4 Reasons God Isn’t Obvious — Some Kierkegaardian Observations

kierkegaard 2At some point in life, most of us have wondered why God isn’t more obvious. Why doesn’t he clearly reveal himself to all people in a clear and distinct manner? Why all this business about an incarnation, and a book, or an internal word of the Holy Spirit? Why doesn’t he just make it so everybody gets it?

In a brilliant article on Kierkegaard’s (K) conception of God, Paul Moser and Mark L. McCreary draw our attention to 4 Kierkegaardian considerations on the elusiveness of God. Note though I have numbered, labeled, and removed footnotes, what follows is a direct quote:

  1. Merely Objective Knowledge Isn’t Enough First, K maintains that those who seek God merely by means of objective information will be frustrated. Although K does not disapprove of objective knowledge as such, he strongly warns against approaching God as an impersonal object to be studied. In his words, ‘God is not like something one buys in a shop, or like a piece of property’. Instead, God is a personal agent, a subject with definite redemptive purposes for humans. Human knowledge of God, therefore, ought to be characterized by subjectivity and relationality, not by impersonal or detached forms of objective knowledge. Merely objective knowledge about God does not entail personally knowing God via a God-relationship. Moreover, obtaining merely objective knowledge may also promote complacency or a false sense of superiority. As K puts it, the ‘most terrible thing of all is’ to be ‘deceived by much knowledge’. In the end, some people who pursue only objective knowledge or evidence of God miss the fact that God is a subject and they therefore fail to encounter God as a personal agent, as person to person in an ‘I-Thou’ relationship. In this respect, knowledge of God is not available in a purely objective approach
  2. Presumptuous Approaches Are Inappropriate Second, K expects that God will remain hidden from presumptuous individuals. In Christian Discourses, K devotes an entire discourse to the theme of presumptuousness. Presumptuousness might manifest itself when someone ignores God, explicitly denies God’s existence, or demands particular services from God. All of these manifestations stem from a position of selfishness and cognitive arrogance wherein one desires to live ‘as if he were his own master, himself the architect of his fortune’. However, a presumptuous stance demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of who human beings are and who God is. Human beings are not ultimately their own masters, just as God is not a genie in a lamp who exists to cater to their wishes. As K points out elsewhere, an attitude of presumptuousness begins and ends in despair. Therefore, such an approach is likely to leave one without illumination regarding God’s existence and character.
  3. Denial of Sin The third reason why God may remain hidden from many people brings us back to the crucial issue of self-knowledge. According to K, to know and relate to God properly (as a morally perfect agent), one must break through to a consciousness of one’s sin. Sin and moral imperfection separate, or alienate, human beings from the holy and morally perfect God. To lead people to such an awareness, according to K, God creates each human being with an inner conscience, i.e., a personal ‘preacher of repentance’. However, the truth of one’s sinfulness is difficult to confront for a human. Many humans are afraid of this truth and prefer to retain a posture of self-sufficiency and an attitude of selfishness. Therefore, owing to selfish choices, actions, or fears, God’s call to many humans via conscience is ignored or avoided. As a result, such people fail to hear God’s voice.
  4. The Offense Finally, K explains that Jesus’ life is the possibility of offense and, as such, prevents many people from enjoying a God-relationship. K emphasizes sin to discuss forgiveness. After one’s confession of sin, the claims of Jesus should be of interest to one. K notes that Jesus offers rest to each individual through reconciliation with God and the forgiveness of sins. However, many people do not accept this offer because Jesus is also the possibility of offense. First of all, it is potentially offensive that Jesus, a human being, claims to have divine authority. Next, it is highly offensive that Jesus ‘declared himself to be God’. K describes in detail the various ways in which this claim can be offensive. The very concept of the ‘God–man’ is also problematic for some. K describes this ‘composite’ as the absolute paradox, as a ‘sign of contradiction’, and as something that brings the understanding to a standstill. There is no irrationalism here, but rather an insistence that profane reason and profane history can never directly demonstrate (i.e., deductively prove) that Jesus is also God. K maintains that this situation is the result of Jesus’ free choice to hide his divinity in what he calls ‘the most profound incognito’. The significance of the incognito is that it forces the issue of needed human faith to the forefront. K likens the possibility of offense to ‘standing at the crossroad’, where ‘one turns either to offense or to faith’. Those who are offended at Jesus turn away from faith and hence also from forgiveness and a personal God-relationship.

So why is God elusive according to Kierkegaard? Once again Moser and McCreary:

All of the aforementioned issues are inseparable from K’s conception of God. When individuals think or act in ways that prevent them from recognizing God, it is often because of a misunderstanding of the character of God. To search for or demand merely objective knowledge of God is to miss the fact that God is a subject, a personal agent with definite redemptive purposes for humans. To approach God presumptuously ignores that the fact that God, if God exists, has the wisdom, power, and authority to be God, that is, one who is worthy of worship. Those who drown out their conscience sometimes deny a contrast between God’s moral perfection and their selfishness and moral deficiencies. In addition, those who are offended at Jesus might misunderstand God’s humble, compassionate, and self-sacrificing love for God’s lost and dying creatures.

In other words, God doesn’t want to meet you as anyone other than himself. He wants you to know the real God—to reveal himself in ways that are consistent with his own character.

Would we want anything less?

Soli Deo Gloria

The Crib Leads to the Cross (Or, the Fathers on the Incarnation and Passion)

At Christmas we celebrate the advent of our Lord, the mystery of Incarnation of the Son of God.  For those of us with a theological bent, it raises a question that theologians have asked for centuries: if not for sin, would the Son have become incarnate anyways? Or, is the Incarnation the central act of salvation or the Passion? Christ’s birth or Christ’s death? Which is logically prior? Obviously they’re both important, but the way you answer this question has implications for other doctrines down the line and there are good arguments on both sides.

Mysterium paschaleCatholic giant Hans Urs Von Balthasar addressed this question in one of the most fascinating atonement theologies of the 20th century, his Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter, a meditation on the Triduum Mortis, the three days of Christ’s atonement: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Resurrection Sunday. Honestly, even though I’m not sure I can go for his controversial theology of Holy Saturday, brilliant though it is, most Evangelicals could stand to read his section on Good Friday–it’s worth the price of the book alone.

Before getting to the treatment of the three days, Balthasar argues that the Incarnation is clearly ordered to the Passion and that most attempts to reconcile the two trains of thought are misguided. Yet, the same time, if we look deeply into the Scriptures, the tradition, and the deeper theological logic, we will see that:

…to focus the Incarnation on the Passion enables both theories to reach a point where the mind is flooded by the same perfect thought: in serving, in washing the feet of his creatures, God reveals himself even in that which is most intimately divine in him, and manifests his supreme glory. (pg. 11)

East and West
Balthasar’s biblical arguments and later theological elucidation are both fascinating and convincing. The section that was most eye-opening for me in reading it a few years ago, was his section on the testimony of the tradition, both East and West on this subject matter.

Typically we are told that in the Orthodox East, a greater emphasis was laid on the Incarnation and that the Passion is accidental within the scheme, while the Latin West has placed a greater emphasis on the death on the Cross and so subordinates the Incarnation. Balthasar argues that this is a mischaracterization for “There can surely be no theological assertion in which East and West are so united as the statement that the Incarnation happened for the sake of man’s redemption on the Cross.” (pg. 20) Since this is somewhat uncontroversial of the West, specifically of the East he highlights that in their main theory, “the assuming of an individual taken from humanity as a whole…affects and sanctifies the latter in its totality, except in relation with the entire economy of the divine redemptive work. To ‘take on manhood’ means in fact to assume its concrete destiny with all that entails—suffering, death, hell—in solidarity with every human being.” (ibid.)

The Consensus
He then goes on to substantiate his claim with more citations from the Fathers than I have space to quote here; a number of them in Latin and Greek. I will reproduce only a few:

Athanasius

The Logos, who in himself could not die, accepted a body capable of death, so as to sacrifice it as his own for all.

The passionless Logos bore a body in himself…so as to take upon himself what is ours and offer it in sacrifice…so that the whole man might obtain salvation.

Gregory of Nyssa

If one examines this mystery, one will prefer to say, not that his death was a consequence of his birth, but that the birth was undertaken so that he could die.

Hippolytus

To be considered as like ourselves, he took upon him pain; he wanted to hunger, thirst, sleep; not to refuse suffering; to be obedient unto death; to rise again in a visible manner. In all this, he offered his humanity as the first-fruits.

Hilary

In (all) the rest, the set of the Father’s will already shows itself the virgin, the birth, a body; and after that, a Cross, death, the underworld—our salvation.

Maximus Confessor

The mystery of the Incarnation of the Word contains, as in a synthesis, the interpretation of all the enigmas and figures of Scripture, as well as the meaning of all material and spiritual creatures. But whoever knows the mystery of the Cross and the burial, that person knows the real reasons, logoi, for all these realities. Whoever lastly, penetrates the hidden power of the Resurrection, discovers the final end for which God created everything from the beginning.

Again, I have left out various citations by figures such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Ambrose, Gregory Nazianzen, Cyril of Alexandria, Leo the Great, Augustine, and others (pp. 20-22). Still, as Balthasar notes, “These texts show…that the Incarnation is ordered to the Cross as its goal. They make a clean sweep of that widely disseminated myth” that the Greek Fathers, against the Latins, are focused on the Incarnation to the exclusion of the Cross. (pg. 22)

MangerThe Crib leads to the Cross
As interesting of a conclusion as this is for the history of theology, “more profoundly” says Balthasar, “the texts offered here also demonstrate that he who says Incarnation, also says Cross.” (pg. 22) Of course this should come as no surprise. In all these texts the Fathers were only repeating the apostles, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5),  and our Lord himself who said, “And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour.” (John 12:27)

As we look to the Crib, we must see the Cross in the background—both holding our Savior in his weakness and humility—the peaceful beginning pointing the agonizing end suffered for our sakes; the cries from the cradle foreshadowing the cries from the Cross. This Christmas, as we gather around to celebrate the mystery of Incarnation, we cannot forget the Passion.

Soli Deo Gloria