Kierkegaard, culture, and ethics

The fate of Western culture is anticipated in the 19th century not by Nietzsche but by his predecessor Kierkegaard, who, like Nietzsche, places this fate squarely upon the perception of religious belief and behavior.

In “Attack upon Christendom” (1854-55), Kierkegaard wonders how an entire country like Denmark, indeed, the entire Western world, can profess itself to be guided by the message of the Gospel and New Testament, how it can claim to be a Christian culture. He refers to the dictum that the way is through the narrow gate and that the way to destruction is wide.

Now, on the contrary, to speak only of Denmark, we are all Christians, the way is as broad as it possibly can be, the broadest in Denmark … Ergo, the New Testament is no longer truth.

The whole culture is so “Christian” that no one within the culture needs to believe anything anymore, that the truth of Christianity need no longer be questioned (or affirmed) because the culture is thoroughly “Christian.” Even the Jews are Christian, Jierkegaard’s pseudonymous author remarks sarcastically. Of course, Kierkegaard is anticipating that this veil of hypocrisy (or unbelief) will inevitably be realized and exposed. What then? Kierkegaard aptly titles this section of the larger essay “A Eulogy upon the Human Race.”

Honest believers — he counts himself among them — will realize this contradiction, first as an individual crisis, but inevitably anticipating a larger social and cultural crisis. The center of this challenge is not only in the patterns of cultural change but within belief itself, so thinly dependent on narrative and interpretation.

This sense of acceptance on faith is challenged by the core of the Old Testament and its presentations. For example, Machiavelli took the Old Testament narrative of Moses slaying his own peoples (versus foreigners the slayings of whom were justified) as historically true and divinely sanctioned by ethics, written, thus incorporating this possible necessity for slaying one’s people in the options available to a Christian head of state. The critical reaction of modern politicians against this allowance by Machiavelli in The Prince is highly hypocritical. Does not every state, including the “Christian” one, tallow its princes who do not adhere to scriptural literalism anyway, to carry out murder against its citizens? Does it not at the same time profess that its violence is ethical? Though not mentioned by Kierkegaard, Machiavelli aptly if unintentionally fits the dilemma of Christian cultural identity.

But Kierkegaard focuses on a deeper ethical issue based not on scriptural interpretation but on an ethical dilemma presented by a core belief in the nature of God. In Fear and Trembling (1841), Kierkegaard recounts the biblical narrative of Abraham ordered by God to slay Isaac, Abraham’s only son and the only receptacle of the continuity of the faith which has been vouchsafed to Abraham. If ethics is universal, Kierkegaard argues, then the particular strives to conform to the universal. If ethics is particular it nevertheless has its telos, its end and fulfillment, in the universal. To say that the individual can suspend ethics, the universal, is a temptation, and to execute the temptation is a sin. Kierkegaard notes that the tragic hero of pagan culture who sacrificed a child to angry gods did so as a moral virtue but also as compliant obedience, an obeisance to fate. In the case of Abraham, however, he is expected by a personal God to accept his deed as the cost of maintaining faith and hope, though clearly contradicting the intrinsic ethics of the act, regardless of what hope Abraham may have of some subsequent miraculous turn, which is not a legitimate summoning of the individual versus the universal.

Given his beliefs, the tragic hero of paganism remains within the ethical, the telos, but in the same at Abraham does not. Abraham accepts the universal to be suspended for the particular, specifically for himself, transcending temptation and transforming it into ethical necessity,contradicting God’s will by either resisting temptation or by pursuing it. Abraham’s dilemma cannot be sustained.

“Therefore,” writes Kierkegaard, “though Abraham arouses my admiration, he at the same time appalls me.” Such is the painful paradox of faith, Kierkegaard admits. A tragic hero can still be consoled and counseled, but a “knight of faith” finds himself alone: “no one can give him counsel, him no one can understand.” Perhaps, he says, Hegel is “wrong in not protesting loudly and clearly against the fact that Abraham enjoys honor and glory as the father of faith, whereas he ought to be prosecuted and convicted of murder.”