Writer: Selma Slocum
“By faith, Abraham received the promise that in his seed all the generations of the earth would be blessed.” (Kierkegaard, 1983, p. 17) Upon the fulfilment of this promise, Abraham’s trial began. He was faced with the ordeal of reciprocating this promise, by fulfilling the promise he himself had made in his prayer to God.[i] One might even say he was tormented by this prayer.
I would suppose this is what it means to be God’s chosen one; to be torn between your love for your son and your love for God. Do you fulfill your duty to your son, as his father, and keep him from harm’s way or do you fulfill your duty to God, as His servant, and keep your word? Which weighs heavier; the worldly or the heavenly?
In his book Fear and Trembling (1983), Kierkegaard problematizes the conflict between these two duties extensively. Abraham is presented as the central figure troubled by such questions – questions which are the cause for his anxiety. He could not reconcile the two duties. Nevertheless, as Kierkegaard envisions it, it was on that ominous day, when Abraham held in his hands the knife that he would be placing on his son’s neck, that everything went still. The curtains of doubt were pulled away. Faith would carry him through. God would prevail. And, so He did.
But, what kind of faith was this and how could Abraham have known?
Kierkegaard identifies this faith by referring to ‘the absurd’. The absurd encompasses the infinite world. While in the finite world there is much that is not possible, in the infinite world, everything is possible.
In Abraham’s case, the thought of Isaac returning to life was impossible. It was ‘absurd’. As such, the only way Abraham could make the movement of faith (i.e. sacrifice his son) was by having faith, by virtue of the absurd, that God would in the moment of the act rescind the obligation.
So, for Abraham, it was in acknowledging the impossibility of it that it became possible.
One wonders if, “Would any of us, today, be fearless and trusting enough to make the movement of faith?”
In Kierkegaard’s understanding, prior to the movement of faith comes the movement of infinite resignation. This distinction is worth mentioning in overcoming a common confusion as regards faith and what faith requires. Most people conclude from the above mentioned scenario that faith requires us to renounce everything.[ii] However, as Kierkegaard explains, “The movements are often confused. It is said that the movement of faith is needed in order to renounce everything. (But, it is actually the other way around.) Through the movement of infinite resignation, I renounce everything. I make this movement all by myself. Through it, I gain eternal consciousness in blessed harmony with my love for God. By faith, I do not renounce anything; on the contrary, by faith I receive everything.” (1983, p. 48-49)
It follows, it was not by faith that Abraham renounced Isaac, but it was by faith that he received him.
For Kierkegaard, being able to make the movement of faith is the greatest and most difficult movements of all. In fact, it is a movement that he openly says he has not been able to make.[iii] It takes a person with a paradoxical and humble courage to “take the plunge” into the absurd.
On this point, Kierkegaard believes (and, I would tend to agree) that to simply praise God’s mercy does a great injustice to what Abraham endured, overcame and, ultimately, conquered. After all, it is through Abraham that we have an explicit experience for the paradox of faith, according to which a murder is transformed into a holy act.[iv]
The paradox of faith is that moment when we, as witnesses, realize that Abraham’s act cannot be ethically explained. Is it murderous or is it sacrificial?
The ethical is meant to be universal (i.e. normative). However, Abraham’s act is not something which could be a norm for others. It follows, if it cannot be ethically substantiated, does this mean that what Abraham intended to do was un-ethical?
According to Kierkegaard, what Abraham intended to do was not un-ethical but beyond the ethical. By making such a distinction, Kierkegaard gives birth to a range of questions.
Since, in the case of Abraham, it is faith and not the ethical system that accounts for the substantiation of his act, there seems to be need for further thought as regards the relationship between faith and ethics. Moreover, the problem emerges as to whether it is faith or ethics that defines right and wrong. One might ask, “Are the domains of faith and ethics mutually exclusive?”, or “Is it simply that the domain of ethics exists within the domain of faith, which is more encompassing?”
Regardless, the problem remains. If there is no universal ethical standard, then any act can be justified based on the grounds of faith. This seemingly leads to the debasement of ethics.
Abraham doesn’t stand within the ethical. “By his act, he transgressed the ethical altogether and had a higher telos (end, purpose), in relation to which he suspended it.” (Kierkegaard, 1983, p. 59) What is most perplexing is that, in the case of Abraham, the ethical presents itself as ‘the temptation’. “As a rule, what tempts a person is something that will hold him back from doing his duty, but here the temptation is the ethical itself, which would hold him back from doing God’s will. But, what is duty? Duty is simply the expression of God’s will.” (Kierkegaard, 1983, p. 60)
Kierkegaard offers a possible solution when he distinguishes between the person who does enter into a private relationship with the divine and the person who does not. For the person who does not enter into a private relationship with the divine, the ethical is the divine. However, for the person who does enter into a private relationship with the divine (such as Abraham), the ethical is teleologically suspended. Therefore, the paradox of faith arises from Abraham placing himself, as the single individual, in an absolute relation to the divine and, by doing so, moving beyond the ethical (as universal and, thus, normative).[v] In other words, the paradox emerges when the individual goes beyond the scope of the ethical, for, in that moment, it appears that the individual’s duty to God supersedes the ethical (the universal). Further, it appears that the individual’s faith requires him to do something that he knows not to be right. Kierkegaard explains this by saying, “The ethical relation is reduced to the relative in contradistinction to the absolute relation to God.” (1983, p. 71)
For many people, the case of Abraham is perplexing because so many of them only live in adherence to an ethical obligation. They are never confronted with the paradox Abraham was allotted. Additionally, by habit, people jump to the end scene (of Isaac being saved) and, by way of this, only have praise for the merciful God. Nevertheless, I think the true lesson lays in the act itself, in Abraham. So long as we do not put ourselves in Abraham’s shoes, we will never be able to come to terms with the qualms of the faithful and, thus, never extract the lesson God intended for us.
“Abraham makes two movements. He makes the infinite movement of resignation and gives up Isaac; but next, at every moment, he makes the movement of faith. This is his consolation. In other words, he is saying: But it will not happen, or if it does, the Lord will give me a new Isaac, that is, by virtue of the absurd.” (Kierkegaard, 1983, p. 115)
So, in response to my question, “What kind of faith was this and how could Abraham have known?” it seems faith requires submission and, as such, is beyond reason. As Kierkegaard repeatedly says, “No one can understand the faithful.”[vi]
We can never know if Abraham “knew” Isaac would be saved. But, we do know that he had faith in God.
And, if it is so, praise be on him.
Kierkegaard, S. (1983). Fear and Trembling (H. V. Hong & E. H. Hong, Trans.). Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1843)
[i] In his prayer to God, Abraham had asked God to bless him with a son and, in return, had promised to sacrifice him in God’s honor.
[ii] “to have blind faith”
[iii] “I cannot understand Abraham. I can only admire him.” (Kierkegaard, 1983, p. 112)
[iv] On futher thought, it might be that God gave this ordeal to Abraham to make us all privy to the paradox of faith.
[v] “The paradox of faith, then, is this: that the single individual is higher than the universal, that the single individual determines his relation to the universal by his relation to the absolute, not his relation to the absolute by his relation to the universal.” (Kierkegaard, 1983, p. 70)
[vi] “He who walks the narrow road of faith has no one to advise him – no one understands him. Faith is a marvel, and yet no human being is excluded from it: for that which unites all human life is passion, and faith is a passion.” (Kierkegaard, 1983, p. 67)