Something Rotten In The Church of Denmark

(As some of you know, I’m pursuing my goal of reading and blogging about 50 books this Lunar New Year, which means before next February. I have a feeling I’ll be beating that, of course, at this rate, but nonetheless, I will continue to number books all the way along.)

Book #7: Søren Kierkegaard’s Attack on “Christendom”

(Translated, with an Introduction and Notes by Walter Lowrie, and a New Introduction by Howard A. Johnson)

I think I shall let Kierkegaard sum up the book, since he does it so much better than I can:

Think of a hospital. The patients are dying like flies. The methods are altered in one way and another. It’s no use. What does it come from? It comes from the building, the whole building is full of poison. That the patients are registered as dead, one of this disease, and that one of another, is not true; for they are all dead from the poison that is in the building.

So it is in the religious sphere.

As you may have guessed, this book is definitely not for everyone.

Some books, when you finish them, feel concluded, feel whole, and you get a sense of completion from having reached the end. This is not one of those books, at least not for me. This is not a criticism, mind you: one could almost certainly not expect that from a text which is, after all, a collection of letters to magazines and an anthology of a series of pamphlet publications.

It is not that the text is disjointed, or that it meanders: rather, it is absolutely relentless in its assault on falsehood, play-acting, deception, theft, on the lie which Kierkegaard understood “Christendom” as being.

One can blame neither the translator, nor Kierkegaard himself, for the sense of incompletion: Kierkegaard probably did not intend these texts to be collected as they were—though it makes sense enough that they were thus collected—and he died before even the publication of the last installment of his pamphlet series could be printed.

No, the stone that sits in your stomach long after you finish this book is there because the book represents an act of courage, of striking against evil, a speaking of the truth that should have awakened thousands, if not millions. And when you look around yourself, you see that (as one of the Catholic priests who wrote the introduction even asserted) so very much of it is still true, a century and a half later.

But, right there beside that stone, there is actually a sense of relief I feel, at reaching the end of this book. This collection of texts, apparently the last of Kierkegaard’s work to be translated into English (though the first to be translated into German, perhaps because it was an attack on particularly Danish Lutheran Christendom), was made up of many smaller pieces of writing, but the message hammered away in each one was the same: Christendom is a lie, Christendom is a lie, Christendom is a lie—and for the good of humanity, for the possibility of true Christianity in the world, for the sake of decency, it should be dismantled.

My interest in Kierkegaard may be surprising, since I am not a religious sort of person, and as the translator correctly argues—at least in terms of this book—the man is perhaps better understoof as having been a theologian who worked in a vein that used a lot gleaned from philosophical literature. (I would accept this less in the case of his much more entertaining, but considerably longer Either/Or, but that’s another story.)

Why would I be interested in Kierkegaard? In fact, I find I have a lot in common with him. The things that drove him to reject and rail against “Christendom”—the popular consensus that Denmark was a Christian nation because Danes were commonly baptised and attended Church with some regularity, regardless of their individual experience of religion (or lack thereof), their individual morals (or lack thereof), their individual faith (or lack thereof); the notion that state-instituted religion was a good thing, which Kierkegaard took as the mechanics by which a false religion could be mobilized in order to give the name “Christendom” and “Christianity” to what was essentially refined paganism.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not convinced that his interpretation of Scripture is all that unquestionable. I was particularly surprised by his insistence that popularly practiced marriage was an UnChristian institution; I am not sure quite what suffering he expects the few individuals who take on True Christianity were supposed to be willing to endure in mid-nineteenth century Europe; and never having lived in a place with an official state religion, my mild brushes with religious discrimination probably don’t afford me a full understanding of just how irritating it would be to see a state religin set up which expressly insisted that as many people be considered members of the religion, when it is the nature of the religion that most people will turn away from it, finding it too difficult, too demanding, too painful.

But even with all of that, I see so much that is familiar to me. The perversion of watered-down faith; of widespread hypocrisy; of the results of even a slight benefit to deceitfully claiming membership in a religion, without any requirement that one’s life—at all—reflect that… and the eagerness of the biggest hypocrites around to do precisely that, for the benefits offered. The acceptance of expressly unethical methods of dealing with people in business, despite the claim of Christianity—hell, even Christians acknowledge the fact that one cannot trust a Christian better than an atheist when it comes to a business deal, and sometimes one can trust them less, a truth expressed in Kierkegaard’s day in the motto, “Every man is a liar in business”—and the shrugging off of this as a normal state of affairs. while I know no priests who operate as well-paid agents of the government, I do know of people and organizations who use the name of religion solely for the purpose of profit.

And what is horrifying about all of it, as Kierkegaard explicitly points out, again and again, is how the more that this is accepted, the more that this is pushed forward as Christianity, the more the real thing becomes endangered, becomes impossible, becomes in itself simply the act of revolution against popular Christendom.

What is the real thing? Me, I don’t know exactly, but a few things are clear to me:

  • Dedicated, faithful belief in the Trinity, or some configuration of the Godhead and of Jesus as part of it, and a loyalty to said Godhead above all other loyalties, be they political, sectarian, familial, or other.
  • A fierce dedication to love, which must be understood meaning dedication to truth, honesty, and responsibility, and against lies, deceit, and especially hypocrisy, the latter of which the first Christian teacher especially, expressly, hated and spoke out against at many points.
  • A code of Ethical conduct based upon the teachings of the first Christian teacher, possibly clarified (and possibly muddled) by other teachers such as his followers, or their successors; the Ethical Code would be sensibly followed because of the above points, and not only because the implications of the existence of a Deity, an afterlife which may be pleasurable or not depending on this conduct. I repeat, people would not avoid doing evil for fear of hell, but because it is evil in the opinion of their beloved Deity; yet, they would be doubly cautious to avoid it, if they truly feared hell.
  • An essential recognition of the massive human capacity for deception, including self-deception, pandering, turning away from the difficult in favour of the easy (despite the ethics of the choice), and an inherent distrust of human organizations, which inevitably compound peoples’ bad capacities and further demand loyalty, thus contravening the loyalty demanded in the first point.
  • An obligation to love and thus to aid one’s fellows (neighbours) even when such help will cost one dearly; to oppose that which obstructs their salvation, even when they love it dearly, dangerously, self-destructively.

Perhaps these are Puritanical injunctions. Perhaps I missed the bit in the New Testament when it said, “It’s okay to just mumble faith, it’s okay to let others do it all around you; it’s okay to use religion to make money, even to do so using every possible form of deceit and disgrace possible in the process; it is alright to reduce all of the things discussed heretofore and hereafter as a kind of shell-game, just, you know, don’t be so rude as to bring it up in public.”

Myself, I simply walked away from the mess; I recognized that it’s a short step from avoiding evil because it’s evil in a Deity’s mind, to avoiding evil and seeking good because evil is evil and good is good. (However one comes to the definition of it; I trust myself better than I trust presbyters who do not speak out, or laypersons who are misguided by them. If there is a Deity, it is clear many of those who claim a representative position simply do not speak that One’s wishes from their lips—I have never once seen a preacher ransack any of the tables in any figurative temple, nor speak truth against a latter-day Pharisee, and trust myself to the wilderness better than I trust my guidance to “them who walk in long robes”, to use a condemnation of Kierkegaard’s. The struggle for me was, and has been, to maintain something Kierkegaard is an exemplar for—a ruthless commitment to truth that is, nonetheless, accompanied not by hatred but rather by pity for the misguided who do not even see the trap into which they have fallen, the watered-down, sodden lie which they grasp, occasionally, at the appointed times or under duress.

Were I a Christian, I suspect that my fellows—meaning other Christians—would think me downright Puritanical; and I suspect, it would be much like this for most of my nonreligious (atheist or agnostic alike) friends. Serious, honest atheists especially, I find, cannot abide a hypocrisy, an inconsistency; this is why they have the courage to walk away from Christendom, despite the dismay of their families, their lovers, their associates—for publicly avowing atheism can cost one a lot, privately and publically, and they suffer sometimes as much as do the few believers who choose to remain, fighting off the poison seeping from the hospital walls, to minister to one another.

Which is where I come to terms with my own response to all that I was taught; I took the whole of it, all, and cast it aside. I walked out the chapel door, took up my fishing reel, and cast my fishhook out into the great teeming noisy universe, and quietly waited to see what would come to me, as I fished on and on and on. Philosophy came, and art came, and the voices of people much wiser than me guided me down all the hallways I have walked.

And I think I have come upon a secret; that the good atheist and the true Puritan are almost the same animal, one’s weakness the other’s strength, and vice-versa. In the face of so much mediocrity, so much soft-wax “belief”, to believe truly, or to disbelieve, is an act of courage, or passion, of decency. Both the good atheist and the true Puritan hates the hospital’s poison walls, and wishes not that people be poisoned by it, only. This is a secret that almost all will reject and revile, because it stands as a brilliant counterexample to the endemic mediocrity of most people in their religiosity. As Bertrand Russell wrote:

Conventional people are roused to fury by departure from convention, largely because they regard such departure as a criticism of themselves.

And rightly so, people who do not believe as if it mattered, do not follow as if it truly mattered, feel criticized by those who refuse to do as they do—the truly pious and the so-called apostate alike. For the mediocre, misled as they are, I believe they detect that even abandonment of the faith is a step away from the biggest apostasy, which is the milquetoast faith of the masses, of quantity over quality, the practice which demands so very little.

Confronted with a Christian who loves the truth, who will not brook deceit, will not defend lies or mediocrity but still feels compassion and love for her poor fellows, my heart leaps with joy: Lime is such a person, and her honesty and passion for The Good shine like a light for me in this near-shadowy world. I hope that Christians, when confronted with one such as me, who loves the truth (even if it is a slightly different “truth” from theirs), will not brook deceit and hypocrisy, will not defend lies or mediocrity but still feels compassion and love for his poor fellows, I trust in good faith that they will see that such a little degree of difference separates them. And I trust their Deity, were it to turn out that Being did indeed have Dominion over all the worlds, would be equipped with the same sense and wisdom to see this.

And so, for all of our differences, I feel closer, in some ways, to the Kierkegaard of this book, the railing, angry, hurt, betrayed Christian, one we could even call a fundamentalist (though not necessarily in the modern, creationist sense), the man alone who stood outside Christendom, railing, and was mocked and persecuted—but never honestly answered—in the newspapers of his day; who sat at a cafe during the Sunday service, reading the paper and sipping coffee just in time for all the Evangelical Lutheran churchgoers to pass him by in the street on their way home from the State-sponsored worship ceremonies, though it pained him to do so. Imagine the sadness he felt, looking into the faces of his fellows, knowing it was they who thought him—and not the local Bishop—as a traitor, an apostate. The book, read closely and carefully, is not only a diatribe, but also a moving account of his journey through that pivotal time in his life, “The Instant”, which was the moment when he finally did what he felt he absolutely had to do, and stood up for what he believed the truth, and against what he believed was falseness, horror, and damnation, being sold as comfortable, convenient, easy, palatable truth and salvation.

That Kierkegaard, who was willing to suffer for what was even I can recognize was right, willing to assault what he felt evil: I look up to him, aspite to his courage and decency and selflessness, regardless of those points upon which we do, vastly, differ. The kinship is uneasy, uncertain, but I recognize it should feel that way, and I can accept it.

6 thoughts on “Something Rotten In The Church of Denmark

  1. Hello Gord,

    Thanks for the insightful and thought-provoking post. It’s good to see folks in the non-religious camp take the religiously-minded seriously.

    I haven’t read Kierkegaard in years, but here are some thoughts on your post:

    Kierkegaard’s “Attack on Christendom” reminds me of the title of a recent book by a Korean Protestant pastor: “For Christ to Live the Church Must Die” or something like that in Korean. This is a very Protestant and ultimately individualist outlook, which envisions Christianity as a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” not as the Communion of Saints or as the Body of Christ.

    The Catholic, understanding that both the “wheat and the tares” make up the Kingdom (the Church or Christendom), is much more ready to accept the failings of his fellows to live up to their faith and the glaring imperfections found in the Church, for good and for ill.

    Serge of A conservative blog for peace noted that in the Catholic South and Orthodox East, great extremes of both holiness and of evil can be readily witnessed, while in the Protestant North, there is a general, pervasive, and very conventional mediocrity.

    Perhaps that’s what Kierkegaard was really attacking. (Not having read the book, I can’t say.)

    Looking around us (in Church), it’s easy to be disheartened. But stepping back a bit, not ignoring but putting into context the aberrations (e.g. the Inquisition), we see that Christendom is the civilization that brought us the universities and hospitals we know today. It nurtured science, humanism, music, and the arts. The Church has always insisted that in addition to saving souls, it has had a “civilizing mission.” Such a mission must be a collective, not individual, effort.

    Hilaire Belloc went as far to say that Christ didn’t found Christianity, he founded Christendom.


  2. Really nice piece – I’ve been lurking on the site for a while and wanted to note my appreciation for what you have in general here…

    I was puzzled a bit by your self-characterization as puritan/fundimentalist – it is the opposite case.

    Who is a Christian? I had the great fortune to meet Philip Berrigan a year or so before he died and he used the phrase “a Catholic trying to become a Christian” to describe his own state of belief. He said it directly and plainly. I’ve since heard the phrase elsewhere and am not sure where it originates but I feel that if such a man is not yet ‘there’ then there are not many who are.

    Reading your piece, I thought of Ernst Bloch’s formulation “True Christianity is very close to atheism…” The impulse towards communal based belief accompanied by a rejection of false structures – whether they be golden calves or church hierarchies.

    Kierkegaard, for example his version of the Abraham/Issac story, is very clear on the limits of faith in the modern secular world (his not ours) and we have passed that so much that outward shows of religiousity and piety seem false and perverse in their willing blindness… And quoting Christ to defend the excersize of power – evil.

    And reflecting upon the current klepto-theocratic regime that runs my country at the moment it fills me with deep anger to hear the prseident invoke Jesus – to misquote Blake: ‘his vision is my vision’s greatest enemy…’

    But I digress – I very much enjoy eclexys


  3. Thanks, Michael and Joshua, I appreciate the compliments.

    Michael: I use the word “Puritan” when I should use “Puritanical”. I mean in the ranting, hollering, castigating sense that the Pearl-poet was a “Puritanical” writer, very angry at the “structure” of Christendom and at organized Churches that basically diluted Christendom. Were I a practicing Christian, I would probably be one of them. I am quite the opposite, of course, because I am not a practicing Christian.

    That Ernest Bloch sounds interesting: any books you can recommend?

    Thanks for delurking, I’m always happy to discover another reader who enjoys the page. :)


    You should see the book by Kierkegaard as to why the Catholic “wheat and tares” approach is so questionable. Kierkegaard basically saw that sort of thing as a massive social delusion perpetrated against the masses to allow them to live in a kind of neo-Pagan world labeled Christian. He argued that in his own Church, the reasoning for “accepting those failings” was because there never were any real expectations for the laity anyway, except to prop up the Church as a kind of passive occasional audience, and monetarily.

    The mediocrity Kierkegaard attacked, I see very clearly looking back on my own experience of the Catholic church in North America. Quite indistinguishable from what he described, if you ask me.

    And as for me, I don’t feel disheartened. I feel quite refreshed, having seen a truly brilliant and very religious man with whom I could see eye-to-eye on a number of issues with regard to Churchdom.

    I suspect Belloc is using the word “Christendom” differently from the way Kierkegaard was meaning it.

  4. Ernst Bloch was a contemporary (and friend) of Teodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin and like them is usually identified as of the Frankfurt School. The major works in English are “The Principle of Hope”, “Heritage of our Times”, “Atheism in Christianity”, “Man on his own”.

    He wrote in varied fields (like Adorno and Benjamin) and is prbly most known today in liberation theology and Green party circles, today.

    I studied him in a political theory/ aesthetics course in grad school and though that was the better part of a decade ago remember being very struck by the idea that aesthetic political and religious expression as all essentially being of the same ontological striving. In short as opposed to the Cartesian “I am” as a starting point his was “We are becoming” and the signs and traces of this are clear in emancipatory political, social, religious movements.

    He does this without reducing the aestheic to the political or an irrationalist appeal to revolution for revolution’s sake – two things you see in many post-structuralists.

    I feel a little awkward talking about this as it has been a while since i actually studied it. I found a link that is pretty good:

    kellner and bronner (of this website) both studied with Bloch.


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