Theology, Detonated

Reading Fear and Trembling, I couldn’t shake it, what this work had done to me. So, I kept reading and rereading, trying to work out what was going on, trying to distill it down to its core, trying to find a principle–say, the “leap of faith” or the “teleological suspension of the ethical”–that would let me handle it safely, that would allow me to summarize it, drain its bones of marrow, and successfully move on. (After all, we’re only supposed to “pass through” Kierkegaard, right?)

But this slender volume refused to let me go. Rather than being something I could harvest for my own endeavours, it continued–and continues–to elude all my attempts to put it to death and consume it for my own purposes.

Every attempt to synthesize the work must fail, as de Silentio backtracks, sidesteps, and constantly starts over again, refusing to do what I want him to do.

And so.

What I found in Fear and Trembling is that it is impossible to read Kierkegaard “well.” The benchmarks by which I learned to measure successful digestion and integration of something into my own intellectual systems simply don’t work with him. The techniques by which I learned to map out and nail down works of art, literature, and theology as significant or noteworthy or flawed fail when it comes to the great Dane. Kierkegaard constantly eludes capture, deflecting my attempts to summarize and tack him down. He outruns me at every step along the way. The diversions, anecdotes, and detours are Kind. Of. The. Point. All attempts to boil this down into an easily digestible morsel must necessarily not only reduce, but also distort what is going on.

And so.

Fear and Trembling “works” because it pulls you under and into the movement towards and into God. It brings you into the pattern of surrender, and beckons you to give in to its seductions. And in coyly drawing us out and into the Divine, Kierkegaard sneakily detonates all attempts to weaponize theology or philosophy as a means of control, as a means of controlling myself, God, everyone, everything.[1]

I have found here, then, starkly actualized, what the last five years has made devastatingly clear: attempts to use theology as a way of escaping, rather than immersing myself in, the chaos that is life must fail. Fooling myself into believing that studying, reading, and writing can give me a handle on the void at the heart of being is a self-deception which at best only temporarily keeps the howling at bay. Eventually life shrieks back, harsher than ever.

Only in refusing to look away from the unavoidable reality of failure, the unavoidable reality of brokenness, the unavoidable way in which the reality we name God defies my attempts to tack her/him/it/them down can I begin to live with the reality of a ruptured life. As Luther puts it, it is in “living, dying, and being damned” that one becomes a theologian.[2] This is the inescapable condition for learning God.

A step further.

Theologizing only matters insofar as it provides a means of letting go and unhanding our—my—desire for sophistication, poise, mastery, and control. [3] Only where theology enables us—me—to release the levers of authority and power, and only where theology becomes a lived way of taking up lives of solidarity with those who are destitute and plummeting into the waste spaces of society, culture, and religiosity is it of any value. Only where theology moves us—me—to take up life relentlessly on the side of those who have been abused and violated by authorities, people they trust—doctors and pastors, for example—and only where theology prompts us—me—to name predators as predators, rather than to protect them for “the sake of the Gospel” is it of any use.

Otherwise, it is simply another form of “bread and circuses” that denies the actual tragedies of life on the ground in favor of a bit of intellectual amusement and distraction. More, it is a tool of damnation, marshalled to mask over and hide the oppressive systems it is attempting to protect. Where theology is simply another means of drowning out and silencing those whose lives are disintegrating under the pressures of our economic, political, cultural, and religious machinations, it is simply, resolutely, passionately, a refusal of God.

Woe to those–myself included–who think otherwise.


[1] For a remarkable refusal of mastery or the desire to dismantle and weaponize Kierkegaard’s thought for his own purposes, see Peter Kline’s Passion for Nothing: Kierkegaard’s Apophatic Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017). You should read it. Anything I say on this blog is but an attempt to follow after the movement that Kline gestures towards.

[2] I had trouble finding the reference for this, but I’m pretty sure it’s in something he did on Romans. Feel free to send me the reference and I’ll put it in, O faithful readers.

[3] For more on this theme, see anything and everything Craig Keen has written. After Crucifixion is a pretty good place to start.