When Jesus went home, he found a bunch of his friends and family making shallow judgments about him – choosing surface opinion over faith. Reading this, I was really tempted to go deep into Soren Kierkegaard in the sermon because Kierkegaard is one of the most brilliant thinkers to address the question of shallow Christianity and the dangers of familiarity without faith. He lived in Denmark in the 19th Century when everyone called themselves a Christian and everyone went to church, or at least said they did. Kierkegaard remarked that if you wanted to convert someone to Christianity in Denmark in those days you would have to baptize your dog!
Kierkegaard was a young man from a wealthy but sickly family. He lost almost all his brothers and sisters and saw the fragility of the world. He was brilliant but highly sensitive and he found himself cynical about faith, about society and about human behavior. He wrote 22 books in his short 42 years.
His experience and his mind forced him to confront the genuine strangeness and fearfulness of human life. He’s sometimes called the Father of existentialism – facing the craziness of our existence. Most of us don’t feel extreme despair as Kierkegaard did – although sometimes at 3am in the morning we might. Instead, we create, with the help of society, a series of ‘solutions’. But eventually, we must face the truth of our reality.
Kierkegaard saw three solutions to despair:
- The Aesthetic Solution
- The Ethical Solution
- The Religious Solution
The Aesthetic Solution
This is the first and frankly childish stage, although some of us never grow out of it. It tries to solve life by finding meaning in experimentation and experience. Anything that can bring pleasure without personal change or growth or sacrifice will do. Food, vanity, sex, entertainment or adrenalin can provide momentary pleasure, and if we keep pursuing them we can stave off despair. Some cultured people pursue pleasure with greater and greater refinement – only the best wine, only the most novel sexual experience, only the latest fashion will satisfy. And if you have money, youth, beauty, and freedom – this solution seems to work for a while.
But eventually, boredom sets in. Nothing satisfies and you have to keep moving from thing to thing. When you find yourself flipping from internet tab to internet tab to find something to entertain you, are struggling to keep the aesthetic solution going.
Kierkegaard saw boredom as a spiritual condition. It is the fruit of familiarity without faith, experience without risk. We talked a little bit about boredom at the beginning of the sermon, and the fate of Jesus’ hometown – familiar, but without faith. I think this is such a common reality in our world today. We have access to some much information, so many experiences, and possess more than even the wealthiest people in the history of the world. But wisdom should have warned us – to have, and possess and know much will only lead to boredom if we don’t grow in our depth of faith, wisdom, and maturity.
This is where the ethical solution comes in.
The Ethical Solution
There comes a moment in our lives when we realize that our meaning comes from more than getting pleasure for ourselves. We discover a deeper sense of meaning and satisfaction in self-improvement, deeper understanding, and participation in our community. We go to grad school in order to serve the community. We discipline our time and habits to become a good husband, or mother or activist. We try to make the world a better place.
This is a great step – but has a problem as well. It means that we are taking our cues from the society around us – we work hard to please or impress our community. It is possible to work hard, do good and improve our lives and the lives of others, and yet still be empty. What happens is that we start to look for other people to admire or approve of us. But that never really satisfies. We will never receive the kind of praise that makes us whole. We will become bitter towards those who cannot give what we most desire – acceptance.
Even as we work hard and do good, we feel ourselves falling into despair. This is where the religious solution comes in.
The Religious Solution
Despair in ourselves and our ethical effort leads us to the end of ourselves. We cannot find the resources or the reason to do good or find pleasure. Instead, we face despair and realize that we are made for something we cannot see. When Kierkegaard talks about the religious solution, he is talking about the leap of faith – the leap into the reality that we must be loved and accepted by the one who made us, or we have no hope. This faith doesn’t look for good experiences or social approval. It looks only for God and seeks him with the eyes of faith.
It is in this place that we discover suffering, doubt and intimacy with God.
I love Kierkegaard. He’s so strange and provocative, but he helps me to think about how I am growing into a person of faith and maturity.
I HIGHLY recommend the book ‘Three Outsiders‘ by Diogenes Allen. It helped me understand Kierkegaard better than anything else. It’s short too!