Persons of the Dialogue: Charlotte. Gabriel.
Scene: A Starbucks in Boston, Massachusetts.
Gabriel: (On the phone) No, it’s okay. I’m just sitting in Starbucks. … Yes. Really cold. … No, Mom, it’s fine—… Yes—… I already have gloves, okay?! … No. Sorry. I’m okay. I’m just kinda stressed at the moment. … Well, I have an exam on Kierkegaard in my humanities class tomorrow and—… He was a theologian, Mom. … Well, the problem is I haven’t exactly done the reading, and—… Mom! I’ve been really busy! You don’t understand! … I’m gonna try to read it tonight, but—… Okay. … Okay, I get it! I will! … All right. … I love you too. Bye.
Gabriel: (Putting his head in his hands) That woman is going to be the death of me, I swear to God.
Charlotte: Umm, hi. Sorry, I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but were you just talking about Kierkegaard?
Gab: (Lifting his head) Uh, yeah? Why?
Char: Well, it’s just that I’m a theology major and I happen to know quite a lot about Kierkegaard. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I’m a bit of a Kierkegaardian myself. You sound like you need some help understanding him. I could try to explain him to you if you’d like.
Gab: Wait, are you serious?
Char: Yeah, totally. I’ve got, like, an hour to kill before my next lecture.
Gab: Oh my God, that would literally be amazing. Thank you so much.
Char: (Sitting down at the table) No problem. I’m Charlotte, by the way.
Char: Gabriel as in the Angel Gabriel?
Gab: Yeah, actually. My family’s Catholic.
Char: Well, you should find Kierkegaard interesting, then! He wrote extensively on Christianity. So, what exactly is on your exam?
Gab: Uh, I don’t remember exactly. Sorry, let me just look on my phone for a second. My professor sent it in an email a few days ago. Ummm, let’s see. (Reading) Three essays… Hegel… Ah! Okay, I’ve got it. Apparently I need to know all about Kierkegaard’s conception of faith and what he thinks about Abraham. Do you know anything about that?
Char: I wouldn’t be a very good Kierkegaardian if I didn’t.
Gab: Okay, then. Shoot.
Char: All right. First off, do you know the story of Abraham?
Gab: Yeah. We talked about it in CCD a lot when I was a kid.
Char: Okay. What did they tell you about it?
Gab: Well, they told us that God asked Abraham to kill his son Isaac. And that really sucked because Abraham was like a hundred years old and he had to wait a really long time to have Isaac in the first place. But then right before he was about to kill him, God was all like, “Just kidding! Kill this ram instead!” So yeah. It was all just a big test to see if Abraham had faith or not. I guess the moral of the whole thing is that Abraham had so much faith in God that he was willing to give up his own son.
Char: Mhmm. I figured you’d say something like that.
Gab: What’s that supposed to mean? Is that wrong? That’s what they taught me.
Char: I know that’s what they taught you. And that’s exactly why Kierkegaard abhorred institutionalized religion.
Gab: What? Was he an atheist or something?
Char: No, precisely the opposite, actually. Kierkegaard had the utmost faith in God. It was the church as an institution that he wasn’t the biggest fan of.
Gab: Okay, but what does that have to do with Abraham?
Char: When pastors and priests and other leaders of institutionalized religion recite the story of Abraham, they completely abstract it. They abridge it so severely that all the blood and guts are completely sucked out of it and all that’s left is a flimsy husk. The church teaches you nothing about Abraham’s anguish—nothing of his despair and his anxiety. Can you imagine what he must have been feeling?
Gab: Um, I guess? But I still don’t really—
Char: Do you know how long Abraham had to wait for Isaac to be born?
Gab: Not exactly.
Char: A really, really long time. Twenty-five years, actually. How old are you right now?
Char: Mm, so longer than you’ve been alive. That’s twenty-five years of trying every single night.
Char: Twenty-five years of disappointment and frustration and struggle. And then, after waiting longer than you’ve been on this Earth, it finally happened. Isaac, their miracle, their everything, was born and Abraham loved him with every fiber of his being. Can you feel his relief? His rapture?
Gab: I mean—
Char: And then, after thirteen years of domestic bliss, God goes and asks him to extinguish the flame that he worked so hard to ignite.
Gab: Okay, I know, it must have been awful. But how is this helping me—
Char: Do you know how long it took Abraham to get to Mount Moriah?
Gab: No. No I don’t.
Char: Three days. It took him three days to get there. He spent three days riding alongside Isaac knowing that he was going to have to drive a dagger into his tender flesh. Every intake of breath must have been excruciating! Every beat of his heart an agonizing, conscious effort! How must he have felt every time he looked over at the young, angelic boy riding beside him? I don’t even think there are words for that kind of pain.
Gab: Okay. Calm down. People are staring—
Char: And when he got to the top of the mountain? When he had to press Isaac’s fragile body down onto the altar?
Gab: Okay, stop.
Char: When he had to look into Isaac’s innocent, uncomprehending eyes—
Char: —and raise the blade that would soon be buried deep in—
Gab: Stop! I get it, all right? I freakin’ get it! Kierkegaard wanted us to comprehend how horrifying the whole thing was. I understand! Jesus Christ.
Gab: Okay. All right. Let’s just… move on to something else, okay?
Char: For sure.
Gab: Uh, okay, what else did Kierkegaard say?
Char: Well, Kierkegaard did agree with one thing you mentioned earlier.
Gab: Okay, good. And what was that?
Char: He agreed that Abraham was a man of immense faith, a capacity Kierkegaard felt very few people were truly capable of.
Gab: So he just thought only Christians were capable of it, then?
Gab: Okay. Umm, just the Christians who were moral then? That makes sense. Obviously just because you’re a Christian doesn’t automatically mean you’re a good, ethical person. I mean, just look at the Westboro Baptist Church. Y’know, the “God Hates Fags” guys? God, they’re absolute prats, aren’t they? None of them have an ethical cell in their entire body.
Char: An ethical foundation is a prerequisite for having faith for Kierkegaard, yes. But faith is sort of something beyond that—beyond ethics. I mean, you can’t possibly think what Abraham did was ethical.
Gab: What do you mean what he did wasn’t ethical?
Char: You consider killing your son ethical? Geez, CCD must have been even worse than I thought.
Gab: Listen, that’s not what I’m saying. It’s just that it’s not a completely black and white thing. You can’t just say that killing is wrong one hundred percent of the time, y’know? It’s wrong most of the time, but not one hundred percent of the time. Like, say you build a time machine and go back to Berlin in 1938. Would it really be so wrong for you to sprinkle a little bit of cyanide over Hitler’s apple strudel one morning? I don’t think so.
Char: Do you know who Agamemnon is?
Gab: Uh, yes. He’s in The Iliad, right? And his wife had him killed, I think.
Char: Yes. Kierkegaard also discusses him in his book Fear and Trembling. Do you know why his wife killed him?
Gab: She had a thing on the side, yeah?
Char: Well yes, but there’s a more important reason. When Agamemnon was preparing a fleet of ships to go to Troy to fight the war, he insulted the goddess Artemis. Artemis was so enraged that she weakened the winds so his ships were unable to sail. An oracle on the ship told him that the only way he could please the goddess was to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. So he basically tricked his wife into sending Iphigenia to him under false pretenses and then sacrificed her to the gods.
Gab: See, Kierkegaard understands what I’m talking about! It was ethical for Agamemnon to kill his daughter because if he hadn’t he and the other warriors wouldn’t have made it to Troy, which ultimately would have caused the Greeks to lose the war. Just like it would be ethical for you to go back in time and kill Hitler because it would help prevent the deaths of literally six million completely innocent people. It’s all about context.
Char: Yes, both you and Kierkegaard agree that there are certain circumstances under which killing can be considered ethical. Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter was justified because it served to protect all the people of the Greek nation. In sacrificing Iphigenia, he was abandoning his ethical responsibility as a father for a greater, more elevated ethical duty—the duty he had to all the people of Greece. And you would similarly be justified in chopping Hitler’s head off or whatever you planned to do. Just like Agamemnon you would be abandoning one ethical duty—not to kill—for a higher ethical purpose—to save countless lives. But how can you compare either of these situations to Abraham’s? How would Isaac’s sacrifice have ensured the protection or the happiness of the greatest number of people? Who could have possibly benefitted from the situation?
Gab: Well, umm, I suppose no one really would have exactly benefitted, but it’s not like it would have harmed a ton of people—
Char: Oh really? I’d posit that Isaac’s sacrifice actually would have been a massacre. God, in case you’ve forgotten, told Abraham that Isaac would be the ancestor of a nation of people. Had Abraham’s sacrifice succeeded, none of the individuals within that nation would ever have come into this world. In killing Isaac, Abraham would have effectively preemptively slaughtered millions. I’d like to see you try to reconcile that with your ethical code.
Gab: Okay, listen, I get what you’re saying. It’s logical and I hear you, but I think that both you and Soren Kierkegaard are forgetting one very crucial part of the story.
Char: And what would that be?
Gab: Well, it’s not as though Abraham was just sitting around one day and was like, “Hey! You know what’d be a cool idea? If I sacrificed Isaac to the big man upstairs!” In case you’ve forgotten, God spoke directly to Abraham and instructed him to sacrifice Isaac.
Gab: What do you mean, “so”? God told him to do it. That totally morally justifies the situation!
Char: How do you figure that?
Char: How do you figure that God’s involvement in the situation makes it ethically justifiable?
Gab: Because God is morality! He invented ethics! God’s not going to instruct his children to commit immoral acts. That’s Satan’s job.
Char: Well, Kierkegaard would disagree with you there—
Gab: What?! I thought you said this dude had the “utmost faith” in God or whatever. Now you’re telling me he doesn’t even think God is moral? That he doesn’t think Abraham is moral?! That is totally blasphemous and makes, like, zero sense!
Char: Okay, relax. Just allow me to explain for a second, all right? Kierkegaard thinks Abraham is a moral man, but he just doesn’t think that sacrificing Isaac was a moral act.
Gab: I don’t understand how that’s possible.
Char: Just listen. Kierkegaard views faith and ethics as two separate things. For him, faith is higher than ethics.
Gab: But if God created ethics, then—
Char: Kierkegaard doesn’t think that God created ethics. In fact, he refers to God as “absurd” several times in Fear and Trembling. He believes that human beings created ethics.
Gab: But is he implying that ethics aren’t important? That they don’t have value because God didn’t create them? Because that’s completely untrue and—
Char: No. No, he’s not saying that at all. As I said before, Kierkegaard thought ethics were a prerequisite for faith, but that in order for one to have faith they have to, at least temporarily, kind of transcend ethics. It’s impossible to transcend ethics if you don’t know what they are in the first place.
Gab: I’m sorry, I’m just having a lot of trouble reconciling that with my beliefs. How can faith mean transcending ethics? I’ve always been taught that God and ethics were basically equivalent. I mean, as I was saying before, that’s the whole reason that Abraham’s action was justified—he was doing what God told him to. I don’t see how faith can be “higher” than ethics.
Char: All right, maybe it would be easier if I jut applied this directly to the case of Abraham. As I’ve said, Abraham was an ethical man. He’d internalized the ethics created by his society and was a law-abiding citizen. As John Stuart Mill would have said, his internal sanction was fully intact. However, for the reasons we discussed before— the preemptive genocide and all that— his willingness to sacrifice Isaac was not ethical.
Gab: But, God—
Char: And the fact that God instructed him to do it doesn’t make it ethical, because Kierkegaard doesn’t believe that God Himself is an ethical being, remember? In Kierkegaard’s mind religion and morality are not identical. Now this is where the whole concept of faith comes in, so listen up. As I said, Kierkegaard thought that faith was on a higher plane than ethics. It’s a step up from ethics. Faith for Kierkegaard means believing in and listening to God even when He is asking you to do things that run entirely counter to both reason and ethics, which the sacrifice of Isaac did. Abraham demonstrated that he had faith in God when he suppressed his internal sanction and suspended the ethics of the group on that three-day trip up to Mount Moriah. Even though God was asking him to do something painful and illogical and completely and utterly absurd, he just went along with it. And throughout the entire devastating, nonsensical affair, throughout all three excruciating days of his trip, Abraham never once questioned, not even in the deepest, most private corner of his mind, that God was good. Even after he resigned himself to sacrificing Isaac, he never once stopped believing the completely impossible concept that God would somehow give him Isaac back. That’s why Abraham is a man of faith.
Gab: Okay, I understand that Abraham had faith because he never questioned God’s greatness. That part makes sense. But there’s another part of this that I don’t understand. Are you saying that unless I’m willing to give up my ethics, I don’t have faith?
Char: I mean, Abraham didn’t abandon his ethics permanently. He just sort of suspended them for a short period of time.
Gab: Who the hell does this Kierkegaard guy think he is? St. Peter at the freakin’ pearly gates? He can’t just make grand, sweeping statements about faith like that! Just because I haven’t “suspended the ethical” for a long weekend doesn’t mean I don’t have faith in God! And I wouldn’t even want to suspend my ethics, anyway! For me my ethics and my religion are inextricable.
Char: Listen, just because you believe in God doesn’t necessarily mean you have faith.
Gab: But I do have faith!
Char: How can you tell?
Gab: I just can! It’s just… really personal, okay? I believe in God and I love God and I trust Him. I know in my heart that I have faith and that my faith makes me extremely happy. I don’t need you or Soren Kierkegaard or anyone else to tell me otherwise.
Char: Ha! Did you just say your faith makes you happy?
Gab: Uh, yes? My faith makes me very happy. Why is that so hilarious?
Char: What about it makes you happy?
Gab: I don’t know. I guess it’s just reassuring to know that there’s someone up there looking out for you – someone who will always lend an ear and give you the strength to get through tough times. It’s just comforting, y’know? It’s comforting to know that even if everything looks totally bleak, God is going to take care of you and love you in the end as long as you’re a decent person. There are times when I’m sitting in church, surrounded by my friends and family and everyone else in my congregation, and I just feel like—I don’t know—I just feel like we’re all part of this really incredible thing that’s so much bigger than ourselves, and that together, and with God, we can get through anything. And what’s so wrong with that, huh? What could Kierkegaard possibly have to say that refutes that?
Char: Need I remind you of the story of Abraham?
Gab: No, I really don’t think that’s nec—
Char: Abraham had to ride three days with Isaac to Mount Moriah.
Gab: You’ve already told me the story, I really don’t want to hear it again—
Char: Three long, treacherous days, each of which must have felt like its own little eternity.
Gab: Oh my God. I get it. How many times do I need to hear this story in order to—
Char: Each moment expanding into infinity—
Gab: Yes! I know! We’ve already been over it in great detail! What does that have to do with the joy I reap from my own faith, huh? Enlighten me!
Char: Do you think Abraham let anyone know why he was going up to Mount Moriah? Do you think he told his servants or Sarah? Do you think he told Isaac?
Gab: Probably not.
Char: And why’s that?
Gab: Because they would think he was nuts.
Char: Precisely. Abraham suffered in silence. And he didn’t just do it because he wanted to look stoic, either. He was silent because God’s requirement of him was so absurd and so directly counter to the ethics of the group that anyone Abraham told wouldn’t have been able to comprehend it. They’d think he was nuts, as you said. Abraham’s faith doesn’t cause him to feel united with others or powerful or any of the other things you said your alleged faith causes you to experience. Instead it makes him incomprehensible to others and completely isolates him, which is an objectively horrible experience. He was completely individualized. That’s why the book’s called “Fear and Trembling” and not “Skipping Through the Fields and Making Daisy Chains”. Being an a man of faith, a true individual, ain’t pretty.
Gab: Well then how would Kierkegaard account for the joy I feel every time I think about my relationship with God?
Char: Kierkegaard would say that you haven’t made it past the ethical stage yet. You’re only happy because you think you have some cosmic babysitter who’s going to clean up after you. You’re just conforming to the ethical norms delineated by your society and reaping joy from your easy comprehensibility to everyone in your parish.
Gab: Okay. Just… whatever. If Kierkegaard’s version of faith makes you so freakin’ miserable I don’t know why anyone would want to have it anyway.
Char: Having faith may be a monumental struggle, yes, but the few who fight hard enough to attain it are rewarded with the greatest gift of all—an absolute relationship with God.
Gab: So my relationship with God’s not absolute, then?
Char: Of course it’s not, silly! You have the ethics of your society standing between you and the Lord. Everyone who hasn’t entered a state of faith does.
Gab: You know what? I don’t think I like Soren Kierkegaard very much.
Char: To be honest, I don’t think he’d like you very much either.
Gab: Well, at least that’s one thing we can agree on.