Sunday, November 05, 2006

What was Abraham Thinking When He Raised the Knife?

I recently embarked on a second reading of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, hoping to suck more marrow out of this rich text. As a guide for this journey, I checked out John Lippitt’s commentary on F&T. But beware of commentaries; they can sometimes prove a distraction, preventing one from focusing on the primary text. This has happened here, as I find myself spending more time disagreeing with Lippitt’s interpretations than engaging with the book directly. Thus, this post offers both my thoughts on F&T and a critique of Lippitt's notion of faith.

The central theme of F&T is the Akedah - Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah. Kierkegaard (via the book’s pseudonym, Johannes de silentio) never tires of praising Abraham, the father of faith. According to SK, Abraham’s faith involved a “double movement” - “infinite resignation” to the loss of Isaac, followed by belief “in virtue of the absurd” that Isaac would not be taken from him. To illustrate this concept, SK employs the example of a young lad who falls in love with a princess far above his meager social standing. As it becomes clear to the lad that he will never marry the princess, he becomes “the knight of infinite resignation”:
“So the knight [of infinite resignation] makes the movement – but what movement? Will he forget the whole thing?... No! For the knight does not contradict himself… The knight remembers everything, but precisely this remembrance is pain, and yet by the infinite resignation he is reconciled with existence.”

But if the lad had faith, like Abraham, he would make an extra movement, the movement of faith:
“Now we will let the knight of faith appear in the role just described. He makes exactly the same movements as the other knight, infinitely renounces claim to the love which is the content of his life, he is reconciled in pain; but then occurs the prodigy, he makes still another movement more wonderful than all, for he says, ‘I believe nevertheless that I shall get her, in virtue, that is, of the absurd, in virtue of the fact that with God all things are possible.’… At the moment when the knight made the act of resignation, he was convinced, humanly speaking, of the impossibility… so the only thing that can save him is the absurd, and this he grasps by faith.”

It appears that Lippitt cannot understand this double movement, which, in his estimation, “involves simultaneously believing two mutually contradictory propositions”: that the lad will not marry the princess and that he will marry her (or, that Abraham will have to sacrifice Isaac and that Isaac will not be taken from him). In short, Lippitt does not understand why the knight of faith must first become the knight of resignation.

To solve this dilemma, Lippitt argues that “Johannes’ view of faith is inherently confused” and that it doesn’t represent SK’s true conception of faith. Lippitt instead advocates for Ronald L. Hall’s reading of the text, in which resignation is described as “annulled possibility.” Here, resignation is the antithesis of faith, not its necessary precursor; whereas the knight of resignation tries to transcend the pain of the world by refusing it, the knight of faith lives fully in the world. Lippitt, quoting Hall, writes:
Human existence is ‘intrinsically subject to possibility, and hence to anxiety, to vulnerability, to loss. The faithful self does not put these elements to rest, she plunges forward through them. The faithful self is continually called to embrace the world in all of its fragility, for she recognizes that it is, at any moment, in her power to refuse. The knight of faith knows that such a refusal would bring with it a form of existence that would be other than the human, and to this possibility she must continually say ‘no!’.

For Hall (and Lippitt), resignation is conceived as a form of temptation, or inauthentic existence – a possibility that must be forever annulled. But, in my opinion, this interpretation does violence to Kierkegaard’s concept of faith. For instance, in what sense does the faithful one, in Hall’s account, believe “by virtue of the absurd”? Moreover, how does Hall reconcile his reading with SK’s frequent remark that faith requires belief in what is humanly impossible? Where is Hall’s sense of paradox? The key problem, in my view, is that Hall is largely committed to a humanist reading of the text, and thus, for him, faith can never mean more than “authentic existence.” He is powerless to understand what SK means when he says that Abraham believed “in virtue of the absurd, in virtue of the fact that with God all things are possible.” In the end, the paradox that Kierkegaard was so determined to maintain is dissolved.

Even more problematic is Lippitt's argument that, if Hall's interpretation is correct, then “Abraham must not actually come fully to accept that his is going to have to kill Isaac: rather, such ‘resignation’ was what Abraham must continually fight against.” Again, I think that SK would strongly disagree. At one point in F&T he writes that “[Abraham] must know at the decisive moment that Isaac is to be sacrificed. If he doesn’t definitively know that, he hasn’t made the infinite movement of resignation, in which case…he is very far from being Abraham.” And yet, at the same time, Abraham believed that Isaac would not be taken from him, that "the Lord will provide". Lippitt is right to call Abraham's position paradoxical, but he seems to forget that that's the whole point! The text is emphatic that faith is a tremendous paradox, "a paradox which gives Isaac back to Abraham, which no thought can master, because faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off."

To fully understand Kierkegaard’s account of the Akedah, it’s important to remember the original promises that God made to Abraham: that God would make of him “a great nation” and that his descendents would as numerous as the stars. Given the age of Sarah, this promise was a human impossibility, and yet Abraham believed. He still believed in this promise as he walked up Mount Moriah, knowing that even if he sacrificed Isaac, “God could give him a new Isaac, could recall to life him who had been sacrificed. He believed by virtue of the absurd; for all human reckoning had long since ceased to function.” In other words, Abraham placed his faith in Him who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. He had a resurrection faith.

1 comment:

the cynic librarian said...

Thomas, I am putting together a Kierkegaard Carnival. I'd like to include this posting in the first of this Carnival. Please visit this announcement if you are interested.