By Cassandra Swick
Søren Kierkegaard’s requirements for those who would reform the Church are extraordinarily high and are meant to apply to very few people — he expects no such worthy reformers in his own age, though he would gladly be “all bows and deference to him, the extraordinary” (all citations from For Self Examination/Judge for Yourself! trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong ([Princeton, 1990], p. 211). The model he holds up as the true reformer is Martin Luther, “only one solitary man … disciplined in all secrecy by fear and trembling and much spiritual trial for venturing the extraordinary in God’s name” (p. 213). Each aspect of this description is essential to what Kierkegaard requires of the reformer.
The sixth annual Student Essays in Christian Wisdom competition attracted papers from a range of students at Anglican seminaries and university divinity schools. As ever, our judges evaluated the papers blindly, with no knowledge of the name or institutional affiliation of the author.
Cassandra Swick, a student at Wycliffe College in the University of Toronto, took the top prize with her paper, “A Radical Call,” which The Living Church is pleased to publish. The other winners were:
We are grateful to the judges of this year’s competition:
First, the reformer must be a single individual with “an immediate relationship with God” (p. 211). For Kierkegaard, Luther could not have been the reformer he was if he had been anything other than one solitary man — for instance, if he had been someone who defined himself primarily by social consensus and who shunned the wisdom found in prayerful solitude. God’s Word, and the introspection required to be shaped by it, cannot be heard if one falls prey to the sort of worldly communication “designed merely to jolt the senses or to stir up the masses, the crowd, the public, noise!” (p. 48). The heart requires silence to hear God.
Second, the reformer must be “disciplined in all secrecy by fear and trembling and much spiritual trial.” It should be clear to us now what Kierkegaard might mean by “in all secrecy.” The reformer’s heart should be in a personal relationship with God that can only be nurtured by silence. But we learn something more: the reformer is disciplined by something or someone external. Some radical form of transformation is required, attained from the intense humility and suffering of fear and trembling and spiritual trial.
Finally, only then, transformationally disciplined, is the reformer prepared for “venturing the extraordinary in God’s name.” Kierkegaard does not give any specific examples here of what venturing the extraordinary might look like, and this is perhaps intentional. For him, venturing reliance upon God is something that is qualitatively different from the categories of this world, requiring us to “relinquish probability,” which refers to our attachment to specific worldly outcomes (p. 100). Venturing is “eternally … your victory,” but “it is just as possible, precisely as possible, to fail as to succeed” (p. 100). The reformer, then, is equipped to venture the extraordinary in God’s name, but there is no guarantee that anything will go as envisioned. Disciplined by God in solitude and in fear and trembling, the reformer is in a position to refer all that happens to God’s authority, and to be free from dangerous earthly attachments that can jeopardize true, God-driven reformation.
It is not surprising that Kierkegaard, with such a high view of the vocation of the reformer, warns very strongly against the dangers of those who bring false reform. He writes that “dabblers in reforming are more corrupting than the most corrupt established order, because reforming is the highest and therefore dabbling in it is the most corrupt of all” (p. 212). This view might seem extreme, but if a reformer must be thoroughly transformed by God in fear and trembling before being in a position to do any reforming, the corruption is that the dabbler’s reformation comes from human and not divine authority. Reformation on human terms can introduce some troubling and self-centered motivations, for instance with those people who would reform “in such a way that reforming becomes a pleasure, a profit, etc., instead of its being in the highest sense a matter of being willing to reform, that it means bringing sacrifices, being willing to suffer” (p. 131).
People grow confused about the meaning of reformation. Again, the problem here is one of misplaced authority. Finding the humility only to be willing to reform if necessary, and to sacrifice and suffer for the sake of reformation, is not a human phenomenon. It is a divine one. As with Luther, one reaches the point of such humility through spiritual trial, which Kierkegaard describes as being someone who is “like a lion imprisoned in a cage; and yet what imprisons him is remarkable — he is by God or because of God imprisoned within himself” (p. 20). Such a radical trial is unimaginable for most of us, yet it is what Kierkegaard requires if one is not to be a dabbler. It is only natural for sinful humanity to fall short of such a standard and to desire reformation anyway. But for Kierkegaard this does not in any way mitigate the corruption caused by dabbling in reformation. The substitution of human categories for divine will can cause too much damage to all parties involved. Far better, then, to avoid the category of reformation entirely in the likely case that no one steps up with the singular call of the reformer. Except in very rare cases, the established order “should stand, be maintained” regardless of its errors (p. 20). The dangers of those who try to reform without full dedication are too great for it to be any other way.
Kierkegaard finds that dabbling in reformation is all too common. In fact, he goes so far as to say that “the evil in our time is not the established order with its many faults. No, the evil in our time is precisely: this evil penchant for reforming, this flirting with wanting to reform, this sham of wanting to reform without being willing to suffer and make sacrifices” (p. 213). He characterizes his age as one in which both the desire and the attempt to reform the Church are widespread.
Again, his language of “evil” might seem a bit extreme. One would think there would be greater evils in his time than the penchant to flirt with reforming the Church. But we must understand his use of “evil” just as we understood “corrupt.” The evil is that people would toy with what is highest — which for Kierkegaard can only be accepted or rejected, acceptance being good and rejection being evil. The way that the evil of false reformation manifests for Kierkegaard in his age is through a devaluing of an ideal that should properly be “uncommonly elevated” (p. 213). People have lost the ideal of true reformation and its constituent inwardness and discipline in the noisiness of the age. The public as a reified entity comes to replace inward silence and transformation. Kierkegaard claims that it is an invention of his age that people now believe it is “number (the numerical), the crowd, or the most honored and most honored cultured public from which reformations proceed” (p. 19). This might be appropriate for reforms “in street lighting, in public transportation” but not in Christianity where, of course, reformation is to come from the individual who is transformed by God’s discipline (p. 19).
There is an obvious qualitative difference between the number and the individual: number is not seen as a collective of individuals, but as an impersonal entity, something directly opposed to true individual identity. With the loss of silence brought on by the public or the crowd, which is now enamored with “reformation,” there is a sort of explosion. He writes: “now that all want to reform, there is an uproar as if it were a public dance hall. This cannot be God’s idea but is a foppish human device, which is why, instead of fear and trembling and much spiritual trial, there is: hurrah, bravo, applause, balloting, bumbling, hubbub, noise — and false alarm” (p. 213). Kierkegaard distinguishes between God’s idea and “foppish human device” in these terms. In an age when people feel entitled to shout about reformation in a public forum amidst hurrahs, balloting, hubbub, and noise, Kierkegaard questions whether their desire for reformation is borne through something like Luther’s radical self-humbling and fear and trembling before God — a vocation so radical that Kierkegaard found it lacking in his entire generation — or whether it grows from other, more human, motives. He prays that the evil he perceives in his age may also be perceived, “if possible, everywhere, and God grant that wherever it is heard it may be earnestly considered” (p. 213). Whether Kierkegaard’s prayer was answered is a mystery, but his dedication to his ideal of reformation and his challenge to his age remain uncompromising.
One shortcoming in these sections pertaining to Church reform is the lack of a robust Christology (which lack does not pertain to the work as a whole); Christ is no doubt implied in the radical relationship one is to have with God, but there is little talk of grace. This is an important point as we think about applying Kierkegaard’s argument to our own situation. On the one hand, we in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada can and should find ourselves challenged by the warning against hasty reformation borne of noise and ballots rather than prayerful humility. It is a constant danger for all of us, regardless of where we find ourselves, to let the “uproar” of the rushing world and its ever-changing expectations drown out the still, small voice of God, whose eternal words are so much greater than our small concerns as to make them straw. Hasty decisions and shallow living must be avoided. On the other hand, each generation of the Church is composed of sinners in need of grace and constant correction. Christ has promised us these gifts. We will make mistakes again and again — even Martin Luther made grave errors in his time — and all that any of us can do is seek to be as faithful as possible in our day. The wait for a perfect reformer would be never-ending.
Cassandra Swick is an MTS student at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto.