Kierkegaard is wrong: an absurd God is not good.
I’ve posted three times previously on Søren Kierkegaard As with all my posts, I’m always trying to figure out the gist of someone’s argument by presenting it to others—that is, you dear reader. I think I’ve finally “got” Kierkegaard, and I think he’s fundamentally wrong.
The three stages of life
Kierkegaard says that there are three stages to life: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. The aesthetic life is concerned with pleasure. The ethical life is concerned with living by principle. If married, I should follow the principles of marriage, which are loyalty, care, and love. The ethical man acts in a way he would want others to act. It’s actually pretty close to the golden rule, which in turn is pretty close to what Immanuel Kant called the categorical imperative.
The religious stage is where it gets complicated, because Kierkegaard subdivided the religious stage into A and B. We reach the religious stage when we see that the principles that guide our lives are not merely a product of human reason, but a divine imperative. Failing to live up to these principles is not only unethical; it is an insult to God.
Kierkegaard makes a big deal out of the difference between what he calls “religiousness A and religiousness B.” (CUP, p 494) The main difference is that in religiousness A, God is thought of as comprehensible by humans, and understandable by reason, at least to a certain degree. There is continuity between the ethical and religiousness A.
Stage B, which Kierkegaard sometimes calls simply Christianity, is where God is beyond human reason, infinitely different and utterly inexplicable. Kierkegaard frequently uses the term “absurd” to characterize this God and his commandments. The experience of God as absurd is good, for it means we have abandoned trying to understand him. To act on the absurd is to act completely on faith (Journal).
“Religion B” is a bad idea
In Isaiah 55:8, God says “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” This makes sense. We should not expect God to be a larger and more powerful version of a human. To fail to recognize and appreciate God’s otherness is a mistake. Nevertheless, God’s commandments, his presence in our lives, must be recognizably good, decent, and moral, or he is no longer a God that humans can worship.
Consider the Ten Commandments, particularly the last five, which concern human relationships. The tenth commandment, not to covet or envy another’s relations or possessions is probably impossible for humans to fill, and perhaps not even always desirable. Thoughts and deeds are two different things. Nevertheless, the commandments overall make moral sense. They accord with our natural feelings about lying, cheating, stealing, and murder, even if there are contextual differences. Murder is not always murder, as any soldier knows. Sometimes these natural feelings are called the natural law, things that every normal human knows just by growing up in a decent society with decent parents.
Is it good to worship the gods?
At about the same time as the middle books of the Old Testament were being written, Socrates asked a simple but important question. Is it good to worship the gods, or do we worship the gods because they are good? (Plato, Euthyphro, 10a-10e) The second choice is the only answer that makes sense, and it means that there must be some continuity between human categories of goodness and those of God. Otherwise we couldn’t answer the question, for humans would have no independent concept of goodness by which to evaluate the gods.
Perhaps “evaluating God” sounds arrogant, but what it really means is that the faith is not a matter of submission, but trust. We have faith in God because God is good. The Old Testament, especially, has lots of examples where God is not so good (1 Samuel 15:2-3), but that is probably best interpreted as part of the historical process by which the Hebrews came to make sense of their (that is, our) God, one in which God gradually became less anthropomorphic.
Jesus Christ raises the same problem. Consider his explanation of why he speaks in parables: because outsiders might understand him, and so be forgiven (Mark 4.10-12). But his basic lesson, to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself, corresponds with cultivated human intuition, even if it would have made no sense in some cultures, such as the competitive (agonal) culture of ancient Greece as represented in the Iliad.
It is neither necessary or desirable that everything God says be already known by humans, or fit our moral categories. But there must be overlap, otherwise it would make no sense to worship God. Recall, we worship God because he is good. Were God not good in terms human could understand, humans would still be in awe of him. But unless God is good as well as powerful it makes no sense to worship him, except perhaps as a way of escaping his wrath, and that’s not really worship is it?
Abraham and Isaac
Kierkegaard retells the story of Abraham and Isaac. God tells Abraham to go up to Mount Moriah and sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. Abraham loves no one in the world as much as his son. But Abraham is willing to go through with the act, binding Isaac on the sacrificial altar (Isaac evidently does not protest). As Abraham raises his knife to slaughter his son, an angel of the Lord seized his hand and says “now I know you fear God.” Abraham looks up, sees a ram caught in a thicket, and sacrifices the ram in place of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19).
Attempts have been made to rationalize this story. For some it is an anthropological myth, designed to demonstrate humanity’s progress from human to animal sacrifice. For others, Abraham’s faith was so strong that he knew the Lord would stop him. But nothing in the Biblical account supports this interpretation. Abraham valued the Lord’s commandment over the life of his son. For Kierkegaard this makes Abraham a “knight of faith,”
He surrendered himself to the “paradox which is capable of transforming a murder into a holy act well-pleasing to God.” . . . “Abraham believed and did not doubt, he believed the preposterous. He believed by virtue of the absurd; for all human reckoning had long since ceased to function.” He was called upon to renounce the moral for the religious, the finite for the infinite. “This is… clear to the knight of faith, so the only thing that can save him is the absurd, and this he grasps by faith.” (F&T, pp 65, 43, 97; Blanshard)
I don’t believe there is any such paradox. I don’t believe it is a virtue to believe in the absurd, “for all human reckoning had long since ceased to function.” I don’t believe it is necessary or desirable to renounce the moral for the religious. The knight of faith may feel justified by submitting the absurd, but all he has done is abandon human responsibility.
Kierkegaard gives us a hint of this interpretation when he writes about Abraham’s regret. He knew he was willing to kill his son if the Lord commanded it, but he also knew that the Lord should never have asked such a thing. For the rest of his life Abraham was depressed by this knowledge.
Isaac throve as before; but Abraham’s eye was darkened, he saw joy no more. (F&T, p 46)
The knight of faith abandons his humanity. Loving, caring, the simple but profound knowledge that one should never kill one’s child (or any child)—-the abandonment of these virtues is not a courageous act of absurdity. Nor is it simply absurd. It is immoral and irresponsible. We must never give up our basic values unless deep reflection and changed circumstances require.
I believe these humble but profound virtues are realized in the teachings of Jesus Christ. But whatever their source, perhaps in that mysterious human nature itself, it is never a virtue to abandon them, particularly for the absurd. The absurd is no good thing. We may be caught up in absurd situations, the absurd exists, but it is our job to escape it or remake it, not to idealize it.
Brand Blanshard, The Gifford Lectures: Reason and Faith in Kierkegaard. https://www.giffordlectures.org/books/reason-and-belief/chapter-vi-reason-and-faith-kierkegaard [my post owes much to this lecture]
Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Princeton Univ. Press, 1944. [CUP]
Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling. Oxford UP, 1939. [F&T]
Søren Kierkegaard, Journals of Søren Kierkegaard. www.naturalthinker.net/trl/texts/Kierkegaard,Soren/JournPapers/X_6_B.html