Kierkegaard’s Concept of Faith

901 words | 4 page(s)

Writing under the pseudonym, “Johannes de Silentio, Kierkegaard expresses irritation that everyone tends to go “further” than faith. They believe that faith is not a sufficient explanation for action. Before people began doing this, it was assumed there was a certain “dexterity” in faith. People believed that it took time, perhaps a whole lifetime to understand faith completely. Now, he says, people want to go further than faith can take them. They want to go further than the great figures and examples of faith ended up at. Kierkegaard relates that even if we use all our examples of faith to create a consistent concept of faith, this doesn’t necessarily mean that we understand the experience of having faith and how one came to believe (Kierkegaard 42). Kierkegaard’s, or rather de Silentio’s, project then is to look more carefully into why faith itself is sufficient and why it is not necessary to go beyond it. For more clarity, he looks to the story of Abraham. By evaluating Abraham, he concludes that faith is an experience of giving up everything, and then knowing that all will be restored by virtue of the absurd. While this view is attractive, it presents a dilemma of ethics.

Abraham’s story is one of faith. Abraham did not need to get beyond faith. Kierkegaard speculates on four different versions of Abraham’s story. In each, he takes a different approach to interpreting Abraham’s actions in hopes that in one of the versions, Abraham’s faith will make sense to him. He then gains valuable insight into what faith might have meant specifically to Abraham. For example, Abraham and Sarah’s youthful wish was preserved by faith, even in their old age. Kierkegaard explains that Abraham believed that despite their age, God would be true to his promise. Then, though he and Sarah were too old to have children, they had Isaac because Abraham believed that they would. Ultimately, however, Kierkegaard does not believe that this a sufficient explanation, and declares that Abraham remains as mysterious as ever.

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Kierkegaard realized that an important part of faith is an infinite resignation of the self unto God. A person gives up what it is they wants in favor of God’s wants, whatever those may be. This move is also demonstrated by the tragic hero, who must give up everything. The “knight” of faith goes past the tragic hero, however. After the knight of faith gives everything up, she believes that she will get back everything anyway because faith is connected with belief in what is absurd (Kierkegaard 85). Once again, it is this move that is so difficult to understand. It is why the tragic hero is loved and the knight of faith, misunderstood.

This notion can only be understood if we connect faith to the teleological suspension of the ethical. In Abraham’s case, this meant that he had to ignore the ethical mandate to not kill. He gave up that mandate to follow God’s command to kill his son. His faith is responsible for the adoption of God’s will over his ethical duty. Though his helps us understand Abraham, and the requirements of faith, further, Kierkegaard insists that there is one final step. The faithful must do all of this in fervent passion for God. It is this, that ultimately cannot be understood conceptually and can only be experienced.

It is difficult to attack a concept that claims to be unable to be understood. This can serve as a critique of Kierkegaard’s notion of faith. After all, is it not at least somewhat of a cop out to insist that if it does not make sense, it is merely because by nature, it cannot be understood? Of course, this could still be true, so it is useful to be charitable and look at other potential problems with Kierkegaard’s conception of faith.

One difficulty with Kierkegaard’s account is that it changes the universal, moral duty between the religious persona and the non-religious person. This is problematic for anyone who is invested in the construction of a universal ethics. While others are bound by an ethical principle, the person of faith is bound only to God’s command. As demonstrated in the story of Abraham, these two can stand in opposition to one another. Further complicating this situation is Kierkegaard’s insistence that this is not only a different set of ethics, it is actually just a “suspension” of the religious person’s ethical obligation. This makes it unclear what a moral obligations a person has. This is concerning to anyone who is invested in a universal ethic.

While Kierkegaard’s account of faith is surely attractive to the faithful, it can only be problematic to those who do not or feel they cannot have faith. Kierkegaard says that not only is faith infinite resignation to the will of god, it is a believing that giving up everything will become profitable in the end. Additionally, it is a temporary, teleological suspension of the ethical. This is permissible because god’s orders are of more import than the worldly, human ethics. While this account may satisfy the belief that some have that god’s will is above all human laws, it becomes problematic when discussing universal beliefs or courses of action. It would be interesting to see if those who are satisfied by Kierkegaard’s account also believe that Abraham’s actions were just.

  • Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling. Translated by Alastair Hannay. Penguin Books, 1986.

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