Kierkegaard for Grownups
Richard John Neuhaus
That extraordinary writer of stories about the "Christ-haunted" American South, Flannery O’Connor, was frequently asked why her people and plots were so often outlandish, even grotesque. She answered, "To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you have to draw large and startling figures." I expect Søren Kierkegaard, had he lived a century later, would have taken to Flannery O’Connor and would have relished her affirmation of the necessarily outlandish. But then he would immediately be on guard lest anyone think that he does not really mean what he says, that he is anything less than utterly, indeed deadly, serious. He exaggerates for effect and witheringly attacks his opponents who suggest that his exaggeration is anything less than the truth of the matter. He writes, as he repeatedly says, for that one reader—the singular individual who has the courage to understand him—while at the same time describing in detail, and often with hilarious parody, the many readers who refuse to take him at his word. Kierkegaard was keenly (some would say obsessively) attentive to the ways in which he was misunderstood, even as he persistently and defiantly courted misunderstanding. This, as readers beyond numbering have discovered, can be quite maddening. It is also at least part of the reason why Kierkegaard is so widely read.
Once the established order has "deified" itself by claiming to have subsumed the absolute to itself, there is nothing that it cannot presume to do. A person asks, "Do you mean the established order can assure my eternal salvation?" In one of the most scathing passages in Training, Kierkegaard lets the established order answer that question. "Why certainly. And if with regard to this matter you encounter in the end some obstacle, can you not be contented like all the others, when your last hour has come, to go well baled and crated in one of the large shipments which the established order sends straight through to heaven under its own seal and plainly addressed to ‘The Eternal Blessedness,’ with the assurance that you will be exactly as well received and just as blessed as ‘all the others’? In short, can you not be content with such reassuring security and guaranty as this, that the established order vouches for your blessedness in the hereafter? Very well then. Only keep this to yourself. The established order has no objection. If you keep as still as a mouse about it, you will nevertheless be just as well off as the others." But, of course, Kierkegaard would not keep it to himself. And that is why, as he understood it, he was defamed, derided, and dismissed as an eccentric and malcontent.
Even more telling, I believe, is the similarity of Kierkegaard’s argument with the chilling Legend of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I have sometimes suggested, half tongue in cheek, that if anything might be added to the canon of the New Testament it should be the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor. Although Ivan Karamazov tells the story against the Catholic Church, it is the story of all Christians and the subtle ways in which Christianity can be displaced by Christendom, in which people can be seduced into surrendering their souls to the established order. When Jesus appears in the public square of medieval Spain, the Grand Inquisitor has him put in jail and explains to him, with sophisticated reasons, why he has no right to come back, why people do not need him and cannot bear him as their contemporary. The established order has now taken over the business of salvation, the Inquisitor tells Jesus, and it is simply intolerable that he should return to interfere. After the long night’s monologue, in which Jesus says not a word, the Inquisitor opens the prison door and says, "Go, and come never again." Kierkegaard, I am convinced, would relish the tale.
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