Kierkegaard’s religious self, that is his conception of the self in a religious stage, has a few qualifications. By nature it can bar no one entry on the basis of external achievement. There is no aesthetic mood, ethical act or intellectual understanding that can stand as a gatekeeper to faith. The movement of faith is qualified internally. This continues to be a troubling prospect. I still maintain that most criticisms of Kierkegaard as some demon of individualism are misguided and lack a substantial understanding of his work. However, I am struggling with repeated refrain of Fear and Trembling which is that “the single individual is higher than the universal.” This is the story of Abraham as told by Kierkegaard. The ethical is the universal and must be intelligible and communicable to all or else it is not universal. If there is faith then it must be in absolute duty to God and as such related to the individual and as such is then elevated above the universal. But because it is now above the universal it also now rendered unintelligible by others. Kierkegaard asks whether it was ethical for Abraham to withhold his plans from his family. Kierkegaard ends by asserting that for the expression to remain in the realm of faith Abraham could not express his plans to anyone. To render them intelligible would be to make them universal and therefore return them to the domain of ethics and foreclose the movement of faith. Faith becomes paradox and Isaac restored by virtue of the absurd. Abraham’s act is faithful but as such it demonstrates ‘the teleological suspension of the ethical.’
Dorothy Soelle in Suffering has criticized this reading of Genesis 22. She characterizes K’s readings as advocating that,
There are situations in which the ethical orientation breaks down, situations in which people carry out a religiously based suspension of the ethical.
She notes acts of protest which were essentially ‘ineffective’ as belonging to this category (Edith Stein’s choice to go to the gas chamber when she could have escaped). Though she says these do not point to the ‘absurd’ will of God. She then goes on to say,
God is not the one who desires or commands such sacrifices, even if we admit that in certain situations such sacrifices exhibit clearly the truth of God beyond the sphere of the ethical. This explanation of the story contains a masochistic understanding of humanity, or perhaps more accurately, an understanding of devotion that can go all the way to the sacrifice of one’s own life. A theory about suffering derived from this explanation will seek in all suffering conscious and obedient sacrifice.
While I just happened to be reading this work by Soelle alongside Fear and Trembling (and have benefited from it) this seems to be a clear misreading of Kierkegaard (though perhaps not of his interpreters). First of all Soelle assumes that description of the ethical and the religious are both equally possible. Kierkegaard denies this. Second, Kierkegaard is not interested in determining situations in which it is appropriate to go beyond the ethical (to do so is to remain in the ethical). Third, Kierkegaard paints no picture of the ‘knight of faith’ as some masochist suffering. Kierkegaard is quite clear that a person of faith may well look like some ‘bourgeois philistine’ (hardly the prototype for self-inflicted sufferer).
Going beyond Soelle it is possible to add further clarification that would keep zealots from reading F&T and then go off and shoot people. Kierkegaard’s next work is Repetition. Repetition occurs not in recollection or replication but in perpetual restoration. The common example is the married couple trying to ‘re-ignite’ the passion by re-creating their first date. To the extent that they replicate this event to the tee it will likely not end in repetition. To re-ignite the passion there would have to occur a situation in which the same resulted from a difference. In any event, we now have the cultural understanding and prototype of the crazy religious nut who does things because God told him to. Its been done. To do it again is recollection and not repetition. A faithful act will always be that which rises above the universal and therefore can only be considered in retrospect (a theology of scripture?). To even attempt to ‘send a message’ by such an act is to disqualify it.
This leads me to another line of thinking as I am working through Kierkegaard. To what extent is he just extremely gifted in ass-covering (using faith as the foil)? It seems like there would always be a way out when someone would claim to have properly critiqued him (ie his claims to the intellectual inaccessibility of faith). And that I suppose it part of the point in that his aim is not convince but to create movement where movement is possible.