Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Matter is Not Simple

It has been Father A.'s observation that both zealots and dimwits -- categories which often overlap, but by no means always -- share a favored strategy.  They like to declare that a given matter is really very simple, and that those who seek to complicate it do so out of either folly or malice.

In politics, tax codes and the true sense of the US Constitution are often subjected to this treatment.  In religion, it is nearly always the Bible.  Never mind, for example, the stunning obscurity of Exodus 24-26, or the ethical complexity of the Akedah, which has generated not a mountain of rabbinic exegesis, but a range.  After all, the Bible is easy to understand.

So for example, our acquaintance the Rev. Mr. Slope has recently taken time away from his various schismatic enterprises to join the small army of bloggers who have re-posted a passage from Kierkegaard:

"The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any word in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church's prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament. "

This passage is extremely popular on the Net these days.  We aren't sure of the original essay or journal entry which is being quoted, but the citation is to Provocations, an anthology edited by Charles E. Moore (Plough, 2002), page 201.

Read in isolation, these remarks sound as though Soren the K were entirely on the side of the Bible-spouting sectarians so thick on the American ground.  He, like they, seems ready to reduce everything to simplicity.  To heck with scholarship!  To heck with textual problems or moral conundrums!  God said it, I read it, let's do it!

But really, does this sound like Kierkegaard to you?  Oh, part of it does -- the cleverness, the call to an excruciating ethical standard, and yes, the biting contempt for "official" Christianity and its chosen tools.  But the claim of simplicity?  From a man who published under more than a dozen pseudonyms, and insisted that each one reflected a different (and contradictory) perspective?  How seriously are we to take the claim that reading an anthology of ancient religious texts ought to be more straightforward and intuitive than reading one's own publications?

(It is worth noting that, in the passage cited, Kierkegaard actually restricts himself to the New Testament.  The author of Fear and Trembling certainly understood those rabbinic conundrums.)

There is another passage from Kierkegaard also making the interweb rounds these days.  It is from his journals, dated 1848.  We wonder whether Mr. Slope and the Simpletonians would want to embrace this one as quickly, and to take it so readily at face value:

Fundamentally a reformation which did away with the Bible would now be just as valid as Luther’s doing away with the Pope. All that about the Bible has developed a religion of learning and law, a mere distraction. A little of that knowledge has gradually percolated to the simplest classes so that no one any longer reads the Bible humanly. As a result it does immeasurable harm; where life is concerned its existence is a fortification of excuses and escapes; for there is always something one has to look into first of all, and it always seems as though one had first of all to have the doctrine in perfect form before one could begin to live that is to say, one never begins.

The Bible Societies, those vapid caricatures of missions, societies which like all companies only work with money and are just as mundanely interested in spreading the Bible as other companies in their enterprises: the Bible Societies have done immeasurable harm. Christendom has long been in need of a hero who, in fear and trembling before God, had the courage to forbid people to read the Bible. That is something quite as necessary as preaching against Christianity’. 

The Journals of Kierkegaard (ed. Alexander Dru; New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), 150.


mark said...

Umm - so why do you keep reading "Slope"?

Father said...

I don't, usually. But the guy posts something like 10 of these links every day to Facebook, and the opening lines seemed interesting.

Honestly, though, I'm more interested in the general premise, i.e., that dopes and nutjobs a vested interest in claiming that complex things are simple. Test the hypothesis in conversation with people you know, and see if it doesn't hold up.

mark said...

Yeah to the opening lines - like the Hopkins. Then he told ME to look it up. I was seriously put out, but restrained myself. :-))

As to the other, well Kierkegaard wrote it and he was, ahem, never prone to overstatement, was he?

By the way, keep your eye open for my friends Heather & Blair Smith who are now somewhere in your neighborhood.

Diane said...

so who IS slope anyway???

I thought the second quote was intriguing.

Father said...


The Rev. Mr. Slope is an especially odious low-church cleric in Barchester Towers. I've borrowed the words as a om-de-blog for another pastor, who feels trapped in my synod and is trying to get out.

I've known this fellow for years, and we share some interests, notably church history. But we aren't really friends, and there are a number of things about him that trouble me -- particularly his vigorous support of the screw-the-ELCA movement, which has little traction here in the northeast except among the above-mentioned fools and zealots. I offer no opinion as to which one my colleague may be.