From Syracuse to Cambridge UK to Israel: 2

Someone will have noted that my blog has been asleep for a while.  I won’t try to explain.  But I came upon a way to wake up long enough to post something that might be of interest.  This continues the readings for a church service this morning in Cambridge, UK.  See my previous post for fill in.  This reading sets out to ponder “collaborative identity.”

In a late notebook Kierkegaard said: “The only analogy I have for what I am doing is Socrates. My task is the Socratic task of revising the definition of what it means to be a Christian. Therefore I do not call myself a Christian (keeping the ideal free), but I make it plain that nobody else is either.” (Trans. George Pattison).

[Kierkegard said] his vocation . . . has been “the Socratic task of revising the definition of what it means do be a Christian.”  This should startle us in at least two ways.

          First, how could Kierkegaard, an ordinary parishioner, presume to go about altering or amending a doctrinal definition of the Christian faith? That would be the exclusive prerogative of `ecclesiastical authorities. Yet the Socratic task is to disabuse others of untruth, so to revise a definition might mean to unseat a going definition, to deflate a current assumption. If the conventional definition reads, “To be a Christian is to be born in a Christian country and attend church at least once,” then that definition needs revision. Kierkegaard-Socrates could mock and deflate and so “revise” a mistaken definition without providing a replacement. This reading gives us a Kierkegaard-Socrates concerned to expose untruths, to attack pride, to mock the presumption to intellectual mastery. He unsettles anyone who remains complacent in a commonplace conceptual bed.

          A space less cluttered by shoddy presumptions permits a better definition of Christianity to appear – in some shape or form. Perhaps Kierkegaard does more than expose bad definitions. But if he remains true to his Socratic ignorance, an emerging positive definition can’t shape up as a verbal formulation or anything like a dictionary or encyclopedia entry for “Christianity.” Is there another way one could be revising the definition of what it means to be a Christian? Potters and sculptors give their clay definition. That’s not lexical revision. Perhaps a “revised definition” of what it means to be a Christian means giving a better shape to the contours of the unfolding character or way of life we’d want to call “Christian.” A definition so construed is a narrative, a life defined through narrative, whose living has a narrative structure. As we imagine a painter giving better definition to an elusive countenance before her, so Kierkegaard would give better shape and contour to the shifting countenance of an elusive Christian life. The way Plato attends to the Socratic life, and the way the Gospels attend to the Christian life, so Kierkegaard could attend to Gospel and Platonic life-narratives (as well as the cautionary life-narratives of Faust or Don Juan). Taking up this task of revising a definition would amount to sketching out a collaborative Socratic-Christian identity.

[. . .]

There is textural evidence – I think it’s decisive – that Kierkegaard takes his Christian and Socratic identities to be linked like hand in glove in sub-zero weather. Lacking a glove, the hand is useless; lacking a hand, the glove is useless. Ranking their comparative indispensability makes no sense at all. Since neither Christ nor Socrates is dispensable, both are indispensable.

From On Søren Kierkegaard: Dialogue, Polemics, Lost Intimacy, and Time (Ashgate 2007, p. 27, 28)

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3 comments on “From Syracuse to Cambridge UK to Israel: 2

  1. Paul Muench says:

    I think Pattison’s translation obscures the Socratic character of SK’s task. SK isn’t “revising” definitions but rather “auditing” or inspecting those definitions (at revidere Bestemmelsen) and the individuals who profess not only to know what it is to be a Christian but who imagine themselves to be leading Christian lives. (See the Hongs’ translation: “The only analogy I have before me is Socrates; my task is a Socratic task, to audit (revidere) the definition of what it is to be a Christian.”) SK also doesn’t simply try to make it plain that the others also aren’t Christians, but rather, as part of the very process whereby he does not call himself a Christian (keeping the ideal free), he says he can make it manifest that “the others are that even less” (de Andre ere det endnu mindre). This parallels Socrates’ distinction between those who are ignorant about important live matters and do not think they are wise (such as himself) and those who are ignorant and think themselves wise. The latter are clearly marked as more ignorant than the former. So too in SK’s case. He doesn’t call himself a Christian while the others do. Perhaps no one’s life measures up, but the implication is that those who nevertheless continue to call themselves Christians and conceive of themselves as Christians when they are not are that much further removed from the ideal.

    • efmooney says:

      Nice discussion! I suppose a segue between “audit” and “revise” would go something like this: An audit sets out to evaluate the books, the entries of what counts and doesn’t count as ‘Christian’. If the audit turns up errors, then the books being auditing need revisions. Those entering claims to being Christians have been working under false criteria. So the upshot of auditing would contesting or revising the socially-current but erroneous understanding of being a Christian.

    • dmf says:

      “Perhaps no one’s life measures up”
      perhaps I’ve read too much Derrida/Caputo but I think the striving, coming up short, and ever being re-minded of the limits of our all-too-human grasps (without abandoning the calling/Imperative) is supposed to keep us from mistaking our plans/efforts for those of Heaven and keep the fear and trembling in our ethics/politics.

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