Recherche – Detailansicht
Dogmen- und Theologiegeschichte
Podmore, Simon D.
Struggling With God. Kierkegaard and the Temptation of Spiritual Trial
Cambridge: James Clarke (The Lutterworth Press) 2013. 294 S. Kart. £ 25,00. ISBN 978-0-22717343-5.
Hartmut von Sass
The way to a »Kierkegaardian Theology of Spiritual Trail« has been a very long one so far. After the publication of Simon Podmore’s new book this way is still not short, but it is decisively shorter. By Struggling with God the author, Lecturer for Systematic Theology at Liverpool Hope University, takes up prominent issues that could partly already be found in his Kierkegaard and the Self before God from 2011. The theme of becoming a self is now deepened and in important respects clarified by putting the theological focus to the – even among Kierkegaard scholars – rather neglected topic of spiritual trail.
What turns the recent book into a very intriguing contribution to systematic theology in general is the fact that it successfully combines very divergent aspects of academic scholarship: it presents an interesting phenomenology of the dark(er) sides of the religious »forms of life« in the Christian tradition; thereby, it is exegetically sensitive and does justice to its main source, Kierkegaard’s work as a whole, in giving specific attention, however, to the un-published notebooks and papers (154); it is, furthermore, in constant contact with the biblical resources and protagonists to whom Kierkegaard dedicated so much of his interpretative force, esp. to the narratives on Abraham, Jacob, and Job; and it does a really good job in recalling the mystical and pietistic tradition(s) that crucially informed Kierkegaard’s approach to what is in German called Anfechtung. Interestingly, P. reminds us also of the Catholic backgrounds of what that term signifies whereas, traditionally, spirit-ual trial has been reserved by the Protestant tradition (33).
After an introduction that approaches the ›struggle with God‹ by recalling more recent authors having touched upon this theme, including Tillich, Unamuno, and Kazantzakis, P. adds eight chapters that oscillate between being separate papers and being parts of a strongly related order of steps in the argumentation. The first chapter elaborates on the link between solidarity and solitude while, of course, Kierkegaard emphasizes far more the aspects of secrecy, isolation, and silence. Then, in the second part, P. draws on the medieval German genre of devotional books referring particularly to Johannes Tauler as one important influence on Kierkegaard. Consequently, the next chapter is concerned with Luther’s theology of Anfechtung and the relative melancholia coram Deo following this path further in the post-Lutheran authors Johann Arndt and Jakob Boehme. The next two parts, chapters five and six, constitute the nucleus of the book and are written directly on Kierkegaard in elucidating two intertwined elements: the difference between spiritual trial and temptation in regard to the human relation to God (standing coram Deo); and this very difference in rela-tion to Christ as forsaken by his own father (God against God). Chapter seven concerns another difference that is informed by the aforementioned one, namely between spiritual trail resp. restlessness and releasement in the transparency of the rest. This is fol-lowed by final considerations that apply the problem of tempta-tion and spiritual trail not primarily to the believer, but to theology as an academic and intellectual endeavor.
Systematically, the main problem with Anfechtung concerns the old question of who or what it is that causes the struggle in the first place. P. shows convincingly that – following Kierkegaard – there is not one single answer to that question, rather its depth and sig-nificance is expressed by the very fact that every answer remains essentially ambivalent. Thus, there are passages in Kierkegaard that underline the human experience haunted by Anfechtung that is not based on God’s wrath, but on human anger about God (47 and 114). There are other passages, however, that highlight the paradox consisting in being confronted by the deepest trial, when having no trial at all (118; or in Luther’s terms: nulla tentatio – omnis tentatio). Accordingly, God Himself is the ultimate subject of the struggle that the believer has to undertake with Him. The question then is, what kind of sense that divinely legitimated Anfechtung has: is it a way of an »educational torture« to become nothing before God in a »kenosis-in-ekstasis«, as P. suggests (188 and 193); or is it a way of healing that leads to strengthening a believer’s faith by releasing carthatically (or even kenotically) her or him from fear (16 and 119–120); or is it, as it seems to be true for the story on Job, a divine test probing the human allegiance to God in relation to the individual capacity to bear and take up that test (124 and 211)?
Besides the subject of Anfechtung, there is another important and closely related question concerning the precise object of spir-itual trial. Here again, P. shows that the existential struggle is rooted in the ambivalence of all possible answers to it: either God Himself is at the center of the believer’s concern or it is the relation to him that is at stake. The first version is expressed in the dynamics between the revealed and the hidden God; the second version is encapsulated in the difference between struggling with God and against God (23). Both versions, however, do not question the existence of God; having or suffering from spiritual trail entails His very existence. What has turned into doubt is rather the goodness and mercy of God. This mercy is only experienced in conflict with other divine effects – wrath, punishment, hiddenness – that tend to undermine the trust in His merciful love.
P. is also very clear about the danger of celebrating the struggle to an extent that might turn into a pathological attitude or, put in religious terms, into a strange heroism of struggle (29). Luther and Kierkegaard have warned against that human inclination to invest in „self-mortifying practices« as ways of justifying one’s own existence sub contrario (30). Hence, P. interprets Anfechtung as an integral el-ement and expression of what Kierkegaard presents as the ›infinite, qualitative, eternal, and essential difference between God and man‹ (196). If this reading is correct, then it follows that the disappear-ance of Anfechtung tends to destroy that ultimate difference. It is exactly this vanishing difference that Kierkegaard criticizes so desperately regarding the Christendom of (not only) his time in Denmark. Christian faith without spiritual struggle is, then, a contradiction. In other words, the Christian notion of fides is necessarily linked to Anfechtung. The one who truly believes struggles by necessity with and against the revealed and hidden God (52 and 195).
It is helpful that P. reminds us of the challenge to translate ›Anfechtung‹ adequately and to catch up the German highly metaphorical background of the term (fechten = to fence and fight; 54 and 61). Given the conceptual network in which ›Anfechtung‹ is embedded, it is also fruitful that he relates this term to similar notions such as ›ordeal‹, ›tribulation‹, ›melancholy‹, ›fear‹ and, in particular, ›temptation‹ (100 and 154). P. claims that there is no strict distinc-tion between ›temptation‹ and ›spiritual trail‹ (that serves as his tentative, but preferred translation for Anfechtung), but rather a dialectic between them: if one is struggling there is the temptation to flee it; and the one who is tempted by »lower things« might also be able to face that which is higher by being rooted in the Spirit (241). This dialectic clarifies also what, at first glance, appears to be a tension, if not a plain contradiction: »the Temptation of Spiritual Trail«, as the subtitle reads, expresses in a nutshell not only the believer’s stance, but also an unavoidable feature of theology itself (101 and 243): it were misunderstood as mere speculative discipline, whereas authentic theology itself is a precarious project of struggling with and against God, while tempted to neglect Anfechtung as its own condition.