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.)