The Ideas of Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling
With many Christians and people who follow the teachings of God, the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22 was probably one of the most popular parts in the Bible. While the original story is a story of faith and sacrifice, the four divergent versions of Kierkegaard point out the complexity of the event that first seemed to be simple and straightforward. Kierkegaard has raised difficult questions about the nature and value of the Christian faith.
In the original story, God tested Abraham’s faith by telling him to kill his one and only son, his most beloved son, on one of the mountains in Moriah. Abraham questioned no more than his faith and did, indeed, obey God and attempt to kill Isaac; but God’s angel came at the right time to stop Abraham and gave him a ram in replace of Isaac. Since God had seen Abraham’s fear and faithfulness, he blessed Abraham with numerous descendants.
At the beginning of Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard retells the story of Genesis 22 in four different ways, in which he centers on the inner thoughts of the characters involved. In the first story, Kierkegaard describes how Sarah watched her husband and her son going from the window until “she could see them no more.” The way Kierkegaard used his words emphasizes the depressed and somber feeling of a mother who knew that her only son was about to be killed by her husband—her son’s father. He further describes how Abraham acted during the journey, that he “did not say a word” and with his “fatherly” expression. In this first version, Abraham decided to act like he didn’t love his son at all, and that all he needed was God. The truth was that Abraham would rather have Isaac loses his trust in his father than Isaac loses his faith in God. Thanks to every small detail, from Sarah’s emotional feelings to Abraham’s bleeding soul and Isaac anguished cry, the story-through Kierkegaard’s words-becomes more realistic and painful that it deeply touches my heart and soul.
The second story is shorter than the first and centralizes more on the actions of the characters. In this story, Abraham decided to not kill Isaac and sacrificed the ram that God had appointed instead. However, while Isaac continued to live and grow, Abraham saw no joy in his life, for he has disobeyed God.
In the third story, Abraham was confused about his actions and his faith. He couldn’t comprehend that it was a sin that he was willing to sacrifice his son for God had commanded him to do so. But it was a sin as he loved Isaac so much and has forgotten the duty of a father. Abraham did not know which sin is more terrible, for both of them gave him the same merciless consequence.
The fourth story focuses on Isaac more than Abraham. In this story, Abraham did not kill Isaac. He has trembled. Then they returned in the joy of Sarah, but Isaac has lost his faith for he has seen his dad disobeyed God.
In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard emphasizes that Abraham’s decision is morally repugnant and rationally unintelligible. However, he also shows that if nothing is higher than human reasoning, then belief in God becomes dispensable. Kierkegaard’s writings point to people who believed in the authority and goodness of God. By emphasizing the difficulty of understanding Abraham’s response to the divine command, he emphasizes the difficulty of faith itself. The third story puts a question on every one of us: “If you were Abraham, what would you do?” It seems unlikely that anyone would conclude that he or she would have acted as Abraham did. Just as Abraham’s faith is tested by God in the Book of Genesis, so does our faith is tested by personal reflection on the biblical story.
Though Abraham attempted to kill Isaac each time, he remained suffered and regretted his action. This aspect of the interpretation of Abraham offered in Fear and Trembling suggests that, far from being an idolater, Abraham regards human relationships (in this case, family relationships) as essential to life. In his work, Kierkegaard does not promote a particular judgment about Abraham but rather presents us with a dilemma: either Abraham is no better than a murderer, and there are no grounds for admiring him, or moral duties do not constitute the highest claim on the human being. Fear and Trembling does not resolve this dilemma, and perhaps for a normal person, there is no entirely satisfactory way of resolving it.
In conclusion, the question of how to respond to the suffering associated with love and loss is precisely connected to the question of how to stay in relation to God as historians have pointed out that human suffering presents a great challenge to belief in a just, loving, all-powerful God. For Kierkegaard, he could not understand why Abraham believes that the God who commands him to do what is most terrible and painful is also the God who loves him. While the original version was no more than a story of an idolater, the interpretation of Kierkegaard testifies to the extraordinary difficulty of religious faith.
How Kierkegaard and C.s Lewis Self and Trump Over Despair
To begin to understand Kierkegaard’s argument one must first understand how Kierkegaard chooses to define the self. Kierkegaard attempts to accomplish this by showing the self as “a relation that relates itself to itself”. To explain this phrase, Kierkegaard describes this phenomenon as the relationship which must bond together these factors in the correct way. The first example of this relationship must exist between necessity and possibility and describes the way in which human possibility in the form of the power of choice is offset by basic human necessities. Whether these necessities may be biological in nature or needs on a more individual level such as personal limitations, they still serve as a check on the possibilities of human existence. Much in the same way however, the necessities of human existence cannot be allowed to gain too much precedence in ones existence overriding the possibility of human nature. Though the relationship between necessity and possibility often prove to be the most basic and most easily understood portion of what Kierkegaard defines as the self, it is not the only relationship which he will choose to associate with his definition of the “self”.
The other examples of this relationship which Kierkegaard deems necessary for the self to occur are markedly different, however for the main focus of this piece are similar enough to be regarded in the same sense. These factors which must carry the relationship Kierkegaard views necessary to gain ones self is that of temporal and eternal and finite with infinite. Though the first of both these pairs is easily identifiable in regards to the human self (human mortality easily lends to these ideas of temporal and finite), the subsequent halves of these pairing are much harder to define in regards to the human condition. For Kierkegaard, this relationship is heavily based on the notion of what he describes as becoming. That is, in our attempts to become our immediate selves we are in a way fixing or making permanent who we are as human beings. In this way, the relationship which is necessary to realizing a self becomes evident between these two factors as the finite definition of who we are naturally becomes associated with the everlasting or eternal version of what we shall forever be.
Therefore, by understanding how Kierkegaard defines the essence of a human self, it is much easier to understand his description of just what despair is in regards to this “self”. For Kierkegaard, despair can be defined as any factor which causes a disruption or failure to achieve these sort of linking between factors. Due to the fact that the very relationship itself is the self, any break in this link disrupts the human achievement of realizing ones self. That is to say, any imbalance between the relationship, which essentially is the self, could easily be defined as despair. In order to better explain his argument however, Kierkegaard distinctly describes the three ways in which a human being could live in despair; these three modes being not being aware of having a self, willing in despair not to be oneself, and willing in despair to be oneself.
An important point to reference in Kierkegaard’s mention of despair is that this is a state exclusive to human beings. Animals are not subject to being in despair as there is never any question about what an animals self is, as they simply are meant to be said animal. A cow does not dread waking up every morning wondering “what sort of cow am I going to be today?” it simply is a cow. Due to this these animals are unable to be placed into despair as they cannot face disharmony in Kierkegaard’s set of relationships because they are not expected to have these relationships. Once again, the cow is not tasked with the struggle of maintaining balance between the finite and infinite, nor the temporal and eternal.
The first of these modes of despair is also the least important for Kierkegaard, that being the occurrence of not being aware of having a self. For Kierkegaard this is a state in which the person in question has not considered the possibility of who they are or want to be perhaps due to simply not reaching that point yet or perhaps mental deficiencies which prevent them from understanding the overall concept of the “self”. A practical example of this second instance could perhaps be someone who is mentally handicapped and due to its effects have no knowledge of his/her self and lives their life in ignorance of their own despair. The second of these forms is much more consequential to Kierkegaard and is the occurrence where a person is willing in despair not to be oneself. For Kierkegaard this occurs out of weakness and is one of the more easily recognizable versions of despair. In this version of despair, the victim does not believe that they have lived up to their expectations or “higher-level” desires. That is to say, the victims of this sort of despair feel as if they are not living the life they are supposed to live and are somehow missing out on all it is to be a human being. In fact, these beings are so in despair that they view achieving their purpose or becoming all it means to be human as out of reach. According to Kierkegaard this occurs as a result of the fact that human beings are capable of acknowledging ideas of perfection and things which are incalculable. Due to this, human beings who are victimized to this mode of despair see themselves as falling short of what it means to be themselves.
Perhaps the greatest issue in deciphering Kierkegaard’s versions of despair is understanding how the aforementioned mode of despair can coexist with Kierkegaard’s final version of despair, that of willing in despair to be ones self. Kierkegaard defines this form of despair as one willing unsuccessfully to be ones self (this later being called defiance). That is to say, despite the fact that one cannot reach the balance needed to achieve being one’s self, certain individuals defiantly spend their lives attempting to achieve this unreachable goal. The way in which this individuals choose to continue is to Kierkegaard a form of defiance in the fact that these individuals fully comprehend the furtiveness of their tasks and the finite nature of their lives yet continue to despair to be ones self in defiance of the despair facing them. The issue with this for many readers of Kierkegaard is it seemingly renders humans incapable of living without despair. What appears to be the only three options in life have all sent us down a path which Kierkegaard would describe as a state of despair. What path then should we take as rational beings? For Kierkegaard, the answer to this question is that of faith.
Despite the fact that Kierkegaard’s description of despair lends itself to inevitability, he later makes the argument that those living in defiance have the opportunity to employ a mode or method which allows them to escape the despair, that method of course being faith. For Kierkegaard those living in defiance without faith are still living in despair despite their defiance therefore faith is needed in accordance with defiance to escape the despair. Faith as described by Kierkegaard, is the process by which human beings are able to recognize ideas of the incalculable or immense and then strive to express these ideas in the finite world. By doing this, we are able to achieve the balance or harmony which Kierkegaard associates with a “self”. That is to say, Kierkegaard argues that expressing such ideals as the incalculable or unconditionable in the finite world requires faith, and likewise these expressions require Gods assistance. Without God, Kierkegaard would argue, human beings would either live in defiance or weakness therefore continually being subject to the despair. However, defiance along with faith in god along as an omnipotent all powerful being allows a release from the despair.
One interesting way to analyze Kierkegaard’s method on overcoming despair is to compare it to Camus views about despair as shown in the Myth of Sisyphus. For Camus, defiance as characterized by Sisyphus is the fact of acknowledging that one lives in despair, yet continuing on with their task anyway. Therefore, by continuing to push the boulder uphill despite his knowledge that it will simply fall back down again, Sisyphus is exemplifying defiance by his refusal to fall into the overwhelming pit of despair that is his circumstances. That is, for Camus the very act of continuing to push the boulder despite the fact that he has no hope of accomplishing his task is the very defiance that we as humans should seek in our lives. Thus, Camus tells the reader that we should simply imagine Sisyphus as happy in this task as he is simply defying the despair into which he has been cast. In contrast, Kierkegaard would categorize Sisyphus’s lack of hope as being that which places him in despair. Kierkegaard would argue that since Sisyphus lacks any hope or faith he is thereby prevented from achieving the sort of balance which leads to the achievement of ones “self” and therefore an escape from despair. These are some of the main points which categorize Kierkegaard’s lengthy argument on the components of despair.
Soren Kierkegaard on Ethical Life and Freedom
Kierkegaard did not believe that God defined and created human morality, instead he believed that it was up to us as individuals to define our own morals, values, and ethics. Kierkegaard wanted man to ‘wake up’ and renounce the cosy, sentimental illusions of modern life. He defined this change as absorbing the lower form of aesthetic life to live an ethical life. Kierkegaard defined an ethical life as when one becomes conscious of themselves. Thus, it does not mean changing a person into someone else but rather changing into an individual. In this sense, ‘ethics’ represents the ‘universal’ and prevailing the social norms. These social norms are what are used to justify actions within communities. This is what carries the implications of freedom in an ethical life. This essay will explore how living an ethical life can better the society we live in and therefore supply more opportunities for freedom. This will be analysed by defining an ethical life, comparing this to an aesthetic life, and discussing how this relates to the idea of freedom.
The ethical life is to become conscious of yourself and to act accordingly. The ethical “does not want to make the individual into someone else but into the individual himself; it does not want to destroy the esthetic but to transfigure it” (Kierkegaard, 1987, p.253). Thus, the ethical life absorbs the aesthetic life and develops it into a higher form of life, by no means does the ethical exclude the aesthetic. The ethical brings the personality into focus and the aesthetic is recontextualised as part of both man’s understanding of the world and of himself (Perkins, 2010, p. 345) This allows diverse people to coexist in harmony and for individuals to act in accordance with what is good for the society. Ordinarily, we view the ethical as abstract and separate from ourselves hence we avoid it as we do not understand what will come from it. This is similar to how many fear and avoid death as, “if a person fears transparency, he always avoids the ethical” (Kierkegaard,1987, p.254) This is what creates our secret horror and fear of it, as ethical demands transparency. You must become transparent with yourself so, your morality cannot be sourced from a religious book or a book of rules, it comes from within oneself. This empowerment terrifies most people as the responsibility and control now belongs to them. There is no ‘absolute’ to blame as that power lies within oneself. What ceases the ethical from being an abstract concept and what allows it to become fully actualised is when the individual accepts this realisation and embraces it. Kierkegaard defines this as “the person who views life ethically sees the universal, and the person who lives ethically expresses the universal in his life” (Kierkegaard, 1987, p.256). Therefore, the person who lives an ethical life is working towards becoming a universal human being. The individual lives with the assurance that they are living a life which is ethically structured. They have no need to ponder over insecurities which would otherwise torment him and provide him with anxiety, such as the person living an aesthetic life.
An aesthetic life appears to be much more appealing as it “places the meaning of life in living for the performance of one’s duties” (Kierkegaard, 1987, p.254). This positions the person under the illusion that they have an ethical view of life, but their mistake is that they have placed an external relation to duty. Furthermore, they are unable to be both unique and universal. The ethical and aesthetic appear similar at face value, but it takes a true and deep understanding of oneself to be able to develop an aesthetic individual into an ethical person. Kierkegaard explains that “if the ethical life did not have a much deeper connection with the personality it would always be difficult to champion it against the aesthetic life” (Kierkegaard, 1987, p.254). This statement suggests that the ethical has a deep connection with the nature of being human. Thus, if a person does not come to understand and live this way of life then they are lacking an essential humanness while also missing the great good (Mehl, 2010, p. 25). This insists that the ethical life is fundamental in society as it allows a person to assess the morality of their decisions. An aesthetic life is determined by duty or a series of particular rules, but duty and the individual are two separate things, according to Kierkegaard. He depicts the person living an aesthetic life as “an accidental human being; he believes he is the perfect human being by being the one and only human being” (Kierkegaard, 1987, p.256). This life of duty is unromantic and boring; therefore, the person is unfulfilled. They live too narrowly with no understanding of the wider world occupied by other individuals. It is impossible to become the universal human being with this mindset. This limits the individual from understanding the society around them and how they make coincide with it, and others. When compared to an ethical life the primary difference between the two is that the ethical individual is transparent with himself. The ethical person “does not allow vague thoughts to rustle around inside him or let tempering possibilities distract him with their juggling” (Kierkegaard, 1987, p.258). This is what holds the aesthetic individual back, so that they are unable to live a free life. They rely on other people to validate their thoughts and actions while the ethical person is certain enough of their own beliefs and of their own morals that they know the right thing to do, for themselves. The aesthetic person only has superficial motivations as they cannot understand any deeper meaning than that.
This understanding of an individual’s own morals and ethics opens up the possibilities of freedom for the person. Either/Or explains that by living an ethical life a person is freed from the constraints of others around them as they are no longer confined and compelled to “talk about duty every moment, to worry every moment whether he is performing it, every moment to seek the advice of others about what his duty is” (Kierkegaard, 1987, p.255). The ethical encourages a person to analyse their own actions for themselves. They are unconstrained from the bindings of a book or the declarations of another individual which dictate what decisions they should make. The ethical individual is now unrestricted by the limitations of their external duties related to an aesthetic life. When man has immersed himself in living the ethical life “he will not run himself fragged performing his duties” (Kierkegaard, 1987, p.254). The ethical frees the man as he is no longer a slave to the material and aesthetic duties of his life which are external to him. Hence, the truly ethical person gains a sense of serenity and security as he now obtains his duties from within himself. The ethical provides freedom as it demands that the person is both an individual and universal. Evidently, “the personality does not have the ethical outside itself but within itself and it bursts forth from this depth” (Kierkegaard, 1987, p.257). He wants people to realise that each individual has the power to decipher their own ways in life and should therefore not be reliant on any other power. Kierkegaard attacking our general sense that life has purpose and meaning gives the individual a sense of freedom. They are no longer confined to relying on an external source to inform them on what is just and moral. Although, the ethical cannot supply an individual with complete freedom as it does little to nurture one’s spiritual self. When living an ethical life, one is diverted from self-exploration as it necessitates the person to follow a set of socially accepted regulations of what is normal. This is why religion is the third stage and therefore the superior to the ethical life, as self-exploration is a key component for faith, and is necessary for a religious life. An ethical individual is not encouraged to develop or attempt to change society for the better, only to coincide with what society declares is good. Thus, the person is not completely free but merely aware of how to act freely within the limits of what is moral, according to society.
Thus, it is evident that Kierkegaard believed that it was necessary to progress from living an aesthetic live to living an ethical life in order to have any form of freedom. This message was delivered in stark truths which admitted that man must give up his sentimental illusions of modern life in order to reach the level of security which allows you to be free. This includes becoming conscious of oneself and becoming ultimately transparent with oneself, which is a terrifying realisation to have to make. This transparency is the defining difficulty that Kierkegaard describes. It is the primary reason most people have been unable to live freely. This essay examined how living an ethical leads to freedom by defining Kierkegaard’s idea of an ethical life, comparing this to an aesthetic life, and discussing how this all relates to the idea of freedom.
- Mehl, P. J., 2010. Thinking through Kierkegaard: Existential Identity in a Pluralistic World. Printing ed. URBANA; CHICAGO: University of Illinois Press. Perkins, R. L., 2010. The Point of View. Reprint ed. Georgia, United States: Mercer University Press.
- Søren Kierkegaard, extract from Either/Or (Part II), trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987) pp.253-259.
Looking at Two Kinds of Love from the Perspective of a Christian as Depicted by Kierkegaard and C.s. Lewis
Kierkegaard and Lewis
What is love? If such a question were posed to an assembly of a hundred people, each person could potentially provide a different answer. None would be right. But then, none would be completely wrong either. From Plato to Singer, love has been defined and redefined according to the social norms of each time period. Today, the word has been so tightly bound to romance and family that to use it outside of such occasions is likely either to stir up confusion or to incur discomfort in the receiving party. To love your friend is, of course, still normal. But to vocalize such sentiments, especially among men, is often frowned upon, unless it is voiced in a joking manner. Likewise, some people restrict their use of the term “love”, explaining that love is powerful and should mean something, as if afraid to use it unless they experience love in its truest form. But what is its truest form? Ask that question, and another string of varying answers will come forward, each one probably based on the idea of eros or philia. However, those are only two of the four kinds of love that are present in this world. There is also storge (familial love) and agape (charity), the latter of which is this paper’s focus. Even defining one type of love is a trying task as each person still interprets differently the kinds of elements present within it. But there are at least two authors, C.S. Lewis and Kierkegaard, whose works show clear parallels in their arguments of what Charity actually is. Although these two explain this type of love in different terms, both C.S. Lewis and Kierkegaard base their arguments in Christianity, which is where all of their ideas match up to each other.
C.S. Lewis’ view of Charity begins with the metaphor of a garden (Lewis 116-7), which is meant to represent the way in which love is meant to thrive. As a garden needs to be tended to in order to remain different from nature, so too must natural love be treated and acted upon with virtue and goodness in order to be the true love that God had meant for it to be. Lewis describes in his agape chapter four components that make up charity: acceptance, giving selflessly, the ability to love the unlovable, and appreciation.
According to Lewis, charity begins with the acceptance of Need (Lewis 130-1). No person is without Need. Or rather, every person is in Need (as opposed to being needy, which is more or less to desire that which is not actually needed). Accepting this need means to renounce the self-love that people have of themselves, a feeling which is far closer to the Common than it is to the Heavenly. To not need anything from anyone is simply pride. To relate it to today’s society, who is not in need of a job? Regardless of how much effort a person puts into getting that job, it is always the employer who chooses whether or not to give out that position. In other words, the job seeker needs the employer because it is he who ultimately determines whether or not the job seeker acquires what is necessary. In Lewis’ view, people first need to accept their Need for God, or Love-Himself, and, in turn, their Need for each other. By accepting this truth, the gateway to charity is opened.
The next step in achieving Charity is the one which is most familiar: giving (Lewis 128). Giving meaning to help those in need without expecting anything in return, to do something wholly for that person without regard to oneself. Like God, one must give plenteously as if unaffected by one’s own Need. Following after, Lewis declares that one must be able to love the unlovable (Lewis 133). In the book, he explains that, by nature, not all people are lovable. However, they must be loved in spite of it. Further, he says that even the lovable people will have moments which may show them to be unlovable, and by loving such people regardless, it is a part of Charity. The final component is left open to interpretation, but Lewis calls it Appreciative love towards God and states that “this is of all gifts the most to be desired” (Lewis 140).
Kierkegaard’s version of Charity is very close to Lewis’, although the focus of his argument is a bit different. According to Kierkegaard, Charity is the true love that should be taught by Christianity. The problem lies in how Christianity, at the same time, praises friendship and eros. His discussion is mainly a comparison between eros and friendship, and Charity, which are essentially opposing types of loves.
Kierkegaard begins by asserting that eros and philia are selfish due to idea that a close friend or the Beloved is another part of the Lover (Pakaluk 241-2). This concept, then, turns every virtue of love (giving, patience, equality) into an act of self-love. For who is unwilling to give to oneself or wait for oneself? And how can one not be equal to oneself? Each act of love upon the “Other I”, as Kierkegaard puts it, is only an act for oneself and is therefore Pagan as opposed to Christian because the “Other I” is praised before God. In his conclusion, one can therefore choose only Pagan love (eros and friendship) or Christian love (Charity). There is no compromise.
In terms of Charity, Kierkegaard expresses four main points: selflessness, eternity, equality, and the highest love. The argument is focused on a single commandment: You shall love thy neighbor. In loving one’s neighbor, one is able to love selflessly because the neighbor cannot be an “Other I” for the neighbor is expressed distinctly as apart from the one (Pakaluk 242). There is no merging unification in “me and my neighbor”, as opposed to lovers or friends who think of each other as each other’s halves or parts of each other. By following this one commandment, the act of selfless love is achieved because there is that distinction and recognition of the neighbor as separate from oneself, strictly as an Other and not an “Other I”, which removes the self from the act of loving.
The next two points discuss the immortality and equality of true love (Charity) as opposed to eros and friendship (Pakaluk 243-5). The commandment states to love thy neighbor, and in so doing, this love is eternal for the fact that “all men are your neighbor” (Pakaluk 239). So as long there are people on this earth, there is love. By these statements, this love is also equal because since all men are your neighbor, they are all treated in the same way, the way neighbor is mandated to be treated, with love, which casts out the preferential, and by definition unequal, love of eros and friendship. With the Pagan loves, not all people can be one’s friends or lovers, which naturally creates a certain hierarchy in terms of affection for others. Not all friends will be loved equally, and the Beloved will always be treated better than friends. In this way, eros and friendship are temporary, for preferences are constantly shifting.
Finally, Kierkegaard asserts that Charity is the highest love, for it is the only love that can bring us closer to God, who loves in this way also (Pakaluk 236). In fact, Kierkegaard deems that one must love God above all before loving one’s neighbors for it is He who dictates that this must be so. And by not choosing the love of God, one by default chooses the Pagan love.
Although Lewis and Kierkegaard explain it differently, their ideas are mainly the same. Lewis’ first explanation of accepting Need is the same as Kierkegaard’s selflessness and equality. By accepting one’s own Need, there is the understanding that everyone is need of each other and therefore equal. To love the unlovable, as expressed by Lewis, is the same as the commandment to love thy neighbor. The terms “unlovable” and “neighbor” are both used to describe “everyone” or all the equal love-objects that exist in Charity, which also includes one’s self. And also, Kierkegaard and Lewis’ arguments praise God above all else, which central to their ideas of Charity. By knowing that there is a higher power, one can truly understand his place as an equal among the others, which casts out all the pride and ego that comes from seeing one’s self as purely individual.
An example that follows both Lewis and Kierkegaard’s guidelines for Charity is the recent news video about the Somali children in Kenya and the Syrian children in Jordan, all refugees, who were exchanging letters of hope between the camps earlier this year. The first reason it fits into the definition of Charity as portrayed by Lewis and Kierkegaard is the children’s willingness to communicate with each other. Both parties understood that they were in need of support and met each other with kind words. There was an acceptance of their need. In addition, this event displays Kierkegaard’s central focus of loving one’s neighbor. Although the two refugee camps are countries apart, the children recognized that they were all in the same boat, that they were all equal and related to each other by the association that all men are neighbors. But above all, the children were giving to each other, with no other reason than to give hope to each other. The act was therefore an act of selflessness, and by definition, a true act of Charity.
In conclusion, Kierkegaard and C.S. Lewis both share similar views on Charity as both of their arguments are rooted in the Christian theology. Although different terms and focuses were made (Lewis discussed the improvement of self while Kierkegaard concentrates on how to treat others), they both come down to the same findings: Love God first, and then love others equally.
The Two Ethical Sides of Faith as Depicted in Soren Kierkegaard and Sam Harris’ Work
Soren Kierkegaard and Sam Harris place faith at opposing sides of the moral spectrum. Kierkegaard believes that committing to one’s absolute duty to God is the only way to live a meaningful life and that Abraham enters the highest level of morality when he takes the leap of faith by agreeing to kill his son, whereas Sam Harris believes the leap of faith has been the cause of many immoral and heinous acts throughout history and should be done away with. Both of these great thinkers hold a generally unfavorable view of religious moderates but for contrasting reasons.
In Soren Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling”, he dissects the Biblical story of Abraham and his teleological suspension of the ethical. Abraham was commanded by God to kill his long awaited son Isaac. Abraham obliges and begins to carry out the sacrifice of his only son but is stopped by God before the killing can take place. Abraham’s actions would be considered a leap of faith. He had no evidence to make him conclude that things would turn out alright but had faith that God would take care of him. To be a true leap of faith, the test that requires it must be an irrational act like the demand for Abraham to kill his son. It can not be a calculated decision or a “best-bet” scenario. (Martin PPT). This is the case for Abraham because he did not know that God would spare Isaac. The ethical or the “universal”, as Kierkegaard calls it, was Abraham’s temptation. The easy course of action for Abraham would have been to follow the the ethical route and spare Isaac. He underwent a “teleological suspension of the ethical”. Kierkegaard notes that this is a paradox. By ignoring what society might deem moral, Abraham enters into a higher realm of morality. He states that “As the single individual he became higher than the universal” (Kierkegaard 22). Kierkegaard believed that a true Christian subscribes to the highest moral calling of faith and must live a life of anxiety. He favors this over more passive types of Christians who use their religion as a social or ethical tool. Kierkegaard believes that faith only has meaning if it is difficult. This requires a leap of faith which lifts the individual above the universal.
Sam Harris argues that the religious “leap of faith” is a dangerous thing. In the beginning of his book, “The End of Faith”, Harris describes a situation in which a young man blows up a bus filled with innocent people. His family grieves for him but is also full of Pride. Harris then asks the reader to infer what religion the young man comes from. His specific faith is not important. The fact that the young man’s action appear irrational from the outside, shows that this is a prime example of Kierkegaard’s leap of faith. The young man has attempted to transcend the universal and become a Knight of faith. Harris argues for the universal. This situation is used to demonstrate the dangers of the leap of faith from the universal ethical perspective. Harris comes from an ethical school of thought similar to that of William K. Clifford. In his paper, “The Ethics of Belief “, Clifford argues that it is impossible to separate the action from the belief that inspired it. He believed that it is immoral to have beliefs based on insufficient evidence because these beliefs inevitably become actions and could affect other people negatively. This seems to be the case for Harris’ suicide bomber. His actions are based on faith rather than reason. His ill-informed beliefs end up killing innocent people. Harris states that “. . . every religion preaches the truth of propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable. This puts the ‘leap’ in Kierkegaard’s leap of faith”(Harris 23). To Harris, religious martyrdom is a leap of ignorance, or at best, uncertainty. It is immoral for someone to kill innocents for an idea that they have not properly examined. Harris sees this becoming even more of a problem as highly religious countries gain access to nuclear technology. “We can no longer ignore the fact that billions of our neighbors believe in the metaphysics of martyrdom,”(Harris 14). According to Harris, the group who perpetuates this ignorance towards the dangerous beliefs of extremists are religious moderates.
People defend religion saying that it is only a small percentage of religious extremists who act out their beliefs violently but Sam Harris believes that all religious people must hold some responsibility for tolerating and protecting the beliefs of extremists. “I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance–born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God–is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.” (Harris 15). Harris believes that moderates, while advocating religious tolerance have become apologists for the religious extremists. They impede rational criticism of religion by advocating acceptance of those who hold irrational beliefs. Harris identifies the two moderate myths that keep faith from rational criticism: “(1) most of us believe that there are good things that people get from religious faith . . . (2) many of us also believe that the terrible things that are sometimes done in the name of religion are the products not of faith per se but of our baser natures. . . “ (Harris 15). Religious people believe that their faith helps them to live an ethical social existence. Harris would say that this is untrue and that religion actually makes you less social and less ethical towards others. Moderates also believe that the people who commit terrible acts in the name of God do it for other hidden reasons like “greed, hatred and fear” not because of their faith. Harris argues that it is, in fact, because of their faith. It is impossible to fully respect people of another faith if you believe that they will inevitably burn in hell. Religion puts up walls between people and then unites them in violence(Harris 12 &15). Moderates cling to these myths because it keeps their own beliefs from scrutiny. Harris’ moral system seems to be based on what will benefit the most people and keep them from harm. Soren Kierkegaard would call this the “universal”. It is the widely accepted social norm of morality. Kierkegaard believed this was the moral existence of the moderates of his time and for that reason he was against them.
Kierkegaard argued that when we try to reduce faith to the “ethical” it means nothing. He noticed that the moderates used faith as a function of social norms and a social construct of belonging. He believed that this was a base level of morality. (Martin PPT). In “Fear and Trembling” Kierkegaard explains that the highest level of being was that of the “knight of faith”. To attain this status one must disregard ethical duties in service of God (Martin PPT). His views seem to align closer to that of the violent extremists that we see today than that of moderates. The man in Harris’ opening bus scene must know that killing innocent people is ethically wrong but he has a higher calling to God. Kierkegaard believed that the Bible should be interpreted literally and that moderates water it down to make it more accessible and make the teachings easier to comply with. He gives an example from Luke 14:26 which explains the absolute duty to God. The literal interpretation says that it requires hating your whole family and even your life. The religious scholars of Kierkegaard’s time took a moderate perspective on this verse by weakening the meaning of “to hate” and translating it to “love less” (Kierkegaard 29-30) Kierkegaard believed that scripture should be translated literally even if it says to hate your whole family because being a faithful christian is supposed to be a continuous and difficult process for the single individual. It does not matter if it negatively affects your relationships because the Knight of Faith must be higher than the “Universal” where the moderates operate.
After close examination we see that Harris and Kierkegaard have polarizing views on the issue of the leap of faith. Harris opposes it for the irrationality that leads one to make this decision and Kierkegaard praises it for the same reason. He argues that this very appearance of irrationality is what made Abraham great by allowing him to transcend the universal as the single individual. We also see that for Harris, moderates are too serious about faith by being ignorant of the unethical acts mandated in scripture and for impeding the rational scrutiny of religion. From Kierkegaard’s perspective, moderates are not serious enough because they use religion as a social and ethical tool by watering down scripture. They do not tremble in fear as he believes true christians should.