William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian, Spiritual Director

Tag: soren kierkegaard

Striving for the Good in the Face of Uncertainy: The Paradox of Faith and Politics in Kierkegaard and Niebuhr

[My argument in this paper is that Kierkegaard and Niebuhr together, with their notions of faith and justice as paradoxical, provide a political theology that is neither despairing nor presumptuous in its vision for how to strive for the good. This is what I presented at the American Academy of Religion Annual Conference in San Diego this past week. For that reason, it is written more for a talk and is not in final format, so some of the references are not properly cited yet.]

The paradox of politics for Rousseau was the question of, “Which comes first, good people or good laws?”  In other words, how can a democracy be legitimate when the legitimacy comes from the democracy itself which is to be founded? There is always the problem of delimiting the people and deciding who speaks for them. It is never a fixed entity, and certain groups are always excluded. According to Bonnie Honig in her book Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law and Democracy, “…even established regimes are hardly rendered immune by their longevity to the paradoxical difficulty that Rousseau names… the paradox of politics is replayed rather than overcome in time” (EP, 14).

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Kierkegaard's Passionate Individual Inwardness

Uncertainty - more work to do

“An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual . . . The truth is precisely the venture which chooses an objective uncertainty with the passion of the infinite.  I contemplate the order of nature in the hope of finding God, and I see omnipotence and wisdom; but I also see much else that disturbs my mind and excites anxiety.  The sum of all this is an objective uncertainty.  But it is for this very reason that the inwardness becomes as intense as it is, for it embraces this objective uncertainty with the entire passion of the infinite . . . Without risk there is no faith.  Faith is precisely the contradiction between the infinite passion of the individual’s inwardness and the objective uncertainty.” p. 182

“Existence is the child that is born of the infinite and the finite, the eternal and the temporal, and is therefore a constant striving.” p. 84

“An existing individual is himself in process of becoming . . . In existence the watchword is always forward.”  p. 368

Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript

Church as Messianic or Prophetic? Attempting a Clarification

Soren Kierkegaard studying

Soren Kierkegaard studying (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In his book, The Nature and Destiny of [Humanity], Reinhold Niebuhr distinguishes between three different kinds of religious “identity” and “purpose” (my words).  I see them closely corresponding to Soren Kierkegaard‘s three stages of life: the aesthetic, the ethical-moral, and the religious.

In the first place, there is the sensual life of indulgent self-interest.  And lest we be too hard on this group, it should be acknolwedged that the “aesthetic” life can be quite civil and friendly.  I think about the relative peace enjoyed by those who benefit, for example, from pax romana, or presently, pax america — that is, the economic and political stability established as a result of imperialism.  It is a climate in which we are more or less free to pursue our own ambitions and dreams without too much interference, as long as we don’t harm anyone else and obey the law.

A second mode of existence is one that recognizes and strives to adhere to a higher moral law.  Today we might actually reverse the Kierkegaardian language and call this mode the “religious” life.  The religious life can be very good, and deeply prophetic.  While it risks a great deal of self-righteousness, it also has the capacity to speak truth to power, criticize injustice and inspire generosity.  This mode looks out for the disenfranchised.  The trouble is that it can tend to miss the “log in its own eye.”

Thirdly, there is what Niebuhr calls the messianic consciousness, which is the properly Christian one for him.  The key lesson from messianism is that we cannot achieve justice or be righteous on our own no matter how hard we try.  Sin and egoism have so enslaved us as to make our good deeds no more than “filthy rags” before God’s throne, as Scripture says.  Only a sinless, suffering servant can bring about the full redemption and peace we all long for…


My friend Bo Sanders over at Homebrewed Christianity has become fond of talking about three different kinds of churches: the therapeutic, messianic and prophetic (he claims to get this from Cornell West and Slavoj Zizek).  What’s so interesting to me, and what might already be clear, is the way that the messianic and the prophetic are switched so as to alter the Niebuhrian logic.  On this reading, the prophetic is preferable to and “higher” than the messianic, because the messianic is cynically interpreted to be escapist and other-worldly — i.e., God cleaning up the mess for us, and our responsibility is proportionally shrunk as long as we’re counted among the “saved.”

Now, I think it’s possible to see that both series of depictions are getting at essentially the same thing, but each with slightly greater respective emphasis on one of two necessary components to the life of the church: namely, the messianic (merciful) and the prophetic (just).  Jewish liberation theologian Marc Ellis was the person who first made the point to me about the problem with sheer messianism.  Of course, the naive Christian in me at the time wanted to challenge him by replying with the weaknesses of strict propheticism, some of which have already been highlighted above.  But actually I believe now that Ellis was right.

This is because Ellis also discusses the concept of revolutionary forgiveness.  This is an especially useful motif with regard to political, ethnic and national reconciliation, but surely it can apply to interpersonal relationships as well.  By this phrase, Ellis means first that no one gets to claim innocence for themselves.  Once all parties agree to this, then there can be some healing and transformation toward a better future, and — I would venture to say — toward salvation itself, which is always messianic and prophetic.

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