“Faith” In Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Part II

This is Part II of my paper on “Faith” in Kierkegaard, which is probably best to read after you have at least glanced over Part I.

When Johannes undertakes this question of faith, he acknowledges that often philosophy has despised faith and considered it something lesser, particularly in light of the Hegelian notion of Reason. He hints at this as he begins to unpack what he considers faith,

“Faith in such a case keeps fairly ordinary company, it belongs with feeling, mood, idiosyncrasy, hysteria and the rest. So far philosophy is right to say one should not stop at that. But there is nothing to warrant philosophy’s speaking in this manner. Prior to faith there is a movement of infinity, and only then enters faith, unexpectedly, on the strength of the absurd. This I am very well able to understand, without claiming thereby to have faith… Faith’s paradox is his, that the single individual is higher than the universal, that the single individual determines his relation to the universal through his relation to the absolute, not his relation to the absolute through his relation to the universal.”

Now focusing on this particular, and at least to me most confusing line, “Faith’s paradox is this, that the single individual is higher than the universal.” What does Johannes mean? He picks up this topic again soon after,

“Thus when we see someone do something that doesn’t conform with the universal, we say, ‘He can hardly be doing that for the sake of G-d,’ meaning by this that he did it for his own sake. The paradox of faith has lost its intermediate term, i.e. the universal. On the one hand it contains the expression of extreme egoism (doing this dreadful deed for his own sake) and on the other the expression of the most absolute devotion (doing it for G-d’s sake). Faith itself cannot be mediated into the universal, for in that case it would be cancelled. Faith is this paradox, and the single individual is quite unable to make himself intelligible to anyone.”

It begins to be made clear what Johannes takes to be faith. For Johannes, faith is that which can only confront individuals and never the universal. Specifically that faith is what makes the individual unable to be understood by anyone else. It is the individual’s duty to the Absolute. Or as Johannes puts it above, doing it for G-d’s sake. Johannes seems convinced that faith cannot be understood by anyone other than the one acting on faith in this particular instance. So if faith for Johannes can be understood as an unintelligible leap, positing the individual higher than the universal, acting upon the strength of the absurd for G-d’s sake, than how does this interpretation fit into the Abraham and Isaac story?

Now knowing his definition of faith, it begins to become clear how Johannes’ draws from and relates this definition to the story of Abraham and Isaac. In short Abraham has a duty to the Absolute, a duty to G-d. This duty contradicts the ethical which is the universal and consequently renders Abraham unintelligible to any who inspect his actions. Abraham knows only his duty to the Absolute and choose to leap into the absurd for G-d’s sake alone. This is precisely why Abraham’s act of sacrificing Isaac is so difficult to understand and interpret. Because faith renders the individual, in this case Abraham, unintelligible! Johannes feels it is useless to speculate on how to rationally explain what Abraham did because what he did is not part of the universal. It cannot be understood by any, not even those who feel they are in a similar situation. Any attempt using reason to explain Abraham’s actions would be futile and would indeed be misunderstanding faith so far as Johannes is concerned.

Johannes’ definition of faith and his interpretation of the Abraham and Isaac story are both well articulated and satisfactory. His position is very understandable and obviously holds great appeal to many people. The question now becomes, whether or not this is a responsible definition of faith, and whether or not this is a biblical definition of faith. These questions are more closely related than one might think. As I mentioned at the beginning of this paper, although I respect and whole heartedly understand what would lead Johannes to this kind of definition of faith and interpretation of the Abraham story, I must disagree with what he has arrived at. Namely for the reasons stated earlier, that this promotes an intellectually irresponsible notion of faith. I will now attempt to provide a different definition of faith and defend why is it more sufficient than Johannes’ definition.

Let me begin by clearly stating what I am arguing. This being that faith must be grounded  in some amount of reasonability. To more clearly define what I mean by reasonability let me say that reasonability is the witness or experience of those we have found to be trustworthy authorities. To make this even more clear, I will be arguing that Abraham does not act irrationally , or in a way that cannot be explained universally, by obeying G-d and going to sacrifice Isaac but that he was acting on the witness of a trustworthy authority. My definition of faith therefore is a belief that is based on trusting good authority. Now why should the reader accept this definition of faith? Firstly because it is grounded in a sufficient amount of reasonability. Although it most likely was not Johannes’ intention, the definition of faith he has given us is one that leaves reason quite out of the picture. The danger here is that some might be tempted to turn to faith as a kind of epistemic thing, claiming that they have faith in a certain being’s existence and they need not explain themselves to anyone. Or that a particular action of their’s need not be explainable or rational to anyone else. Faith must necessarily be reasonable and explainable to at least some small degree. Consider the following analogy which is not perfectly applicable to the Abraham and Isaac story but will help further explain my definition of faith and set up its application to the Abraham story.

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