Kierkegaard-Mug[T]ake away the possibility of offense, as they have done in Christendom, and the whole of Christianity is direct communication; and then Christianity is done away with, for it has become an easy thing, a superficial something which neither wounds nor heals profoundly enough; it is the false invention of human sympathy which forgets the infinite qualitative difference between God and man.

-Søren Kierkegaard, “The Offence,” Training in Christianity

Kierkegaard handles the problem of the “messianic secret” still, to me, better than almost anyone. That secret is the question of why Jesus, after healing people, often tells them to tell no one. Why the low profile?

If you’re an “absolute paradox,” to use Kierkegaard’s words, or a “stumbling-block,” to use Paul’s, then to be understood is often to be misunderstood. A great moral teacher, a great healer, an effective political revolutionary, a miracle-worker he may have been to various extents, but he never seemed to want to be understood as such – at least not primarily. Those roles – especially the first and third – may offend people, but they do not wound or heal in any sort of profound way. So what is the offense?


Is it Christianity’s stringent moral demands, as in the Sermon on the Mount? Any religion might make such demands (and secular humanism might make them, too), so there’s nothing new there. And we see Jesus not ‘wounding’ sinners, but specifically targeting righteous people in his rare bouts of judgmental invective. So it cannot be that. Another candidate might be Jesus’s indirectness itself, that we are not given any formula or method by which to master this new religion.

Think of Nicodemus, in perfect good faith trying simply to understand, and Jesus thwarting him with strange sayings full of paradox and double-meanings. Or when Jesus heals a paralytic – something which would win him instant acclaim and a burgeoning public profile as a platform for his message – but has to muck it up by throwing in a bit of then-heresy beforehand, frustrating some expectations even as he exceeds others. Maybe the offense is this frustrating excess, deflections to the Pharisees’ and others’ questions of him, a refusal to be pinned down. That might get closer to the mark, and whenever Christianity becomes primarily moral – from personal holiness, to social justice, to politics – something of this paradox is lost, something of the offense. A sermon which does not arouse this offense in the preacher, a book which doesn’t arouse it in its author, a politics which doesn’t arouse it in the Christian political class, threatens to become a mere human invention, one which does not wound or heal in the profound way envisioned by Kierkegaard. That’s maybe one reason why Christianity always has a place for the ironic, the playful, the subversive, all modes of indirect communication. Christendom in his time had lost that element of offense, been reduced to a mere matter of human sympathies (whether good or ill) which no longer wound nor heal, and it always threatens to become that whenever its preachers and hearers lose sight of that “infinite qualitative difference” which reveals only while concealing, which contains a “Yes, despite…” to the worst of human nature, and a “No, despite…” even – and as a matter strictly of communication, especially – to our highest aspirations.