The problem of subjectivity in Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” (whether it is actually a problem depends, of course) is one that worries the non-Kierkegaardian part of me (or non Johannes de Silentio part of me?). A part of me wants to save Abraham from foolish, inconsiderate bravado. A part of me wants to save my tradition from a criterion that seems to dissolve all distinctions that Westerns hold so dear.
I wonder, however, with a little tinkering and talking, I can’t make the problem a little less harsh. It starts with something like this: Abraham had faith in the goodness of God, and, in fact, God ACTUALLY turns out to be good. The force of this statement is best appreciated when seriously positing, along with the story, that the God is ACTUALLY real, ACTUALLY makes a claim on Abraham, is ACTUALLY testing Abraham, and ACTUALLY allows no evil to take place. Jehovah is not the god, who, like the gods of neighboring tribes, delights in the sacrifice of children. To be religious does not necessitate a different content from the ethical.
Of course, Abraham does not know this in any way besides his own subjective belief – unconfirmed by any inter-subjective community, the laws of necessity, or any criterion of truth you may offer. He may be crazy. It may be a demon that is telling him to sacrifice his son. We are not going to ignore the tremendous paradox of his faith, “a paradox which is capable of transforming a murder into a holy act pleasing to God.”
As the omniscient hearers of this story, WE KNOW that God actually exists at the other pole of this passionate relation. Abraham can only have faith that God is there. He can only have faith that God is good, and hopes, in the last movement of faith, after infinite resignation, that he may somehow have Isaac back. He has faith in the goodness of God, and the value of his gifts.
The intrigue of Abraham’s story, over the story of any man somewhere or other who commits some atrocity in obedience to what he believes to be a command of God, is that in this story an atrocity is not committed.
This is the Ethical elevated; it is an elevated Ethical that reconfigures myself, in my individuality, in relation to the source of Goodness itself. This is religion. We enter by faith, and our faith, as a passionate relation, allows us to clearly apprehend the goodness of God.
Obeying God is something different from obeying the mores of society. In this former case we have an individual directly in relation to God, while in the latter the individual is subsumed by the many, part of an organism that is glorious in its own right.
Here is a schizophrenic faith that at once believes — that singularly believes something specific — and yet makes that belief impossible by moving to obey in killing his son. That something which Abraham believes is that God is good, but not merely this general fact: Specifically, God’s goodness is such that Isaac will come back. As the Knight says of his beloved princess: “I believe nevertheless that I shall get her, in virtue, that is, of the absurd, in virtue of the fact that with God all things are possible.”
After Abraham, in the spiritual toil and duress of an unnervingly long three day’s hike to a mountain’s altar, is utterly resigned, convinced of the impossibility of his earthly happiness “with all the passion of his soul and with all of his heart,” Abraham can make the move of faith:
“By faith Abraham did not renounce his claim upon Isaac, but by faith he got Isaac. By virtue of resignation that rich young man should have given away everything, but then when he had done that, the knight of faith should have said to him, “By virtue of the absurd thou shalt get every penny back again. Canst thou believe that?””
“…A man may still be able at the last instant to concentrate his whole soul in a single glance toward that heaven from which cometh every good gift, and his glance will be intelligible to himself and also to Him whom it seeks as a sign that he nevertheless remained true to his love.”
Faith and passion is a necessity in the relation to God, for only a paradox can relate to the Paradox; mere understanding cannot ground and foster the individual’s fellowship with God qua individual. This is not a mere subjectivity, for faith, as de Silentio writes, must meet certain conditions:
“Faith therefore is not an aesthetic emotion but something far higher, precisely because it has resignation as its presupposition: it is not an immediate instinct of the heart, but is the paradox of life and existence.”
Where there is this sort of genuine faith, there is God, and there is God’s goodness. I cannot know that my faith and the actions it grounds is towards the true God. But I can know that faith, a passionate relation that goes beyond understanding, is the only way in. If Abraham’s story can be taken metaphorically, and we pay attention to the triad of infinite resignation, paradoxical faith, and a God who turns out to be good, we can posit, behind Johannes de Silentio’s back, that true faith always leads to a Truth which we recognize as an old friend. While it is habit and nurture that readies Plato’s adolescent to be akin enough to Reason to grasp her, this is only the ethical. To go beyond, to appreciate the “significance of the lofty dignity which is assigned to every man, that of being his own censor,” it is faith which prepares us for this highest sort of Truth, a Truth that is highest in virtue of an individaul relation. Faith prepares the knight so that when the third part of the triad, to quote C.S. Lewis’ rendition of Plato’s line, “at length comes to him, then…he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.”
I imagine this doesn’t remove the subjectivity problem. Part of Kierkegaard’s point is that it cannot be removed. That is why there is fear and trembling. However, Abraham becomes more praiseworthy when we remember that a faith of his kind is necessary for Truth, and that his God always — eternally — gives a father back his son. Naturally, to that father’s great joy.