Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, December 15, 2012

KIERKEGAARD: The Knight of Faith (Part 2)

The first part of The Knight of Faith uses the story of Abraham and Isaac to set the stage.  Kierkegaard wants the reader to ponder that story as a way of entering into a different world from the one we live in now.  He wants to get us thinking about what the world must have seemed like to Abraham.  In the second part Kierkegaard gets down to business.  Think about what the world is like now.  Is it different?  Kierkegaard comes right out with his opinion: Abraham I cannot understand; in a certain sense I can learn nothing from him except to be amazed.  Someone may try to explain to Kierkegaard that it’s actually a theological tool designed to increase our faith.  God didn’t expect Abraham to really go through with it.  God just wanted to test Abraham’s faith.   Kierkegaard isn’t satisfied with that interpretation.  In fact, he believes almost the opposite: If someone deludes himself into thinking he may be moved to have faith by pondering the outcome of that story he cheats himself and cheats God out of the first movement of faith.  He wants to suck worldly wisdom out of that paradox.  People may think they’re explaining the ways of God to man but they’re really just spinning the story to suck worldly wisdom from it.  And Kierkegaard isn’t after worldly wisdom.  He wants to push beyond worldly wisdom into the infinite spaces of faith.  How do we do that?  First we have to backtrack and make sure we even believe that faith is possible.  Why do we have to backtrack first?  Because our generation does not stop with faith; does not stop with the miracle of faith, turning water into wine.  It goes further and turns wine into water.  The modern world runs on the fuel of rational thought, science and technology.  We want to know how and why the world works the way it does.  Plus we want logical explanations.  So Kierkegaard wants us to stop and consider: Would it not be best to stop with faith and is it not shocking that everyone wants to go further?  We’re so drenched in science and technology and logic that it takes a superhuman effort to see life any other way.  But it is possible for some people.  This is what Kierkegaard calls the Knight of Faith (though he openly admits that he’s not one himself).  He says I presumably can describe the movements of faith but I cannot make them.  So the best we can do is to get Kierkegaard’s second-hand description of this mysterious Knight of Faith: I may very well imagine him.  Here he is.  And our first reaction would probably be something like Kierkegaard’s own reaction: “Good Lord.  Is this the man; is this really the one?  He looks like a government bureaucrat!”  We expected someone a little more, you know, spiritual looking.  Like one of those paintings of Jesus with a halo or something.  But no, this Knight of Faith is just a very ordinary looking fellow; kind of bland even.  Kierkegaard points out that a true Knight of Faith is solid all the way through.  He belongs entirely to the world.  If one did not know him it would be impossible to distinguish him from the rest of the crowd.  How can this be?  We thought the whole point was to get away from this workaday world and go hang out in the vast spiritual spaces of infinity.  That’s why most of us (Kierkegaard included) aren’t Knights of Faith.  The Knight of Faith does not lack the courage to attempt and to risk everything.  He risks everything on the wager that true spiritual enlightenment must be found here, in this world, in the midst of ordinary everyday life.  That's why he seems so ordinary.  He attends to his job.  He goes to church.  In the afternoon he takes a walk in the woods.  In the evening he smokes his pipe.  What a letdown; and yet the only path to faith is going through this smudgy world.  We must give up daydreams and learn to live on terms not of our own making.  Kierkegaard puts it this way: By my own strength I can give up the princess but by my own strength I cannot get her back again…  Or, in other words, Abraham can give up Isaac but he cannot get him back again by his own strength.  That takes faith. 

Saturday, December 08, 2012

KIERKEGAARD: The Knight of Faith (Exordium)

One of the most troubling passages in Western literature comes in the book of Genesis: And God tempted Abraham and said unto him, Take Isaac, Thine only son, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering...  If this passage doesn’t particularly trouble us it’s only because we already know the ending of the story.  Things turn out ok in the end and Abraham sacrifices a ram instead of his only son.  This interpretation didn’t satisfy the Danish writer Soren Kierkegaard.  He knew the ending of the story too.  But Abraham didn’t know things would turn out ok and it took him three days to travel with Isaac to Mt. Moriah.  What was going on in Abraham’s mind during those three days?  And even more troubling, Kierkegaard saw no reason why the same thing might not have taken place on a barren heath in Denmark.  In other words, most readers want to treat this story as a version of “long ago and far away” but that turns the whole thing into a sort of childish fairy tale.  It’s not.  Kierkegaard explains why this is not a story for children: When the child became older he read the same story with even greater admiration, for life had separated what was united in the pious simplicity of the child. The older he became, the more frequently his mind reverted to that story, his enthusiasm became greater and greater, and yet he was less and less able to understand the story…  We may marvel at this story when we read it with the pious simplicity of the child.  But that doesn’t mean we understand it.  In fact, the more we think about it we become less and less able to understand the story.  What makes this such a disturbing story for Western readers is the possibility that it may not be understandable through rational analysis.  Westerners generally try to think their way through problems.  In Crito Plato patiently explains the reasons he would rather face death than break the laws of Athens.  In Wealth of Nations Adam Smith explains the reasons that some nations are rich and others are poor.  In his Politics Aristotle says mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good.  We don’t just act randomly.  We look for reasons why we should obey the law or acquire wealth or seek out those things which we think are good for us.  That’s because we’re rational creatures.  Our default mode is to think things through and then act on our thoughts.  What Kierkegaard is asking us to do is set aside our rational mode and put ourselves in Abraham’s shoes.  Try to see things as Abraham saw them.  Instead of looking through the eyes of a modern Western rationalist, try looking through the eyes of an ancient Near Eastern man of faith.  What would we see then?  Both views can look at the same text: Take Isaac, Thine only son, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering…  To a rational mind this makes no sense.  No reason is given; just go do it.  What kind of a god would ask a parent to kill one of their own children (much less their only child)?  To Abraham no reason is needed.  God said so.  No other reason is necessary.  To the rational Western mind this is very disturbing.  It’s especially disturbing to the modern American mind which also holds the concepts of freedom and human rights to be basic core values.  Americans don’t think a loving God would ask (much less command) us to do something that violates our most cherished human values.  And that may be the key phrase: human values.  Abraham isn’t looking at human values.  He isn’t thinking about human values because Abraham was not a thinker, he felt no need of getting beyond faith…  Abraham doesn’t try to think things through.  He isn’t asking for reasons why.  Thinking is a natural human response but Abraham’s heart is firmly set on following divine values rather than human reason.  “God said so” is good enough reason for him.  For Abraham faith is a personal matter between him and his God.  Any of us can understand that 2+2=4 if we just learn how to do the arithmetic.  But who can teach us what faith is?  Kierkegaard wonders if any of us can ever truly understand this old, old story about faith unless we can somehow learn to see through Abraham’s eyes.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

SHAKESPEARE: Antony and Cleopatra (Act V)

In Psalm 8 of the Bible (King James Version) we read these lines: When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him?  From the dawn of history we’ve pondered the heavens and the earth; now we’ve numbered the stars and walked on the moon.  But what is man?  Astrophysics is easy compared to answering that.  If there’s any writer capable of capturing the essence of what it means to be human, that writer is Shakespeare.  In this play five people commit suicide.  By the time Shakespeare has finished the story of Antony and Cleopatra there are bodies strewn all over the stage.  If the question is “what is man” then surely one Shakespearian answer is “a creature capable of committing suicide.”  Why do people take their own lives?  Enobarbus commits suicide because he’s ashamed of what he’s done; Eros because of what he’s ashamed to do; Antony because of his honor; Cleopatra because she doesn’t want to be dishonored.  What other creatures act on such abstract principles?  Here’s how Caesar learns that Antony has committed suicide: He is dead, Caesar: not by a public minister of justice, nor by a hired knife; but that self hand, which writ his honour in the acts it did, hath, with the courage which the heart did lend it, splitted the heart.  The same hand that’s capable of fighting valiantly to save lives is also capable of destroying lives, even one’s own.  And of all earth’s creatures only creatures like Antony or Cleopatra do away with themselves rather than be dishonored.  Is suicide a good option for a human being?  The Great Books don’t dodge the hard questions.  And in the Great Books at least three distinct approaches to suicide have been given.  One response is the one taken by Antony and Cleopatra.  Life is like a play.  I’ll enjoy it as long as I’m here but whenever I feel like it’s time to move on I reserve the right to choose my own exit.  Many Romans felt that way.  Antony, Enobarbus and Eros are good examples.  A second response is that under certain circumstances suicide may be the best thing for me, personally, to do.  I’ll use my own judgment about doing what is best for me.  This is the kind of response a Utilitarian like John Stuart Mill might make.  In this view suicide is neither encouraged nor is it condemned.  People have to decide for themselves what’s right or wrong.  One may say yes, another no, and both are right.  The third response is simple.  Never, under any circumstances, is suicide acceptable.  Socrates felt that we don’t belong to ourselves.  We belong to God.  We don’t decide when it’s time for us to leave this life.  God does.  That doesn’t mean that we’re afraid of death.  In fact, Socrates faced his own death with amazing tranquility in Crito.  And in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire the early Christians were adamantly opposed to suicide but many of them were eager to face martyrdom.  There are other lessons about suicide which we can draw from the Great Books.  Two in particular come from other Shakespeare plays.  Othello commits suicide because he was deceived into believing that he should kill his wife (Desdemona) for being unfaithful.  She wasn’t.  But even though it wasn’t his “fault” in the sense that he was deceived Othello couldn’t live with himself.  And Hamlet considered suicide in his famous “to be or not to be” speech but decided that suicide wasn’t worth it.  His thinking goes something like this.  We face big problems in this world to be sure.  But we don’t know what’s on the other side.  Maybe worse problems than we have now, maybe much worse.  Aye, there’s the rub.   And finally perhaps the most famous case of suicide in Western literature is found in the Gospel of Mark.  Judas Iscariot felt the same away about betraying Jesus that Enobarbus felt betraying Antony.  For betrayal on that level there is only one way out and Dante places traitors in the deepest part of Hell.  As usual the Great Books do not provide one “right” answer to the question of suicide.  They merely provide what is sometimes called The Great Conversation.  And with Shakespeare, as with the KJV Bible, this conversation takes place in the noblest English language ever used.