Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Understanding Seeking Faith

We want to know salvation; and we want to see it in this life. We want a picture of it, an image, something we can attain, or strive for. Saints have commonly been used for such pictures. The lives of the blessed, some mutilated, some whole, still serve as icons for much of the Christian world, both Roman Catholic and Orthodox. But Protestantism eschewed such images; and still, people want some model for their lives. Enter Soren Kierkegaard's "Knight of Faith."

Kierkegaard was a seminary student; he died before he could take a church in the Danish Lutheran Church. As a student in the Lutheran church, he was also a student of the teachings of Augustine (Luther himself was an Augustinian monk). It was Augustine who taught the Western world to consider the lessons one life might hold; it was Luther who taught the Western world that the lessons learned by one person in a crisis of faith (much like Augustine), might change the great institutions, even the direction, of the world. Surely those would be models for the kind of salvation we would expect to be at work, to come from the Creator of the world.

Salvation, however, has never been as central to Christianity as many church goers and non-theologians have thought. Salvation tends to turn the mind toward the life to come, rather than the life to be lead here. has been a vexing issue for Christians for millenia. But it has seldom been the "only" issue. St. Augustine is usually the one blamed or credited (depending) with the teaching that we must turn from the world in order to turn toward God, and on this hangs our salvation. But Augustine's Confessions is not really concerned with the afterlife, so much as with how one lives this life. Luther centuries later (and, not coincidentally, an Augustinian monk) would have the same concerns. Never one to turn down a good beer or a good time, Luther reportedly reformed not just the church, but the church hymns, declaring "Why should the Devil have all the good tunes?", and bringing songs from the beer-hall to the sanctuary, where people could actually enjoy singing to God.

But it was Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish Lutheran seminary graduate, who gave us the best picture of what salvation in this life would look like. And, like the parables of Jesus, Kierkegaard presented it as a dark joke.

Kierkegaard's "Knight of Faith" is usually misinterpreted as either representing S.K. himself, or representing what a "true saint" should look like. The error begins with ignoring the proprietary rights of the pseudonym. S.K. wrote many books on theology and philosophy of religion, and virtually invented phenomenonlogy and Christian existentialism; but he did most of it in voices not his own, and in opinions not his own, either. The reasons for the pseudonyms are a study in themselves, but S.K. was quite clear in his Journals that the pseudonymous writings were meant to bring the reader to a confrontation for herself, and not based on any supposed authority of the writer. Indeed, Kierkegaard's work is divided between the philosophical writings (pseudonymous works) and religious writings ("edifying discourses," published under S.K.'s name). So Fear and Trembling, where the Knight of Faith makes his one appearance in all S.K.'s work, is attributed to the obvious pseudonym "Johannes de Silentio" (John the Silent). It is not Kierkegaard's representation at all; and it is not, in fact, even a presentation of what S.K. looks upon with approval. The pseudonymous works are almost secular in output. If theology is "faith seeking understanding," then the pseudonymous works can be understood (admittedly in shorthand) as "understanding seeking faith." Part of what understanding wants to understand about faith, of course, is salvation. The Knight of Faith is an attempt to represent salvation in this life, to show what a "saved" person would look like. But in the context of the akedeh of Abraham, it is hardly the serene picture we could want it to be.

First, de Silentio frames the issue of salvation in terms of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, a sacrifice interrupted only by the angel of God. It is one of the most disturbing and horrific stories in the Bible, and is given the Hebrew name akedeh, which refers to the ritual binding of a sacrificial animal. That name keeps the focus where it belongs. But Abraham, the father of a great nation, the father of one, and only one, son, in his old age, is not the picture of salvation we might want to see. Because we consider salvation "good," and it is hard to reconcile Abraham's absolute trust in God, which he places even above the life of his own son, with anything "good." It is this kind of faith which leaves understanding in "fear and trembling" (the phrase itself comes from Paul's letter to the Philippians: "So you too, my friends, must be obedient, as always; even more, now that I am absent, than when I was with you. You must work out your own salvation in fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you, inspiring both the will and the deeds, for his own chosen purpose." (Phil. 2:12-13, REB). This is what Jacques Derrida, in his study of Kierkegaard's most famous work, would label the mysterium tremendums, what the French phenomenologist would call the secret that makes you tremble, tremble at the level of your very existence, your being. Whole essays spring forth from these words in this context: the roots of Christian existentialism are here, as well as a modern Christian mysticism, even a post-modern Christian metaphysics. All in the service of understanding seeking faith, even as understanding itself must learn to live in service to that which is both absent and present at the same time: both immanent and transcendent.

But we were speaking of the Knight of Faith. This is how Kierkegaard describes him:
The moment I set eyes on him I instantly push him from me, I myself leap backwards, I clasp my hands and say half aloud, "Good Lord, is this the man? Is it really he? Why, he looks like a tax-collectorl" However, it is the man after all. I draw closer to him, watching his least movements to see whether there might not be visible a little heterogeneous fractional telegraphic message from the infinite, a glance, a look, a gesture, a note of sadness, a smile, which betrayed the infinite in its heterogeneity with the finite. No!...he belongs entirely to the world, no Philistine more so. One can discover nothing of that aloof and superior nature whereby one recognizes the knight of the infinite. He takes delight in everything, and whenever one sees him taking part in a particular pleasure, he does it with the persistence which is the mark of the earthly man whose soul is absorbed in such things. He tends to his work. So when one looks at him one might suppose that he was a clerk who had lost his soul in an intricate system of bookkeeping, so precise is he. He takes a holiday on Sunday. He goes to church. No heavenly glance or any other token of the incommensurable betrays him; if one did not know him, it would be impossible to distinguish him from the rest of the congregation, for his healthy and vigorous hymn-singing proves at the most that he has a good chest. In the afternoon he walks to the forest. He takes delight in everything he sees, in the human swarm, in the new omnibuses,in the water of the Sound; when one meets him on the Beach Road one might suppose he was a shopkeeper taking his fling, that's just the way he disports himself, for he is not a poet, and I have sought in vain to detect in him the poetic incommensurability....He lounges at an open window and looks out on the square on which he lives; he is interested in everything that goes on, in a rat which slips under the curb, in the children's play, and this with the nonchalance of a girl of sixteen. And yet he is no genius, for in vain I have sought in him the incommensurability of genius. In the evening he smokes his pipe; to look at him one would swear that it was the grocer over the way vegetating in the twilight. He lives as carefree as a ne'er-do-well, and yet he buys up the acceptable time at the dearest price, for he does not do the least thing except by virtue of the absurd. (Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, tr. Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1954, pp. 49-51)
It is a refined joke, this image. It is the ordinary person, the member of "Christendom" that S. Kierkegaard will rail against in one of the last published works of his life, the complacent middle class citizen perfectly at home in the world and in the church, discomfited by nothing. This is the salvation everyone seeks and, ironically, still the icon of salvation everyone refers to, over 150 years later, without really knowing what they are talking about. This is the knight of faith who is no knight and betrays no faith: and it is directly drawn from a Biblical root: the semeia, the signs, that are in John's gospel both the indication, and the misdirection, of the Anointed One. The quest for signs is a convoluted one.

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