Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s explication of the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac is not easy reading. This short book is definitely not “philosophy light,” or “theology for the masses,” but a very serious philosophico-theological attempt to understand what it means to have the kind of faith attributed to Abraham, without dismissing him as a madman for being willing to kill his favored son when God asks him to. It is complex, detailed, imaginative, expansive, and difficult (unless you read this sort of thing all the time, which I don’t).
Kierkegaard may not go down easily with anyone who prefers to think of faith as a warm feeling that gets you through the hard times. By his reading of things, neither faith nor doubt, properly understood, comes easily or cheaply, without effort and a considerable amount of time. Indeed, for a book about faith, Kierkegaard writes quite a bit about doubt, leading to the interesting question: Can faith and doubt co-exist? (Hint: The answer is yes.) In justifying or explaining Abraham’s actions, however, the primary tension at issue in Kierkegaard’s study is not between faith and doubt, with faith triumphant, but between ethics (what is publicly acceptable and, even more important, done for the good of all) and aesthetics (human sensory experience). It is not possible to find any rationale or justification for Abraham’s willingness to kill his son in the realm of ethics. It goes against every norm of human society, parental responsibility, and fatherly love. And it is not good enough to say, “Well, Abraham knew that in the end God would spare Isaac and not really require his blood at Abraham’s hand.” That kind of justification undermines the whole story. The only way to understand Abraham as a hero of faith is if he knew that God’s requirement meant that he would, in fact and in deed, kill his son., but also that God would restore Isaac (another Isaac?) to him, since it was through that genealogical line that God’s promises to Abraham had meaning. Not spare him, but restore him. It’s a paradox, and is explainable only by reference to the absurd. By “absurd,” Kierkegaard does not mean strange or weird or ridiculous. He means that which is beyond the ability of human agency and the grasp of human reason. The only way Abraham could act was by reliance on the absurd—the so-called “leap of faith” often referred to. The only way he could regain Isaac was via the absurd, but in order for his faith to have any effect, he had to believe that he was indeed going to sacrifice his son. That’s the paradox, but it is the paradox that is at the heart of any attempt to understand Abraham, in Kierkegaard’s view, because while he argues that the ethical is higher than the aesthetic, the religious stage of life is higher still. This stage puts one in a relationship with God that is personal, absolute, transcendent, and ineffable.
For me, the whole thing began to become understandable (to the extent that it ever did), in the third of the three “problema” that form the core of the book, and especially the last major section. (“But now Abraham. How did he act?”) In the end Kierkegaard denies that he is actually trying to explain Abraham, since he claims that “I cannot understand Abraham, I can only admire him.” Possibly he is just being clever in saying so, though after his discussion of the absurd and of the demands of the religious life, maybe not. The story of Abraham challenges us at the heart of both our private lives (the aesthetic) and our public lives (the ethical), demanding that we at least imagine, even if we cannot live, a life beyond both (the religious).
This is not easy going, certainly not a book to pick up when you’re tired or to try to rush through. In the end I’m glad I read it, though I’m not sure I’m ready just yet to rush out and read everything of Kierkegaard’s. But I did find it eye-opening, at times invigorating, at times nearly impenetrable.
- Paperback: 176 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd; 1 edition (29 August 1985)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0140444491
- ISBN-13: 978-0140444490
- Product Dimensions: 12.8 x 1 x 19.8 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 90.7 g
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- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 47,574 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)