The Crowd Is Untruth

Article by   July 2010
The great Danish theologian and philosopher, Sǿren Kierkegaard, is probably best known in Christian circles for his haunting reflections upon God's command to Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac.  While I am guessing many of us would question the theology that underlies some of Kierkegaard's exegesis of the passage, I think there are few Christian writers or preachers who have so ably captured the terror and confusion that must have filled Abraham's mind as he made the lonely journey to the place of sacrifice.

Kierkegaard is not easy to read at the best of times; and some of his longer works are, to put it very bluntly, surely among the most tedious masterpieces ever penned.  Who, I wonder, except for the most infatuated fan, has ever ploughed through all of the stages on life's way recounted in the book of the same name?   Further, his appropriation by later existentialist philosophy has had the twofold effect of making him a rather suspect character among the ranks of the orthodox, an irrelevance to philosophers trained in Anglo-American circles, and a quaint figure of yesteryear to the vanguard of the latest continental philosophical ideas.   Indeed, I remember as a young Christian finding his journals particularly interesting; and then reading Francis Schaeffer and realizing that SK should really be placed in the `debit' column; I myself was thus one of those whom James Barr characterized as not having to think because Schaeffer had done my thinking for me.

Yet, over the years, I have returned to SK again and again, and not just because I found a compulsive need to think for myself and to resist letting Schaeffer - or any of the other evangelical gurus -- do it for me.  Partly the pleasure of reading SK arises from the fact that his one-liners are virtually without peer.  Indeed, if you are as bone-idle as I am, you have to love any man who can come up with a statement such as `Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good.'  And I even a possess a mug with the caption, `The truth shall set ye free; but first it shall make ye miserable.'  If ever there was a sentiment of which a northern European, living in the oversized Disneyworld that is the U.S.A., needed to keep reminding himself, it is surely that one.  Indeed, among the few pleasures left to me now that my children are teenagers and regard me with withering disdain, is that of being a pessimist trapped in a nation of chirpy optimists, are the bleak landscapes of SK's essay and the films of Ingmar Bergman. I need my misery.

But there are other reasons for reading SK, perhaps most of all his unnerving ability to nail aspects of society that have actually become more significant since his death rather than less.  Here, it is some of his shorter, lesser known essays that contain some of his most brilliant and penetrating insights.  One of them in particular, `The Crowd is Untruth,' is both profound and prophetic.  In it, he captures brilliantly both the power of the anonymity of the crowd, where personal responsibility, accountability and identity is surrendered to the larger group; and pinpoints that which became all too tragically true in the subsequent century, the ease with which a talented person can manipulate a crowd into doing the most terrible things.  Crowds can make otherwise perfectly sane people do otherwise inexplicable things: run down the road with traffic cones on their heads, applaud at the end of Justin Bieber concerts, and as we now know, herd others into gas chambers and onto killing fields.

Demagoguery is, of course, the bane of politics; but it is also much to be feared in the church. I have often mentioned my dislike of the American evangelical tendency to exalt the great conference speaker and to allow him to do the thinking; such is surely the kind of secularization that Paul fears has invaded the church in Corinth, where crowd pleasing aesthetics trump critical thinking.  The danger in the church, therefore, is not that perfectly ordinary and decent people will construct gas chambers and usher their neighbours off to them; rather, it is the surrender of their God-given intellects to those who use the clichés, the idioms, and the buzzwords of the wider culture to herd them along a path which the leader chooses.  Fear of the leader, fear of the pack, fear of not belonging, can make people do strange things.

Even more significant for Christians today, I suspect, are the peddlers of authenticity that now swarm around the web.  They are easy enough to spot: the slightly out of focus webpage photo, with eyes averted from the camera, serious, pensive expression, soul patch, glasses in a style first sported in the seventies by existentialist Swedish hairdressers called Sven, perhaps torn jeans, autumnal lighting, maybe a few leaves scattered on the ground.  And, above all, constant, grating references to `authenticity.' Given the clichéd manner in which it is relentlessly expressed, such `authenticity' is, it seems, a somewhat synthetic product:  whatever individuality of the blogmeister might otherwise possess is often simply obliterated by the mass-produced idiomatic pseudo-cool of the cutting-edge crowd through which `authenticity' is expressed.  It's a crowd pleasing product which, surprise surprise, too often merely reflects the predilections of the crowd. Of course, not a few of these kind of authentocrats quote Kierkegaard. A supreme ironist himself, SK would no doubt have appreciated the irony of Kierkegaard chic in the crowd of untruth and the fact that claims to authenticity are always in this present age sure signs that one is dealing with a phony.  And yes, before anyone shouts `Physician, heal thyself!' he would probably also have been amused, in a horrified sort of way, by the irony of appearing on a mug, a commodity for the mass consumer market.

Of course, the peddlers of mass produced authenticity are soft targets, as easy to spot as their navelocentric web musings and pictures are easy to mock. But the crowd mentality also poses a problem for the Protestant Christian without the soul patch, Sven glasses, and camera with blurred vision.  The Reformed world has its dark suits, its hall of fame, and its clichéd patois of pieties as well.  We may talk about truth rather than authenticity - and rightly so - but when belief in that truth becomes merely a function of being part of the crowd, then we too have failed to be truthful individuals.

There is a real tension here. Our faith demands only one mediator, and we as individuals are to put our trust in him; but we are also part of a corporate, communal entity; this communal dimension of Christianity finds expression in a common authority, that of the Bible, and a common language - that of the creeds, of the confessions, and indded of our own distinctive traditions, by which we communicate with each other and by which we express our corporate identity.  Thus we are caught always between the need to trust directly in Christ as individuals and yet to give due weight to our identity as part of the larger body.  The question to ask is: is this a tension we live with as we should, or is it one which is too often resolved on one side or the other?  Given the current reaction in Christian circles against individualism variously defined, and a renewed emphasis on community, it is worth asking if the tension is not in danger of resolution in favour of the corporate and at the expense of the individual.

Take, for example, our faith.  How much do we truly believe for ourselves and how much do we believe because some great figure, some leader in our chosen community, believes?  Or because we just happen to belong to a church where everybody believes the same?   In the American world of celebrity cults and megachurches, even in the Reformed world, this is an acutely pointed and relevant question. Indeed, one does not have to be in a megachurch to see the temptation to sit back and just belong through the formalities of public worship and the vicarious belief of the church as body. But if you take a man and put him on a desert island, or in a place where nobody believes the same things, what will happen to his faith?  Will it survive?  Was it more than a mere public performance or a function of belonging to a particular community?   Stripped of its context, it will stand naked, and appear as it really is.   To put it in a way of which Luther would have approved, only the one who has truly come to the point of despair in himself as an individual can then truly come to faith in the saviour; for he cannot have another to believe on his behalf; the truth he sees is not something `out there' or reported to him by another; it necessarily involves his very being and identity.  One must first believe as an individual before one can belong to the community.

The is the problem of American Christendom.  Now, all of the palaver about the `end of Christendom' should not fool us into thinking that a form of Christendom does not still exist.   Anywhere where Christianity has become a formality, there is Christendom; anywhere where the belief of the group substitutes for the belief of the individual, there is Christendom; anywhere the rules of the outward game can be learned, executed with panache, and substituted for the attitude of the heart, there is Christendom.  And, lest we forget, the form of that formality can be orthodoxy, just as easily as it can be heterodoxy; it can be rooted in the Westminster Standards just as easily as in the tweets of the latest aspiring authentocrat; it can be found in traditional worship styles as much as in the spontaneity of the new.  And, ironically, American individualism feeds directly into this negation of the individual: the individual as consumer, as dilettante, thrives in a world of large, anonymous churches, churches which happily continue week by week with only 10% of the people engaged in giving of time and money; there are no demands made on the 90% of individuals who make up the corporate entity precisely because the body is essentially self-perpetuating.  The crowd is truly untruth at that point.

This tension in orthodox Christianity, between being necessarily part of a whole and an individual accountable to God, is something with which all Christians must wrestle.  To resolve it one way or the other would be to lose something crucial, for the Christian faith demands we reject both solipsistic piety and also any notion of the crowd as our mediator. The one cuts us off from the body; the other makes us mere passengers who never engage God for ourselves. 

There are no easy answers to this; that's what makes it such an interesting and irresolvable tension.  But, as it stands, the church in America seems to have the worst of both worlds: an individualism which does not lead to true individual existence as a Christian, one where I truly take responsibility for myself before God but allow others to do it for me; and which therefore plunges inexorably towards the anonymity of the megachurch and the laziness of the pew-sitting Sunday passenger.   It is not simply the crowd which is untruth at that point.  It is the church as well.

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