(Note: I preached a version of this sermon to the clergy meeting of the North Conference of the Metro Chicago Synod on November 15, 2012)
Most of you don’t know me all that well, so by way of introduction I may as well admit that I was exposed to a great deal of Søren Kierkegaard’s writing at an impressionable age. So when we decided here at Messiah to spend our fall sermon series exploring church history through the lives of prominent saints, and when I discovered that November 11–the day on which we commemorate Kierkegaard, who died on that date in 1855–was a Sunday, there was basically no way we weren’t going to spend that day talking about Søren Kierkegaard.
It was an opportunity to revisit some of my favorite passages in Fear and Trembling, including this part, which didn’t make the final sermon cut:
I think myself into the hero, but into Abraham I cannot think myself; when I reach the height I fall down, for what I encounter there is the paradox. I do not however mean in any sense to say that faith is something lowly, but on the contrary that it is the highest thing, and that it is dishonest of philosophy to give something else instead of it and to make light of faith. Philosophy cannot and should not give faith, but it should understand itself and know what it has to offer and take nothing away, and least of all should fool people out of something as if it were nothing. I am not unacquainted with the perplexities and dangers of life, I do not fear them, and I encounter them buoyantly. I am not unacquainted with the dreadful, my memory is a faithful wife, and my imagination is (as I myself am not) a diligent little maiden who all day sits quietly at her work, and in the evening knows how to chat to me about it so prettily that I must look at it, though not always, I must say, is it landscapes, or flowers, or pastoral idylls she paints. I have seen the dreadful before my own eyes, I do not flee from it timorously, but I know very well that, although I advance to meet it, my courage is not the courage of faith, nor anything comparable to it. I am unable to make the movements of faith, I cannot shut my eyes and plunge confidently into the absurd, for me that is an impossibility. ..but I do not boast of it. I am convinced that God is love, this thought has for me a primitive lyrical validity. When it is present to me, I am unspeakably blissful, when it is absent, I long for it more vehemently than does the lover for his object; but I do not believe, this courage I lack. For me the love of God is, both in a direct and in an inverse sense, incommensurable with the whole of reality. I am not cowardly enough to whimper and complain, but neither am I deceitful enough to deny that faith is something much higher. I can well endure living in my way, I am joyful and content, but my joy is not that of faith, and in comparison with that it is unhappy. I do not trouble God with my petty sorrows, the particular does not trouble me, I gaze only at my love, and I keep its virginal flame pure and clear. Faith is convinced that God is concerned about the least things. I am content in this life with being married to the left hand, faith is humble enough to demand the right hand — for that this is humility I do not deny and shall never deny.
His point in the book is that in order to have faith, you must do two things: you have to make the movement of “infinite resignation”–you have to renounce your worldly hope and rest content in your eternal relation to God. But then you have to make the leap of faith, which is to believe that you will have everything you renounce by virtue of the absurd. His prime example of this is Abraham, who had to renounce Isaac in Genesis 22, but who must have believed that, somehow, some way, God would give him Isaac back.
And so he points out that when someone says that they’ve lost their faith, they’ve usually only come to the moment where that first movement–the movement of resignation–is possible. Now even I don’t spend every day thinking about the work of Søren Kierkegaard, but this is something I come back to with some frequency. How often do we hear people lament to us that they have lost their faith because something bad has happened to them or to someone close to them? What do we say to them? What do we say to ourselves when we find ourselves compelled by the same feelings? Do you ever, like me, have a “bad pastor” temptation to tell people to leather up a little bit? To tell them–with all pastoral compassion–that whatever we think our faith says, the universe isn’t actually organized around our happiness?
I heard a wonderful sermon from a seminary student this fall on the book of Job. The student explained that the Good News in Job is that life goes on, that the totality of creation is good and beautiful even if you happen to be the blameless gazelle God offers up to feed the lion. At the time I didn’t like that this sermon stopped short of what we Lutherans think of as grace. That life goes on, and the big picture of God’s world is good, is not really a gospel message to us.
It was a sermon, I later recognized, about resignation. But it didn’t have that second movement–the movement of faith–to follow the resignation. From the standpoint of the conversations I’ve had recently, however, and from the standpoint of the words I just read, I wonder whether there isn’t something to be said for preaching a little resignation. Bad things, even tragic, unbearable things, happen to all of us or to people close to us. What picture of God do we have, what kind of mechanical moment-to-moment omnipotence do we imagine sorting things out so that those of us who have faith, or say we do, will escape this vale of tears unscathed?
And then, how do we not stop with that resignation? How do we become humble enough to expect good and great things from God all the same? How do we hope to have the world back again, as Abraham has Isaac?
Consider the story of Elijah today. He is out of water and out of food after the long drought. He has been driven by God to Zarephath, in a foreign nation. And I think it’s fair to imagine that he goes without any human hope, without any calculation that leads him to say, “yes, I see what the LORD is up to here, and I see how this will work out.” He puts off his human reason, he puts on his faith, and he goes. And he meets the widow to whom God leads him. She is gathering sticks to light one last fire and cook one last cake of bread to eat with her son before they die.
There is such dignity in that picture of the widow, I find. She is resigned to her fate, she has given up on the world, and yet she is going through the motions one last time. But Elijah has faith. In honesty, I cannot imagine doing what he does here. I would help the woman, I would forage, I would try to see if there was something they’d overlooked. If all else failed, I would sit with them to await the end. But I would not have faith. I would not be humble enough to tell her to prepare food for me. But he does, and she listens, and they eat. And the absurd happens: the jar of meal does not run out, and the tablespoon of oil does not fail, as long as the drought lasts.
How hard must it have been for Elijah to do that! We guess from his stories that he suffered from depression, and we know that like any good Lutheran he hated to impose himself, that he would rather die alone in a strange land than pluck food out of the hand of a widow. Yet he asks, and the promised miracle arrives.
It is the strangest thing that we have in our holy book. It’s not a story of worldly success–much as preachers have tried to make it out to be just that. It’s not a story of patiently resigning ourselves to worldly evil. It’s a story, told in a hundred different ways, of giving the world up and then getting it back again. If we actually had to live it ourselves, how would we bear it–the walk to Moriah with Abraham and Isaac, the flight to Zarephath, the warning against the people who organize God’s worship, the chaos and terror of Golgotha?
And yet we do live it. One of Kierkegaard’s main accomplishments is to get us to read the Bible as if it were contemporary with us. “What is the value of going to the trouble of remembering that past which cannot become a present?”
Anyone, past or present, who loves God, as he writes, needs no tears, no admiration; “he forgets the suffering in the love. Indeed, so completely has he forgotten it that there would not be the slightest trace of his suffering left if God himself did not remember it, God who sees in secret and knows the distress and counts the tears and forgets nothing.”