This article passionately expounds on Kierkegaard’s themes, but I wonder if he went far enough in his own reasoning when he says this:
This was powerful stuff for a teenager such as me who was losing his religious belief. What Kierkegaard showed was that the only serious alternative to atheism or agnosticism was not what generally passes for religion but a much deeper commitment that left ordinary standards of proof and evidence completely behind. Perhaps that’s why so many of Kierkegaard’s present-day admirers are atheists. He was a Christian who nonetheless despised ‘Christendom’. To be a Christian was to stake one’s life on the absurdity of the risen Christ, to commit to an ethical standard no human can reach. This is a constant and in some ways hopeless effort at perpetually becoming what you can never fully be. Nothing could be more different from the conventional view of what being a Christian means: being born and baptised into a religion, dutifully going to Church and partaking in the sacraments. Institutionalised Christianity is an oxymoron, given that the Jesus of the Gospels spent so much time criticising the clerics of his day and never established any alternative structures. Kierkegaard showed that taking religion seriously is compatible with being against religion in almost all its actual forms, something that present-day atheists and believers should note.
Maybe Kierkegaard did reject organized religion in his time and place, but Orthodoxy gives the right context imo. I’ll borrow more from the article:
For me, Kierkegaard defined the problem more clearly than anyone else. Human beings are caught, he said, between two modes or ‘spheres’ of existence. The ‘aesthetic’ is the world of immediacy, of here and now. The ‘ethical’ is the transcendent, eternal world. We can’t live in both, but neither fulfils all our needs since ‘the self is composed of infinitude and finitude’, a perhaps hyperbolic way of saying that we exist across time, in the past and future, but we are also inescapably trapped in the present moment.
The limitations of the ‘ethical’ are perhaps most obvious to the modern mind. The life of eternity is just an illusion, for we are all-too mortal, flesh-and-blood creatures. To believe we belong there is to live in denial of our animality. So the world has increasingly embraced the ‘aesthetic’. But this fails to satisfy us, too. If the moment is all we have, then all we can do is pursue pleasurable moments, ones that dissolve as swiftly as they appear, leaving us always running on empty, grasping at fleeting experiences that pass. The materialistic world offers innumerable opportunities for instant gratification without enduring satisfaction and so life becomes a series of diversions. No wonder there is still so much vague spiritual yearning in the West: people long for the ethical but cannot see beyond the aesthetic.
The Church, meaning the individuals in her, is somewhat limited in the here and now, but there is also a now and not yet. When Orthodox advertise its”fullness”, I think people can get the wrong idea and expect too much from its temporal members. The ones more in touch with eternity, who have partaken of eternity through :”being born and baptised into a religion, dutifully going to Church and partaking in the sacraments” will be able to aspire to more fully be what he thinks is impossible. “To stake one’s life on the absurdity of the risen Christ, to commit to an ethical standard no human can reach. This is a constant and in some ways hopeless effort at perpetually becoming what you can never fully be.” To take the leap of faith not only with Christ, but also his Church.
Kierkegaard’s greatest illustration of this is his retelling of the story of Abraham and Isaac in Fear and Trembling (1843). Abraham is often held up as a paradigm of faith because he trusted God so much he was prepared to sacrifice his only son on his command. Kierkegaard makes us realise that Abraham acted on faith not because he obeyed a difficult order but because lifting the knife over his son defied all morality and reason. No reasonable man would have done what Abraham did. If this was a test, then surely the way to pass was to show God that you would not commit murder on command, even if that risked inviting divine wrath. If you heard God’s voice commanding you to kill, surely it would be more rational to conclude you were insane or tricked by demons than it would to follow the order. So when Abraham took his leap of faith, he took leave of reason and morality.
The atheist is not willing to do this. He may embrace Kierkegaard’s honesty about unreasonableness, but he’s not willing to join in the eternity of it. He has decided God was a demon instead, and that is what entering the Church can sometimes feel like. Like you’re selling your soul by kneeling before idols and committing cannibalism. It takes a leap of faith to see that instead the Church is the only place where the temporal meets the eternal. This is everywhere evident in the baptism of water and spirit, partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, the icons, incense, and hymnography. Hopefully there will be glimmers of it in the people too.