“God told me to do it.” In an age of terrorism and clerical scandal, such a claim sounds especially dangerous. But does Kierkegaard end up legitimating such an explanation for actions with his understanding of faith? This post will explore the relationship between ethical reasoning and faith articulated in Fear and Trembling, suggesting that the understanding of faith presented in this work is potentially dangerous, but not necessarily, and that the alternative can be just as problematic.
Fear and Trembling is written under the pseudonym “Johannes de Silentio.” This pseudonym, like the others Kierkegaard employs in other works, does not express Kierkegaard’s actual views. Each pseudonym articulates the imaginary perspective of someone that exists in one of three modes of existence—the aesthetic, the ethical, or the religious (1). (Admittedly, this makes reading Kierkegaard somewhat confusing, as numerous viewpoints often contradict each other on a given issue.) Johannes de Silentio is an ethical person seeking to understand the nature of faith, which characterizes the religious mode of existence.
Silentio examines the story of Abraham and Isaac found in Genesis 22. His analysis leads to the conclusion that faith calls for “a teleological suspension of the ethical.”
But what does this mean? “The ethical” here refers to Hegel’s understanding of Sittlichkeit or “social morality.” For Hegel, an individual is ethical when he or she knows, desires, and fulfills the demands of the laws and customs of his or her society. This involves obligations like getting married, having a job, providing for one’s family, etc. According to Hegel, as fundamentally social beings, this is the ultimate purpose, or telos, of all humans.
The affirmation of a “teleological suspension of the ethical”, then, is a rejection of Hegel’s claim that fulfilling the expectations of a given society is an individual’s highest or ultimate purpose.
But beyond this, it is also a rejection of the idea that the ultimate purpose of humans is to act rationally. Hegel has a historical and social understanding of reasoning. Reason is understood as progressively developing through history and expressing itself in the customs, institutions, and laws of society (2). This means that the ethical demands of a given society are an expression of the rational, so in fulfilling the demands of society, one also fulfills the demands of reason.
Silentio explains, “In ethical terms, Abraham’s relation to Isaac is quite simply this: the father shall love the son more than himself (3).” This is a bedrock principle of most societies. Abraham is an exemplar of faith because of his willingness to “suspend” his understanding of the ethical, that is, his own reasoning and the reasoning of his society, because of his allegiance to something, or someone, higher. This makes his actions incomprehensible to others.
This point is clarified by comparing Abraham’s example with other ancient stories of prolicide—Agamemnon, Brutus, and Jephthah. Agamemmon, the Greek general, offends the goddess Artemis and sacrifices his own daughter to placate the deity. Without this sacrifice, he and his men are stuck in the middle of a windless sea. He has to choose between saving the lives of his men or his own daughter and opts for the former.
Similarly, Brutus, the Roman senator, when betrayed by one of his own sons, who leads a failed political revolt, has his son executed. Brutus faces the tough choice of preserving the stability of Rome or the life of his son.
The third example is drawn from the Old Testament (Judges 11:29-40). Jephthah is a Hebrew judge who makes a promise to God: if granted a military victory, he will sacrifice the first thing that comes out to greet him when he returns home. This turns out to be his daughter, leaving Jephthah with the tough choice of fulfilling his vow to God or saving the life of his daughter. (Jephthah opts to fulfill his promise to God and his daughter pledges to a life of perpetual virginity.)
These three men are all examples of tragic heroes. They are tragic because they each grapple with a horrific ethical dilemma; they are heroes because as they are willing act for the greater good. We sympathize with such characters, and although we may not agree with their decisions, we understand why they did what they did, i.e. for some reasonable higher good.
Silentio explains: “The difference between the tragic hero and Abraham is very obvious. The tragic hero is still within the ethical. He allows an expression of the ethical to have its telos in a higher expression of the ethical…Abraham’s situation is different. By his act he transgressed the ethical altogether and had a higher telos outside of it, in relation to which he suspended it.”
What is this higher end? Simply put, it is God’s will, which cannot be reduced to another principle (5). This is what makes faith, faith (not reason). This is what makes Abraham’s story racially different from other seemingly similar stories; no reason, other than God’s will, is given (or can be given) to understand why God commanded what God did.
Sabbatarians might be sympathetic to such an understanding of faith. Unlike the other nine commandments, there’s no obvious reason for why one should take one day off from work, or why that day should be the seventh. We may conjecture why doing so might be reasonable, but our observance of the Sabbath is not based on reason; we do it, ultimately, out of faith, i.e. because God commanded it.
Such an understanding of faith raises some valid concerns. Unchecked by the constraints of “reason” and other people, all kinds of acts done in the name of religion can be valorized as acts of faith; faith, if Silentio is correct, truly can be dangerous.
But the alternative is equally problematic. An interesting point of comparison is Kant’s brief comments on this same story.
We can use, as an example, the myth of the sacrifice that Abraham was going to make by butchering and burning his only son at God’s command (the poor child, without knowing it, even brought the wood for the fire). Abraham should have replied to this supposedly divine voice: “That I ought not to kill my good son is quite certain. But that you, this apparition, are God—of that I am not certain, and never can be....(6)
Kant argues that any voice that commands one to violate the moral law should be dismissed as an illusion. In other writings he goes on to redefine Christian terms and concepts to fit his idea of moral religion; morality and religion truly understood say the same thing. Doing the “faithful” thing is the same as doing the “reasonable” thing. What cannot be redefined in the former to fit the latter is rejected or deemed unessential (7).
On this view, practical reason rejects or redefines God’s will according to its standards. This results, functionally, in the deification of reason and/or society; this is intellectual idolatry. “Faith” is used instead to legitimate the “reasonable”, the status quo, a given way of life. Doing God’s will is synonymous with doing my, or our, will. Serving God is synonymous with serving country. (The complicity of the Christian church with the Nazi Party during World War II is an example of this happening in recent history. Bringing it a bit closer to home, so is the identification of individual and American prosperity with God’s will.)
Silentio reminds us that God is not to be confused with reason or society and doing so affirms the possibility of radical and prophetic critique. Such a faith has the power to speak into the lives of individuals and societies and to fuel counter-cultural ways of thinking, speaking, and being.
In closing, it’s important to note that with his affirmation of a “teleological suspension of the ethical”, Silentio is not calling for an abolition of ethics, but a relativization of it’s (along with reason and society’s) ultimate significance. Silentio writes:
[T]hen the ethical is reduced to the relative. From this it does not follow that the ethical should be invalidated; rather, the ethical receives a completely different expression, a paradoxical expression, such as, for example, that love of God may bring the knight of faith to give his love to the neighbor—an expression opposite to that which, ethically speaking is duty (8).
The above quote reminds us that the person of faith who is ultimately committed to the God revealed by Jesus as their final telos is also committed to radically, consistently, and practically loving others. This, from the perspective of society, is irrational, going well beyond the dictates of pure reason (9).
Zane Yi is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at Fordham University. He teaches philosophy courses at Kennesaw State University.
To read previous essays in this series, click Between Jerusalem and Athens.