In his book The Gift of Death or Donner La Morte, Jacques Derrida interacts with Søren Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous work Fear and Trembling in which he examines the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah. Spoiler alert: In the end, Abraham does not kill his son. Still, the text suggests that he was willing to do so out of obedience to the God who brought him out of Chaldea and faith in this God’s promises of blessing, land, and abundant offspring through his son Isaac.
While Abraham is often and rightly presented as a hero of faith and even the father of the faithful, he is almost as often presented as an exception and extraordinary individual in extraordinary circumstances. As Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Johannes de Silentio notes after hearing a sermon on Abraham a pastor would be disturbed if one of his congregation told him that he felt called to sacrifice his child. So, yes, Abraham’s circumstances are extraordinary and exceptional.
Nevertheless, as Silentio explains, from an ethical perspective, Abraham is a murderer. He tries to imagine Abraham as a tragic hero who is caught in a conflict of two competing ethical duties. In Greek tragedy, one can find figures who are called to slay their own child for the sake of society, i.e. the nation, or the state. One must toss Jonah overboard to save the ship and its crew. The duty to love one’s child is trumped by the duty to the nation. We send our children off to war.
According to Silentio (and I think he is correct), Abraham has no such ethical justification for the nation only exists in nascent form quite literally in Isaac. In slaying Isaac, Abraham is also slaying the nation. This test is between Abraham and his God. Abraham’s actions cannot be mitigated (or mediated) by a higher ethical (i.e. societal) duty.
In Kierkegaard’s day, Hegelian philosophy was highly influential. For Hegel, the state is the actualization of the law of God. The development of the idea of the state was the slow progressive manifestation of the Spirit. Via his pseudonym Silentio’s reflections on Abraham, Kierkegaard rings the decidely anti-Hegelian note that either the single individual is higher than the state and has an absolute relation to the absolute (i.e. God) or Abraham is no better than a murderer and a murderer in the first degree.
In Fear and Trembling, Silentio seeks to understand Abraham and faith but is unable. In a sense, Silentio tells us something of what faith is by what it is not or clearly cannot be.
Yet, in other works including his first “upbuilding discourse” published just before Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard argues that not only is faith something that everyone can have but it is a duty to have faith. In this discourse and in another work, The Sickness Unto Death, not to live by faith is the definition of sin. “The opposite of sin is not virtue but faith.” says Anti-Climacus (another pseudonym). So, even if our circumstances are different from those of Abraham, each one of us is not only capable to live by faith but it the responsibility of every single individual to do so.
Derrida, in his rumination on Fear and Trembling and the binding of Isaac, suggests that we all live in the land of Moriah. That is, in our every day decision to love one we are at the same time sacrificing all others. Or as he puts it at one point: When I choose to feed my cat, I choose not to feed every other hungry cat, not to mention the hungry human beings. In our case, we have recently decided to foster dogs — three puppies out of many possible puppies — and puppies rather than children. (See my posts on FosterCanibus.)
Admittedly, on first reading this statement, I had a similar reaction to it that another student in our Religion Colloquy vocalized for the rest of us, “Désolé, mais ce sont des conneries.” Pardon my French. However, as I grapple with Derrida in my dissertation. I have come to agree with this portion of his thought. Tout autre est tout autre. I also feel that this universalizing and infinitizing of responsibility and guilt translates something of Kierkegaard’s Christian emphases on hereditary sin, the universality of sin, and individual responsibility into our globally aware age.
That is, in our present era more than in Kierkegaard’s nineteenth century, many of us are aware that many of are every day actions like light turning on a light or buying a pair of shoes can influence events beyond our immediate surroundings. Our actions influence and shaper (for good or ill) not only local and global economies of the human world but shape and affect the non-human world in myriad ways. Where does my garbage go when the truck comes?
On the one hand, Kierkegaard can write that before God we are always in the wrong. On the other hand, Kierkegaard insists that we must live by faith as both the way forward and the ultimate solution to our guilt in this world. Faith for Kierkegaard is a relational term. One trusts in God and Christ, his Son, and their promises.
Faith is the task of all human beings and it is a task for a lifetime. In the binding of Isaac, Abraham’s faith was tested or proved (proved for God, Abraham, or us?) but it was one extraordinary moment in a life of faithful living.
While I think it is good to be aware that my everyday seemingly mundane actions have potentially global consequences foreseeable and unforeseen, good and ill, etc., such an awareness can be crippling. Do I become a Jain? Do I sweep the path in front of me lest I kill inadvertently? Do I starve myself and go naked to lessen my negative influence on the world?
No, we are called to a faithful living not a living death.
The Apostle Paul uses the metaphor of walking or keeping in step with the Spirit to describe the daily life of faith. Jesus himself reminded his disciples that while they only need to be baptized once, they will need to wash one another’s feet on are regular basis.
There is no escaping sin and guilt in this world no matter how tight you make the leash or how thick a hedge you place around the law. Christian living means getting dirty in creation and trusting that Creator God will make us clean.
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