Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

KIERKEGAARD: The Knight of Faith (Introduction)

Some readings in the Great Books are fairly easy to understand. You may not agree with the author but at least you know what he’s saying. Other readings are obscure. You’re not even sure what the author is trying to say, much less whether or not you agree with him. Kierkegaard is obscure. If I understand Kierkegaard correctly (and I’m not sure that I do) he’s trying to answer a simple question: what is faith? For some people the answer is simple: the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it. For other people the answer is simple but for a different reason: faith is the result of sloppy thinking, or no thinking at all. Kierkegaard seems to reject both of these views. For him there are no easy answers; but some answers are better than others. He rejects the first answer (the Bible says so) because it’s too easy. He rejects the second (personal thinking) because it’s too hard. Take the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, for example. To say that things turn out ok in the end is a failure to grasp the deeper meaning of the story. As Kierkegaard puts it, that interpretation turns wine into water. We haven’t earned the right to understand the story because we haven’t yet struggled with the awful implications involved. We’ve just glossed over the horrible detail that God has asked Abraham to kill his own son. On the other hand, to believe we can make sense of the story by the power of our own minds is just as bad: If someone deludes himself into thinking he may be moved to have faith by pondering the outcome of that story, he cheats himself and he cheats God out of the first movement of faith; he wants to suck worldly wisdom out of the paradox. The fact is this story is beyond human comprehension. Kierkegaard himself says Abraham I cannot understand; in a certain sense I can learn nothing from him except to be amazed.

So if we can’t just accept the story at face value and we can’t think our way through it, then what are we supposed to do? Apparently we have to live these things out in our own lives. We have to struggle to make sense of things that make no sense; we have to somehow come to an intensely personal understanding of the “absurd” condition of life. Fine. How are we supposed to do that? Here’s where I’m not sure I understand what Kierkegaard’s driving at because of a paradox: somehow we have to accomplish this task in the daily routine of our ordinary lives. The true seeker after faith feels no inclination to become another person…The deeper natures never forget themselves and never become anything other than what they were. Abraham remained Abraham even after his encounter with God. He was just a man like the rest of us. And yet somehow he was different. Kierkegaard says No one was as great as Abraham. Who is able to understand him? Perhaps the only one who can really understand Abraham is a Knight of Faith. The only way to become a Knight of Faith is by making certain “movements.” The first is the movement toward infinity. Spiritually we have to leave this world behind and all that goes with it; truly leave it all behind because Infinite resignation is the last stage before faith. This is difficult but not impossible. In fact, according to Kierkegaard Every person can make the movement of infinite resignation. Then comes the hard part: we have to come back down to earth and live out our lives among ordinary people. This is called “the movement of faith” and few people can do it. Kierkegaard says this movement I cannot make but he admires those who can. And for those who THINK they can do it he says faith begins precisely where thought stops. Faith lies beyond thinking; it’s living.


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