Kierkegaard: Childish Orthodoxy

Kierkegaard

The Christianity that is usually recited to a child is actually not Christianity but idyllic mythology. It is the idea of childlikeness raised to the second power. And, sadly, the child’s lovable misunderstanding of what is essentially Christian often transmutes parental love into a piety that is nevertheless not ac­tually Christianity.

A Christianity based on a child’s piety is not the spirituality of a disciple. This gets everything mixed up – as if the mother should try to get nourished by the milk that nature provides the child. If this is the parents’ entire religiousness, then they lack authentic faith. This “childlike” piety, which we so often laud, and this blessedness are lovely and lovable, but it is not really Christianity. It is Christianity in the medium of idyllic fantasy. It is a Christianity from which the cross has been removed. It is a sentimental view of faith which forgets that Christ’s call pro­vokes the consciousness of sin.

Let us look more carefully at what Christ actually says with regard to children: “Let the little children come and do not for­ bid them to come to me, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 19:14). The whole chapter speaks of the difficulty of entering the kingdom of heaven, and the expressions are as strong as possible: “There are eunuchs who have castrated themselves for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” It is no wonder that the disciples become so terrified that they exclaim: “Who then can be saved?”

After Christ answers the disciples, he goes on to speak of the reward awaiting those who have left houses and brothers or sis­ters or father or mother or wife or children or lands for the sake of his name. All of these teachings are salty expressions depict­ing the collisions in which a Christian can and will be tested. Consequently, Christ makes entering into God’s kingdom as difficult as possible. But if entering this kingdom is supposed to be about the loveliness and innocence of being a little child, a proper little angel, then what could this possibly mean in the presence of the apostles who were called to pick up their cross and follow?

A childish view of Christianity is ludicrous. If the assertion about being a child must be understood literally, then it is non­ sense to preach the cross of Christ to adults. Yet this is the way Christianity is defended by orthodox fencers. Childlike Chris­tianity, which in a little child is lovable, in an adult is childish. Faith such as that confuses everything. If a little child (literally understood) is to provide the definition of what Christianity is, then there is no terror; it ceases to be an offense, as the apostle Paul says, to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.

When a child is told about Christ it naturally appropriates everything that is gentle, endearing, and heavenly. He lives to­gether with the little Jesus-child, with the angels, and with the three kings. He sees the star in the dark night, journeys the long road, and now is in the stable, wonder upon wonder, and always sees the heavens open. With all the inwardness of the imagina­tion he longs for these pictures. And now let us not forget the candy canes and all the other magnificent things that come along with such religiousness! Christ becomes the little divine child, or for the somewhat older child, the friendly figure with the kindly face. The child-conception of Christ is essentially a fantasy-perception.

With regard to being Christian, then, childhood is not the true age. On the contrary, adulthood – in the truest sense – is the time when it is to be decided whether a person will be a Christian or not. To become a Christian is a decision that be­ longs to a later age. The child’s receptivity is so entirely without decision that it is no wonder people say: A child can be made to believe anything. This is because they do. This does not mean we should rigorously coerce a child into decisively Christian qualifications. By no means! If this happens, such a child will suffer a great deal. Such an upbringing will either plunge him immediately into despondency and anxiety or later into the anxiety of lust on a scale unknown even in paganism.

Even still, we must do everything we can to guard against changing Christianity into a beautiful, innocent recollection, instead of being what is most decisive in a person’s becoming. Genuine Christianity is an offense to the religious and foolish­ness to the wise. It is not some complacent something that of­ fends no one, where people smile at it instead, and where defense of it only incites them.

It is beautiful and lovable that Christian parents, just as they otherwise take care of the child, should also nourish the child with childlike ideas of the religious. But a stupid, sentimental, and clumsy misunderstanding of childhood is reprehensible. It is immense stupidity to say that childhood itself is the time for really deciding to become a Christian. And insofar as this urge and inclination to push becoming a Christian back into child­ hood becomes common, this in itself is proof that the decisive­ness of Christian faith is on its way to dying out.

Written by Søren Kierkegaard: Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard. Compiled and Edited by Charles E. Moore p. 196-198

Copyright 2011 by The Plough Publishing House. Used with permission. [Photography added]

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About Prayson Daniel

Prayson Daniel is a Tanzanian, married to Lea and a father to Eloise. Reformed theology, philosophy of religion, apologetics and church history are areas he enjoy reading, pondering and sharing with a motto "when love comes first, disagreement follows at its right and proper place".

16 comments

  1. Being one who received the gift of saving faith at the age of 8 years, I literally received faith as a little child. The evangelist was talking about how the love of God was expressed through Jesus, and I had a supernatural vision that confirmed in my spirit that I was hearing truth. At this age, I had no objections and no arguments to counter with, and no inclination to do so anyway. I suppose that if this had occurred when I was entering graduate school, for example, I may not have accepted the gift of saving faith so easily. Receiving Christ at a young age can enable one to avoid a great many mistakes, sins and regrets in life.

  2. Interesting point of view! :)

    • Indeed it is. Sadly Kierkegaard is misunderstood as making a case against child-like Christianity instead of childish Christianity. :) He is difficult to understand but he does make good observation. Thanks Louisa

  3. Pingback: In the eyes of a child « Earthpages.org

  4. Greetings Prayson,

    I have greatly been enjoying your posts concerning Calvinism and apologetics. However, I am not sure I agree with the thrust of Kierkegaard’s message here.

    For one, Kierkegaard seems to do a great deal of philosophizing concerning children and Christianity, but he does not address the Biblical passage he uses (Matthew 19:14) with much thoroughness. He seems to try to diminish the strength of Jesus’s statement by using all the surrounding context. However, what of the statement itself? What does it mean in Kierkegaard’s (and perhaps your) view, that children should be permitted to come to Jesus, because “to such belongs the kingdom of heaven”?

    Second, I do not think that “innocence” (as if children were somehow born without a sin nature) or “ignorance” (living in an “idyllic fantasy”) are not the characteristics that make small children the great examples of kingdom life, but rather, humility and simple trust, which small children have in spades. The humility and simple child-like trust required to enter the kingdom is precisely what makes it a “stumbling block” and “foolishness.”

    Finally, for traditions that practice infant baptism, the welcoming of the small child into the church through baptism never precludes the reality that they must still decide to walk in faith, obedience and repentance each day of their life. Paul commands all of us to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:12 – paraphrase).” The child who believes in Jesus must grow up. And while their humility and faith in Jesus should remain childlike in character, it should NOT remain childlike in content. Rather, they must grow up into greater wisdom, knowledge, and awareness of what life in the kingdom truly means. This is what it means to “bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4).”

    • Hej Drew,

      Thank you for sharing your concern and I am so glad you are not sure you agree with the thrust of Kierkegaard’s message.

      I believe Kierkegaard was trying to address a childish theology that some matured Christians hold. Sadly I think Kierkegaard is correct since I am a good example. I became an atheist, like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, in my teenhood because I came to know that God is not as I were raised to believe. I had a childish Jesus, and childish view of God. It was that childish God I rejected.

      Example, I was not told about Abram twice saved his neck by giving a half truth about his wife’s Sarai just to be married first by Pharaoh(Ge. 12) and king Abimelech(Ge. 20). That Moses melted the golden calf and made some Israelite drink the ashes and chose few to go from side to another killing their own brothers and sisters. I did not know from each blessing in 5 books of Moses came curses. I was never taught about God’s wrath, etc. I only had a childish orthodoxy.

      Sadly, here in Denmark, most Christian still hold to childish theology, which I believe is fine with children, but not adults.

      Let me know what you think.

      Yours in Christ,
      Prayson

      • Very interesting. So, you along with Kierkegaard are writing from Denmark. Makes a big difference to know the context of your writing. Totally agreed that it is a tragedy when people reject not the true and living God, but some false, idealized, and in this case sentimentalist view of God.

      • Hej Mendicant. It is all Kierkegård. I only added a picture :D Sadly, I think, it not only Denmark, were I am now, as I am married to a Dan, but also in Tanzania, were I grew up. The more I read Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and many atheists reasons of rejecting Christianity, you will discover that it is a childish God understanding they rejected and their understanding of the Bible verses reflects this childish god.

        I am thinking of teaching my daughter introduction to logic and Westminster catechism, as we read through the whole New Testament together, in a way she can understand from the early stage on and when she is a teen, to read through the whole Old Testament. I promised, in her blessing, that I will help her delight, enjoy and treasure God above all.

      • Prayson,

        I am in much agreement with the view you have expressed here concerning the need for children to “grow up” into a mature faith. This is our calling as parents. Not to force our children to go to church with no explanation of “why”, but to nurture our children with love, robust instruction, and discipline to help instill in them an understanding of their own weakness and sin, and a joyful desire to follow God and please him. And we certainly do not want to misguide our children with a “fairy tale” God, which as you stated, leads only to disillusionment. We want our children to understand the THOROUGHLY Biblical God, in keeping with their age and natural development. For this is the only God that created us and our world and can save us from bondage to sin.

        What I took issue with was the appearance that Kierkegaard was demonizing the concept of bringing a child into Christianity early in their lives – when I believe this is actually the Biblical instruction! But I can see that in view of a culture that was abusing this Biblical principle and allowing their children to grow up into total nominalism, Kierkegaard may have been justified in his criticism. It is similar in many ways to the fact that the nation of Israel abused the gracious covenant on God’s part by believing they could still enjoy the benefits while being totally disobedient to God.

        • Thanks Drew for your understanding and warm heart that pours out in your comments.

          I had to read, reread and re:reread again since I doubted I my first understanding of his case after your comment and Mendicant.

          Kierkegaard is one,I believe, of the difficult philosopher and theologian to understand. I think his case was not about children per se but a childish view of Christianity which adults hold.

          I believe we will call it children Sunday-school theology that adults hold, that he was against. Well, at least, that is how I understood his case :)

  5. I find this post shocking and incredibly condescending to children. Forgive me, but I believe you are turning on its head the very Scripture you quote about the Kingdom of Heaven belonging to children. While it is important to distinguish milk from solid food (the essential thrust of the article, I believe), you have done so at the expense of a proper understanding of childlike faith.

    Could it be because Reformed Theology (along with much of the West) believes in the so-called “age of accountability”, which for us Orthodox Christians means you (rightly) baptize children and then deprive them of the spiritual food of the Holy Eucharist until some hard to define age in which they can make a decision for themselves?

    Dear Prayson, I know that you don’t mean to come across this way, but I thought it might provoke discussion to give you a non-Protestant, non-Latin perspective on the matter, and to bring up the sacramental dimension which is so important to this issue of faith and children. One last question… Why is Kierkegaard’s name in the title? Is his philosophy somehow implicated in overly childish Christianity? I missed the connection.

    I have more to say, but I don’t like to turn comments into entire blog posts. Perhaps I can post something at my blog and pingback to yours.

    • nietzschesdownfall

      The entire post is an excerpt from one of Kierkegaard’s writings. That being said, there’s a great deal of context to consider. I’m sure you’re aware, even if you’ve only read little blurbs of Kierkegaard, that he spent much time combating Denmark’s state run church which, in his opinion, sold cheap grace and did little with the actual teachings of Jesus. Many of the “Christians” he saw weren’t in any way living the Gospel, they were attending church on Sunday, perhaps reading the Bible and praying, and not much else beyond what they probably learned about church as children, hence his attack on “childish orthodoxy.”

      I think this largely attacks adults who 1) are still drinking breast milk though though they need solid food, and 2) the way in which adults force Christianity on their children. Addressing the former, this is something prevalent in every denomination (or, in accordance with what an Orthodox priest once told me, the Orthodox church and the denominations therefrom ;) ). Surely even you have seen attendants who merely show up for church because either they a) have to because their parents bring them, or b) are keeping with a tradition because it’s how they were raised. They don’t do anything to press further into God, whether through prayer, Bible study, or study of church writings or theology; they just sit there like a lump on the pew.

      Addressing the latter of the first two points, what Kierkegaard saw (and would still see today) are adults who force their children to join the church without real explanation of the commitment involved. Kierkegaard is right in saying the child suffers greatly that is forced into the faith early in life. Many young adults today who were forced into the faith at an early age are more likely to turn away from the church than to continue attending, though the church has often attempted to place blame on just about everything else (movies, culture, modernism, etc.) rather than look in the mirror.

      The “childlike” faith Jesus speaks of, in my opinion, isn’t a matter of blind acceptance or wild imagination, but one of knowing that the kingdom Jesus spoke of is, in fact, possible in this day and age here. Yes, in the crazy mind of a child, you could fart yourself to the moon if you wanted, but you can also live out the radical way of life exhibited by the church of Jerusalem and love without condition as God does. It’s shameful the way the world (including our parents) beats this mindset out of our heads, making us stoic and cynical, and nothing like what the living God compels us to be.

      I do want to comment on the Orthodox view of raising children; it certainly works much better than the way I was brought up: “accept” Jesus into my heart and go to church services and functions without asking questions. To have been educated on what I was baptized into and later fully committing to it would probably have meant much more.

      • Ah, right. The fact that it all comes from Kierkegaard makes more sense to me now, and places it in a much different context (sorry I missed the reference at the bottom). This has given a lot of food for thought on the question of growing up in your faith. But there is still something I would contend about childhood innocence and wonder that seems lost in this rant. It is the same fairy-tale wonder that guys like G.K. Chesterton say is necessary for real faith. Let me think on it and attempt a post of my own with a ping-back to yours.

      • Thank you Patrick. This was one of his short writings in a collection called Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard[free PDF]

    • Hej Mendicant. Thank you for your comment.

      I believe you miss the point Kierkegård was trying to make. He is not against children understand of God, which they receive from their parents, but matured Christians holding this version of Christianity.

      Since as parents we do not offer everything about God, e.g. God of wrath, a God who hardens hearts, sending evil lying spirits, and a God who will throw the devil and those are not in the book of life to a lake of fire e.t.c, some Christians sadly grow up with child-like God, and Kierkegaard, as I do, think is a great problem, because they do not get the full picture of God.

      Sadly most of Dans know the classical stories of Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, etc while do not believe the God is also God of wrath, nor know why Jesus come to live and die. This is what Kierkegaard rightly called childish orthodoxy, I believe.

      Let me know your thoughts.
      Prayson

      • vidasdecristo

        Anybody that has spent any time around children knows that they like to ask a lot of questions. I know because I have raised five of them. Their brains are like sponges trying to absorb every bit of information they can. It’s up to parents to instill a quest in their children to never stop learning.

        To have a “child-like faith” is when we become like children, sponges soaking up the entire knowledge God has given us in His Word.

        “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15)

        My children trusted me unconditionally. Whatever I told them (as truth) they accepted as truth. As children of God it behooves us to look to our Heavenly Father in the same light, trust Him like a child, that whatever He tells us is the truth.

        I believe Soren Kierkegaard never married or had children. One article I found said Danish parents admonish their children to this day “Don’t be a Soren!” “Soren” being synonymous with a ridiculousness so pronounced as to be both laughable and contemptible. From what I read I feel this is how many deal with there own when confronted with their own imperfections. They laugh and mock you. From what I read he lived a short life 1813-1855 and in my opinion, died too soon.

        Kierkegaard knew better. The living, lordly, holy One is. The “infinite qualitative difference” between him and us can never be eliminated through thought. Since no “thought-experiment” can ascend to him, he must descend to us. This he has done in the Incarnate One. And this one can be known only in faith, with all the risks that attend upon faith – “lying out upon 70,000 fathoms of water.” The self-abandoned self “leapt” in faith to embrace God-Incarnate, and therein learned that “being a Christian” wasn’t the indifferent shallowness of the state church wherein, said Kierkegaard, “Everyone is a Christian. What else?” To become a Christian is properly to exist. To exist, his Greek studies reminded him, is ex-stare, to stand out: stand out from the crowd, stand out from public opinion, stand out from the Spirit-less religion of soulless conformity. So far from the disinterest of “thought-experimenters”, Kierkegaard espoused the “interest” of faith. Inter-est, his Latin studies reminded him, is to be “between.” It’s in the “between” of God and us; it’s in the relationship that Truth, embraced in impassioned inwardness, is held in utmost subjectivity.

        “The man who addressed his work to “that solitary individual”, the person who resists the crowd, flings himself upon the crucified, risks all as did Abraham of old ascending Mount Moriah, lives thereafter in the “between”, and appropriates Truth in ever-greater subjectivity; this one had said of himself years earlier, “I shall never know the security of being like others.” His place is secure in the hearts of those who cherish his intellect and spirit. Above all, he himself is secure in the grasp of him from whose hand nothing will ever snatch him. (John 10:29)” — last two paragraphs from http://www.victorshepherd.on.ca/Heritage/soren.htm

        Roy,
        Peace

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