On the Knight of Faith #3

Since the last post on this topic, where I analysed the difference between faith and hope in Kierkegaard, I have been unable to let go of the thought that something is not quite right with it.

I wondered in relation to the previous analysis: what makes Abraham great? According to Kierkegaard, he was the father of faith and the bible makes him God’s chosen. For a long time, I have not been satisfied with Kierkegaard’s propositions about Abraham’s greatness, however. He often settles on a) we cannot understand him, but we know that what he does is profound and a marvel, or b) the paradox that is faith, whose exemplar is Abraham, has significant implications for ethics and philosophy. I wonder if Kierkegaard left out the key part of the story, however, even though he did speak of it often in the metaphors he uses to make his point: God’s relationship to Abraham, specifically, Abraham’s love of Him.

Kierkegaard had the chance to put love first and faith second, that is, to see faith as an attribute of love, not the other way around. But, he chose to put faith before love at that crucial point in his argument where he explains why Abraham is not just a murderer or madman. In this passage, he makes faith the ‘main thing’ and then proceeds to speak as though it is the same as love:

“If one makes faith the main thing – that is, makes it what it is – then I imagine one might dare speak of it without that risk in this day of ours which can hardly be said to outdo itself in faith, and it is only in respect of faith that one achieves resemblance to Abraham, not murder. If one makes love into a fleeting mood, into a pleasurable agitation in a person, then one lays traps for the weak when talking of the achievements of love. Of course everyone has momentary feelings, but if those were to be used as reasons for doing the terrible things that love has hallowed as immortal deeds everything would be lost, both the achievement and those misled in this way.” — Kierkegaard, Fear & Trembling, p. 60-61

This lack of a distinction between faith and love in Kierkegaard runs throughout the book; he even uses love to make crucial points about faith. In so doing, he misses a very important aspect of Abraham’s story and passion, of his trial: his personal relationship to God, which God wanted to test. In this sense, faith is the outward expression of his love of God, that is, love translated into an attitude and action. But, why didn’t Kierkegaard bring this out? Why was he committed to faith being first, but then spoke as though there was no difference between faith and the love of which it is an expression?

The thought that there is more to Abraham’s story than what Kierkegaard said, but something which we can understand — something which is not too complicated to demonstrate — gnaws at me. It has been gnawing at me for a decade since I first picked up ‘Fear & Trembling’ to read it through, again and again.

Was it Abraham’s ‘faith’ in God, which made him great? Yes, surely and in a sense, but we can hear this truth at a Sunday sermon without really feeling moved or informed about ourselves, our lives, our relationships, our emotions or even God. Such statements are patronisingly banal and switch us off; ‘there is surely more to it than that,’ we are likely to think, and we are right to think that, because we want to go further and demand more from those who would tell us of God’s choices, of his chosen and the basis on which they were chosen.

So, what was it? Was it his ‘insane hope’, as Kierkegaard called it? Surely, hope played a role in his greatness, but we also recognised previously that hope doesn’t capture it. It is appropriate to recall that, assuming Abraham was driven by hope, he would expect God not to let him kill his son — even if he obeyed by drawing the knife. Hope was not good enough to demonstrate his faith in Him, his love of God, however. What, then, was good enough? Remember, we are dealing with a being which has everything and which can do anything . . .

Abraham loved God, but God wanted it demonstrated, approved — He wanted this love to fill every corner of Abraham’s body precisely when it mattered the most, when he made Abraham take away the most precious thing to him, his son, whom He promised to give him and through whom he promised to bless the nations of the earth in his covenant.

So, He tempted him to show his love. To show that it wasn’t himself that Abraham loved. To demonstrate that his devotion — the outward appearance of love in commitment and its corresponding attitude — was not to what God had given him, had promised him and delivered. He wanted to know that Abraham was not devoted to Isaac, his son — but to God . . . without whom Abraham would have no son, Isaac wouldn’t exist.

Did Abraham love God, or did he love His promise that the nations of the world would be blessed in His covenant through Isaac, his son, which He miraculously gave to Abraham and Sarah, his wife?

It is this dilemma which gives the whole affair its spiritual meaning.

What would a hopeful, rather than a faithful Abraham do when faced with a temptation of this sort, with God’s command that he abandon all hope, out of love? Think about that for a minute; put on Abraham’s proverbial shoes — his sandals, rather.

Would he not try to distort God’s image, to trick himself into thinking God would not let him go through with it and so continue accordingly as if he wouldn’t, as if this wasn’t real, as it was a test and all would be fine in the end?

Hope would lead him to make God assume the properties and character which Abraham needed Him to assume to satisfy his desire to keep Isaac — it is this subtle, but uncanny selfishness at the heart of hope which precludes it from entry into God’s chosen.

Hope is not enough precisely for this reason — it is not rooted in love. That’s why hope is paces away from faith and so, by this token, it is not the basis of Abraham’s greatness. But, then, is faith truly the condition for his greatness — or is that too simplistic?

I would argue that Abraham was great because of his love — not his faith, nor his belief, nor his hope, and certainly not his reason. The root of his action and so the faith which it demonstrated was rooted in his love for God: that beautiful, undeniably selfless and thus surrendered love. A love which shown brightest in just one moment, one action, and which gave Abraham’s faith its meaning, its appearance and holy shape in his thoughts and feelings. That one action which motioned him steadily to draw the knife over his son’s neck is just a representation of that love and what comes with it.

After that one moment, that one action, whereby Abraham showed the depth and extent of his love had passed, God would let him continue to enjoy life as before — both of them secure in the clarity of purpose and love they had for each other. He left Abraham secure and happy in his own love, but also in God’s love of him. Both knew that the nations of the earth would truly be blessed; God’s covenant would truly be eternal and be carried forward by Abraham’s seed.

Faith represents Abraham’s love, it is a symptom of it — it is love which made him great.

What is the difference between them? Faith is represents love; it is an expression of it. It is love’s representation in action — it is a love that is tested against toil and difficulty and tragedy, but which endures. It is the love which endures the torrential currents of life.

This relationship to love and its greatness is something which hope will not understand, because — often without its knowing — it places one toe of one foot in the torrential seas of love and their uncertainty, while the other foot in its entirety stays wholly and firmly rooted in the dry desert of self-concern.

But, all this flowery, biblical language aside, this story exemplifies that eternal battle between love and ambition. It is about how subtle and vicious this battle can become, but also how fruitful it is for the victor.

(Don’t make too much of a meal of God, this is not a science or philosophy lecture. This is about your emotions, the most precious one at that, love, or I should hope so, at least.)


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.

On the Knight of Faith #1

There is a passage in Kierkegaard’s Fear & Trembling that has gnawed at me about how his so-called ‘knight of faith’ relates to ascetic resignation.

Before I turn to its quotation and analysis, I would like to introduce why I believe this relation between faith and resignation is important — psychologically and emotionally. The short expression of it is because it permits us to draw a crucial distinction.

For quite some time now I have nurtured the intuitive and so poorly-grounded belief that there is an ascetic resignation which affirms life and reaps the fruits of faith. But, to do so, one must resign as from a specific place and in a specific manner. It is a full-fledged, conscious choice, requiring the best and most of one, but, contrary to common parlance and opinion, it bloats one’s power over life and themselves rather than diminishes it. It nurtures responsibility, rather than corrodes it. Only those of us who resign from this place and in this manner may recognise the meaning, but likewise enjoy the value and power of faith, in the way Kierkegaard’s knight exemplifies.

In other words, the psychologically and emotionally healing properties of faith are only expressed or apparent once one resigns certain desires, fully, and one does so as from a particular place (or for conscious and clear reasons) and in a specific manner (with a specific conscience, a clear and good conscience). If one does not resign in the previous way, then faith to one is demoralising and a narcotic, something that diminishes and robs one of one’s faculties. Many religious folk suffer from such a bad relationship and approach to faith and, often, they lock themselves into cycles of pain, resignation and the intoxicating feeling of confession; think also of hopeless prayers of better times borne of hope.

Nevertheless, I may see clearly how faith can be demoralising and a narcotic, just as I may have an intuitive grasp of when it is life-affirming and healing, but I struggle fully to grasp these desires, places and manner that typify life-affirming resignation. Moreover, religions are of little help in shedding light on it; often, they can be misleading in their sermonising and too mired in politics to arrive at the spiritual, emotional and psychological crux of the matter.

In any case, here is the quote I have in mind, in which Kierkegaard ‘sort of’ reveals the basis and manner upon which one must resign to then experience the fruits of faith:

That rich young man, by virtue of his resignation, should have given everything away, but once he had done so the knight of faith would have to say to him: ‘On the strength of the absurd you shall get every penny back, believe that!’ And these words should by no means be a matter of indifference to the once rich young man; for if he gave his possessions away because he was bored with them, then his resignation was in a sorry state.

I would like to reflect on the state that the young man was in as he ‘resigned’ and thus missed the mark with faith, which Kierkegaard describes as a ‘sorry state’ and which he fleshes out as his doing so out of ‘boredom’.

One is reminded of gamblers — of Tolstoy, who purchased for himself a little corner in eternity through the near-death feeling he nurtured by amassing debts from gambling. We know what bubbles up to the top from our depths in these experiences — artists, warriors, businessmen, politicians, yes, even lovers know this feeling, all too well. It is for many an art and for others the yoke of life —

But, nobody knows that intoxicating feeling of near-death wherefrom the best of us (and, for some, the ‘true’ us) bubbles up to the top from the depths (of our nauseating comfort) than philosophers who — as evidenced by the best of them — have been so incomparably genius in how to avoid what Nietzsche calls ‘the three shiny, loud things‘:

You can recognize a philosopher by his avoidance of three shiny loud things, fame, princes, women: which does not mean that they avoid him. He shuns light that is too bright, so he shuns his time and its ‘day’. He inhabits it like a shadow: the more the sun sinks, the bigger he becomes.

One need only meet a philosopher to see how, in the very best of them, dwells a monster of greatness willingly caging him or herself precisely for the sake greatness — assuming you have eyes to see this, you will also have the taste to enjoy it beyond the temptation to pity lions who prefer the zoo to the wilderness, where they may roam freely among the gazelles and zebras.

But, perhaps Nietzsche was speaking too loudly about things on behalf of which — and assuming he was honest with himself — he should have spoken more softly, quietly and gently? Nietzsche, that great self-overcomer, did not overcome himself in this — in his weakness. After all, Lou Andreas-Salomé was no harbinger of darkness against whom his petty little light could have shone brighter than it did, could it? As one of the few intellectual women of her time and with unparalleled influence, she was a shiny, loud thing, whom he loved, could not avoid and who eventually sat by his bedside. Or maybe Nietzsche just wasn’t a philosopher — tried as he did to be one.

In any case, this digression aside, we know of the feeling Kierkegaard speaks, we know also of the one Tolstoy purchased, just as we know of the one Nietzsche described in creatures who crave to know eternity. It is the exact same feeling, but each one is felt as against a different backdrop and what a difference it makes!

Tolstoy wanted to buy eternity — and he did.

Philosophers wanted to know it and speak of it — and they did, oh, did they ever!

But, what does the knight of faith want? Does he not want to live eternity here and now, to live eternity in time — but how can he do so and what does it mean to live like this, to live with faith? Kierkegaard describes it as follows:

Then faith’s paradox is this, that the single individual is higher than the universal, that the single individual (to recall a theological distinction less in vogue these days) determines his relation to the universal through his relation to the absolute, not his relation to the absolute through his relation to the universal. The paradox can also be put by saying that there is an absolute duty to God; for in this tie of obligation the individual relates himself absolutely, as the single individual, to the absolute.

Let’s not quibble over the word ‘God’ as used by a theologian who, effectively, is trying to make sense of a feeling and its value in and for life. Call it what you will without feeling the need to expose your bad conscience over religion as you do so. What Kierkegaard is trying to make sense of is the paradoxical proposition that through faith one may live eternity, here and now — not to carve their place in it, as with Tolstoy, not to know it and to speak of it, as with philosophers — but to live it.

Each character type has their form of exchange; each purchases different rights. Tolstoy gave up security to purchase his place in eternity. Philosophers give up those shiny, loud things they deeply and incessantly crave to know and speak of it.

What does a knight of faith offer in exchange for his relationship to eternity — for faith? What does one offer in exchange for faith — for the healing, life-affirming kind, of course?

Through faith, Kierkegaard tell us, one is justified before eternity even if they are guilty before their fellow men and women — and this unpredictability bordering on leaving the door wide open to danger is perhaps the most daunting aspect of faith for communal life. However, without this daunting feeling as something we choose to live with as members of any community, then of what value and meaning are freedom and responsibility?

(The political implications here are multifaceted, but perhaps for the moment irrelevant to the current task of getting to the crux of why faith is healing, psychologically and emotionally.)

What does it mean to let God (nature, the cosmos, love etc.) fully permeate you such that your movements appear normal, but the spirit from which they stem bestows on them an uncanny grace only the most refined, aesthetic eye and kindred spirits who delight in the wounds of openness may appreciate and enjoy?

What does it feel like to lose everything, and to do so consciously, to choose this loss, but still know with the certainty bordering on madness that you will get it all back, because you have God — because you have all that you may need?

The faith that nourishes and heals and affirms life — is it not a self-confidence borne of certainty before life and oneself, but which results from total doubt? Is it not that moment when the arduous journey of doubt (including self-doubt) has shown us the waste of time it was, all along? But, let’s bring this reflection to a close with my stab at the sort of resignation that is a condition for the possibility of life-affirming faith.

What is the desire which one resigns, the place from which one does so and the manner in which one does it, which brings one to healing and life-affirming faith?

The desire is fundamental to one’s life — it defines one such that its loss would mean the loss of one’s sense of self and the feeling of death associated with it.

The place from which one resigns is what we may call a conscious will — a full-fledged choice one makes, cognisant of its meaning and implications, rather than being in denial.

The manner in which one does it is with complete certainty over the final outcome — the certainty one feels when in love in spite of what anyone else tells them, including what one’s beloved may say to them.