Rachel Held Evans & God Held Rachel

RHELike others, I was shocked by the unexpected death of Rachel Held Evans – Memory Eternal. Rachel’s love for Christ was evident despite the controversy she provoked. She raised her voice sincerely in good faith, and Lord knows we need more, not less, of that. I admired her passion, her courage, her brute honesty, and the relentless clarity of her message. Nobody agrees with another person on absolutely everything, of course, so there are points of disagreement to be sure. But those differences are not relevant to what I want to say here.

Before I get to my comments, let me say that I was appalled by the uninspired comments of one person who responded to the news of Rachel’s death with a piece entitled “Heretical Author, Rachel Held Evans, Dead at Age 37,” in which the author included Rachel among the wicked in whose destruction the Lord takes no pleasure. I don’t care how orthodox your beliefs are, if the first word out of your mouth at such a moment is “heretic,” then heretical is what you are, for loving and compassionate Christlikeness is what sound doctrine are for, and the willful lack of it is a heretical betrayal of true doctrine, however faithfully one holds to it.

That said, I want to reflect on a something written by an ardent admirer of Rachel, a comment made by author and pastor Jonathan Martin. As most will know, Jonathan is lead pastor of The Table in Oklahoma City. He’s a gifted writer and speaker with an influence as wide as Rachel’s. The times I’ve read Jonathan (not a lot I confess), I’ve been blessed and challenged. Not knowing him, I have some hesitation about writing, but the scope of his influence and the nature of his comments regarding Rachel motivate me to share. To be specific, after the news broke of Rachel’s untimely death, Jonathan wrote (his Facebook page, May 4th, 5:09 PM) the following:

I have not caught my breath today since I heard about the passing of my friend Rachel Held Evans. I am upended. I am nowhere near anything close to “meaning” in this yet. I keep thinking of Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb, how the wisdom of God in pain is not in wise words—but wordless grief. There is a pain so sacred, even for God to proffer an explanation would be to blaspheme. There is a grief so profound, God falls silent. Jesus offers no explanations. The closest thing to an answer we are given is God…with…us, God’s face disfigured with sorrow. (Emphasis mine)

JonathanI don’t want to misunderstand Jonathan, nor do I wish to be misunderstood. I do understand the painful silence that death evokes in us. I’ve been there. I appreciate also that such silence is not the time to turn the pain of others into a soapbox to argue for one’s own theodicy. When we do that, theology itself becomes part of the suffering people seek relief from. To the extent Jonathan speaks from such silence, I’m entirely with him. The more silent and vulnerable we allow ourselves to be, the better off and healthier we are. Indeed, it is only in the silence and vulnerability which death evokes that God is to be found. We must each experience this for ourselves, and as one who has stood in the deafening silence of the Void with plans to dive into it headlong, the advice I wish to offer Jonathan is no mere academic exercise or soapbox opportunism. It is, quite literally, a matter of life or death.

What concerned me about Jonathan’s comments was not the honesty of his pain, nor his call to an appropriate silence, nor the sincerity of his love, but the despair (and I use the term intentionally in something like a Kierkegaardian sense) in his reducing God to the silence that death evokes. To suggest that God himself is struck silent by Rachel’s death, or that God is silent because he is reduced to the same failure of “meaning” we fall into on such occasions, or that for God to speak within our silent grief would be blasphemous even for God – this is deeply wide of the mark, and to hear it from someone of Jonathan’s caliber is concerning. I’m sorry to say it, because I respect Jonathan a great deal, and I respect the pain from which he speaks, but there is nevertheless a misperception at work here which is worth addressing.

God is not grief-stricken into silence by Rachel’s death, however we may feel, and this should come as a great comfort rather than an offense. Yes, God is “Emmanuel” (God with us). He is with us in our suffering, pain, and loss. And yes, the Incarnate God took the human journey from the womb through the grave to undying, resurrected life, so he knows intimately the conditions we face (Heb 2). But the Void did not reduce God to the silence of despair. “Emmanuel” does not mean “God commiserates with us.” That is not the logic behind the saving power of Christ’s suffering. On the contrary, as Christ, God speaks within the Void, unceasing in his speech, uttering his own triune identity and filial affection within the depths of human loss and abandonment.

a_light_in_the_darkness_by_abenteuerzeit-d5dlskcIf God is present in our silence at all (which he is, completely), he is present as God, that is, as the Father who speaks/utters his own Word, his Logos, his beloved Son, in and as and through and for all things. That is the Emmanuel who is with us. The Cross, then, is where God is this God on our behalf in the conditions of the Void, conditions that produce within us the silence of despair from whose deconstructing powers we are saved precisely because the Cross could not deconstruct Christ’s “Abba, Father” or wrest from Christ’s heart the filial affection that defined him to the end. But this is the very speech which, it seems, Jonathan makes out to be blasphemy were God to utter it in the face of Rachel’s death, the speech that God is, i.e., the Father uttering the fullness of his love in the Image of his Son, and the Son in the power of the Spirit replying “Abba, Father” within the conditions which in us occasion silent, existential foreclosure. But whatever else is lost, God cannot lose the utterance of himself in his own Son, nor do we lose our identity in that utterance (given us by the Spirit to know in Rachel’s death and in all our suffering, Rom 8.31f) when life suspends us over the empty abyss of the Void. Even there God is speaking, for God just is his speech, the uttering of himself – simply, infinitely, ceaselessly, completely, delightfully – as the mutual love of Father, Son, and Spirit. God is always saying at least that, but that is enough (2Cor 1). It is not an explanation, a theodicy, to be sure, but it is God uttering himself in us, for us, and through us.

I hope folks will not take me to be nitpicking over a minor, irrelevant point of trinitarian theology while we suffer Rachel’s loss. For in such circumstances, how we are in pain, and what constitutes our pain in light the gospel, are not irrelevant to our suffering. Obviously, Jonathan doesn’t think it’s irrelevant, for he chose to address it, to offer to us his perspective on the loss of Rachel, and even to speak for God by declaring the effect Jonathan cannot but imagine Rachel’s death has in God, namely, the same effect it had in him. So I feel permitted to raise my own voice (however insignificant it is) and offer a different perspective on where God is, and how God is, with us in our pain and loss. God is neither shocked, nor grief-stricken into silence, nor is he at a loss for words, nor is he like us waiting for the “meaning” of such loss; nor can the infinite delight of God’s undying life be blasphemous to a suffering world. On the contrary – if God were grief-stricken into silence at the death of every person he loves as infinitely as he loves Rachel (which is every person who dies, and which is every moment of every day), he would never open his mouth so much as to address humanity at all, ever. But he did, and he does – all the time.


Darkness reflected in the mirror


It is not without some hesitation that I share my recent struggles. Don’t panic for me when you read this. I’m not crying out for help, and I’m in no danger – not any danger you aren’t in as well without knowing it. I want to try to make something of my journey available to others in a more personal, less 3rd person way. It’s easy to post the joyful moments, or to discuss the meaning of this or that doctrine or philosophical claim. It’s harder to climb up on the examination table and invite others to observe whatever sickness is working in you.

I have written a bit about the Void (here, here, and here). I’ll leave you to check those out if you wish. I don’t mean to sound like Morpheus, but the Void is everywhere. It’s all around you. It’s every place and occasion where we are confronted by the truth of our nothingness. Anyone can perceive it. It does not take an act of faith to see and experience it. It takes an act of faith to transcend it, and not everyone succeeds at transcending it. The Void is our absolute ontological poverty, and any experience can be an entry point into its realization.

Forgive me if I’m unable to narrate it for you, but in recent months the Void has been my new ‘internal’ address, its gaping maw beneath me like a spectral Dementor consuming every thought. The Void is existential bankruptcy, a foreclosure upon life’s promises from the inside out, where the difference between life and death is nominal and the two words name the same emptiness. I’ve been in dark places before, but always in sight of life’s light at the entrance of the cave, a light that illuminated the Void’s insides. The Void imposed itself from without. Now it emerged from within me. I want to call it a ‘presence’, but it’s more like the presence of absence, on the inside. Its depths immeasurable. Its appetite insatiable. Its silence absolute. The will to live evaporates.

Not long ago, unable to sleep, I rose and went to the living room sofa. I don’t how long I laid there praying the Jesus Prayer. Crying out Groping for a reason to wish the world’s continuing existence, or mine in it. Hours perhaps. But they were empty words without any apparent effect. I went between the Jesus Prayer and repeating “I know my Father loves me” over and over, just out of habit. I don’t know if I was dreaming or I was just awake but lost in the darkness of the experience. I was suspended in pure darkness, utterly alone. I was embodied but couldn’t make out my own limbs. All I did was repeat the Jesus Prayer.

At some point the faintest light appeared at a great distance. I gravitated toward it. As I approached it, it took the shape of the Cross. When I say it was a light, I don’t mean it emanated its own light. Its light was different. As I got up to it, I saw it was simply a mirror, a cross-shaped mirror. It had no thickness at all. It was pure surface, in the shape of the Cross. I could make out the darkness all around it still. But there the cross-shaped mirror remained in front of me. I couldn’t look behind it, and I couldn’t turn my back on it. As I turned to move in a different direction, it maintained its position in front of me.

More amazingly, it was a mirror that reflected where I was. When I looked at it I saw myself and my surroundings reflected. To look at it was not to look through it or into it. Rather, it was to see all else by means of it. All I saw in it was myself and my surroundings. “But how’s a mirror reflect anything in the dark? That’s not possible.” Obviously. Stand in front your bathroom mirror at night and turn the light now. You see nothing. This was like that, except with the lights out the mirror still reflected clearly, perceivably, all that was there. “I’m in complete darkness here. I can’t touch anything and I’m not touched by anything. There is nothing in this Void with me. So whence the reflection?” But as I looked at this mirror, my own reflection and the reflection of the entirety of the space I was in became clearly perceivable, and what I saw was a beautiful, sunny day. Blue skies above, the birds I visit every day in my backyard, my garden flowers, my favorite chair, and a healthy looking me, a contented me, staring back from the reflection. It was my reflection to be sure, not a vision of me somewhere else, for if I moved, or raised my right hand, or stepped back or forward – all my movements were perfectly reflected in the mirror. But none of the despair of life I felt was in my reflected face that I viewed. If I looked slightly left or right of the mirror – all was a consuming blackness. The only thing to see, and the only way to see it, was to stare at the cross-shaped mirror. There was no viewing the world around me directly. Things were only perceivable when perceived indirectly as reflected in the Cross. So the light that came from the Cross which I saw from a distance was the sunlight of my own surroundings reflected in the Cross. The Cross was just telling me what was there.

This is the opposite of how we typically view the Cross. We can easily imagine our surrounding world with us, nature, and other people all fully present as our lived experience. Then we plant the Cross over top this vision, and it’s the Cross in this context that is a black and ugly thing, a cross-shaped horror which, you might say, introduces the Void into the real world. In this case you can get a moment’s distraction from the horror of the Cross by looking away to the real world around. My experience in the Void through this night was the opposite. My body, and the whole world I was apparently in, were a horror of darkness, a consuming Void, on their own, and it was the Cross that brought the world to light and relation.

I apparently fell asleep or into a deeper sleep at this point and woke up in the morning.

Finally, an inerrant text!


I’m no more than an admirer, but I would recognize this score from its opening measures without the title. And I couldn’t go through life captivated by it but never having attempted it, so I did manage to work through the first third or so of Segovia’s arrangement of it for guitar. This is J. S. Bach’s Chaconne from Partita No. 2 for solo Violin (D minor), here performed by Jascha Heifetz, Paris, 1970.

Bach composed this work (1720, together with the other sonatas and partitas for solo violin) just after the death of his beloved wife Anna. One story about the composition (believed by many musicians but few Bach scholars) is that Bach’s elaborate use of the double stop (playing two notes at once) strewn throughout was Bach’s way of retrieving Anna from the grave to rejoin him and unite her voice with his. Well, true or not, the partitas are sublime, and the Chaconne is their summit.

Lost in translation—Part 2


“The golden thread of analogy can stretch across as vast an apophatic abyss as the modal disjunction between infinite and finite or the ontological disproportion between absolute and contingent can open before us; but it cannot span a total antithesis. When we use words like ‘good’, ‘just’, ‘love’ to name God, not as if they are mysteriously greater in meaning than when predicated of creatures, but instead as if they bear transparently opposite meanings, then we are saying nothing.” (David Bentley Hart, “God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of creatio ex nihilo.”)

I’d like to continue exploring questions related to theological language – how our language apprehends (or, as I prefer to say, is apprehended by) God. It’s a topic the currents of my own faith-journey circle me back round to with some regularity. I’ll continue my thoughts primarily in light of the earlier part of David Hart’s essay “The Offering of Names: Metaphysics, Nihilism, and Analogy,” which I’ve been reading and re-reading for the past few weeks. The essay is a call to remember the difference between “nomination” and “attribution,” that is, between the “theological enunciation of ‘divine names’,” on the one hand, and the “philosophical enumeration of the ‘attributes of deity’” on the other.

To begin with Hart’s description of the latter, a univocal ontology “understands being as nothing but the bare category of existence under which all substances (God no less than creatures) are severally placed.” It posits a “direct proportionate similitude between attributes inhering in discrete beings (albeit between finite and infinite instances,” which “allows the essences of our attributions to remain intact even when they are modified by the addition of the further attribute ‘infinite’.” In a metaphysics of participation, on the other hand, “all things are embraced in being as in the supereminent source of all their transcendental perfections.” This model asserts an “infinite qualitative difference between the coincidence in God’s simplicity and plenitude of all the transcendental moments that compose the creature (goodness, truth, beauty, unity, etc.) and the finite, multiplicit ‘prismation’ of being’s light in the creature.” This allows for “a continuity of eminence between those moments and the transcendent wellspring from which they flow,” a continuity which allows one to “in some sense name God from creatures” even though the “truth of such names is infinitely beyond the capacity of finite reason properly to grasp.” In this sense analogy, unlike univocal predication, is “a language of likeness chastened by the pious acknowledgement of an ever greater unlikeness.”

The danger inherent in attempting univocal predication, Hart argues, is that it necessarily commits one to a logical nonsense – i.e., God who is a “being among beings, who possesses the properties of his nature in a composite way,” a “mere supreme being, whose being and nature are in some sense distinct from one another,” who “receives his being from being as such,” and who “in some sense becomes the being he is by partaking of that prior unity (existence) that allows his nature to persist as that composite reality it is.” Such a univocal ontology fails properly to think “the difference between nomination and attribution.” It evacuates theology of transcendence, and plunges thought “into an absolute and self-sealing discourse of immanence” and finally nihilism. It seems to me that the notion of univocity operative in Hart’s critique is one in which terms used of God must mean everything they mean when describing us, i.e., no more and no less than what they mean when used of us, in which case the ontology in which love or goodness or justice is possessed by us is the ontology that grounds their manifestation in God. I agree this is disastrous.

lost2A great deal more is said to clarify the distinction between these two ontologies and to argue why the later (metaphysics of participation) is Christianity’s genius transformation of its first world, but I’ll not get into that. It’s a wonderful essay. I’ll only embarrass myself as much as I have to here by wondering if there is not a slight equivocation hiding within Hart’s argument. To be precise, does not Hart end up agreeing that moral terms (like ‘love’, ‘goodness’, ‘justice’) mean pretty much what they mean when attributed to creatures? The term ‘love’, for example, names the self-giving pursuit of another’s highest good in God as opposed to seeking selfishly to harm or exploit others. That’s what it means for us to love. Semantically, that much is at least what it means for God to love us. To return to the opening quote of Hart, if we use the term of God as Hart advocates, “as if [it is] mysteriously greater in meaning than when predicated of creatures” [emphasis mine], I don’t see how the term ‘love’ is much different in meaning from the univocal sense – unless of course by ‘univocal’ one means to gather up everything about the contingent mode of becoming by which creatures know and experience love and attribute this to God, which obviously we do not want to do. Still, that being the case doesn’t result in ‘love’ becoming an empty notion. Even understood analogically, that is, ‘love’ doesn’t seem to come out meaning something other than what it means for us (taking into account the difference between God’s mode of being and our mode of becoming).

God loves us in an uncreated, non-composit mode of being, a mode that is, as Hart says, as qualitatively different as the difference between ‘truth’ and truths, or ‘goodness’ as such and particular instances of goodness. We, unlike God, love God and others in a created, composit, essentially temporal mode of becoming. But the term in question (love) in both cases describes the same selfless pursuit of the highest good of another. The infinite qualitative distinction prevents us from attributing precisely those features of the ontic (the “composite becoming” that “receives its life from outside itself”) that Hart points out cannot logically describe God, but ‘love’ doesn’t thereby change its meaning to hate, say, or to what have you. Why not? What prevents us from wondering whether love in God’s transcendence is not what we call hate or indifference? Most would answer by saying that’s simply not what the word ‘love’ means and would encourage us to find another word (‘hate’ or ‘indifference’).

If all that’s meant by analogy is that the terms we derive from our mode of becoming are understood both to be fulfilled and infinitely exceeded in God’s mode of being, I have no qualms. But I suspect more is meant, I’m just not sure what. I wouldn’t think one need insist that the word ‘univocal’ be abandoned (because it entails ontological commitments not even Scotus tolerated) and ‘analogy’ be substituted. It seems easy enough simply to ask the one doing the talking: Do you think God is a composite God of becoming whose nature is, like all created natures, an endless oscillation between essence and existence? If the answer is no – what other complaint have we?

lost3It is not like Scotus’s disagreeing on the semantic nature of attribution (univocal vs analogical) included his believing God was in fact a composite God of temporal becoming who received his life from outside himself. Scotus was no Process theist or Evangelical. When he says being is to be understood univocally, at the very least he does not mean to say God and creatures alike are assumed under a third reality (being as such) as something other than God, superior to both God and creation and in which both participate. But if Scotus managed a univocal model of theological language in which God was not believed to be a composite being of temporal becoming who derived his life from something greater than himself, how is such a model necessarily beholden to the mistakes Hart warns us of?

It also does not appear to be the case that agreeing entirely with an ontology of participation means one always rightly names God. As Hart notes (“God, Creation, and Evil”):

[D]own the centuries, Christians have again and again subscribed to formulations of their faith that clearly reduce a host of cardinal Christian theological usages— most especially moral predicates like “good,” “merciful,” “just,” “benevolent,” “loving”—to utter equivocity, and by association the entire grammar of Christian belief to meaninglessness…Nor am I speaking of a few marginal, eccentric sects within Christian history; I mean the broad mainstream….

This is interesting, because if Scotus can affirm a univocal predication of, say, love or goodness, to God while knowing God not to be a composite God of temporal becoming who derives his life by participating in some independent being as such which is greater than him, and if many in “the broad mainstream” of classical theism who agree God is not such “a” being, though their equivocations also “reduce the entire grammar of Christian belief to meaninglessness,” then we have to wonder where the danger really lies. What really opens the door to the nihilism Hart warns of? I’m just asking. Certainly the actual belief that God is a composite God of becoming would invite that nihilism. But the latter equivocators (with the right ontology in hand) lead us to the same nihilism. So I’m wondering if there is some other mistake hiding in the details which has nothing to do with whether one explicitly affirms God’s transcendent ontological otherness.

I don’t mean to deny the difference between the perfectio significato (the thing signified) and the modus significandi (mode of signification). Yes, ‘love’ is attributed to God differently (as different as ‘being as such’ is from beings, or ‘truth as such’ is from truths, or ‘beauty as such’ from instances of beauty – all Hartian examples of that difference). My point is that the meaning of ‘love’ (semantically, not ontologically – if the distinction is permitted) is the same, i.e., we’re talking about desiring and pursuing the highest good of another in God (not about hating or fishing or sailing, or whatever random meaning the quantum-semantic wave might collapse us into). The how is not the worry people generally have. It’s whether when we talk about God our terms mean something transparently different or contradictory to what they mean within our experience.

A last thought. Just this morning I was pondering Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians (Eph 3). He prays “that you, being rooted and established in love, may have the power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Here is the intimacy of transcendency’s presence, not its absence, and yet its presence is no categorical reduction of God, for Paul prays (more literally) “that you know the knowledge-exceeding love of Christ.” Don’t miss the isomorphic affirmation/denial – what is in fact ‘known’ is in fact ‘beyond knowing’. One could throw in all one’s holdings (all one’s ‘categories’) on an ontological call to see what ‘in fact’ is hiding in love’s ‘knowledge-excelling’ hand, but one would lose everything in the wager. For surely here we have as explicit a description of the distance between cataphatic and apophatic, of the “epistemological caesura” one must tolerate between the two as one could ask for. And as long as it remains a propositional exchange, ‘toleration’ is what it will feel like, perhaps intoleration. But when it’s experienced (‘known’) as ‘knowledge-exceeding’ love (v. 19), toleration is transformed into the welcome sweetness of being’s inexhaustible goodness and we are, as Paul said, “filled unto all the fullness of God.”

Danish pastry anyone?

skA second passage (after the first) from Christopher Ben Simpson’s The Way is the Truth: Kierkegaard’s Theologia Viatorum. It’s a great introduction to Kierkegaard’s vision. When it comes to understanding what faith is and what it means to integrate (“appropriate” is Kierkegaard’s word) the truth of the gospel into and as one’s very life, the nature of the obstacles that must be faced and the costs involved, Kierkegaard captures things best for us.


Objective and Subjective Truth
The problem with what Kierkegaard calls ‘objectivity’ or ‘objective truth’ in relation to being a Christian is that it shifts the ‘medium’ from ‘existence and the ethical to the intellectual, the metaphysical, the imaginational’ (PoV 130). In making Christianity a matter of intellectual reflection, of abstract imagination, ‘a more or less theatrical relationship has been introduced between thinking Christianity and being a Christian’ (PoV 130). The problem with the ‘objective’ approach to the truth of Christianity is that it ignores existence in favour of something that happens on the level of reflection alone ‘as if having thought about something were identical with existing’, and so committing the error ‘that by coming to know objectively what Christianity is…one becomes a Christian’ 9CUP 253, 570, 577). The problem with ‘objectivity’ is that, in its abstraction and so isolation from existence, it is not in touch with actuality, not in relation to truth (EO 542). The reality that it has lost contact with is that of the existing person. Objectivity is a truth that ‘goes away from the subject’ (CUP 193) – a truth that is impersonal and indifferent: ‘indifferent to the individual’s particular condition…indifferent to its relation to him…indifferent to how the individual receives it…indifferent to whether the truth becomes a blessing or a ruination to him’ (FSE 39; EUD 233-4). A Christianity built around such ‘objective’ truth is a ‘professorial-scholarly Christianity’ in which ‘the professor is the truth Christian’ (JFY 195); the problem is ‘not that what they say is an untruth, since they say what is true, but that true statement has no truth in them’ (UDVS 325) – they are ‘rich in truths and poor in virtues’ (EUD 350). When truth becomes ‘objective’, what is lost is the relation between the existing subject and what is seen to be true – the appropriation – ‘how an existing subject in concreto relates himself to the truth’ (CUP 75, 192-3)…

Subjective truth is a being in relation to, being involved in, the truth. ‘The relation of the subject’, Climacus writes, ‘is precisely the knotty difficulty’ (CUP 37). The subjective, for Kierkegaard, is the personal, is related ‘to a person present’ (FSE 39; UDVS 11). ‘Personal consciousness’, he writes, ‘requires that in my knowledge I also have knowledge of myself and my relation to my knowledge’ (CD 194). Central to this personal involvement is one’s decisions, one’s choices. Choice is, as Judge Vilhelm states, ‘decisive for a personality’s content’ (EO 482). An understanding of truth that includes decision as a necessary component is ‘subjective’, for ‘all decision is rooted in subjectivity’ and ‘only in subjectivity is there decision’ (CUP 33, 129, 203). In resolution one re-engages with actuality (after reflection). The choices one makes in relating to and engaging with the world constitute who one is as a person. Subjective truth is choosing to be in relation to what is. This implies that choosing rightly matters – that the content of the choice matters – for one’s life (EO 483). As deciding, choosing, actively relating to the world (to oneself, to others, to God) the thinking subject is involved in an ongoing process of existence as a continual striving (CUP 91-2)…

What Kierkegaard advocates is a movement from the ‘objective’ to the ‘subjective’, from reflection to resolution, from abstraction to action. One of Kierkegaard’s characteristic ways of describing this movement…is as appropriation. Appropriation is the movement of incarnating a truth that is not initially your own. It is a receiving that, as a genuine receiving, is a producing; appropriation…is literally: making something one’s own (CUP 21). In appropriation, a thesis, an objective truth to be known, becomes a task – ‘something quite different from knowing’ (CUP 297; JC 131) – or rather, the ethical and religious ‘theses’ are given their proper existential resonance as something more than propositions to be affirmed (JC 152-3). Subjective truth is then ‘the truth of appropriation’ where focus is brought upon ‘the subject’s acceptance of it’ such that, as Climacus famously writes, ‘when subjectivity is truth…a definition of truth [would then be this]: An objective uncertainty, held fast through appropriation with the most passionate inwardness, is the truth, the highest truth there is for an existing person’ (CUP 21, 129, 203)…


Christianity, Christian truth, is at the end of a trajectory that begins with subjective truth and ascends and focuses in ethical and religious truth. Given ‘that subjectivity, inwardness, is truth’, Climacus writes that this ‘at its maximum is Christianity’ (CUP 279). If ‘subjectivity is truth and subjectivity is the existing subjectivity, then, if I may put it this way, Christianity is a perfect fit’ (CUP 230). To truly exist humanly is to exist religiously, and to truly exist religiously is to exist Christianly (CUP 249)…Truth, then, as transcendent, as revealed, should be expected as something transcendent, as something from above challenging and frustrating our merely immanent categories here below, as something paradoxical. The trajectory does not lead to paradox or absurdity as such, to nonsense – as if one’s ‘subjective’ passion and earnestness is all that matters – ‘as a beatifying universal balm’. The trajectory points to a particular paradox…

Johannes Climacus writes in the Postscript: ‘The paradox came into existence through the relating of the eternal, essential truth to the existing person. Let us go further; let us assume that the eternal essential truth is itself a paradox’ (CUP 209). At the heart of Christianity is the paradox that ‘the eternal, essential truth…has come into existence in time’ (CUP 213). Christianity claims to present the eternal truth of human life – the truth of what we are and what we are to be – but this, Climacus writes, ‘is not an eternal truth in the sense of a mathematical or ontological theorem’; rather ‘Christianity is the paradoxical truth; it is the paradox that the eternal one came into existence in time’ – ‘the difficulty and the paradox are that it is actual’ (CUP 580; BoA 37).

This eternal truth come into existence is Christ – ‘Christ’s life upon earth, every moment of this life, was truth’ (PIC 203)…If Christ is this truth, the highest truth that is Christianity, is existing in the reality revealed in Christ. True human being, as living in community with God, with others, and with oneself, is a life ‘defined’ by Christ; it is the life of a disciple, an imitator of Christ…

Climacus presents the Christian way, Christian subjectivity as singular. ‘The appropriation by which a Christian is Christian’, he writes, ‘must be so specific that it cannot be confused with anything else (CUP 609); it is a ‘paradoxical inwardness that is specifically different from all other inwardness’ (CUP 610). The Christian way is based on Christ. Climacus holds that Christianity as paradoxical-religiousness is so unique that one, ‘just by describing the “how” of his inwardness can indirectly indicate that he is a Christian without mentioning Christ’s name’ for ‘this’ “how” fits only one object’ (CUP 613-14)…

And essential part of the particularly Christian understanding of truth for Kierkegaard – that the truth is ‘transcendent’, that it comes to us, from beyond us, in Christ – is our state as untruth. Untruth, for Kierkegaard, is the ordinary state for humans, is the ‘preceding state’ (EO 599; PF 13-14). While, for Christianity, subjectivity is truth, our subjectivity ‘at first’ is untruth (CUP 213)—that subjectivity is truth, Climacus states, ‘begins in which way: “Subjectivity is untruth”’ (CUP 207). This untruth is a state of isolation or estrangement – of not being in community, in communion with reality – ‘inclosed’ in one’s own false world, at a ‘painful distance from the truth’ (CA 128; CUP 269). One is self-deceived, not relating to what one is and the way things are as one is and as the way things are, in actuality (TDIO 35). One despairingly misrelates to the self either being tricked out of the self by becoming a finite thing bound to necessity without possibility of freedom (SUD 33) or by becoming something ‘fantastic’ (SUD 31), ‘a mirage’ (SUD 36) of infinite possibilities – lacking, not being constrained by actuality and so becoming unreal (SUD 35). This untruth is a despair, an unhappiness, that can manifest itself in a sense of disjunction, a sense that something is wrong with oneself. This despairing untruth, as Kierkegaard’s later pseudonym Anti-Climacus describes it in The Sickness Unto Death, is not willing to be the self that one is – or (what amounts to the same thing) willing to be a self one is not (SUD 52-3). This misrelation to the self is also a misrelation to God insofar as the self is fundamentally related to God – the self ‘is’ a set of relations with the relation to God being the most fundamental, as the power that establishes the self—as the one that made the self as it is an against which one rebels in rejecting oneself (SUD 60). The state of untruth is a loss of this God-relationship. As Climacus writes: ‘It is really the God-relationship that makes a human being into a human being, but this is what he would lack’ (CUP 244). It is being in a state of sin, or rebellion, of mutiny against God (CUP 208) – even to the extreme of the most self-conscious and willful misrelation to oneself in ‘demonic despair’ that, ‘in hatred toward existence…wills to be itself, wills to be itself in accordance with its misery (SUD 73).

skstampTruth for Kierkegaard is a matter of being true to one’s being. The self has a reality that is independent of one’s thoughts and desires – ‘the self he is is a very definite something’, writes Anti-Climacus, ‘it remains itself from first to last;…it becomes neither more nor less than itself’ (SUD 36, 69). There is something that is ‘the original text of individual human existence-relationships, the old familiar text handed down from the fathers’ (CUP 629-30). One can either affirm and enter into one’s nature, one’s actuality or deny it. Truth is a matter of being (becoming) true to the actuality, that one is, ‘the only actuality there is for an existing person’ (CUP 316). Because there is a reality to the self there is a standard for a proper relation to oneself. Thus Climacus writes: ‘That subjectivity, inwardness, is truth…but, please note, not every inwardness’ (CUP 282-3). One becomes true, becomes more fully actual, when one exists in relation to what one is. One’s being, one’s actuality, is that of an active relation, an ‘existing in’, and interestedness – a being-between, ‘an inter-esse’ (CUP 340, 314). ‘Subjectivity is truth; subjectivity is actuality’ when one subjectively lives in accord with (one enters into the actuality of) one’s actuality as a subject – which is itself a being-in-relation—and so becomes subjective, actual, true (CUP 343)…

The self, for Kierkegaard…is ‘a relation that relates itself to itself’ (SUD 13). As such, it is, among other things, a synthesis of the necessary and the possible. Anti-Climacus writes: ‘Insofar as it is itself, it is the necessary, and insofar as it has the task of becoming itself, it is a possibility’ (SUD 35). The necessary is the reality of the self, that cannot be otherwise – ‘the self he is is a very definite something, and thus the necessary’ (SUD 36). The necessary aspect of the self is ‘that place’ (SUD 36) that one is in which one becomes – chooses to relate to the self – possibly rightly, possibly wrongly. The possible is one’s possible relation to one’s necessary reality. With one’s reflective consciousness (with the ‘mirror of possibility’), one has freedom with regard to how one relates to oneself (SUD 37). Thus, one can ‘become lost in possibility’ (SUD 37) – one can conceive of and relate to oneself as other than one is (e.g. not in a fundamental relationship with God as one’s origin and end). The proper (possible) relation to one’s (necessary) self, the true relation is that of ‘taking possibility back into necessity’ – living as (for one could live otherwise) what one is – of ‘submit[ting] to the necessity in one’s life’, for this is what enables one to become a ‘concrete’ and actual self (as opposed to an unreal/illusory one) (SUD 36-7). By choosing the possible way of existing that is in accord with our necessary being, one becomes actual – thus, as Anti-Climacus writes, actuality is the unity of possibility and necessity’ (SUD 36)…

Kierkegaard sees the more profound ‘truth’ of human existence as a correspondence between one’s existing and one’s being – between one’s existence and one’s essence, perhaps (CUP 190-3). Truth is an honest – in ‘that your life expresses what you say’ (CD 167). It is a process of becoming sober – as Kierkegaard writes, ‘to come so close to oneself in one’s understanding , in one’s knowing, that all one’s understanding becomes action‘ (JFY 115). ‘Christianly understood’, the goal is ‘to be the truth’ – and this is achieved when the truth ‘becomes a life in me’ (PIC 205-6). The truth is incarnated in the way one lives. Bringing all of this together powerfully, Anti-Climacus writes that ‘to be the truth is the only true explanation of what truth is’ (PIC 205). I quote at length:

The being of truth is not the  direct redoubling of being in relation to thinking, which gives only thought-being, safeguards thinking against being a brain-figment that is not, guarantees validity to thinking, that what is thought it – that is, has validity. No, the being of truth is the redoubling of truth within yourself, within me, within him, that your life, my life, his life expresses he truth approximately in the striving for it, that your life, my life, his life is approximately the being of the truth in the striving for for it, just as the truth was in Christ a life, for he was the truth. (PIC 205)

This lived truth is its own best demonstration. Kierkegaard writes that ‘the highest a person is capable of is to make an eternal truth true, to make it true that it is true – by doing it, by being oneself the demonstration, by a life that perhaps will also be able to convince others’ (CD 98). Those who seek to show that Christianity is true in a purely intellectual manner are ‘busy in a strange way in the wrong place’ (CD 189) – for Christianity is to be true in life and should be shown forth as such, much in the  way that ‘the resolution of marriage is its own best recommendation’ (SLW 156). Christian ‘being true’ is a making manifest, a concrete showing, of the truth of Christianity in life.


CA The Concept of Anxiety
CD Christian Discourses
CUP Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments
EO Either/Or
EUD Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses
FSE For Self-Examination
JFY Judge for Yourself!
PoV The Point of View
SLW Stages on Life’s Way
SUD The Sickness Unto Death
TDIO Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions
UDVS Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits

Philosophy’s divestment


Western thought had attempted to rise from this superstitious subjugation to the world’s mere event: Plato and Aristotle, however imperfectly, were both shaken by that effulgent moment of wonder that can free reflection from here animal dread; perhaps the one could not quite transcend the dialectic of change and changeless essences, the other the dialectic of finite form and unrealized potency, nor either the still “sacrificial” economy of finitude, but both stood within the opening in Western thought that theology could transform into a genuine openness before the transcendent God. Still, Heidegger may be somewhat correct in seeing, even in this openness, the inauguration of Western reason’s long journey toward technological mastery as the highest ideal, toward instrumental control as the governing model of all truth, toward—in short—nihilism. Perhaps there truly was, precisely in the birth of philosophy as a self-conscious enterprise of rising above the ephemerality of the phenomena to take hold of their immutable premises, a turning away from the light toward the things it illuminated, a forgetfulness of being within philosophy’s very wakefulness to being. And perhaps in this fateful moment of inattention to the mystery of being’s event, the relentless search for being’s positive foundations commenced, and then proceeded along a path that, in the end, would arrive at the ruin of philosophic faith. All of this may be—indeed, in some obvious sense, in—quite true. But the Platonic eros for the beautiful, good, and true was also a longing for something more than mere “grounds”; it was a desire for being’s fullness, though one not yet able to understand being as gift. Other ancient schools of thought were generally less precocious in their advances toward Christian theology. Stoicism, for instance, however magnificent, humane, and sophisticated it was in its most developed forms, was still somewhat retrograde in this regard, and was bound to a vision of the cosmos as a fated economy of placement and displacement, and to a more transparently sacrificial cosmic mythology of eternally repeated ekpyroseis (the universe as an eternal sacrificial pyre); but Stoicism too was profoundly marked by philosophical wonder before the goodness and loveliness of cosmic and divine order. The syncretism of late antiquity may often have produced monstrosities of occult “wisdom” and grotesque aberrations of philosophy and religion alike, but in the case of the Platonic tradition it also made it possible for a philosopher like Plotinus to reflect upon the generosity of the good and the convertibility of the good and being, and thus press against the boundaries of the totality. But it was only when Christian thought arrived, and with it the doctrine of creation, that the totality was broken open and, for the first time ever, philosophy was granted a glimpse of being’s splendid strangeness within its very immediacy and gratuity.

With this “Christian interruption” of metaphysics, every principle of necessity was made subordinate to the higher principle of grace. Christian thought, then, in its long history of metaphysical speculation, far from constituting just another episode in the genealogy of nihilism, was in fact so profound a disruption of many of the most basic premises of philosophy, and so audacious a rescue of many of philosophy’s truths from the impotent embrace of mere metaphysical ambition, that it is doubtful yet that philosophy can grasp what has happened to it, or why now it cannot be anything but an ever more indignant and self-tormenting flight from that interruption. The language of creation—however much it may be parodied as a language regarding efficient causality and metaphysical “founding”—actually introduced into Western thought the radically new idea that an infinite freedom is the “principle” of the world’s being and so for the first time opened up the possibility of a genuine reflection upon the difference between being and beings. And the Christian understanding of God as Trinity, without need of the world for his determination as difference, relatedness, or manifestation, for the first time confronted Western thought with a genuine discourse of transcendence, of an ontological truth whose “identity” is not completed by any ontic order. The event of being is, for beings, a pure gift, into whose mysteries no scala naturae by itself can lead us. And if the world is not a manifestation of necessity, but of gratuity—even if it must necessarily reflect in its intrinsic orderliness and concinnity the goodness of its source—then philosophy may be able to grasp many things, but by its own power it can never attain to the source or end of things. If being is not bound to the dimensions prescribed for it by fate or the need for self-determination or the contumacity of a material substrate, then the misconstrual of the contingent for the necessary constitutes philosophy’s original error.

The_Thinker_Musee_RodinIt is for this reason also that theology’s interruption of the “history of nihilism” was philosophy’s redemption, immeasurably deepening its openness to being and increasing the intensity of its highest eros. Within Christianity’s narrative, the world acquired a new glory; for all that it had been robbed of the imposing dignity of metaphysical necessity, it had been imbued with the still more extraordinary dignity of divine pleasure; the world had become an instance of what could only be called beauty—beauty of a kind more absolute and irreducible than any known to pagan Greek culture. A God whose very being is love, delight in the glory of his infinite Image, seen in the boundlessly lovely light of his Spirit, and whose works are then unnecessary but perfectly expressive signs of this delight, fashioned for his pleasure and for the gracious sharing of his joy with creatures for whom he had no need, is a God of beauty in the fullest imaginable sense In such a God, beauty and the infinite entirely coincide; the very life of God is one of, so to speak, infinite form; and when he creates, the difference between worldly beauty and the divine beauty it reflects subsists not in a dialectic between multiplicity and unity, composition and simplicity, shape and indeterminacy, but in the analogy between the determinate particularities of the world and that always greater, supereminent determinacy in which they participate. Thus it is that theology alone preserves and clarifies all of philosophy’s most enchanting prospects upon being: precisely by detaching them from the mythology of “grounds,” and by resituating them within the space of this peaceful analogical interval between divine and worldly being, within which space the sorrows of necessity enjoy no welcome Thus, for Christian thought, knowledge of the world is something to be achieved not just through a reconstruction of its “sufficient reason,” but through an obedience to glory, an orientation of the will toward the light of being and its gratuity; and so the most fully “adequate” discourse of truth is worship, prayer, and rejoicing. Phrased otherwise, the truth of being is “poetic” before it is “rational” (indeed, it is rational precisely because of its supreme poetic coherence and richness of detail), and thus cannot be known truly if this order is reversed. Beauty is the beginning and end of all true knowledge: really to know, one must first love, and having known, one must finally delight; only this “corresponds” to the Trinitarian love and delight that creates. The truth of being is the whole of being, in its event, groundless, and so, in its every detail, revelatory of the light that grants it. In a strangely impoverished and negative way, Heidegger—the apostate from theology—almost understood this, but ultimately proved to be only a “metaphysician” after all. Then again, Heidegger, like Nietzsche, was unable to see that his own revolt against metaphysics was itself really nothing but a necessary moment in metaphysics’ recovery of itself from theology. Philosophy could not, after all, accept the gift Christian thought extended to it and remain what it had been—a science of mastery, an interrogation of the “ground”—but neither could it ignore Christianity’s transformation of its native terms: once the splendor of truth had been assumed into the Christian love of beauty, its philokalia, once the light of the world had been taken into the discourse of ontological analogy and divine transcendence, and once the difference between being and beings had entered thought and disrupted every attempt to “deduce” from the world its metaphysical identity, philosophy could not simply reassert itself as an independent project, but had to discover a new foundation. Philosophy, like a king in exile, would have to suffer the most extreme divestment and privation before it could reclaim its lost privileges. This is the true sense in which theology is part of the history of nihilism: it leaves nothing good behind in the philosopher’s hands; it plunders all of philosophy’s most powerful interpretive instruments for its own uses (despoiling the Egyptians, to use the classic metaphor), and so makes it necessary, in the aftermath of theology’s cultural influence, that philosophy advance itself every more openly as a struggle against the light, an ever more vehement refusal of the generosity of the given. If nihilism is indeed the hidden core or secret vocation of metaphysics, in the post-Christian age nothing but that core, that vocation, remains: and so it must become ever less hidden, ever less secret.

(From David Bentley Hart, “The Offering of Names: Metaphysics, Nihilism, and Analogy,” in The Hidden and the Manifest)

Desire that is ‘out of this world’


There is in all human beings a natural desire for beatitude, for a happiness so complete that the desire for it could not be satisfied by the contemplation of any God which reason alone could know, but only by the vision of God of a directness and immediacy which reason is absolutely powerless to achieve and of which it cannot even know the possibility. Therefore, what human beings naturally desire cannot be satisfied by what human beings can naturally know. If follows from this…that even that natural desire for God, which must be frustrated by the incompleteness of the contemplation of any naturally known God, cannot be known in its full character of frustration, except from the standpoint of faith. For it is only by faith that we can know of the possibility of that complete vision of God to which human reason fails to attain. Hence, the ‘noble genius’ of the pagan philosophers – of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and Proclus – who did know God by reason, and who, as Thomas says, could experience only a ‘great anguish’ of frustration at reason’s limitedness, did not know the true nature even of their anguish, for they did not, and could not, know that goal of human desire and knowledge by the standard of which theirs fell short.

(Denys Turner, Faith, Reason and the Existence of God)