Kierkegaard: Faith and Ethics

So last week we ripped through Fear and Trembling at something of an indecent pace. I’d like to return to the idea of faith, and do it again in more detail, specifically digging into the idea of subjectivity. If you’re not familiar with the Abraham story, you can read last week’s post here. Basically God asks Abraham to kill his son, and Abraham agrees, but then God’s like “Nah, don’t do that, but I appreciate the commitment.”

So Kierkegaard begins by discussing the ethical in terms of the personal and the universal. Ethical laws apply to everyone, and when you’re following them you’re being obedient to these universal laws – so you’re expressing the universal in your actions. Sin is then defined as expressing the personal over the universal – you’re doing your own thing instead of acting according to the moral universal code. We as humans are more perfect the more we express the universal – that is, the more we do good things. As a theory it might strike us as kind of weird, because it identifies the personal with evil or negligence. It’s not really suggesting that personal things like self-confidence or self-interest are necessarily bad – it’s more just that when you’re doing good, you’re acting in accordance with a universal law, and when you’re not, you’re not. You don’t have to agree with it (and I’m not saying I do either) – it’s just interesting to understand.

This is where the example of Brutus comes into the picture. He’s seeen as an exemplary figure, because he adheres to the universal even when it comes at great personal cost. His sons basically get involved in a rebellion, and he has to put them to death, because that’s the law for treason. So he enforces the law (read as ‘the universal’) even though it’s desperately against his own personal interest. The harder it is for him, the more great his action is, because the more costly it is for him to act in that way. The personal is subordinated to the universal even to his own detriment.

According to Kierkegaard, the movement of faith involves a paradox. If ethical behaviour is subordinating the personal to the universal, faith involves subordinating the universal to the personal again. This is where Abraham comes into the picture – he’s asked to sacrifice Isaac. I mentioned the comparison with the rich young man last time – there’s a dude in the Gospels who wants to be more perfect, and Jesus tells him to sell all his stuff, and the guy goes off sad because he’s rich and he doesn’t want to. It’s often used as an example of how the life of faith demands everything of its believers. Kierkegaard notes that the rich young man story is often wrongly equated with the binding of Isaac – in both situations, people say, they were asked to give their best. Isaac was the best of Abraham, and so it’s what he was asked to sacrifice. Kierkegaard suggests that this sort of misses the ethical aspect of Abraham, because Abraham’s literally asked to murder his son. That’s not the same as giving up your extra cash – there’s actually an ethical imperative, a universal imperative, not to do that specific thing.

This, then, is Kierkegaard’s paradox of faith. The personal is subordinated to the universal, but then the universal in turn is subordinated again to the personal. This is where subjectivity enters the picture. Ethics is (relatively) simple, in the sense that it’s everybody just doing what’s right. We might not always agree on what’s right in all circumstances, but you can generally find certain examples that just about everybody agrees are either moral or immoral. Faith, by contrast, is personal, private, and subjective. Sarah wouldn’t have understood what God said to Abraham unless He said it to her too – she probably would’ve thought that her husband had gone crazy and decided to kill their son. Kierkegaard draws on the inexplicability of Abraham’s actions to suggest that there’s no way to communicate the content of an individual faith. It doesn’t make sense from an objective perspective – or even an external one.

In this regard, the suggestion is that faith is infinitely lonely. We are alone before God, unable to communicate the content of our relationship to other people. That’s not to say that Christian community is redundant – it’s just saying that your relationship with God is, to some degree, incoherent even to other believers. There are things about your faith that you can’t communicate or convey.

Further, it introduces the theme of movement into faith. Kierkegaard talks about the three day journey to the mountain where Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac, and implies that the journey is significant to faith. It wouldn’t have been any good if Abraham had just taken Isaac out the back and sacrificed him there – the journey is significant. For Kierkegaard, the journey represents movement in response to faith. It’s not enough to believe – there has to be a movement, one characterised by anxiety. Kierkegaard imagines the uncertainty that Abraham must have felt throughout that journey – could he be sure that he was doing the right thing? If you can’t explain your faith, if you’re alone before God, how do you know whether you’re actually doing His will? There’s a delightful passage where Kierkegaard imagines Abraham repenting and “turning back to the universal”. Too anxious to live in the realm of faith, Abraham beats a retreat back to the known, to the universal or ‘mere’ morality.

That anxiety is a significant element of faith for Kierkegaard, due to the subjectivity of faith, and I imagine we’ll come back to it in a later text. To sum up: Kiekegaard sees faith as inexplicable, paradoxical in the subordination of the universal to the personal, and deeply intimate, rendering each person alone before God. Faith gets described as “inaccessible to thought”. It also doesn’t make sense if you don’t take the concept of God seriously. God is, in this system, the saving grace that stops faith just being people acting crazy and doing their own shit. If God is real, then faith works, in the sense that we are (theoretically) acting in response to God, as best we know how.  If God’s not real, well, then the whole thing’s a waste of time, isn’t it.

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