VI. B. The Character of Den Enkelte

H. Equality Before God

... As no coin is so small that it cannot bear
the image of the emperor
so no man is so humble that he cannot bear God's image....
Whatever difference there may be between two persons,
even if humanly speaking it were most extreme,
God has it in his power to say:
"When Jam present, certainly no one will resume to be
conscious of this difference, because that would be
standing and talking to each other in my presence
as if I were not present.
Thou plain man!
The Christianity of the New Testament is infinitely high;
but observe that it is not high
in such a sense that it has to do with the difference
between man and man with respect to intellectual capacity, etc.
No, it is for all.... Thou plain man!
1 have not separated my life from thine;
thou knowest it....

With its doctrine of "the priesthood of all believers" the Protestant Reformation made a tremendous stride toward establishing the theological foundations for the equality of all men before God. However, the churchly wing of that Reformation did not make nearly comparable progress in adjusting the structure and life of the church to implement the theological affirmation. Thus in our own day the problem of the laity has become an urgent one. The sectarian wing of the Reformation, on the other hand, took the doctrine more seriously and developed a form of church organization that did attempt to give existential expression to it. But the one Protestant who felt this demand of the gospel most deeply, who preached it most insistently, who interpreted it most radically, who was most alert to spotting violations of it--this Protestant, we propose, was Søren Kierkegaard.

But first, the Brethren. Although sectarian to the core, the eighteenth century Brethren did not speak much about equality; appropriate quotations are hard to come by. However, careful consideration makes it plain that this silence is not an indication of the absence of the doctrine but of its presence at so basic a level that it simply was taken for granted. The church (the Gemeinde) was so structured that this equality was a fact, arid there was no reason to talk about it. The other sects and the spiritualist groups with which the Brethren had contact were all of a mind on this matter, arid the Brethren so completely had shaken the dust of the "churches" from their feet that the question of equality did not come under discussion But

  1. that conception which, in the Brethren situation of acceptance, was so primary as to be unconscious and
  2. that conception which, in the churchly situation of S.K., he felt to be so primary that it must be made painfully self-conscious-these two were yet the same conception.

The Brethren understanding of equality is not to be found in written statements but in the way they constituted the Gemeinde and its ministry--this actually being a much more compelling demonstration than a mass of assertions about equality would be. It is the Brethren concept of "clergy" that is most revealing. This, of course, does not cover the whole gamut of equality before God, but it does stand as the crux of the issue and as a symbol of the Brethren conception in general. The case is that the distinction between clergy and laity was a very fluid and informal one. In some ways it would be correct to say that every Dunker was a layman; in other respects it would have to be said that every Dunker was a priest; the most accurate formula probably should adopt a Pauline style: in Christ there is neither layman nor priest.

A real rarity in church history, the Brethren constituted a church founded entirely by laymen; in fact, the evidence is that it was well into the nineteenth century before anyone with previous ministerial background and training even joined the brotherhood. Certainly from the outset Alexander Mack carried the role of elder (bishop), but there is no record of how, when, or if the church ordained him; and what is even more amazing, no one ever has raised the question. Although well respected and beloved as the "founder" of the church, Mack's original gravestone bore only his initials (not even his full name) with the dates of his birth and death. The stone of Peter Becker, the "founder" of the church in America, was even more simple, an unshaped fieldstone on which was scratched "Anno 1758, P.B." The early Brethren did not run the risk of giving undue honor to men.

The customary practice seems to have been that the "clergy" were chosen by the Gemeinde as a whole, out of its own number, as need arose. Apparently there were not even nominations, any and all members being considered as eligible for office. There were, of course, no educational or professional requirements, as, likewise, no salary nor monetary recompense. Brumbaugh cites a document from the pen of Mack Junior reporting the rather astonishing fact that a woman served as an elder in the church during its earliest days at Schwarzenau.4 All members, irrespective of office, were addressed simply as Brother So-and-So and Sister Whomever; and in some Brethren writings it comes almost as a shock to discover the men we commonly know as St. Paul and St. Peter referred to as Brother Paul and Brother Peter.

In a letter of 1747 Michael Frantz counseled specifically that laymen are free to administer baptism and the communion if no elders are present and if all things are done in order.5 His statement gives the impression (undoubtedly correct) that the clerical office exists not for the sake of any peculiar authority or power it imparts but as a means of assisting the Gemeinde to conduct its life and worship in a dignified and worthy manner; Dunker "priests" did not so much administer the sacraments as they superintended their observance.

But the most interesting and perhaps most enlightening in sight into the Brethren concept of equality came in connection with the very delicate problem of ministerial discipline; surely the clergy would have to assert its prerogatives here. But not so. In 1764 Mack Junior and Sauer Junior were co-elders of the Germantown congregation. At that time some of the members became unhappy over the fact that Sauer was printing catechisms for the Lutherans. It was not that they objected to his doing work for another denomination, but they could not quite see a Dunker elder putting his imprint on a book that advocated and defended infant baptism. The writ of censure (if that it can be called) presumably was drawn up by Mack Junior; the manuscript was in his possession. It must be one of the strangest specimens of its kind. It opens with a prayer to the effect that God will strengthen and use his servant Christopher Sauer; it closes with a strong endorsement of the Sauer Press, its work and witness. In between, the petitioners are almost apologetic as they explain that they find themselves constrained by their consciences to lay the matter upon Sauer's conscience. And in the end their only "demand" is a polite request that, if Sauer ever contemplates publishing another edition of the catechism, he kindly inform the church beforehand so that a "big meeting" of the brotherhood might be called to consider the issue.

But the aspect of this writ that bears upon equality is its signatures. One of the signers is Alexander Mack, Sauer's co-elder and unquestionably the leading figure of the sect. But Mack's signature neither leads the list as foremost in authority nor does it conclude the list as being the last word; it appears unobtrusively in the middle. Two others of the signers are known to have been deacons;6 of the remaining two we know not that much.7 Clearly, ecclesiastical powers and prerogatives which would make one believer in any way superior to another simply were not part of Brethren thought. These Dunkers were concerned studiously to avoid any sort of either spiritual or governmental hierarchicalism, although it is important to note that they were concerned just as studiously to have the order and offices that would guard against anarchy and atomism.

We shall discover that S.K.'s doctrine of equality was developed in an entirely different context than that just traced for the Brethren. S.K.'s comments on the government and ministry of the church were entirely negative, directed against the evils he found in his own situation. Actually, he had no occasion to prescribe what the ministerial structure of a Gemeinde should be. Nevertheless, is not a significant agreement between the Dunkers and the Dane suggested in the fact that, on his deathbed, S.K. asked for communion from the hands of a Layman?8 [quoted above]

Our observations regarding the Dunker Gemeinde make it obvious that the Brethren held a strong doctrine of the equality of all believers before God. It might be objected, however, that this does not cover the question regarding men universally. But in a very real sense all men do share in this equality in respect of the fact that all are potential believers. Indeed, it is upon precisely such a premise that S.K. will found his doctrine of equality, i.e. on each man's potentiality for becoming a Christian. Moreover, the Brethren doctrine of radical love for all men (to be examined in a succeeding chapter) certainly carries rather direct implications regarding the equality of these men before God.

However, the view which in Brethren thought was only implicit became in S.K. very explicit:

But let me give utterance to this which in a sense is my very life, the content of my life for me, its fullness, its happiness, its peace and contentment. There are various philosophies of life which deal with the question of human dignity and human equality; Christianly, every man (the individual), absolutely every man, once again, absolutely every man is equally near to God. And how is he equally near? Loved by Him. So there is equality, infinite equality between man and man.9
I set the problem, the problem which faces the whole age: equality between man and man. I put it into practice in Copenhagen. That is something more than writing a few words on the subject: I expressed it approximately with my life.10

It is quite true that in other places S.K. spoke just as emphatically about other themes being the center of his witness, but this indicates no particular vagary on his part. The themes that made up the core of his thought were so closely interrelated that emphasis on one necessarily emphasized the rest. Thus to become den Enkelte, to live in true inwardness, to be unconditionally obedient to God, to practice devotional immediacy, or to achieve complete equality before God--all ultimately appear as necessary aspects of the same spiritual existence. Nothing is to be gained by promoting any one of them as the true key to Kierkegaard. It is not improper that, in turn, he should speak as though each were the most fundamental.

The theme of equality can be traced throughout the authorship, even back into the pseudonyms,11 although the true depth and grounding of S.K.'s conviction became evident only in the religious works. Climacus of the Postscript began to develop the religious aspect, yet doing it in rather abstract, theological terms.12 However, when S.K. spoke directly and in his own name, it was made obvious that his interest was not in a theological proposition but in a religious reality, a Christian reality which he was fervently concerned to actualize. He derived the thought of equality in a number of ways. For instance, equality is the concomitant of faith:

Faith has a different quality; it is not only the highest good, but it is a good in which all men can share.... And this is the glory of faith, that it can only be had on this condition [that its possibility be conceded to all men]."13

Just as fundamentally, equality is a concomitant of love: "He who praises art and science emphasizes the cleavage between the talented and untalented among men. But he who praises love equalizes all, not in a common poverty or a common mediocrity, but in the community of the highest." 14

But what is probably S.K.'s most basic statement is the one that follows. It merits being quoted in full because it reveals so much both of the background and the implications of S.K.'s thought: It points to the ultimate, Christian source of equality, God's redeeming act in Christ. It relates equality to S.K.'s concept of den Enkelte. It reveals how equality lays the foundation for a strong doctrine of Gemeinschaft. And it very precisely distinguishes what this equality is from what it is not.

[Christianity] has saved men from this sort of evil [the ungodliness which teaches one man to disclaim relationship with another] by deeply and eternally unforgettably stamping the imprint of kinship between man and man, because kinship of all men is secured by every individual's equal kinship with and relationship to God in Christ, because the Christian doctrine addresses itself equally to every individual and teaches him that God has created him and Christ has redeemed him.... Before Christ just as in the sight of God there is no aggregate, no mass; the innumerable are for him numbered--they are unmitigated individuals.... Christianity has not taken distinctions away--any more than Christ could or would pray God to take the disciples out of the world--and these remain one and the same thing.... [Christianity] sees--and with real distress, that earthly busy-ness and the false prophets of secularism will in the name of Christianity conjure up the illusion of perfect equality, as if only the high and mighty make much of the distinctions of earthly existence, as if the poor were entitled to do everything in order to attain equality--only not by way of becoming Christians in earnestness and truth. I wonder if one can come closer to Christian likeness and equality that way? Christianity, then, will not take differences away, neither the distinction of poverty nor that of social position. But on the other hand, Christianity will not in partiality side with any temporal distinction, either the lowliest or the most acceptable in the eyes of the world.15

This last is a point that S.K. emphasized as strongly as any he ever made; it was reiterated time and again in his writings. Christian equality before God is not the same thing as sociopolitical equality. Equality within the context of the Christian faith is an entirely different phenomenon than equality in the worldly context. To read implications back and forth from one sphere to the other leads only to confusion. S.K. put the matter very bluntly:

No politics ever has, no politics ever can, no worldliness ever has, no worldliness ever can, think through or realize to its last consequences the thought of human equality.... For if complete equality were to be attained, worldliness would be at an end. But is it not a sort of obsession on the part of worldliness that it has got into its head the notion of wanting to enforce complete equality, and to enforce it by worldly means ... in a worldly medium? It is only religion that can, with the help of eternity, carry human equality to the utmost limit.... And therefore (be it said to its honor and glory) religion is the true humanity."16

Closely related to S.K.'s thought on equality is his doctrine of nonconformity to the world (to be examined in a later chapter); and this linkage gives his thought a particularly sectarian bent. Although committed to a most radical view of equality, neither S.K., the Brethren, nor sectaries generally are to be considered as "democrats" or as an integral part of the democratic tradition. They assigned no particular value to "the voice of the people" or to "the natural rights of man." They were out-and-out "theocrats," the only thing distinguishing them from usual theocratic thought being that they conceived of God's rule not as mediated through any sort of hierarchical structure but as apprehended personally and directly by each individual believer. The connection between sectarian Christian equalitarianism and democratic social equalitarianism is not as close as it might seem; and our interpretation of history probably is oversimplified when, for instance, we take religious sectarianism to be a direct progenitor of American democracy. It is significant that the classic sects showed no particular inclination to get involved in secular politics and made no attempt to give their ideology expression through widespread social reforms; S.K. understood why.

He did not deny that the Christian understanding of equality might have implications regarding the worldly relationships of man's social and political life, but for him these never could amount to a simple equation between democracy (or any other social-political system) and Christianity. Thus he did not merely fail to draw these implications but deliberately refused to, in order to avoid confusing the categories. For S.K. any equality based elsewhere than "before God," any equality derived from the nature of man rather than the gracious action of God in Christ, any equality that must be enforced by law rather than being the expression of neighbor love, any equality dedicated to mutual self-interest rather than to mutual service--any such equality hardly can qualify as true equality, hardly dare be yoked with Christian equality. Obviously, the Kierkegaard-sectarian view bears little resemblance to the liberalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that charted the advance of the kingdom by the spread of social equalitarianism; and the Brethren and other such groups deserted their true heritage to the extent that they were captured by this modern ideology.

Because democratic equalitarianism is a worldly rather than a truly Christian form, it is bound to include seeds of the demonic within itself. And S.K.--amazingly early in the historical development--saw precisely where the demonism lies. It is in what he called "soul-consuming uniformity,"17 a process which proves to be a "leveling" rather than an "elevating" equalization:

The individual no longer belongs to God, to himself, to his beloved, to his art or to his science, he is conscious of belonging in all things to an abstraction to which he is subjected by reflection, just as a serf belongs to an estate.... There is no other reason for this [leveling] than that eternal responsibility, and the religious singling out of the individual before God, is ignored.18

Whereas democratic equalitarianism includes tendencies toward the deadening conformity of mass man, the organization man, etc., the true Christian equality is preserved from such a fate in that the presence and pressure of God posits and guarantees the retention of den Enkelte. S.K., in his analysis of secular equalitarianism, foresaw the situation which in our day called forth the existentialist revolt. But this revolt, no less secular in its orientation than that against which it revolts, is no real answer, because in its autonomous assertion of individuality it inevitably undercuts human equality and Gemeinschaft. No, the only solution is S.K.'s, the religious concept of a man finding his true, elevated equality with all other men precisely by existing as den Enkelte... before God.

There is nothing in S.K. that would deny that democracy might be the best form of secular government; but he passionately would have resisted the suggestion that a state's achieving of social and political equality made it in any sense Christian. Secular equalitarianism must be justified and defended on its own secular premises; and whatever its achievements, it does not begin to approximate the Christian concept. And how great the tragedy when it happens--as it often has happened--that Christians become confused, lose sight of their true equality, and in its stead chase the phantom of worldly equalitarianism. "Therefore, be it said to its honor and glory, religion is the [only] true humanity."

But of equal importance and perhaps even greater contemporary relevance than S.K.'s pointing us to the true source of human equality is the incisive way in which he pinpointed and exposed the equality-killing distinctions that slip into the very practice of our faith. One of these is the idea of merit, or accomplishment, in God's sight-whether the "Catholic" ascetic accomplishments of self-discipline and mortification or the "Protestant" accomplishments of service to the cause of the kingdom. In either case the inevitable implication is that one person stands higher with God than another; but S.K. said:

If both in relation to the demand do all, then they do equally much. And if neither of them does all, then they do equally little.... Oh, how great is the mercy of the Eternal toward us! All the ruinous quarreling and comparison which swells up and injures, which sighs and envies, the Eternal does not recognize. Its claim rests equally on each, the greatest who ever lived, and the most insignificant.19

Another invidious distinction between man and man is that of intellect; and the full thrust and passion of S.K.'s anti-intellectualism cannot be appreciated until seen in this connection. In the following, Climacus hardly spoke as a pseudonym: "God is affronted by getting a group of hangers-on, an intermediary staff of clever brains; and humanity is affronted because the relationship to God is not identical for all men.... For the speculative philosopher and the plain man do not by any means know the same thing, when the plain man believes the paradox, and the speculative philosopher knows it to be abrogated."20 Closely related but cutting even deeper is S.K.'s observation about social-cultural distinctions, an observation that may be particularly appropriate when, in our day, a certain conception of "secular Christianity" is popular:

Therefore this distinguished corruption teaches the man of distinction that he exists only for distinguished men, that he shall live only in their social circle, that he must not exist for other men, just as they must not exist for him. But he must be circumspect, as it is called, in order with smoothness and dexterity to avoid getting people excited.... He must be prepared to employ extreme courtesy towards common people, but he must never associate with them as equals, for thereby expression would be given to his being--a human being--whereas he is a distinguished personage. And if he can do this easily, smoothly, tastefully, elusively and yet always keeping his secret (that those other men do not really exist for him and he does not exist for them), then this refined corruption will confirm him as being ... a well-bred man... In company with scholars or within an environment which insures and elevates his distinction as such, a scholar would perhaps be willing to lecture enthusiastically on the doctrine of the equality of all men, but this means a continued maintenance of the distinction.21

Although certainly neither intended nor applicable as a blanket indictment, S.K.'s words do point out a phenomenon that is readily apparent on the current scene. This is the lust for sophistication--whether it take the form of impressive jargon-juggling; the display of ecclesiastical elegance; the studied casualness of name-dropping and quote-lifting; the two-way pose that can pass one off as a man of God or of the world as the occasion demands; the "being in touch with the world" which ever risks getting lost in the world; the proficiency in theological and ecclesiastical gamesmanship. S.K. understood that all such represents a living refutation of Christian equality before God.

In a way it is amazing that Søren Kierkegaard should be the one to arrive at this insight, for he was eminently qualified to play the role of the sophisticate himself; he had the intellect, the wit, the money, the taste, the connections, even a natural propensity for aloofness. But perhaps it was precisely because he knew the disease within himself that he was so able to diagnose and expose it. And most assuredly it was because S.K. knew the disease within himself that he was not content "to lecture enthusiastically on the doctrine of the equality of all men" but felt impelled to go out on the street and put it into practice:

I have been deeply and inwardly concerned to recognize each of the poor men who knew me, to greet every servant with whom I had even the slightest acquaintance, to remember the last time I saw him, whether he had been ill, and to enquire after him. I have never in my life, not even when I was most preoccupied with an idea, been so busy that I did not first find time to stop for a moment if a poor rnan spoke to me.22

Only when, alongside his eloquent words, one also sees the person of the queer, introverted, melancholy Kierkegaard painfully practicing neighbor love--only then does one truly understand what he meant by the equality of all men before God. In the words of our epigraph: "Thou plain man! I have not separated my life from thine; thou knowest it...." S.K. could say this besause he was convinced that God, as it were, had said it first.

Copyright (c) 1968