How essential is the notion of “I” to the work of theology? Does theology have any meaning apart from the word “I”? Someone must do (I do) theology or know (I know) theology. Is there any value in the concept of theology if it is not connected to some subject, to some “I”? Does theology even exist apart from its apprehension? Can we really transcend our “I-ness”? Perhaps it is helpful to consider Kierkegaard’s perspective.
Kierkegaard’s work centers around a structure of three stages/spheres (The translation from Danish is inadequate). It is easy to oversimplify these stages, and this is dangerous. But to slightly simplify them, is useful:
In the first stage, one enters the aesthetic. They live for themselves and they raise this aim to a high art.
In the second stage, one lives for the ethical (Kierkegaard was likely referring to some Kantian version). The determinate is the generally accepted (universal) opinion of what is right.
In the third stage (he implies two levels of this stage), one enters the religious. This is characterized by transcendence. This is exemplified by Abraham’s willingness to obey God in the sacrifice of Isaac (a teleological suspension of the ethical).
Here then, comes the dangerous (but hopefully useful) part of my bold simplification. In the first stage, you are living for yourself. In the second you are living for society. In the third, you are living for God.
Kierkegaard’s conclusion is compelling, but is it possible that in the first stage you are living blatantly for yourself, in the second you are living for people’s opinion of yourself, and in the third you are living for God’s approval of yourself? If this true, then your God is still yourself. If this is true, then you are worshipping yourself.
I find it difficult to imagine anyone escaping their own subjectivity. Ayn Rand may have taken it too far. Hedonism may have expressed it poorly, but none of us can escape the “I” in “I exist”. Consider these two words more carefully. To say “I” without “exist” is to imply existence, otherwise it can’t be said. To say “exist” without the “I” (or some substitute subject) implies the “I”, otherwise the word is devoid of meaning (Hegel describes the development of consciousness by suggesting stages. One of the first is at the genesis of life, wherein the “I” wants. This is a form of predication at the most primitive level).
The world is populated by “I exists”. It is hard to transcend this formulation. I am aware of Jonathan Edwards and the Piper interpretation of Edwards. For these thinkers, the highest form of pleasure is glorifying God (again I am simplifying), but this concept easily becomes an abstract confession. The greatest danger to the religious-minded is not sin. It is the abstraction of the object of faith. Abstraction subtracts passion. It takes theology from the present tense, and whether one is a Christian, or not, it is apparent that this can only lead to a clinical confession. Such a state is absolutely vulnerable to that doubt that grows into disillusionment. All of life begins with “I”, and any theology that excludes it loses its present-tense life-dynamic.