Reflection by Pastor Shawn:
In his book “Philosophical Fragments”, Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard begins by comparing two stories about how we learn truth. The first story is what Socrates would tell us from his viewpoint in idealism. The second story is the Christian one, and by contrasting these two stories he wants show the incompatibility between the two. The first story goes something like this: truth is already in each one of us. We just need to recall it. Something outside the person—say, a teacher—can assist in the remembering process, but nothing external can truly teach a person. A teacher serves as the occasion to help the person remember by asking probing questions—a bit like a midwife. So when we ask about our eternal happiness, and how we might achieve it, the answers are already in us. The teacher is ultimately unimportant for our eternal happiness: at best, Socrates is just the occasion and nothing more. Further, the moment in which we remember is insignificant because we discover that we already knew the truth from eternity. Indeed, how can one even seek the truth, for if one has it already then seeking and finding are little more than illusions, but if one does not already have it then how can one know what to look for, or that one even needs to look at all?
The second story—the Christian one—goes much differently. Truth is not something within a person, but is something that comes from outside. Unlike in idealism, the moment we learn the truth makes all the difference in the world. Before the truth comes, a person is outside of it: she is untruth. The teacher must bring the truth to the learner, but since the learner is untruth, the teacher must also provide the condition for understanding it. It is a person’s own fault that she lacks the condition and there is nothing she can do on her own to get it. This lack of the condition can be called sin. No human can give the condition to another person—only God can do that. The condition can be called faith. The teacher is God himself, who gives the condition and gives the truth—he is a saviour, for he saves the learner from sin; he is a deliverer, for he delivers the person from imprisonment; he is a reconciler, for he takes away the wrath and guilt. Encountering a teacher like this will be unforgettable. The moment in which a person receives the condition and the truth is completely unique and decisive—it is a moment that is filled with the eternal. What is taught by the teacher? God’s presence is essential to the teaching—in fact, it is the teaching. Unlike Socrates, the person of Jesus, as the teacher, is of the utmost importance. The moment is God revealing himself, which he does entirely out of love for the learner. God as the loving teacher must stoop down to the learner’s level and become like the learner (the incarnation). In the moment, the learner becomes a new person—this can be called conversion. Yet turning away from an old state to a new one requires sorrow—this can be called repentance. Since a new person has come from the old, we can speak of rebirth.
Since we all have a life, and since what happens in our existence is importance to us, there is no purely objective way to decide between the two stories. The question is at issue with both stories is, What is the relation of the individual to the truth? We all have a personal stake in the answer and the choice cannot even be considered apart from what it would mean for each of us. Socrates’ story and those like it require us to surrender the idea that our temporal existence matters, that we make choices that are real, and that things could genuinely have been otherwise. The Christian story, however, makes our existence—especially the moment—truly important.