Soren Kierkegaard was a 19th century Danish philosopher. He is known as one of the leading existentialists – a school of thought that rejected rationalism and romanticism. He is known for other things as well, including his critique of the Danish state church of his day; he was critical of it because, he said, many were Christians in name only.
On this topic Kierkegaard wrote a piece called “Practice in Christianity” with a subtitle being “A Contribution to the Introduction of Christianity into Christendom.” There’s more to be said about this theme and essay, and I don’t agree with it all, but one part is worth mentioning here. The following statements stuck with me and made me think about what it means to follow Christ. Kierkegaard starts with a prayer:
“Lord Jesus Christ, you did not come into the world to be served and thus not to be admired either…. You yourself were the way and the life – and you have asked only for imitators. If we have dozed off into this infatuation, wake us up, rescue us from this error of wanting to admire or adoringly admire you instead of wanting to follow you and be like you.”
In Kierkegaard’s view, many in the Danish church admired Christ from a distance, but never personally followed him. He goes on to talk about how the preaching of his day reflected this fact by keeping Christ distant, as an object to be admired – sort of like a painting. Later he writes,
“…[Christ] never says that he asks for admirers, adoring admirers, adherents; and when he uses the expression ‘follower’ he always explains it in such a way that one perceives that ‘imitators’ is to be meant by it, that it is not adherents of a teaching but imitators of a life….”
“What then, is the difference between an admirer and an imitator? An imitator is or strives to be what he admires, and an admirer keeps himself personally detached, consciously or unconsciously does not discover that what is admired involves a claim upon him, to be or at least strive to be what is admired.”
Of course Jesus is more than an example – he’s also the Messiah, Son of God, the Savior of sinners. But I appreciate how Kierkegaard says that there is a difference between admiring Jesus and following him. Admiring is detached viewing that doesn’t really imply a way of life: I admire a beautiful lake, a diving catch down the right field line, an old Plymouth Barracuda. But admiring these things doesn’t have much to do with the way I live. Imitating, however is personal and does involve my whole life: take up a cross, deny self, and follow Jesus by trusting in, obeying, and imitating him. To echo Kierkegaard’s prayer above,
“Lord…wake us up, rescue us from this error of wanting to admire or adoringly admire you instead of wanting to follow you and be like you.”
The above quotes are found in The Essential Kierkegaard, ed. Howard Hong and Edna Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 373ff.