Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Fear and Trembling, Part 1

How ridiculous that I naturally feel to approach this with more fear and trembling than the texts we have spent the past few months on! Be that, however, as it may…

Johannes de Silentio: Obviously, this name is of the utmost significance. Since I’d like to dwell particularly on the prelude in my post, it is absolutely vital: how is this name connected up with the “Silent Confidant” of Repetition (which was published the same day as Fear and Trembling)? Whatever broad answers we might provide to this question, I’d like to take this question as a key to the prelude (note: not as a key to sorting out the prelude, but as a key to asking questions about the prelude).

Hence, a few words on the prelude, first in a rather broad register. What Kierkegaard puts together here is, quite simply put, astounding. There is a wealth of thought in these, what?, five pages. (If only Kierkegaard had given us a full book of this!) The prelude obviously lends itself to our first key question: Abraham as the model of fidelity. But if I can, I’d like to take up the prelude (again, in the name of Johannes de Silentio) in terms of our second question: Abraham’s fidelity as a model for the possibility of theology. And I’d like to approach this question with a series of questions that could probably be broken up into two categories: first, questions about the role of silence/speech in Abraham’s doing theology; second, questions about the role of speech/silence in Kierkegaard’s doing theology.

I will take up each… stanza? section?... separately, but first, a word or two about the prelude as a whole. Kierkegaard presents the whole of the prelude (Stemning, proem) as a series of enactments coupled with metaphors. (Jim, to what extent is Kierkegaard doing here what you’ve been talking about at feastupontheword?) This raises a number of questions. Why would de Silentio be singing (in a “still small voice”?)? To what extent are these enactments voiced? What is the significance of the song (proem, remember) being written down, but never sung to us? And what is at play, Rosalynde, in the pairing of a kind of enactment with a metaphor? That is, how does language interrupt the actuality of the enactments? Or are the metaphorical asides also enactments in a sense, though not enactments of the Genesis text? How do two enactments (that are, in the end, not enactments because they are written… though they remain, for all that, songs) play against each other in metaphor? Which is not, Adam, even to mention to what degree we ought to be dropping the name of Lacan here: the enactment of Genesis draws on the father and the son, but the metaphorical asides draw on the mother and the son. And if the father is, for Lacan, precisely language…? And one must ask whether the metaphorical asides are de Silentio’s interjections or simply his reports of the thoughts of the “man” he is talking about, “once upon a time,” etc. To what extent are these enactments theology? And to what extent are the metaphorical asides theology? Is either of these approaches to theology promising? Might either of them be like a uniquely LDS theology in any particular way? How are they different? Jim, how would the philosopher of food read the nursing theme that runs through the metaphorical asides?

I: Language plays a fascinating part in this first enactment, which is almost too horrible to read. Note the silence on the journey, but then the abundant speech, all aimed at deception. How does language, in its excessive abundance, function as a call here? And to what degree, Jeff, does Abraham in this enactment dislocate the ethical dilemma from the murder to his own voiced duplicity? That is, to what degree does Abraham’s deceptive language turn this experience into the experience on the way into Egypt? Why does Abraham speak to himself with a voice, rather than simply thinking? And what is the significance of Isaac’s shouted prayer? To what extent is it a response? To what extent is Abraham’s false front a call? Might this be connected up with Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lie in a Non-Moral Sense”? (Might the whole prelude be connected up with the same piece?)

II: Now comes an enactment of the same scene but in perfect silence. Does the silence issue the same call to Isaac that the comforting pleas and deafening threats of Abraham did in part I? But then, to what extent and why does the silence destroy Abraham? That Abraham becomes old is interesting: does he begin to live-towards-his-death? That is, does his silence function as the silent call thematized in Being and Time? Or is the lack of speaking on Abraham’s part a kind of repression? How might this be taken in terms of Genesis 18, where Abraham is willing to give voice to his complaints? If both parts I and II result in Isaac’s thriving, might Genesis 18 be a kind of way between them?

III: This description is almost antiseptic except for the mention of Hagar and Ishmael. Why them in this retelling? And why is Ishmael nameless here (I suppose I’m thinking of the nameless Silent Confidant of Repetition)? Could “Often he rode his lonely way, but he found no rest” have reference to Hebrews 11, and the city to which Abraham always looked? Does this imply faith, then? It is certainly significant that Abraham voices himself in prayer, but it sounds as if he does so only alone and on mountains, without but looking for a city. Has the experience, then, Ralph, deprived him of the political? Why is he, that is, always on the mountain (Moriah—the site of Jerusalem, traditionally, of all places) thinking about Isaac, and not with Isaac in the polis? Why is this the only enactment in which we hear nothing about how Isaac does after the event, or even during the event?

IV: This last enactment perhaps startles me the most of all, because here is the only account in which Isaac’s faith fails. It forces me to wonder whether Kierkegaard was thinking about Isaac’s relatively small part in Genesis subsequent to the Moriah event (why does the proliferation of Abraham’s seed wait until Jacob?). And language again plays a fascinating role. Why does Kierkegaard differentiate between the reasons each has for not speaking of what Isaac saw? What does this say about their relative uses of language? And the interplay between sight and sound is interesting. Does Isaac lose his faith, Robert, precisely because he sees a sign, but never hears (nor speaks) a word? And then what is at work in the play between servant and son here? Eleazar is called precisely the “faithful servant,” while Isaac becomes the faithless son.”

“Every time he returned home after wandering to Mount Moriah, he sank down with weariness, he folded his hands and said, ‘No one is so great as Abraham! Who is capable of understanding him?’”

Why does Kierkegaard picture this man, in the end, speaking?


Blogger Robert C. said...

I've only got a minute here, but a quick word about the four various enactments K. gives us of Gen 22:

They stike me as very similar to the structure of Job in that I think each one of these enactments is problematic, and yet useful to think through. That is, K. and Job both seem to be doing a kind of deconstructive or even negative theology: it's not really possible to say what the faith is, but here is what genuine faith is not. Likewise, the scriptures are full of ways not to establish Zion but, as Jim is fond of point out, are practically silent on successful ways to establish Zion (where's the record of the City of Enoch? why's 4th Nephi so short?). I think this touches on the notion of hiddenness (and thus ineffableness) we've been discussing elsewhere....

9:56 AM  
Blogger Jeff J. said...

Thanks for the specific question, Joe. It’s much easier to respond when you know exactly what the author wishes you to respond to and when the suggested area involves your work and interests. In your question, you ask whether Abraham’s dramatic lying to Isaac in Kierkegaard’s first version is similar to the lie about his marital status during the journey to Egypt. Unfortunately, I think the answer to that question involves answering the question about the status of God’s command to Isaac. It is a clear good that Abraham not be killed by the Egyptians, especially when you consider that they would slay him in order to have their way with Sarah. And even if Kant himself would never sanction the noble lie, almost all modern Kantians I know think this is a mistake and perhaps doesn’t even follow from his ethical theory. (Thus the famous ‘lying to the Nazis about the Jews you are hiding’ objection misfires against modern Kantianism.) In some cases, lying to bring about a good is not only morally permissible but morally requisite. However, the situation surrounding the God of Abraham is much less clear. Would a rational agent wish his child to worship a God who has commanded that child’s own senseless murder? Would a moral person wish his child to consider him, a just man, an evil idolater in order that the child worship a God whose moral status thus far in the biblical record has been questionable at best? Only if Abraham is here pretending evil that good may occur are his actions justifiable. Just as we wouldn’t consider it morally acceptable to lie to the IRS agents about possible cash you have in the house to prevent them from lawfully seizing it, it wouldn’t be morally acceptable for Abraham to lie about the source of the command if worshipping the God of Abraham turns out to involve ethical compromise. But the trouble lies in the fact that perhaps the biggest (or at least most visceral) ground for holding the God of the Old Testament to be immoral is found precisely in this event: our judgments about God’s character will largely determine our reading of this story, while this story itself could also be used to greatly shape our views on God’s character.

Obviously one difference between the IRS situation and Abraham’s stems from the fact that Abraham, at least in Kierkegaard’s vignette here, thinks that his God is indeed worthy of worship. (How out of place is it to jump to the patristic-medieval-modern conclusion: therefore he is morally perfect.) If intentions deserve to play a role in our moral judgments, then we have to consider that in the story Abraham seems to see worshipping his God as a good, indeed one that he is willing to lose all love from his son in order that his son may have it. The obvious question here though involves why Abraham, commanded to do something so reprehensible that even he, the most righteous of all the followers of God, shrinks back and fails, why would he want Isaac to worship God?

If we accept (as I do) that it is in fact right to worship the God of Abraham, even when he has commanded such awful things, then we get a paradoxical result (surprise). Abraham’s lying, in a certain sense, turns out to be justified: he probably has good reason to believe that Isaac will have difficulty worshipping a God who has commanded his own senseless death, and so his decision to lie (on both modern Kantian and utilitarian grounds) is ethically justified, if not required. But the background assumption needed to make this justification go through, namely that God be worthy of worship, is in a strange way denied by Abraham’s own action. Accepting and acting on commands is an essential aspect of religious worship, and in order that his own son participate in such worship, Abraham removes himself from it. In a sense, Abraham sacrifices himself rather than his son. The ethical nature of that act is certainly more complicated, especially for a Christian, than the act of lying to save one’s hide. To be honest, I’m not sure I understand the full implication of this result on our questions involving theology and the family, but something seems highly significant to me here.

I hope this goes some way toward addressing these issues. I’m currently re-reading “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense” and hopefully will have more to say on that tomorrow or the next day. (If only Nietzsche had been able to read primary Kierkegaard materials before his fall into insanity.)

4:09 PM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

Wow, Jeff. Thanks for these comments. I will respond them when I've thought through them well enough to respond.


7:19 AM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

Again, only time for a drive-by and rather trivial comment, but this part in the 2nd full paragraph of p. 22 has really got me thinking:

"If Abraham had doubted . . . [t]hen he would have witnessed neither to his faith nor to God's grace."

This linking of Abraham's sacrifice to grace fascinates me, I guess because I wouldn't have thought about this link myself, and I don't really understand what K. is getting at here, though I have a hunch it's pretty profound, and I think it's closely related to what Adam was getting at before. To try and bring Jeff's language in here, only through absolute recognition of our inadequate ethical perspective relative to God's, can we really understand and fully participate in God's grace. If we retain any hint of reluctance, doubt, denial, reservation, holding-back, etc., then we will not be able to see things-as-they-are clearly enough to really understand grace. Thus, although I can sit here and intellectually ruminate at my computer keyboard as much as possible about all of this, it will not really help me understand (in the supra-intellectual sense of understand) what Abrahamic faith is, unless in my heart of hearts I begin to let go of any and all other attachments and impediments to me trusting God, who is "above them all" (Abr 3), absolutely.

8:06 AM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

Some initial impressions from the "Preface,” “Exordium,” and “Eulogy” + questions for Jeff and Robert:

1. It’s interesting to me that the Preface opens with (a) a polemic against "bargain priced" commitment, and (b) a discussion of Descartes.

If I'm reading this right, the two connect in the following way: Descartes is a paradigm for thought that has "paid the price" needed for ideas to have some existential weight and substance. The idea being that Descartes, unlike most of the rest of us, doesn't cheerfully skip over the abyss of doubt in order to "go farther than faith." Rather, he has the courage to stay with his doubts, to deepen them, pursue them, and extend them – thereby testing their potential merits and weaknesses. The upshot apparently being that Descartes speaks (about faith?) from the level of existential "comprehension" rather than from the position of mere "conceptual transposition."

It interests me, though, that both Kierkegaard and Descartes are quick to say that the path of doubt that Descartes follows "has significance only for him." As Descartes puts it: "Thus my design is not here to teach the Method which everyone should follow in order to promote the good conduct of his Reason, but only to show in what manner I have endeavored to conduct my own." Is Kierkegaard being ironic when he advocates “limiting” the necessity for such doubt to particular people? Is he poking fun?

Primarily, however, my question is this: to what extent is doubt generally necessary to the tempering of faith? Is such an exposure to the abyss of doubt something needed only in particular instances for particular people? Is this an ascetic remedy required only for those suffering from a particular kind of warp or torsion of the soul? Or, is it the case that every substantial belief in God must look atheism in the eye and, knowing full well that God is “impossible,” continue on?

There are two questions here: what is Kierkegaard’s position on this and what should be ours?

2. The segments of the Exordium that interested me the most (as Joe accurately predicated) are the brief post-scripts appended to each retelling of the story that meditate on the child’s relation to the mother’s breast.

In the first telling, “the mother blackens her breast” so that it no longer looks “inviting when the child must not have it.” The moral: “How fortunate the one who did not need more terrible means to wean the child!”

In the second telling, “the mother virginally conceals her breast, and then the child no longer has a mother.” The moral: “How fortunate the child who has not lost his mother in some other way!”

In the third telling, the emphasis shifts to the mother’s experience: “when the child is to be weaned, the mother, too, is not without sorrow.” As a result, the mother and child “grieve together the brief sorrow” of their increasing separation. The moral: “How fortunate the one who kept the child so close and did not need to grieve any more!”

In the fourth telling, when the child is weaned, “the mother has stronger sustenance at hand so that the child does not perish.” The moral: “How fortunate the one who has this stronger sustenance at hand.”

I simply don’t have the time this week (grading five courses worth of research papers and final exams!) to look carefully at how each of these post-scripts reflect or transform the versions of the story to which they are appended, but I’m curious as to how we might, at least in general, construe them.

Who is the “child”? Isaac? Abraham? Both?

Who is the “mother”? Abraham? Sarah? God?

What is the “mother’s breast” from which the child must be weaned? Some kind of innocence or naiveté unspoiled by doubt and alienation?

Why explicitly and consistently refract the quintessentially father/son story of Isaac’s binding through the image of the mother’s breast? Is Kierkegaard making some type of point about the “femininity” of religious faith?

3. In the Eulogy on Abraham, “Silentio” formulates what we might (if dared) designate as the “thesis statement” of the book. He says:

“It is great to give up one’s desire, but it is greater to hold fast to it after having given it up; it is great to lay hold of the eternal, but it is greater to hold fast to the temporal after having given it up.”

The permutation of this position that interests me (though unlisted here) is the following: “it is great to lay hold of the eternal, but it is greater to hold fast to the eternal after having given it up.” If it is great to hold on to the temporal after having given up all hope of its arrival (i.e., after having looked in the face its impossibility), then wouldn’t it be even greater to hold on to the eternal after having given it up for impossible? Abraham keeps faith with God and God’s (temporal) promise of an heir even in the face of its impossibility. What if Abraham had to keep faith with God and God’s (eternal) promises even in the face of the impossibility of God?

In other words, it seems possible that, according to Kierkegaard’s schema, a convinced atheist who still believes in God (despite/because of her atheism) would be located at the pinnacle of faith.

Or no?

4. Jeff, I agree with Joe that you’re analysis of the ethical-tangle is admirably lucid and very helpful. I’d like, however, to tease out an additional angle about one portion of the analysis and see what you make of it.

You say: “And even if Kant himself would never sanction the noble lie, almost all modern Kantians I know think this is a mistake and perhaps doesn’t even follow from his ethical theory. (Thus the famous ‘lying to the Nazis about the Jews you are hiding’ objection misfires against modern Kantianism.) In some cases, lying to bring about a good is not only morally permissible but morally requisite.”

I think that your take on the Kantianism is correct (though this may or may not be your own position). However, the modern Kantian analysis of the situation appears to assume a kind of either/or: (1) either it’s wrong to lie to the Nazis and thus right to turn over the refugees, or (2) it’s wrong to turn over the refugees and thus right to lie to the Nazis.

What about a third possibility. What if it is both wrong to turn over the refugees and wrong to lie. What if the only “right” thing to do is to lie and also take full moral responsibility for the wrongness of that lie?

Does choosing a greater good (protecting the refugees) over a lesser good (telling the truth) necessarily “justify” the abandonment of the lesser good? For instance, later in F&T Kierkegaard will want to pretty adamantly maintain that Abraham accomplishes no good in being willing to sacrifice Isaac unless he is willing to accept full moral/ethical culpability for the murder he is about to commit. Are the situations similar?

At any rate, this is the horn of the moral dilemma that has pretty consistently been poking me in the side. What’s your take?

5. Robert says: ” If we retain any hint of reluctance, doubt, denial, reservation, holding-back, etc., then we will not be able to see things-as-they-are clearly enough to really understand grace.”

Robert, I find your bringing this passage to my attention a bit annoying (grin!) in light of my above comments about the potential relationship between faith and doubt. I would, in fact, generally expect Kierkegaard to maintain just the opposite: a la Descartes, all real faith must proceed straight through the most perilous fog of doubt.
Perhaps we could reconcile this easily enough by saying that one must face doubt “without any hint of reluctance, doubt, denial, reservation, etc.” But it seems a little bit like cheating to me to have seriously confronted doubt without ever actually doubting.

I could certainly be wrong about this (both existentially and as a reader of Kierkegaard), but I’m tempted to say that we’d need here a way to hold both of these things together without giving way on either one: one must never doubt at the same time that one does doubt to the point of absolute despair. (This “double” movement may be similar to the question I pose to Jeff above: one must lie and take absolute responsibility for the lie.) Is it possible to do both at the same time? How?

7:47 PM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

Adam, some quick thoughts in response:

I think it's interesting that the first mention of weaning in the Bible is Gen 21:8 in the context of Sarah having laughed at the possibility of bearing a child (and the feast day which I take as a celebration of the fact that Isaac has survived the then very-precarious first years of mortality). I hadn't noitced this connection between weaning and doubt in Genesis before your comment, but there it is right in the text....

On faith and doubt:

I too thought K.'s praise for Descartes was quite interesting, and an implicit condemnation for much of the ensuing philosophy done "in the name of" Descartes, which went directly counter to his express desire not to "teach the Method which everyone should follow." And I think your questions about doubt are very interesting and insightful. However, before embracing your hinted-at conclusions regarding the highest form of faith being that which has stared doubt/atheism in the face, I'd like to make some important qualifications, mainly in terms of this being a distinctly modern view of faith and doubt.

One thing that strikes me over and over in reading Gen 22 is the lack of discussion of doubt (and faith). I take this, my continual surprise, as a symptom of my modern-situated reading of the text. For example, questions like "didn't Abraham wonder if he had imagined the voice himself, or if it was really God speaking to him?" as questions that only a modern reader would ask, or at least questions that would not occur to an ancient reader. (But I'm not expert in ancient hermeneutics, I may be quite wrong on this....) The text seems to take God's command as a given. Even in Nephi's similar account (slaying Laban), Nephi doesn't seem to question that the command (through the angel) comes from God (but I need to study 1 Nephi 4 more also). I don't say this to reject your point, but to contextualize what I think is a very good point. In the text-reader encounter, I think this view of doubt as a means to faith is almost entirely raised by the reader, not the (scriptural) text itself.

In this same spirit, I'm continually fascinated by how univocal LDS scripture (incl. our modern Church leaders) is in condemning doubt. I'm not sure what to make of this, but I've wondered about it for a long time (ever since one of my very early and rather liberal/intellectual youth leaders discussed doubt as a pre-requisite for mature faith...). I'm at least uncomfortable thinking that scripture advocates doubt as something we should actively undertake doing. Instead, I think that doubt is something that we encounter in-the-world, esp. in our modern world. In this sense, I think that we might learn more about our modern struggles with doubt and faith (faith as it relates to doubt, that is; I think we have a modern-obsession with thinking about faith only in relation to doubt, an obsession which does violence to our reading about faith... OK, I'm stepping off my soap box now---sorry, I don't think you or anyone here really makes this mistake, it's a more general, cultural pet peeve...) by studying the encounter between Israel and the world/Babylon, not passages about faith per se.

Regarding your notion of guilt-incurred even when we are obeying God's command, I'm liking this idea more and more, esp. as it inter-relates to our thinking about community (I have in mind here Joe's blog post, and ensuing discussion, about being guilty for all). Isn't it the blood and sins of our generation that we are to be cleansed of, not our individual sins? I'll definitely be thinking more about this in my future scripture study and temple attendance....

10:30 AM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

Finally, I have the time to respond to all of these comments at some length. Since Ralph has already posted this week's discussion, I will let this go a little longer before posting a summary anyway (and hope that Jim, Ralph, and Rosalynde join in on it as well...). Much to say, and I hope it does not prove to be overly influenced by the fact that my wife has Orff's Carmina Burana playing quite loudly in the other room ("O Fortune!")...

I think Robert's initial comments here linking up the prelude with the question of hiddenness are worth taking quite seriously, and I'd like to think that question in terms of the same questions of silence I've been raising. Having been dwelling all morning on Lacan's discussion of the "paternal metaphor," I'm wondering to what extent we can say that the mere vocalization of the "man's" enactments of the Akedah functionally hide the "imaginary"... flesh?... of the event. That "Silentio" can go on to address, not his reader, but his "hearer" immediately before he mentions again Abraham's incomprehensible silence.... Are our preludes and panegyrics (read: theology) so much noise that confirm our neuroses (thank the heavens we are not, therefore, psychotic!... like Abraham)? So Nietzsche was right: so many lies, and precisely therefore so much truth? I need to reread Lacan's paper on the Akedah....

Okay, trying to be more coherent, less psychotic.... Jeff, I really think you've tapped into something with your phrasing of the ethical dilemma of reading the Akedah (and now I've got to think about how this recasts what I've written above in response to Robert): if Genesis 22 bears testimony to a particular kind of God (an unethical God, if you will), I only come to read that testimony because I have been directed to it by listening to the textually connected testimonies to a rather different kind of God (an ethical God, if you will). (I'm phrasing this in terms of testimony because I've been buried in the questions of testimony in my work on my book on the Book of Mormon. I followed a footnote in a book by Brueggemann to Coady's terri-bly/fically analytic book, Testimony, as a kind of precursor to burying myself in Ricoeur's approach to Levinas on testimony, and from thence I plan to take up Levinas on testimony at some length. Is this a case of taking up doubt [analytic philosophy] in order to have a fully realized faith [continental philosophy]?) I think two important consequences follow from this dilemma. First, because testimony is necessary a public or political phenomenon, it necessarily comes to me along with the public/political reality of the ethical. That is, isn't the ethical dilemma you are reading here (conflicting testimonies) in part a consequence of the publicness/politicality of testimony broadly? Second, because these two testimonies only come into conflict within the text (again public and again political), their conflict is also in part a consequence of their textuality (well reflected in historico-critical treatments of Gen 22 as an interwoven product of two texts, J and E). That is, to what extent is the ethical (dilemma) derived from textuality itself?

Jeff again, I think you are right that there is something important at work in Abraham's removal of himself from the "true" religion in Kierkegaard's first enactment of the Akedah. But I'm not sure what to make of it yet. Again I'm inclined to say that Kierkegaard wants Abraham to remain entirely silent, though "Silentio" sings his praise. I've got to think about this more, but I think it is wrapped up in Robert's image of sitting at the computer, while Abraham remains in silence.

Adam and Robert both, regarding faith and doubt. I wonder to what extent it is simply romantic to understand "real" faith to follow after doubt. But let me get to the issue another way. I'm not convinced that the scriptures are univocal in their condemnation of doubt: the word "hope" itself implies doubt, does it not? I have here and there in a number of different places laid out a kind of theology of faith, hope, and charity, which is always changing in particulars (and sometimes terribly articulated, as on the feast blog recently), but the overarching scheme remains the same: faith is a kind of pre-modern take on the world, implicitly trusting, perhaps even self-identical; hope comes when doubt is introduced and one begins to employ a critical regard, and it is marked at once by a thorough self-ishness and by a heavy emphasis on the theoretical; charity comes last of all (and always in an excess of grace), characterized by the critically regarded critical regard and given all the time to the Other. In some sense, this is just what Kierkegaard, Lacan, and Derrida have schematized under similar categories, but I think it can be read into the LDS scriptures quite easily. The difficulty is in then thinking about where Kierkegaard's notion of faith meets up with my own. In my model, there is no room for doubt and faith together, because doubt characterizes the hope that takes the place of faith. But one can never come to charity without having doubted in hope. Could the doubting hoper be the "convinced atheist" who nonetheless "believes God"? As cavalier as that sounds, though, isn't this, in the end, just the hero figure Kierkegaard is going to go on to criticize? Charity....

Adam, when papers and what not have been set aside, are you planning on coming back to this question of weaning? Robert has certainly located a fascinating text to fixate on (and this suggests something of Kierkegaard's brilliance to me). I'd like to take up this question in some detail, but I doubt I'm dedicated enough to do it alone.

Though I think I've touched on this in essence in my above comments, I think it is worth mentioning again and just briefly how rich is the reading of the right as choosing the wrong with a willingness to answer for the wrong. Robert pointed to my recent post on a similar subject, and I think I stand by much of what I had to say there. Perhaps more directly in connection with what we're doing here, though: isn't this precisely how Joseph Smith understood things? I think we have to remember that Joseph went to Carthage quite willingly (not only had he already crossed the river to escape when, confronted by a couple of friends, he decided to return with the statement "If my life is worth nothing to my friends it is worth nothing to me," but he explicitly left his temple garment behind so that he would not be protected in Carthage jail... not to mention the whole "as a lamb to the slaughter" speech). To what extent did Joseph see this in Abraham?

Wow, a lot here. Sorry for the length... and the psychosis.

2:13 PM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

Some responses.

Robert says: “Regarding your notion of guilt-incurred even when we are obeying God's command . . . Isn't it the blood and sins of our generation that we are to be cleansed of, not [just] our individual sins?”

I think that this connection is very astute. I’m tempted to say that this is the primary sense of the phrase: “the blood and sins of this generation.” The phrase aims, I think, to help us to recognize a kind of “sin” beyond our own personal foibles, a “general” sinfulness or violence or destructiveness in which we are all structurally complicit – despite the fact that we would not consider anyone “personally” responsible for them (e.g. pollution). It even applies, I would argue, to things that we do in perfect innocence or with the best of intentions but that cause harm nonetheless. Generally, I think, it describes the kinds of things for which we are “responsible” even if we are not “guilty” in relation to them.

Robert says: ”And I think your questions about doubt are very interesting and insightful. However, before embracing your hinted-at conclusions regarding the highest form of faith being that which has stared doubt/atheism in the face, I'd like to make some important qualifications, mainly in terms of this being a distinctly modern view of faith and doubt.”

A couple of comments. First, I am interested in pressing here (especially in the context of F&T) questions about the relationship between faith and doubt - but I don’t want it to seem like I’m invested in or am advocating a particular relationship between them. It’s not my conclusion, for instance, that we’d all be more faithful if we were convinced atheists :) But it does seem to me that this might necessarily follow from K’s position. If so, we need to be clear about it so that we can either toss that position out or face up to that implication.

Second, a comment regarding a distinctly modern view of faith/doubt (in which I will potentially take back many of things I just said). I agree that there is a pronounced difference between our modern context and Abraham’s. I’m not convinced, however, that we’ve experienced a kind of devolution in our “world” vis-à-vis a pre-modern “world” (though this certainly isn’t necessarily your position). It’s tempting to feel a kind of nostalgia for a time/world in which we would only question our relation to God rather than God’s existence per se. But given a choice between that world and ours, I choose ours. I’d rather undergo the fracture in mythos produced by science than go without science.

This is really beside the point, though, because we don’t get to choose the world into which we find ourselves thrown. And the fact is, we’re thrown into a world in which God’s non-existence is not only possible but probable. We can choose fidelity to God’s existence in the context of his likely non-existence, but we’re not responsible for ending up in a world where God is “dead.” This is to say, doubt about God’s existence appears to me to be something akin to an ontological determination of our world’s horizons rather than an ontical decision of my own in relation to this world. Doubt about God is simply what there is.

I’m veering off course a bit, but my primary point is that while doubt in the modern sense is (as you point out) something that perhaps has no ancient equivalent, doubt is also not something about which we have any “choice” within our contemporary horizons. Or, again: doubt, while not a scriptural problem (in the modern sense of the word “doubt”), appears to me to be unavoidably our problem nonetheless through no particular individual “fault” of our own.

Joe says: “I wonder to what extent it is simply romantic to understand "real" faith to follow after doubt.”

I’m with you on this. And, in a sense, I take this to be the substance of much of Robert’s response. There is, here, the possibility of a kind of dangerously self-serving, romantic elitism. (Though this notion of “spiritual” heroics or acrobatics required by paradoxes and absurdities is, perhaps, the stock and trade of F&T. Also, Ralph’s new post is, I think, I critique of this same romantic notion of spiritual heroism in F&T.)

But I waver in my estimation: there may be no necessary connection between doubt and faith, but may there be some essential connection between the two given our contemporary context in which doubt has an (almost?) ontological status vis-à-vis the “death” of God?

Joe says: ”Adam, when papers and what not have been set aside, are you planning on coming back to this question of weaning? Robert has certainly located a fascinating text to fixate on (and this suggests something of Kierkegaard's brilliance to me). I'd like to take up this question in some detail, but I doubt I'm dedicated enough to do it alone.”

I’m interested, but my schedule is likely to get more hectic in the next few weeks (rather than less) as I go into full-time book-writing mode for the summer. I agree, though, that Robert’s suggested text (good eye, Robert!) may be the place to begin.

1:13 PM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

Joe, I like your question, "to what extent is the ethical (dilemma) derived from textuality itself?" esp. because I think it forms a bridge between Jeff's thinking and Adam's point about being always-guilty. It's also helpful for me to think about finite symbols and infinite (and hidden) meaning in the same way--that is, we live in a finite, fallen world, and are thus necessarily tainted by sin (whether our own or our community's, a distinction which should dissolve as we love our neighbor as ourself).

Joe and Adam, regarding doubt: I agree that we can find a lot of modern-doubt in our reading of scripture. But how does that differ from other ways to read "doubt" as it is explicitly mentioned (and uniformly condemned, I think) in scripture? I think Adam is right to press this faith-doubt issue, and I agree that it is an implication of what Kierkegaard is saying--for better or worse (that is, I think this is both the primary strength and weakness of F&T...). I'm inclined to think about this in terms of God's relation to the world: He both embraces and loves the world, and yet emphatically rejects it. So we live in a world of modern-doubt, doubt that must be acknowledged in full light of what it is, and thus embraced, in at least a certain sense. And yet, I think K.'s faith is in effect a repudiation, or at least a transformation, or an out-stripping, of this doubt.

Perhaps we might think about doubt simply in terms of acknowledging that which cannot be seen. Absurdity, then, is seeing that which is not seen, i.e. faith. Or, in terms of the scripturally recurrent creation motif, faith is seeing that which is not yet organized/created. The land appears from the deep like the lamb appears in the thicket. God had made promises to Abraham, and just because Abraham couldn't see how those promises would be fulfilled does not mean that Abraham couldn't believe (or see with an eye of faith) that these promises would be fulfilled even in the face of the most chaotic chaos (sacrificing his long-awaited son...).

Also, regarding weaning: I'm quite interested in this topic, but would like to do more reading and studying (of feminist philosophy, Lacan, etc.) first, and then go back to rethink the weaning and other gender issues in Genesis (e.g. a Lacanian analysis of the Sarah-Hagar conflict...; by the way, where did Lacan write about the Akedah? I think I've seen some Lacanian-flavored essays but, if I remember correctly, they all take the view that Abraham failed some sort of ethical test...).

2:54 PM  
Blogger Rosalynde said...

This is really becoming embarrassing, my persistent tardiness. I'm sorry; I've gotten a week behind, and I just can't seem to catch up. Maybe this week.

Joe, on silence: I think the name "de Silentio" must perhaps first be read in light of K's discussion of the risks his own authorship, of praising his "knight of faith": "Can one speak unresevedly of Abraham, then, without risking that someone will go off the rails and do likewise? Unless I dare to speak quite openly I will simply keep quiet about Abrham, and above all not diminish him so that by that very fact he becomes a snare for the weak." K does in the end choose to speak (sing), but a real ambivalence---a real recognition of the terrifying moral stakes---remains in that "de Silentio." I think this speaks directly to the question of doing theology: if it must be done, it must be done with fear and trembling.

Jeff, you asked, "Would a rational agent wish his child to worship a God who has commanded that child’s own senseless murder?" I think it's important to note (and I think you recognize this) that God did not command Isaac's murder, but rather commanded Abraham to murder Isaac. God in fact prevented Isaac's murder. This distinction is a textual and ethical crux, I think, because K's later exposition of faith requires Abraham's continued belief, on the strength of the absurd, that Isaac's temporal will be spared even as he raises the knife. If I read K correctly, had Abraham resigned himself to God's murderous command, had he then constructed an image of himself organized by a narrative of love of and obedience to God above all, above even his beloved son Isaac, if necessary---if Abraham had made this movement, he would have fallen short of faith and reached merely resignation. He might have given up Isaac, but he would have held fast to his intelligible, coherent story of self. Faith must abandon the intelligible, coherent self.

On the very rich discussion of doubt: what's modern, and what Descartes represents, I think, is methodological doubt---that is, a process of ratiocination that works to falsify all but an objective truth. The scriptures indeed have nothing to say on this. But incredulity in the face of the absurd, acknowledgment of the temporal impossibility of one's wishes and stories---this kind of doubt is, it seems to me, abundantly present in the sciptures, perhaps nowhere more than in the experiences of Abraham and Sarah.

On the metaphors of weaning: I frankly did not find them especially rich, although I wish I did. They seem to me rather obviously to be working out and around the ideas of separation---separation of God and Abraham, of Abraham and Isaac. Let me give it some more thought, though.

9:57 PM  

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