Disciplines of the secret: concealing and revealing religious knowledge in Kierkegaardian ethics and fourth-century Christian initiation rites

Malesic, Jonathan Jay, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Ferreira, M, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Rogers, Eugene, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Mathewes, Charles, AS-Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Jost, Walter, AS-English-Eng Lit Ops, University of Virginia

Secrecy, the intentional concealment of knowledge from another, is generally condemned on philosophical grounds, as secrecy interrupts the philosophical drive toward universal knowledge and can be used to limit the free will of another. Secrecy is frequently approved on religious grounds, however, because in religions, the individual's personal experience and relation to the divine is decisive, and because religious groups in their cultic lives place strong emphasis on the distinctive identity of the individual and the group. This dissertation demonstrates how secrecy is essential to the Christian ethics of S0ren Kierkegaard and the rites of Christian initiation practiced by three major fourth century bishops: Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose of Milan, and Augustine of Hippo. Specifically, while secrecy's negative impact in Christian ethics and initiation must be mitigated as much as possible, the role secrecy plays is essentially a positive one, and indeed, is often essential to fulfilling ethical and liturgical aims. Despite the many obvious differences between Kierkegaard and the fourth-century bishops, these sources put secrecy to strikingly similar use in their ethics and liturgy, respectively. Kierkegaard describes the God-relationship as a secret because it is incommunicable, and this secret eventuates in the need to conceal one's agency when enacting works of love, the "greatest" of which is to initiate another into the God-relationship that enables one to love. The fourth-century bishops see the sacramental experience as an incommunicable secret that requires bishops to prevent the unbaptized from being exposed to this experience. In both cases, the authors advocate secrecy in order to ensure the authenticity of something distinctively Christian. For Kierkegaard, keeping "the secret of faith" protects the faith from being distorted by worldly philosophy, and concealing one's agency protects both the agent and the beneficiary from slipping into an economy of exchange. For the fourth-century bishops, secrecy in initiation serves to impart and preserve a distinctive Christian identity among those seeking initiation. The dissertation concludes by contrasting the twentieth-century Catholic Church's ineffective reintroduction of secrecy into its rite of initiation with a potentially important proposal from Dietrich Bonhoeffer regarding the positive role secrecy can play in Christian ethical life.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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