Kierkegaard: Abraham Did What?

Let’s get on with Fear and Trembling, then. There’s a bunch of other stuff from Either/Or to cover, but some of it will come up in other books, so I’m not desparately worried. Fear and Trembling was published in 1843, and it covers the story of Abraham and Isaac, and tries to explain in what sense Abraham could’ve done what he did.

If you’re not familiar with the story, God basically turns up and asks Abraham to take his son up a mountain and kill him. Abraham sort of agrees, and off he goes (without telling his son or his wife what’s going on). It’s particularly difficult, because Abraham and his wife are like ninety, and Isaac is a miracle child. Anyway, they get up the mountain, Abraham ties his son up, and then an angel appears and goes ‘Whoa, Nelly. You passed. There’s a ram over there; you can kill that instead.’ They sacrifice the ram, return home, and all is well. As a story, it provides an easy reason for the anti-religious to hate Christianity. What a crazy god, they might shout. It is difficult to see any justification; I’ll try and deal with Kierkegaard’s work with that in mind, but there’s also an element of patience that’s required.

One of the first things that Kierkegaard notes is that, as a non-believer might appreciate, the story of Abraham doesn’t make sense. A series of alternate versions are imagined: Abraham throws Isaac to the ground and pretends to be a heretic – “But below his breath Abraham said to himself: “Lord in heaven I thank Thee; it is after all better that he believe I am a monster than that he lose faith in Thee.” Alternately, Abraham surrenders his faith: “he could not forget that God had demanded this of him… Abraham’s eye was darkened, he saw joy no more.” It all revolves around the fact that asking someone to literally murder their son is just unethical – and it is unethical. Killing is a thing that you shouldn’t do.

There’s a distinction drawn between Abraham and the example of the rich young man in Mark 10. In Mark, a dude comes up to Jesus and is like “How can I get into heaven?” Jesus says “Sell literally everything and come and follow me,” and the guy goes away kinda traumatised because he likes his stuff. It’s often drawn on as an example of the uncompromising commitment to God that’s part and parcel of the faith. Abraham’s case, however, is not the same. While the guy just liked his stuff, and wasn’t ready to sort of reject everything (which is, to be clear, a big deal in and of itself), Abraham actually has an ethical obligation to his son. Parents look after their children – that bond is one of the most significant in society. It’s not the case that Abraham is simply ‘giving God his best’ in the same way as the rich young man, because Abraham was actually asked to murder his own child. He was asked to transgress one of the highest ethical codes.

Similarly, it’s not the case that Abraham was subsuming one ethical code in service of a second, higher one. The example is raised of Brutus and his sons – not the famous murdering-Caesar Brutus, but another dude, some 500 years earlier. Basically his sons were caught in a treasonous plot and he had to condemn them to death. They were condemned and executed, and he was upset as all fuckin’ hell, but he did it, because it was  the ‘right’ thing to do. Brutus is referred to as a ‘tragic hero’, who basically stays within the realm of the ethical. Abraham, by contrast, does not. There’s no ethical reason to kill Isaac.

Let’s clarify here – the focus is not on God and the ramifications of God’s actions. It’s purely focused on Abraham. Abraham believed that God was asking him to kill Isaac – and so he “overstepped the ethical altogether”. This is the definition of faith put forward: Abraham oversteps or suspends the ethical in pursuit of something higher. ‘Oversteps’ is a precise phrase, because it suggests that ethics has not been abandoned. This is key to the argument: faith is only considered as such because it takes place in the midst of paradox. In ethical terms, it’s murder; but in religious terms, it’s sacrifice. Kierkegaard writes that “in this contradiction lies the very anguish that can indeed make one sleepless; and yet without that anguish Abraham is not the one he is.” If Abraham simply abandoned morality and went off and murdered his son, it wouldn’t be faith. That’d just be a crazy person who’d abandoned morality: “if you simply remove faith… there remains only the raw fact that Abraham was willing to murder Isaac, which is easy enough for anyone without faith to imitate”. The paradox is that Abraham does not abandon ethics – so he’s in a constant state of tension between ethics and the instruction of the divine.

The final element is absurdity – Abraham believes, absurdly, that God will not require him to actually kill Isaac. He goes to obey God, and is drawn thereby into overstepping ethics and entering into the realm of paradox, but he believes nonetheless that God will maintain His character – that at the last, God will not force him to go through with it. The whole thing is senseless, illogical, and isolating, in the sense that it cannot be understood from the perspective of another. This is where the individuality of Kierkegaard’s idea of faith comes into play. According to this theory, each individual stands alone before God, because the precise nature of their faith is unintelligible to other people. It’s not always necessarily as extreme as ‘Kill your only child’, but there is a personal individual aspect to it.

There’s also a bunch of serious caveats etc, and the whole idea is more complicated and detailed, but also this is a thousand word post, so I’m trying to keep it as sparse as possible. The core of the argument is that either Abraham’s life has some sort of moral to it, or he’s just a crazy would-be murderer. In the fact that Abraham was willing to murder his child because he thought God told him to, either there’s something to learn, or he’s just insane – and if he’s insane, we should probably stop talking about him.

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