Kierkegaard: “In eternity, conscience is the only voice that is heard. It must be heard by the individual, for the individual has become the eternal echo of this voice. It must be heard. There is no place to flee from it.”
The sixteenth-century Reformation in Christianity began in Luther’s discovery of the individual conscience and his belief that this inner voice is the very voice of god. Up to that point, institutional religion had successfully spun the delusion of the individual’s separation from god, and of our collective need for intervention that only the institution can provide. Any insight or guidance or judgment you might inwardly discern was not to be trusted.
So when Luther decided to regard his inner voice as the voice of god, this single decision severed the chain of external control.
Of course, there had been others before Luther’s time who valued individual authority over compliance with “the system” (call it institution, society, fashion, or empire). They were revolutionaries, if their visions and ways of life caught on with others; or saints, if it took some time for them to be respected and appreciated; or maybe just misfits and odd-balls, if no one else really “got it.”
But Luther made his declaration on the cusp of a dawning new age – modernity, with its growing obsession with individuality and the individual’s experience.
Inside this discovery and its more widespread acceptance throughout western European culture, we can also detect the seed of what is now called “postmodernism.” While perspectivism had been developing in painting for a couple centuries already, Luther applied it to faith and morality. If this is how I feel, then maybe this feeling is a divine prompting. This is how things seem from where I stand.
At trial for all the commotion and cultural upset that he had caused, Luther announced the new maxim of perspectivism: “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.” I am compelled by the force and authority of my own experience. Kaboom.
In effort to justify its dominance of the individual, tribal orthodoxy does two things: (1) It claims for itself a divinely ordained authority, sustained by a sacred tradition reaching back to supernatural events (revelations, miracles) where this transfer of truth and power was made; and (2) it weakens the creative spirit of the individual with a doctrine of depravity, guilt, and shame (in short, a doctrine of sin).
Your corrupt nature, inherent selfishness, and fundamental inability to save yourself makes you utterly dependent on (the external, metaphysical) god for salvation. Thankfully (and you’d better be thankful), a way has been provided. Long ago we (the tribe) were given the secret, which we have guarded over many centuries. Listen up, join us, believe this, sit here. The devil – counterpart to our god – is still loose and at large in the world, so be vigilant! His most seductive temptation is to encourage your self-consciousness.
Luther was still too much entranced with this orthodox instruction to take full responsibility for his life or look too deeply into his own human nature. The doctrine of sin persisted – one might even say it was amplified in the emerging traditions of Protestant Christianity. Now that the institutional middleman is out of the way, it’s just you standing naked before god. Egad.
So what does this have to do with Kierkegaard and the future rise of postmodernism? Whereas Luther had been an unabashed theist, believing that his inner voice was nothing less than the directive of a god who existed outside of himself, Kierkegaard followed the root system of this interior experience, into the very ground of his own existence. For this reason, he is rightfully honored as an early proponent of Existentialism.
Existentialism is a philosophy of life. Whereas other philosophical traditions had involved rather abstract speculations on metaphysical realities (god, soul, mind), Existentialism dedicated its focus to the time-bound, flesh-and-blood individual who is working out the meaning of life along the meandering course of daily experience.
At this early stage we don’t yet have recognition of the fact that the individual is constructing this meaning as a world-creator and not simply finding it “out there” ready-made. But it’s coming. A necessary step in this direction was Kierkegaard’s replacement of Luther’s conscience as a voice of revelation from elsewhere (the external god) with the notion of conscience as the voice of inner guidance, available to the perceptive and internally grounded individual.
Isn’t all of this just a set-up for rampant individualism? When we start listening in on the universal wisdom as it resounds up from the depths of our own human nature; as we tune into this inner voice of spiritual grounding and guidance; when we begin taking responsibility for our choices and the worlds we create and destroy with them; finally, as we come to appreciate ourselves and acknowledge each other as present (and passing) incarnations of the One Mystery – after all of this, won’t the world come apart and the devil win?
Of course, there is a risk. Not everyone will join the revolution. Tribal orthodoxy works hard to keep you compliant. There will be hell to pay by anyone who dares to question the sacred trust of its holy tradition, supernatural revelations, ordained authorities and inerrant Bible. Too many of us value emotional security over spiritual fulfillment to put so much on the line.
After all, it’s working, isn’t it? It hasn’t all come crashing down yet, thanks to the true believers who are keeping the faith. Get in here and hang on with us!
There, there. Shhhhh. Close your eyes and go back to sleep.