Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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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.


Blogger SMJ said...

Thoughts on Kierkegaard -

The Knight of Faith is a series of meditations by Soren Kierkegaard on the meaning of faith. So what is faith? Is it mere obedience or something more? A man can be compelled to do something against his will. Is that an act of faith? Of course not. It is simply an act of submission. When a greater power exerts an irresistible force upon a person, and by means of that power is able to move that person, that is not the same thing as saying that the person moved because of his faith in the greater power. Faith is not compulsion. Faith is the willingness to act even when lacking knowledge or rational explanation for the necessity of the act. Thus, Abraham takes Isaac to Mount Moriah to offer him as a burnt sacrifice, even though he is given no explanation of why he must do this. Abraham is rewarded by God for his faith, but it seems more likely that Abraham is rewarded for his obedience than his faith. For how are we to distinguish faith from obedience? It is certainly true that Abraham does not protest to God or object to what he is being asked to do. He says not a single word in defense of his innocent son, Isaac. Can this be the same man who earlier bargained with God in order to spare ten good people living in Sodom? It makes no difference that he was unable to find these ten individuals. He still argued on their behalf. In doing so, he was acting as an advocate for justice and mercy. But here, he does not plead for Isaac's life, a boy who had done no harm to anyone. Abraham says nothing at all in protest.

This raises the question: does Abraham's faith have its origin in fear? If so, is this the proper attitude we should have towards God? Certainly, God, being all powerful and holding our destiny in his hands, can inspire fear and trembling whenever he chooses to. Fear achieves obedience, but it does not inspire love. Faith and trust are interchangeable. Without faith in someone, you can not trust them; and only a fool would trust someone in whom he has no faith. What exactly is the nature of Abraham's faith? Does he agree to sacrifice Isaac to save mankind? No. Does he do it for the greater good of his family? No. Does he agree to murder his son because secretly, in the privacy of his heart, he does not believe that God will require him to carry out this deed? We do not know. All we have are the facts as they are presented to us. Abraham prepares the altar. He gathers the wood; he binds Isaac; he sharpens his knife; he leans forward over Isaac with his knife, ready to plunge his sharpened blade into the son's beating heart. There is no hesitation on Abraham's part. If his faith allows him to do this, then what else is he willing to do? Is he prepared to sacrifice his wife, Sarah? What about the rest of his family? How far will Abraham go to demonstrate his faith in God?

I am not sure why this story should inspire us with any feelings of admiration for Abraham. As Kierkegaard suggests, it is beyond comprehension. But then, God is equally beyond our comprehension. In the end, this is not a mystery which can be solved through logic or reason. When reason cannot illuminate our path, conscience must be our guide. I prefer Jesus to Abraham because Jesus sets a better moral example for us to follow. I believe that Jesus would say to God, "Take me as a sacrifice, Father and let the innocent child live." But Abraham does not offer himself as a sacrifice in place of his son, and that, to me, marks his failure as a human being. It was his duty as a father to protect his child, not to sacrifice him on the altar of his own religion.

1/02/2013 6:30 AM  

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