What Shall We Do With S.K.?

The central nerve of my work as an author
really lies in the fact
that I was essentially religious
when I wrote
Whatever of true Christianity
is to be found in the course of the centuries
must be found in the sects and their like.

The central and omnipresent orientation of Søren Kierkegaard's life-work was religious existence; he was not essentially a philosopher, a psychologist, a theologian, a social critic, or a literatus, but a teacher of Christianity (actually, a pastor, or shepherd of souls). And the perspective from which Søren Kierkegaard viewed Christianity was a radical discipleship essentially one with the concept of classic Protestant sectarianism. This has been our thesis, and we have endeavored to give it demonstration.

But more: the anomaly of the situation is that after the historical period of classic Protestant sectarianism was as good as completed, there then appeared on the scene its greatest exponent, its shrewdest analyst, its most able apologist, its best presenter. None of the recognized leaders of the sectarian tradition even begin to match S.K.'s profundity or breadth of understanding regarding the basic nature and dynamic of Protestant sectarianism. By rights, S.K. should have lived along with Luther and Calvin, at the beginning of his tradition and not at its conclusion.

But the role of being one "untimely born," one for whom "the times are out of joint," was ever Kierkegaard's. In an early letter written to his boyhood friend Emil Boesen at the time when S.K. was breaking through into an intimate and personal commitment to the Christian faith, he said, "The more I think about our motto: 'A church stands in the distance,' the more I too feel the truth of what you once noted, that it has come considerably closer--but more than an auditor I cannot become just yet."3

In truth, this motto--dating no one knows how early from S.K.'s student days--is the story of his life and work. A church stands in the distance. A symbol of Christianity dominated his horizon; even when S.K. seemed to be looking at aesthetics, at philosophy, at the world--still the shadow of that spire fell across everything within his field of vision, for a church stands in the distance. But a church stands in the distance. Although the journey of his life, the course of his authorship, was that of coming considerably closer," nevertheless, more than an "auditor" he could not become just yet. And S.K.'s just yet" never came in this life. Ever approaching, never arriving--a church stands in the distance.

There never lived a more fervent Protestant than Søren Kierkegaard; yet, precisely because of his fervency, because he was a Protestant's Protestant, he could never be happy in Protestantism; in fact, he felt impelled, in the name of Christianity, to mount an attack upon Christendom. But likewise, as a sectary born after the age of sectarianism, and as a melancholy genius, one of mankind's ugly ducklings, where was he to find the Gemeinde which he described but never knew? Where, in the nineteenth century, was the sort of church he sought? A church stands in the distance, but it has no door for Søren Kierkegaard.

A church stands in the distance, and S.K.'s very name reflects the symbol, for, in Danish, the word Kirkegaard means "churchyard," the complex of parsonage, cemetery, etc., that surrounds the church proper. S.K.'s ancestors had adopted this surname because, as poverty-stricken peasants, they were living in the manse of a church parish which was too small and weak to merit a resident minister.4 And traditionally, this is about where S.K. and sectarianism belong--in the churchyard. Too authentically Christian to be absolutely excluded, too radical to be comfortably included, churchly Protestantism has tended to relegate its sectarian brethren (including S.K.) to the churchyard--whether to the cemetery where the dead are put away, or to the parsonage where the leadership of the church lives, we will not venture to say. But a man named "churchyard," before whom a church stands, yet always with him on the outside--this is S.K. the Sectary.

But if this be Kierkegaard, what shall we do with him? What is the ultimate significance of this study? What, if anything, does it portend for Kierkegaard studies and for the uses to which Kierkegaardian ideas and influences are put? In short, what difference does it make whether S.K. was a sectary or not?

For one thing, to achieve a more accurate identification of his religious perspective cannot but lead to more accurate interpretations of his thought. For example, getting him into the correct context immediately clears up some problems which have plagued Kierkegaard studies: how it could be that he was neither a typical Protestant nor a typical Catholic and yet not some sort of ungainly hybrid; and how his attack upon Christendom could be understood as honestly and sincerely radical and yet not ultimately intended for the destruction of the church.

But if our thesis is correct, its implications reach far beyond "Kierkegaard studies." If he was as we have described him, if the central motifs of his thought were as we have described them, then it is clear that, no matter how influential in how many fields S.K. has been for modern thought (and, in our judgment, by far the greater part of that influence has been for the good), nevertheless S.K. has not yet been recognized in the witness he personally was most concerned to make. S.K. knew that his work was for the future, saying, "Should it prove that the present age will not understand me very well then, I belong to history, knowing assuredly that I shall find a place there and what place it will be."5

But if our thesis is correct, that time and place are not yet. Certainly there can be no complaint about the extent of honor and attention he has received in our day, but whether the world actually has heard what he was intent to say is another matter. If our thesis is correct--then look again at the Contents with its list of the themes and motifs that identify S.K.'s understanding of radical discipleship. Few of these are ideas with which the name Kierkegaard is associated today, few are ideas that figure strongly in Christian thought today. What the world has yet heard is only the prelude of the Kierkegaardian witness.

If our thesis is correct, and if S.K. were allowed to speak his own piece in his own way, the result would be what we might call "Neo-Sectarianism," or "Kierkegaardian Sectarianism." If it was appropriate for the Reformation of the sixteenth century to have a radical, sectarian wing, perhaps Neo-Reformation thought of the twentieth century could do with the same sort of adjunct. S.K. would be the man to give it leadership.

What form a Neo-sectarian movement might take would be hard to say. Clearly, it would consist of a new emphasis upon the major insights of classic sectarianism, mediated through the writings of Kierkegaard, and applied to the contemporary scene. It definitely would not result in theological systems to compete with those of Neo-Reformation thought. Just as classic sectarianism accepted and assumed the major premises of Protestant doctrine and constructed upon this base not simply a different variety of theological elaboration but the radical definition of a way of life, so could Neo-Sectarianism start with the basic insights of Neo-Reformation thought and proceed in its own unique direction. Not the creedal system of a Barth nor the philosophic-theological system of a Tillich, but the free and unstructured approach of a Kierkegaard is the only method appropriate to radical discipleship.

In this day of ecumenical freedom and dialogue, Neo-Sectarianism probably would not be forced into founding new denominations, as earlier was the case. Today the churches are much more open to inner renewal and change than they were in the time of Menno Simons, Alexander Mack, or even Søren Kierkegaard. Those churches that are descended from the classic sects would have a contribution to make, but there is no reason why a Kierkegaardian Sectarianism would have to center in them. There is, indeed, some cause to believe that these churches might not be adequate for such a role; their new-found "acceptance" within the ecumenical order has had the psychological effect of making them eager to merit this trust by proving that they can be "churches" along with the best of them. In many respects their present drift is toward the evading of their heritage and not the recovery of it.

Neo-Sectarianism, if true to its Kierkegaardian as well as its Radical-Reformation heritage, would have to he a very broadly based, multi-voiced and multi-centered, grass-roots movement of the infiltrating and leaven-working sort. Organization, formalism, and institutionalism, of course, would be completely antithetical to its genius.

There are some indications that modern Christendom may be ready for a move toward radical discipleship; there are some situations opening the way for such a witness; there is current among us some thinking to which such a witness could relate. For one thing, Kierkegaard scholarship itself seems to be tending toward a more sectarian-like interpretation of S.K. And the name Kierkegaard now enjoys sufficient authority and prestige that his "sponsorship" would provide entrée for Neo-Sectarian emphases. S.K. would be listened to where Menno Simons and Alexander Mack would not.

In the second place, sectarian studies (particularly those of the Radical Reformation) have progressed to the point that there are now available the materials and analyses which make possible a much better understanding, a much fairer and more accurate picture of the true nature of sectarianism, than ever has been the case before.

Further, the modern ecumenical movement with its atmosphere of mutuality, of being willing to listen and learn from all traditions that make up the body of Christ--this affords many new opportunities for sectarian ideas to get a hearing. Neo-Sectarianism could speak from within the councils of the church in a way that was completely forbidden to the classic sects.

As the Reformation provided the only proper theological seed-bed in which classic Protestant sectarianism could germinate and grow, so might Neo-Reformation thought provide a ground for Neo-Sectarianism in a way that no other modern theology could. The relationship would be more than coincidental, for through his influences in the formulation of Neo-Reformation thought, S.K. already has been preparing the soil for his sectarian planting. Enough hints have been given earlier to indicate our judgment that the theology of Emil Brunner (already impregnated with Kierkegaard) is best suited to the purpose, but many of the current theological phases are to the point.

Closely related, of course, is the rather new and growing interest in Bible study which is penetrating even to the lay level. A faith as strongly Bible-centered as sectarianism craves precisely such an atmosphere; and Paul Minear's prediction about S.K. coming to the fore as a Bible teacher simply underlines the possibilities for Neo-Sectarianism. In this regard, we commented earlier upon how the New Quest of the Historical Jesus seems to be putting scholarly support under the Kierkegaard-sectarian Christology, thus preparing the way for new emphases upon contemporaneousness and Nachfolge. Neo-Sectarianism could help to direct and apply these developments.

Clearly, one of the major movements in the church today is the search for a new role for the laity. An emphasis upon radical discipleship, with a Kierkegaardian doctrine of the equality of all men before God and a sectarian doctrine of Christians who are neither clergy nor lay, could help ensure that this trend eventuates in something more than a few rather meaningless concessions on the part of the clergy.

Psychology is singing the praises of the therapeutic value of small-, in-group experience. Churches are experimenting with the techniques. Neo-Sectarianism could make a great contribution by elucidating the nature and practice of religious Gemeinschaft.

It may be that in this moment when man has it in his power to create a push-button Armageddon and in his will to risk such--it may be that the time has come when a sectarian doctrine of gyration-braking nonresistance (and not simply a political doctrine of direct nonviolent action) would be heard and understood. At least, Neo-Sectarianism could make the effort.

Then, too, some ideas are appearing in the forefront of theological discussion which would seem to point rather directly toward a Kierkegaardian view of radical discipleship. These concepts are being built up from suggestions--bare suggestions--which emanated from the prison cell of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Although not presenting nearly as consistent a picture as S.K., Bonhoeffer also showed some rather striking sectarian tendencies. Neo-Sectarianism could have a voice in the follow-through. The original German title of Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship was simply Nachfolge, a book which John Macquarrie rightly calls "reminiscent of Kierkegaard."6

This is not the Bonhoefferian theme which currently is drawing theological interest; perhaps it should be.

But the Bonhoefferian "hints" now getting all the attention are two. One is that the world is entering a "post-Christian era:" If this means (as it seems to have meant for Bonhoeffer) that the church and the world have decided to make their relationship honest, that both the church and the world are beginning to recognize what always has been the case, that the state is not Christian in any real sense of the term, that culture forms no real support for Christianity, that the world actually does not need the sanction of the church in playing its role nor does the church need the support of the state to play its--if this is what a "post-Christian era" means, a world declaring itself free from Christian presuppositions, then Neo-Sectarianism is made to order for the situation. Sectarianism never has operated on any other premise, never desired any other premise, but that the era is post-Christian, or rather, that it never has been Christian. Sectarianism is precisely that version of Christianity designed to work and witness in the context of an indifferent and even inimical culture. Perhaps it could be of help now.

Bonhoeffer's second hint deals with "secular, or religionless Christianity." If this suggests a brand of Christianity that centers not in a churchly institution, not in rites and rituals confined within churchly walls, not in Sabbath days and holy days set aside for religion, but rather a Christianity that centers in life, in a person's everyday mode of existence, in the way one treats his neighbors and associates, in the livingroom where (S.K. said) the battle must be fought--if this is "secular Christianity," then, again, Neo-Sectarianism might make a valuable contribution. If, on the other hand, "secular Christianity" suggests what some people are taking it to suggest, namely the obliteration of the distinction between Christianity and worldliness, the writing of clever theologies that are "Godless" yet somehow "Christian," the preaching of slick sermons based on sick novels, the presentation of a faith so sophisticated as to be invisible--if this is what "secular Christianity" suggests, well then, perhaps Neo-Sectarianism is needed to save Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his followers. In more ways than one, the world may be ripe for Kierkegaard's view of radical discipleship.

A church stands in the distance. Kierkegaard never arrived there in his lifetime; his day did not come. He did not really expect it to, although within himself he was confident that sometime it would. With God's help, ours could be that day.

Copyright (c) 1968