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Kierkegaard: Spheres of Existence

November 2, 2009


I have been fascinated by the ability of a nineteenth century philosopher to put his finger on a critical failure within churches today, including Evangelical ones. I refer to his work describing “Spheres of Existence”. Kierkegaard builds a foundation for this discussion by stating that the only way that we can achieve meaning for our lives is through a life defining process of self commitment: of daily choosing to be who we are. No one is going to make us who we are, and merely thinking it does not make it so either. It is only in the process of making choices, and taking on risk that we achieve meaning and purpose for our lives. Theologically, this rings true to our Evangelical thinking, as we have historically rebelled against the “state church” mentality, and replaced it with a personal choice to make your faith your own through a commitment to Jesus Christ as Saviour. And so I describe my starting point in agreeing with Kierkegaard’s premise that it’s all about choice. Where he stretches me, is in going further by describing not only a “continually renewed choice”, but the progression of stages within which we choose to place ourselves: Aesthetic, Ethical, and Religious.

It is beyond the scope of this essay to reflect upon each stage, only to point out that the idea of three distinct stages means everything for understanding the problems we face in our congregations. In broad brushstrokes, the aesthetic person is primarily concerned with what pleases them, and makes choices based on what will bring them the next thrill. The ethical person makes a commitment to a universal obligation of the “right” thing to do- especially in relation to others. The religious person recognises their position before an infinite God, and risks everything to live in relationship with Him. Pastors (one would hope!) are in this third stage. Through their Theological training, they have come to recognise faith as more than mere duty, and by choosing a vocation that has lower salary expectations than the corporate world, they demonstrate a meaning for life that has moved beyond the aesthetic.

The conflicts arise as people in these three spheres of existence cohabitate within our church communities. It is the aesthetic people that tend to be the most numerous, and the inherent inability of the aesthetic life to be truly fulfilling becomes the norm in our churches. Thus the worship is too loud for some, while at the same time not loud enough for others. The church building is rated for its amenities such as a gymnasium or lobby coffee bar. Decisions, especially if made by “the mob” at an annual meeting, tend to focus on the immediate while disregarding anything that doesn’t directly affect their enjoyment of the church experience. The despair that the aesthetic breeds is commonly seen in the church shopper who is reduced to church hopping to fulfill their needs. Although a smaller group, the ethical people at that same meeting that believe the church ought to be doing more for the community, for the poor, and believe that the church ought to be governed by principles of justice. The truly religious (according to Kierkegaard’s terminology, and not with our modern negative connotations of the term) get frustrated and stop getting involved with annual meetings altogether.

Pastors are not excluded from the maelstrom. They are subject to the same three spheres, and not all aspire to the third sphere for meaning of life. Assuming that they have; Pastors face a struggle in balancing their leadership role with the simple reality that in congregational churches, they are constantly engaged with a building full of employers. How do they lead and move people through these spheres, while at the same time manage to achieve a sense of job security and job satisfaction? Upon consideration, we can recognise job security as an elusive aesthetic value, and job satisfaction as coming only through the full realisation of the religious sphere. Kierkegaard elsewhere provides the answer to what Pastors must do: we must learn to communicate indirectly, and take our example from Jesus who never answered a question directly. By answering their questions with another question, or with a parable, Jesus was communicating indirectly – forcing people to consider the answer for themselves. Thus if our preaching from the pulpit is striving to directly communicate what people ought to do, we are at best only moving them into an ethical sphere of duty.

Thus, the critical failure in many of our churches today rests with Pastors; and Kierkegaard gives us the tools and vocabulary to understand our failures and challenges us to build churches of truly authentic Christians.

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