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Fear and Trembling: The Reasonableness of an Irrational Faith

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Fear & Trembling: The “reasonableness” of an “irrational” faith

Jaime Rosique Mardones


May 3, 2016

I swear by my own self, Yahweh declares, that because you have done this, because you have not refused me your own beloved son, I will shower blessings on you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heavens…all nations on earth will bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed my command”. (Gen, 22: 15-18).

This was the reward which God had in store for Abraham for his willingness to sacrifice his dearest son, Isaac; upon whom Yahweh was to fulfil an earlier promise to Abraham. A few millenniums down the line, the three monotheistic religions, with billions of followers around the world, regard Abraham the father of their faith (Abraham is mentioned more than 70 times in the New Testament and more than 65 in the Quran): A spectacular deliverance of a spectacular promise after a spectacular test of faith.

This ultimate test of faith has been object to many interpretations and discussions, as this particular passage of the Bible can be read from many different angles, and has been the source of inspiration of many essays and books such as “Fear & Trembling” by Kierkegaard’s alter-ego’s persona, Johannes de Silentio or of a chapter in Jose Saramago’s “Cain”.

Similarly to the Genesis story which is presenting, Kierkegaard’s book has many layers and themes. Depending on which element of the story you reflect or focus you may reach different conclusions. Whilst Levinas focused his attention on the subject of sacrifice, other authors such as Professor Merold Westphal considers faith to be the central theme of Fear and Trembling

In this paper we will try to give an outline of the features of Abraham’s faith presented by Kierkegaard’s alter ego -deeply influenced by the Lutheran’s beliefs of the author- before contrasting them with the “reasonable faith” presented by St. John Paul II in his Encyclical Fides et Ratio.

One can argue that the faith portrayed in the story of Abraham is absurd, irrational, according to human reason, and indeed many writers have expressed that idea with more or less vehemence. Take for instance Jose Saramago’s take on Abraham’s faith:

“…The reader read that right, the Lord commanded Abraham to sacrifice to his own son, as one who asks for a glass of water when you are thirsty, which means that it was his custom, and deeply rooted. The logical, natural, human reaction would have simply been that Abraham would send the Lord to hell, but it was not” [1]

This notion of faith has famously been ridiculed and mocked in a sketch by Mitchell and Webb,[2], where Abraham is depicted as a person who cannot think by himself (“what, and judge on my own about right and wrong without the help of a superior being?), who follows God’s commands and regards them as “great” irrespectively of the reasonability of the same.

 But Abraham’s faith is much more than that. That is why we are presented with 4 alternative stories of the Abraham’s sacrifice, to get insights or what may or may have not been in his head and heart at the moment. They are important as well because in none of the 4 fictitious accounts of Abraham’s heroic gesture there is real faith, but mere attempts to rationalize and make his act reasonable.   Faith is something difficult and important, for several reasons.

Faith is not mere obedience. As Dr. Westphal points out in his article “Abraham and Sacrifice”, 1) faith is trust in God’s promises and obedience to God’s commands, even if such obedience to God’s commands involves a 2) “teleological suspension of the ethical”. In order to achieve that, which is a 3) task of a lifetime, you need to really have 4) confidence in the supernatural. Let’s see these four features in greater detail

All Abraham’s life was marked by God’s promises to him and his trusting God delivering such promises. He left the land of his family on account of God’s promise and command, he trusted, despite all probability that God would make him a father of a big nation through a son to be conceived when both him and Sarah were too old and yet once more, he believes and obeys when he is asked to sacrifice Isaac, the bearer of God’s promises.

From that we can extract two conclusions. The author’s understanding of faith (belief or Pistis) differs from that of Plato, which he regarded it in a lower sphere than knowledge, in the sense that here faith doesn’t rely on the senses and put us in contact with a superior reality, with God himself. But this is not a theoretical or philosophical God, we are talking about here of a personal God, capable of making and keeping promises, longing to have a relationship with humankind, hinting perhaps his own relational nature and pointing out to our relational needs in as much as we have been created in his own image and likeness.

Another essential element, which distinguish Abraham as “knight of faith” as opposed to a “knight of infinite resignation”, is his confidence in the supernatural. Whilst the later might be willing to sacrifice that which is dearest to him for something that it is higher (think for example of a talented young musician who quits his promising career to take care of a disabled parent), and might do it without resentment, without hostility, willingly, what makes Abraham remarkable is that somehow believes he will get Isaac back in this life, even if that would require resurrection. He believes that for God everything is possible.

It is for this reason that Abraham finds the need to suspend temporarily the ethical laws and duties of the time, with the teleological vision that God has a higher claim in us that the ethical duty.  In here, we understand “ethical” as social morality, the laws and customs of a particular society, a rational morality, human morality. In that sense, Abraham refuses to make the laws and customs of his people the highest criterion for his own behaviour on the understanding that we have an absolute duty toward God. This way portrayed, the ethical is not universal, for represents the laws and customs of a society, a sect, a tribe, a nation…which can ultimately be submitted and judged by God.



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