ABRAHAM: THE KNIGHT OF FAITH
An authentic Christian faith
Kierkegaard’s book Fear and Trembling is a fascinating, and to my mind rather disturbing, account of what Kierkegaard considers to be authentic Christian faith, as opposed to the watered down “Sunday Christianity” that he thought most of his contemporaries had.
Kierkegaard points out that most people who describe themselves as Christians are born into their faith, and that their involvement doesn’t extent much beyond attending church on a Sunday. Danish Christians, thought Kierkegaard, were churned out by the Danish State Church “with the greatest possible uniformity of a factory product”. This, according to Kierkegaard, is not true faith.
Nor is the true Christian one who rationally recognizes the truth of religious claims, in the way that many Christian philosophers, including, for example, Aquinas, have thought possible. Faith is certainly not a sort of second-rate form of belief for those not sufficiently clever and well-educated to recognise the proofs of God’s existence (as Aquinas (chpt XX) supposed). True faith is not inferior to, but higher than, reason.
An authentic Christian faith, thinks Kierkegaard, involves making a deeply passionate and personal commitment to accept divine authority above all else. It involves making a fearful, life-transforming leap beyond what is reasonable and rational to accept what is profoundly paradoxical. It is a leap that must be made, not once, but repeatedly.
Abraham and Isaac
In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard writes under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio (John of Silence) about God’s commandment to Abraham to sacrifice his own son. God says, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” Abraham obeys. An angel appears only at the very last moment – when the knife is in Abraham’s hand – to revoke God’s instruction.
Kant thought Abraham wrong to follow the instruction of a voice in his head that commanded him to do something profoundly immoral – to kill an innocent child. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, considers Abraham’s faith a rare example of authentic Christian faith. The true Christian is one who realizes that our duty is ultimately not to the moral law, but to obey a higher authority still – God himself, who is, after all, the source of the moral law.
Kierkegaard contrasts Abraham, whom he considers a true “knight of faith” with the tragic hero or “knight of infinite resignation”: someone who recognizes that a sacrifice must be made on principle. A general who, standing on principle, knowingly sends an entire regiment to its death, knowing his own son is among the soldiers, makes such a sacrifice.
Abraham’s sacrifice is different. He has faith in something higher than the moral law. And, unlike our tragic hero who simply expects his son to die, Abraham has faith that his son will be restored to him by God.
Being a true Christian, involves placing your trust in something higher than the moral principles that govern society. There is a sense, then, in which it makes you an outsider – someone who stand apart from conventional, rule-based morality, who looks to something higher.
Criticism of Kierkegaard
Assuming Kierkegaard is sincere (remember, he writes as Johannes de Silentio, and some have questioned whether de Silentio’s views are really Kierkegaard’s), a critic might suggest that Kierkegaard is, in effect, giving people licence to slaughter the innocent in the name of whatever they believe their God wants. Kierkegaard anticipates this criticism, pointing out that Abraham acts out of love for his son. He is not motivated by hatred. That is a crucial difference between Abraham and, say, a hate-filled religious crusader or suicide bomber.
But of course, it seems Kierkegaard must, then, still admire the faith of the religious crank that lovingly smothers his own children because he trusts the “voice of God” in his head. The only difference between the admirable Abraham and this murderous crank is that, in the story, God does indeed save Abraham’s child while the crank’s children die. But of course, precisely because Abraham’s faith is supposedly beyond reason, Abraham was no more justified in trusting in such a happy outcome than was the religious crank.
It seems, then, that either Kierkegaard must also admire the faith of our murderous religious crank, or else he must say that the reason Abraham’s faith is admirable while the crank’s is not is that Abraham happened to get lucky.
But that, surely, hardly makes Abraham worthy of our admiration.