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From Fear and Trembling:

All that time [Abraham] believed--he believed that God would not require Isaac of him, whereas he was willing nevertheless to sacrifice him if it was required. He believed by virtue of the absurd...

Pause. Why wouldn't Abraham believe?

  • God had revealed Himself and spoken to Abraham personally.
  • God had promised Abraham a miracle (a son in his old age) and had fulfilled that promise.
  • God had also promised Abraham descendents to number the stars.
  • God is an all-powerful being with the capacity and authority to alter his demands at any time.

It seems like Abraham was one of the few people who did not require faith to believe in God. Abraham's reasons for believing in God were entirely rational. So why does Silentio argue the opposite?

(At the very least, Abraham had far more reason to believe in God than anyone in modern times who cannot even verify His existence.)

EDIT: This question is not a plea for clarification of the text. It is not an attempt to dissect Silentio's notion of "absurdity." What I am asking is whether a certain objection to Silentio's argument is valid. The argument may be parsed as follows:

(a) To act on faith is to act outside the scope of reason.
(b) Abraham acted on faith.
(c) Conclusion: Abraham acted outside the scope of reason.

My objection is that Abraham, in obeying God, did not act outside the scope of reason. His reasons are those enumerated above.

Any answer, in order to constitute an answer to the question asked (not one we merely wish had been asked), must either affirm or deny that the objection is valid and explain why. There are a few answers that would have sufficed here and, in fact, some have already been articulated:

  1. Kierkegaard (as Silentio) was arguing from the assumption that no evidence could ever be enough to completely justify the kind of total commitment involved in true religious faith (credit: James Kingsbery). This assumption is defended elsewhere in his writings, though not this particular section of F&T.
  2. Kierkegaard (as Silentio) was arguing from a certain scriptural interpretation, namely that Abraham's past dealings with God were not so straightforward and he had more reason to doubt God than trust Him (credit: Keelan).
  3. The objection is valid. K/S may have responded as follows: "...." The objection has been raised by philosopher X in paper Y.

(Apologies for the length. I really do not think this is the place to be explaining how to answer a question, but apparently not everyone is up to speed.)

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    Based on an extended discussion in comments with the OP, I don't think the OP wants an answer that explains why Kgd-Silentio (the OP conflates them) thinks this is absurd. He wants to debate whether it is absurd. – virmaior Jan 23 '16 at 6:25
  • You still do not understand the question. If faith compels A to do X and X is absurd, then yes, A has acted absurdly. That is a completely separate matter than whether it is absurd to have faith to begin with. – Regina Jan 23 '16 at 21:12
  • Acting on faith does not require acting "outside the scope of reason." Also, you seem to be conflating the terms "reason" and "rationality" without defining either. – user18800 Jan 25 '16 at 18:22
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Kierkegaard is not using "faith" to mean belief in God, but rather trust in God. From Kierkegaard's point of view, the big question is not whether or not you believe God exists, but whether or not you are willing to have absolute trust in God --and God's ability to transcend the limits of what you can personally conceive as possible. For Kierkegaard himself --or at least the self he reveals through his pseudonyms --belief in God is a given, but trust in God is difficult. Abraham is his model of someone who is utterly faithful, to an extent Kierkegaard confesses he cannot understand or imitate. "Abraham, I am not able to understand; and in a certain sense I can learn nothing from him without being struck with wonder." Abraham is not merely resigned, which is to say, he does not merely accept and submit to God's will. Rather he is in such a relationship with God that he truly knows whatever God instructs him is the best of all possibilities, no matter how terrible it might seem through mortal eyes.

For Kierkegaard, the reasons for belief and/or trust are not the point. At some point you have to make a personal individual decision to have absolute trust, and Kierkegaard doesn't see that choice as any less stark or difficult for Abraham as for you and me. The reason Abraham is Kierkegaard's choice of subject is not because he walked and talked with God, but because he is asked to accept something absolutely outside all human morality and reason.

Arguably, Abraham had better preparation for that moment than you or me, but it doesn't make sacrificing his son (his heir, his promised path to an unending dynasty) any easier or more rational. It's an absolute mistake to see Kierkegaard as posing a modern philosophical thought experiment, and to cast Abraham as the rational observer choosing to shunt a runaway trolley towards one group of victims or another. One key aim for Kierkegaard here is to break through dead and sterile ways of treating Abraham as an allegorical or mythical figure, and to genuinely relate to him as a real human being, with a real son, and real human responses.

  • With all due respect, that doesn't answer the question. Put another way, the question is this: isn't it unfair of Kierkegaard to expect us to follow Abraham's example when, unlike Abraham, we a) do not know God exists, b) have never been spoken to by God, c) have never received a personal miracle, d) have never been made a promise by God that was later fulfilled...? Even if we satisfied (a), there would still be (b-d). The second part of the question is this: Kierkegaard argues that faith is nonrational. But in Abraham's case, given (a-d), his belief/trust seems entirely rational. – Regina Jan 22 '16 at 7:33
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    I've added a third paragraph above to clarify. Keep in mind, your original question is why Kierkegaard has chosen to argue in this fashion, not whether or not he is right or fair to argue that way. Whether or not we can or should find this compelling would be a separate and different question. – Chris Sunami Jan 22 '16 at 14:24
  • But to play devil's advocate, why wouldn't Abraham's previous experiences make it easier or more rational to sacrifice his son? If someone I trusted asked me to do something seemingly wrong, might I not do it if I trusted them enough? (Isn't that the entire premise of soap operas and primetime tv?) And if that person also happened to be all-powerful and all-knowing, wouldn't that only strengthen my resolve? (I think I've found my answer in the collective response here, but it took some digging. It is that faith & trust are not synonymous. Abraham had faith in God; he did not have trust.) – Regina Jan 23 '16 at 1:03
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I don't know much about Kierkegaard, but this summary from Wikipedia seems to explain the issue you're running into:

The leap of faith is his conception of how an individual would believe in God or how a person would act in love. Faith is not a decision based on evidence that, say, certain beliefs about God are true or a certain person is worthy of love. No such evidence could ever be enough to completely justify the kind of total commitment involved in true religious faith or romantic love. Faith involves making that commitment anyway. Kierkegaard thought that to have faith is at the same time to have doubt. So, for example, for one to truly have faith in God, one would also have to doubt one's beliefs about God; the doubt is the rational part of a person's thought involved in weighing evidence, without which the faith would have no real substance. Someone who does not realize that Christian doctrine is inherently doubtful and that there can be no objective certainty about its truth does not have faith but is merely credulous. For example, it takes no faith to believe that a pencil or a table exists, when one is looking at it and touching it. In the same way, to believe or have faith in God is to know that one has no perceptual or any other access to God, and yet still has faith in God.[235] Kierkegaard writes, "doubt is conquered by faith, just as it is faith which has brought doubt into the world".

Each point of the above passage applies specifically to Abraham as an example of faith:

  • Just as someone may physically appear to you to tell you something that you choose not to believe, Abraham could have done similar with God.
  • Abraham did not understand how to square God's earlier promise with what he was asked by God to do.
  • Faith is not mere credulity - Abraham did not take lightly the command to sacrifice his son.
  • "No such evidence could ever be enough" - this is different then saying that faith contradicts reason, it's that empirical evidence guided by reason can never go as far as faith (or love).
  • "the doubt is the rational part of a person's thought involved in weighing evidence, without which the faith would have no real substance" -Faith and doubt are often seen as opposites, but (according to this quote), doubt is a needed aspect of faith and helps separate it from credulity or superstition.

It seems like Abraham was one of the few people who did not require faith to believe in God. Abraham's reasons for believing in God were entirely rational.

I would also like to point out that faith as understood by many, both within philosophy and in every-day life, is not anti-rational. If you read, as a couple examples, the conversion story of CS Lewis or Thomas Merton, you'll see that they thought their "reasons for believing in God were entirely rational" as well.

  • Yes, this helps. So the answer, it would seem, is that Abraham is the paragon of faith because he doubted God, yet committed the ultimate sacrifice anyway. I did not realize that K took as given that total faith in someone is never rationally justified. But then...doesn't that beg the question? Isn't the absurdity of faith precisely what he's trying to prove? – Regina Jan 23 '16 at 0:42
  • Edited based on your comment, @Regina. Again, I'm not well read in Kierkegaard, but from what I can gather, "absurd" means something different than the common usage. See eg the wikipedia article on Absurdism: "In this context absurd does not mean 'logically impossible', but rather 'humanly impossible'." – James Kingsbery Jan 26 '16 at 14:25
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There is some anachronicity here. The Bible story Kierkegaard is referring to is Genesis 22 (the binding of Isaac). What has happened until then is the following:

  • The Lord has promised (a) a new land, (b) a great nation, and therefore (c) a son. (Gen 12:1-3)
  • Abram arrives in the promised land, but has to leave it almost directly (12:10) and from then on he is travelling almost continuously.
  • In Gen 13, (b) and (c) are endangered because Sarai is taken as the Pharaoh's wife.
  • In Gen 15, all three promises are repeated, but it is also said that it will take at least four generations before (a) will be fulfilled (15:16).
  • Hagar bears a son in chapter 16, but it is clear that this is not the son that is meant.
  • In Gen 17-18:15, the promises are repeated for the third time, Abram's name is changed, and he is given the command to circumcise his family.
  • In Gen 18:16-19:38, Lot is saved by God on Abraham's request.
  • In chapter 20, (b) and (c) are again endangered because Sarai is taken as Avimelek's wife.
  • In Gen 21, Isaac is born, so (c) is fulfilled, but promise (a) and (b) are nowhere near fulfilled.

The whole story is written around the question of whether or not God will fulfil his promises. And while (c) is indeed fulfilled in chapter 21, the rest is not and e.g. in chapter 15 the promise is weakened. Also note that in Gen 17-18:15 Abram is given a new command, while no promises have been fulfilled yet.

And then, when Abraham has no offspring other than Isaac, is in a strange country with no possessions of land, he is asked to offer his only son (Gen 22:1).

So:

  • God had revealed Himself and spoken to Abraham personally.

I have revealed myself to so many people and spoken to so many people, that doesn't mean I ask them to offer their son.

  • God had promised Abraham a miracle (a son in his old age) and had fulfilled that promise.

And now asks him to offer him, so I'm not sure Abraham would like this God if that's his way of fulfilling promises.

  • God had also promised Abraham descendants to number the stars.

But Abraham hasn't seen anything of this yet, and is being asked to offer his only chance on more descendants (he is already old) on the altar.

  • God is an all-powerful being with the capacity and authority to alter his demands at any time.

But Abraham doesn't know this, he just got to know this 'God' guy.

Lastly: there is a discussion in Rabbinic traditions on the text of Gen 22:2:

Call your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, ...

Some say that this is a summary of a conversation like the following:

God: Call your son.
Abraham: Which one (Ismael or Isaac)?
G: You know, your only one.
A: I don't know what you mean, I have two sons (he doesn't want to offer Isaac).
G: Okay, so offer the one you love.
A: But I love both!
G: So, Isaac.

So if you read it like this, Abraham tries everything to not have to offer Isaac, his only chance on a great nation and a new land, but Ismael instead. And even if God makes it clear that Isaac is to be offered, Abraham is willing to do so, even though after that none of the promises to him will be fulfilled any more.

That is very much an action of faith. Abraham has no reason to believe this 'God' person who makes the same promise over and over again without fulfilling it, and when he has fulfilled one part of it wants to take it back! Many people would have stopped believing him long before chapter 22.

  • I'm rusty on my biblical knowledge, so this was very helpful. It does paint a very different picture of Abraham's relationship to God, and I think it sufficiently demonstrates that Abraham did not (at that point) have rational reasons for trusting in God. So I guess the answer to my question is that Kierkegaard was relying on the reader's background knowledge of Genesis? I suppose in his day that was a reasonable assumption. – Regina Jan 22 '16 at 23:27
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    @Regina I have not read Kierkegaard myself. But his statement doesn't seem very strange to me, that's all I wanted to show here. – user2953 Jan 22 '16 at 23:54

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