Kierkegaard’s God, in the Pandemic

My column in the Christian Courier for November 2020.
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Do you have an author you regularly return for insight and wisdom? A voice you’ve come to trust, with a gift for making sense of our lives, our world, and perhaps also for making sense of God? The Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard has become such an author for me. When I go back to his writings, I am rarely disappointed. This is particularly true in terms of his written prayers.

In this pandemic context, a particular prayer of Kierkegaard has helped me rediscover an important dimension of God’s life and God’s relationship to me. This prayer explores the concept of God’s unchangeable nature. In more theological terms we sometimes refer to this as God’s immutability.

There can be deep assurance in knowing that God doesn’t change. As we pass through waves of the pandemic, or work through relational upheavals, or perceive the instability of the world, there is comfort in the realization that God is a certain and fixed point of reference to whom we may return. We can pile on the metaphors here: God is stable, unwavering, consistent, persistent and faithfully present.

In his prayer, Kierkegaard speaks to God and identifies God in this way: “O thou who are unchangeable, whom nothing changes!” The philosopher goes on to invite us to find our rest and remain at rest in God’s unchangeableness. He also insists that we submit ourselves to the discipline of God’s unchangeableness, and suggests that doing so is for our welfare. In other words, we will find peace and rest in remembering the faithful, consistent presence of God. 

Moved in love

But, as he so often does, Kierkegaard swings this prayerful conversation about God’s nature in an unexpected direction. I suspect that most of us will be grateful he does, since an insistence on God’s immutability and unchangeableness often leaves us feeling a bit cold. They are concepts that leave us with the suspicion that God is out of touch and beyond relationship. Kierkegaard gets us beyond this distant God precisely by introducing motion into God. He writes/prays:

“Thou…art moved, and moved in infinite love, by all things. Even that which we human beings call an insignificant trifle, and pass by unmoved, the need of a sparrow, even this moves Thee; and what we so often scarcely notice, a human sigh, this moves Thee, O Infinite Love! But nothing changes Thee, O Thou who art unchangeable!”

My sighing moves God. The plight of a bird moves God. The grief of those enduring a pandemic moves God. Yes, God is unchangeable. But beautifully unchangeable in the sense that God will always be moved by the brokenness of the world. God will never cease to be moved by the beauty of creation, the needs of his people, or the grief that touches all of our lives.

The conclusion of Kierkegaard’s prayer is somewhat enigmatic: “O thou who in infinite love does submit to be moved, may this our prayer also move Thee to add Thy blessing, in order that there may be wrought such a change in him who prays as to bring him into conformity with Thy unchangeable will, Thou who are unchangeable!”

Enigmatic, yes. But can this be read as anything other than an invitation that we be moved in the same way that God is moved? A prayer that God would allow the pain of the world touch us and the beauty of the world shape us – so that we may live in God’s unchangeable love for that world.

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Unfinished sketch of Kierkegaard by his cousin Niels Christian Kierkegaard, c. 1840
as edited and used in Christianity Today here.

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