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The Table Video

C. Stephen Evans

Kierkegaard on Human Spirituality

Professor of Philosophy and Humanities, Baylor University
May 10, 2014

C. Stephen Evans (Baylor University) gives an overview of Kierkegaard’s understanding of spirituality. Kierkegaard clearly thinks that humans are created as “spirits” and thus that authentic human existence is a spiritual mode of existence. But what does that mean? Surprisingly, given Kierkegaard’s reputation as an “individualist,” human spiritual existence turns out to be entirely a function of the relationships that define the self. A generic form of human spirituality is possible for humans by virtue of God’s relation to all humans through conscience. However, Christian spirituality is made possible when we relate to God through Christ, a relation made possible by the Spirit of God. Spirituality turns out to be not a static quality but a normative ideal, and the last section of the paper discusses those psychological factors, both individual and cultural/historical, that inhibit or foster genuine spirituality, both in its generic and specifically Christian forms.


So when I got here in January, I planned to work on spirituality by just thinking hard about the concept of what does it mean, to be spiritual in the sense of you are living your life before God, that was the main idea. And particularly, I wanted to focus on the idea that we are accountable to God, accountability not viewed as a kind of a negative thing, but as a gift from God.

But as I tried to work through and come up with some ideas of my own, it soon became pretty apparent that anything I had to say really was being filched from Kierkegaard. So I finally gave up and decided that I was gonna do my book on Kierkegaard view of spirituality. So what you’re getting today is a little bit of that book, which will be forthcoming, I think from Eerdmans but probably not for a couple of years. So here goes. “Living before God, A Kierkegaardian view of spirituality”. Now, I’m gonna begin by saying something, it will sound surprising if you only know Kierkegaard from textbooks.

And that is, Kierkegaard has a profoundly relational view of human beings. And therefore he has a profoundly relational view of human spirituality. Spirituality is fundamentally relational. To exist as spirit for Kierkegaard is to exist before God, consciously aware of God’s presence. But this relational spirituality comes in two different forms.

There is a generic human spirituality, can be found in many religions and even in the lives of those people who call themselves spiritual but not religious. And this sort of generic human spirituality must be distinguished from Christian spirituality, in which a person relates to God through Jesus of Nazareth and through the Spirit who is present within the Christian and the church, both as an individual therefore and in the community. I’m gonna begin by discussing generic human spirituality.

If spirituality is fundamentally a quality of life lived in relation to God, then a generic human form of spirituality depends on the possibility of a generic human relation to God. Such a relation will seem problematic to many people, Parthians for example, and much philosophy of religion in the West has wrestled with the problem of whether God exists or whether we can know God exists, and has treated this question as a very difficult one. If a person cannot even know that God exists, how can that person have a conscious relation to God? Kierkegaard thinks there’s something fundamentally wrong with this whole picture. He thinks that a natural knowledge of God is actually not hard to obtain.

God is in some ways present to all humans, or virtually all humans. If there are difficulties in knowing God, the difficulties do not lie in the evidence for God’s, in reality they lie in us. If we do not know there is a God it is because either we don’t want to know God or it’s because we’ve lost the skills required to recognize God’s presence in the world, or to see God at work in our lives. If the former is true, we need a change of heart. If the latter is true, what we need is not new evidence, we need the ability, the skill to see and rightly interpret the presence of God that is right before our nose. If this view is right, and God really is, at least potentially present to all humans, there is a sense then in which all human beings are spiritual in the sense that they have this ability to live their lives before God.

That’s Kierkegaard view at least and I think it underlies his understanding of what human beings fundamentally are. All human beings are spiritual in the sense that they at least have this capacity to live before God. But of course, many people do not actualize this capacity. And thus in one sense, they fail to live as spiritual beings. Now you may think, Kierkegaard doesn’t he say that faith is a leap? And that faith is something that the human understanding finds unreasonable or even absurd? Yes, but he makes those claims about Christian faith, centered as Christian faith is on the incarnation, the absolute paradox that Jesus of Nazareth was both fully human and fully divine.

The kind of religious life that merely involves belief in God requires no leap for Kierkegaard and it does not seem unreasonable to humans. Recognizing that this is Kierkegaard view, helps us understand Kierkegaard lack of interest and even disdain for arguments for God’s existence. He’s uninterested in such arguments because they’re not necessary.

Here, I think Kierkegaard view is really very similar to that of Alvin Plantinga and the reformed epistemologist. He disdains the arguments because they presuppose a wrong picture of our situation. They contribute to a misleading picture about the causes of the decline of religious faith among Western intellectuals. If we are too much concerned with arguments, it makes it seem like the problem with religious belief lies solely or mainly with the evidence. The skeptic wants us to think, well, if there were enough evidence, I would believe, but unfortunately, there’s just not enough evidence. Kierkegaard thinks that’s wrong.

He thinks the real problem lies in ourselves. As I said, if we don’t believe it’s either because we don’t want to believe, a kind of insubordination that he thinks is endemic to modernity, or else it’s because we have lost the emotional and imaginative skills required to recognize God at work in the world. And I’ll say more about those skills later. So how is God present to humans? Since my initial focus is on this generic human spirituality, I want to focus on how God might be known to humans through general revelation through the created order rather than through specific historical events. I believe that God can be known in many ways. I believe there are natural signs God has planted in the world and in our experience that point us to Himself.

The most important of these natural signs for Kierkegaard, his conscience. In conscience, God is present as the one with authority, who demands of us that we become a certain kind of person. God is the Lord, and if He’s not known as the one who must be obeyed, He’s not really known at all. For Kierkegaard then, anyone who has a moral conscience has an awareness of God’s requirements. For to have a conscience is simply quote, to have a relationship in which you as a single individual, relate yourself to yourself before God. If you listen to that definition you’ll hear it echoed later when Kierkegaard gives the definition of spirituality, spirituality and conscience turn out to be virtually identical on his view, he gives the same the definition of both.

To be sure, and you may be thinking this, conscience is culturally shaped and our human conscience is are highly fallible due to our fallenness and due to that cultural shaping. However, Kierkegaard thinks that enough of God’s call, comes through all that cultural noise, that it’s still possible for human beings to be aware that they are morally responsible, accountable beings. Accountable to a higher power, even though some may not recognize that God is in fact that higher power. Now increasingly, of course, individuals in contemporary society describe themselves as spiritual dub religious, is that possible?

From Kierkegaard perspective the answer is clearly, yes. To be spiritual is simply to exist as spirit. And the definition he gives of spirit is, as I’ve said, very similar to the definition of conscience, which is the mode in which God is present to all human beings. A human being is spirit, he says because a human being, quote, relates himself to himself, and does so by relating himself to another. What does that mean? I think it means that we humans are doubly relational creatures. On the one hand, to be human being is to relate yourself to yourself. To be a self is to be self conscious.

And self consciousness involves a distinction between the self as an object of awareness, the self I’m conscious of, and the self that is the subject of awareness, the self that is conscious of itself. This ability to step back from ourselves creates yet another duality within the self. This is the distinction between the self that I am aware that I am and the self that I am aware of myself as wanting to become. This gap is present because part of what it means to be a self is that we are always projecting an ideal for ourselves, a true self by which the actual self can be measured. I’m conscious of myself as having certain qualities acquired through my past, but I also define myself by the qualities I see myself as striving to actualize in my projected future.

But Kierkegaard thinks that this intrapsychic process, in which a person relates himself to himself, also necessarily involves a relation to something outside the self because we are not autonomous, isolated individuals. The ideal of self we are striving to become is not fashioned out of nothing. It’s made possible by the social processes that form the self. We always relate to ourselves by virtue then of a relation to another that is outside the self. Who is this other?

One might think the other is necessarily God. Ontologically, this is true, God is the one who’s created the human self, He’s its ground. And God has created us in such a way that He is the intended psychological ground of the self. The only thing that can fully satisfy us. However, psychologically humans have the ability to, and they often do, ground their ideal selves in something less than God. Kierkegaard calls this ideal self the criterion, literally in Danish the word is translated criterion, in the English translations means measuring stick. So the ideal self is the measuring stick here, and a crucial passage from Kierkegaard’s, “The Sickness Unto Death” makes this quite clear. This is on your handout. Hope you all have the handout. A cattlemen who if this were possible is a self directly before his cattle is a very low self.

And similarly, a master who is a self directly before his slaves, is actually no self. For in both cases, a criterion, a measuring stick is lacking. The child who previously has had only his parents as a criterion becomes a self as an adult by getting the state as a criterion, but what an infinite accent falls on the self by having God as a criterion. If my ideal self is derived from my relation to the cattle I’m taking care of, there’s a sense in which I fail to be a self at all. The bar is set too low in such a case, because being smarter than a cow doesn’t really describe a recognizably human life.

The slave owner whose identity is grounded in owning slaves also fails to be a self because the status he gains at the expense of the slaves, depends on the slaves being regarded as property. Because they are property, the recognition of him they afford is a forced recognition. They’re unable to give the slave owner a genuinely human self. Selfhood depends then on this sort of recognition that we get from others. Kierkegaard implies that a child begins to be a genuine self by deriving his criterion from his parents, he internalizes his parents, to use the language of psycho dynamics. It’s only when a child becomes an adult and is part of society that the child gain some distance from this childhood ideal.

However, even in this case, the criteria to the self is not invented by the self out of nothing. Rather, the child who is becoming an adult is absorbing broadly socially informed ideals, which Kierkegaard says, following the views of Hegel and his followers are embedded in the laws and customs of a people and ultimately the state. We might say that the child is learning cultural scripts from the broader society about what it means to be a self, and insofar as the child internalizes those scripts as an adult, the child becomes an adult.

The state is not, however, the ideal other in which to ground my identity. For Kierkegaard, it is possible for the self to exist before God, and what infinite reality the self gains by being conscious of existing before God by becoming a human self whose criterion is God. Of course, Kierkegaard’s thought here is not that the self aspires to be God or become God, rather the self aspires to become the self that God desires that individual to become. And it is God’s recognition then that ultimately counts, another quote on your handout.

At every person’s birth, there comes into an existence an eternal purpose for that person, for that person in particular. Faithfulness to oneself with respect to this is the highest thing a person can do as that most profound poet has said, worse than self love is self contempt. We can see here the origins of what’s usually called Kierkegaard’s individualism, and his critique of social conformism.

Social conformism is a sort of view which says to be a self as simply to be like the others, to be like everybody else. But it should be clear that the authentic individual self Kierkegaard wants to affirm is thoroughly relational, its formed by a relation to God, which by no means nullifies the human social relationships that have already defined the self up till now, rather it is the God relation that makes it possible to transcend the power of those social influences partially. When I hear God’s calling respond, I’m no longer totally defined purely by my parents or my friends, or my society, important as those continue to be.

So in one sense, spirit is an ontological category, every human being is created by God as an embodied spirit. The structure is given in creation, but an essential part of the structure is that spirit must be in part self determining. God who is pure spirit is completely determined by his own nature. No outside influence can change who He is. We humans cannot be spirits in that sense since we are not God. However, we have been given the dignity of playing a role in our own development. In order that we can exist as finite creaturely spirits, God does not create us as fully determinate products, He endowed us with possibilities that must be actualized.

Thus, for humans we are spirits, but our task as spirits is to become what we are, to echo a phrase from both nature and Kierkegaard, interesting they both use that phrase. For this reason, although every human is in one sense spirit, we can also speak of spirituality as a task and therefore speak of degrees of spirituality, depending on how much of the task has been actualized. So when we think of spirit in non logical terms, it’s the status God has given to all humans in creation. All of us are created by God, all of us are addressed by God. All of us have the opportunity to live our lives before God. However, when we think of spirit as a task, we must understand spirituality as something that comes in degrees.

And the degree of spirituality a person possesses is a direct function of the degree to which a person is aware of God’s presence and is striving to live every moment before God. In this sense of spirituality, a more intense awareness of God leads to a more spiritual life, as does a more adequate conception of the God that one is aware of. Spirituality in this sense is the practice of the presence of God as brother Lawrence so memorably expressed the idea in his book of that title. This relational understanding of spirituality makes possible the distinction I’ve made between generic human spirituality and Christian spirituality. Generic human spirituality, though possible outside of Christianity is not actually present in all humans except as a capacity. Kierkegaard himself speaks of a kind of paganism, which lacks an understanding of God.

Quoting from the New Testament, he says, “Paganism is to be without God in the world.” Such paganism is possible both in cultures which have not received the gospel as well as in Christendom, where people may be familiar with the Christian message verbally, but have lost the ability to hear it with understanding. In fact, Kierkegaard says the spiritless person in paganism is actually in a much better position than the spiritless person in Christendom, since a pagan who lacks spirituality may still be a person who yearns for spirituality, who has a kind of, you might say attraction for it.

But the pagan person in Christendom is a person who may be running away from the spiritual life. Such generic human spirituality should be distinguish then from the kind of spirituality which is possible when God is present to someone through the Christian revelation. When God addresses someone through the scriptures and through the Christ that the scriptures testify to, a persons relation to God changes dramatically.

When God is present to someone through, for example, the sacraments and the spirit that unites Christians to Christ, in Christ body the church, spirituality takes entirely new forms. All forms of spirituality involve a life that is lived before God, but the life, death and resurrection of Christ make possible a qualitatively different understanding of God and what it means to live in God’s presence, as well as giving new resources to enable such a life.

To say that spirituality is fundamentally relational in character does not of course mean that there are no distinctive qualities in people who have greater degrees of spirituality. For both generic and Christian spirituality there are qualities that are spiritually enabling, qualities that lead to greater awareness or understanding of God, and also qualities that are products or fruits of spirituality. Spirituality is also enabled by removing factors that function is barriers or inhibitors to spirituality.

Kierkegaard has a special interest in removing such barriers. He does not believe one ordinary human can directly instill spirituality in another, because only God can truly establish the relation with God that is required. However, we humans can help each other by removing barriers that might block a person from hearing God’s address. In the remainder of my talk today, I’m gonna speak briefly just giving a few illustrations about some of the qualities that foster spirituality and also some of those that hinder, both for generic and Christian spirituality, in a much longer version of this paper and still longer in the book, I’m gonna discuss a whole lot more things.

So these are just a couple of examples. In general, I will say that factors that enable or hinder generic human spirituality also enable or hinder Christian spirituality because Christian spirituality in the end is a form of spirituality. So all the factors that affect spirituality in general will also affect Christian spirituality. But there are also distinctive factors that foster or inhibit Christian spirituality. So let me first talk about, again, the generic kind. In the beginning, I talked a little bit about Kierkegaard conviction that the decline of faith among intellectuals in modern Western Europe is not due to increase scientific knowledge or lack of evidence, but rather in impoverished capacities on the part of these individuals.

The problem is not that our brains are too big, but that our imaginations are too puny and shrunken and our emotional capacities are to impoverished. Kierkegaard uses the terms inwardness and subjectivity, more or less interchangeably to refer to those areas of human life that need to be strengthened if we are to regain our ability to live spiritual lives. So let me first talk about subjectivity. The contrast with subjectivity, of course for Kierkegaard is objectivity. For Kierkegaard, objectivity is a kind of intellectual stance or attitude in which the subject ignores the implications of a question for the self who’s doing the thinking.

Now, this kind of thinking has its place and Kierkegaard agrees that it has its place, and in that place it has value. For example, if I do mathematics or if I’m looking at the results of an experiment, it’s proper to avoid or minimize what we might call subjective bias, so that we can see things as they really are. And some of the greatest modern Western philosophers have claimed that this intellectual stance is the proper one to take in general when one is doing philosophy. Spinoza, for example, taught that the philosopher must strive to see the world sub specie aeternitatis, under the aspect of eternity.

Essentially, Spinoza says, “You must try to look at the world as if you were God.” Kierkegaard thinks this attitude has profoundly shaped modern Western thought in deleterious ways. It can be seen in the scientism that regards natural science as the proper means of answering all the important questions of life. Scientism says that science can tell us whether humans have free will or whether there are objective moral obligations.

It can also be seen in the assumption that our human problems stem primarily from a lack of objective knowledge. If our business corporations are showing a lack of ethical integrity, how should we solve the problem? Let’s teach courses on ethical theory in the business schools, that will make everyone virtuous, won’t it? If pornography is ruining people’s lives, or if teenagers are having children before they are mature enough to be parents, the answer must be sex education. Let’s do our education better. We think knowledge will solve all our problems and that we can solve our problems without taking moral stands, or stands of any kind, except the stand of the detach nor who has forgotten that he himself is an existing human beings.

All problems then supposedly can be solved if we just have the right kind of objective knowledge. We may believe that in taking this objective viewpoint we are more likely to arrive at the truth. But Kierkegaard thinks that just the opposite is the case when one is dealing with moral truth and religious truth. The truth is, we are not God, and we cannot see the world from God’s point of view. We humans cannot take what philosopher Tom Nagel has called the view from nowhere. When we attempt to take such a stance, we cut ourselves off from the insights that it is possible for an engaged human being who must choose and in choosing to find the self can get.

Here’s an example, Kierkegaard says that you can’t really understand sin, unless you understand sin as something terrible. Reminds me of the cartoon about the archeologist who’s looking at a ruined city and he says, “I prefer not to call them ruins, “I don’t like to make value judgments.” [audience laughs] To think about sin without recognizing that sin leads to destruction is like thinking about what path to take on a foggy mountain and ignoring the possibility that the path might lead one to a cliff that you might walk off.

So real honest thinking about sin must engage the emotions, it must engage the self, it must engage our sense of where we stand right now as existing human beings. The alternative to this objective point of view is not to become unthinking or mindless, is to think hard about human problems in a way that takes seriously our situation. For example, if I wanna think about death and what it means to die, it is essential for me to face seriously the fact that I am going to die. This does not mean simply registering an objective fact such as all humans are mortal. It means I must think about my impending death and what that means for the meaning of my life and its importance and significance.

This is not an excuse for wish fulfillment. The subjective thinker in Kierkegaard’s sense cares deeply about truth. But it means the subject will be engaged with the kind of thinking that is endowed with passion. To think about sin or death without passion is for Kierkegaard equivalent to thoughtlessness. Now one strategy Kierkegaard employees to help rekindle subjectivity among his readers, is what he calls indirect communication.

If Kierkegaard may only gives us a scientifically accurate diagnosis of the problem, he may exacerbate the problem, even if the diagnosis he gives us is objectively correct. People who think that a full and rich human life requires only objective knowledge may not be helped very much if they’re guess given more objective knowledge, even if they’re given the objective knowledge that there is more to life than objective knowledge. Rather, Kierkegaard strives to engage and even in a way seduce his readers through humor, through parables, through stories. He doesn’t simply tell us that it’s bad to live for momentary pleasure.

He gives us a concrete literary portrait of a seducer, in either or one. A portrait that is as beguiling as it is horrifying. This kind of imaginative portrayal of truth has a better chance of engaging the emotions of readers, I think, than a more straightforward philosophical treatise. I think that C.S. Lewis was trying to do something similar when he added such imaginative works as his novel “Till We Have Faces”, or the Narnia books, or “The Screwtape Letters” or “The Great Divorce” to his Christian writing such as “Mere Christianity” and “The Problem of Pain”. In this way, Lewis himself hope to remedy the problem he had diagnosed himself in his book, “The Abolition of Man”.

A book in which he says modern people are, quote, men without chests, who cannot grasp moral truths because they have lost the emotions and that makes it impossible to grasp such truths. Let me switch now to saying something about Christian spirituality. Christian spirituality, if Kierkegaard account is correct will consistent recognizing God’s presence through specifically Christian means, and thereby developing a new relation to God. The Christian then doesn’t merely hear God speak through conscience or nature, he hears God speak through the history of Israel, culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, the founding of Christ’s church. God is heard through the scriptures, the divinely inspired and authoritative revelation God offers us.

Hearing God speak through these forms or to change the metaphor, seeing God is present through those forms makes possible an awareness of God that is both closer, clearer and more intimate and intense that is impossible through generic human spirituality. If one asks how this kind of spirituality is to be nourished, in one sense, Kierkegaard’s answers are quite traditional. Here are some of the answers he gives.

Through reading the Bible, through meditating on the Bible, through prayer, through participation in public worship, in particular, the sacred of communion. These are standard Christian answers. But I think Kierkegaard has something important and interesting to say about each of them. However, because of time, I’m just going to talk about one today. I’m gonna talk about Kierkegaard view of how we should read the Bible.

That Kierkegaard was himself an ardent and devoted reader of Scripture can easily be seen from any of his works. They contain multiple scriptural quotations and illusions on virtually every page, not only in his signed religious writings, but also in the pseudonymous works. However, Kierkegaard’s best known and most important essay on how the Bible should be read can be found in one of his Christian discourses. It’s entitled, “What is required in order to look at oneself with true blessing in the mirror of the word”.

This sermon like essay, Kierkegaard doesn’t call it a sermon because he wasn’t ordained. So he can’t write sermons, he can only write talks, discourses. This sermon like essay is a meditation on James 1:22 through 27, focusing especially on verses 22 through 25. Kierkegaard begins with James’ admonition to be a doer of the word and not merely a hearer of God’s word. Naturally, however, one cannot be a doer of the word if one has not heard it, or read it.

And that becomes Kierkegaard theme. How can we read or hear the scriptures so that we can become doers of the word and thereby obtain true blessing. James himself compares the scriptures to a mirror, and says that a person who merely listens and does not obey is like a man who looks in a mirror but then immediately forgets what he looks like. Kierkegaard thus proceeds to consider the Word of God as a kind of mirror.

And he asked what this means for us as readers. Specifically, what are the practices whereby we can become people who hear God’s word and see ourselves in it properly? The first point he makes is that we are not to focus on the mirror of scripture itself, but on seeing oneself in the mirror. One way we can go wrong is by making God’s word simply an object of scholarship to be studied, rather than reading it to hear God speak to us.

When reading God’s word, it is easy to get lost in the intricacies of scholarship and forget the purpose of reading the Bible. This quotation is on your handout. As for ways of reading, there are 30,000 different ways. And then this crowd of scholars and opinions and learned opinions and unlearned opinions about how the particular passage is to be understood. Is it not true that all this seems to be rather complicated? God’s word is the mirror.

In reading it or hearing it, I’m supposed to see myself in the mirror. But look, this business of the mirror is so confusing that I very likely never come to see myself reflected, at least not if I go at it in this way. Kierkegaard even expresses some suspicion that some of the scholarly machinery is quote, human craftiness. It provides an excuse for our failure to obey God since by approaching scripture in a scholarly manner, we never become clear on what God actually requires of us. He compares people who do this to a boy who’s gonna get a spanking and he puts a bunch of napkins in his pants pocket to cushion the blow.

We must be careful here, I think not to make the mistake of thinking that Kierkegaard is here disparaging, real biblical scholarship. And I think he makes this clear by an extended analogy. He says, imagine you’re in love but that the person you love speaks a foreign language, you don’t understand. You receive a letter from your lover, one that you long to read. However, in order to understand what your lover wrote, you must laboriously translate the letter. And this requires working to understand the grammar and vocabulary of the foreign language, perhaps even enlisting the help of experts.

However, all of this labor is not the same thing as reading the letter. It is preliminary work. And if the letter is never read as a letter from one’s beloved, then in a sense it is pointless and wasted labor. So I think Kierkegaard does recognize the importance and value of good translators and those who can help us understand obscure passages. However, this kind of scholarly labor must be a precursor actually to reading God’s word.

And if we never get to the point of reading the scriptures to hear God speak, we have forgotten what drew us to the Bible in the first place. So the first practice Kierkegaard recommends is the practice of reading scripture so as to understand God’s ideals for us, so that we have a clear understanding of ourselves in light of those ideals. Now, it’s true and Kierkegaard recognizes this, that there’s a lot of the Bible that’s obscure and hard to understand. But Kierkegaard says this gives us no excuse for not reading God’s word.

When you are reading God’s word, it is not the obscure passages that bind you, but what you understand, and with that you are to comply at once. If you understand only one single passage in all of Holy Scripture, well then you must do that first of all, but you do not first have to sit down and ponder the obscure passages. God’s word is given in order that you shall act according to it, not that you shall practice interpreting obscure passages. If the one who received a letter from a lover did not understand parts of the letter, this would not excuse the lover from immediately complying with some desire that the lover clearly expressed in another part of the letter.

When we read God’s word then, we should strive to read like that lover reads the letter. The second practice Kierkegaard recommends is that when we are reading God’s word we should be alone. If we always read scripture as part of a Bible study or class or even in the congregation, we will be tempted a new to treat the scriptures as if they were simply an object of scholarship. But when we read alone, and we are honest, we will recognize much that we can understand easily. The hard part for us is obeying. He says it’s just for this reason that most of us want to avoid being alone with God’s word.

We don’t want to obey and we also don’t want to admit that we don’t want to obey. The third practice Kierkegaard recommends is that we constantly remind ourselves that the scriptures are talking about us. Remember to say to yourself incessantly, it is I to whom it is speaking, it is I about whom it is speaking. Kierkegaard says this is essential to earnestness or soberness before God.

He draws on the story of David and Bathsheba and the confrontation between David and Nathan, the prophet to make his point. David, of course, lusting after Bathsheba has managed to get her husband killed and has taken her for his wife. Nathan tells David a story about a rich man with many sheep, who steals one from a poor neighbor, who has only that one little lamb as a pet. And feeds the lamb he has stolen to a guest, the rich man does this. David is wrathful when he hears the story and expresses the view that the rich man deserves death.

Nathan, of course responds, you are the man. As Kierkegaard notes, David already knew that it was morally wrong for him to have another man killed so he could marry his wife. He didn’t need to know any new objective moral facts. What he needed was to apply that principle to himself. This was the transition to the subjective.

No matter how much knowledge we have of what the Scripture teaches, we will not hear God’s word until we say to ourselves, what Nathan said to David, you are the man or the woman. Kierkegaard illustrates this practice by giving a reading of the story of the Good Samaritan. When we read of the priest or the Levi who passed by the wounded traveler, we should recognize we are people who pass by those who are hurt and wounded in our world.

When we read of the Samaritan who stopped to help we must read the story as describing the self we ought to become. Like Christ said to the Pharisees who agreed that the Samaritan acted as a neighbor, must then always be applied to ourselves. Go and do likewise. There’s a little more but I’m gonna stop here since I’ve taken too much time and I wanna leave a little time for questions. [audience applauding] I see a hand over here.

Moderator: Let me have one in the back first.


Woman: If God is omnipresent, like if He’s present everywhere we go, how do we practice ourselves that He’s there with us everywhere we go?

Say the last part of that again.

Woman: How do we practice His presence everywhere we go?

Well, the answer will be different I think, depending on whether we’re talking about the sort of generic theism that I talked about in the first part of the talk, or the more specifically Christian understanding of God. But in general, Kierkegaard thinks that our relationship to God is always complex, in that, on the one hand, God is always giving, He’s always offering, He’s enabling. But He’s also asking. He’s challenging, He’s requiring.

But even when he asks and requires, that’s grace, it’s love on His part. It’s because He knows what we can become and wants us to become what we’re capable of becoming, what He intends us to become. So I think it’s a matter of, the practicing the presence of God is a matter of being sensitive to both, you might say sides of God’s power and grace which enables us to live in a certain way, His challenge, His requirements, which helps us train.

The way Kierkegaard puts this when he talks about Christian spirituality, is that we must always see Christ as both the pattern and the redeemer. Christ is both the model, the one we should emulate, but when we emulate Him, we fail and then we need Christ as the atonement, who restores us, heals us, and then out of gratitude, we should once more emulate Christ. And He thinks there’s this sort of rhythm between Christ as the pattern, Christ as the atonement in our lives.

Woman: This is not a challenging question. Did I hear that you are writing a book with this information in it? Or have you?

Yes, I’m working on it, yes.

Woman: Okay, do you have any idea when it will be coming out?

Not for a couple of years. I’ve only got about 50 pages done out of maybe 250.

Woman: Is it possible then to get a copy of this paper?

Sure, send me an email.

And I should say, just on that note, that all of the plenary addresses, the one in this room, they’re all videotaped, and the videos will find their way on to our website in a matter of weeks or months. And so you can find them there. And then all of the papers from, again, all the plenary papers from the conference will eventually be published in an edited volume, which might come out before Steve’s book, but it’ll be a race, so we’ll see.

Jim Houston had a hand up there, too.

Man: Hi, you were talking earlier about how the reason for the decline of religious belief in the West isn’t because our brains are too big, but it’s because our imaginations are too small and our emotional capabilities are too, they’re impoverished in a way. And I think that’s correct. My question is, would you have any way that you can think of to communicate that to a skeptical person without, ’cause when you say to a skeptical person, you need to use your imagination, they take that as if it’s coming from a five year old who wants to color or something.

And I guess I’m just wondering, I think that it’s correct, that it’s not really an intellectual issue, it’s more of a emotional kind of issue. Are there any ways that you can think of to briefly, to communicate that to a skeptical person without having them shut off because they hear the word emotional or imagination?

Yeah, I think, what I would say is, you don’t want to tell them you need to use your imagination more. You need to engage them and engage their imaginations, and we grow the imagination by using the imagination. So, for example, I think if I’m talking to someone, and I’ve heard this a lot from contemporary philosophers who say things like, “Well, I don’t think life “after death makes any sense. “I can’t even imagine an afterlife “that would be attractive for me.” And I take them at their word. But instead of trying to argue that they’re mistaken, and they ought to be able to imagine this, I try to get them to read “The Great Divorce”.

And their imaginations will be stimulated in ways that I could never stimulate them. And I think in general, actually, my friend and very first editor Jim Sire, has a new book coming out, which basically is on the way the imagination can lead us to God and how we can help our contemporaries rekindle, you might say, the kind of imaginative life that can be, I think, a kind of preparation for faith. It’s on.

Man: I appreciate it very much the relational quality you’ve given to Kierkegaard. So how does he explicate the Trinity?

Well, Kierkegaard doesn’t explicate the Trinity because he’s not doing systematic theology and he never does that. However, he is deeply trinitarian, and you can show that easily. I’ll give just one example. If you look at his great book “Works of Love”, which is I think, his basically, his Christian ethics. The book begins with a prayer. And it’s a trinitarian prayer. It starts out something like this.

I can’t quote the whole thing from memory but it says, “How can we speak of love without speaking of you, “the father of love, the source of all love? “How can we speak of love without speaking of you, “the son, who out of love gave himself for us? “How can we speak of love without speaking of you, “the spirit, who lives in our hearts to give, in dwelt, “to fill us with God’s love?”

So the whole book is in a sense prefaced with this trinitarian prayer where Kierkegaard is framing, and one of the things I would say if you’ve never read Kierkegaard, pay close attention to the frames. The beginning and ends of Kierkegaard’s books, the prefixes, the mottos, those things are always important. They’re terribly important to Kierkegaard and they’re always carefully, carefully chosen. So a prayer at the beginning of one of Kierkegaard’s books is never just a kind of, well, here’s a prayer to start the book off. It’s always really thoughtfully chosen, it has something to do with the content of the book.