There is a story in Genesis as confounding as anything ever written. It tells of Abraham, “the father of faith,” taking his son, Isaac, to a mountain in Moriah to sacrifice him. And Abraham did this at God’s direction—though at the last possible moment the story tells us that God sent an angel to stop Abraham, and provided a replacement sacrifice. (Genesis 22:1-19) Below we read Soren Kierkegaard’s attitude toward the narrative.
[Lazy people] want to understand the story. [For their sake a speaker might make] it a commonplace: ‘His greatness was that he so loved God that he was willing to offer him the best he had.’ … [The speaker thereby] interchange[s] the words “Isaac” and “best.” Everything goes excellently. Should someone in the audience be suffering from insomnia, however, there is likely to be the most appalling, most profound, tragic-comic misunderstanding. He goes home; he wants to do just like Abraham; for [his] son is certainly the best thing he has. Should that speaker hear word of this, he might go to the man…and shout: ‘Loathsome man, dregs of society, what has so possessed you that you wanted to murder your own son?’”1
Kierkegaard interprets the story as a reductio ad absurdum because of the paradox that the story foists upon religious persons: that they must admire Abraham for his faith while abhoring the terrible deed that demonstrated his faith.2 Since it seems that “the Father of faith” presents us with an unintelligible example, it is reasonable to suspect that it is because faith itself is unintelligible.
I will play a Kierkegaardian fool, and begin trying to remove the paradox at the core of the story by putting it into context (Genesis, Chapters 12-22). It begins with the Lord God visiting Abram in the
I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3)
Following this promise Abram went to
“Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:1-6)
There is much one can note here, but note especially the odd last sentence: Abram “…believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Perhaps the oddity itself, if understood, will provide a means to understand the story of Abraham and Isaac (God changed Abram’s name to Abraham—meaning “seed”—after promising him that his descendants would be as the stars of the sky). The oddity stems from this. Beliefs are true or false, and we might “reckon a person to be knowledgeable” for having true beliefs in a subject about which truths are not generally known. Righteousness, however, is not typically identified with having true beliefs. For instance, a child who gets 100% on a difficult test in school is not thereby “reckoned to be” especially virtuous. Simply put, we do not conflate righteousness with perspicuity. Why then the seeming conflation in the Abrahamic covenant?
If we are to understand the story, we need a conceptual context to support the narrative one. Let’s begin by first explicitly removing any connection between being virtuous and having true beliefs. Consider a person who is not convinced that striving for moral ideals of any kind—such as honesty, courage, charity, temperance, loyalty, and so forth—is worthwhile. In her opinion a moral ideal is worth pursuing precisely to the extent that doing so produces results that she wants, and she determines what she wants by what she perceives or defines her self-interest to be in any given circumstance. Whether she is wise or shortsighted, knowledgeable or naïve, successful or unsuccessful in procuring what she wants does not factor in here. What matters is that, for her, every choice can be viewed as a transaction from which she wants to get the best possible deal for herself. That, in Sartre’s scheme, constitutes her “life project.”
Clearly a person who strives for traditional moral ideals can object that this person’s selfish means of deciding what is best leaves out considerations that many—perhaps most—persons think should be considered; but the objection will have no weight from her point of view, since the additional considerations that she leaves out are those taken from a perspective in which she does not believe. In fact, from her point of view, to pursue a moral ideal in which she does not believe would literally be unreasonable: For in that she does not “believe in” moral ideals in the sense of believing that they are worth pursuing per se, she can have no reason to strive to attain them, per se.
Furthermore, it is clearly the idea that there is something worth sacrificing for—something beyond her self-interest, as she understands it—that she rejects. And that is the key to the answer we seek. Since a moral person will judge another person to be righteous or not precisely by whether their actions are motivated by moral ends, we can see that beliefs about whether pursuing moral ideals are worthwhile are, in fact, instances of beliefs which can be described, crucially, as righteous or not. That is, they can be judged righteous or not from a point of view which questions whether it is worthwhile to pursue moral ideals per se. “Righteousness,” in fact, depends on belief in this sense: Again, there can be no point in pursuing righteousness on the supposition that one does not believe that it is worthwhile to do so.
If we go on to apply this finding to the wider view that we have been considering, we see that the amoral calculator described represents the antithesis of the message of the cross: For she responds precisely to the kind of rationale that the Serpent used to tempt Eve and Adam in the Genesis story of the fall, as discussed earlier. But to form the connection to the story of Abraham and Isaac, we need to confirm that belief in God can be tantamount to righteousness, construed as belief that moral ideals are worth striving for, even when personal sacrifice is involved.
Recall that that we found the doctrine of enlightened self-interest to be false for several reasons, the core reason being that if we use self-interest to justify making our moral commitments, we can also use it to justify breaking them. (And of course the reverse is also true for the proponent of self-interest: The core problem with stipulating that moral ideals determine the extent of one’s commitment to self-interest is that if we use moral ideals to justify making our commitments to self-interest, we can also use them to justify breaking them.) Therefore, to set up a reasonable response to whether or not making moral commitments is worthwhile, it is necessary to decide whether or not one believes that it is worth making sacrifices for the sake of moral ideals when they conflict with self-interest as defined by each individual’s foundational hopes and desires.
But we have an added challenge to consider in relation to our theory. For since the supreme question sets self-interest against moral ideals in deciding which is to form one’s primary life commitment, a further challenge looms. We must know to whom the “worth” of one’s actions is to accrue, if not to self. (Abraham was concerned with his life being a vessel capable of holding God’s great blessing. To be true to the story, faith must include the idea that a person who acts on moral faith will be vindicated by God. Thus, the willing self-sacrifice implied here is not the final word. In fact the path of self-sacrifice is chosen with the view in mind that God will later vindicate the person who does what is right.)3 Fortunately, that question is easy to answer: moral ideals (almost always) can be seen to benefit human society on some level. Thus, a person is honest in dealing with others. Likewise, a person is loyal in dealing with others; a person is fair, primarily, in dealing with others, and so forth. It is reasonable to assume, then, that it is to these “others” of human society that the benefits of pursuing moral ideals will accrue, when they conflict with self-interest. By extension it seems to have been correct to see the supreme question as involving a social context, with friendship with God constituting the social context that Adam and Eve sacrificed to self-interest in the fall.
However, we have also seen that it is unreasonable to expect human society to achieve perfection in the sense that everyone in society can always be expected to benefit from pursuing its moral ideals. Additionally, there is the problem of having commitments to moral desiderata being contingent on the acts of free persons who can break their commitments. And for our moral doubter, as we have seen, there is no reason to choose the horn of the supreme question that expresses faith, making faith literally unreasonable. Thus, “belief” in moral ideals—if that means conviction that acting in accord with them will lead to what is best for a person—is naïve from the perspective of self-interest. It is the moral doubter who is well informed. What the advocate of self-interest needs is an object of faith that makes it credible for her to believe it is worth pursuing moral ideals—that the willingness to sacrifice for others now will be rewarded in the long run. The supreme question posits just that option as an object of faith. The message of the cross depicts that, despite appearances to the contrary, God will vindicate the person whose faith is such that it can be reckoned as righteousness. In fact, the irony of the message of the cross stems precisely from the need to overcome the appearance that pursuing righteousness is not worthwhile from the perspective of self-interest.
By means of this conceptual context, we see the gospel accounts of Jesus announcing “the
This consideration brings us full circle with the story of Jesus’ trial. For it was as king of the
Returning to the story of Abraham and Isaac with this larger conceptual context in hand, we are ready to meet Kierkegaard’s challenge. For we now have a perspective from which beliefs are meaningfully described as “righteous,” and that perspective fits the larger biblical context. All we need is the supposition that Abraham grasped the need to have faith that God could be trusted to vindicate moral choices, despite appearances that often indicate the contrary. Then he would have known that to demonstrate a belief that making sacrifices for “righteousness” sake is his primary commitment that faith in God is essential. With apologies to Kierkegaard, to serve as an exemplar of faith, he needed to sacrifice the “best” that he had to God in faith that God could be trusted to vindicate his trust. Since it is clear that Isaac was Abraham’s “best,” the rest follows: Abraham had to be willing to sacrifice Isaac in order to serve as an exemplar of faith.
Anything less than Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac would have demonstrated an unwillingness to represent a commitment to righteous faith as we now understand it, as the primary commitment in his life. The logic of the supreme question is uncompromising; righteous faith can only be demonstrated by a willingness to sacrifice to do what is right. No willingness to sacrifice means one has no faith. And faith in God as the ground of faith that it is worthwhile to pursue our moral ideals even in the face of all appearances to the contrary is tied to a willingness to sacrifice all for the sake of faith in God. Thus, no willingness to sacrifice all for God means one has no faith in God in the needed sense: that God is the Supreme—the ultimate—Being, and hence the supreme and ultimate good. “The best,” to use Kierkegaard’s phrase.
Clearly, the message of the cross depicts divine reciprocity on this core requirement by which Abraham is credited as the father of faith. The divine reciprocity confirms beyond a reasonable doubt that the theory of the supreme question is correct, for it underscores the message, giving it the ultimate endorsement and commitment. In the story of Abraham and Isaac, God supplied a ram as a substitute for Abraham’s most cherished attachment to this world—his only son. In the message of the cross God supplied his only Son as a substitute for our most cherished attachments to this world—whatever those attachments might be. In both stories God supplies the sacrifice. In both stories the one who believes is “reckoned righteous” by God as a result of belief. Clearly we are to understand that we too would need to be like Abraham, if it were not for God’s grace. Surely we too are to understand that it is not just the provision of the sacrifice for us, but the provision of the sacrifice for us “while we were yet sinners,” that is, while we are unable to sacrifice in the manner that the unyielding logic of the supreme question demands. Thus, according to the full message of the cross—the gospel message, the good news—mercy extends beyond grace. What is required is an acknowledgement of the truth of the designation “sinner,” that we cannot do as Abraham did, and as God did in the context of the message of the cross.
Given this view—the view of Christian theology where mercy extends grace to humanity—Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac would then only be required so that he could serve as the exemplar of faith. And that, of course, is what Abraham is, contra Kierkegaard. Abraham’s example does make sense. He, as the “Father of faith,” is a fitting exemplar. And yet the story still stupefies us in another respect, making Kierkegaard’s following comment about Abraham especially apt: “…in a way all that I can learn from Abraham is to be amazed.”4 Christians must agree. For to fail to be amazed would be to fail to see that faith and grace must go together: for faith requires too much of us.
1. Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Tr. Alastair Hannay (Penguin Books, New York, 1985) pp. 58-59.
2. Ibid, pp. 108, 144. Kierkegaard believed that there is an absolute duty that each person owes to God, a duty that paradoxically trumps even moral obligations, which we usually take to be both universally binding and derived from God (whether directly or ultimately). He interpreted the story of Abraham and Isaac as requiring that paradoxical duty in order to “explain” Abraham’s terrifying willingness to sacrifice his son at God’s direction. Two responses need to be made. First, a paradox really explains nothing. And second, it is therefore correct to state that Kierkegaard believed that faith is—in the final analysis—unintelligible.
3. I believe that Scripture indicates that the reward of moral faith—expressed by a willingness to sacrifice to do what is right, and given ultimate expression by the message of the cross—is fellowship with God. I base this opinion of the fact that through self-seeking sin humanity’s relationship with God was lost. (Genesis 3:22-24) It is fitting, then, that through self-sacrificial righteousness one finds the way back to a relationship with God. The opposite of a temptation would be an obligation: something one does not really want to do, but which is required morally. The message of the cross, in that light, makes the antithesis to temptation—moral obligation—the way back to God. This need not, and does not, require that a person believes that in the end they are acting against self-interest by doing what is clearly self-sacrificial in the short run. This explains the ambiguity in the text, which is left in it to make it more readable.
4. Fear and Trembling, p. 66