Climacus on Christianity as an Existence-Communication

In his work, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Johannes Climacus discusses what he calls the dialectical aspects of Christianity or those aspects of Christian belief that one might call intellectual.   Climacus of course do not think that Christianity is merely a set of doctrines to which one must assent.  Rather, Christianity is a way of existence-as Climacus says, “Christianity is not a doctrine,” but is “an existence-communication” (VII, 328-29; pp. 379-380).[1] As C. Stephen Evans observes, this statement has been misunderstood often.  Climacus himself anticipated the potential misunderstanding and gives a lengthy footnote to clarify his meaning.  Here he explains,

Surely a philosophical theory that is to be comprehended and speculatively understood is one thing, and a doctrine that is to be actualized in existence is something else. If there is to be any question of understanding with regard to this latter doctrine, then this understanding must be:  to understand that it is to be existed in, to understand the difficulty of existing in it, what a prodigious existence-task [Existents-Opgave] this doctrine assigns to the learner (VII, 329; p. 379).

Because the Christianity of Climacus’ day had become overly speculative, he purposely distances himself from the word “doctrine,” as he fears that by employing the word, Christianity will continue to be categorized and understood as a philosophical theory instead of way of existence.  Thus, he comes up with a new term, “existence-communication.”  In no way is Climacus denying that Christianity has intellectual content; rather, he wants to make sure that this content is set forth in such a way that the uniqueness of Christianity as a transcendent (as opposed to an immanent) religion is upheld.  As Climacus explains,

If Christianity were a doctrine, it would eo ipso not constitute the opposite of speculative thought but would be an element within it.  Christianity pertains to existence, to existing, but existence and existing are the very opposite of speculation.  The Eleatic doctrine, for example, is not related to existing but to speculation; therefore it must be assigned its place within speculation.  Precisely because Christianity is not a doctrine, it holds true, as developed previously, that there is an enormous difference between knowing what Christianity is and being a Christian.  With regard to a doctrine, this distinction is unthinkable, because the doctrine is not related to existing.  I cannot help it that our age has reversed the relation and changed Christianity into a philosophical theory that is to be comprehended and being a Christian into something negligible.  Furthermore, to say that Christianity is empty of content because it is not a doctrine is only chicanery.  When a believer exists in faith, his existence has enormous content, but not in the sense of a yield in the paragraphs (VII, 329; p. 380).

The content of Christianity is dialectical; it is the “absolute paradox” and as such, it differentiates Christianity from immanent religions in which in principle all doctrines can be penetrated rationally, making revelation superfluous.  Climacus is firmly committed to what the orthodox Christian tradition calls the “mysteries of the faith”-the Incarnation, the Trinity and other doctrines which are both central to the Christian faith and can only be known through revelation.  In addition and related to the previous passage, Climacus believes that the content of Christianity has the potential to actually transform a person’s existence, giving him/her a new passion-“it is relating to the pathos-filled as an impetus for a new pathos” (VII, 488; p. 559).  Christian belief then is intimated related to action.  As Evans explains,

Climacus understands Christian belief as not merely accompanied by action but as essentially expressing itself in action.  Because of this he attempts to rethink the nature of that belief in such a way that it does not exclude belief as an intellectual act but does exclude even the possibility of belief being only an intellectual act.  This conception of Christian belief is itself demanded by “existential appropriation” that is Christianity and the content of Christianity, which is the absolute paradox, can be seen to correspond exactly to each other [VII, 532; pp. 610-611].  Both the content of Christianity and the appropriation of Christianity become “specifically different” from everything else (Kierkegaard’s Fragments and Postscript, p. 210).

[1] All citations are from the Hong translation.

6 thoughts on “Climacus on Christianity as an Existence-Communication”

  1. The question is, if Christianity had not moved into the Universities in the late 12th Century, and had maintained its existence in the worshipping communities of parishes and monasteries, i.e. if it had maintained itself in liturgical practices, would there have been a protestant reformation, and would there have been the rise of philosophical theology or religious studies? In other words, it seems to me that orthodoxy is as much about orthopraxis in divine liturgy.

  2. Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for your comment. So are you suggesting that the main cause of the protestant reformation is the failure of the Church to be faithful in liturgical practices? If so, would you unpack this? (I’ve never heard it put quite like that before). Wasn’t Aquinas already engaging in a good deal of philosophical theology (in comparison with someone like Lombard, whose work doesn’t attempt to systematize the whole)? (I’m not suggesting that philosophical theology is a “bad thing” per se, as I think that it can be quite useful so long as one is willing to adjust, amend, or even do a major overhaul to the “system.” In other words, so long as it doesn’t become an idol, I think it can be helpful. I do very much agree with your last statement about right doctrine and right practice in the liturgy. I hope to give you a ring this week.

    Best wishes,

  3. The stark contrast between the Lombard and Thomas, temporally with only about 130 years intervening, is certainly suggestive that something had changed. Yet, I would not claim that Thomas was un-prayerfully engaging in philosophical theology. We must, after all, remember that despite Thomas being a Dominican, he cut his formational teeth in a Benedictine monastery where prayer happens eight times daily, and eucharist was celebrated daily. So, I would hold it is possible to prayerfully and liturgically do philosophical theology.

    I do not hold that there are epochs in history, even though we can discern sharp changes when comparing large chunks of time. Things change slowly, gradually. And in retrospect we notice them. The Protestant Reformation is the culmination of a series of more subtle changes, modulations, and mutations in the way religion and Christian theology are conceived. Religious faith becomes an act of the mind, referred to as faith, an assent to a set of dogmas taught, rathern than participation in a set of liturgical practices. For the extreme mutation that Protestantism has become, acts such as eucharist and baptism are acts of faith, rather than sacraments, that transform me, that do work on me in order to transform me. Giving assent is a work of the mind, but it is my work nonetheless. The sacraments work on me.

    Thus, liturgical practices, prayer books requiring prayer daily, are central to how I do theology, or it seems it ought to be. So perhaps we must look further back at the early fathers, or next door at the local orthodox parish, in order to see how theology is lived, rather than taught.

    Just a few, unconnected, and unrquested thoughts.

    Best wishes

  4. Hi Jeff,

    I absolutely agree with what you say about Thomas. I’m not sure that I would go all the way with what you say about the Protestant Reformation, though I do agree (following Oberman’s thesis as laid out in _The Dawn of the Reformation_ that the PR has many causes (social, political, theological, etc). Luther, Peter Martyr Vermigli (who influenced Calvin, particularly his re-thinking of the Eucharist) viewed the sacraments are more than mere doctrines to which we by faith assent. They too held that the sacraments shape and transform us (Cf. Calvin’s _Institutes_,IV.17.7. Both Calvin and Vermigli drew heavily from the patristic font. (Cf. Billings recent book on Calvin: Calvin, Participation and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ, Oxford Press, 2008). All that said, contemporary expressions of various Protestant-isms, do seem to have gone the way of Zwingli and fit the more rationalist description you lay out. I’m not at all convince that this was the case with Calvin. (Archbishop Rowan Williams had some great thinks to say about Calvin and other Protestants in his Holy Week series on Prayer).

    With all good wishes,

  5. Points well made, and well-taken. Again, things change gradually, and I am thinking rather of the Christianity that emerges a couple of centuries after that of Luther-Calvin, and the free-churchers who find Zwingli as their father. But I am also thinking of the Christianity that is the heir of that Reformed tradition, and the one that I understand Johannes to be addressing.

    Rowan is a very generous scholar. i, on the other hand, tend to dismiss the major reformers, too quickly, I know. But then, I am an amateur languishing in a medical school, and so my categories are awfully limited. Give me a call sometime.


  6. Hey Jeff,

    Aren’t we all amateurs with limited categories? : ) I really do plan to call you soon–things have just been crazy on the homefront. I’ll be driving home from UD tomorrow around 4pm (CST), so I’ll try to give you a call then.

    Best wishes,

    p.s. I like your “political views” status on Facebook : )

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