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Faith Surpasses Reason: Kierkegaard on the Akedah
Marc Chagall Detail

Faith Surpasses Reason

Kierkegaard on the Sacrifice of Isaac

by John J. Parsons

Preface: No consideration of the Akedah, or the sacrifice of Isaac, would be complete without considering the comments of the great Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). In his book "Fear and Trembling," Kierkegaard discusses the inner conflict Abraham faced when he was commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering on Mount Moriah. Although Abraham understood that God must be obeyed, he also understood that child sacrifice was immoral, and hence his struggle represented the collision between the imperative of reason and the imperative of faith. Choosing to heed the voice of reason (i.e., the "ethical" or the "universal") over the personal voice of God created a state of "fear and trembling" and a sense of being unable to communicate his passion and mission to others. Kierkegaard says that Abraham "resolved" the paradox by means of what he calls the "teleological suspension of the ethical," that is, the idea that the moral law may be (temporarily) "suspended" for the sake of a higher goal known only through the absolute surrender of faith.

THE ETHICAL DIMENSION OF EXISTENCE has to do with the universal, of doing what is unconditionally right. The ethical applies to everyone and at every moment. It possesses its own validity. That is, it has nothing outside itself as its end or purpose. It has no further to go. By contrast, the single individual is the particular that has its purpose in the universal. The individual's task is always to express himself within the confines of duty, to limit his particularity and to forgo his own interests so as to fulfill his universal duty. Thus, as soon as an individual wants to assert himself in his particularity, in direct opposition to the universal, he sins. Only by recognizing this can he again reconcile himself with the universal. He can free himself only by surrendering to the universal in repentance.

If this is the highest that can be said of our existence, then the ethical and a person's happiness are identical. The philosopher is proved right. The ethical is the universal and, in turn, the divine. The whole of human existence is entirely self-enclosed, and the ethical is at once the limit and completion of our lives. Doing one's duty becomes sufficient, with the result that God becomes an invisible, vanishing point, an impotent thought unrelated to my life. His being is no more than the ethical itself, which fills all existence.

But what about the question of faith? Is the ethical the final reality? No. The philosopher goes wrong when it comes to this question. Actually, he fails to protest loudly and clearly enough against the honor and glory given to Abraham as the father of faith. If the ethical is final, if it is the ultimate determination of life's meaning, then Abraham should really be remitted to some lower court for trial and exposed as the murderer he is.

Now faith is just this paradox, that the single individual, though under the demands of the universal, is higher than the universal. If that is not faith, then Abraham is done for and faith has never existed in the world. If the ethical life is the highest and nothing incommensurable is left over, except in the sense of what is evil, then one needs no other categories than those of the philosophers. Goodbye to Abraham! But faith is just this paradox, that the single individual, though bound by the universal, is higher than the universal. As a single individual, as the particular, he stands in an absolute relation to the Absolute. The ethical is thus suspended. Faith is this paradox.

The story of Abraham contains just such a suspension of the ethical. Abraham acts on the strength of the absurd. As a single individual before God he found himself to be higher than the universal. This paradox cannot be mediated – there is no middle term to explain it. If Abraham had tried to find an explanation, he would have been in a state of temptation, and in that case he would have never sacrificed Isaac, or if he had done so he would have had to return as a murderer repentant before the universal.

In his action Abraham overstepped the ethical altogether. He had a higher aim outside it in relation to which he suspended it. How else could one ever justify Abraham's action? Not in terms of the ethical. How could any point of contact ever be discovered between what Abraham did, or planned to do, and the universal other than that Abraham overstepped it? It was not to save a nation that Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac, nor to appease angry gods. Abraham's whole action stands above and apart from the universal. It is ultimately a private undertaking, an act of purely personal conscience. To judge Abraham's action according to the ethical – in the sense of the moral life – is therefore quite out of the question. In so far as the universal was there at all, it was latent in Isaac, concealed as it were in his loins, and it would have to cry out from Isaac's mouth: "Don't do it, you are destroying everything."

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.

Abraham's situation is a kind of trial, 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 ("Thou shalt not kill") which would keep him from doing God's will. But what then is duty? In Abraham's case, duty is found in the doing of God's will, which is itself higher than the universal. His duty transcends the ethical.

Now when the ethical is suspended, as in Abraham's case, how or in what way, does the individual in whom it is suspended exist? Does this mean he sins? Not necessarily. Take a child for example. In one sense a child's bad behavior is not sin because the child is not yet fully conscious of its own existence. Looked at ideally, however, the child sins; he falls short from the demands of the ethical. Does this mean Abraham also sinned? No. Then how did Abraham exist? He had faith. He lived by and in faith. That is the paradox that kept him at the summit and which he could not explain or justify to himself or to anyone else. His faith was grounded in the paradox that as the single individual he was higher that the universal. He had an absolute relation to the Absolute. Was he justified? His justification is, once again, the paradox. He was not justified by being virtuous, but by being an individual submitted to God in faith.

This doesn't mean that the ethical is to be done away with. No. Only that it receives an entirely different expression, so that for example, love of God can cause the knight of faith to love his neighbor in a way that is quite opposite from what is usually demanded by the ethical. Unless this is how it is, faith has no place in existence. Faith becomes a temptation, and Abraham, since he gave into it, is done for.

But faith's paradox is precisely this, that the single individual is higher than the universal, that the individual determines his relationship to the universal through his relation to the Absolute (i.e. God), not his relation to the Absolute through his relation to the universal. That is, to live by faith means that one has an absolute duty to God and to God alone. In this tie of obligation the individual relates himself absolutely, as the single individual, to the Absolute – the God who commands. This duty alone is absolute and for this reason the ethical, for the person of faith, is relegated to the relative. In fear and trembling, this is faith's paradox – the suspension of the ethical.

Any way we look at it, Abraham's story contains a suspension of the ethical. He has, as the single individual, become higher than the universal. This is the paradox of faith that cannot be explained. How Abraham got himself 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. A tragic hero can become a human being by his own strength, but not the knight of faith. When a person sets out on the tragic hero's arduous path there are many who are ready to lend him advice. But he who walks the narrow path of faith no one can advise, no one can understand. Faith is a miracle, and yet no human being is excluded from it.

Postscript: Kierkegaard's point is meant to refute philosophers (like G.W. Hegel) and liberal theologians who attempted to identify the ethical (or moral duty) with genuine spirituality. If the ethical is "all there is" to spiritual life, then Abraham should not be regarded as the heroic "father of faith" but rather as a moral monster and murderer.  Kierkegaard wants to force the issue by creating a dilemma. Faith itself cannot be understood in purely rational terms, since it concerns the individual's personal relationship with God, who is Absolute, and that means that faith can even transcend the universal demands of the moral law. Indeed, Kierkegaard states that the category of the ethical can present a temptation to keep us from passionately doing God's will. Ultimately, however, Abraham was justified for his complete obedience to God which resulted in the heavenly blessing. As he says in the Epilogue, "Faith is the highest passion in a person" (p. 122). In short, Kierkegaard's view attests to Blaise Pascal's statement that "faith has its reasons of which reason knows nothing."

Source Credit: The Kierkegaard excerpt is taken Fear and Trembling (p.83–98), as translated from Provocations, Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, compiled by Charles E. Moore, Plough Publishing (2002).

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