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Kierkegaardian Truth-Telling

(This comes from an apologetics paper I once wrote.) 

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55) takes issue with the modernist approach of alienating the subject from the world, but does so from a different perspective than Heidegger (although there are some similarities of approach, especially since Heidegger was influenced by Kierkegaard). Although he has been accused of being fideistic, I think this is a simplification, especially in light of his sustained assault on the mediating (and syncretistic) theology of George William Hegel (1770-1831) and his followers.

Using irony and a deliberately “fragmented” approach, Kierkegaard insisted that objective reflection “thingifies” and thus distances the knower from the known. “Truth” becomes “fact,” a category of indifference to the “accident” of the ever-vanishing subject. Objectivity, abstraction, an approach to the world as independent, impartial, and ever-approximating is to focus on the “what” of knowing, and consequently to alienate oneself from the active engagement of life and life’s ultimate concerns.

The “subjective” approach, on the other hand, emphasizes the “how” of knowing, by making interpretation a matter of personal appropriation, which rejects the identity of thought and being as an illusion of the abstract. Life is a process of coming-to-be, and this is best understood in the values that determine our choices. The realm of personal significance, moral awareness, and religious encounter.

“..When the question of truth is asked objectively, what is reflected upon is not the relation but the what of the relation. As long as what one relates oneself to is the truth, the subject is supposedly in the truth. But when the question of the truth is asked subjectively, the individual’s relation to the truth is what matters. If only the how (not the what) of this relation is in the truth, then the individual is in the truth, even if he in this way were to relate himself to untruth.” (Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Vol 1).

A Kierkegaardian Apologetic Strategy

A Kierkegaardian apologetic strategy is, I think, one possible means of presenting the gospel to a postmodern culture. Instead of a commitment to “objective” truth, we can agree with the postmodernist critique that “totalizing metanarratives” need to be constrained by seeing them as stories within a determining context. Using a contructivist ontology method, we can agree with the idea that “thingness” is a social artifact (or “text”): a thing is what it is only within the structures and patterns of meaning that contextualize the object of concern. And apart from this mediating construct, or storyline, there is literally “no-thing.”

The Stories we tell Ourselves

Kierkegaardian “spheres” of existence, the role of individual choices and their meaning within the story we tell ourselves, the “distancing” of ourselves from possible interpretations, the use of irony and indirect communication, all can provide tools for communicating the gospel in the postmodern milieu.

Indirect communication is parabolic in nature: it uses the medium of story to reveal the nature of the self and its highest aspirations (as well as its worst fears) by laying bare the self’s presuppositions. For the aesthetic lifestyle, the story might be told of the power and satisfaction that comes from the fulfillment of one’s desires, or the sense of transcendence that comes from the elation of immediacy and forgetfulness in the moment.  Its focus is on the romantic  “moment,” the Dionysian revelry, the intoxication of unreflective pleasure. Note that none of these lifestyle “stories” need to be disingenuously presented, for this is a valid lifestyle with its own merits and demerits (which only the existing individual who chooses to live them can ascertain for herself). But nevertheless, it is not the only story to be told.

Ethical stories, with their use of the heroic, tragic, and comedic also have their “language” for those with ears to hear…. These stories point to a form of transcendence that signify a unifying sense of purpose in the struggles of peoples in various cultures and climes.  Ancient myths, folklore, and fairy tales can all be pointers to a “signifier that transcends the sign.”

Religious stories open up other possible spheres of existence.  Kierkegaard distinguishes between “Religiousness A,” a religion of immanence, and “Religiousness B,” a religion of paradox. Many streams of cultural traditions and myths may be considered in this form of life-choosing. Religiousness B, however, is distinctly a Christian form of religiousness, and expressly reveals the inherent contradictions involved in the problem of finding unity in diversity, answering the question of alienation in relation to the need to find unchanging love, and so on. It is not for everyone: it is the “narrow road” that is based on “offense” and living in relation to the transcendental eternal within the parameters of the finite.

This apologetic strategy is both flexible and permeable in that it is essentially “dialectical,” meaning that it is based on an ongoing dialog between the “reader” and the “text.”

The Story of our Life together

The story we choose to tell ourselves determines how we will see the world and how we will constitute our place within it. The Christian story of redemptive love is an antidote for the profound loneliness and ultimate nihilism of the postmodern worldview. Christianly understood, the story is about our need for love and our healing from the alienation and fragmentation of our lives. It provides a unifying vision of ourselves as part of a transcultural community that is bound together in faith, hope, and love. It need not apotheosize culture nor demonize civilization, since the church is a community called out to actively dialog and share its ancient love story with the world that surrounds it. The task of theology is therefore one of retelling the story, embracing its implications, and, when necessary for the sake of the force of the narrative, making prosaic what otherwise is aesthetic and passionately volitional.

The story we ultimately embrace reveals something about who we choose to become. In a very real sense it determines our very lives. I cannot prescribe to you the way to go; I can only share my own vision and passion as I strive to become integrated and healed within a community of love. Individual and corporate praxis, therefore, is the ultimate witnessing tool. The postmodern mind needs to see the choices made in the context of our lives as we proclaim the shared story of our hope.

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