"One of the oddest prophets ever."
This is how the late Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990) begins his short portrait of Soren Kierkegaard. And it is an apt beginning to a strange but wonderful tale.
Which we'll get to in a moment.
Today, as I promised last month, we are returning to A Third Testament— Malcolm Muggeridge's little book celebrating the lives of six "wrestling prophets" (or "sinner saints") from Christian history. If you are not familiar with this insightful British journalist and Christian apologist, I encourage you to look back at the earlier newsletter of which this is a continuation. There you will find a few suggestions and links for a quick internet study of the man's life and thought.
While of course a creation of its time (the early 1970s) and of the curmudgeonly nature of its author, this book does wonderfully what it sets out to do. It shows God's grace at work in His church through seven flawed, struggling, but nevertheless faithful and obedient people. These are Augustine, William Blake, Soren Kierkegaard, Blaise Pascal, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Of all of these odd characters—and each one of them certainly had his oddities—Muggeridge singles out Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) as the oddest.
Kierkegaard's father, a wealthy man with a reputation for "wide reading and intellectual attainments" "as a poor shepherd boy … had cursed God for the hardness and frustration of his life and had, in consequence, suffered ever after from a sense of having sinned." He passed on to his son a sense of melancholy with the state of the world and with himself.
When in later years three of Kierkegaard's sisters, two of his brothers, and his mother died in quick succession, the introspective Dane felt that his father's curse was still having its effect.
The son also felt that he participated in the father's youthful faithlessness. As a young student of theology, he had his vices—wine and pretty girls among them. When he became engaged to Regine Olsen, then decided the relationship was wrong for both of them, instead of manfully ending the relationship he behaved so obnoxiously to her that she broke off the engagement—thus bearing the stigma of having done so.
Of course the young man realized what a rotten thing he had done. This episode added to the heavy load he carried—the load of Bunyan's pilgrim. As Muggeridge describes Kierkegaard's situation, this intense young man began asking himself "how to get rid of all his own personal impediments—the ego lifting its cobra head, the appetites reaching out greedily like octopus tentacles." Above all, he wanted to know "how to strip himself down until there was nothing, nothing at all, other than a sense of his own worthlessness."
After years of seeking, this Godly sorrow bore fruit. Kierkegaard later wrote, "Now, with the help of heavy sufferings and the bitterness of repentance, . . . I [have] learned enough about dying away from the world so that I can rightly speak of finding my whole life and my salvation through faith in the forgiveness of sins."
His own faith thus set on solid ground, but with his former sins still very much before him, the melancholy young man began writing penetrating critiques both of a church that had become far too comfortable and a world whose materialism was destroying men's souls.
Muggeridge writes that "the Danish Church was particularly abhorrent to [Kierkegaard]—such a genial, worldly church, even the salaries of its clergy and bishops were paid for by the secular state."
In ten articles, released in a series of pamphlets titled The Instant, Kierkegaard argued, as Muggeridge says, that "the one sure way to abolish Christ's Kingdom, irretrievably and forever, was to make it 'of this world.'"
And this was just what Kierkegaard believed was happening in the Danish church. He cautioned believers to stay as far from possible from the Danish clergy, whose religion was, as he wrote, "just about as genuine as tea made from a bit of paper which once lay in a drawer beside another bit of paper which had once been used to wrap up a few dried tea leaves from which tea had already been made three times."
Of what the apostle Paul called "the world"—that is, humankind apart from Christ, the Danish philosopher-theologian also wrote with great insight: "Is not the truth of the matter really this, that man is just like a child who would rather be free from being under his parents' eyes? Is not this what men want? To be free from being under the eyes of God? . . . Christ, being an absolute, explodes all the relativity whereby we humans live. In order to live in the spirit rather than the flesh, as he requires, one must go through crisis after crisis. … "
But the floundering, compromised institutional church was failing miserably to bring people to this difficult freedom in Christ. And so Kierkegaard hoped "through my writings . . . to leave behind me so accurate an account of Christianity in the world that an enthusiastic, high-minded young person will be able to find in them, as it were, a map of Christian relationships."
This "weird Dane," as Muggeridge affectionately calls him, believed that the Church Fathers, while brilliantly and deeply theological, were not "in the world" enough to communicate well to today's worldlings. As a thoughtful person who had drunk deeply of the world, recognizing how susceptible he was to its allures, and who was a "person-watcher," constantly to be seen walking the streets of his town in conversation with others, Kierkegaard felt it was his mission to make the bridge from the Gospel to the world—in an age where the world had invaded the church to devastating effect.
And indeed, many "high-minded young people" and others have continued to study Kierkegaard to this day, appreciating both his critique of dead faith and his outline of living faith.
Among Kierkegaard's last written words were these:
"Christianity implies, unconditionally, that every man, every single individual, is equally close to God . . . Because Loved by Him. Consequently there is equality . . . between man and man. If there is any distinction, it is that one person bears in mind that he is loved, perhaps day after day, perhaps day after day for seventy years, perhaps with only one longing, a longing for eternity so that he really can grasp this thought and go through life with it, concerning himself with the blessed occupation of meditating on how he is loved—and not, alas, because of his virtue.
"Another person perhaps does not remember that he is loved, perhaps goes on year after year, day after day, and does not think of his being loved; or perhaps he is glad and grateful to be loved by his wife, by his children, by his friends, by his contemporaries, but he does not think of his being loved by God. . . . If there is an equality among us men in which we completely resemble each other, it is that not one of us truly thinks about being loved!"
* * *
Muggeridge's Final Testament
I did promise to give you information about what happened to the film version of A Third Testament: it turns out that a Christian video company is pursuing rights to the film. If they get the rights and it looks like the film will be made available again, I'll let you know! Meanwhile, I want to let you know about a worthy film that is currently available: Gateway Films's powerful video, in its "Christian Catalyst Collection," of Muggeridge's "testament."
In some senses this is Muggeridges last testament. It was filmed when, as he himself says, he had outlasted his "allotted store of years"—in other words, he was over 70 years old.
First released in the 1970s, this 43-minute film begins at Muggeridge's country estate. There the aging journalist meditates on death and eternity, and on how a person prepares spiritually for these. With joy on his face, he describes his "second childhood," in which he has been delighted again by simple things—by the beauty of God's world, childhood memories, the sacred value of human beings. He feels, he tells us, that God is giving him this delight as a preparation for the greater one of meeting him in heaven.
Then we join Muggeridge at Madame Tussaud's wax museum, where from the perspective of over 50 years in journalism, he considers the vanity of power and the futility of fame. Amusingly, he ends up standing "next to himself," wishing his wax counterpart could take his place and do all the work of his hectic schedule, giving the real "Mugg" a few day's rest in the still, silent gallery.
Finally we follow the late-life Christian convert to a place of wonder: the Sea of Galilee. Paddling on the area's namesake lake, Muggeridge briefly considers the scenes of Jesus' life. Then he gives what amounts to a powerful Gospel presentation. We feel that here is someone who has lived much and seen much, gaining both the ability and the right to communicate this message to younger seekers.
I recommend the film as an evangelistic tool—for use especially with a bright young person who has seen something of the futility of human endeavor and yearns for the Reality behind all the sparkling show of Vanity Fair.
Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History & Biography, a Christianity Today sister publication. More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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