Advent and ethics: Kierkegaard, N.T. Wright, and an age-old question
November 30, 2022
I once had the unique pleasure of attending an evening lecture by N.T. Wright (then Anglican Bishop of Durham) titled “Learning the Language of Life: New Creation and Christian Virtue.” The full lecture is actually available on iTunes. Essentially, Wright argued for an eschatologically conditioned appropriation of virtue ethics. He encapsulated this viewpoint in one short definition, “Virtue is what happens when wise and courageous choices have become second nature.”
The eschatological dimension is Wright’s assertion that these virtuous actions and practices do not usher in the kingdom of God, but they do anticipate the kingdom. Like people who learn a second language, we begin to learn now what we will only know fully at a later point, in the case of God’s kingdom, in the new heaven and earth established and gifted by God.
However, all of this, as interesting as it was, was not nearly as memorable as what happened in the Q&A session that followed. A queue formed at the microphone. One young man asked the first question. Earnest and nervous, when he finally got to the microphone, he raced through a very long question, most of which we didn’t understand at all because of the rapidity of the speech, but all of us caught the ending, “How does this relate to Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical?”
To which N.T. Wright gracefully responded, “The what?”
To which the student repeated his question again.
To which N.T. Wright responded, “I don’t think I understand the question.”
In the meantime, I was rifling through my mental database, trying to recollect where I had heard that phrase before. “The teleological suspension of the ethical.” It definitely felt like it was an ethical concept of Kierkegaard, and I should have been familiar with it. But I wasn’t. Or perhaps I had at one time been familiar with it and then promptly forgot.
I was not the only attendee unfamiliar with the concept. It became a kind of standing joke for the rest of the week among some friends: “What does that have to do with Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical?”
And here is my question. Is this a phrase or concept with which you, dear reader, are familiar? If so, kudos. If not, another question. Given that Kierkegaard is one of our premier ethicists (although the way he did ethics was, in my understanding, nested within a larger framework that in some ways transcends ethics traditionally construed) ought it be on a short list of something that is simply, in the memorable title of Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, part of our “necessary memories from history and the arts?”
I felt perhaps I should do a bit of research into this concept in Kierkegaard’s thought. It turns out it appears in a little book he wrote, and which I read in seminary, titled “Fear and Trembling.” I admit I did not understand the book very well. I did find the section on Abraham and Isaac (in which the concept of the teleological suspension of the ethical is first raised) disturbing and enlightening. I think Kierkegaard was the first theologian I had read who acknowledged the real horror of that story, staring it straight in the face and not looking away, and then wrestling with it precisely in its horror.
So what, you might ask, does all of this have to do with Advent and ethics? Well, each November, prior to the Advent season, the lectionary turns to texts late in the Jesus story, those final sermons and actions of Christ immediately before his turn to Jerusalem and the cross. They are some of the more difficult texts, proclaimed in congregational life right around the time we are also giving thanks and preparing for the holidays. It requires some kind of teleological suspension of the ethical (the ethical here defined in Kierkegaard’s terms as the “prevailing social norms,” or what Hegel called “ethical order” or Sittlichkeit) to even give attention to them in preaching and teaching at a time when the culture is calling for a very different word.
It probably helps to remember that for Kierkegaard ethics is only one stage in a process. Human beings start at the level of the aesthetic, the uncommitted and drifting life, then make a first commitment, to the ethical. At this level they make a commitment to the good of the community and uphold the social norms of that community. But this ethics is transcended by an even higher place, that of religious faith. The problem with the ethical in this first sense is that definitions of good and evil have to do with prevailing social norms rather than ethics wholly and utterly dependent on God.
Inspired by a question I heard a young student ask years ago at an N.T. Wright lecture, a conversation between Wright’s eschatology and Kierkegaard’s teleology, framed in ethical terms, tears apart and rebuilds how I would typically approach Advent gospel readings.
The church year itself is a suspension of social norms, because the new year falls prior to Advent, a whole four to five weeks before the calendar new year. The lectionary presents readings on the second coming of Christ, texts about waiting and sacrifice and the end of the world, when the world itself is proclaiming a gentle, meek, and mild baby already arrived and swaddled in snow and downy cloth.
No wonder, then, that those sensitive to the liturgical calendar find themselves at particular odds with the cultural calendar this time of the year. We follow a calendar that attempts to put God at the center of how we order time rather than the seasons or the markets or the culture.
Although, to be honest, the liturgical calendar can and does become its own prevailing social norm, and in this sense contests between the liturgical calendar and the cultural calendar are misplaced, because it is simply a debate between two rival ethics rather than an actual awareness on the part of the Christian of God’s call to the teleological suspension of the ethical.
There is one more reason to attend to Kierkegaard’s dictum, and that is because during Advent, our attention is drawn to the last things—the end—in unique ways, and his unique way of thinking about teleological ethics can inform our speech. The overly simplistic definition of teleological ethics I carry around in my back pocket as useful but problematic shorthand is “the ends justify the means.” However, Kierkegaard’s dictum reminds us that teleology is ever more complicated than that, and worth inquiring into. The ends justify something, yes, but only because of what the end is. And only because in the end is the beginning and the middle already proleptically realized. Or we might say that the end is coming to us rather than the other way around.
Which brings us back around to N.T. Wright’s eschatology. In his lecture, he said, “Our efforts don’t usher in God’s reign — ‘God’s new age remains God’s gift’ — but we can anticipate this future reality by beginning to learn the language of God’s Kingdom that we will one day speak for eternity.” Or to put that back in the language of teleology, the ends do justify the means, but precisely because the end actively shapes the means we employ because we live in anticipation of the end.
At least in my reading, such a conversation between Kierkegaard’s teleology and Wright’s eschatology, framed in ethical terms, tears apart and rebuilds how I would typically approach a text like the gospel for the first Sunday in Advent.[i] Here it is in full:
“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake — for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:24–37)
The conversation between Kierkegaard and Wright that I have been trying to evoke in this essay alerts me to a number of key items in this text. First, the Jesus proclaimed in this text is not the meek and mild baby Jesus, but the Jesus as judge, Jesus as Lord of heaven and earth. Any domestication of this text would literally be to co-opt it in service to the prevailing social norms. However, that much is already often spoken or at least insinuated in our early Advent preaching and teaching. The point, however, in Kierkegaardian terms, would be to stare the fact straight in the face and live with it in fear and trembling.
Do we tremble before this baby? Do we anticipate, as the companion Isaiah text indicates, praying these words in the presence of this coming Christ, “There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity”? (Isaiah 64:7) Are there ways to evoke the existential depth of this absence and hiding, to the point that we as Advent people actually are invited by God to move beyond the ethical into a religious stance before this Child-Judge-God?
Second, the gospel refrain “Keep awake” takes on all kinds of new overtones when sung in chorus with either Wright’s definition of virtue ethics or Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical. I really do not know whether Wright and Kierkegaard themselves agree that their approaches to theological ethics are reconcilable in quite the way I am proposing here, but I find both of them useful as imaginative heuristics, challenges to our existing social imaginaries, and so fruitful.
If you do not know when the time will come, but you do know that it will come, you live in anticipation of that time. It is both a rehearsal, an improv session where wise and courageous choices become second nature, and it is the suspension of the ethical (following of customary social mores) in light of the telos.
I might add that the Wright option is slightly easier to accomplish and imagine, which may give some indication as to why Wright has become a highly successful published author and bishop during his lifetime, while Kierkegaard lived most of his earthly life in ignominy. No one, including Kierkegaard, has implied that the teleological suspension of the ethical will be easy. Giving up social mores never is. But then Isaiah himself was not unfamiliar with the articulation of existential claims similar to Kierkegaard’s, including this one, “All our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth” (Isaiah 64:6).
I have no idea if that young student in the queue at the lecture will get to read this, but it is, I hope, an honest and long-overdue response to his question.
Rev. Clint Schnekloth is pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, a progressive church in the South. He is the founder of Canopy NWA (a refugee resettlement agency) and Queer Camp, and is the author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era. He blogs at Substack.