1 — Kierkegaard the Quiet
Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling is a disconcerting book, not only to its readers but also to its pseudonymous author, Johannes de Silentio, John of Silence. Johannes tries to understand the faith of Abraham, father of nations, but in the end cannot embrace the paradoxes it embodies. Johannes’s name is well chosen. In the end, he remains quiet.
If we take Kierkegaard at his word that his authorship was essentially religious, even in its beginnings in the “aesthetic” works, and if we take Johannes at his word that he does not find faith to be possible for him, or Abraham to make sense for him, then the nature of the faith described, articulated, and defended in Fear and Trembling raises all sorts of questions. It also fails to definitively answer any of them. Are we all, then, whether we believe or not, consigned to Johannes’s silence?
While he admits he can’t understand him, Johannes nonetheless admires Abraham, the central character of the work, as a Knight of Faith. Yet Johannes portrays Abraham’s intended sacrifice of Isaac, at God’s command, to be ethically abominable, on any workable account of the Ethical. Fear and Trembling gets stranger still when Johannes tries to parse the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, as falling under a “teleological suspension of the ethical” — a suspension that he finds not only cogent but praiseworthy, even as he cannot himself make that leap. Is Johannes saying that it is God’s command, and God’s command alone, that matters — that if God commands human sacrifice, we are duty bound to comply? Or is he using the Akedah as an allegory of what faith really is, and how to distinguish it from simulacra of faith? Can one determine this on the basis of the text itself?
Is Johannes confessing his failure to understand Abraham’s faith to be a fault of his own, his inability to carry out a suspension of the ethical? If he acknowledges it as his fault, why, then, can he not take the leap of faith? Is he raising questions about the teleological suspension of the ethical even as he is defending it?
By having Johannes “author” Fear and Trembling, is Kierkegaard playing games with his readership — shocking them yet never softening the blow of seeing the teleological suspension of the ethical as something that can condone murder on the grounds that God commands it? Or is Kierkegaard making another, indirect point, as he so often does? And if so, why is it hard to tease-out just what that point might be?
2 — Kierkegaard and the Suspension of the Ethical
One way of interpreting the problematic of Fear and Trembling is to classify Kierkegaard as a fideistic irrationalist, cut from the same bolt of cloth as Tertullian, who claimed “Credo quia absurdam” — I believe because it is absurd. While I shall argue that, ultimately, this is not the case, the text of Fear and Trembling does lend some measure of support to such a reading. Johannes does defend Abraham, without advancing any reasons for doing so. He insists that Abraham is greater than a hero, while performing an action that is the opposite of heroic. This is absurd, but Johannes does not see the absurdity as disqualifying. Abraham is glorious in his absurdity.
Johannes contrasts Abraham with tragic heroes like Marcus Junius Brutus, who executed his own sons after they were found guilty of a conspiracy to restore the rule of the Tarquins, or Agamemnon of Thebes, who sacrificed Iphigenia to ensure the victory of the Greeks over the Trojans. Agamemnon and Brutus, like the biblical king Jephthah, intentionally killed their children, and in doing so suffered mightily, but their actions were rationalizable: this is why they are tragic heroes rather than fathers of faith. They could argue that they killed their dearest for the sake of a higher obligation to the polis, res publica, or kingdom. They may or may not have been justified in their convictions — certainly Agamemnon received the ultimate payback for acting on them — but they could provide plausible if not decisive reasons for their actions. Abraham has no such reason: in old age and without progeny, God promised him Isaac, who would be a “father of nations”. Now God demands the sacrifice of Isaac, whom Abraham loves more than anything else in the world, and whom Abraham understands to be the archē of the Jewish people. God is not only demanding something contrary to his own promise: he is demanding a murder. Yet Abraham obeys, not just despite but because of the absurdity:
[The] fact remains that Abraham represents faith, and that faith finds its proper expression in him whose life is not only the most paradoxical conceivable, but so paradoxical that it simply cannot be thought. He acts on the strength of the absurd. . . On the strength of the absurd he got Isaac back. Abraham is therefore at no instant the tragic hero, but something quite different, either a murderer or a man of faith. The middle-term that saves the tragic hero [i.e., the legitimating political circumstances — LMN] is something Abraham lacks. That is why I can understand a tragic hero, but not Abraham, even though in a certain lunatic sense I admire him more than all others. (Fear and Trembling, Penguin Classics edition, trans. Alasdair Hannay, pp. 82–83).
It is humanly, if not logically, absurd to simultaneously think that God demands Isaac’s life and that Abraham will somehow “get Isaac back” in this life. The conclusion of the Abraham narrative, however, vindicates Abraham’s absurd faith-as-trust in God’s word: Abraham does get Isaac back, Abraham proves his faith, and God keeps the promise made. Abraham does not merely go through the motions of sacrifice: his hand is stilled only at the last possible moment, and he feels all the agony that goes along with acting to bring about his only child’s death. At no time does Abraham hedge his intention to kill Isaac with the comforting thought that “God is just testing me: I won’t really have to follow-through.” If he were to do that, then the sacrificial intention evaporates: he does not intend to kill Isaac: he is gambling that the Akedah is just God’s sick joke, and he will play along and call God’s bluff. In which case, as John Caputo wittily puts it, Abraham is not the father of faith, but the father of poker.
Johannes is clear: if Abraham’s paradoxical faith is not vindicated, Abraham is a simple murderer:
This is the paradox which cannot be mediated. How [Abraham] got into it is just as inexplicable as how he stayed in it. If this is not how it is with Abraham, then he is not even a tragic hero but a murderer. To want to go on calling him the father of faith, to talk of this to those who are only concerned with words, is thoughtless. (p. 91).
How, then, does Abraham’s paradoxical faith exculpate him? It doesn’t — not really. “Exculpate” implies a guilty action that can be nullified: it thus remains firmly within the Ethical sphere. But Johannes argues that for Kierkegaard the Ethical sphere is not the highest, and Abraham’s greatness lies in his contextualizing the Ethical figure against the Religious ground, in an absolute duty to God:
While, then, the tragic hero is great through his deed’s being an expression of the ethical life, Abraham is great through an act of purely personal virtue. . . Then why does Abraham do it? For God’s sake, and what is exactly the same, for his own. He does it for the sake of God because God demands this proof of his faith; he does it for his own sake in order to be able to produce the proof. The unity here is quite properly expressed in the saying in which this relationship has always been described: it is a trial, a temptation. A temptation, but what does that mean? What we usually call a temptation is something that keeps a person from carrying out a duty, but here the temptation is the ethical itself which would keep him from doing God’s will. But then what is the duty? For the duty is precisely the expression of God’s will.
It’s important to re-emphasize that when carrying out his “absolute duty to God”, a duty which transcends and thus entails a “Teleological Suspension of the Ethical”, Abraham acts trusting that “he will get Isaac back”, that God keeps the promises God makes. In short, Abraham trusts that while the Religious sphere teleologically suspends the ethical, it does not obliterate it. Abraham’s religious trust in God turns what would be a murder into a religious sacrifice, which is then transformed into a blessing since God keeps promises. Abraham intends the sacrifice, but believes that his God is not evil, not a Moloch or Nobodaddy. God is trustworthy, faith just is that trust. While Abraham knows not how, God will make sure he, and the future people of Israel, will get Isaac back.
In human terms — that is, in the terms of universal morality or social ethics — we might think we are dutifully constructing a morally praiseworthy self, but we can never be confident that we are actually achieving this goal. The Ethical standpoint is a shaky one, resting as it does on human finitude and frailty and sinfulness. Faith gives us a kind of saving obedience to the One who transcends this paltry finitude and sinfulness. God saves from our always clumsy efforts at being ethical. So Faith is paradoxical in that, by transcending the Ethical sphere, it enables us to be ethical while understanding we will forever fail to accomplish this. Abraham acknowledged this paradox and lived by it. For Johannes, this establishes his greatness beyond heroism.
3 — Kierkegaard and Fideistic Irrationalism
Paradox is one thing, incoherence another. A paradox — like Epimenides’ “Liar” or Russell’s “set of all sets not members of themselves”, does not abolish logic, it merely challenges us to try to make it fit, whether we succeed in doing so or not. Paradoxes are odd, but they are not insane. Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms, and Kierkegaard himself, employs the trope of paradox frequently: we run up against the wall surrounding systematic rationality, and come to an abrupt stop. You can admits the limits of reason without conceding defeat to irrationality: Thomas Aquinas on religious language and Kant on the legitimate range for applying the categories of the understanding are key examples of this. Is Kierkegaard doing the same for the Religious sphere? Or, contrary to his intentions and self-understanding, is he dabbling in the discourse of the irrational and the mad?
In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre suggested that Kierkegaard is not just dallying on the verge of irrationalism: he succumbs to it. He truly is a fideistic irrationalist, and this is not a compliment.
For MacIntyre, the passage from the Aesthetic stage through the Ethical towards the Religious, which begins in Either/Or and culminates in Fear and Trembling, is driven by radical, criterionless choice. The self, shaping itself, relating itself to itself, emerges through resolute choices grounded in nothing other than the self’s own subjectivity. Choosing the Ethical over the Aesthetic, and “suspending” the Ethical in response to the Religious duty to God, is ultimately without reason, but to the extent that it is thus arbitrary, one has no reason to be persuaded by Kierkegaard’s narrative of “stages on life’s way”:
[The] doctrine of Enten-Eller [i.e., Either/Or] is plainly to the effect that the principles which depict the ethical way of life are to be adopted for no reason, but for a choice that lies beyond reasons, just because it is the choice of what is to count for us as a reason. Yet the ethical is to have authority over us. . . Kierkegaard no longer attempts to justify morality at all . . . where they [i.e., Kant, Hume, Diderot, and Rousseau] appeal to characteristics of the passions or of reason, he invokes what he takes to be characteristics of fundamental decision-making. (After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, pp. 42, 52).
If the passage from the Aesthetic to the Ethical is made through arbitrary, criterionless choice, so to is the passage from the Ethical to the Religious. The so-called “leap of faith” is made in the dark. What Johannes de Silentio admires about Abraham is his willingness to subdue his reason for the sake of acting in concordance with the will of God. Faith, then, does not just transcend reason: it opposes it. Credo quia absurdam. For MacIntyre, this is unacceptable, because it reduces morality to what I choose, whatever that might be. I agree with MacIntyre that this is unacceptable. But is this what Kierkegaard is proposing?
4 — Kierkegaard, Incommensurability, and Immanent Critique
MacIntyre is on to something in Kierkegaard, a point to which I shall return in the conclusion of this essay. But to say that the passage from the Aesthetic to the Ethical in Either/Or is arbitrary and criterionless misses a very important point, one that transfers easily to the argument of Fear and Trembling about what is higher than the Ethical. Since A and B in Either/Or are arguing about what is to count as a good reason, we must not assume that the cases they will advance will be persuasive to their counterpart. Their cases are this incommensurable in much the same way that Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, argued that theories embedded in competing scientific paradigms are not commensurable. Richard Rorty’s definition of “commensurability” in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature remains the clearest:
By “commensurable” I mean able to be brought under a set of rules which will tell us how rational agreement can be reached on what would settle the issue on every point where statements seem to conflict. (p. 316).
Incommensurable theories, paradigms, and disciplinary matrices therefore lack the set of rules, the shared algorithm, that can serve as a inference-engine to settle the conflict. But this does not mean that either party to the scientific disagreement lacks any rational resources for gaining an advantage over the other. Rorty calls the use of these non-algorithmic resources “hermeneutics”, Hegelians or Marxists might call the practice of advancing a case non-algorithmically “immanent critique.” How would such non-algorithmic forms of rational criticism proceed?
First, by constructing a kind of narrative account of the competing position that shows that the competitor-position is in crisis — whether its advocates know it or not. This is the aim of Judge Wilhelm, a.k.a. “B”, in Either/Or with respect to “A”, the dyed-in-the-wool Aesthete. Second, by showing that the crisis emerges because the competing position fails on its own standards of success and failure.
Were Judge Wilhelm to argue for the superiority of the Ethical standpoint using reasons that he finds convincing; his argument would fall on A’s deaf ears. His reasons are not A’s. But A’s reasons are not enough to vindicate A’s own core conviction that a life is worth living to the extent that is enjoyed. And the best argument against A’s own aestheticism is advanced by A himself in the chapter entitled “The Rotation of Crops”, where the only way to fend-off boredom, the summum malum of the aesthete, is to carefully titrate one’s pleasures, and vary them systematically, to fend off boredom. But this is a losing strategy: boredom always returns, sometimes with a vengeance.
Third, and most importantly, the competing position then shows how it can both explain the failure of its counterpart and show how it can avoid the failures and weaknesses of the latter. Judge Wilhelm accomplishes this by revealing that the aesthete’s self is not a self because it is shapeless. The aesthete is doomed to boredom and frustration precisely because he foregoes the ethical project of restrictively shaping a self in accordance with ethical norms and principles, or by resolutely committing oneself to the institutions of ethical community, like marriage. So, ironically, if the aesthete A ever experienced a kind of gestalt-switch to the Ethical standpoint, he would find that the enjoyments of aesthetic moments are not foregone but retained, even enhanced, by ethical commitment, and the ethical idea of the self as an extended temporal project helps overcome boredom and frustration as well.
There is no logical compulsion for A to believe any of this. But B’s argument shows that A’s unwillingness to confess the inadequacy of the Aesthetic is persisted in only at A’s own peril. A’s position lands him, unwittingly, in boring and pointless unhappiness. It is only by recognizing the force of B’s immanent critique that A can escape that fate.
If you think that Hegel’s ghost haunts the pages of Either/Or here, you are right. Despite all the rancor Kierkegaard directed at the Hegelians of golden-age Copenhagen, the argument for the Ethical over the Aesthetic is at base a variant of Hegel’s Aufhebung — the preservation, cancellation, and transcending of one form of consciousness into another, in German literally a “lifting-up”. For Hegel, this is a movement of thought — of consciousness coming to know itself as a manifestation or projection of Absolute Spirit — while for Kierkegaard it is a movement of an individual’s acting. But the movement for both Kierkegaard and Hegel is dialectical and propelled by the dynamic of immanent critique.
Viewed thus Fear and Trembling can be understood as an Aufhebung of the Ethical into the Religious, as a higher state of the self. The aesthete A founders on the question: “Given that boredom is always inevitable, what can it all mean?” The ethical Judge Wilhelm avoids boredom, but runs up against the question “What’s the point of conforming to all these sittlich norms? How can I know they are the right ones?” Ultimately, you can’t: there are no reasons within the Ethical stage to justify the Ethical as such. There is only conformity to the norms and practices that define the Ethical sphere you inhabit, internal to that sphere. Were the sphere you inhabit different, the norms would be different. Marriage might be monogamous, polygamous, or polyandrous; there may be few norms governing sex, but many norms governing food or clothing. You might then grasp all the issues confronting Melville’s Ishmael in Moby Dick. Queequeg’s ethos is at antipodes to Father Mapple’s, but both take their ethē to be proper and correct as such — they view other ethē as either barbaric or silly. How can one navigate this normative diversity from within the Ethical sphere? Ishmael seems to do so with skeptical equanimity — “better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian” — only because, in some way, he has dialectically transcended the Ethical without relinquishing it. Is this a possibility for Kierkegaard as well?
5 — Kierkegaard and the Dialectic of Faith
I think Fear and Trembling gives strong evidence that Kierkegaard would answer “yes” to that question, though not in the skeptical mode of Ishmael. In the last chapter of Either/Or, B sends a letter from a Jutland priest to A; the priest, ruminating on the evils of the world, entertains the thought that as against God, “we are always in the wrong”, and finds this an edifying thought:
This thought, then, that you are always in the wrong against God, is not a truth you are forced to recognize, not a comfort to soothe your pain, not a substitute for something better; it is the joy in which you triumph over yourself and over the world, your rapture, your song of praise, your worship, a proof that your love is happy as is only that love with which one loves God. That against God we are always in the wrong is, then, an edifying thought; it is edifying that we are in the wrong, edifying that we always are. It proves its power to edify in a twofold way, partly by staying doubt and alleviating its anxieties, partly by inciting to action. (Either/Or , translated by Alasdair Hannay, p. 599)
If, as against God we are always in the wrong, we acknowledge our perspectives, even our moral and ethical perspectives, as finite and fallible, in need of redemption. Our rational systems — our philosophies — are only illusory accomplishments because they are inevitably abstract, and abstractions falsify. Like Ishmael, we are confronted with the complexities of human existence, and need to find a way to transcend them. But unlike Ishmael — and the doubter Melville — for Kierkegaard we cannot transcend them by a kind of easygoing, live-and-let-live skepticism. We cannot transcend them at all, especially through systematic philosophy. Only God effects transcendence, through grace rather than reason, and only God has the right to claim to be a systematic metaphysician.
In Fear and Trembling, Johannes draws a bead on philosophical ethics, the attempt to rationalize the ethical as the human attempt at achieving or realizing the universal. While Hegel is the most obvious target, Kant is as well, because for Kant it is the deliverances of practical rationality as such, distilled into the three formulations of the categorical imperative, that raises the self-determining rational human agent to the level of the universal. The categorical imperative is simply rationality at work in practical matters, and since a rational principle is a universal principle, binding on all rational agents, those who follow the categorical imperative realize the universal in their lives, becoming worthy of happiness. So it comes as no surprise that Kant comes to the opposite conclusion to Kierkegaard’s Johannes regarding Abraham: any being who claims to be God and orders one to commit murder, which no rational being could universalize as a rule of conduct, should not be heeded. Even God bows to the moral law within every soul.
Hegel’s chief criticism of Kant’s metaphysics of morals was that it was far too abstract and formal — it neglects the content of ethical deliberation, a content ineluctably tied to an historical social context. And it does come as a surprise to see Kierkegaard more or less agreeing with him in Johannes’s recounting of the Abraham narrative.
For Hegel, Kantian Moralität (universally valid moral judgement) works only within a socially given context of norms, rules, and a practice of giving and taking reasons for acting one way rather than another. For Hegel, moral content arises within a concrete communal ethical life: it demands Sittlichkeit (participation in a specific ethical community) and not abstract moral reasoning.
But Hegel’s ethics, resting as it does on a prevailing moral consensus, runs the risk of the kind of bargain-basement moral complacency that Johannes satirizes in the opening paragraphs of Fear and Trembling: it is a recipe for the bourgeois self-satisfaction of Danish “Christendom”, which equates to showing up in church on Sundays and robotically reciting the Creed with the rest of the “respectable” congregation. But if Hegel is right about the necessity and inescapability of Sittlichkeit, how can there be any standpoint for challenging or refuting it? Kant provides such a standpoint, but it is an illusory one: universal formal practical rationality is not up to the task it assigns itself. And Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son is an affront to his own sittlich values: his social ethos not only enjoins one to love one’s children, but places great value on the production of heirs, especially as his descendants will constitute God’s chosen people. How can this rational crisis be navigated?
Not by jettisoning reason — not exactly, anyway — but by a form of immanent critique as outlined in section 4 above: by re-narrating the dilemmas of both Moralität and Sittlichkeit in such a way that their defects become apparent, and ascending to a standpoint that both affirms, cancels, and transcends them. And this Aufhebung takes place in Johannes’s construal of faith as an realization of the universal through the individual’s relation with the absolute.
In Problema I, “Is there a Teleological Suspension of the Ethical?”, Johannes remarks:
For faith is just this paradox, that the single individual is higher than the universal, though in such a way, be it noted, that the movement is repeated, repeated, that is, that, having been in the universal, the single individual now sets himself apart as the particular above the universal. If that is not faith, then Abraham is done for and faith has never existed in the world, just because it has always existed. For if the ethical life is the highest and nothing incommensurable is left over in man, except in the sense of what is evil, i.e. the single individual who is to be expressed in the universal, then one needs no other categories than those of the Greek philosophers, or whatever can be logically deduced from them. This is something Hegel, who has after all made some study of the Greeks, ought not to have kept quiet about. (p. 81).
In Problema II, “Is there an Absolute Duty to God?”, Johannes elaborates on this point:
Then faith’s paradox is this, that the single individual is higher than the universal, that the single individual (to recall a theological distinction less in vogue these days) determines his relation to the universal through his relation to the absolute, not his relation to the absolute through his relation to the universal. The paradox can also be put by saying that there is an absolute duty to God; for in this tie of obligation the individual relates himself absolutely, as the single individual, to the absolute. (pp. 94–95).
The problem with Hegel, for Kierkegaard, is his re-description of the Christian religion into the system of Absolute Idealism, the translation of faith into philosophy, and the sublation of the God-man Jesus Christ into the projection of infinite Geist into finite spirit and nature. Kierkegaard does not reject the Absolute any more than Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, or Luther did; he does reject its subsumption into immanence, into a system where “the rational alone is actual.” Faith provides one with an immediate relation to God as an individual. Because it is not mediated by prevailing social norms, faith enables one to go beyond them when this is demanded. The Religious standpoint affords us a grounding for the immanent critique of conventional morality. It relativizes Sittlichkeit “sub specie aeternitatis” — from the vantage of eternity.
In defending the ultimacy of faith Kierkegaard is not rejecting rationality as much as he is rejecting its absolutization. Even more vehemently, he is rejecting the claims of philosophers, especially Hegel and his Danish epigones, to have transcended faith in their systems. To reiterate: only God has the authority to do metaphysics, since as infinite author of the finite, only God can see it clear and see it whole.
Faith links the individual directly with the absolute, and by doing so, enables the individual to realize the universal and enter into the Ethical sphere. Kant, Hegel et. al. have it all backwards. We do not grasp the absolute through the universal (we do not “get” that reality-is-cosmic-reason or Geist unless we realize the universal in sittlich ethical life), we grasp the universal through the absolute (by faith in God we acknowledge our finitude and fallibility, and are edified enough to enter the Ethical sphere with confidence despite our sinfulness). Furthermore, we do not grasp the Absolute: the Absolute grasps us. Faith is grace, a gift of the infinite to the finite individual face-to-face with God.
6 — Kierkegaard and the Nagging Question
If the point Kierkegaard is making is that the Ethical sphere is not self-grounding, that philosophers are wrong to think it so, and that only the gift of faith is capable of making sense of the Ethical by transcending it, then the Abraham narrative has to be understood as an allegory. It does not legitimate human sacrifice. What it means is: faith as trust in God will see you through ethical trials and the pains they engender. Like Job and Abraham, Knights of Faith relinquish the world only to get it returned to them, transfigured. Since you are always in the wrong compared to God, you can endure suffering yet enjoy God’s good creation, just as Johannes’s inconspicuous burgher, the Knight of Faith incognito, can enjoy a good meal prepared by his wife, and not be disturbed should the meal not materialize when he gets home. Therefore the message of the Abraham narrative is not the literal one: that if God orders you to sacrifice your son, then you must do so, because God can make the evil good and the good evil as God wills. One has an absolute duty to God, and God goes wherever God wishes. An allegorical reading bypasses this moral and conceptual difficulty.
Yet I am tempted to say to Johannes de Silentio: you raised the difficulty — now address it!
The nagging question I have for Kierkegaard is: if the Religious is that which transcends the Ethical and grounds it, can it still contradict it? The Abraham narrative describes a God who not only challenges Abraham’s great love for Isaac by pitting against his loving faith in God. God orders Abraham to commit a murder. Redescribing it as a “sacrifice” under the domain of faith begs the question. The God of the Akedah is not a God who underwrites Moralität or Sittlichkeit: it is a God who runs roughshod over them. And to say “they believed different, bloodier things back then” is to again beg the question: we aren’t in that position anymore, and we are within our rights to say that God seems to be acting in a very ungodly fashion. Yahweh may not be the idol Moloch, the bloodthirsty Canaanite god who demanded child sacrifice. But in Genesis 22 God sure looks and sounds like him.
To expect literal, iron consistency in the stories and characters of the Bible is a fool’s errand. The Bible is not a book but a library, a collection of stories where El Shaddai, Elohim, and Yahweh seem different from page to page. Despite Kierkegaard’s conviction that “the higher criticism” of the Bible was looking for faith in all the wrong places, he clearly understood that the Bible is not to be read like a literal transcript of the day’s events. If you allegorize the Akedah, you can read it as a story of trust in the Lord rather than a horror story. All well and good. But the question remains: how is the Divine Command to just kill Isaac intelligible at all, given God’s goodness? It’s one thing to deny the self-sufficiency of the Ethical sphere, but another thing to support a teleological suspension of the Ethical that actually obliterates it. It certainly makes no sense here.
The crusaders, when smashing the skulls of Muslims with their maces, would cry out “Deus Vult!” “God wills it.” It is right to worry that while Kierkegaard is not the utter irrationalistic fideist that MacIntyre and others make him out to be, he is just irrationalistic and fideistic enough to be struck dumb by those who invoke their faith, as individuals before the infinite and absolute God, to kill and lie and maim and steal. This is as true now as it was in the 10th through 12th centuries. Alongside the worship of mammon, and the idolatry of charismatic leaders, it is a chief evil of “the present age.”
Kierkegaard could, of course, counter that those who do evil in the name of God are not subordinating their wills to God, that they do not recognize that “against God, one is always in the wrong.” In committing holy murder they are not obeying a Divine Command, but are nursing their own delusions. God does not command evil. But to make this judgment is to suggest that there is not a “teleological suspension of the ethical”, that God must conform to the Ethical because, in an analogical sense, God is the Ethical. To do so, however, would be to return an idea of the relationship of the Religious and the Ethical that is closer to Thomas Aquinas, or Kant, or even Hegel: that the Ethical is not absolute per se, but it is absolute in its own sphere, the sphere of self-determining rational agency. If you are not puzzled by the binding of Isaac, well, you should be.
But it is important to be reminded, once again, that Fear and Trembling is the work of a fictional character, John of Silence. One should not impute to Søren Kierkegaard any of Johannes’s convictions. Kierkegaard himself warned against this. He makes his case indirectly, through pseudonymous intermediaries. Thus Johannes’s role is to make his readers — and Kierkegaard’s readers — think things out. Kierkegaard’s own Concluding Unscientific Postscript is, after all, followed-up by his essay “Judge for Yourself!” And this is a fine sentiment. But not adequate to the question at hand: can God upend the moral order?
About this Johannes is indeed silent. But in helping his readers grapple with the infinite responsibilities tucked into the Ethical consciousness, I fear that Johannes’s silence is less an illumination than an evasion.
(Special thanks must go to Rev. Michael Sniffen and Dr. Stephan Mayo, who helped immeasurably in the composition of this essay.)