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


[We pick up with the question of why Scripture conflates righteousness with perspicuity in the Abrahamic Covenant--as described in the First Part of this chapter. The hope is that by cominng to terms with that question we will get conceptual leverage to use in making sense of Abraham's stupifying willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, at God's command. By gaining that "leverage" we would undercut Kierkegaard's challenge to faith's intelligibility, a challenge that would undercut Into the World. This post shows the contrary, that our culminating biblical perspective undercuts Kierkegaard's challenge.]

If we are to understand this enigma, we need a conceptual context to support the narrative one. Let’s begin by first explicitly removing any connection between being virtuous and having true beliefs. Consider a person who is not convinced that striving for moral ideals of any kind—such as honesty, courage, charity, temperance, loyalty, and so forth—is worthwhile for its own sake. In her opinion a moral ideal is worth pursuing precisely to the extent that doing so produces results that she wants, and she determines what she wants by what she perceives or defines her self-interest to be in any given circumstance. Whether she is wise or shortsighted, knowledgeable or naïve, successful or unsuccessful in procuring what she wants does not factor in here. What matters is that, for her, every choice can be viewed as a transaction from which she wants to get the best possible deal for herself. That, in Sartre’s scheme, constitutes her “life project.”

Clearly a person who strives for traditional moral ideals can object that this person’s selfish means of deciding what is best leaves out considerations that many—perhaps most—persons think should be considered; but the objection will have no weight from her point of view, since the additional considerations that she leaves out are those taken from a perspective in which she does not believe. In fact, from her point of view, to pursue a moral ideal in which she does not believe would literally be unreasonable: For in that she does not “believe in” moral ideals in the sense of believing that they are worth pursuing per se, she can have no reason to strive to attain them, per se.

Furthermore, it is clearly the idea that there is something worth sacrificing for—something beyond her self-interest, as she understands it—that she rejects. And that is the key to the answer we seek. Since a moral person will judge another person to be righteous or not precisely by whether their actions are motivated by moral ends, we can see that beliefs about whether pursuing moral ideals are worthwhile are, in fact, instances of beliefs which can be described, crucially, as righteous or not. That is, they can be judged righteous or not from a point of view which questions whether it is worthwhile to pursue moral ideals, per se. “Righteousness,” in fact, depends on belief in this sense: Again, there can be no point in pursuing righteousness on the supposition that one does not believe that it is worthwhile to do so.

(To forestall criticism of this claim consider, first, that righteousness that is not productive of good in someone's eyes is pointless; second, that righteousness that is productive of little will have little effect in the metaprudential calculations of even a reasonable person of good will; and third, that it will have no point in the estimation of our amoral calculator.)

If we go on to apply this claim to the wider view that we have been considering, we see that the amoral calculator described represents the antithesis of the message of the cross: For she responds precisely to the kind of rationale that the Serpent used to tempt Eve and Adam in the Genesis story of the fall, as discussed earlier. But to form the connection to the story of Abraham and Isaac, we need to confirm that belief in God can be tantamount to righteousness, construed as belief that moral ideals are worth striving for, even when personal sacrifice is involved.

Recall that that we found the doctrine of enlightened self-interest to be false for several reasons, the core reason being that if we use self-interest to justify making our moral commitments, we can also use it to justify breaking them. (And of course the reverse is also true for the proponent of self-interest: The core problem with stipulating that moral ideals determine the extent of one’s commitment to self-interest is that if we use moral ideals to justify making our commitments to self-interest, we can also use them to justify breaking them. Logicians call this mutual exclusivity of propositions "bivalence," and bivalence is the criterion of true dilemmas.) Therefore, to set up a reasonable response to whether or not making moral commitments is worthwhile, it is necessary to decide whether or not one believes that it is worth making sacrifices for the sake of moral ideals when they conflict with self-interest, as defined by each individual’s foundational hopes and desires.

But we have an added challenge to consider in relation to our theory. For since the supreme question sets self-interest against moral ideals in deciding which is to form one’s primary life commitment, a further challenge looms. We must know to whom the “worth” of one’s actions is to accrue, if not to self. (Abraham was concerned with his life being a vessel capable of holding God’s great blessing. To be true to the story, faith must include the idea that a person who acts on moral faith will be vindicated by God. Thus, the willing self-sacrifice implied here is not the final word. In fact the path of self-sacrifice is chosen with the view in mind that God will later vindicate the person who does what is right.)3

Fortunately, that question is easy to answer: moral ideals (almost always) can be seen to benefit human society on some level. Thus, a person is honest in dealing with others. Likewise, a person is loyal in dealing with others; a person is fair, primarily, in dealing with others, and so forth. It is reasonable to assume, then, that it is to these “others” of human society that the benefits of pursuing moral ideals will accrue, when they conflict with self-interest.

By extension it seems to have been correct to see the supreme question as involving a social context, with friendship with God constituting the social context that Adam and Eve sacrificed to self-interest in the fall.

However, we have also seen that it is unreasonable to expect human society to achieve perfection in the sense that everyone in society can always be expected to benefit from pursuing its moral ideals. Additionally, there is the problem of having commitments to moral desiderata being contingent on the acts of free persons who can break their commitments. And for our moral skeptic, as we have seen, there is no reason to choose the horn of the supreme question that expresses faith, making moral faith literally unreasonable. Thus, “belief” in moral ideals—if that means conviction that acting in accord with them will lead to what is best for a person—is naïve from the perspective of self-interest. It is the moral skeptic who is well informed.

What the skeptic needs is an object of faith that makes it credible for her to believe it is worth pursuing moral ideals—that the willingness to sacrifice for others now will be rewarded in the long run. The supreme question posits just that option as an object of faith. The message of the cross depicts that, despite appearances to the contrary, God will vindicate the person whose faith is such that it can be "reckoned as righteousness." In fact, the irony of the message of the cross stems precisely from the need to overcome the appearance that pursuing righteousness is not worthwhile from the perspective of self-interest. The message of the cross turns the table on the moral skeptic. But it does so only for those who take the voice of conscience as prophetic of a deeper reality, a reality beyond amoral calculation.

By means of this conceptual context, we see the gospel accounts of Jesus announcing “the kingdom of God is at hand” at the commencement of his ministry in new light. That was exactly what was needed to set up the supreme question. For in so doing he provided the needed context from which the needed rationale can be supplied: it is the kingdom of God that supplies the social context in which faith in “righteousness” makes sense. But crucially for the question at hand—how can a proponent of self-interest’s cogent doubt be effectively addressed?—we have our answer. One gains membership in the kingdom of God by faith in the message of the cross, and that membership trumps all other appeals to self-interest for a person of faith. This consideration brings us full circle with the story of Jesus’ trial. For it was as king of the Kingdom of God, that Jesus was brought before Pilate, which explained his statement that “my kingdom is not of this world” in our primary text.

Returning to the story of Abraham and Isaac with this larger conceptual context in hand, we are ready to meet Kierkegaard’s challenge. For we now have a perspective from which beliefs are meaningfully described as “righteous,” and that perspective fits the larger biblical context. All we need is the supposition that Abraham grasped the need to have faith that God could be trusted to vindicate moral choices, despite appearances that often indicate the contrary. Then he would have known that to demonstrate a belief that making sacrifices for “righteousness” sake is his primary commitment that faith in God is essential.

(Ironically, it is the very cogency of an amoral calculator's moral skepticism that makes an appeal to transcendent faith necessary. Making for a double-irony, it can be added that it is precisely because the transcendent Word speaks its message to the motivational core of humanity that it can be understood. And making for a triple irony, since the presumably transcendent source of moral faith cannot be understood apart from its contact with humanity's motivational core, faith's credibility is unimpeachable precisely because it is conceptually out of reach. This makes faith the opposite of temptation: temptation = what I want to do for manifest reasons but that I know violates moral principles; faith = what I want to do for moral reasons that are not manifest (that are not "in the world," so to speak) and so require faith. On a higher level, faith is engaged by love. Having passionately experienced both forms in temporal juxtaposition--faith as adherence to moral precept and as motivated by love--I think, helps explain the Apostle Paul's extraordinary pleadings with the Galatian's in the New Testament's earliest writing. But connecting the current theme to the higher motivations Paul identifies as "the fruits of the Spirit" is outside the scope of this little book.)

With apologies to Kierkegaard, we are now in a position to address rebut his challenge: To serve as an exemplar of faith, Abraham needed to sacrifice the “best” that he had to God in faith that God could be trusted to vindicate his trust. For since it is clear that Isaac was Abraham’s “best,” the rest follows: Abraham had to be willing to sacrifice Isaac in order to serve as an exemplar of faith. For anything less than Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac would have demonstrated an unwillingness to represent a commitment to righteous faith, as we now understand it, as the primary commitment in his life.

The logic of the supreme question is uncompromising; righteous faith can only be demonstrated by a willingness to sacrifice to do what is right. No willingness to sacrifice means one has no faith. And faith that it is worth to pursuing our moral ideals even in the face of all appearances to the contrary is tied to a willingness to sacrifice all for the sake of faith. Thus, no willingness to sacrifice all for God means one has no faith in God in the needed sense: that God is the Supreme—the ultimate—Being, and hence the supreme and ultimate good, who can be trusted to vindicate faith: “the best,” to use Kierkegaard’s phrase--but the Supreme Best, the transcendent best, the best that trumps all possible mundane bests. Of course, for anyone to call another human being "mundane" at best is coldly calculating in an area where to lack human warmth is inhumane; for Abraham to be put in that position is almost unspeakably so. And yet, to make an unambiguous exemplar of the primacy of his faith commitment, Abraham needed to be willing to sacrifice the most dear of his attachments that could compete with his commitment to "righteous" faith, as we now understand it.

The message of the cross clearly depicts divine reciprocity on this core requirement by which Abraham is credited as the father of faith. The divine reciprocity confirms beyond a reasonable doubt that the theory of the supreme question is correct, for it underscores the message, giving it the ultimate endorsement and commitment. In the story of Abraham and Isaac, God supplied a ram as a substitute for Abraham’s most cherished attachment to this world—his only son. In the message of the cross God supplied his only Son as a substitute for our most cherished attachments to this world—whatever those attachments might be. In both stories God supplies the sacrifice. In both stories the one who believes is “reckoned righteous” by God as a result of belief.

Clearly we are to understand that we too would need to be like Abraham, if it were not for God’s grace. Surely we too are to understand that it is not just the provision of the sacrifice for us, but the provision of the sacrifice for us “while we were yet sinners,” that is, while we are unable to sacrifice in the manner that the unyielding logic of the supreme question demands. Thus, according to the full message of the cross—the gospel message, the good news—grace extends mercy to us in this unspeakably difficult bind. What is required is an acknowledgement of the truth of the designation “sinner,” that we cannot do as Abraham did, and as God did in the context of the message of the cross, because our inability to sacrifice those things most dear to us make us morally corruptible at the core of our being. On the surface that is a superlatively ugly message. But it has a beautiful side: Christian faith allows one to confront the truth of our corruptibility by resting in God's grace.

Given this view—the view of Christian theology where mercy extends grace to humanity—Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac would then only be required so that he could serve as the exemplar of faith. And that, of course, is what Abraham is, contra Kierkegaard. Abraham’s example does make sense. He, as the “Father of faith,” is a fitting exemplar. And yet the story still stupefies us in another respect, making Kierkegaard’s following comment about Abraham especially apt: “…in a way all that I can learn from Abraham is to be amazed.”4 To fail to be amazed would be to fail to see that faith and grace must go together: for faith requires too much of us.

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. 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 on 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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