Ending our treatment of Soren Kierkegaard, we consider the religious stage of personal development through consideration of this 1843 text analyzing the Biblical story of Abraham faithfully following God’s directive to sacrifice his long-promised, much-cherished son Isaac. Can we observers possibly understand that kind of faith?
This text was released close on the heels of Either/Or, and we were interested in reading it as a third book of that, showing how the religious stage advances on the ethical which had previously advanced on the aesthetic. In moving to the ethical stage, an individual comes to define himself not just in terms of his private standards (his perceptions of beauty) but in social, i.e. universal terms. Any lapse from the universal is from the ethical standpoint seen as sin. But in the case of Abraham, his call to this horrific act (which he didn’t end up having to go through with, but that’s beside the point) was entirely private. It could not be “justified” insofar as justification refers to publicly available norms. If he was tempted to ignore God’s call, that would not be a lapse into private desire, i.e. sin (though of course he did personally love his son), but it would be a “lapse” into the ethical, into recognition of the normal ethical law that you don’t kill the innocent, don’t betray your duty to your child, etc. So Kierkegaard (or rather his avatar for this book, Johannes de Silentio) asks whether the ethical can be suspended due to a justification that is purely private? Where the individual for the ethical person was superseded by the universal, can this again be superseded by the individual in the act of faith?
This makes it sound like the religious stage is a synthesis of the previous stage. We get back some of the passion and individuality back from the aesthetic stage. However, K’s account of the ethical stage was already pretty complete. It was not about effacing your individuality in favor of the faceless universal, but about defining yourself as an authentic individual within a social context: We can only be individuals in the context of real relationships with others, and real relationships are different than merely (a la Kant) imagining that your actions are guided by universal laws; that’s more like acting in parallel with other people than actually relating to them.
Fear and Trembling complicates this issue because Silentio is a character who claims not to understand faith. Perhaps it cannot be understood, because it’s positively singular, so Abraham’s faith is sui generis. Moreover, there aren’t a lot of other examples of faith in the book, so while we (with Silentio) are clearly supposed to find Abraham to be “great,” impressive, an inspiration, it’s unclear whether or how we’re supposed to try to emulate Abraham and live the religious life. Our ethical reading in Either/Or was full of very direct advice, but this is just a description of faith as a phenomenon that Kierkegaard is arguing is much stranger than is suspected by his the bourgeois Protestants of his time who think that faith is just a simple matter of assenting to church doctrine.
Silentio says he does understand (and is presumably recommending to us as an attitude) the “knight of resignation” who has given up trying to control things. Being ethical involved taking up projects (the self being a central project), but how do you stay invested enough in projects such that they’re meaningful while not worrying about them. How do we not worry about our own deaths? Is the “posterity through the social” that the ethical promised enough for us? Being resigned to the possibility (or inevitability?) of misfortune is resignation: what Nietzsche called the love of fate (amour fati). Understanding this attitude is a step toward understanding faith, which not pessimistic resignation, but unwavering optimism that either everything is going to be all right. Abraham was confident that somehow he would get the lineage owed to him, and sure enough, his son was fine, but again, this outcome is not the point. He would have been laudably faithful even if God had ordered him to go ahead with the sacrifice, because ultimately, faith is about believing that God makes everything happen according to a wise plan, and that plan is always being fulfilled even if it makes no sense to Abraham or to us observing the situation.
Is this picture of faith something that you can understand or sympathize with? If not, is that just because there is something wrong with it, or merely because you lack faith (as Silentio claims he lacks it)? Since the “justification” for faith is entirely individual, Kierkegaard seems to have presented us with an unbridgeable epistemic gap. We cannot sympathize with the person of faith; we cannot see that person’s “reasons” for faith. Perhaps (per Kierkegaard’s reputation as proto-existentialist) there is no justification that can be cited for having faith, and a mere, unmotivated leap by the individual is required. But is faith something that each of us can just will? Silentio’s attitude (that he’s in awe of faith of this extreme sort but can’t get his head around it) suggests that we can’t, but the point is likely to leave the question to each reader.
Listen to our earlier discussion that touched on this book (though moreso The Sickness Unto Death, another religious text written several years later).
Image by Corey Mohler of Existential Comics.