Into the World--Chapter Thirteen: Kierkegaard's Challenge to Intelligibility--First Part


Prologue and Abstract
Chapter One: Introduction
Chapter Two: The Layered Gospel Context
Chapter Three: Today’s Warring Intellectual Context
Chapter Four: A Perpetual Warring Intellectual Context
Chapter Five: A Primer—The Bible’s Broadest Theme
Chapter Six: The Voice of Conscience
Chapter Seven: The Voice of God
Chapter Eight: The Message of the Cross as Supreme Answer
Chapter Nine: The View from Enlightened Self-Interest
Chapter Ten: The Challenge from Kantian Autonomy
Chapter Eleven: The View from James’ Radical Question
Chapter Twelve: The View from Sartre’s Bad Faith

Chapter Thirteen: Kierkegaard’s Challenge to Intelligibility—First Part

Chapter Thirteen: Kierkegaard’s Challenge to Intelligibility—Second Part

There is a story in Genesis as disturbing, and confounding, as anything ever written. It tells of Abraham, “the father of faith,” taking his son, Isaac, to a mountain in Moriah to sacrifice him. And Abraham did this at God’s direction—though at the last possible moment the story tells us that God sent an angel to stop Abraham, and provided in Isaac's stead a ram with its horns stuck in a thicket. (Genesis 22:1-19) Below see Soren Kierkegaard’s attitude toward the narrative.

"[Foolish people] want to understand the story. [For their sake a speaker might make] it a commonplace: ‘His greatness was that he so loved God that he was willing to offer him the best he had.’ … [The speaker thereby] interchange[s] the words “Isaac” and “best.” Everything goes excellently. Should someone in the audience be suffering from insomnia, however, there is likely to be the most appalling, most profound, tragic-comic misunderstanding. He goes home; he wants to do just like Abraham; for [his] son is certainly the best thing he has. Should that speaker hear word of this, he might go to the man…and shout: ‘Loathsome man, dregs of society, what has so possessed you that you wanted to murder your own son?’”1

Kierkegaard interprets the story as a reductio ad absurdum because of the paradox that the story seems to foist upon religious persons: that they must admire Abraham for his faith while abhoring the terrible deed that demonstrated his faith.2 Since it seems that “the Father of faith” presents us with an unintelligible example, it is reasonable to suspect that it is because faith itself is unintelligible.

I will play a Kierkegaardian fool, and try to explain the paradox. I begin by putting the story into context (Genesis, Chapters 12-22). It begins with the Lord God visiting Abram in the land of Ur. There God tells Abram to leave his country, and that…

"I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3)

Following this promise Abram went to Canaan, where God promised the land to him. To escape famine in the Promised Land, however, he went to Egypt. There Pharaoh eventually paid him a king’s ransom to leave with his wife, Sarai. (This is a story with many puzzles. Pharaoh had taken Sarai from Abram, not knowing that she was Abram’s wife because Abram did not tell him for fear of displeasing the Pharaoh. Then God had brought plagues upon Egypt till Pharaoh returned her.) Abram next went back to Canaan, and there routed several kings who had banded together to pillage his neighboring lands. In the course these odysseys, however, many years passed, and Abram and Sarai had become too old for procreation. It was then—when Abram viewed his life as too small a vessel to contain a great blessing—that the Lord visited Abram in a vision and had this conversation with him:

“Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:1-6)

Note the strange last sentence: Abram “…believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Perhaps the oddity itself, if understood, will provide a means to understand the story of Abraham and Isaac (God changed Abram’s name to Abraham—meaning “seed”—after promising him that his descendants would be as the stars of the sky). The sentence's oddity stems from this. Beliefs are true or false, and we might “reckon a person to be knowledgeable” for having true beliefs in a subject about which truths are not generally known. Righteousness, however, is not typically identified with having true beliefs. For instance, a child who gets 100% on a difficult test in school is not thereby “reckoned to be” especially virtuous. For we do not conflate righteousness with perspicuity. Why then the seeming conflation in the Abrahamic covenant?

[We take up this question in the following post, part two of this chapter.]

1. Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Tr. Alastair Hannay (Penguin Books, New York, 1985) pp. 58, 59.
2. Ibid
, pp. 108, 144. Kierkegaard believed that there is an absolute duty that each person owes to God, a duty that paradoxically trumps even moral obligations, which we usually take to be both universally binding and derived from God (whether directly or ultimately). He interpreted the story of Abraham and Isaac as requiring that paradoxical duty in order to “explain” Abraham’s terrifying willingness to sacrifice his son at God’s direction. Two responses need to be made. First, a paradox really explains nothing. And second, it is therefore correct to state that Kierkegaard believed that faith is—in the final analysis—unintelligible.

3. I believe that Scripture indicates that the reward of moral faith—expressed by a willingness to sacrifice to do what is right, and given ultimate expression by the message of the cross—is fellowship with God. I base this opinion of the fact that through self-seeking sin humanity’s relationship with God was lost. (Genesis 3:22-24) It is fitting, then, that through self-sacrificial righteousness one finds the way back to a relationship with God. The opposite of a temptation would be an obligation: something one does not really want to do, but which is required morally. The message of the cross, in that light, makes the antithesis to temptation—moral obligation—the way back to God. This need not, and does not, require that a person believes that in the end they are acting against self-interest by doing what is clearly self-sacrificial in the short run. This explains the ambiguity in the text, which is left in it to make it more readable.
4. Fear and Trembling
, p. 66.

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2 thoughts on “Into the World--Chapter Thirteen: Kierkegaard's Challenge to Intelligibility--First Part”

  1. Tracy,

    As it's now 1:30 in the morning and I should hit the sack, I'll refrain from any attempts at an insightful response to this particular post. However, I just want to say I've enjoyed your series to this point and look forward to what lies ahead.

  2. Hi Jason,

    I am delighted to know that. I am afraid that I am in a bit of a double bind with choosing a topic and style best suited for an academic audience and being an amateur that few academics will take seriously. As a result you become very important to me!



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