Christian Discourses, Helplessness Blues, and the mechanics of liturgy

[This started as a simple update on my Kierkegaard reading then turned into something I wanted to edit and develop but I doubt that will happen any time soon so I thought I would throw it up in its disjointedness.]

As I mentioned in my last post, the first half of Kierkegaard’s Christian Discourses was firmly okay.  It was gently pastoral in tone while attempting to stir and provoke in content.  The second half entitled “Thoughts that wound from behind” promised to be more engaging.  The preface of the second half read,

The essentially Christian needs no defense, is not served by any defense – it is the attacker, to defend it is of all perversions the most indefensible, the most inverted, and the most dangerous – it is  unconsciously cunning treason.  Christianity is the attacker – in Christendom, of course, it attacks from behind. (162)

The final line is of course of utmost importance for what follows because Kierkegaard’s attack is against the notion that Christendom can implicitly produce Christians.  Kierkegaard begins by noting the role of circumstance in the power of a message how “the sickbed and the nighttime hour preach more powerfully than all the orators [because they] know this secret of speaking to you in such a way that you come to perceive that it is you who is being addressed, you in particular (164).  Kierkegaard relates this to his understanding of the ‘Lord’s house’ and how it is to be a place more terrifying than terror (for awakening that is) though pastors take it to be a place to preach for tranquilization.  The Lord’s house is by definition the space that a human encounters the truth, that is, encounters God.  This is a horror becuase it is an encounter with sin.

Here in God’s house there is essentially discourse about a horror that has never occurred either before or after, in comparison with which the most horrible thing that can happen to the most unfortunate of all people is a triviality: the horror that the human race crucified God. (172)

This discourse of terror is the first discourse and it is necessary.  The Christian is to use this discourse to win people – “but woe to you if you win them in such a way that you leave out the terror” (175).  So use this discourse to terrify people but “woe to you if you do not use it essentially to win them for the truth” (175).

While these discourses began with a pointed and promising account of attack or ‘awakening’ they settled into what (from a contemporary perspective) is a now familiar account of the need to ‘break from the herd’ in how you understand your own subjectivity and how it is formed.  I do not doubt the ongoing validity of this message it is only that the ‘herd mentality’ is now precisely in being unique and original.

How then does one break from the demand of uniqueness and become formed as an individual?

There is the already well commented on lines from Fleet Foxes recent single Helplessness Blues in which they harmonize on being some cog in a greater machine.

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me

In that instance the strength of individuality is in its submission to something  beyond the scope of a single subjectivity.  I think this is a fair response.  The problem of course is that there is no such static machine in which humans function as the cogs and pulleys.  The response in HB is a sort of almost naive localism.

If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m raw
If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore
And you would wait tables and soon run the store

I say almost because of the final lines of the piece.

Gold hair in the sunlight, my light in the dawn
If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore
If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore
Someday I’ll be like the man on the screen

They recognize that this too, this honest labour, is the production of the entertainment industry.  It is the production of flat subjectivity that will not truly intervene in the existing order.  For Kierkegaard subjectivity is based around the primary human dialectic of being a synthesis of the eternal and the temporal.

It is the final section of Christian Discourses that offers some help in understanding how the Christian can engage in the practices of faith while attending to the internal dialectic of subjectivity.  This final section is a collection of discourses to be read at Friday Communion services.  As such they offer a rare glimpse into Kierkegaard’s direct and public communication on church liturgy.  There is no strength in the basic repetition of Communion as an act that builds an alternate imagination.  This would be to function as a cog some great machinery.  Rather one does indeed approach the Communion table and share in the elements but when you leave it is as if the Communion table followed you (273).  It is only possible to speak of real presence because there is continuity with the table and with Christ.  “Where he is, there is the Communion table” (273).  The Communion table becomes present not necessarily at the religious site but at the site of reconciliation that is called for prior to sacrifice (Matt 5:23-24).  “The task is to remain at the Communion table when you leave the Communion table” (274).  A sermon should ‘bear witness to him. . . . At the Communion table, however, it is his voice you are to hear” (271).  The point here is simple.  There must be continuity and congruence.  And the perhaps the solution for the church is just as simple, that is, to call individuals to both leave and remain at the Table.


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