A Critique of Kierkegaard's View of Faith
Philosophy of Religion - April 1998
In his passionate analysis of the Abraham story, Soren Abbey Kierkegaard, brings forth a seemingly radical conception of faith. For Kierkegaard, faith is not some formula concocted out of a natural theologian's caldron. Faith is not something we reach after all rational inquiry about the divine has been satisfied. Rather, faith is a leap in to the absurd. The act of faith is an act in which the individual places his absolute trust upon something, even though that something cannot possible be. Herein lies Kierkegaard's paradox of faith. In this essay, my goal is to try to explicate this paradoxical notion of faith defended in Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling. This will be followed by my explanation as to why I am convinced of the deficiency of this conception of faith.
The Paradox of Faith
There is certainly no lack of enthusiasm in Kierkegaard's exposition of faith. As an existentialist, the personal aspect of faith is crucial for him. Fighting against the lack of personal involvement in the Hegelian conception of religion, Kierkegaard does not fail to emphasize the need for a passionate personal involvement with the divine.
Drawing the threads of the biblical story in which Abraham was ordered by God to sacrifice Isaac, Kierkegaard argues that there is something about faith that requires absurdity. In the Abraham story, he sees Abraham as someone going against a universal ethical principle to fulfill an unwavering devotion to God. Abraham's faith led him to go against the universal principle that fathers at all times should nurture, not murder, their children. For Kierkegaard, Abraham had to choose the absurd. Knowing that murdering Isaac would be wrong, Abraham carried out God's order anyway. What makes this even more absurd is the fact that God is supposed to be good. Now how can a good God possibly order such a monstrous act? Such an order seems to be a clear contradiction to the good nature of God. This paradox, however, is exactly where faith for Kierkegaard derives its authenticity. Abraham, in this case, must believe that God's order to sacrifice Isaac is good, even though the act is obviously evil.
Faith for Kierkegaard requires believing in something which you know to be impossible. He provides us with an illustration of a knight who falls in love with a princess. Knowing that there's no way in the world a relationship can ever be established with the royal princess, the knight plunges himself into the absurd belief that somehow he shall have that relationship with her. Being convinced of the impossibility of such a relationship, the knight of faith persists and says, "I nevertheless believe that I shall get here, namely on the strength of the absurd, on the strength of the fact that for God all things are possible."
The paradox underlying a situation is what fuels the movement of faith. This embracing of the absurd is what makes faith authentic for Kierkegaard. This hope is not a hope for that which is improbable, unexpected, or unforeseen, but a hope for this which is impossible. Furthermore, the individual must be convinced of its impossibility. In the act of faith, the individual "admits the impossibility and at the same time believes the absurd…."
In Abraham's case, he was convinced of the absurdity of God's order to sacrifice Isaac. God is supposed to be a Deity of love, not one who demands the bloodshed of your loved one. God is supposed to be the great Sustainer who nurtures, instead of murders. How then can such a God turn around and betray such admirable attributes? Here in this paradox is where the individual can find the strength to achieve the movement of faith.
Critique of Kierkegaard's View on Faith
As a serious student of natural theology, I cannot bring myself to accept Kierkegaard's conception of faith. I truly admire Kierkegaard's emphasis on personal commitment to the divine, but I don't think his extremism is glorifying to God. I don't see why leaping into the absurd is in anyway a necessary action to take if one is to have faith. It seems to me that Kierkegaard has failed to show that reason has deemed belief in God so absurd that one must leap blindly into the abyss of superstition in order to have faith. What seems to have motivated Kierkegaard's non-rational view on faith is the apparent teleological suspension of the ethical in the Abraham story. Let us, therefore, examine the ethics involved in this story to see whether Kierkegaard has good reasons to regard faith as a leap into the absurd.
What troubles Kierkegaard most about this story is that Abraham seems to have acted against a universal ethical standard, which is to nurture your son rather than to murder him. Abraham's assent to carry out God's order shows that he was willing to go beyond this universal standard. Kierkegaard sees a problem in this. A universal standard is supposed to apply to everybody. Kierkegaard tells us that "As soon as the single individual wants to assert himself in his particularity, in direct opposition to the universal, he sins…." So what can we make of this bold act by Abraham? Has he committed a sin by going against the universal ethical standard? This is where Abraham's faith, according to Kierkegaard, is crucial. Abraham, being convinced of the impossibility of any goodness in the command to murder Isaac, nevertheless goes on to carryout the order.
Let me provide two reasons why I am not at all convinced of any suspension of the ethical in the Abraham story. First of all, two scriptural passages indicate to us that Abraham was assured that at the end of God's test, Isaac will be alive and well. Let us examine both of these passages.
(7)Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, "My father!" And he said, "Here I am, my son." And he said, "Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" (8)Abraham said, "God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son…" (Genesis 22-7-8).
This scripture passage suggests that Abraham was assured that Isaac will not have to be sacrificed at the altar. This seems to be the direct meaning conveyed by the author. The alternative to this would be that Abraham is lying to Isaac so as not to frighten him. This latter interpretation, however, does not fit in the context of Abraham's unwavering devotion to a God who despises lying lips (Proverbs 12:22). Given that the writer of this account has the intention of eventually exalting Abraham for his great faith, it is highly unlikely that he would have Abraham tell a lie within this account. Thus, the interpretation that Abraham was assured that Isaac was going to come out alive is eminently more plausible. Let's move on to the second passage.
(17)By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; (18)it was he to whom it was said, "In Isaac your descendants shall be called." (19)He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead…" (Hebrews 11:17-19).
The second passage suggests that Abraham was confident that even if God was to allow the sacrifice to take place, this all-powerful Deity would raise Isaac from the dead. Either way, God's earlier promise that Isaac was to be the way through which nations of descendants will be fathered by Abraham is not violated or repealed.
The second reason why I am not convinced of any teleological suspension of the ethical in the Abraham story is the fact that the biblical account nowhere states that God ordered Abraham to murder Isaac. The biblical account relates the following:
(1)Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, Abraham! And he said, "Here I am." (2)He said, Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you. (Genesis 22:1-2).
The command to give up Isaac as a burnt offering to the Lord is far from an act of murder, which is a sin. Murder, which is a killing with malice aforethought, is in no way part of the commandment issued by God.
Kierkegaard trivializes the difference between these notions as nothing but a contrast between an ethical expression and a religious one. He writes, "The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he was willing to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he was willing to sacrifice Isaac…." Kierkegaard fails to realize that there's a world of difference between the two. The Hebrew word utilized by the writer to denote burnt offering in this account is "alah". This word is in no way associated with an act of murder. If the writer of this account felt the need to denote an act of murder, he/she would have used the word "ratsach". This latter word is the one we find in Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17 where God specifically prohibits the act of murder. With this liguistic analysis into consideration, the more plausible view is that the universal ethical standard which condemns the act of murder is not at all violated by Abraham's carrying out of God's order. This would be true even if God had allowed Abraham to actually take away the life of Isaac at the altar.
It can be objected at this point that even though God's command did not involve a murderous intent, it was still wrong due to the fact that it involved human sacrifice. This objection is easily answered by my first point. Abraham was assured that Isaac was going to come out of that test alive and well.
To this rejoinder, the critic can further press me by asking about the ethical status of a man who drives a dagger into his son's chest after being convinced that God will raise the son from the dead. It seems that this would indeed be a problem for my traditional Jewish and Islamic friends, who both accept the Abraham story as veridical and deny the sacrificial atonement of Christ. For the Christian, however, Christ's sacrifice was the ultimate sacrifice. That sacrifice, in the Christian view, is the only one that is acceptable to God the Father. So in that case, if a man claims that God has assured him that his son will be raised after he sacrifices him, the Christian can be assured that he is either lying or psychotic. The reason is that such a sacrifice was not desired by the Christian God. Christ's sacrifice was the final sacrifice for the atonement of sins. God desires no further sacrifices.
I believe these two reasons I have presented constitute strong refutation against Kierkegaard's claim that Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac was beyond or against the universal. No universal ethical standard was violated in Abraham's act of faith. In this case, there is nothing absurd about this situation. The scenario is simple: God wanted to test Abraham's degree of devotion to Him. Period! God's order for Isaac to be offered as a burnt offering does not in anyway call into question the goodness of God. Abraham did not have to believe in the absurdity that an all-good God had ordered him to commit an evil act. God's goodness was clear to Abraham all along.
In this essay, I have provided an explication of why faith is paradoxical in the eye's of Soren Abbey Kierkegaard. Faith is a paradox for him because it requires the individual to believe in something which he knows quite well is impossible. In the case of Abraham, Kierkegaard regards his faith as paradoxical because he had to believe that God is love in the midst of a monstrous command to supposedly murder Isaac.
In refutation to this view of faith, I argued that Kierkegaard was convinced of the paradoxical nature of faith because of the teleological suspension of the ethical in the Abraham story. I then presented two reasons why I think there is no such suspension in the Abraham story.
It seems that the more plausible view is that one does not have to leap into the absurd in order to have faith in God. I am convinced that God has made Himself very well known to each and every one of us through many of the aspects of His creation. I really don't think it glorifies God to say that faith in Him is rationally absurd, given that logic is supposed to be an attribute of His (John 1:1).
Now I want be emphasize as strongly as I can that by my contending that the act of faith is a rational one, I am not at all undermining the existential aspect of faith. I think Kierkegaard is sharp to point out that many of us have lost touch with the personal facet of religious devotion. I would be the last to deny the significance of this aspect. I just don't think the Christian must choose one over the other. My two years of study in the area of Christian apologetics has convinced me that the Christian should be very thankful for having the opportunity to be both existentially and intellectually involved in his or her faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.