On the Knight of Faith #2

I struggle to express the difference between faith and hope, in emotional terms, that is, in such a way as we can feel it, rather than merely understand it. That there is a difference, however, we might agree, at least intuitively. That we may begin to demonstrate this difference using psychological content, i.e., via thoughts, beliefs and so on, we may also agree. But, what I would like to try here is to find what this difference hinges on in the emotional sense, without focusing on a dry conceptual exercise.

Moreover, I believe Kierkegaard’s ‘knight of faith’ is apposite to flesh it out, because he reasoned in such a way that we not only could ‘conceptualise’ faith, but feel it, too, by our empathising with his father of faith, Abraham.

To start with, let’s reflect on his ‘Speech in Praise of Abraham’, where he first introduces hope alongside faith:

There was one who was great in his strength, and one who was great in his wisdom, and one who was great in hope, and one who was great in love; but greater than all was Abraham, great with that power whose strength is powerlessness, great in that wisdom whose secret is folly, great in that hope whose outward form is insanity, great in that love which is hatred of self.

The ending of the above quote suggests that hope is at least an element of faith or plays a role in it, but it also suggests that hope is not what made Abraham the father of faith, i.e., what distinguished him from all the other great people in biblical history: He was God’s chosen; the birther of nations under His covenant.

Elsewhere, he states the following:

But Abraham believed, and therefore he was young; for he who always hopes for the best becomes old, deceived by life, and he who is always prepared for the worst becomes old prematurely; but he who has faith, retains eternal youth.

See also:

But Abraham had faith. He did not beg for himself in hope of moving the Lord…

One of the most insightful representations of the emotional difference between hope and faith is where Kierkegaard sets the emotional stage by reminding readers that Isaac was a child like none other could be for any father.

God promised Isaac to Abraham as a token of His everlasting covenant — as the seed from which earth’s future will be blessed:

Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you… — King James’ Bible (KJB), Genesis 17:19-21

God nurtured the expectation in Abraham, made him wait for a miracle to beget in old age and delivered.

Then, just as He promised and as Abraham had faith that he and Sarah would against all odds bear children, so God tempted Abraham to sacrifice Isaac when he came of age:

Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you. — KJB Genesis 22:2

So, God promised Abraham a son through whom the earth would be blessed and tested him to endure his reason — Abraham was one hundred years old and Sarah ninety when God made the promise of Isaac — until he delivered as He did.

Then, God let Abraham enjoy Isaac until he came of age, before commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his widest, most significant joy, his promising future.

To return to the difference between faith and hope, Kierkegaard lays the emotional stage for feeling this difference as follows:

Many a father has felt the loss of his child as the loss of the dearest thing he has in the world, to be bereft of every hope for the future; yet no son was the child of promise in the sense that Isaac was for Abraham. Many a father has lost his child, but then it was God, the unchangeable and inscrutable will of the Almighty, it was his hand that took it. Not so with Abraham. For him a harder trial was reserved; along with the knife the fate of Isaac was put into Abraham’s own hand. And he stood there, the old man with his only hope! But he did not doubt, he did not look in anguish to left or right, he did not challenge heaven with his prayers. He knew it was God the Almighty that tried him, he knew it was the hardest sacrifice that could be demanded of him; but he also knew that no sacrifice was too hard when God demanded it – and he drew the knife.

So, according to Kierkegaard, the father of faith was made to forgo that which he values most, more than anything else in the world, his hope of hopes, as a demonstration of his love for God. He forwent it not by surrendering to fate, to God’s will by his own hand, but to his own will by his own hand, he took it upon himself to forgo it as a demonstration of his love for God.

Abraham did it, no questions asked — because . . . well how may we possibly understand why he did it other than because God tempted him to demonstrate his love? Yet, we are still confused and dissatisfied by this explanation.

What ever could possess a person to offer up his hope of hopes as a demonstration of his love — what would his love mean after this? What would be left of it that would be of any value to him and, by extension, to God, after he offers it like this?

We cannot understand Abraham, and in many ways he inspires an uncanny dread in us. But, what we can understand is that hope is an ingredient of faith, since in faith we must accept that some things are beyond our power, as we do in hope.

However, faith does what we cannot understand: it empowers us immediately after we have given up our own power in hope, after we have given it up to a higher power or order, to circumstances which are beyond us and our efforts.

Faith gives hope the bone and sinew it needs — what we need — to do what is needed and so what we know we must. Faith directs our focus to what is needed after our hope has motioned us to forget what we need, because it is beyond us — that is the difference!

It is true that Abraham could have hoped God was testing him, that God wouldn’t let him go through with it; so, he may he have gone right up to the moment, drawn the knife, but all the while waiting for the lamb to appear, doubting that it was real. Abraham could have acted in denial. 

It is also true that Abraham could have hoped God would not hold it against him if he dropped the knife, fell to his knees and implored God to spare Isaac, that he could not do it and he should take the punishment he deserves. Abraham could have tried to bargain, plead and-or barter with God, to save his hope of hopes, his son.

But, God is all-knowing and would have recognised that Abraham had simply yielded to temptation, rather than passed the test and demonstrated his love. Kierkegaard adjusts the reader’s thoughts to these various emotional scenarios in the ‘Attunement’, so we do not need to go too far into them here. Let us focus on hope, instead.

Note that hope nurtures a doubt in us which crumbles our certainty over life, truth and the future, but at the same time — it does more than that. It gives us a kind of security over the three of them by eroding our responsibility — the longer we linger in hope, the further that erosion until there is nothing left. . .

Hope lets us place our responsibility elsewhere, on a higher power or order, which we then assume to be more benevolent, better and-or stronger than we are, or can be. It is in this security, this false security, that we find the difference between hope and faith. It is also here that we find the spiritual crux of religion, which is often lost throughout the ages, even if it is always present and yearning to be found.

Faith is the securest insecurity, the most uncomfortable comfort — it is the emotional and psychological paradox, par excellence.

But, let’s us return to the analysis for a minute to bring out the difference between them a little further into daylight.

So, people who hope are often tempted into action by their legitimate doubts over what could happen: they think they have reason to do what they want to do, but are not to blame for it, because nothing is certain and they didn’t know for sure and in advance things would turn out a certain way. Someone else is to blame for how things turn out.

Likewise, they are tempted into inaction by the same doubts over could happen: they think they have reason not do what they do not want to, because they never know what could happen, especially if what could happen is what they fear most. Someone else is to blame for how things turn out.

Hope makes one do what they want by forgoing their agency, their responsibility — and when a hopeful person says they are doing what they do not want, they are, at worst, lying or, at best, in denial. Hopeful people do what they want, but are not to be blamed for it, they find someone else to blame — even if it is a higher power or order, like God or fate or the devil.

Hope robs us of the certainty over what we have to do and tempts us into giving up our agency and responsibility — the doubt inherent to hope merely reflects to us, as a mirror, the fact that we are robbed of our agency and responsibility. If Abraham had hope, then he would not be God’s chosen, he would find himself among what Kierkegaard calls “life’s wretchedness”.

Abraham knew what he had to do, he was commanded by God, after all. He did not think twice or thrice — he drew the knife, no questions asked.

But, does this mean Abraham is a machine — that he just obeyed a command? What is the temptation, God’s test, worth if the person being tested is not subjected to any doubts or convulsions of emotion: misery, anguish, depression, fear, anxiety, grief and so on? Can we really empathise with Abraham if he was just a machine, obeying God’s command? Certainly not and the way he conversed with God, his mockery of God’s promise when he first heard it indicates he was closer to God than any of us could imagine:

Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear? — KJB Genesis 17:17

A man who so reacts to God’s promise is no machine — he is no victim, either — and he is certainly not addressing himself to a commander. But, the problem still remains.

What is love if it is not subjected to these tests, if it bathes in those lukewarm waters of pleasurable emotions, if it becomes soggy in the sea of certainty and comfort as it tries to manage and avoid the crippling uncertainly over which it dances?

This is not the love God wanted to see in Abraham; He wanted Abraham to go through it all. God wanted his torment to be silent — between Him and Abraham. He wanted in the final act for Abraham to take that torment and let it permeate Abraham’s body, to make his hand steady, pure, clear and shimmering in God’s light, His love, as he drew the knife and begun to take away his hope of hopes by his own hand.

As it is with such things, the deeper we go, the more we find — for we are looking at the human soul, the most beautiful thing there is which we hope never to exhaust even if our mind and body, our finite energies, are shattered from the effort and concentration we apply to celebrate it. But, we must bring our reflection to a close at some point —

My impression of the difference between hope and faith is, per analogiam, that faith is muscular hope; hope with teeth; hope which gets the job done; hope which draws the knife to one’s hope of hopes; hope which moves the mountain, instead of waiting for someone else to move it for one . . .

Faith is the hope which does not rob us of our agency, our responsibility, it does not keep us from doing what we know we must. It does not nurture the victim in us only to then justify our victimhood by making us appear holy — that victim of circumstances who waits on God (a higher power or order) to deliver one from one’s torment, because one is convinced the circumstances are beyond one is still a victim, is he not?

Does God tempt victims to make them holy by forcing them to rely on his will or does he make victims of people to tempt them into demonstrating their inherent holiness?

Faith takes the torment that regularly births hope and makes spiritual art out of it.

Faith is to love what sunlight is to flowers: it not only nourishes love, but allows us to find it, to appreciate it, to be nourished by it —

— that’s why God asked faith from Abraham as a demonstration of his love.

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