Kierkegaard is the modern architect of the riddle of faith. Deriding the pulpiteers and professors for their portraits of easy assent, Kierkegaard shows that faith is ultimately an enormous leap across a chasm, with no assurance that one will reach the other side intact. This notion launches existentialism, with the further proviso that we don’t know that there really is another or reachable side of the chasm.
Kierkegaard shows that fear, dread, and angst haunt the individual. We are aware that assent to existing culture and society is easy but dishonest. We are aware today — in a way that previous centuries were not — that society and culture do not take into account the individual as an immediate existent person, a unique consciousness with a potential to go in any direction. The individual is still seen as a unit of society, a necessary dependency. What highlights this unease more than literary dystopia and reflections on technology and mass culture?
Kierkegaard’s paragon of existential situations is the Old Testament Abraham. You probably know the story: gone to a foreign land, Abraham is promised by God that he will father a great people, but he remains childless through advancing age until a son Isaac is born to him. But then God demands of Abraham that he offer his son as a sacrifice, that he kill him.
This is to be the test of his faith, his worthiness, according to traditional belief, but for Kierkegaard this is the height of anti-rational propositions. And Abraham says nothing one way or another, an infuriating silence suggesting either enormous faith or enormous fear and dread.
Abraham obeys, and at the last moment, is told by God to hold back, that he has passed the test. Is this reality a test of obedience or of faith? What does it tell us about the content of faith versus reason? How can such a demand be reconciled with logic?
As cultural anthropology, the story may signify the end of ritual human sacrifice. Or as a story of origins, it may signify the worthiness of Abraham to be an exemplar father-figure and archetype to his people. Whether the subtext of logic and rationality was understood by its ancient composers, however, is not clear. For the religious authorities of Kierkegaard’s and our time, it is just data to be assimilated and accepted.
But for Kierkegaard, the story is urgent and oppressive, for it is the heart of the individual’s decision-making. Kierkegaard understands Abraham’s ordeal as representing the perpetual angst and dread that all notions of faith represent. Furthermore, Abraham’s faith-affirmation requires a material reward. He has accepted the wager, that the promise of a great successor nation based on his progeny Isaac will somehow be made true. His faith is utterly unreasonable in the worldly and human sense. Not so, perhaps, for God, who can undo anything, play with omnipotence like a game. But for the existentialist, the demand is absurd, immoral, unqualified.
Abraham’s successor will be the somewhat different figure of Job, but Job too, for all his sufferings on God’s behalf, will have to expect a material reward if faith is to have meaning and logic. In the story, God restores Job’s land and possessions and children as surely as he gives Abraham his son. Hence the necessity, too, given the “theologic” (God’s logic) of Jesus’ resurrection — the material reward is necessary to validate faith.
No wonder that modern demythologizing and scholarship overthrow everything that faith assumes about God. The material reward betrays the spiritual nature of the relationship, reduces it to mere anthropomorphism. But Kierkegaard, the Christian, is already aware of this possibility, and knows that everything will depend on the individual and the subjectivity, on nothing external or objective.
To Kierkegaard faith is not given or inherited but a leap of the individual. There is no other way to reconcile the material and the spiritual, the rational and the spiritual. Still, the irrationality of faith is not fideism to him, as it might be to a milder and more skeptical personality like Montaigne or even Unamuno. Fideism accepts the complete unreasonableness of the tenets of faith and so accepts faith “just because” — which is really a quietism or a resigned acceptance of the dominance of culture and social mores. That is the posture of the pulpit and pew as much as the skeptic who must still function within the strictures of society and institutions. By rejecting fideism, Kierkegaard presents an existential insight that will not dodge the content of faith.
Other traditions have wrestled with the same issue of whether the irrationality of belief propels faith to a sacrosanct position — or simply makes it absurd. When Krishna tries to convince Arjuna that war and violence are just another veil and that he must carry out his duty in the world regardless, Arjuna may have been as shocked as Abraham should have been, but neither figure is presented that way by the writers because they want conformity to an authoritative interpretation of reality as being beyond human comprehension. Arjuna should be suffering the angst of Kierkegaard and not the blind faith of Abraham. But Arjuna must take the leap of faith, too, and with no material reward to boot except, perhaps the conventional Hindu concept of reincarnation.
Like the scriptural heaven and the conventional forms of reincarnation and metempsychosis, the substitute material rewards to Abraham and Job are part of an outcome that wants to point to a happy ending, not a tragic sense of life. The world condemns enough people to sacrifice their possessions, loved ones, and futures with no expectation of peace or serenity, let alone reward. Worldly contentment seems a natural goal of human beings but they subconsciously know it is a false promise.
To accept the leap of faith, the factors must be motivating enough to allow acceptance of the destruction of one’s material life and conditions, reinforcing the constant wager that is life. We know the mathematical odds.
Pascal’s wager was the notion that if God existed and the system of reward and punishment was true, then he (Pascal) must conform to a way of life that was at once personally satisfying while at the same time “covering” himself for what reason could not prove and his faith could not convince, i.e., God’s judgment. But Pascal’s rational caution would probably not have brought him to the point of killing his son (if he had had one) like Abraham or strapping up for war and violence like Arjuna. Pascal’s caution tempers the excesses of authority and power, while giving the individual room to explore issues of faith and reason. But the gamble still flies into the teeth-gritting face of angst.