Soren Kierkegaard’s mistake about “faith”

 

The thrust of Soren Kierkegaard’s 1843 influential book “Fear and Trembling” is long reflections on Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac, a story told in Genesis 22. Kierkegaard concludes from his analysis that Abraham represents the prototype of faith, for he showed faith when he was willing to obey God’s command to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. Ethics, Kierkegaard stresses, clearly demands that a father not kill his son. But faith, he continues, is something higher than ethics and demands the “teleological suspension of the ethical,” with “teleological” meaning “purposeful” and “suspension” implying “a temporary pause.” He states that that the story teaches that morality must give way to faith, which is a higher level. The concept attributed to Kierkegaard, “leap of faith,” is derived from this analysis, one must leap over morality to the higher level “faith,” although the words do not appear in his book.

 

“Faith” is the acceptance as true an idea that is contrary to reason, the senses, and science. Although accepted today by many people as being necessary, it is not in the Hebrew Bible. It is a concept invented by Paul in the first century of the common era who wanted to convert non-Jews to Judaism. When Paul lived, Christianity was part of Judaism. The pagans did not want to convert because of the requirement that men be circumcised and other difficulties such as the mandate to eat kosher foods. Paul accepted them as non-fully-Jewish as long as they had faith in Jesus.

 

Kierkegaard’s analysis of the Abraham story of Genesis 22 to extoll “faith” is faulty. The story has nothing to do with “faith.”

 

There are two possible ways to understand the story. The first takes the story literally. Abraham actually heard God speak to him and demand that he kill Isaac. Abraham agreed to do so for how could a human who actually heard God’s command disobey the command? Abraham obeyed God not because of “faith” but out of fear to disobey the all-powerful deity. The story shows that Abraham obeyed God even when God demanded an act that caused him great pain.

 

The second way to understand the story is that God did not actually speak to Abraham. It reflects Abraham’s thinking. If so, again, his act has nothing to do with “faith.” Abraham looked at the pagans of his generation and saw that they showed their love of God by sacrificing to God what was dearest to them. Either in a dream or day-time thinking, he wondered whether he should do the same. At first he thought the pagans were right and God wanted the sacrifice of Isaac, but he then realized that God is not cruel and would not require that he murder his son to show love. This interpretation sees chapter 22 showing how Abraham rose higher in his understanding of God than his neighbors.

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