Abraham and Religious Faith – Review of Fear and Trembling Written by Kierkgeaard
In Fear and Trembling, Johannes de Silentio mentioned a story. God tempted Abraham and asked him to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to him. When Abraham had shown his willingness to sacrifice his son and hold the knife, God sent an angel to stop him. Finally, they go back home together peacefully.
Johannes de Silentio argues that Abraham is remarkable because there is a paradox between what the preachers always preach and the traditional ethics, but not because Abraham is willing to offer the best thing he has to the God. People ignore the ‘anxiety’ in Abraham’s story.
Abraham’s story is always glorious no matter how poorly it is understood. Johannes de Silentio wrote that:
We glorify Abraham, but how? We recite the whole story in clichés: “The great thing was that he loved God in such a way that he was willing to offer him the best.” (F&T, 28)
Johannes de Silentio thinks that the term “the best” is a vague term. Although Abraham loves his son more than anyone, still, Isaac cannot be interchanged with “the best”. Johannes de Silentio uses the example of the rich man whom Jesus met along the way to explain his idea (F&T, 28). On the street, the young man leaved upset because he didn’t want to give away all his possessions. However, even if he did what Jesus said, he cannot become another Abraham. This is because that to money, men don’t have ethical obligation; but to the son, the father has the highest and holiest ethical obligation. If people ignore the anxiety happened through the sacrifice, then they might misunderstand the story.
The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that e meant to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac—but precisely in this contradiction is the anxiety that can make a person sleepless, and yet without this anxiety Abraham is no who he is. (F&T, 30)
When God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham is surely going to the Mount Moriah with faith. If Abraham lacks faith, then he will get nothing. His faith is the individual one, which cannot be understood by others. Ethically, a father should not kill his own son, but his faith requires him to sacrifice his son. Compare to the tragic hero Agamemnon, who sacrificed his daughter to Goddess for the war, his faith is a higher level. When Agamemnon decided to sacrifice his daughter, his soldiers understood his choice, and his decision is still within the ethical. While the tragic hero is great because of his moral virtue, Abraham is great because of a pure personal virtue (F&T, 59). Abraham’s story shows the paradox of the personal faith and ethics, and Johannes de Silentio believes that the individual faith always transcends the ethical.
Johannes de Silentio also claims that the God is love. During the journey to the Mount Moriah, Abraham believes that God will not take his son, and yet he is willing to sacrifice him if it was demanded. This kind of faith is kind of absurd, because it’s absurd for God, who demanded the sacrifice of Isaac, rescinds his requirement in the next moment. This faith and b is connected with absurdity, and the meaning of absurdity is that it lacks the possibility of being understood by others, but still appears as a fact.
But what did Abraham do? He arrived neither too early nor too late. He mounted the ass, he rode slowly down the road…No doubt he was surprised at the outcome, but through a double-movement he had attained his first condition, and therefore he received Isaac more joyfully than the first time. (F&T, 36)
Usually, God is always the representation of the ethics. Abraham’s story is actually the conflict of faith and ethics. In this situation, Johannes de Silentio argues that the individual transcends the ethical.
Ethics is eternal because of its universality because everyone can understand and accept it. Faith is internal because of its individuality, it cannot be adequately described or expressed and it’s difficult to understand for others. What Johannes de Silentio pursued was to set aside time, to pursue eternal purity and to get the courage to stop with the absurdity and faith (F&T, 33), and thus to obtain eternal Isaac like what Abraham did. It is true that this kind of resignation is painful and lonely, but only such persistence can maintain God’s love and faith. Only in this way can one reach the highest state of a person, in another word, the knight of the faith.
Kierkgeaard, Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard’s Writings volume XXI.1, ed. & trans. H.V. Hong, et.al. Princeton University Press: 1983.