Charles Taylor remarked in passing that: “It is not only Machiavelli who has thought that believing Christians make bad citizens.” This remark struck a chord with me, since when one takes solely Jesus’ teachings as a point of reference, the prevailing thrust of his message appears to be anti-doctrinal – particularly his collapsing of all Jewish law into two key tenets, love of God and love of humanity. Although as a Rabbi he was in support of the traditions of Judaism, Jesus was in direct conflict with the understanding of that path as being shackled by a dogmatic legalism, as his subversive overthrowing of the tables of the money changers in the temples of Jerusalem demonstrates. This bold act of protest led directly to his execution.
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, writing in the nineteenth century, saw clearly the inimical relationship between the core tenets of Jesus’ ministry and the institutionalised poisoning of that message when it becomes shackled to national politics. Kierkegaard used the term ‘Christendom’ to derisively refer to the social and political entity descended from early Christianity. It was his view that although many European citizens were officially “Christians”, they had absolutely no understanding of their religion, and were essentially lazily following doctrines which were not faithful to Jesus’ message. (This critique could equally be applied to many ‘Christians’ today). Kierkegaard similarly baulked at the presumption that morality had to be understood as universal (an idea that had flourished in part thanks to Kant), and suggested that the individual sometimes faced situations that required them to deny the norms of morality in order to do what only they themselves could determine would be right.
Whereas Nietzsche (writing in the same century) had also savaged the monstrous perversion of Jesus’ teaching into the Church of that era, his goal had been a permanent end to Christianity (something he naively believed he would see in his lifetime). Conversely, Kierkegaard sought to restore Christianity to something closer to its spiritual roots through a process of insightful re-examinations of Biblical writings. His vocal opposition to ‘Christendom’ – a kind of political revisiting of the overturning of the money changers – placed him into conflict with the Danish establishment of his time, and ultimately caused him to become a pariah in his native Copenhagen. Ironically, Kierkegaard’s influence as a philosopher was to be felt more strongly outside of the Christian tradition, in particular because the French writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were significantly influenced by his work.
Kierkegaard’s understanding of Christianity is, I’m claiming, either close to Jesus’ original teachings or at the very least a recapturing of the spirit of the early Christian church – and it is focussed on the role of the individual against the conformity of the masses. This passage typifies Kierkegaard’s attitude in this regard:
There is a view of life which holds that where the crowd is, the truth is also, that it is a need in truth itself, that it must have the crowd on its side. There is another view of life; which holds that wherever the crowd is, there is untruth, so that, for a moment to carry the matter out to its farthest conclusion, even if every individual possessed the truth in private, yet if they came together into a crowd (so that “the crowd” received any decisive, voting, noisy, audible importance), untruth would at once be let in.
We do not usually think of Christianity as anarchistic, but in so much as Jesus’ focus was on harmonious relationships between individuals in a spirit of love, he was offering an approach to community not rooted in legal formality but in the natural chaos of every day life. As such, Jesus could be seen as an agent of chaos – not the negative disorder of carnage and destruction, but the positive discord of unpredictable human relations. If Christians had managed to maintain this theme from Jesus’ ministry instead of corrupting it into ‘Christendom’, the religion would not have suffered the disastrous public relations fiasco that has tarnished its image for so many today.