Friday, 25 October 2013

Kierkegaard & the Exorcist

Kierkegaard is like the Exorcist. He makes Christianity heroic. 

I first came across Kierkegaard and the Exorcist when I was an undergraduate. Fear and Trembling came out in Penguin Classics and a friend, for some reason bought a copy and then lent it to me. The Exorcist was still banned back then in the 80s, but someone had come across a copy and we watched in a room full of students, from a distance a not especially good copy of the film. But somehow both of these events had a lasting importance.

Reading Fear and Trembling I was initially a bit embarrassed by the Christianity. I thought this thinker would be great if only he didn’t go on about God so much. At the time I was quite a militant atheist. But something made me want to read further. I realised that there was something here for me. I found most of the philosophers that we studied dull. They were concerned with problems that were at best abstract, at worst artificial. After I’d got over the initial thrill of Descartes’ scepticism the whole debate seemed sterile and lacking in importance. Perhaps this is looking at events from a future perspective. It’s always difficult to reflect back on events of some years ago, without using the present perspective as the lens through which we interpret. Anyway I resolved to do my undergraduate dissertation on Kierkegaard. We’d actually had a little course on the Philosophical Fragments, which must have been unusual at a British university at that time.  I took that as my point of departure and set out to read the Concluding Unscientific Postscript. These two works formed the main basis of what I wrote. I read very little secondary literature apart the bare minimum to play the game. But rather just came up with some ideas from my reading.

After this I decided to study Kierkegaard further and went to Cambridge for this purpose. Along the way I learned Danish. I started with an evening class, once a week and worked my way through a teach yourself Danish book. I then set off to read one of Kierkegaard's books in Danish and chose Repetition, because it was short and because I liked it. I looked up nearly every word on the first page, but continued and by the end could read Kierkegaard reasonably well. I first went to Denmark that summer before going to Cambridge. There I began to speak and to understand better, for he Kierkegaard is really much better in Danish.

Over the next four years I read nearly all of Kierkegaard, much of it in Danish, or at least I checked the text when it seemed necessary. I also found that I had come to believe. I can’t point to a moment when this happened, but occasionally I would go to Kings College chapel. I’ve never been much of a church goer, but somehow I found that I had a sort of faith.

Kierkegaard had provided the answer to my doubts with perhaps the only answer possible. Accept them. His discussion of faith was perfect for a sceptic. If I thought that Christianity was absurd and ridiculous. He agreed. But he showed the possibility of believing anyway. I grasped that possibility through him. Moreover he showed Christianity to be brave. Here was an abyss. Here was the need to leap over that abyss. Here was risk. Here was the need for bravery.

I had associated Christianity with wetness. An Archbishop spoke in a funny voice, all vacillation. The Christianity I heard about was just left-wing politics with a little God added to the mix. If something was hard to believe, like the Virgin birth, it could easily be watered down. If a part of the Bible didn’t fit in with modern life, it could be dropped. It all seemed so weak and I wanted nothing to do with it.

But then I saw the Exorcist again and here  once more was something a little more heroic. Here was a priest, Father Karras  who was like a boxer. He trained as if he was going to  go 15 rounds with some middleweight. He was intelligent. But this man was going to fight the Devil. Literally the Devil. He too had to make a leap of faith, for in the beginning he did not even believe in exorcism. The idea of possession to his modern mind, trained in psychiatry, seemed preposterous, something from the Middle Ages. So he too had scepticism. 

With the arrival of the Exorcist, Father Merrin, we meet another sort of Christian heroism. This man believes in possession and despite his physical weakness, his heart condition, despite the fact that he knows the exorcism may kill him. he takes on the Devil.

Each priest fights in his own way and each gives up his life, a martyr for his faith. Here despite the films trappings of horror, I began to realise was an attractive form of Christianity. Here were heroes, not weaklings.  

I think it was for the same reason that Kierkegaard emphasised going back to early Christianity. For at that time it was not easy to be a Christian. There was the risk of martyrdom. It was not just a comfortable part of bourgeois life.

The vision of heroic christianity portrayed by Kierkegaard and the Exorcist is not the whole story. It is certainly not the whole story in Kierkegaard. For his emphasis in the end is on practical Christianity and living a Christian life. But the idea that Christianity might require bravery of me, this strand in Kierkegaard’s thought, at least made the whole thing more attractive than the Christianity that had always been presented to me up until that point. Here were people I could admire.  By emphasising the difficulties involved in Christianity, Kierkegaard makes it something that seemed worth having. Moreover, by presenting a vision of Christianity which is not watered down, which follows the traditional view of Christianity literally, which takes the Bible seriously, he doesn’t tame it and make it domesticated for the present age. His idea is that if we find something in Christianity difficult it is up to us to change. I should not expect that Christianity should accommodate itself to my difficulty.  Rather I must change to fit in with Christianity. The same goes for the Exorcist. The present age is sceptical about demonic possession, but it is Father Karras who must change. The traditional view of Christianity prevails. Demonic possession is another absurdity. How could anyone believe such stupid superstitions? But Father Karras quite literally leaps and in the end is a true knight of faith.