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Kierkegaard Explanation of Abraham as Knight of Faith

Question

Refer the following reading material and answer the question.

http://www.solargeneral.org/wp-content/uploads/library/fear-and-trembling-johannes-de-silentio.pdf

Kierkegaard describes the biblical figure Abraham as a “knight of faith.” In the Bible, Abraham was told by God when he was 100 years old that he was going to have a son with his wife, Sarah, who was 90. The son’s name was Isaac. God promised Abraham that Isaac would have many, many descendants. After about thirteen years, Abraham was told by God to take his son and bring him to Mount Moriah (three day’s trek away) and kill him as a sacrifice to God. When Abraham got all the way to the mountain and then lifted his knife up to kill Isaac, God sent an angel to stop him. God accepted Abraham’s willingness to kill his beloved son as a sign of Abraham’s faith.

 

This story has caused many commentators to wonder about what the Bible meant. The Bible says that God was “testing” Abraham, but why? Was it to teach Abraham something? Was it to test how much Abraham feared God, or how much he loved God? Kierkegaard tries to understand the story by understanding what went through Abraham’s mind. Kierkegaard does not believe that Abraham was sure that God was only kidding around, or just testing him. Abraham was truly willing to kill Isaac and he truly believed he would have to do this. But Kierkegaard also says that Abraham never stopped believing that God would fulfill his promise that Isaac would have many, many descendants. He did not know how these two things would happen, but he had faith in God. Kierkegaard tries to understand the nature of this faith. How can you put two contradictory things together in your mind (God’s promise that Isaac will be the father of many descendants and God’s command to kill Isaac)?

 

The two contradictory things cancel one another out in the rational mind, but God can make both true. How? Kierkegaard uses the terms "finite" and "infinite." If you think in “finite” terms, then only one thing can be true (either God’s promise or God’s demand that Abraham kill Isaac). Either God’s promises are not to be trusted, or God does not really want Abraham to kill Isaac. Many readers of the story think, “God did not really want Abraham to kill Isaac. It was only a test.” OK, that may be true, but that’s not what Abraham was thinking. He didn’t know that it was a test. If he thought it was a test, it becomes a very easy test. Just go along with God and look like you're really going to kill your son. Then God will stop you and you'll have passed the test. But that's a ridiculous interpretation of the story, and Kierkegaard knows it. Abraham’s faith was so great that he thought, “God must be able to make a contradiction true without either thing being false.” Both X and not-X are true (Isaac will have many descendants and Isaac will die today before he has any children).  From a “finite” perspective, this is impossible. But from an “infinite” perspective, both things can be true. Think about a mathematical example: two parallel lines never meet; two parallel lines do meet. The meeting of two parallel lines cannot happen at any finite distance from where they start. But they can meet at an infinite distance from where they start. Infinity cancels the contradiction. Keep that example in mind as I explain how Kierkegaard argues that faith involves infinity.

 

The knight of faith “resigns” himself to God as making contradictory things true “in infinity.” The person’s mind is not infinite, so he cannot know how two contradictory things can be true in infinity, but he accepts this fact anyway. The question then arises, Why does Abraham have faith? How does he figure out that God can make contradictory things true “in infinity”? First of all, he has some evidence that God can do pretty remarkable things, like giving him and Sarah a child when they are 100 and 90 years old (and the Bible makes it clear that this is not a normal thing for people even back then). But that’s not “infinite.” It’s very unusual, but not impossible. If the chances of something happening are infinity to one, that means it’s impossible for it to happen. How does Abraham go from faith in God as able to do very improbable things to being able to do impossible things? This is key: Abraham makes a leap of faith. He goes from improbable  to impossible. To have faith in God, you must be able to follow Abraham’s leap. And the leap is not about just any sort of impossibility. It must be about the most impossible thing. Kierkegaard says that the most impossible thing is an ethical impossibility. The ethical impossibility is that you would kill your own child, the child you love more than anything else in the world. Wouldn’t you kill yourself before you do that? (Kierkegaard tells a version of the story where Abraham kills himself rather than his son.) Not only is it impossible for Isaac to have many descendants and also for Abraham to kill him, it is ethically impossible for Abraham to kill him. Abraham can have no good moral reason to kill his son, not even because God told him to do it. But Abraham does what is ethically impossible for him to do because of his faith. The infinite point where two contradictory things meet (God's promise and God's command to kill Isaac) is a point beyond the ethical dimension. 

 

So, what is the point of Kierkegaard's interpretation of the Bible story? Faith in God requires that you accept that God can make the ethically impossible thing true “in infinity." Faith is what takes you beyond the ethical into a relation with infinity. But the ethical, according to philosophers like Kant and Hegel, is the highest thing there is. It is the telos or goal of every human being’s action. It is what Kant says is the categorical imperative, what every rational being should do. It lifts a person out of the finite realm of personal desires and impulses and puts him in relation to the universal realm of Reason. But Kierkegaard thinks that faith is higher than the ethical. He says that faith requires “the teleological suspension of the ethical.” So God is beyond the ethical, too. The ethical, as Kant defines it, is Reason. It is the realm of the universally true. But God is beyond Reason because he can make contradictions true, like “I promise that Isaac will have many descendants” and “Kill Isaac now.” Kierkegaard does not want people to stop being reasonable or ethical. He wants people to see how faith in God is never going to be rational. But he wants people to see that being rational is good for making most decisions in life, but that sometimes it may be necessary for you to “suspend the ethical” and not be rational. According to Kierkegaard, Abraham in the normal world should be prosecuted for attempted murder, and anyone who acted as Abraham did today would be severely criticized. If someone killed his son because he says that God told him to do it, the person would be considered either guilty of murder of innocent by virtue of insanity. So, why does Kierkegaard hold Abraham up as a model for faith? I think that Kierkegaard would say that today no one should repeat what Abraham did. No one should kill anyone and certainly not his son to show God how much faith he has. Kierkegaard wants us to see that such faith is a great thing, but there must be another way to show it today.

Question:

How do you think Kierkegaard would want someone today to follow the example that Abraham set? How can someone today be a “knight of faith”?

Summary

This question belongs to religion and discusses about Kierkegaard’s explanation of Abraham as ‘Knight of Faith’.

Word count: 403

 

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