“I am convinced that God is love; for me this thought has a primal lyrical validity. When it is present to me, I am unspeakably happy; when it is absent, I long for it more vehemently than the lover for the object of his love. But I do not have faith; this courage I lack. To me God’s love, in both the direct and the converse sense, is incommensurable with the whole of actuality. Knowing that, I am not so cowardly that I whimper and complain, but neither am I so perfidious as to deny that faith is something far higher […] I do not trouble God with my little troubles, details do not concern me; I gaze only at my love and keep its virgin flame pure and clear. Faith is convinced that God is concerned about the smallest things. I am satisfied with a left-handed marriage in this life; faith is humble enough to insist on the right hand, for I do not deny that this is humility and will never deny it.”
Johannes de Silentio¹ in Kierkegaard’s Fear and trembling (p.34)².
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After a slow start in his own lifetime, Kierkegaard’s writings have had a profound effect on secular philosophy. Sarte was influenced by Kierkegaard’s detailings of the the anxiety involved in making choices. Heidegger found value in Kierkegaard’s notion of becoming a self and took a cue from the Dane when he wrote about what it means to exist authentically. More generally, a reader conversant in postmodernism will find ideas in Kierkegaard’s writings which inform their own, like the many explorations of the subject’s relation to truth. But reading Kierkegaard, a professing Christian himself, also has deep religious value. Martin Buber saw this and, so I’m told, Karl Barth.
This was my experience in reading Fear and trembling again recently. It was my third time and I’ve hopefully come a long way since that first fateful attempt to read philosophy without any background. I can even say that I arrived at places which allowed me to see holes in the philosophy I hadn’t seen before. One example which you may have noted in reading the quote above is Silentio’s reverential insistence on the im/possibility of faith. Kierkegaard, possibly quite ironically, writes Silentio as seeing faith higher than love, contra Paul (1Cor 13:13) and Jesus (Mat 22.37-40)³. Not only that, but faith in Fear and trembling has been elevated to such a height that it is only attainable by the few.
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Quite serendipitously I have enjoyed the coincidence of formulating an important question on the nature of prayer during my re-reading of Fear and trembling. In my own prayer life and the thoughts surrounding it, the problem of whether petitionary prayer should be humble resignation to the will of God or bold, childlike requests returns perennially. If I’m applying for a job (*mumble, cough, etc*) do I submit to whatever may be as a the outworking of the will of God (I don’t get this job but another opportunity presents itself) or do I daringly believe and receive from the Lord this job I have applied for? But Camo, the two can exist beside each other! Yes reader, but only to an extent. The moment I subtitle my prayer for this application with “but only if it’s your will” is the moment I throw away everything I just asked for. How? It demonstrates my conception of God as a being who is ultimately indifferent to particular requests. What if God’s will was not something we adhered to but that which we took active, constructive participation in?
I had this conversation with our new youth pastor last night to see what his thoughts were on it. The most difficulty I have with this idea is due to Jesus’s words in Matthew:
When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
If the Father knows what we need and we’re praying generally for his will to be done, then what use is prayer!? Is it just a gesture, some awkward conversation to make when you have nothing else to say? But my friend pointed me to the crux of what Jesus is saying here. It’s not a blind acceptance of reality in line with God’s will but a pointing to the God at the center of our prayers. If we displace this center then our prayers become just the expressions of our selfish desires. I’m not saying that we can no longer consider ourselves in centered prayer — the job may be close to home and have convenient working hours for your lifestyle — but that centered prayer brings our own bold requests into the greater context of the Kingdom of God: What we expect and ask for, we do so with the trust that we are taking part in the co-construction of God’s plans and their fulfillment4.
Is this what Jesus meant when he gave Peter the keys to the kingdom, with authority to loose and bind on earth and heaven (Mat 16:19)? My friend gave examples of Jesus’ teaching on prayer:
Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
(Mat 7:7-11 NRSV)
In Luke, Jesus goes even further, speaking on the need for persistence in prayer (18:1) and going as far to ironically compare God with an unjust judge (vv.2-8) and an angry neighbour (11:5-8). I have written elsewhere about this, looking at examples such as Abraham beseeching God to withhold judgement on Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:20ff).
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How does this relate to Fear and trembling? Silentio’s understanding of the spheres of existence are applicable to this model of prayer. In short, possibly erroneous terms, three spheres are referenced in Fear and trembling, the aesthetic, ethical and religious. The mysterious ‘A’ explores the aesthetic in Kierkegaard’s Either/or, although this may be quite different to the way Silentio understands it. My understanding of the aesthetic is to live for yourself according to your own desires without a lot of care for God or others. The ethical is quite the opposite, almost equivalent to the idea of law in Christian theology (I do, however, admit the massive space for interpretation of ‘law’). To live ethically is to live responsibly, with thought of others’ needs and social contracts, generally putting those before your own (There is a more specific Hegelian definition Kierkegaard is referring to but I’m not yet familiar enough with it!). In Either/or, Judge Vilhelm answers A by saying that to live ethically is the only way to be truly aesthetic, to have peace with God and your community. The religious does not appear in Either/or but it can be understood as a return to the aesthetic through faith. In Fear and trembling, the religious person, or ‘knight of faith’ is the one who seeks not their own or another’s good but the good of both God and their self. Just with that formulation a lot of people will immediately have problems. Who is this Silentio and why is Kierkegaard corrupting the youth through his bad theology? The formulation is based on the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac: Abraham cannot sacrifice Isaac aesthetically because he wants to have descendants. He cannot do it ethically because it will destroy his family. He can only do it religiously, because God commands him, without explanation, to do it.
Silentio goes on to compare Abraham’s sacrifice to Jephthah’s (Jdg 11), who made a rash vow to sacrifice the first thing coming out of his house when returning home if the Lord gave him victory against the Ammonites: “What good would it be for Jephthah to win the victory by means of a promise if he did not keep it — would not the victory be taken away from the people again?” (p.58). Jephthah can justify his sacrifice to the people but Abraham cannot. His is, as far as they know, arbitrary and downright evil (not that there is a non-evil form of sacrifice). There is an important idea Kierkegaard develops in what is required for sacrifice: resignation. This is what makes the ethical higher than the aesthetic. A possible aesthetic Jephthah would just say, “Screw you guys, I won the battle but now I will defy God and keep my daughter.” But the ethical Jephthah tragically gives up his daughter (figuratively everything) for the greater good of the community of which he is a part. He fully surrenders himself to God and people (or God through people). Silentio makes the point that this is not, however, unpraiseworthy. In Kierkegaard’s trademark denunciation of the society of his day he writes of the monastic life:
To enter a monastery is not the highest, but by no means do I therefore believe that everyone in our day, when no one enters the monastery, is greater than the deep and earnest souls who found rest in a monastery.
The monastery here is a symbol for resigning all worldly ambition and asset to God. For Silentio, to renounce everything is not as high as faith, but it is still an admirable, even a necessary step on the road to faith. What, then, is faith? Faith is that which gives everything to God and then asks for it all back. For Silentio, this is the paradox of Abraham: He finally receives from God the promised heir through which his descendants will come and then God asks him to get rid of him! Abraham’s faith is in simultaneously giving Isaac up to God and trusting God to stay true to his promise.
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This is where Kierkegaard meets my thoughts on prayer: The aesthetic, ethical and religious line up roughly with different ways of praying. To pray aesthetically is to ask God to meet your own needs without much thought of him or others (cf. the prayers Bruce is asked in Bruce Almighty like winning the lotto). To pray ethically is to pray just that the Lord’s will be done, to give your whole life to him by qualifying all your requests with “but only if it’s your will”. To pray ethically is not a bad thing and it is a necessary area to move through and return to continually through your walk with God. To pray religiously, in faith, is to give yourself fully to God but dare also to receive that which you ask for.
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¹Number one rule of Kierkegaard scholarship: Don’t talk about Kierkegaard. Or, do so but keep in mind that he constructs characters who may have views differing markedly from his own.
²Kierkegaard, S. (1983). Fear and trembling/Repetition (H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (1843).
³Love I believe to be the center of Christian theology and practice, although I don’t make a big case for it here and the two passages need to of course be understood as situated within the wider biblical story. The English words ‘love’ and ‘believe’ are etymologically related.
4Enter the contentious issue of car park theology: How consumerist has our faith become when we start asking God to find us a car park at a mall? Yet this is the very illustration I have been looking for. If car parks are the only thing we ever ask of God then what kind of god is that? But if we pray for car parks within the wider context of participating in the Kingdom of God, if this is just a small expression of the God who is continually making his way into every area of our lives then I don’t only have no problem with it but see it as a positively good thing.