Provocation #18

The illusion of a Christian nation, a Christian “people,” masses of Christians, is no doubt due to the power that numbers exercise over the imagination. And yet how many are able to say of their Christian acquaintances that they are truly Christians in the New Testament sense, or that their lives are even close to resembling those of the first disciples. But when there are thousands upon thousands who confess to being Christian, one becomes easily confused. Perhaps we are all Christians after all. Why be so harsh?

This brings to mind a ridiculous story about an innkeeper. It is said that this innkeeper sold his beer by the bottle for a cent less than it cost him. When a certain man said to him, “How does that balance the account? You’re losing money,” he replied, “No, my friend, it’s the big number that counts.”

When you have finished laughing at this story, you would do well to take its lesson to heart, which warns against the power that numbers exercise over the imagination. No doubt this innkeeper knew very well that one bottle of beer at 3 cents meant a loss of 1 cent since it cost him 4 cents. And, no doubt, he realized that selling 10 bottles also meant a loss. But 100,000 bottles! Here the big number stirs the imagination. The innkeeper becomes dazed. It’s a profit, he says, for the big number does it. So also with every calculation that arrives at a Christian nation, and dare I also say at a church, by adding up units which are not Christian, getting impressed with the results by means of the notion that it is the big number that counts!

Numbers are the most dangerous of all illusions. Inasmuch as Christianity is spirit, the honesty of eternity, there is nothing its detective eye is so suspicious of as of Christian states, Christian lands, Christian endeavors, Christian movements, a Christian people, and (how marvelous!) a Christian world. Even if there were something true in this talk about Christian peoples and cultures, everything this world has up to this point seen in the way of criminal affairs is a mere nursery rhyme in comparison with this crime.

Christ requires followers and defines precisely what he means by this. They are to be salt, willing to be sacrificed. But to be salt and to be sacrificed is not something that the thousands naturally go for, still less millions, or (still less!) countries, kingdoms, states, and (absolutely not!) the whole world. On the other hand, if it is a question of size, mediocrity, and of lots of talk, then the possibility of the thing begins; then bring on the thousands, increase them to the millions – no, go forth and make the world Christian.

The New Testament alone, not numbers, settles what Christianity is, leaving it to eternity to pass judgment upon us. It is simply impossible to define faith on the basis of what people in general like best and prefer to call Christianity. As soon as we do this, Christianity is automatically done away with. There are, in the end, only two ways open to us: to honestly and honorably make an admission of how far we are from the Christianity of the New Testament, or to perform skillful tricks to conceal the true situation, tricks to conjure up a forgery whereby Christianity is the prevailing religion in the land.

If the human race would rise in rebellion against God and cast Christianity away from it, it would not be nearly so dangerous as this clever way of making Christians of everybody and giving this activity the appearance of zeal for the truth. This is nothing but a scoffing at God by offering him thanks for bestowing his blessing upon the progress that Christianity was making.

Provocations are taken from Provocations: The Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard

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