Kierkegaard and Crowd Christianity

Cliff Williams
Department of Philosophy
Wheaton College
Wheaton, Illinois 60187

A presentation at Cornerstone Festival
Bushnell, Illinois
July, 2004
 
Soren Kierkegaard lived in Denmark from 1813-1855. His Attack upon “Christendom” was a call to the Danish church to restore itself to New Testament Christianity. It also contained astute psychological insights about faith.
 
The charge
 
“No, official Christianity is not the Christianity of the New Testament. Anybody can see that merely by casting a fleeting but impartial glance at the Gospels, and then looking at what we call ‘Christianity’” (Attack, 41).
 
“To be a Christian has become a nothing, a silly game, something that everyone is as a matter of course, something one slips into more easily than one slips into the most trifling accomplishment” (Practice in Christianity, 67).
 
Sly and subtle
 
“The apostasy from Christianity will not come about openly by everybody renouncing Christianity; no, but slyly, cunningly, knavishly, by everybody assuming the name of being Christian, thinking that in this way all were most secured against . . . Christianity, the Christianity of the New Testament, which people are afraid of” (Attack, 46-47).
 
“A lack of conscience does not manifest itself as criminal acts—which would be foolish, stupid, an ill-advised—no, no, it manifests itself with moderation, to a certain degree, and then with taste and culture; it makes life cozy and enjoyable” (For Self-Examination, 40).
 
Playing the game of Christianity
 
“Where all are Christians, the situation is this: to call oneself a Christian is the means whereby one secures oneself against all sorts of inconveniences and discomforts. . . . And orthodoxy flourishes in the land, no heresy, no schism, orthodoxy everywhere, the orthodoxy that consists in playing the game of Christianity” (Attack, 27-28).
 
More contrary than overt opposition
 
“There is that which is more contrary to Christianity, and to the very nature of Christianity, than any heresy, any schism, more contrary than all heresies and all schisms combined, and that is, to play Christianity” (Attack, 8).
 
Illusion
 
“When Christianity came into the world the task was simply to proclaim Christianity. . . . 
“In ‘Christendom’ the situation is a different one. What we have before us is not Christianity but a prodigious illusion, and the people are not pagans but live in the blissful conceit that they are Christians. So if in this situation Christianity is to be introduced, first of all the illusion must be disposed of” (Attack, 97).
 
Honesty
 
“Quite simply: I want honesty” (Attack, 37).
 
The crowd
 
“The most ruinous evasion of all is to be hidden in the crowd in an attempt to escape God’s supervision of him as an individual, in an attempt to get away from hearing God’s voice as an individual” (Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, 185).
 
“The situation is this. If everyone around defines himself as being a Christian just like ‘the other,’ then no one, if it is looked at this way, is really confessing Christ” (Practice in Christianity, 219)
 
What does it mean to be hidden in the crowd?
 
“For where there are many, there is externality, comparison, and indulgence, and excuse and evasion” (Purity of Heart, 211).
 
“Oblivion and indulgence from that which is eternal” (Purity of Heart, 192).
 
Why does Kierkegaard focus on the crowd?
 
(1) Hiding in the crowd is alluring. 
(2) We are continually surrounded by crowds. 
(3) We are afraid of sticking out. We are afraid of being an individual. 

“The most terrifying burden of the creature is to be isolated, which is what happens in individuation: one separates himself out of the herd. This move exposes the person to the sense of being completely crushed and annihilated because he sticks out so much, has to carry so much in himself” (Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, 171).
 
What does it mean to be an individual?
 
“To be a single individual . . . is a human being’s only true and highest significance” (Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 149).
 
Being an individual is “the decisive Christian category.” With this category, “the cause of Christianity stands or falls” (Point of View, 133, 134).
 
“In eternity each shall render account as an individual” (Purity of Heart, 185).
 
"Each man himself, as an individual, should render his account to God” (Purity of Heart, 185).
 
Self-suspicion
 
“Earnestness is precisely this kind of honest distrust of oneself, to treat oneself as a suspicious character” (For Self-Examination, 44).
 
Courage
 
Being an individual requires more courage than anything else.
 
Salvation
 
“Every person has heaven’s salvation only by the grace and mercy of God” (Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, 271).
 
Questions
 
How can we discover when we are hiding from God in a crowd? 
If we do not know that we are victims of an illusion, how can we find out? 
Not being a crowd Christian is not the same as being different from everyone else. How, then, can we avoid being a crowd Christian? 
What are we most afraid of?
 
Some miscellaneous quotes
 
“For primitivity—having to be primitive, alone with God without being preceded by others whom one can ape and to whom one can refer for corroboration—is something people accept most reluctantly” (Diary, 162).
 
“Only that personality is mature who absorbs truth and makes it his own” (Diary, 121).
 
“It was different in those ancient days. Faith was then a task for a whole lifetime, because it was assumed that proficiency in believing is not acquired either in days or in weeks. When the tried and tested oldster approached his end, had fought the good fight and kept the faith, his heart was still young enough not to have forgotten the anxiety and trembling that disciplined the youth, that the adult learned to control, but that no man outgrows” (Fear and Trembling, 7).

Quotations are from the Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong translations, except for Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing (trans. Douglas Steere, 1948) and the Diary (trans. Peter P. Rohde, 1960).
 

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