The following is a guest post by Kyle David Bennett. Kyle is a recent PhD graduate from Fuller Seminary in philosophy of religion and philosophical theology. Before moving to NYC last year he taught philosophy at Azusa Pacific University and theology and ethics at Providence Christian College. He now teaches religion at The King’s College. He lives in Hoboken, NJ with his wife, Andrea, and their five-year old daughter, Elliott.
It’s no secret that Søren Kierkegaard wrote his university thesis on the subject of irony. And although he never considered this work part of his “authorship,” the subject found itself embodied in his pseudonyms and mentioned in many of his later writings, including the “religious” ones. He wrestled with irony.
I, too, wrestle with it. Especially when he makes statements like this:
Anyone who does not understand irony at all, who has no ear for its whispering, lacks eo ipso what could be called the absolute beginning of personal life; he lacks what momentarily is indispensable for personal life . . .
It is a rich thought to consider the relation between personhood and irony, and this is precisely what Kierkegaard is doing.
. . . irony’s baptism of purification . . . rescues the soul from having its life in finitude even though it is living energetically and robustly in it . . . In every personal life there is so much that must be thrown out, so many wild shoots to be pruned. Here again irony is an excellent surgeon, because, as stated, when irony has been put under control, its function is extremely important in enabling personal life to gain health and truth.
As he saw it, irony is a “surgeon” that rescues us from our delusions. It wakes us up to our status as human, finite creatures. We recognize, through it, our condition and become aware of our contingency. (A point also made by the late Richard Rorty) To become aware of our condition and status, as he put forward in The Sickness Unto Death, is to move in the direction of becoming persons. Irony can move us toward truth, and consequently God.
Irony limits, finitizes, and circumscribes and thereby yields truth, actuality, content; it disciplines and punishes and thereby yields balance and consistency. Irony is a disciplinarian feared only by those who do not know it but loved by those who do.
Interestingly enough, Kierkegaard goes on to suggest that irony can edify. Not only does it reveal our condition as finite creatures and move us in the direction of rightly relating to God, it can prevent idolatry (“Paging Jean-Luc Marion”) Interesting thought: irony can help us see who we are, who God is, and the proper order of created life. It can discourage us from worshiping ourselves, our condition, and the things around us.
Many of us don’t like or appreciate irony. Some of us even object to it. We associate it with playfulness, trickery, even confusion: irony doesn’t say what needs to be said or hides the truth. But as we see, Kierkegaard thinks otherwise. “Yes,” you might retort, “but irony certainly isn’t honest or sincere or candid.” I disagree. Irony can be all of these or their opposite. Irony doesn’t have to confuse or be deceitful. The opposite of irony is assertion and proclamation, not honesty or sincerity.
And we must be careful not to equate irony with provocation. Provocation is of a different species. It tries to elicit a response, perhaps simply for pleasure. A provoker tries to get a rise out of someone. Wonder, impression, or instruction are often not his goal. Irony is different. The ironist tries to nudge the imagination, not pour cold water on perception. He tries to flick wonder, not upset emotion. Yet he aims for instruction and impression; he reverses things so that one can discover. Provocation points only to itself.
I think that if anyone can embrace irony, and use for “health and truth,” it is a disciple of Jesus. We can appreciate it because we ought to look at our condition and embrace it. Finitude, contingency, limitation — these God called “good.” Irony can be a “surgeon” that rehumanizes us and plunges us back into the condition and world that we constantly try to escape, but God delights in and will one day make new. We are able to tell our reality through reversal because both are controlled. Our security and comfort can handle it. Faith and hope do not fear irony, they enable it.
And remember that the gospel is not without a heavy dose of irony. There is proclamation, but there is also irony.
The God of the universe comes as a human being. He picks a bunch of fishermen to carry out his mission. He teaches them not through didactic lecturing, but parabolic dialogue. He likens the everyday bread and wine they eat to his body and blood as they eat it together. He is life and gives it, but is put to death by those he gives it to. He claims he’s the messiah, but he’s humiliated and tortured like a fool. He defies the natural by coming back to life. Now we die while we wait for him to return.
He does everything we wouldn’t expect. He not only used irony, he is irony incarnate.
As someone deeply in love with the church, I’ve often wondered how irony translates. What place can and should irony have in the church? I’m not talking about pop culture music or literature or the lifestyle of some Brooklyn hipsters. I mean the formal space and time that we believers carve out to worship God week after week. After being a teaching pastor for a number of years, I’ve wondered if irony can be a form of teaching as well as an instrument in teaching.
I don’t know what that looks like, but I wonder. Can irony have a place in liturgy? Can it be a means to preach the gospel to the world or teach the church? Must the evangelist always proclaim? Must the teaching pastor always interpret and assert? Must the Bible study always be exegetical? Must matters concerning Scripture always be told? Can we find ways to use liturgy, Scripture, and preaching to guide our imaginations without asserting or abandoning? Can we discipline preaching to use the “disciplinarian” in our preaching?
After all, what is it that makes us think that proclamation and assertion are less likely to be misinterpreted than irony?