19th-Century Denmark or 21st-Century America?

What I feel I have been trying to think and articulate the past few days has come to me fully-developed from the mouth of a man who died in the mid-1800s:

…We are what is called a “Christian” nation–but in such a sense that not a single one of us is in the character of the Christianity of the New Testament, any more than I am, who again and again have repeated, and do now repeat, that I am only a poet. The illusion of a Christian nation is due doubtless to the power which number exercises over the imagination. I have not the least doubt that every single individual in the nation will be honest enough with God and with himself to say in solitary conversation, “If I must be candid, I do not deny that I am not a Christian in the New Testament sense; if I must be honest, I do not deny that my life cannot be called an effort in the direction what the New Testament calls Christianity, in the direction of denying myself, renouncing the world, dying from it, etc.; rather the earthly and the temporal become more and more important to me with every year I live.” I have not the least doubt that everyone will, with respect to ten of his acquaintances, let us say, be able to hold fast to the view that they are not Christians in the New Testament sense, and that their lives are not even an effort in the direction of becoming so. But when there are 100,000, one becomes confused.


Or (merely to take one example of what is everywhere present in the New Testament): when Christ requires us to save our life eternally (and that surely is what we propose to attain as Christians) and to hate our own life in this world, is there then a single one among us whose life in the remotest degree could be called even the weakest effort in this direction? And perhaps there are thousands of “Christians” in the land who are not so much as aware of this requirement. So then we “Christians” are living, and are loving our life, just in the ordinary human sense. If then by “grace” God will nevertheless regard us as Christians, one thing at least must be required: that we, being precisely aware of the requirement, have a true conception of how infinitely great is the grace that is shown us. “Grace” cannot possibly stretch so far, one thing it must never be used for, it must never be used to suppress or to diminish the requirement; for in that case “grace” would turn Christianity upside down.

By Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan worked as a programmer in tech startups for several decades, but is also passionate about all kinds of creative pursuits and academic discussion. Jonathan has master’s degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively, and is working on another in theology. An American-Canadian, he lives in Vancouver, BC and has way too many hobbies.

3 replies on “19th-Century Denmark or 21st-Century America?”

Wow. Powerfully said – this somewhat helps shed light on where the indictments of SMS are coming from. Nonetheless I still think SMS is important, and in my insight into the divine I doubt that the intent of most people attending SMS is lost on God.

I think most of my reactions to things that you say are in the “yeah, but…” realm, because, for example, I totally agree with the quotations above and almost everything you and Justin said in the reply to my previous post. But I am wary when I perceive an implication that things in our religious tradition should be completely replaced.


That’s understandable, and I agree that it is not always easy to tell what is the real implication and what is the real heart behind that implication. For instance, Kierkegaard himself was accused by most people of holding this super-high, impossible standard that we are supposed to live in, in this no-grace sort of way.

But really all he was asking for was honesty. He didn’t so much care that Christians were doing shitty things, but more that they were doing it and acting like it was the way that Christianity was even in the New Testament! And as he says, that’s the one thing that Christendom would not admit (that it was acting differently than Jesus). Kierkegaard was not looking down in judgment, just asking for some honesty.

I think it’s powerful because, as he says, grace can only apply where there is a realization and confession of a lack. So, grace can only apply where there is honesty. So with him I take it for granted that we are all sinners, no one is righteous, not the American church system, not anything…but as much as maybe I personally would like to see reform of some kind, what I really want, and after reading Kierkegaard, what I would settle for as a good first step, is just some honest reflection. No change, no judgment…just honesty.

Tbone, I am interested in digging deeper and finding what is really at the core of your heart that inspires the “yeah but…” I am interested in knowing what you are hesitant to let go of in the history of the church. I think it would be edifying to everyone to hear what you think.

Most of my dig with the church is much better articulated in Kirkegaard’s first quote–many are more interested in being right than being honest. And honesty is the only path to transformation.

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