the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2003 October 20


I for my part have applied considerable time to understanding Hegelian philosophy and believe that I have understood it fairly well; I am sufficiently brash to think that when I cannot understand particular passages despite all my pains, he himself may not have been entirely clear. ― Johannes de Silentio, ‘Fear and trembling’, III-84
Surely 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.

Genesis 22, the Akedah, the binding and intended sacrifice of Isaac by 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 Akedah, because what Elohim has ordered and what Abraham intends, clearly, is murder. Isaac is a sentient human, as his conversation with Abraham on the journey demonstrates (7). Isaac is unwilling, as his binding demonstrates (9), as does, certainly, the complete absence of any explicit consent. Isaac is unlikely to consent, as Abraham’s coy deception demonstrates (8). The deliberate killing of an innocent, sentient human is murder. This is what 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 Abraham and Elohim are guilty regardless of the fact that Isaac is not, in the end, killed. And indeed, observers do not generally acquit 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. Genesis 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, Genesis 22 could, as written, be an accidental amalgamation of various legends, which exhibits conflicting intentions due to the haphazard nature of its amalgamation.

But Genesis is not only, or even in significant part, a text that should be interpreted at face value. Genesis 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. Elohim and Abraham are not mere characters. Abraham is the forerunner of the faith, the holiest figure in Judaism and among the holiest in Christianity. Elohim is, needless to say, God ― the one and only god of these faiths. He is omniscient and omnibenevolent. Genesis 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 midrash 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 Genesis 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. 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 ‘Fear and trembling’, 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 Isaac. In the Exordium, his various alternative scenarios show a clear understanding by the characters of the wrongness of the act. In scenario I, Isaac is confused by the appearance of immorality (we may suppose that injustice is the specific objection that Isaac might raise, should his reason prevail over his fear). Abraham is not confused. He is convinced that the act is wrong, and rather than have God blamed by Isaac for the act, 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 Abraham to lose trust in God for ordering the act. In scenario III, 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 Isaac and Abraham have lost faith. The despair that Abraham feels shows Isaac that Abraham no longer believes in God’s goodness, and as Abraham falls, so falls Isaac, 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.

How is a contradiction such as that of the speaker to be explained? Is it because Abraham has gained a prescriptive right to be a great man, so that what he does is great and when another man does the same thing it is a sin, an atrocious sin? ... If faith cannot make it a holy act to be willing to murder his son, then let the same judgement be passed on Abraham as on everyone else. ... The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac ... if faith is taken away by becoming Nul and Nichts, all that remains is the brutal fact that Abraham meant to murder Isaac.... (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 Akedah, 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 Abraham: “... he would have done something ... great and glorious, for how could Abraham do anything else but what is great and glorious!” (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, “No one was as great as Abraham. Who is able to understand him?” (III-67) Speaking again of the pilgrim, Kierkegaard states:

When he grew older, he read the same story with even greater admiration, for life had fractured what had been united in the pious simplicity of the child. The older he became, the more often his thoughts turned to that story; his enthusiasm for it became greater and greater, and yet he understood it less and less. (III-61)
“That man was not a thinker”, 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:
But Abraham had faith and did not doubt; he believed the preposterous. If Abraham had doubted, then he would have done something else, something great and glorious, for how could Abraham do anything else but what was great and glorious! (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: He believed the preposterous. Kierkegaard’s embrace of ‘paradox’ is no accident.
During the time before the result, either Abraham was a murderer every minute or we stand before a paradox that is higher than all mediations. The story of Abraham contains, then, a teleological suspension of the ethical. (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 Abraham’s story and admires him with “pious simplicity” (III-61). An adult, deprived perhaps of childish simplicity, must create pious complexity to obscure the straightforward meaning of Abraham’s act, and to obscure the character of the deity who ordered it.

What Kierkegaard is proposing is a deus 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 Genesis 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. Abraham is great. Why? Because he is great. Elohim is good. Why? Because he is good. This is the teaching. There is no deeper justification. That Elohim is good and yet orders Abraham to commit murder, that 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. ‘Fear and trembling’ is a hymn of praise to 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 Genesis actually does.


Original version


Home of the Stewardship Project
and O.T. Ford