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Every age needs a prophet, but not every age gets what it needs. Ancient Israel had Jeremiah, nineteenth century Denmark had Kierkegaard, contemporary Britain has Justin Welby…


Soren Kierkegaard,  philosopher, poet and theologian, was born in Copenhagen in 1813, a genius who knew that was what he was. “I was given an eminently adroit mind,” he wrote in his journals, and then, evidently untroubled by false modesty, described himself in Goethe’s words as “an acorn planted in a flower-pot, possessing a superabundance but without the strength to bear it.”  


It was his understanding of the purpose of his gift and not the gift itself that sets him apart from other geniuses though. His task, he believed, was to so distinguish himself from the age, to so resist all efforts of society to assimilate him, that he might properly become a ‘witness to the truth.’  In the margin of his journal he wrote: “When the individual has become entirely homogeneous with its age, assimilated, as one says of the digestive process, that age has eaten him, he is as though lost, wasted.” 


Kierkegaard had no intention of passing through the digestive system of Danish society, although refusal to do so came at a high price. Aware of the impossibility of speaking the truth about a system from which he benefitted, he turned down positions in both university and church and then he broke his engagement to the woman he loved.  


From atop his lonely pillar in the desert, a professional and personal failure by choice not chance, he began to ‘witness to the truth’ in an output that was as vast as his powerful mind. Not for nothing did that other genius, Ludwig Wittgenstein, call him the most profound thinker of the nineteenth century.


But here the focus is much more narrow – and turns to a subject that concerned him at the end of his life: the corruption of the Danish state church, with its wealthy state-paid clergy, parading about in fine vestments. At that time, the Lutheran church and the Danish state were so intertwined that to be a Dane was to be a Christian. Baptism was compulsory, Christianity was synonymous with civic life. But when everyone is a Christian, Kierkegaard pointed out, no-one is a Christian.


While on the surface, the situation in Denmark may seem very different from that of contemporary Britain, there are structural similarities. No. we are not compelled to the baptismal font, to attend church, or to call ourselves Christians just because we are British. But the churches have nevertheless become so thoroughly modelled upon the society they purport to serve they are indistinguishable from it. They grow comfortably in the same soil as Barclays Bank and Tesco. Big business really, with real estate assets and investment portfolios worth billions, not millions.


A small illustration of how this assimilation affects the prophetic voice of the church was provided when the present Archbishop of Canterbury stood up in 2013 to condemn loan shark companies. It quickly emerged that the Church of England itself had financial interests in Wonga, one of the worst of these usurious outfits. How embarrassing! How surprising!

Kierkegaard would not have been surprised, though, seeing this kind of structural hypocrisy as the inevitable outcome of the assimilation of church into society.


It is precisely for structural reasons such as these that prophets don’t live in palaces or hold chairs at universities. When the Archbishop attempts to speak the truth from his palace, he reveals himself as a false prophet, not because he is an insincere man, but because of the untruth of his position. That is what Kierkegaard was driving at when he said “the truth is not to know the truth, but to be the truth.”


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