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Learning from Secular Nations | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction

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Today I came across a review of a book, “Society without God” by Phil Zuckerman, describing the Scandinavian (particularly Sweden and Denmark) way of life in relation to religion and faith in God. The review puts forth the question on what good life really is, questioning the some of the conclusions the author of the book makes.

Although she makes some valid points she there are points where she misses the mark. First of all, I think the values of the welfare states of Scandinavia is religious. The heritage of Scandinavia is very much a Lutheran and pietistic one, meaning that the values that forms the basis of the welfare state have a lot in common with Christian (and humanistic) values. I would go as far to say that it is a secularised attempt to utilise Christian values in a modern society. The pietistic heritage institutionalised Christian care and founded diaconal institutions that are still around today, and the modern welfare state of the Scandinavian type evolved out of this institutionalised system. Recently, the Danish philosopher and theologian Knud E. Løgstrup provided a theoretical basis for the welfare state, in his ontological-ethical phenomenology.  

 

South Bork

Many stones ...

The second point is one that Zuckerman makes. There is a difference between religious faith and a particular type of faith in God. As most Danes, Swedes and Norwegians see themselves as Christians, it is not a traditional form of Christian religion. It is more a more secularised faith, and the very devout variety is not the favoured. The Scandinavian God is culturally important, but personally it is a very private matter. But, as the review also makes clear, if you ask the average Scandinavian what the meaning of being is, you probably wouldn’t get an answer that points to something transcendent and beyond their life. Family matter, job matter, friends matter, – as they do all over the created earth. The transcendent is taken care of by the Church (that in most Scandinavian countries enjoys a close relationship to the state). You baptise your child, you participate in the confirmation, you marry in a church and you are laid to rest by a minister. And some even go to Church during Christmas. The church represents the liminal in people’s life; they choose to become members of it, because they feel it represents something they are. When facing the liminal in their lives, Scandinavians also tend to ponder what the meaning of all is. They may not be aware of their soul all the time, but it does not mean it is totally lost for them.

Zuckerman’s main thesis is that societies do not have to be religious to function well. I think he is right about this (and nod if you think religion played too great a part in say, the recent American general election), but I think he comes up short when it comes to people. People with a mature and realistic faith live enriched lives. And religious faith can play a positive role in a society and politics, the protest of Church in both Germany and Norway during WWII shows that Christian faith at times responds to the duty to oppose inhumanity and injustice. Something that is very much in line with Scripture.

(Richard Dawkins also seem to have discovered this book, but not read it yet).

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Church Dogmatics

Church Dogmatics
31 volume set, New Edition
This is a heavy item and will incur additional shipping!

by Karl Barth
T & T Clark, Forthcoming 2009
6880 pages, English
Paper
ISBN: 9780567022790
List Price: $925.00
Your Price: $416.25
www.eisenbrauns.com/wconnect/wc.dll?ebGate~EIS~~I~SETCHURCH2

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One of my favourite Kierkegaard-texts is a story from his Philosophical Fragments. It’s the story about the King and his beloved maiden from chapter II. “The God as a teacher and a saviour”, chapter II, is what he calls a poetic attempt to explain why God became man or why God had to die. And that reason is love, not the fall of man. For Kierkegaard it is divine unhappy love that motivates God, because there is an infinite differance between God and man. So how is God to reveal himself to man, so that he can win the heart of man?

The answer comes in a short story that begins like this:

Suppose there was a king who loved a humble maiden and whose heart was unaffected by the wisdom that is so often loudly preached. (…) Let then the harp be tuned. Let the songs of the poets begin. Let everyone be festive, while love celebrates its triumph. For love is over-joyed when it unites equals, but it is triumphant when it makes equal that which was unequal. Let the king’s love reign!

But then there arose a sadness in the king’s soul. Who would have dreamed of such a thing except a king with royal thoughts! He spoke to no one about his sadness. Had he done so, each courtier would doubtless have said, “Your Majesty, you are doing the girl a generous favor for which she could never thank you enough.” This, however, would no doubt have aroused the king’s wrath and, in turn, caused the king even more sorrow. Therefore he wrestled with the sorrow in his heart. Would the maiden really be happy? Would she be able to forget what the king wished to forget, namely, that he was the king and she a former lowly maiden? For if this happened, if the memory of her former state awoke within her, and like a favored rival, stole her thoughts away from the king, alluring her into the seclusion of a secret grief; or if this memory at times crossed her soul like death crossing over a grave – where then would the glory of their love be? She would have been happier had she remained in obscurity, loved by one of her own kind.

And even if the maiden were content to be as nothing, the king would never be satisfied, simply because he loved her so. He would much rather lose her than be her benefactor. What deep sorrow there is slumbering in this unhappy love! Who dares to rouse it?

He then sketches in subdivision A two solutions to this unhappy dilemma:

  • to elevate his beloved maiden to his own level
  • to reveal himself in all his glory for her

But he gives up these two options, as both would deceive himself and the maiden. The solution then comes in subdivision B:

Who grasps the contradiction of this sorrow: not to disclose itself is the death of love; to disclose itself is the death of the beloved. It was God’s longing to prevent this. The unity of love will have to be brought about in some other way. If not by way of elevation, of ascent, then by a descent of the lowest kind. God must become the equal of the lowliest. But the lowliest is one who serves others. God therefore must appear in the form of a servant. But this servant’s form is not merely something he puts on, like the beggar’s cloak, which, because it is only a cloak, flutters loosely and betrays the king. No, it is his true form. For this is the unfathomable nature of boundless love, that it desires to be equal with the beloved; not in jest, but in truth. And this is the omnipotence of resolving love, deciding to be equal with the beloved.

Look, then, there he stands – God! Where? There! Don’t you see him? He is the God, and yet he has no place to lay his head, and he does not dare to turn to any person lest that person be offended at him. It is sheer love and sheer sorrow to want to express the unity of love and then to not be understood.

God suffers all things, endures all things, is tried in all things, hungers in the desert, thirsts in his agonies, is forsaken in death, and became absolutely the equal of the lowliest of human beings – look, behold the man! He yields his spirit in death, on a cross, and then leaves the earth. Oh bitter cup! More bitter than wormwood is the ignominy of death for a mortal. How must it be, then, for the immortal one! Oh bitter refreshment, more sour than vinegar – to be refreshed by the beloved’s misunderstanding! Oh consolation in affliction to suffer as one who is guilty – what must it be, then, to suffer as one who is innocent!

God is not zealous for himself but out of love wants to be equal with the most lowly of the lowly. What power! When an oak seed is planted in a clay pot, the pot breaks; when new wine is poured into old wineskins, they burst. What happens, then, when God the king plants himself in the frailty of a human being? Does he not become a new person and a new vessel! Oh, this becoming – how difficult it really is, and how like birth itself! How terrifying! It is indeed less terrifying to fall upon one’s face, while the mountains tremble at God’s voice, than to sit with him in love as his equal. And yet God’s longing is precisely to sit in this way.

The incarnation reveals God’s love in his utter frailty, not his triumphant glory. God can only be known “per passiones et crucem“. But alas, that makes it a lot easier to abandon or to crucify him …

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Difficultere (lat.) – to make difficult.

Why make things difficult? And why call a blog ‘difficultere’? My inspiration for this title comes from a book by the proliferate theologian Rowan Williams. Perhaps the scholar that has given me most joy to read the last couple of years. In his magisterial study of Arius he writes:

«Scripture and tradition require to be read in a way that brings out their strangeness, their non-obvious and non-contemporary qualities, in order to that they may be read both freshly and truthfully from one generation to another. They need to be made more difficult before we can accurately grasp their simplicities. Otherwise, we read with eyes not our own and think them through with minds not our own; the ‘deposit of faith’ does not really come into contact with ourselves. And this ‘making difficult’, this confession that what gospel says in Scripture and tradition does not instantly and effortlessly make sense, is perhaps one of the most fundamental tasks for theology». (Williams 1987/2001, p. 236)

The honourable archbishop lives himself by this rule, making things difficult. He asks both difficult questions and he answers questions in a manner that makes you think. I do not pretend to live up to the same high standards, but I adhere to this programme that makes us think things thoroughly through.

Knowledge does not only mean to pass on data, but includes understanding and reflection. To be able to convince others through the power of good arguments, you need to challenge your own understanding of  things. Only then can theology be made personal, challenging – and open our imagination – for the real life (also) lived.

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