VI. B. The Character of Den Enkelte

F. Devotional Immediacy

I have, quite literally, lived with God
as one lives with one's father.
This God-relationship of mine
is the "happy love" in a life which has been
in many ways troubled and unhappy.
O my God, I have really nothing to ask Thee for;
even shouldst Thou promise
to fulfill every wish,
I really do not know what to ask for,
only that 1 may remain wish Thee,
as near Thee as
possible in this time of our separation one from the other,
and wholly with Thee in all eternity.

We are here to deal with one of the most obvious characteristics of both S.K. and the Brethren, although also one that is most difficult to specify and document, for we have to do, not with a doctrine but a mood, a set of mind. And yet this is one of the most important concomitants of S.K.'s concept of den Enkelte. It is a quality which, in both the Brethren and S.K., can be identified rather positively as an inheritance out of their respective Pietist backgrounds. This is the quality which, in the Brethren, has been named and discussed as "mysticism."4 It is the strain in S.K. which led Time Magazine to identify him as a mystic5 and Walter Lowrie more cautiously to suggest that "his constant 'practice of the presence of God' almost justifies the common notion that he was a mystic."6

The appellation "mystic" might be an acceptable one for either S.K. or the Brethren, if only there were a very clear understanding as to what the term implies. But because there definitely is not, it seems wise to forego the label. The motif we are identifying certainly does have something in common with what is found in the classic traditions of mysticism, but those traditions also include other elements that were assiduously avoided by S.K., the Brethren, and most Protestant sectaries. If, for instance, he is to be called a mystic, the term must be so defined that it can allow for the fact that S.K.--in the person of Judge William--wrote a most trenchant ten-page analysis and critique of mysticism7 and under his own name made such statements as: "[Mysticism] has not the patience to wait upon God's revealing," and "[Mysticism wants to] take the Kingdom of God by force."8

Likewise, in neither S.K. nor the Brethren is there any hint of a hypostatic union with God that would weaken one's consciousness of individuality; rather, with them one's sense of being den Enkelte is heightened. There is no intellectualistic tendency that would experience God as the consummation of philosophic contemplation; the presence of God is experienced immediately, directly, and simply. There is no self-conscious and programmed straining after God; one has only to turn and speak to him. There is no inclination to depersonalize God into the traditional hyperboles of Beatific Vision, Sweetness, Illumination, Oneness, Infiniteness, ecstasy, Ground of Being, etc.; God is considered and described almost exclusively in familiar, personal terms. Given such fundamental divergencies between the Brethren-Kierkegaardian type and much of what has constituted the classic traditions of mysticism, it seems wise simply to drop the term and here use "devotional immediacy," which can imply only what we desire.

The clearest demonstration of S.K.'s devotional immediacy comes in the fact that he was that rarity among "philosopher-theologians," one whose writings included prayers of such merit as to deserve being collected and printed under separate cover,9 some of them even being set to music.10 Likewise, the Brethren parallel can be demonstrated merely by pointing to their passion for writing hymns and devotional poetry. Both S.K.'s prayers and the Brethren hymns are rather obviously flowerings of the same Pietist tradition of devotion.

It is perhaps unnecessary to bring in specific documentation regarding Brethren devotion; in the case of any group born out of the same historical milieu that produced Gerhard Tersteegen and the Moravian Brethren, argument would he needed only to explain the lack of such piety. There was no lack among the Brethren; they practiced and expressed a very close "walk with God" and desired only that it might become even closer.

With S.K. the case is somewhat different in that his Pietist connections are not as widely recognized, his fame as an "existentialist philosopher" having obscured this much more fundamental aspect of his life and thought. But in the first place, S.K. had a doctrinal frame of reference that would allow for and even encourage personal devotion. He could, on occasion, put the matter in more abstract, theological terms: "God is really the terminus medius in everything man undertakes; the difference between the religious and the purely human attitude is that the latter does not know it--Christianity is therefore the highest union between God and man because it has made the union conscious."11 He could, on other occasions, make the matter much more pointed and moving, although still in the "objective" terms of third-person discourse:

Christianity teaches that this particular individual whatever in other respects this individual may be, man, woman, serving-maid, minister of state, merchant, barber, student, etc.--this individual exists before God--this individual who perhaps would be vain for having once in his life talked with the King, this man who is not a little proud of living on intimate terms with that person or the other, this man exists before God, can talk with God any moment he will, sure to he heard by Him; in short, this man is invited to live on the most Intimate terms with God! Furthermore, for this man's sake God came to the world, let himself be born, suffers and dies; and this suffering God almost begs and entreats this man to accept the help which is offered to him!12

However, this immediacy ceased to be simply doctrinal and began to become truly devotional only as S.K. assumed the role of pastor, speaking directly to a hearer regarding his own condition:

Now if you have truly realized that God is present here and you are in his presence, ... it will be noticeable in you. One should be able to tell from a man's behavior that he is in love, one should be able to tell that he is in the power of a great thought: how then should one not be able to tell that he is in thepresence of God.13

The impression was heightened when S.K. spoke to God Himself:

If only Thou, [O God,] dost find some willingness on the part of the single individual, Thou art prompt to help, and first of all Thou art the one who with more than human, yea, with divine patience, dost sit and spell it out with the individual, that he may be able rightly to understand the Word; and next Thou are the one who, again with more than human, yea, with divine patience, dost take him as it were by the hand and help him when he strives to do accordingly--Thou our Father in heaven. 14

But the full picture of S.K.'s devotional immediacy came only when it included testimony to his own personal experience.

It is clear that S.K. considered this immediacy as a necessary element in the Christian faith of every man and not simply a preference of his own, but nonetheless the character of that conviction is best seen in his personal application of it. For S.K., God was Father in the most actual sense possible:

My father died--and I got another in his stead: God in Heaven--and then I found out that, essentially, my first father had been my stepfather and only unessentially my first father.15

God was S.K.'s father in the most central and profound aspects of his life:

It is wonderful how God's love overwhelms me.... I continuously thank him for having done and for doing, yes, and for doing so indescribably much more for me than I ever expected.... [My life] was all embittered for me by the dark spot which ruined all; ... God takes charge of our lives. He lets me weep before him in silent solitude, pour forth and again pour forth my pain, with the blessed consolation of knowing that he is concerned for me--and in the meanwhile he gives that life of pain a significance which almost overwhelms me.16

But it is also significant that God was S.K.'s father in life's trivialities as well:

And it is true indeed that in agreement with God, which I always try to be, I am able to be perfectly calm and childishly happy in behaving as I do behave. Like a child I can say to God (it comes so naturally to me) as I would say to my father: now I must have a little recreation so as to amuse myself--and then I amuse myself.17

And the most sure and unshakable reality of S.K.'s life was the quality of that fatherhood:

This is all I have known for certain, that God is love. Even if I have been mistaken on this or that point: God is nevertheless love, that I believe, and whoever believes that is not mistaken. If I have made a mistake it will be plain enough; so I repent--and God is love. He is love, not he was love, nor: he will be love, oh no, even that future was too slow for me, he is love.18

None of the early Brethren produced the sort of Journal that would display their sense of devotion in such intimacy, but it is clear that theirs was of the same tradition arid quality. It is also clear that with both S.K. and the Brethren this sense of immediacy represented the heart and core of their faith and not an idiosyncratic adjunct to what is truly important, their "theology." Thus whenever S.K. wanted to talk to real men about really important matters concerning the real God, his language became highly anthropomorphic—brashly, blatantly, brazenly anthropomorphic--without the slightest indication that he considered himself to be speaking symbolically, mythologically, or metaphorically. In the Brethren this might be overlooked as naivete. S.K. knew, however, that such language is suspect in sophisticated theology. But he was writing neither as a theologian nor for theologians. He knew where he stood and took his stand deliberately:

As it is the worst thing that can be said about a man that he is inhuman, so it is the worst and most abhorrent blasphemy to say about God that He is inhuman, even if it is supposed to be distinguished or bold to speak thus. No, the God to whom [man] prays is human, has a heart to feel in human fashion, an ear to hear the complaints of human beings. And even if He does not fulfi1l every wish, His dwelling place is still near at hand, and He is moved by the cries of the petitioner.19

There here becomes apparent a drastic enough divergence between S.K. and some of his successors that more than the customary categories are called for. If S.K.'s thought is existential (which certainly it is in some sense of the term), then it is not enough even to specify it as Theistic, or even Christian, existentialism. In order to recognize the major distinction between it and contemporary schools which bear the name and yet threaten to weaken, if not eliminate, the "personhood" of God, perhaps S.K.'s variety could be called Pietistic existentialism. It probably is no accident that the two great contemporary theologians who best understood Kierkegaaird and best appropriated his contributions in their own work were Martin Buber, with his strong background in Hasidism, i.e. Jewish pietism, and Emil Brunner, schooled by the Pietist Blumhardt of Boll.

A final note is important. Although in S.K. we find devotional immediacy raised to a high pitch, it should be recalled that it was in this same S.K. that Karl Barth found a "wholly Other" God with whom to counter the immanental immediacy of Liberalism. Devotional immediacy, in and of itself, is not subversive of God's dignity, sovereignty, or freedom; and neither S.K. nor the Brethren allowed it to become so.20

Copyright (c) 1968