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The Gospels As a Mirror in which to See Yourself

Kierkegaard argued that, if it is supposed that Christ is God or, at least, a man who lived his life in complete accordance with God's will, then it cannot be the case that the Gospels are simply an historical account of what happened at a particular time and place, but must be presumed (because it is a kind of communication from God) to be a disclosure of universal truth about men and God -- true for all times and places. God, appearing among men, reveals, by the contrast of his example, exactly who men are, not just at the particular time and place, but reveals essentially who they are.

In other words, to be blunt, were Christ to appear in America today, matters would go absolutely no differently: gentile Americans and devout Christians would have him put to death. You do not understand the significance of the Gospels, until you can see that what it is showing you is that, not only is this the way your society would behave, now, today, but by far the overwhelming likelihood is that this is also precisely the way that you and people you know would behave, that you, seeing, judging and acting always with worldly eyes, could easily be among those calling for Christ's death as an imposter and blasphemer, or pronouncing good riddance. You do not see the significance of the Gospels until you realize that, as David Horowitz recently said of The Passion, each of us kills Christ, and does so every day.

To even begin to see this, you have to imaginatively insert yourself into the story. If you are a Christian, you can't begin by standing outside the story in the superior, privileged position of knowing that the man on trial for his life is the son of God, just because the Church has been teaching that for the last 2000 years and because you have heard it since you were a child, so that you cannot even imagine what it would be like to have to decide on your own looking at the "evidence" as if for the first time. No, if you already know, it's too easy to read the story as just a morality tale between good and evil, congratulating yourself for being on the side of God. To learn something, you must put yourself in the story, be there when it happened, and then honestly ask yourself, how would I have acted?

If you put yourself in the story, then what you can really see and know is that here is a man who was born a bastard child of unknown father, v who associates with the lowest of the low in your society, a rabble rouser who attracts large mobs eager for miracles and dangerous elements hopeful that he is the promised messiah who will liberate your occupied country from the tyrannical rule of Rome and make it the most blessed land on earth. Zealots stand ready at his proclamation that he is The One to begin a horrendous bloody battle with the greatest power on earth. He, a complete uncertificated and unauthorized nobody, constantly rebukes the most respectable, learned and religious men in your society -- some of whom you personally believe to be truly holy men -- charging that they are hypocrites, worse than the sinners the holy men reflexively condemn. He challenges your burning desire to see that justice is done by telling you that the blessed turn the other cheek, and suggesting that yes, you may carry out the sentence, only let he who is without sin cast the first stone -- as if in seeking justice you were not really carrying out God's will! Although he will not directly and simply say that he is the son of God, he often states that has been sent by his father above to do his father's work, and that he is in the father and the father is in him. Although he is reputed to have performed amazing wonders, it is hard not to think that this is either blasphemy, something dangerously close to it, or the ravings of a madman. He continuously violates or ignores the most fundamental laws and sacraments of your religion, rituals you scrupulously adhere to and consider to be of the very essence of who you are, based on some arrogant belief that he is above all that because he serves some higher purpose ("The son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath"). And he certainly does not match what you have been taught about The One who will come and save you and your country, who was prophesied to defeat your enemies and make your land a glorious kingdom. He does not hail from the proper city or region, and he steadfastly refuses to assume any mantle of power, and does not even found any organizations or programs to bring about necessary change and reform. In sum, a very dangerous, deluded trouble-maker and complete nobody who is challenging the established order of things and who could easily bring down the wrath of Rome on your head.

Only now, in the position of having to decide on your own whether the "son of Man" be charlatan, madman, prophet, false or real messiah, without the illusory benefit of dogma or "history" as support, can you begin in honesty to consider how you would think, feel and act. You must make a decision, and if you are for him, it will be without benefit of any unequivocal objective support that you can point to that will vindicate you. The authorities, the people at large (especially the better sort!) and most likely your family and friends are not on his side, outward circumstances are not dispositive and certainly not favorable, and even the man you are trying to decide whether to cast your lot with will not tell you directly that he is The One, but leaves you entirely to yourself to make your own judgment. He evidently wants disciples, not worshipers; he wants people burning to follow his example, not people who will sing his glories day in day out because of Who He Is, or who are eager for the benefits that will flow from siding with divinity (eternal life!) and fool enough to take someone's word for it. In short, your decision can only be founded in faith.

In order to uncover the meaning of faith in a society in which everyone was automatically a Christian as a matter of course simply by being born in a Christian country, being baptized as an infant and occasionally worshiping Christ in church services, Kierkegaard labored to tear down the supports of a false piety that rested certain in the belief that Christ was God, certain of its own salvation by reason of believing this, and smug in its belief that Christianity was completely integrable with its conception of the Good Life and the values according to which it judged of one another in everyday life. Kierkegaard argued that, not only is it impossible to prove that God exists, vi God is not "directly recognizable." You can't tell just by looking or hearing. Thus, the very first problem is a rather serious one: if God appears, just how are you going to know it's Him?

Nothing that Christ did or said indicates, unequivocally, that he was God or the son of God. The miracles, even if it is assumed that they actually occurred, would not be definitive proof of divinity or omnipotence, only of an extraordinary or superhuman power. Although in the Gospel of John Christ speaks continually of having been sent and authorized by his father above to do his father's will, His habitual way of referring to himself was as the "son of Man," a phrase that certainly does not immediately convey the concept of divinity, and one which could even have been chosen for its ability to deny divinity. When during his trial he at last admits publicly that he is, indeed, the "King of the Jews," knowing that this will be understood as a messianic claim and will in all likelihood seal his doom (and, indeed, it is taken by the crowd as blasphemy), it is at a time when he is held in complete subjection to religious and civil authorities who are considering his execution, and he is at the greatest possible remove from being anything remotely "king-like," in the human sense of the word, so that it would seem he must be a madman, who indeed lives in some fancied other world inside his head.

In various philosophical works, Kierkegaard endeavored to show that faith existed only so long as there was uncertainty, that it was a "restless thing" and a "daring venture" in which one "ventured everything," as if out on the ocean alone at "20,000 leagues." vii However, he also often combated false piety by simply recounting and analyzing the Gospels by placing the reader in the original position of one who was confronting the situation as it, not only appeared, but was, at the time, and having to make his own decision.

For example, in one of his discourses, Kierkegaard recounts the reaction to the beginning of Christ's mission. Shortly after appearing on the scene, Christ has become a colossal power -- all is astonishment at him. He seems to hold all possibilities in his hand. But what is it he wants to do with this power, what is it that he wants to become? Many expect him to announce that he is the Promised One. Yet he never takes that step. He has but to say the word and his supporters will enthusiastically embrace him and follow him. But it drives one mad, while many are waiting for, expecting him to take the step, he does not use his fame, his power to advance his position in the world, to take control, to proclaim that he is The One and become King of the Jews or lead the revolt against Rome, but steadfastly remains a nothing in this world, ever continuing the same ministry. Eventually, this is perceived as obtuseness, a burden, a madness; his obstinacy will come to frustrate us and, at last, become an intolerable affront to us:

It is the same with human approval as with erotic love, friendship and the like; it is self-love. Where there is direct recognizability, where the presence someone exceptional is known by worldly power, honor, status, by gold and goods -- there human approval is also on hand. It is -- even if the individual is not always conscious of it in this way but it is in him more as a natural cunning of selfishness -- a simple arithmetical process: by approving at this point, I gain the advantage of sharing with the powerful, of being along in taking sides with the powerful, and so I am also an amiable person whose soul is not pettily shrunken but is enlarged in disinterested enthusiasm. But where the more direct recognizability is lacking or denied, to approve is devoid of profit, is an effort, is making a sacrifice; there approval is absent, . . . If God in heaven were to clothe himself in the form of a humble servant, if he, divinely squanderous, if I dare put it this way, were to scatter around checks drawn upon heaven, human approval could not associate with greatness of that kind. A human mediocrity, which as we all know is in vogue -- that is something for the speculative mentality of human approval. If there is in a family a child who is exceptional, and this is directly known by worldly honor and esteem, a European reputation, by medals and ribbons -- well, that is splendid, the family is sheer -- disinterested! -- enthusiasm. If he were exceptional but without direct recognizability, well, then the family would soon feel him to be a burden, a nuisance, and would rather have him be an utterly insignificant person. So it is with human approval -- and he who serves only one master, he unconditionally wants to be: nothing. viii

In another place, Kierkegaard explains why Christ, who keeps offending the Pharisees with his challenges that their righteousness is mere outward formalism and empty ritual, will eventually be charged as a blasphemer:

Matthew 15: 1 - 12. Then scribes and Pharisees came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said: (2) Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? They do not wash their hands when they eat. (3) But he answered and said to them: And why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? (4) For God has commanded, saying: Honor your father and mother, and whosoever curses father or mother shall surely die. (5) But you say,: Whosoever says to his father or mother: That whereby I could have helped you is a gift, does not need to honor his father or his mother. (6) Thus, for the sake of your tradition you have annihilated the command of God. (7) You hypocrites! Justly did Isaiah prophesy of you when he said: (8) This people keeps close to me with their mouths and honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. (9) But in vain do they worship me, when they teach such doctrines that are the commands of men. (10) And he called the people to him and said to them: Listen and understand! (11) Not that which goes into the mouth makes a person unclean, but that which comes out the mouth, this makes a person unclean. (12) Then the disciples came up and said to him: Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?

. . . This is the collision, a collision that appears again and again in Christendom; to put it briefly, it is the collision of pietism with the established order. The Pharisees and scribes are, namely, representatives of the established order, which precisely because of their quibbling and shrewdness has become an empty, indeed, an ungodly externality.

The established order, however, at that time insisted and always insists on being the objective, higher than each and every individual, than subjectivity. The moment when an individual is unwilling to subordinate himself to this established order or indeed even questions its being true, yes, charges it with being untruth . . . then there is the collision. Quite properly the established order poses the question: Who does this individual think he is? Does he perhaps think that he is God or that he has an immediate relation to God, or at least that he is more than a human being? . . . .

We need but little acquaintance with the human race to know that this is so and but very little with the most recent philosophy to know that this will happen in our day also. Why has Hegel made conscience and the state of conscience in the single individual "a form of evil" (see Rechts-Philosophie)? Why? Because he deified the established order. But the more one deifies the established order, the more natural is the conclusion: ergo, the one who disapproves of or rebels against this divinity, the established order -- ergo, he must be rather close to imagining that he is God. ix

So he is tried as a blasphemer. In recounting Christ's trial, Kierkegaard describes why anyone, at any time, would find that Christ merited the death penalty: he robs us of that which to us is the most valuable, that in which we have our lives:

The people have the right to choose, the choice between the release of a robber and of this accused. They choose the robber.

The other one, of course was really a much more terrible robber. What is assaulting a lone traveler on a highway perhaps a half-dozen times compared with his assault upon the whole human race and upon what it means to be a human being! A thief can steal my money; in so doing we are in disagreement, but in another sense we are completely in agreement, because the thief really shares my opinion that money is a great good. A slanderer can steal my honor and reputation, but the slanderer shares my opinion that honor and reputation are a great good, and that is why he robs me of mine. But in a much more cunning way one can rob us, so to speak of all our money, honor, reputation, etc., steal from our human lives that in which we human beings have our lives. That is indeed what he, the accused, did. He did not steal the rich man's money -- no, but he took the idea away from the possession of money. "O miserable mammon," that is what his life expressed, "miserable mammon, with which a person defiles himself by hoarding which he accumulates to his own ruination . . ." . . . Neither was he a slanderer who diminished anyone's honor and reputation -- no, but he took the idea away from human honor and reputation. "O miserable fool's costume," his life expressed, "miserable fool's costume; the more it is put on and the more it glitters and sparkles, the more miserable it is. You are unaware of it; you are like that king who by mistake put on the grave shroud instead of the coronation robe. . . ." But what is the use, then, of my being permitted to keep the money, the purple, the medals and ribbons, what good . . . that all fall on their knees when I appear, what good is it to me if he has his way, for then he has indeed taken the idea away from it, and if he wins, I am instead the butt of ridicule ever time there is a gun salute and every time they kneel to me. If it is perhaps too severe to impose capital punishment for thievery and robbery, for the kind of robbery he has committed against us all there is only one punishment -- the death penalty. x

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