers theologians and churchman finding ways to articulate their innate sense of cultural superiority along Hegelian lines.”
It is this synthesis of Hegelianism and Christianity that Kierkegaard has set his face against and wants to critique. Kierkegaard points out that the argument from 1800 years cannot, “in all eternity” prove that Jesus Christ was God. At best, this argument from history can show that Jesus Christ was a great man, and perhaps a progressively greater man (as the evidence from history mounts) but that Jesus was God? That is something “which history in all eternity cannot establish.” We can see the connection here with Kierkegaard’s earlier work Concluding Unscientific Postscript, where he argues, with Gottfried Lessing, that one cannot get from the deliverances of reason, to what is believed on faith. Thus, the conclusion that Jesus was God, “shall by God’s help, never be drawn.”
Kierkegaard then shows the problematic assumptions underlying the argument, it assumes that Christ and Christianity are to be judged by “the consequences of his life.” In other words, one sees that Christ was God and Christianity is true, by the positive consequences they have for society or civilization. To Kierkegaard, the entire enterprise of trying to prove Christ through history is based on the false assumption that “the consequences of His life are more important than His life,” this, Kierkegaard contends, is blasphemy. We judge the significance of a man’s life by the consequences of his life, the mere fact that he existed is of no significance. With the God-man, the opposite is true, the fact that God came to earth as the God-man, gives that life infinite significance, infinite importance. To judge the God-man by the consequences of His life is “effectively… to say that He was a mere man.”
There is a further problematic assumption underneath the “argument from 1800 years.” If Christianity is to be judged by consequences, we have moved from the kingdom of God, to the kingdom of this world. If Christianity is to be judged by the consequences it has in this world, by pragmatic metrics of what works for survival and flourishing, Christianity becomes indistinguishable from the world. Christ’s radical commands to “resist not evil,” and to “love your enemy,” are explained away because they do not lead to good “consequences” in this life. It is precisely this move which brings about the shift from Christianity (following Christ regardless of the consequences) to Christendom. (Christianity merged with the pragmatism of empire)
Kierkegaard is worth quoting at length on this point. He contrasts the “triumphant Church” with the “militant Church,” a distinction which can be collapsed into his distinction between Christianity and Christendom:
…this concept of a triumphant Church is connected with the human impatience which would lay hold in advance of what belongs later…Christendom, with… impatience desired to anticipate eternity and (instead of what is God’s intention and His notion with regard to existence as a whole, that the temporal, this life of ours here, is the period of probation, and eternity the period of triumph)—instead of this they would introduce triumph within the temporal, which means to abolish Christianity. What Christ said about His kingdom not being of this world was not said with special reference to those times when He uttered this saying; it is an eternally valid utterance about the relation of Christ’s Kingdom to this world, and it is valid for every age. As soon as Christ’s kingdom comes to terms with the world, Christianity is abolished. If on the other hand, Christ is the truth, His is truly enough a kingdom in this world, but not of this world, that is to say, it is militant. What then is to be understood by a triumphant Church? By this we are to understand that the time for contending is past that the Church, although it is still in this world, has nothing to contend for of to contend about. But then the Church and this world have become synonymous; but such in fact is precisely the case, not only with all that has called itself the triumphant Church, but with all that is called an established Christendom.
Contemporaneousness with Christ
To be a Christian is to be in proper relationship with the Truth. It is the Christian conviction that the Truth came into being as a particular person, Jesus, in a particular time and place. Jesus, as the paradoxical God-man, can never be reached objectively, but only through the inwardness of faith:
Christianity has itself proclaimed itself to be the eternal, essential truth that has come into existence in time; it has proclaimed itself as the paradox and has required the inwardness of faith with regard to what is an offense to the Jews, foolishness to the Greeks—and an absurdity to understanding. It cannot be expressed more strongly that subjectivity is truth and that objectivity only thrusts away…
Christ was on earth two thousand years ago, so, how are we to bridge the gap between us and Him? This is where Kierkegaard’s notion of being “contemporary with Christ” comes in. Only through confronting the paradox of the God-man, as Jesus’s contemporaries had to, only by choosing whether to believe or be offended, can we enter into relation with the Truth. Then, the centuries separating us and Christ become, “neither here nor there:”
For with 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. And as Christ is the absolute, it is easy to see that with respect to Him there is only one situation: that of contemporaneousness. The five, the seven, the fifteen, the eighteen hundred years are neither here nor there; they do not change Him, neither do they in any wise reveal who He was, for who He was, for He who is, is revealed only to faith.
This brings us to a third critique, though it is not properly called a critique, but rather, a direct assault on Christendom.
Christendom makes contemporaneity with Christ impossible.
Christendom, as the empire founded on “Devine Principles,” is precisely the opposite of Christianity, as the total fidelity to Christ. Christendom is the tower of babel striving to reach the heavens. Christendom is a gleaming golden Calf which calls for us to fall down and worship it. Christendom is the scowling face of Ceaser, who demands allegiance. Christendom, most simply construed, is the obstacle to contemporaneousness with Christ. It is the thick layers of politics, history, religion and culture which muffle and distort the once clear voice of Jesus.
Christendom is what makes Christians think that they are justified in killing for their country: Surely He couldn’t have meant it when He said “resist not evil.”
Christendom is what justifies Christian divorce, objectification of women and sexual liberty: Surely He couldn’t have meant it when He said “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Christendom is what leads Christians to turn away the poor, the refugees, the sick, the naked: Surely He couldn’t have meant it when He said: “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did to me.”
Christendom is what compels Christians to put “the way we’ve always done it” over the higher commands of justice: Surely He couldn’t have meant it when He asked: “why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?”
Christendom is what turns Christians into defenders of capitalism and consumerism: Surely He couldn’t have meant it when He said “sell all your possessions and give to the poor.”
Christianity is not the republican party, it is not the democratic party, nor is it the libertarian party. Christianity is not the pro-life movement, it is not the pro-choice movement. Christianity is not nationalism, or Marxism, or capitalism, or individualism, or the Catholic Church, or the environmentalist cause or the black lives matter movement. Indeed, Christianity cannot be confused with democracy, or the free market economy or the United States of America. Christianity is not feminism, or the social justice movement, or even Kierkegaard.
Christianity is a person, Jesus Christ, the Truth incarnate. This person makes the matter quite simple: you cannot serve God and mammon. The Christian has one allegiance, and one Master and all other gods must bow before Him. The cause of Christendom cannot override the rule of Christ. “Resist not evil” does not just apply to where it is convenient to do so; it applies equality to where it is not convenient to do so. The one who puts the republican party, or the black lives matter movement or social justice movement or the pro-life cause, ahead of the primary allegiance to Christ, commits adultery. He is serving mammon instead of God.
“The matter is quite simple.” Christianity is not pragmatism. It is not the way of the world. It is not the road to human flourishing. Christianity is putting your faith in Christ and then following him and trusting that the path of the Cross will lead to Resurrection. The Christian does not make pragmatic decisions to bring about the best outcome in the here and now; he follows obediently and trusts that “all these things will be added onto you.” The contradiction between Christianity and Christendom, is that Christianity “is not of this world,” while Christendom is decidedly the collusion between “Christianity” and empire. Christendom does not have faith in Jesus and it shudders at the thought of being contemporaneous with Him. It very much prefers the distance of 2000 years, where Christ has been drowned out by the chatter of politicians, explained away by theologians and given a nice, warm box on the shelf of civil society.
If there is no one who can “get those eighteen centuries out of the way,” then, “Christianity is abolished.” Thus Kierkegaard concludes Practice in Christianity:
Now that Christianity has been proved, and on a prodigious scale, there is nobody, or next to nobody, willing to make a sacrifice for it. When people (shall I say, ‘only’?) believed in the truth of it, they were ready to sacrifice life and blood. Oh, frightful infatuation! Oh that there were someone (like those heathens who burnt the libraries of Alexandria) able to get those eighteen centuries out of the way—if no one can do that, Christianity is abolished. Oh that there were someone capable of making it clear to those orators who prove the truth of Christianity by the 1,800 years—that there were someone who could make it clear to them (terrible as it is) that they are betraying, denying, abolishing Christianity, if no one can do that, then Christianity is done away with.
While Kierkegaard is, here, clearly alluding to his impending “attack upon Christendom,’ (“Oh if there were someone capable of making it clear to those orators…”) one cannot help but wonder whether there is something prophetic in these lines.
Christendom as the Tower of Babel
There is a story in Genesis about a tower that was built to reach the heavens:
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words… And [the people] said, “Come let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the whole earth.”
Christendom is that tower. It sees itself as the height of civilization, the pinnacle of moral development, the god all other nations must bow to. It is the dream of one language, one people, “one ring to rule them all.” (there’s your Tolkien reference for the day) It is an edifice that has climbed up, up, up. Miles and miles from the humble God-man who walked the particular shores of Galilee. Up, up, up it has climbed, up to the throne of God. It has thrust Him from His throne and killed Him, and now it deems to sit in His place.
But God is not dead. He is resurrected and He is Lord. And to Him, every knee must bow and all idols must be dashed to the ground. And Christendom is the greatest idol of all.
It has led Christians away from the paradox of the God-man who calls for faithful obedience. It is the wolf in sheep clothing, the false prophet who has proclaimed the world instead of the kingdom. It has inspired Christians to suffer for it, instead of for Christ. It has seduced Christians with worldly power, prosperity and prestige, away from the lowliness, poverty and humility of Christ.
The story of the tower that tried to reach the heavens continues:
And the Lord came down to see the city and tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said: Behold they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.
So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth and they left off building the city.
The God-man is Lord and He tells us to follow Him. This is Christianity. We kill the God-man and we erect a tower on His grave, we make ourselves king in his place. This is Christendom. We lose ourselves in abstraction: by taking the place of God, we loose our place on earth. God scatters us and confuses our language: this is Postmodernism. Postmodernism takes us back to the origin, back to contemporaneity with Christ, when the Logos was made flesh and pitched a tent among us.
Christendom is breaking apart. The west is drifting ever further from its “Judeo-Christian” foundations and is becoming increasingly less Christian. As Stanley Hauerwas said, “Christianity is in the process of losing its power.” This should not bring Christians to “wailing and gnashing of teeth,” instead, we should see it as the glorious return of Christianity. The empowering of Christianity was its inversion, for Christianity is about “being a light to the world,” not about being the world. As postmodernism inverts the social order, it should hark us back to the inversion at the heart of Christianity: A God, mocked and crucified. A God-man who calls his followers to invert the way of the world. Christendom has betrayed this calling.
Postmodernism is God’s judgement on Christendom. It is the desert that comes after the tyranny of Egypt. The flood that comes and covers the land. Postmodernism is the confusion of language and the dispersing of people. It is the destruction the great edifice that has climbed up, so far from the God-man.
There is something primordial about Postmodernism. Deconstruction strives to break down the walls, to pull back the layers, to topple the mighty. It is a direct attack on meaning, on hierarchy: on our ability to make sense of the world. It is a world stripped of transcendence, emptied of goodness, truth or beauty. All that remains is pure, ravenous, power: fighting for scraps in a world where nothing else matters. This is not the cosmos moved by self-giving love. This is the universe propelled by Darwinian self-preservation. It is a barren desert, illuminated by a scorched sun. A horizonless ocean, out over 70,000 fathoms. A dry savannah with hyenas ripping away at a rotting carcass. It is a return to the origin. A thrust into the depths: back to the chaos from which we emerged.
Are we then to despair and loose hope? No! The God we worship is the god who dies and is resurrected. The God who uses what we reject and comes to those whom we have cast out. The Christian God is the God of creation, the Logos, through whom all things were made:
In the origin was the Logos, and the Logos was present with God, and the Logos was god; This one was present with God in the origin. All things came to be through him, and without him came not a single thing that has come to be.
And the Logos became flesh and pitched a tent among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the Father’s only one, full of grace and truth. (DBH translation)
The Christian hope is to be found in the person of Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth and the life. Following the way of Christ, walking, speaking and living in the truth, is how new life will be brought into being. When the old world is burned away, new creation will begin. After death comes resurrection. A seed which falls into the ground and dies, grows and bears much fruit.
I will leave you with Dostoyevski:
“That life is heaven,” he said to me suddenly, “that I have long been thinking about”; and all at once he added, “I think of nothing else indeed.” He looked at me and smiled. “I am more convinced of it than you are; I will tell you later why.”
I listened to him and thought that he evidently wanted to tell me something. “Heaven,” he went on, “lies hidden within all of us–here it lies hidden in me now, and if I will it, it will be revealed to me tomorrow and for all time.”
I looked at him; he was speaking with great emotion and gazing mysteriously at me, as if he were questioning me.
“And that we are all responsible to all for all, apart from our own sins–you were quite right in thinking that, and it is wonderful how you could comprehend it in all its significance at once. And in very truth, so soon as people understand that, the kingdom of heaven will be for them not a dream, but a living reality.”
…You ask when it will come to pass; it will come to pass, but first we have to go through the period of isolation.”
“What do you mean by isolation?” I asked him.
“Why, the isolation that prevails everywhere, above all in our age–it has not fully developed, it has not reached its limit yet. For everyone strives to keep his individuality as apart as possible, wishes to secure the greatest possible fullness of life for himself; but meantime all his efforts result not in attaining fullness of life but self-destruction, for instead of self-realization he ends by arriving at complete solitude. All mankind in our age have split up into units; they all keep apart, each in his own groove; each one holds aloof, hides himself and hides what he has, from the rest, and he ends by being repelled by others and repelling them. He heaps up riches by himself and thinks, ‘How strong I am now and how secure,’ and in his madness he does not understand that the more he heaps up, the more he sinks into self-destructive impotence. For he is accustomed to rely upon himself alone and to cut himself off from the whole; he has trained himself not to believe in the help of others, in people and in humanity, and only trembles for fear he should lose his money and the privileges that he has won for himself. Everywhere in these days people have, in their mockery, ceased to understand that the true security is to be found in social solidarity rather than in isolated individual effort. But this terrible individualism must inevitably have an end, and all will suddenly understand how unnaturally they are separated from one another. It will be the spirit of the time, and people will marvel that they have sat so long in darkness without seeing the light. And then the sign of the Son of Man will be seen in the heavens . . . But, until then, we must keep the banner flying. Sometimes even if he has to do it alone, and his seems to be crazy, a man must set an example, and so draw people’s souls out of their solitude, and spur them to some act of brotherly love, that the great idea may not die.”