The offense under discussion here is one of which anyone, for that matter, can be the subject if he, the single individual, seems to be unwilling to subject or subordinate himself to the established order. p.85
Søren Kierkegaard is not a relativist. Nowhere in Practice in Christianity does he refute the existence of absolute truth. In fact, up to this point, Kierkegaard has been adamant that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh, and that there is no way to the Father except through him. He does not propose the idea that truth can be whatever one makes it to be. Kierkegaard is decidedly Christian and it is from this view that he speaks.
Kierkegaard is also not an irrationalist. He is sometimes lumped together with people like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, as one who is on a never-ending quest to make sense out of an apparently incoherent world. Kierkegaard, however, has enough ontological, epistemological, and ethical understanding to have at least some distinctive separation from his cohorts. He writes, “It is self-evident that Christ is always the God-man.” p. 86 So, we must not confuse Kierkegaard’s moments of lament with chronic irrationalism. He is actually a very clear and rational thinker.
What appears to be disconcerting to Kierkegarrd, according to the opening quote, is that the established order (the Danish state Lutheran church) is inauthentic in its passion for Christ. It seems that people are part of the state church because of tradition and not because of hearts transformed by the gospel. He attempts to provide biblical support with the following text:
Matthew 15:1-12 (English Standard Version)
15 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” 3 He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 5 But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” 6 he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. 7 You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
8 “‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
9 in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
10 And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” 12 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?”
By appealing to this text, Kierkegaard seeks to advocate for a gospel Christianity; one that is heart-transforming. A passion-less Christianity simply does not work for Kierkegaard. It reminds me of the adage that we were not saved by our works, but we were certainly saved for works. This, I think, is what Kierkegaard is endorsing. He further writes,
Every human being is to live in fear and trembling, and likewise no established order is to be exempted from fear and trembling. Fear and trembling signify that we are in the process of becoming; and every single individual, likewise the generation, is and should be aware of being in the process of becoming. And fear and trembling signify that there is a God – something every human being and every established order ought not to forget for a moment. p.88
I translate this excerpt to be Kierkegaard’s admonishing the church for its apparent arrogance, and calling it to humility by seeing God as the only source of authority. Of course, this translates today as well. The spiritual emptiness of the Danish Lutheran church in the nineteenth century, as Kierkegaard saw it, continues to be an issue in the twenty-first century, and not necessarily only in Denmark. I think Kierkegaard’s caution is an important one for all churches, throughout the world, that proclaim the name of Christ.