Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, April 07, 2005

Kierkegaard: The Knight of Faith


Blogger SMJ said...

After many years of childlessness, Abraham asks God to bless him with a male heir. This prayer is granted and Sarah finally gives birth to Isaac, who becomes the joy of their life.
But, one day, God speaks to Abraham and makes a terrible request—to sacrifice his only son as a testament of his faith. No reason is ever given for this test. God is not angry or disappointed with Abraham. He simply says what he wants done, and it is up to Abraham to do it. Several questions immediately arise regarding this biblical story. Why does God make this request? Why does Abraham obey? What are we to make of it?

The stories of the Old Testament are essentially Jewish recollections of their own history. And the central theme of these stories always concerns their relationship to God, and their attempts, and occasional failures, to be a faithful people.

With the story of Abraham, who is the father of the Jewish people, we have to ask what is the nature of faith? Can it be understood with the mind, such as the idea of justice; or is it some mysterious quality whose presence can only be felt within the human heart? Kierkegaard believes that Abraham and his unswerving devotion to his Creator is the perfect model for religious faith. When called upon to sacrifice Isaac, his only son, Abraham neither complains nor resists the will of God. His obedience is not motivated by any hope for reward, but from a deeply held conviction that he owes everything to God—his life, his possessions, his family, the clothes on his back, and the air he breathes. Hence, nothing that God commands can possibly be refused.

And yet, faith is more than obedience alone. Because God is all powerful, it should not surprise us that Abraham obeys. For what choice does he really have? God gives life and he takes it away, according to his will. When man's desire and God's will collide, man must give way. Being faithful to God means that man's desire must harmonize with that of his Creator. And so, what faith requires is not just obedience, but unquestioning obedience. An obedience that aligns itself with the will of God. And this obedience occurs not from a fear of punishment, but from a sense of the highest moral obligation. The obligation to serve God.

The "knight of faith" recollects everything, all the pain and misery of life, and in this recollection becomes reconciled to existence. Reconciliation, for Kierkegaard, is the act of "infinite resignation, " and if a man is willing to renounce everything, he will find himself capable of this movement, which is essentially a movement from desire to renunciation. No man demonstrates this better than Abraham.

Abraham is forced to choose between two desperate paths: the path of renunciation, through sacrificing his son, a child for whom Abraham and Sarah had waited all their lives; or the path of desire (happiness), through disobeying God, to whom Abraham owes everything. Of course, this is not just Abraham's happiness at stake. This is the destiny of the Jewish people, the progeny of Abraham that was promised by God to inherit Canaan. If Abraham breaks faith with God, he might destroy even the possibility of any future descendants. In a very real sense, one could say that the fate of the chosen people, if not all mankind, would be decided by Abraham's response. Scripture remains silent on what Abraham thought of this cruel mandate. But Kierkegaard poses four scenarios to show how this event might unfold.

In the first scenario, after receiving God's command to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham brings his son to Mount Moriah, and informs him of his fate, whereupon Isaac begs his father to spare his life. Abraham tells his son that he is not his father, but an idolater, and that God does not require his life, for it is Abraham, himself, who desires it. Abraham's cruelty results in Isaac crying out to God, his spiritual Father, to save him, since his earthly father will not. In this scenario, Isaac's faith in God is strengthened at the cost of his love for Abraham.

The postscript to this scenario informs us that when a child must be weaned. the mother's breast must be "less inviting." Thus, as Isaac must return to God, he is "weaned," so to speak, from his earthly parents.

In the second scenario, Abraham does as he is instructed by God. He takes Isaac upon the mountain, binds him, and prepares for the ritual slaughter; only then does he discover the ram which God has provided to spare Isaac. Afterwards, Isaac lives on as he did before, "but Abraham's eyes were darkened and he saw joy no more." Here, God has tested Abraham and the test is passed, but Abraham is forever changed. He can no more enjoy the life which God has given him. Faith has taken its toll.

The postscript says a child is weaned when the mother withdraws her breast. When the breast is removed, the child loses the mother. Yet the child is fortunate to be weaned. How much worse to lose the mother while still dependent upon her.

With the Third scenario, Abraham obeys God, he brings Isaac to Mount Moriah. But afterwards, though he is not forced to kill Isaac, he asks for God's forgiveness. His willingness to sacrifice his son is a sin, a failure in his duty as a father. For how could he love Isaac and be willing to murder him? Could his willingness to serve God be a sin? For Abraham, either choice is reprehensible. And how could this sin ever be forgiven?

Here, the postscript says the mother and child grieve when the child is weaned, for never again will they be as close as they once were. But more fortunate is the mother who keeps the child close, and yet does not grieve more when separated.

In the final scenario, Isaac sees that Abraham despairs at what he must do; nevertheless, his father draws the knife. When Isaac returns home, his faith has left him

Kierkegaard says, "when the child is to be weaned, the mother has stronger sustenance at hand so that the child does not perish. How fortunate the one who has this stronger sustenance at hand." In this scenario, the stronger sustenance of faith is lost to Isaac. To be weaned from one's mother, does not always ensure a happy future. Here, Isaac discovers that Abraham's love for God is greater than his love for his own son. The moment when the child learns that he no longer has his parent's love (or must share the parent's love with someone else), awakens in the child a profound distrust of the world around him. If the child lacks stronger sustenance (faith in God), then distrust may turn to resentment or despair.

These are some of the possible readings of the biblical story concerning Abraham and Isaac. The common thread which runs through them all is that obedience to God exacts a price. This price is unavoidable and sometimes unbearable. Faith requires more than obedience, it also demands trust. The trust that Abraham places in God can only come from a willing servant of God. Obedience can always be compelled, especially by an omnipotent Creator, but trust is a free component of love, a shared bond which unites two beings, a bond which is fragile and must be willed into existence. If trust is violated, the bond is severed. And for Abraham, a man without God is like a blind camel wandering alone in the desert.

For Kierkegaard, the mystery of Abraham cannot be fathomed. Like Job, his faith is tested by God, and he is devastated by the price he is called to pay. His faith lies beyond comprehension, in a realm where reason cannot follow. And yet, we struggle to grasp the meaning of this test, why God would demand such proof of our love. Does the test itself endanger the very faith it is meant to measure? "Would it not be best to stop with faith, and is it not shocking that everyone wants to go further."

Surely, it is no coincidence that after each version of Abraham's "test," Kierkegaard comments on the need for the mother to wean the child, even though doing so means the child will leave the mother. In a larger sense, all of humanity must "wean" itself from one another, and from the world it inhabits, to bond with its Creator. Faith is not just the recognition of this act, it is the willful progress from one stage of being to another. But faith of this magnitude is disturbing. It alarms those of us who prefer to inhabit a rational universe.

People of faith who claim to talk directly with God do so in full knowledge of how abnormal it sounds to those without faith. Because faith and love can neither be calibrated nor quantified, it eludes rational proof. Even among the faithful, it would be almost unthinkable today to kill one's child to demonstrate one's faith in God. Is it possible, or even desirable, to have that kind of trust in a supernatural being? What, in the end, really separates an absolute faith from a case of insanity? Who is to judge? These problems, as Kierkegaard suggests, cannot be resolved by any theological calculus. Faith and reason may co-exist in modern society, but they inhabit different spheres of influence. In the end, our heart will either carry us forward to what Coleridge called "the willing suspension of disbelief," or it will not. For the movement of faith is precisely the soul willing itself into submission, a submission not simply to God, but to all of creation.

4/07/2005 1:11 PM  
Blogger Pertinacious Papist said...

Steve, it was great meeting you at Wildacres, and I'm delighted to learn about this site from our mutual friend, Ron Perry. You've done some impressive work here.

I have always enjoyed Kierkegaard, even if, with Ralph McInerny and a number of other critics, I would have to regard him as a "corrective" rather than a "norm." His bifurcation of the realm of faith from reason, while understandable given his definitions, is probably too radical to allow for more than an ultimately irrational faith.

Yet I acknowledge there are profound complexities in how one must read K, given his multiplicity of perspectives and profound sense of irony that pervades his work. Perhaps one thing I like about him is the "indirectness" with which he approaches religious questions, which may be the only way such things can be meaningfully approached today, given the ambivalence of our post-modern temper. Like Pascal, he has a way of leading you into a discussion about seemingly mundane things -- like friendship and marriage -- that one can't help caring deeply about, and then, almost too late, leaving you with the dawning realization that this is about God as well, and he's got you by the balls.

Nice post.

-- Phil B.

6/09/2005 8:48 AM  

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