In the last post, I rebelled against Johannes de silentio‘s conception of faith as affirming the Absurd. Instead, I suggested, faith could be considered as the longing to see more of God’s glory. Faith is a longing, an anticipation, because its object is still obscure and cloudy. But faith anticipates something. It is right and proper that faith should respond to the flickers and hints of God’s glory breaking into the particular (reflecting His immanence) and into the universals of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty (reflecting His transcendence).
In passing, I might mention that, over the course of these reflections, I have recognized in myself a particular fascination with Beauty. I have tended to regard a certain kind of beauty as a signpost towards God. Partly it is the intellectual beauty of God, the sense that, through the viewpoint of Christianity, everything falls so nicely into place. Partly it is the ethical beauty of the Christian God, the sense that returning good for evil is the noblest thing anyone could ever do. I admit I have some sense that Christianity is just too beautiful to be wrong, or at least too beautiful to be ignored. I cannot keep from staring at the awful choking beauty of His hands and feet.
I don’t know what J.d.s. would say to these feelings, apart from probably exploding with wrath at my insistence upon viewing all these particular things (these hands, these feet) as subordinate to universals. But I accuse J.d.s. of insubordination, the mutiny of the particular against the universal.
There are two risks of mutiny. There is the risk of the mutiny failing, in which case the captain will surely maroon you in some inhospitable place. But there is also the far more terrible risk of the mutiny succeeding. For if the mutiny succeeds, you are now your own master, the captain of your own ship – and again marooned. He is left in his own hands, which is to be abandoned.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
– William Henley, Invictus
The phrase existential angst refers precisely to the mutineer’s second risk. Angst is the blind, undirected, groping fear that comes from being one’s own master. There is a danger in being truly individual, truly free, not subordinate to anything. It is the fear that there is nothing stopping me from choosing to do [X] right now, where [X] is any horrid thing at all. Angst is a fear that is particularly associated with the existentialists. Angst is, in fact, a precise and technical term that was introduced into English through the writings of Soren Kierkegaard in The Concept of Anxiety.
And this brings us, somewhat meanderingly, to the intended topic of this blog post: loneliness, community, and faith.
In this post I raise two related criticisms against the solitude and incommunicability of J.d.s.‘s faith. The first is that the Knight of Faith is left marooned. He is left exposed to existential angst and despair. There is no one who can understand him, walk alongside him, comfort him. The second is that the Knight of Faith is incorrigible. There is no one who can check him, hold him to account, counsel him. J.d.s.‘s faith is, in a word, wholly individualistic. It sees no Church.
This, by the way, is no new criticism. Ever since the publication of Fear and Trembling, every man and his dog have accused Kierkegaard of espousing an overly individualistic conception of faith. So I must qualify these remarks immediately by saying that Kierkegaard’s own views of the individual in relation to the Church cannot be reduced to those of J.d.s. Kierkegaard was, after all, trying to reform the Danish Church. He cared about the Church. My criticism, then, is against the logical extrapolation of the concept of faith as grasping the Absurd, and not a criticism of Kierkegaard simpliciter.
It is true, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer soberly observes in the first few pages of Life Together, that “it is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians.” Truly, St Pauls continue to languish in the prisons across the world, and St John-the-Evangelists remain alone, each on his own terrible Patmos. But, as Bonhoeffer goes on to note, even in solitary confinement Christians have always seen themselves as participating in another community, as belonging to the eternal communion of saints. There cannot be Christianity without a Church.
And a Church, like a universal, is a higher thing in which the particulars participate. In the words of Donne,
The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does, belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingraffed into that body, whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me; all mankind is of one author, and is one volume…
– John Donne, Meditation XVII
We are supposed to participate in, belong to, bind ourselves to, marry ourselves to the Church. We are supposed to confirm, correct, and communicate each other’s experiences of God, and thus to find out what aspects of faith can be held in common. For this reason, perhaps, God’s promises are given to the Church, not to any individual. The Church is the army of God, which is much more than the sum of its Knights.
It is only as the Church that we are the Body of Christ and not as individuals. Put another way, the success or failure of faith is only in the context of the Church. And we are therefore supposed to trust in the Church, have faith in the Church. The one thing faith can never be is solitary.
That is about all I have to say for now. To wrap up, then: We have explored Johannes de silentio‘s discussion of faith and the Absurd in Fear and Trembling – and with much fear and trembling ourselves! I do not in the end accept the individualism and anti-rationalism of J.d.s. I do not think faith is a leap in the dark. But as J.d.s. has demonstrated, faith is nevertheless a leap, an act. It is, as J.d.s. would say, an infinite movement that somehow lands up back in the finite. Faith is stranger and wilder and more wonderful than any apologetics argument might lead one to believe.
It must wait for another to offer a thorough analysis of the story of Abraham’s ascending Mount Moriah (who can understand him?). Likewise, it will rest upon another to offer a clearer account of this faith that is apparently not reducible to reason, yet is not unreasonable either.
I can only hope that you, dear reader, who have followed these wanderings may also have gained something from reflecting on the work of one of the brilliant Christian thinker, Soren Kierkegaard. I hope this is the start of further inquiry for us all. I, for one, have already begun mine.