Thursday, January 17, 2013

Kierkegaard's Critique of Christian Nationalism by Stephen Backhouse

Stephen_Backhouse.JPGI have asked my esteemed colleague, Dr Stephen Backhouse, to say something about his exciting Oxford University Press book, Kierkegaard's Critique of Christian Nationalism. Stephen is our Tutor for Social and Political Theology and has also recently published The Compact Guide To Christian History (Lion, 2011). For those interested in political theology, theological identity, nationalism, Kierkegaard, church history and so on and on, his work will be of great interest and Stephen’s brilliant work may just rock a few theological worlds.

I will also record an interview with him next week about his OUP book, about which let me now hand you over to Stephen:

The book originated with my initial reading of Kierkegaard when I noticed how surprisingly relevant his Danish, mid-19th century, Christian, 'attack upon Christendom' was to the current situation faced by Christians today, especially in the monolithic, unanalysed christianised cultures of the USA and Europe. More so than any other commentator, Kierkegaard was keenly aware of the ramifications that a christianised common culture has for Christian communication and witness. In a world in which becoming a Christian is as easy as being born and being a good citizen, his stated aim was to 'reintroduce Christianity into Christendom' by making Christianity harder and more offensive!

A huge part of his analysis of 'Christendom' is wrapped up with the way that the Christian religion and culture has made Christianity essentially a moral, civilising set of ideas. Christendom has tied itself closely to the notion that history is progressing, and that a nation's success or disaster is somehow connected to the quality of its (christianised) culture and morality. Thus, focus on the personal, individual and unsettling nature of Jesus' incarnation is by-passed in favour of a triumphalistic commitment to the inevitable rise of groups and movements.

This made me alert to another interest I have as a political theologian, namely, the rhetoric of patriotism and nationalism which routinely enlists Christian language and tropes, and the egregious degree to which Christianity is distorted by this rhetoric and mindset. The phenomenon is obviously alive and well today in the USA, but it is by no means confined to that country or to this present era. The earliest Christian church defined itself against precisely this sort of civic-religion and idolatry and were persecuted as 'atheists' as a result. How is it that the pagan vice of patriotism has now become, almost universally, a Christian virtue?

I noticed that running throughout Kierkegaard's critique of Christendom was, in fact, an underlying critique of Christians who confuse their countries with their God. So I put my interest in 'patriotism' together with my love of Kierkegaard and produced 'Kierkegaard's Critique of Christian Nationalism'. The book and my work has led to a number of conference papers, lectures and public talks, including a Danish newspaper interview commenting on Anders Breivik's massacre in Norway and a TV panel debating with the chap who invented the UK Citizenship test!


At 1/17/2013 4:53 PM, Blogger Keen Reader said...

Unfortunately the 65 pounds price tag will mean that few will read this no doubt excellent tome.

At 1/23/2013 6:49 PM, Anonymous JD said...

I’ve not read this book so perhaps I’m jumping the gun a bit. But what Dr Backhouse says here serves to make me feel guilty about my patriotic feelings. So is there a properly ‘Christian’ attitude towards patriotism? Is there a difference between patriotism and nationalism (this excerpt would suggest not?)? Perhaps you could ask him about this and post something about it? Speaking for myself I believe my love of country is carefully placed within a greater devotion to Christ. But I am proud that this is the country which has produced Chaucer and Shakespeare and Dickens and Sir Isaac Newton and Darwin and William Wilberforce and Sir Christopher Wren and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and which has a hard-fought-for parliamentary democracy and the most celebrated constitutional monarchy in the world. But pride is a sin, right? Should we be proud of these things?


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