Faces are still melting from the last power chord as the youth pastor mounts the stage for the camp’s last night of chapel. The atmosphere is positively electric with emotional energy because it is well-known that Friday night means farewells, a bonfire, and big decisions. As the opening illustration drops, his voice has hints of a tremulous quiver. The message advances to the final crescendo when the application questions begin.
“Who will you become?”
“How will you live?”
“How will your life be different?”
“Will you live beyond?”
“Are you a Christian?”
Certainly, essential questions for all. And there have been many that have made critical, destiny-altering decisions at camp! But sometimes, these tear-soaked venues result in emotional decisions that do not survive the Saturday drive home.
I have been there. I have posed those questions—several times. Many summers of my youth were spent at camp, and I was (and am) that camp speaker, conservatively estimated, at least 100 times. I have seen genuinely divine appointments and at least one demonic episode (I’m not kidding!). My intention is not to crack on student ministry, youth camp, or emotions. There are way too many unfair criticisms leveled against those who are trying to do something for the cause of Christ. And emotions are genuine, part of being human, and powerful. But the issue is, become what? Different how? Beyond what? What does it mean to be a Christian? Is this a process of becoming, or is it something you can just be?
Human Authenticity was introduced as one of the 5 Key Elements of Existentialism. This is perhaps among the most significant points of discussion that Kierkegaard wrestles with. For him, the issues of Human Authenticity live in a symbiotic relationship with existence, objective reason, ethics, and revelation. Kierkegaard’s existential positions have made their way to our lecterns and pulpits. This is yet another 19th-century idea that must be explored.
There is a word I need you to know. Telos is a Greek word that means end or end goal. Jesus utters the Aramaic form of telos when he declares, “It is finished!” Kierkegaard’s telos is authenticity within a Christian framework. Yes, I know it can be argued whether or not he was a true Christian. I am taking “Christian” at face value here, and my money is on the fact that Soren Kierkegaard is in heaven. If I’m wrong, you can give me a fat, “I told you so!”.
That being said, there are two issues worth noting. First, it will become plain how important the telos of Kierkegaard is once we get to Nietzsche, and secondly, how does Kierkegaard envision this process as happening?
Stages on Life’s Way – 1845
The teleological outcome for Kierkegaard is met by moving through 3 ascending spheres.
- The Aesthetic – “All we are is all we are.” – Kurt Cobain //
Kierkegaard did not see Human Authenticity as a given. It is an accomplishment that requires choice-making. He considers the aesthetic stage to be where the average person exists. They live only for the moment and for pleasure. There are no actual categories of right and wrong because the only motivation is pleasure. Therefore, there is no possibility of making any difficult choices. It is more and better.
This reminds me of one of the central themes of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Most characters seek nothing but pleasure by taking state-issued drugs and attending the “feelies,” – which were movie theaters that engaged all the senses. They embodied the aesthetic stage by living in the moment.
I tend to agree with Kierkegaard on this point. Our culture is completely saturated with what makes us feel good but not necessarily what makes us good, and it is related to the idea of the “build-up” of pleasure. This partly explains the phenomenon of waiting for an entire season to be released so that it can be binge-watched.
To move up and out, one must have a free-choice conversion experience, and it must be individualistic.
- The Ethical – “Give me something to believe in.” – Brent Michaels // Poison
The individual ascends to the next level by making a personal choice that there is something that ties all of us together. The conversion happens when one realizes that there are “either/or” alternatives that can be made and that an ethical standard applies to all. He no longer is just solitary in a herd living transactionally but senses a responsibility toward others. Others are viewed as valuable and their rights honored.
Perhaps the best-known cinematic illustration of this stage is found in Elsa’s character from the blockbuster Frozen.1 Although it is presented as suffering and not satisfaction, Elsa chronicles the life of the aesthetic with her solo in “Let it Go.” “Here I stand in the light of day…”. Elsa declares that it is time to “Turn away and slam the door.” Her existential angst is only remedied, which is only partial when she moves beyond herself to help her sister Ana. Her move is an ethical one that demonstrates another’s life as valuable.
This sounds like an excellent move until you realize this is not the end. It is not the telos. The ethical stage is essential but will only lead to despair because the greater awareness of right, wrong, and consequences highlights the inability to meet moral obligations. Failure to do so is not theoretical or mathematical. Kierkegaard calls it sin.
It is debatable how much of this “sin” is the inability to achieve a holy standard or the failure to achieve authenticity. Ultimately, I think he means the latter. Either way, Kierkegaard demonstrates that the sinner must be forgiven if there is a sin. And the only way to have forgiveness is by a person. A system or theory cannot absolve you of anything.
- The Religious – “But you gotta have faith!” – George Michael
The first two stages ring with importance inside the metanarrative of the Gospel. Consider the downward spiral of Romans 1 or the condemnation of the moralist (ethical stage) in Romans 2. Massive portions of that epistle speak to man’s great need and the remedy for his salvation. And at this point, many of us would be reciting, “the wages sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life” (Romans 6:23). I absolutely affirm this, but it gets a little sticky with Kierkegaard.
Remember that his telos is an authenticity linked to choice-making, and the choice here is one of faith. Ah, yes! “Without faith, it is impossible to please God!” (Hebrews 11:6). Surely this is in line with the Gospel? Not entirely.
Kierkegaard, occupied with the subjective individual, emphasizes that a passionless “head knowledge” gets in the way of a “heart” on fire (my words). Forgiveness within the religious stage must be marked by a passionate commitment and not mere matters of fact. But how does that line up with orthodox Christianity? The faith in Hebrews is putting one’s trust in the truth. In that case, the letter recipients were to “hold fast” because of the reality of who Jesus is and what he accomplished. Facts. It was a response to a fact. It would be more accurate to say that Kierkegaard held that a choice of faith was to choose the absurd – it was a concept that could not be explained; it had to be internalized. According to existentialism expert Walter Kauffman, Kierkegaard believed that scholarship could not firmly establish faith, but it can and often does, undermine it.2
The telos is a never-ending process of becoming. The Christian can leap over objective knowledge with passionate action and a personal, divine-human encounter without relying on the disclosure of propositions about God.
Wrapping it Up
It would be far too laborious to analyze where all this is going in this post. I will save that for next week. We will investigate the head/heart dualism, the role of revelation, and if Christianity is really absurd. Join me?
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Andy Giessman is the Executive Director and founder of Addison’s Walk. He is available to speak at your church, retreat, school, or camp for pulpit supply, missions conferences, and full weekend seminars. firstname.lastname@example.org
- For an excellent academic essay on Disney films in existentialism, I recommend “Kierkegaard’s Three Spheres and Cinematic Fairy Tale Pedagogy in Frozen, Moana, and Tangled” https://muse.jhu.edu/article/801751
- Kauffmann, Walter. Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre. (New York: Penguin Books, 1975), 85