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Unmasking conceit

"You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked." Revelation 3.17

In the early years of the 19th century it may be argued that the Enlightenment had outpaced the Counter-Reformation in undermining such cherished Protestant convictions as the primacy of scripture, the depravity of humankind and the necessity of rebirth. Philosophical giants Immanuel Kant, David Strauss and Georg Hegel had displaced God as the centre of being, in favour of the potential of human beings to think our way into making sense of everything and charting our own course into the future. If God was to be accorded any place at all, it was as a figment of our imagination, Jesus a myth - useful perhaps but as an optional extra rather than the sine qua non of existence.

Even Friedrich Schleiermacher capitulated to the Zeitgeist in his promotion of self-awareness, rather than fear of the Lord, as the beginning of wisdom. But not everyone was convinced. Managing to turn his gloomy upbringing in the home of a guilt-ridden yet intelligent and successful Copenhagen merchant to good effect, Soren Kirkegaard steered Christian philosophy back on track. Realising that a frontal assault was unlikely to be effective, he adopted the more subtle approach of sowing doubt anonymously. Like Blaise Pascal before him, Kirkegaard operated under various pseudonyms in order to reveal how mainstream Christianity owed more to the teaching of Socrates than that of the Bible.

The notion that knowledge and greatness are already embedded within human beings fuelled the independent spirit of the Enlightenment and runs counter to the gospel teaching that, without a saviour, we are lost and helpless. Kirkegaard recognised both the apostasy and the tragic consequences of such ill-founded optimism. His subversive tactics should not be misunderstood as "sour grapes", so much as a an expression of his piety, his passion for truth, a more realistic appreciation of human frailty and concern for society's well-being.



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