witnesses to Jesus

I have been continuing to read The Freedom to Become a Christian: A Kierkegaardian Account of Human Transformation in Relationship with God. (I had a very pleasant hour on the beach yesterday reading and watching the waves.)

I just wanted to share two quotes that really struck me:

When Christian conceptions or propositions become the object of the Christian faith (for example, in the form of Christian doctrine), ‘Christianity’ becomes a plaything for intellectual pursuits, cultural sensibilities and political agendas. This is not, of course, to deny that Christian concepts and propositions serve a purpose. Their primary purpose, however, is to serve as a witness to God: to provide us with teaching that helps us to talk about, understand and know both who God is and who we are before God. But, for Kierkegaard, they are not to take centre stage.

The Freedom to Become a Christian, 4.

I was struck by the idea that doctrine etc are witnesses. And that these provide a framework for us to speak about God.

The conclusion that this work seeks to draw is that, for Kierkegaard, Christian belief and understanding are subordinate to a person’s relationship with God. They do not constitute the relationship itself. They are nothing more than a witness to and expression of the fact that God actively relates to us in history.

This is the main aim of the book. And I think this is a really important point to remember: it is all about a relationship. As the author further explains it is about a choice for the Christian life, it is not about conclusions but rather a resolution. (The last part is me!)

intentionally focused on Jesus

I will preface this post by saying that I am not a philosopher, nor am I a theologian. I am a person who reads and thinks. So the following has no standing in either philosophy or theology (or reasoned argument).

I have been trying to understand phenomenology. Maybe understand is the wrong word!? I am trying to skip the stone on the surface of phenomenology to see where the ripples go to.

So Wikipedia defines it as the

philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness.

It is the first part that interests me: what is experience? Maybe to put it more in context, what does it mean to ‘experience Jesus’? I have no answers, either can there be an answer, but I have one observation. And that observation relates directly to this week’s gospel reading, Mark 4:26:34 (about which I will post later).

In that context I stumbled upon the idea of intentionality.

Intentionalism is the thesis that all mental states are intentional, i.e. that they are about something: about their intentional object.

Now, to wrap up a long and convoluted post, to experience Jesus one must be intentionally focused on Jesus.

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Mark 4:33-34

To hear Jesus in the midst of all the noise of this world, one must be listening for Him. And to listen for Him one must be focused on Him alone. The lesson for me is that I need to have times of the day that I am completely focused on Jesus. For me, silence helps. And, of course, Jesus is not an object but a person. So I need to be focused on a person, settle my mind and see with the eyes of faith the Person.

Does any of that make sense?

Kierkegaard and Batman

I have been thinking of rewatching Christopher Nolan‘s Batman series. I have enjoyed them in the past and, since we are back in lockdown, I have a little spare time. And Existentialist Comics has a great comic on the connection between Kierkegaard and Batman.

A movie is an experience. I think we sometimes over look the depth of some movies. I like the no-brainer movies too. But there are movies that make people think and, I think, the church should acknowledge that and work with it rather than against it. I think Jesus (and most certainly Kierkegaard) would use examples from modern movies to illustrate His points.

I have always thought that the three Nolan Batman movies had much philosophical depth. And I really like Batman as a superhero. So I did a quick Google and found this: The Dark Knight: Why So Existential? The post draws some very good connections with Fear and Trembling. It is well worth a read!

I might write more about Batman as I make my way through the movies.

encountering Jesus?

I woke up thinking about the Knowledge argument. Yes, I am really weird! Actually I suspect I was thinking about Ex Machina that includes it. It goes by some other names – Mary’s room or Mary the super-scientist – yet fundamentally it is a thought experiment by Frank Jackson. In short:

… Jackson’s Mary is a scientist who knows everything there is to know about the science of color, but has never experienced color. The question that Jackson raises is: once she experiences color, does she learn anything new? Jackson claims that she does.

I find that idea really interesting. I think we sometimes, in a modern scientific world, downplay experience in epistemology. Is something that I know but have never experienced really “knowledge”?

So allow me to move the discussion in a theological direction. Does the experience of Jesus change me? Can I know Jesus without ever experiencing Him? Of course these questions actually influence the way we do “mission” and “evangelism”. Unfortunately sometimes “sharing my faith” is more about personal validation than transformation.

I think that I can tell people about Jesus and then the individual experiences Him. So is the speaking about really transformative or is the experience that may or may not follow? Of course, the issue is further complicated by the very fact that Jesus is a person and not an idea. A person who needs to be encountered. It is the personal meeting with Jesus that transforms – what role does my speaking about Him play?

Anyway, I was wondering what gospel story could be used to illustrate the above philosophical point? The Road to Emmaus? The blind man in John 9? Any suggestions?

via negationis

I wanted to share this series of post as I think they are really interesting: Existentialism and Christianity (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). One little quote from The Totalitarianism of “Reason” (Part 3):

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was a dissenter from the new totalitarianism of “reason” and the gnosticism of Enlightenment philosophy. For him, as for the ancient Christian mystics, God was grasped intuitively, by a love that is beyond mere reason, since caritas is greater than even the greatest human knowledge. Such a view is redolent of the “cloud of unknowing” or the via negationis – the doctrine of divine simplicity espoused by the medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas. According to this “eliminative method” one can define God by what he is not, since it is so difficult for us to truly appreciate what he is.

One of the things I have learned from existentialism (read: Kierkegaard) is that every person carries their story into everything they do and say. We each have an individual view of everything but it is always nice when one story meets another. The author is maybe a Roman Catholic and hence the return to Aquinas.

I like the opening: Kierkegaard stands solidly within the mystical tradition of Christianity. Maybe even the neo-Platonism of Augustine and Anselm! But, as with all modern philosophers of note, he takes it one step further – he speaks to a modern context. And to make the point: Kierkegaard is not an existentialist as he both predates it and is solidly a writer within the Christian tradition. Kierkegaard is not part of any school of thought and that is why he is so interesting – he is the “single individual” of philosophy.

But I have gotten off-topic. David R. Law has written a number of books on Kierkegaard as a negative theologian and kenotic Christology. Law’s article on the Chirstology of Practice in Christianity is a very interesting read. I think Kierkegaard’s Christology, “who is Jesus for Søren?”, would be a very interesting topic to explore especially in light of his later writings, that is, the Communion Discourses. Also how pietism played a role in Kierkegaard’s thought.

Anyway, just wanted to share the quote.

so far away from me

There is, namely, an infinite chasmic difference between God and man.

Practice in Christianity, Hong 63

I have been thinking about transcendence a lot in the last couple of days. I think I have moved to opposite poles on the discussion between knowing God in imminence and God’s complete “otherness”. I was in the “you can know God by reason” camp for a long time. So the task of theology (and apologetics) was to give a reasoned argument for God (like such a thing is possible) and people would see the error of their ways and do what God wants. Or, the other side of the same argument, if we have beautiful churches and divine liturgy, people would be converted.

Experience has taught me that neither of those two positions are valid or viable. The most well argued piece of logic will not create faith. Reason is not beyond faith. And beautiful churches in themselves do not draw people but only the beauty of Him who is present. (The Absolute Paradox is part of my movement away from imminence.)

I know I have been influenced in that move by reading Kierkegaard. Not so much his theological or philosophical works. But rather his discourses, his “sermons”. I find these full of grace and love – allowing God to be God. And I will write about them in a future post.

But today a quote from Practice in Christianity. I like how Kierkegaard says it: “infinite chasmic difference”. God’s love is what “motivates” Him to move close to us. And even my desire to know Him is God reaching out – He has placed the longing for Him in my heart.

I find it a very comforting thought that God has reached out (and reaches out everyday) to me personally. It is only in God’s free choice to come near to me, in love and the Absolute Paradox, that I can know Him and have a relationship with Him. So God by nature is completely other but in love is close to me.

Doubting Thomas?

Today is Low Sunday, the Sunday after Easter. The traditional gospel for today is about Thomas’ doubt. Our Vicar preached a good sermon on how it is not really Thomas’ doubt that God draws our attention to in this gospel but rather the apostles’ failure to proclaim and embody their faith. I thought it was a very good sermon.

Yesterday I started reading a book by Michael Harvey, Skepticism, Relativism, and Religious Knowledge: A Kierkegaardian Perspective Informed by Wittgenstein’s Philosophy. I think I have started it before as there are notes in the ebook. The topic of religious epistemology really interests me. Some of the problems, I think, of modern Christianity centres on a misunderstanding of faith and in particular placing faith within the sphere of knowledge. So, for example, fideism is faith without proof. I think this book makes a number of very good points from a Kierkegaardian point of view about today’s gospel and Christianity as a whole.

So I have three quotes from the Foreword by Stanley Hauerwas:

… what cannot be forgotten is that truth for Christians is not just another object but a concrete person, Jesus of Nazareth.

This point needs to be made again and again. Jesus say “I am the truth” not “I will give you the truth and then you have it apart from me”. Truth for Christianity is a person and not an object – a person who is experienced and encountered but may never be understood.

… To be a Christian, which to be sure involves “believing,” entails an ongoing transformation of the emotions. Such a transformation means to believe in God is to know how to do something. In particular it means knowing how to go on when you often do not know where you are or where you are going. The truth of what Christians believe cannot be separated from who they must be.

Faith is about living – living with hope. Faith is a resolution to “abide in Him” more than a conclusion reached at the end of an argument. The Truth that is encountered in faith makes me a different person – it transforms me and calls me to change every day of my life.

Skepticism arises from our desire to know without the self being transformed. Ironically skepticism is but the result of our anxious desire to secure certainty by being “at home in the world.”

I really like this idea – the search for certainty is a desire to find a home in this world. For Christians “truth” is transcendent and otherworldly because God is transcendent. For science “truth” is imminent and an object that can be measured and described. God is beyond our measuring and defining. So faith is always a leap into the uncertain.

Our modern age holds truth at arms-length and thinks that I can know the truth without that truth changing me. The opposite of faith is not doubt – because that would place faith in the sphere of knowledge – but sin, a refusal to be transformed by Jesus.

existential individual

We are born biological beings but we must become existential individuals by accepting responsibility for our actions. This is an application of Nietzsche’s advice to ‘become what you are’. Many people never do acknowledge such responsibility but rather flee their existential individuality into the comfort of the faceless crowd.

Thomas Flynn, Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction.

I remember first reading the above quote and being caught off-guard. The philosophy I had read before that had been western Aristotelian – Thomas Aquinas and the more conservative Roman Catholic philosophers. I read Augustine’s Confessions one Lent and became more interested in Plato and Christian Platonism. Somehow (by God’s grace) I read a few books about existentialism and ended with Kierkegaard. I’ll admit that just being able to spell “Kierkegaard” was a point of pride. I was attracted by Kierkegaard’s view of the self but the Absolute Paradox keeps me reading. But that is for another post!

The above is a thought I have often returned to because it puts it so simply and elegantly. Kierkegaard, of course, would speak of becoming a “single individual” before God. Often in Christian circles I have heard people speak of the evil of modern individualism. I think that is how some people would read the above quote. But the issue with modern individualism (what is that?) is the idea of freedom – someone being free does not mean that their actions are right. Again, for another post!

“Actions and consequences before God” is how I read the quote. (And how I understand Kierkegaard’s “single individual”.) I am responsible for my actions and for my relationship with Jesus. There is no magic formula or secret handshake that creates and keeps me in that relationship. No doctrinal position or liturgical rite will take away from me the responsibility I have before God for my relationship with Him. God makes the first move and reaches out to me. I am called to respond to Him in my particular and individual situation.

Maybe I should write a little about “faith” in the future? But the above is just as true for me in my daily life with depression. The moment I took responsibility for my mental health things changed. I remember crying for the first time during counselling – not hiding the pain behind a mask given to me by the crowd, not allowing the crowd to define me and box me into a role. Finding out what that “me” is has been painful and very hard. And it is a daily struggle not to run back into the crowd and just surrender “me” to a function I have been assigned.

So, anyway, I just wanted to share that quote.

common experience?

One of the strongest memories of my youth is of an orchard next to our house. Maybe it was not really an orchard but more of a hobby garden. at the front of this garden there was an apple tree that grew into the street. My strongest memory of growing up is hiding in the garage and eating the apples on a warm summer afternoon.

green or red? sweet or sour? big or small?

As you read that story (and be honest) what was the image of an apple that you had in your mind? Was the apple large or small? Was it sweet or sour? And was the apple green or red?

For the record the apples were green, small and extremely sour. When I hear the word “apple” that is the image I have in my mind.

So here is the “moral of the story”: can I assume that my experience of the world is anything like your experience of the world? I know I experience the world but can I abstract a common experience from my experience. Or is it an act of faith?