Wednesday, July 20

Ascending forms of religiousness

An excerpt from an entry in Søren Kierkegaard's journals:

Ascending forms of religiousness:

A - The individual relates to God so that things will go well with him here on earth - in other words, straightforwardly to have the benefit, in a worldly sense, of the relation with God.

B - The individual relates to God to be saved from sin, to conquer his inclinations, to find in God a merciful judge... the individual deriving nothing but benefit from the relation.

C - The individual is called upon to confess his faith in word and deed (self-denial, renouncing finite aims), that faith in which lies his salvation; but the result of the confession will be that the individual suffers, incurs unhappiness, humanly speaking... harm and misfortune are what come of the relation.


Kierkegaard with his remarkable insight has revealed three kinds of religion that has prevailed throughout history. It is important to realize that these ascending forms of religiousness depend not so much on the religion (i.e. Baptist is B and Catholicism is C), but on the person individually. It corresponds to what an individual looks for in religion, not in creedal statements or theology.

A is characterized elsewhere by Kierkegaard as 'pagan religion', and is most explicitly seen in ancient forms of God-worship when they would perform rites and rituals to their God for a better earthly life (i.e. good crops, good rain, protection). Accordingly, they see good events that happen in their life as a blessing from the almighty, and bad things as a curse. This philosophy of a temporal way of understanding God is just as common in the modern world. People believe in God and religion to make their life better, and when suffering and depression comes they fall away. Jesus characterized these kinds of religious people in Matthew 13:21. For when things go temporally well the person is happy with God, but when suffering is introduced into the God-Man relationship, they consider God as 'out to get them' and grow angry and bitter with God.

Not only this, but A reveals a severely egoistic way of religious belief. The reason a person worships, prays, and 'serves God' in A is because they think it will better their own lives (Which is entirely a selfish way of relating to God, they ask "What can God do for me?"). This kind of religion is extremely common today, not only among non-Christian religions but in Christianity itself. The Charismatic church with its "prosperity Bible" and pleasurable style of worship is the first to come to mind.

The most important point about B is that it is exactly the same as A, but merely a more sophisticated version. The relation to God is still conducted for selfish reasons, examples being salvation from sins, a better afterlife, security in all of the weightier matters, and fellowship with likeminded people (being part of a group/family). In this sense religion becomes not a 'denial of oneself' (as Jesus taught), but a maximization of everything that makes us human. There is no 'putting off the old man and putting on the new man', but an attempt to make the old man as comfortable and secure as possible. The way they are able to deceive themselves like this is by thinking that what they are doing is what God wants, so the facade of a Christ-like existence is upheld.

The expression of B in Christian circles is most ferociously expressed with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called 'Cheap Grace'. Christianity becomes very easy to be a part of because grace merely has to be acknowledged for it to work. In this way it is possible for a person in B to be redeemed in a 'holy life', all the while living exactly the same as they did before. No sacrifice is needed for this kind of Christianity, the old man reins more powerfully than ever. B is found in practically every religion and denomination imaginable (with varying degrees of severity and saturation, most potently in Protestantism), because people like it, to put it simply. People are drawn to these religions because they do not want to suffer, and they want security and comfort in their God and religion.

C is Christ's religion. To be involved in C requires a radical discipleship to Christ. The relation to God contains no certain benefit for yourself, but it is performed because the call is very strong. "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die" (as Bonhoeffer said), suffering becomes the 'badge of the disciple' (another Bonhoeffer term). I could go on and on about the aspects of a C religion, but the Dietrich Bonhoeffer book "The cost of discipleship" expresses it a lot clearer than I ever could. Pick up a copy of that book if you have not already done so.

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