Kierkegaard’s Fear and Loathing considers the fact of God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. A central concern of this work has to do with the obvious ethical problem of murder: how can Abraham be a great man of “faith” when his greatest act of “faith” is so obviously unethical?
Kierkegaard takes on this problem from multiple directions. Here, to merely get the ideas straight in my own mind, are certain elements of this text which I found most interesting and useful.
“The old saying that things do not happen in the world as the parson preaches.” (Cambridge University Press, trans. Sylvia Walsh.) Too often philosophy is too abstract, to pat; too often sermons are more platitude than help in patience.
When it comes to the question of Abraham, this book works to avoid neat theories of Abraham’s act: What could he do? God was making him do this thing. Or, well he knew that Isaac would live again in the resurrection; so what does it matter? Or Abraham knew it was some mere trial.
The work (written by a pseudonym; thus, there is some distance between Kierkegaard and the “author” of the work, does nothing to shy away from the fact this great act of faith hinges upon a murder; and thus, unethical in the fullest sense of the world. “What is left out of the Abraham’s story is the anxiety … to the son the father has highest and most sacred duty.”
The ethical makes a demand upon Abraham which runs counter to the command of God; thus, the ethical paradoxically becomes a temptation!
One aspect of the analysis lies with the common understanding of ethical as merely a culturally determined pattern for behavior. While faith may be consistent with such ethics, faith is not necessarily constrained by such ethics.
Abraham cannot kill Isaac and point to some greater ethical good. If it were, then Abraham’s killing could be justified on the ground of the greater good. But, there is no argument of the loss of the one for the community. And yet somehow, Abraham’s act is a matter of faith. He is not a “tragic hero” who ultimately has an ethical justification for an unethical act.
Kierkegaard aims to disentangle the matter of temptation (by the ethical) from the matter of paradox.
Next, faith is not merely resignation to the greater will of God and a willingness to lose Isaac. Kierkegaard writes at length of the Knight Infinite Resignation. This knight resigns himself to the loss because there is (again) a greater context in which the paradox of God’s command “makes sense”.
A common intellectual tactic is to resolve a present problem into an unknown future good in the world to come. There is something in the “infinite” which justifies this action in the “finite”. In such a circumstance, the present loss and conflict removes the difficulty of the command of God.
Again, the resolution of the matter is completed by resolving and dismissing the “paradox” of God’s command.
But this will not work, because Abraham does not proceed according to some platitude and hope for the vague future. Abraham expects to murder and receive Isaac in the same act: “By faith Abraham did not renounce Isaac, but by faith Abraham received Isaac.” (41)
In another place, Kierkegaard notes that Abraham was not hoping for some future but was hoping for something in this life: God had promised Abraham that Isaac was the son of promise.
How then does this work out? Abraham is tempted to the ethical; but how could God command the unethical. Abraham is tempted to merely resign himself to duty or overwhelming power, but instead expects to receive Isaac back.
Moreover, Kierkegaard rules out another escape hatch. Abraham is not believing in something merely improbable (which is another dodge undertaken in the name of faith). Kierkegaard expressly does not mean by faith, something highly unlikely.
Rather, solves his problem by grasping it squarely and stating that faith is a paradox; it actually does hinge upon something “absurd” which we too often which to domesticate.
Abraham believed. He did not believe that he would be blessed one day in the hereafter but that he would become blissfully happy here in the world. God could give him a new Isaac, call the sacrifice back to life. He believed by virtue of the absurd, for all human calculation had long since ceased. (30)
By absurd, he does not mean “the improbable, the unforeseen, the unexpected.” (39). Before Abraham can believe that he will receive Isaac in this life, he must first fully resolve himself to the fact that Isaac is lost. He knows that Isaac is lost, utterly lost. That is the “movement” of infinite resignation. Faith then takes an “absurd” step to believe that Isaac will be restored in this life – knowing full well that Isaac is lost. Faith then says, Yes, Isaac is lost and I will receive Isaac back though he is lost.
One could ask what this dense, often difficult discussion of faith and ethics has to do with the actual life of a Christian today? I do not necessarily find myself struggling with Hegelian categories of thought on the same grounds as that faced by Kierkegaard in the 19th Century church of Europe.
The answer lies in our constant tendency tame faith in some manner.
Olivia Walsh, in her essay, “The Silencing of Philosophy” makes the observation
This idea of the absolute duty to God in faith can lead to some rather remarkable commands, such as the Gospel injunction to hate one’s “own faith and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life” (Luke 14:26 RSV) which exegetes tend to water down in typically ethical fashion.
I will testify to having heard this and similar texts being domesticated by turning the word “hate” into the phrase “love less”. But the language itself is shocking. We can say this means hyperbole; but if so, what is the toned-down understanding of “hate”.
Moreover, Jesus in nowise ever abrogates the duties to one’s family. Indeed, he commands love even of one’s enemies. Kierkegaard helps us here by seeing the paradox in the duty toward God and human beings. There is a resignation to loss and recovery back which refuse to be resolved by ethical games or linguistic tricks.
Indeed, the Christian religion itself hinges upon the most profound of paradoxes:
2 Corinthians 5:21 (ESV)
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
God made Christ sin – the one who was sinless; so that we who are sinful might become righteous. There are no ethical tricks, no linguistic tropes, no logical move which resolves the utterly paradoxical movement in this passage. Faith takes hold of the paradox in joy.