Friday, January 3, 2014

Kierkegaard: Faith

Søren Kierkegaard     1813 - 1855

I’m stuck on something and it’s probably going to take me a while to digest it.  I’m passing it along to you for your input if you are so inclined.  It’s only a snippet of something very involved and I suspect it will lead to a broader inquiry.

I was reading from Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and I came across this one very challenging sentence.  I haven’t yet deciphered it and I can’t let it rest. 

“Faith is precisely the paradox that the single individual as the single individual is higher than the universal, is justified before it, not as inferior to it but as superior – yet is such a way, please note, that it is the single individual who, after being subordinate as the single individual to the universal, now by means of the universal becomes the single individual who as the single individual is superior, that the single individual as the single individual stands in an absolute relation to the absolute.”

I would like to pick at elements of this sentence in an attempt to find its meaning but first let me add the writing’s next two sentences in order to give it some meaningful context.

“This position cannot be mediated, for all mediation takes place only by virtue of the universal; it is and remains for all eternity a paradox, impervious to thought.  And yet faith is this paradox, or else (and I ask the reader to bear these consequences in mente [in mind] even though it would be too prolix* for me to write them all down) or else faith has never existed simply because it has always existed, or else Abraham is lost.”

*prolix – long and wordy; unnecessary, tedious length

Are we picking apart the concept of faith as though it were an exquisite watch – always knowing, possibly, that to understand it we will be required to reassemble it accurately enough to have the watch once again run flawlessly?  I think yes – this is our challenge.  Let me provide some preceding sentences as clues to solving the problem sentence.

“The ethical as such is the universal, and as the universal it applies to everyone, which from another angle means that it applies at all times.  It rests immanent* in itself, has nothing outside itself that is its TÉYOÇ [end, purpose] but is itself the [purpose] for everything outside itself, and when the ethical has absorbed this into itself, it goes not further. “

*immanent – 1. indwelling; inherent  2. (of the Supreme Being) omnipresent

I suspect that when Kierkegaard speaks of ethical he is somehow referring to something more than being morally correct in human conduct yet I can’t find a definition in any dictionary that goes beyond the sense of being virtuous.  My Webster’s Third New International Dictionary weighs about as much as my left leg and it doesn’t give any more complete a definition.  Kierkegaard was Danish and there is always the question of translating a concept from one language into another.  There are so many judgment calls having to do with shades of meaning.

I offer you now another piece of evidence in our detective story.

“The single individual, sensately* and psychically qualified in immediacy, is the individual who has his [purpose, end] in the universal, and it is his ethical task continually to express himself in this, to annul his singularity in order to become the universal.  As soon as the single individual asserts himself in his singularity before the universal, he sins, and only by acknowledging this can he be reconciled again with the universal.  Every time the single individual, after having entered the universal, feels an impulse to assert himself as the single individual, he is in a spiritual trial [Anfægtelse], from which he can work himself only by repentantly surrendering as the single individual in the universal.”

*sensate – to feel or apprehend through a sense or the senses

This leads me to wonder what Kierkegaard means when he refers to the universal.   Are we talking about a concept of Oneness?  Let’s hold that thought and continue with Kierkegaard’s immediately following text.

“If this is the highest that can be said of man and his existence, then the ethical is of the same nature as a person’s eternal salvation, which is his [purpose, end] forevermore and at all times, since it would be a contradiction for this to be capable of being surrendered (that is, teleologically* suspended ), because as soon as this is suspended it is relinquished, whereas that which is suspended is not relinquished but is preserved in the higher, which is its [purpose, end].”

*teleology – final causes exist; purpose, design in existence (inherent)

How can I equate the ethical with a person’s eternal salvation?  Kierkegaard was a Christian and, possibly, a very early existential thinker.  Wouldn’t his concept of personal salvation have something more to it than following the Golden Rule?  I have to think that his use of ethical does not accurately and fully translate into English.  I am currently befuddled by the contradiction illustrated in his final thought here.  I think he is pointing out the absurdity of a conclusion being drawn.  Does the idea alone lead to this absurdity or does the limitations of language contribute to this seeming contradiction?  Like it or not, mathematics is cleanly defined and precise while words are fuzzy.  Unfortunately not all thoughts can be expressed as numbers.  What is the equation for beauty, as a ‘for instance’? 

Bear with me.  I must travel a bit further.

“If this is the case, then Hegel is right in “The Good and Conscience,” where he qualifies man only as the individual and considers this qualification as a “moral form of evil”, which must be annulled [ophævet] in the teleology of the moral in such a way that the single individual who remains in that stage either sins or is immersed in spiritual trial.  But Hegel is wrong in speaking about faith; he is wrong in not protesting loudly and clearly against Abraham’s enjoying honor and glory as a father of faith when he ought to be sent back to a lower court and shown up as a murderer.
Faith is namely this paradox that the single individual is higher than the universal – yet, please note, in such a way that the movement repeats itself, so that after having been in the universal he as the individual isolates himself as higher than the universal.  If this is not faith, then Abraham is lost, then faith has never existed in the world precisely because it has always existed.  For if the ethical – that is, social morality – is the highest and if there is in a person no residual incommensurability* in some way such that this incommensurability is not evil (i.e., the single individual, who is to be expressed in the universal), then no categories are needed other than what Greek philosophy had or what can be deduced from them by consistent thought.”

*incommensurable – lacking a common basis of comparison in respect to a quality

I am left questioning what Kierkegaard’s means by faith.  I am not yet seeing the basis of his conclusions about the nature of faith in this paragraph.  And this leads us to our initial sentence:

“Faith is precisely the paradox that the single individual… “

As you can see it is the initial sentence I used to introduce Kierkegaard’s train of thought.  There is a lot to absorb here.  It would be useful to me to move beyond the linear presentation of these ideas and attempt to isolate the main ideas and then identify their subordinate concepts and arguments much as I would in creating an outline.  The organization may help me in visualizing Kierkegaard’s presentation.  I have one last quotation to leave you with because I believe Kierkegaard’s concept of social morality finds its way into Sartre’s existential views.  I think this quote from Sartre’s Existentialism and Human Emotions may be relevant in our understanding Kierkegaard further.

“From the Christian standpoint, we are charged with denying the reality and seriousness of human undertakings, since, if we reject God’s commandments and the eternal verities, there no longer remains anything but pure caprice, with everyone permitted to do as he pleases and incapable, from his own point of view, of condemning the points of view and acts of others.
I shall try today to answer these different charges.  Many people are going to be surprised at what is said here about humanism.  We shall try to see in what sense it is to be understood.  In any case, what can be said from the very beginning is that by existentialism we mean a doctrine which makes human life possible and, in addition, declares that every truth and every action implies a human setting and a human subjectivity.”

Continue now with your journey.

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