DEVS EX MACHINA
O.T. FORD, 2003 OCTOBER 20
For translation of an unfamiliar word, place the cursor over the word; or read the English-only version.
For translation of an unfamiliar word, place the cursor over the word; or read the English-only version.
Jeg for mit Vedkommende har anvendt adskillig Tid på at forståe den hegelske Philosophi, troer også nogenlunde at have forstået den, er dumdristig nok til at mene, at, når jeg, trods anvendt Umage, på enkelte Steder ikke kan forståe ham, så har han nok ikke selv været ganske klar. ― Johannes de silentio, ‘Frygt og bæven’, III-84Surely it is commendable when we, as readers, strive to understand, make every effort to find the true meaning of a text. If the surface confuses us, we search deeper into the text, looking for the truth that eluded us. And one of the great principles of textual analysis is ‘difficilior lectio potior’ ― the more difficult reading is to be preferred. When something seems foolish, or false, or wrong, we resist the urge to draw the obvious conclusion, accord the text the benefit of the doubt, and examine anew. This is, again, commendable ― but it should not stand in the way of reaching that same obvious conclusion, if it is indeed true.
בראשית Bere’śīt 22, the עקדה Caqedah, the binding and intended sacrifice of יצחק Jishaq by אברהם ’Abraham, is said to be a difficult text. This could not be further from the truth. It is an easy text, a facile text even. The act it unambiguously describes is evidently, transparently, unmistakably wrong. That murder itself is wrong is a matter of complicated reasoning or revealed morality, or both. But the belief that murder is wrong is nearly an anthropological universal of the present day. It is probably a semantic universal; if a particular homicide were not wrong, it would not be murder. Only those who dispute the immorality of murder can dispute the meaning of the עקדה Caqedah, because what אלהים ’Elohīm has ordered and what אברהם ’Abraham intends, clearly, is murder. יצחק Jishaq is a sentient human, as his conversation with אברהם ’Abraham on the journey demonstrates (7). יצחק Jishaq is unwilling, as his binding demonstrates (9), as does, certainly, the complete absence of any explicit consent. יצחק Jishaq is unlikely to consent, as אברהם ’Abraham’s coy deception demonstrates (8). The deliberate killing of an innocent, sentient human is murder. This is what אברהם ’Abraham intends (10), and what his deity has demanded of him (2). In fact, since murder is much more about the intention than the act ― an accidental homicide is not murder ― then אברהם ’Abraham and אלהים ’Elohīm are guilty regardless of the fact that יצחק Jishaq is not, in the end, killed. And indeed, observers do not generally acquit אברהם ’Abraham from the lack of an actual homicide. His mindset is clear; he means to do it.
In fictional and historical literature, a story is often presented for the specific purpose of illustrating immorality, and, more interestingly, of illustrating ambiguity, a complicated situation in which right and wrong are not apparent, and the reader is forced to consider and reconsider its own conceptions of morality, or of the human inclination or disinclination towards morality. A story may be presented with no moral purpose at all, and certain genres of folk literature routinely do so. בראשית Bere’śīt 22, on its face, may be any of these. Its protagonist may be intended as a conflicted, compromised character. Or the entire story may be, as has been theorized, a folk story relating to a place name or a vague legend. And finally, בראשית Bere’śīt 22 could, as written, be an accidental amalgamation of various legends, which exhibits conflicting intentions due to the haphazard nature of its amalgamation.
But בראשית Bere’śīt is not only, or even in significant part, a text that should be interpreted at face value. בראשית Bere’śīt is a religious document. It is scripture, holy writ for the world’s Christians and Jews. Socially, the use and treatment of scripture is different from the use and treatment of literature. אלהים ’Elohīm and אברהם ’Abraham are not mere characters. אברהם ’Abraham is the forerunner of the faith, the holiest figure in Judaism and among the holiest in Christianity. אלהים ’Elohīm is, needless to say, God ― the one and only god of these faiths. He is omniscient and omnibenevolent. בראשית Bere’śīt 22 is a part of his sacred instruction to the faithful. This represents over two billion people. And statistically these are almost entirely Christian, and Christians do not have a tradition of מדרש midraś or textual debate. Individual Christians may take issue with the text at various points, but that was not the intent. Scripture is not meant to provoke thought. It is meant to inspire belief. Complexity and ambiguity are hindrances to this. The young communicant is being given a document that is meant to be accepted in toto, and held up as a moral example. Only in this context is בראשית Bere’śīt 22 remotely challenging.
The challenge is taken as a challenge of faith, the preordained outcome that faith triumphs. The challenge is actually a challenge to faith, and there is no reason to hand it the victory. אברהם ’Abraham should not ask how God’s command can seem so wrong, but how God can remain worthy of devotion when his command is so wrong. We as readers should not be surprised when the text is exactly what it first appears to be.
The same applies, of course, to interpretations of this text. Søren Kierkegaard, writing as Johannes de silentio in ‘Frygt og bæven’, seems to choose blind obedience to tradition over morality and even basic decency, seems to choose the obfuscation of doctrinaire mechanism over the clarity of careful reasoning. And upon examination, we learn that this is the precise choice he is making. Why he so badly needed the quality of faith in his life is a project for biographers, and may remain unknown. But we can readily identify this quality, find its nature and find its sad appeal, in Kierkegaard’s own words.
Kierkegaard admits the superficial immorality of the sacrifice of יצחק Jishaq. In the Stemning, his various alternative scenarios show a clear understanding by the characters of the wrongness of the act. In scenario I, יצחק Jishaq is confused by the appearance of immorality (we may suppose that injustice is the specific objection that יצחק Jishaq might raise, should his reason prevail over his fear). אברהם ’Abraham is not confused. He is convinced that the act is wrong, and rather than have God blamed by יצחק Jishaq for the act, אברהם ’Abraham takes responsibility himself. This is both faith and its absence, for he no longer trusts in God to manage God’s affairs, but he remains devoted to God nonetheless. In scenario II, the immorality of the act causes אברהם ’Abraham to lose trust in God for ordering the act. In scenario III, אברהם ’Abraham believes rather that God has lost trust in him, and dwells in guilt because he was willing to commit the act. And in scenario IV, both יצחק Jishaq and אברהם ’Abraham have lost faith. The despair that אברהם ’Abraham feels shows יצחק Jishaq that אברהם ’Abraham no longer believes in God’s goodness, and as אברהם ’Abraham falls, so falls יצחק Jishaq, who has even less cause to trust this barbaric master.
Kierkegaard is not completely insensible, even as much as he celebrates insensibility. He recognizes that he has a problem.
Hvoraf forklarer man en sådan Modsigelse som hiin Talers? Er det fordi Abraham har fået Hævd på at være en stor Mand, så at hvad han gjør, er stort, og når en Anden gjør det Samme, er det Synd, himmelråbende Synd? ... Kan Troen ikke gjøre det til en hellig Handling at ville myrde sin Søn, så lad den samme Dom gåe over Abraham som over enhver Anden. ... Det ethiske Udtryk for hvad Abraham gjorde er, at han vilde myrde Isaak, det religieuse er, at han vilde offre Isaak ... Når Troen nemlig ved at blive til Nul og Nichts tages bort, så bliver kun det råe Factum tilbage, at Abraham vilde myrde Isaak.... (III-82)But the implication is that, indeed, faith can make it a holy act to be willing to murder one’s child. This is Kierkegaard’s project. This is the goal of his obscurantism. He wants his beliefs to remain as they have always been; and the more he contemplates the עקדה Caqedah, the more he stands in need of a miraculous resolution.
We can see Kierkegaard’s thinking, if it can be called that, in his veneration of אברהם ’Abraham: “... skulde han have gjort ... noget Stort og Herligt; thi hvorledes kunde Abraham gjøre Andet end hvad stort og herligt er!” (III-73) This is not the praise of someone who has examined his subject and found him flawless; it is the praise of someone who has not examined his subject at all. And Kierkegaard makes clear that examination is unneeded and unwelcome: his pilgrim says, “Ingen var dog stor som Abraham, hvo er istand til at forståe ham?” (III-67) Speaking again of the pilgrim, Kierkegaard states:
Da han blev ældre, læste han den samme Fortælling med endnu større Beundring; thi Livet havde adskilt, hvad der var forenet i Barnets fromme Eenfoldighed. Jo ældre han blev, desto oftere vendte hans Tanke sig til hiin Fortælling, hans Begeistring blev stærkere og stærkere, og dog kunde han mindre og mindre forståe Fortællingen. (III-61)“Hiin Mand var ikke Tænker”, notes the author drily (III-62), as if it were not apparent. This is a commendation of thoughtlessness. Finally, we can look to the praising statement in full:
Men Abraham troede og tvivlede ikke, han troede det Urimelige. Hvis Abraham havde tvivlet ― da skulde han have gjort noget Andet, noget Stort og Herligt; thi hvorledes kunde Abraham gjøre Andet end hvad stort og herligt er! (III-73)Faced with the choice of taking his own life, which is his to dispose of, and taking his son’s life, which is not, the venerable paragon of faith chooses the latter. Morally, this does not make sense, even common sense. But Kierkegaard is no supporter of sense, common or otherwise. He praises its opposite above all: Han troede det Urimelige. Kierkegaard’s embrace of ‘paradox’ is no accident.
I den Tid før Udfaldet var Abraham enten i hvert Minut en Morder, eller vi ståe ved det Paradox, der er høiere end alle Mediationer. Abrahams Historie indeholder da en teleologisk Suspension af det Ethiske. (III-115)As the ethical is identical to the universal (III-104), Kierkegaard is calling for an exception to the universal ― a logical impossibility. The further the mind gets from even the possibility of understanding, the closer it approaches perfection in Kierkegaard’s conception of faith. A child reads אברהם ’Abraham’s story and admires him with “fromme Eenfoldighed” (III-61). An adult, deprived perhaps of childish simplicity, must create pious complexity to obscure the straightforward meaning of אברהם ’Abraham’s act, and to obscure the character of the deity who ordered it.
What Kierkegaard is proposing is a DEVS EX MACHINA. As the author of our drama, he is willing to interrupt the logical flow of the narrative and solve all problems with a mysterious being out of the sky. He is lowering the stage contraption on which sits the beneficent power to resolve all contradictions. Enter faith; exit doubt. Kierkegaard, by accident of the culture in which he was raised, has been handed בראשית Bere’śīt 22 as scripture and left without a rational means of resolving it. His solution is to abandon the rational. He has identified this text as the keystone to his belief. אברהם ’Abraham is great. Why? Because he is great. אלהים ’Elohīm is good. Why? Because he is good. This is the teaching. There is no deeper justification. That אלהים ’Elohīm is good and yet orders אברהם ’Abraham to commit murder, that אברהם ’Abraham is great and yet consents, is absurd. But Kierkegaard embraces the absurd, often and by name. Absurdity is his salvation. He believes the preposterous. It may be that some of the Judeo-Christian canon of belief can be salvaged, can be selected from the whole and used religiously, to teach the lessons of metaphysics and ethics and bind the community of faith as scripture is meant to do. Kierkegaard does not want that option. He would salvage the whole. But at the heart of the whole, as his conscience recognizes, is a murder. The creator demands it; the father of faith complies. All that Kierkegaard can do is to wave his hand at the matter and pronounce it resolved. Whether this rhetorical sleight-of-hand is chosen from laziness, intellectual weakness, dependence, desperation, depression, or some other condition entirely, it does not make for useful reading. Kierkegaard properly denies being a philosopher. He embraces instead the life of a poet, writing odes to the great ones. ‘Frygt og bæven’ is a hymn of praise to אברהם ’Abraham and his god, an uncritical appreciation and not a reasoned argument. It aspires to belong in a church, while helping to make the case that neither it nor בראשית Bere’śīt actually does.