Christianity, Christendom, Kierkegaard, and America – once more with Mark Tietjen

Kierkegaard is known as a stinging critic of a “too easy” Christianity in which one finds oneself merely as a result of cultural context. The word we give to this assumed identity between Christianity and culture is “Christendom.” In his recent book on Kierkegaard, Mark Tietjen explains the Dane’s criticisms and also suggests how the might apply to the contemporary situation in the United States. Here’s what he has to tell us. May we have ears to hear. (As usual, bold is mine and italics are in the original.)

Mark A. Tietjen, Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians (IVP Academic, 2016).

Kierkegaard speculates that one reason why Christians of his day fail to view their faith as a path for them to walk themselves is rooted in . . . the argument from Christendom. The thinking goes as follows: given the enormously successful results of the Christian religion over nearly two millennia, we can assume the truth of the religion and gladly accept the beliefs that come with it. We can stand on the shoulders of giants—church fathers, saints, theologians, pastors, and spiritual mentors—and leave the spiritual heavy lifting to them. However, if the truth is the way, if being a person of Christian faith includes walking a certain path, then such an argument does not work.

. . .

[I]f the truth is the way as in Christianity, the way “cannot be shortened or drop out”—it is essential to the truth. One cannot substitute anything for following Jesus, with all the energy, hard work and time it requires. . . . If we think of Christianity merely as a set of true statements or facts about God that, once accepted, make us Christian, then the process of following Jesus that follows the belief is omitted. However, if we construe those truth claims as claims about and on our lives, then we must acknowledge that following Christ is an ongoing task undertaken throughout one’s entire life.

Kierkegaard’s thoughts here are undoubtedly tied to his cultural context, in which Christian faith was the default cultural and religious position, and one’s birth and baptismal certificates were more or less the same thing. Thus its relevance for American Christians may vary based on how culturally rooted Christian faith is in a given place. . . . Thus the advantages of living in a place that seems more friendly to Christianity might have the reverse effect of making the way of Christ-following all the more difficult to discern and carry out. Such are the ills of what Kierkegaard refers to as established Christendom. (119–120)

I think the application to the situation in the United States is very helpful. To augment that a bit: it is not simply a problem of being surrounded by “Christian culture” making it easier to think of oneself as being a Christian without involving the commitment necessary to live that identity in concrete praxis; it is also that being surrounded by “Christian culture” breeds the assumption that it is possible to be Christian / be saved / etc. on the basis mere intellectual assent to certain propositions. Then, over time, the particularity of those propositions are eroded. So now in our society we have hordes of people who believe in “God” (whoever that is…), in an afterlife, in certain “values” (whatever those are…), without any of the concrete content that the Christian tradition involves.

The point that I would push Kierkegaard on (and I noted in a previous post that I don’t know Kierkegaard that well – he may very well affirm what I’m about to say) is this: in the picture painted above, you could get the sense that for K the cognitive belief comes first and then you put that into practice as a second step, even if a necessary one. But what if true Christian faith has nothing to do with assent to “a set of true statements or facts about God”? What if the only sort of knowledge of God possible is a relational sort of knowledge that exists only as it occurs in the living-out of one’s life? What if it is not that a lot of folks in Christendom societies are bad Christians, but that they are not Christians at all?

P.S. Writing this post put me in mind of the following previous posts about Paul M. van Buren.



Matt Miller said…
I think he would indeed affirm what you said.
*searches in vain for the thumbs-up emoji
The Hegelian brand of Christianity too which SK responded was an intellectual system that deceived itself into thinking the system was done. I do also think SK would have agreed with your take on propositions.
"the advantages of living in a place that seems more friendly to Christianity might have the reverse effect of making the way of Christ-following all the more difficult to discern and carry out." - Too me, this statement might have applied to America in the first part of the 20th century. I suppose I look at the cultural landscape differently today. One can easily poke around and condemn Christianity and Judaism with little cultural pushback. One cannot do so with other religions quite so easily without the label of bigot. I think it quite easy for comedians and television shows to assume that traditional Christian views and values are hateful and bigoted. I recall an essay by Pannenberg, but I think others were making the same observation in the late 1960s and 70s, that America had entered its post-Christian era around then. Personally, I think that we are in an anti-Christian era in the West. The West is killing that which gave it birth, to use a Freudian notion. I think we can see this in the silence of the West as radical Muslims exterminate Christians from the Middle East. We see it in the welcome secularists wish to give to the most anti-West/anti-Christian elements of Islam, especially in the justification of their violence. Well, I know I have mentioned some things here with which you disagree. My main point, however is that how we read the culture is important as we consider the message we as pastors and teachers offer in the church. For me, this is an exile time for the church in the West, which means a time for followers of Jesus to deepen in their identity as Christians, both in terms of core beliefs (Triune God, Christology) as well as abiding by apostolic values regarding Christian life and community.

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