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Posts Tagged ‘faith’

William Blake's Job

William Blake’s Job

As the oft-repeated verse goes, “So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service” (Romans 12:1). So also the oft-repeated accompanying comment: Worship is holistic. Singing in church has little value if it something less than an expression of the individual and church’s wider commitment to God. When the whole life is directed towards him, even the mundaneness of taking a shower is taken into this position of worship. Nothing is excluded from this living sacrifice, except sin, that which is opposed to God and his plan of redemption. This is not to say that sin prevents it, however. As the Spirit worked in Jesus so the Spirit works in us. We can offer our lives as worship while we await for sin and death to be finally overcome.

What place does doubt play in this very short sketch of the Christian life? Is it sin that will be done away with when the world is brought into new creation? Or is it, somehow, an expression of the life directed towards God? A surface reading of the New Testament suggests the former:

But anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score. Wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask. Whoever asks shouldn’t hesitate. They should ask in faith, without doubting. Whoever doubts is like the surf of the sea, tossed and turned by the wind. People like that should never imagine that they will receive anything from the Lord. They are double-minded, unstable in all their ways.

(James 1:5-8).

Doubt could be understood as hesitating to approach God and ask him for something or, having asked God, hesitating to believe that the prayer will be answered. For James, doubt in this sense would probably not be a form of worship! This makes sense when seen in the context of new creation: “Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Why would the Spirit bring us to doubt if we will one day be free from all doubt?

However, the question becomes more complicated when understood in the context of the wider biblical picture. At the end of 12 chapters in Ecclesiastes surveying the absurdities and evils of life the Teacher can conclude, “Perfectly pointless… everything is pointless” (12:8). Add to that the second voice in the postscript. Not only, “Worship God and keep God’s commandments because this is what everyone must do” (v.13) but, surprisingly, “The Teacher searched for pleasing words, and he wrote truthful words honestly” (v.10). Apparently the Teacher who decried the absurdities and evils was not misguided! The narrator who opens and closes Ecclesiastes reassures us that Teacher’s doubts are not only compatible with the life of worship but actually worth reflecting on.

This is true also of the Psalms:

But now you’ve rejected and humiliated us.
You no longer accompany our armies.
You make us retreat from the enemy;
our adversaries plunder us.
You’ve handed us over like sheep for butchering;
you’ve scattered us among the nations.
You’ve sold your people for nothing,
not even bothering to set a decent price.

(Psalm 44:9-12).

This is not the one-off, sinful musings of a person who has set their self against God. It is holy writ, taken up by the people of God and sanctified as the language of prayer and worship. Would you kiss your mother with that mouth, let alone your God?

An interesting case is Job, whom, as the story goes, God allows Satan to afflict by killing off his children and livestock, and striking him with sores all over his body. Job’s initial responses to the horror include praising God despite the situation — “The Lord has given; the Lord has taken; bless the Lord’s name” (1:21) — and even defending God — “Will we receive good from God but not also receive bad?” (2:10). However, in the main body of text we encounter a seemingly different Job: “Does it seem good to you that you oppress me, that you reject the work of your hands and cause the purpose of sinners to shine?” (10:3). God does not just seem distant but positively evil: “You know that I’m not guilty, yet no one delivers me from your power” (10:7). Which of these set of statements is spoken in faith or worship? It is hard to imagine any liturgical context where such language is directed in faith to God above, that is, whatever faith in that context would mean! It should also be remembered that, after much dialogue with the friends who apparently came to comfort him, Job is answered by God himself with the longest uninterrupted divine speech in the Bible. At the conclusion of this speech Job affirms again his faith in God’s power. He is declared righteous in contrast to his friends who “didn’t speak correctly, as my servant Job” (42:8).

In what sense can these examples be considered doubt? Maybe not in James’ sense. At least in the case of the Psalms and Job, such utterances are directed towards God rather than in a place apart from him. They arise from the mouths of those who have faith because, despite the content of their complaints, they do not direct it at a subject other than God. They are not uttered “behind his back,” so to speak. And it may be too simplistic to consider them as wavering. There is an urgency in the examples given which seeks answers from heaven. The supplicants are persistent in seeking God to respond to their situations. Thus by doubt I mean that which arises from either having seen God at work in history or more generally from an expectation that God’s being means that life should prevail over death and yet does not see this at work at present: Biblical doubt concerns the cries directed towards the One who could and should be present but is yet absent.

Marcus Reichert's Crucifixion VII

Marcus Reichert’s Crucifixion VII

This brings us to a New Testament example. Matthew and Mark record Jesus’ last words on the cross as “My God, my God, why have you forsaken/abandoned me?” (Mark 15:33). By abandonment here I do not see some split in the Trinity (which is probably impossible and with which the world and God would cease to exist), but the simple continuation of the Old Testament tradition of the suffering righteous, as Psalm 22, the psalm Jesus quotes here, shows. Jesus has been abandoned by his Father insofar as his Father did not deliver him from those who crucified him. His abandonment is in the unanswered prayers offered in Gethsemane: “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible. Take this cup of suffering away from me. However—not what I want but what you want” (Mark 14:36). It is Jesus’ abandonment which brings this form of doubt into the Christian life of worship.

This also allows for doubt to be seen in the context of new creation. Both the passion narrative and Psalm 22 point to Jesus’ deliverance: “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here” (Mark 16:6). God did not leave his servant to die but “he didn’t despise or detest the suffering of the one who suffered—he didn’t hide his face from me. No, he listened when I cried out to him for help” (Psalm 22:24). Doubt will be done away with. Yet, as long as creation remains the world of sin and death, doubt remains an important part of the Christian life. The end of Jesus and the psalmist’s story does not mean that there was never a middle. We are in the middle, the redemption of which will one day be brought to completion, and as such we cannot be detached from this middle but stand with it and share in its fears, worries, and doubts. In the same chapter we find the call to holistic worship we also find: “Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying” (Romans 12:15). We need to creatively incorporate doubt and protest into our personal and communal worship.

I end with three of my own doubts that I direct towards the only One who could possibly one day answer them:

  • How can I celebrate the victories and glimpses of redemption that you bring in my life and the lives of others when so many people are left seemingly untouched by grace and love?
  • I can see how you can redeem Jesus’ suffering, who took the cross upon himself willingly and was rewarded with resurrection life. But how can you redeem those who suffer unwillingly?
  • Through the work of the Spirit in the present it is possible to begin to imagine a world without sin and death. In this sense I can see the future of the world being redeemed. But how can this redemption touch every ugly and unspeakable corner of history? You can offer us a better future but how can you offer those who have suffered a better past?
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After showing that both Gentiles and Jews are under sin, Paul discloses faith as a new way to be declared righteous and then compares it to the law:

Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

(Rom 3:27-28).

I wonder what the primary reason is for why the law cannot bring salvation. I had always thought it had something to do with not being able to fulfill the totality of the law’s requirements: although trying, always falling short because of sin. This is alluded to in Galatians 3:10: “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law'” (cf. Rom 9:31-32). But I’m unsure if it’s the reason why Paul saw something other than the law needed. In light of this, his puzzling assertion of being blameless under the law remains (Phil 3:6). But all are sinful under the law (except Paul and a few others?) “for through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20). This is a major point of Paul’s, expanding on it elsewhere and noting that the although the law was good, sin took advantage of it to do evil (Rom 7:7-13; cf. 5:19-21). It is not fully developed in Galatians, however, but implied (Gal 3:21-22). What is also evident is faith as an alternative to the law which separates Jews and Gentiles, probably what is being highlighted here in Romans 3:27-28, as an answer to the first three chapters, but also elsewhere (Rom 2:14-16; 9:8, 30; Gal 2:15-16; 3:8, 28; cf. Eph 2:14-16).¹

Now, although it is not the primary reason for faith, the inability to fulfill the law through works remains to me in my context its most devastating critique. Works cannot save because they are always an incomplete expression of the law’s requirements. Works is a relative category. What makes faith an absolute category? I think this is where a Calvinist Paul would be very useful. Our faith is not an absolute category, but what Jesus has done on the cross is. The contentious pistis christou (e.g. Rom 3:22, 26; Gal 2:16 (twice), 20), translated either “faith in” and “faith of Christ” carries an unnecessary amount of theological weight for two words! Although it would help to look at some of the literature on this, at this point I tend towards the latter for two reasons. Firstly, theologically I would find it difficult to fulfill faith if it were an absolute category, regardless how small the requirement. Faith is a relative category: though simple trust and belief is all that is asked, my trust and belief will always fall short, but this is somehow still enough, made absolute by the grace of God. And secondly, just that, that God’s grace, sovereignty and initiative are such a dominant Pauline themes (e.g. Rom 3:3-4; 4:4-5; 5:6-8, 21; 11:30-32; Gal 2:21; 3:18).

* * *

¹Maybe Paul was blameless in a sense to whatever interpretation of the law he subscribed, yet in this he was blind to the sinfulness of persecuting the church…?

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Somewhere in the beginning of Romans, the classic text in the Pauline oeuvre that has contributed to the Protestant doctrine justification by faith alone, this novelty passage asserts itself:

For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.

(Rom 2:6-10).

It can’t refer to those under the law before Jesus because no one is justified under the law (Rom 3:20). What is important, however, is that if this is read with the whole of Romans then it is clear that faith without works does not mean much. The early church heresy of antinomianism (literally “against law”) claimed that those who had faith could live however they wanted. Now I don’t want to undermine the rich tradition of sola fide and the great works which have been born of it, but sola fide is only ever the beginning, not the end. Through the power of the Spirit, believers “put to death the deeds of the body” (Rom 8:13) and “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Rom 6:14). Romans 12 lists ethical actions as a picture of what the believing community should look like. The link is clear in Galatians: Through the Spirit, a new ethical life is possible: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23). Thus God “will repay according to each one’s deeds” because this is a sign that the Spirit is at work in the community of believers.

Interestingly, those who do evil are “self-seeking” compared with those who “seek for glory and honor and immortality.” Why is the latter not also self-seeking? Is it a legitimate response to what God has offered? Whereas evil is an attempt to cut oneself off from and assert oneself against the rest of creation and God, good is to die to one’s own desires, with Christ, and seek the good of all, including the self within this picture. It is not merely self-seeking because it is not concerned only with its own glory, honour, and immortality but putting aside selfish desires to see God’s plans come to completion for the good of creation. So Paul can say, “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh” (Rom 9:3).

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Here’s one of my favourite passages from Kierkegaard, Anti-Climacus on defending Christianity in The Sickness unto Death:

Now we see how extraordinarily stupid … it is to defend Christianity, how little knowledge of human nature it manifests, how it connives even if unconsciously, with offense that in the end has to be rescued by a champion … To defend something is always to disparage it. Suppose that someone has a warehouse full of gold, and suppose he is willing to give every ducat to the poor–but in addition, suppose he is stupid enough to begin this charitable enterprise of his with a defense in which he justifies it on three grounds: people will almost come to doubt that he is doing any good.¹

He writes later in the book:

A pastor certainly ought to be a believer. A believer! And a believer, after all, is a lover; as a matter of fact, when it comes to enthusiasm, the most rapturous lover of all lovers is but a stripling compared with a believer. Imagine a lover. Is it not true that he would be capable of speaking about his beloved all day long and all night, too, day in and day out? But do you believe it could ever be possible for him, do you not think he would find it loathsome to speak in such a manner that he would try to demonstrate by means of three reasons that there is something to being love … Is it not obvious that the person who is really in love would never dream of wanting to prove it by three reasons or to defend it, for he is something that is more than all reasons and any defense: he is in love.²

Of course, it’s important to read Kierkegaard in context. Anti-Climacus is ironically making a defence against a primarily rational Christianity which has lost sight of its core. I wonder how possible it is to read this then as a denouncement of all defences or if Anti-Climacus is more so pointing out that defence does not add anything to the love between a believer and God. Love is completely affirmed internally so that to confer dependence onto the external is to undermine this internal logic. To focus completely on justifying faith to others subverts the argument by robbing faith of its extra-rational totality.

* * *

¹Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening (1849), translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 87.

²Ibid., 103-4.

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In Fear and trembling, Johannes de Silentio puts forth a definition of sin using Hegelian terms. Sinning, however, first requires a unique movement:

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 single individual, after having entered the universal, feels an impulse to assert himself as the single individual, he is in spiritual trial […]

(p.54, emphasis mine)¹

In other words, to know what is right and do otherwise is to sin. Temptation (spiritual trial) is the desire to do otherwise. But note this clause of interest, ‘after having entered the universal’. To have knowledge of right and wrong here is to enter the universal, or ethical, that is knowledge of others and their value. The original movement is not so much choice as knowledge, although someone who returns to the aesthetic, a self-oriented worldview, may not consider themselves in ethical terms as a sinner but on their own terms. For reasons I am still discovering in Kierkegaard’s philosophy, the universal/ethical is defined by disclosure, or speaking:

The ethical as such is the universal; as the universal it is in turn the disclosed. The single individual, qualified as immediate, sensate, and psychical, is the hidden. Thus his ethical task is to work himself out of his hiddenness and to become disclosed in the universal.

(p.82)

I read the need for disclosure as an entering into the sphere of language which, in vulgar, pre-modern terms, represents the collective values and beliefs, etc, of humanity². Silence characterises the aesthetic because to live aesthetically is to live on your own terms, taking pleasure in the accidental rather than that which is shared essentially, universally. But Fear and trembling is written on the premise that there is a sphere higher than the universal where the individual lives not on their own or humanity’s terms but God’s. This, the religious sphere, takes place at the same site as the aesthetic, the individual. With these in mind, Abraham, the paragon of faith, cannot speak:

Abraham cannot be mediated; in other words, he cannot speak. As soon as I speak, I express the universal, and if I do not do so, no one can understand me. As soon as Abraham wants to express the universal, he must declare that his situation is a spiritual trial […], for he has no higher expression of the universal that ranks above the universal he violates.

(p.60)

Silentio shows that Abraham cannot be understood in universal terms. God calls him to sacrifice Isaac but ostensibly quite arbitrarily. Only Abraham himself can understand it (p.113ff), on the premise that it is right because God himself demands it. In ethical terms Abraham can only be a murderer (p.30). Even if Silentio presented a good case for an absolute duty to God (doing as God asks regardless of circumstance), this would not clear up the ambiguity, from outsider’s perspective, as to whether it really was God who called Abraham to sacrifice his son or whether it is a dark aesthetic desire. If Abraham was to attempt to explain himself in universal terms then he could only bring judgement upon himself. This is the value of not speaking. Mark Taylor puts sums it up simply:

The radical individuality of the believer’s relation to God is the basis of faithful silence. Such individuality cannot be articulated in or mediated by language.³

* * *

I want now to extract this entering the universal from Kierkegaard’s Hegelian terminology and find a usage applicable outside of this limited context. I have a formal definition but it must be noted that Kierkegaard here acts only as a stimulus — my definition misrepresents him a little. Here it is: To enter the universal is to subject something to a set of criteria in such a way that it is necessary to make a positive or negative qualification of that something in relation to the criteria4. Before moving on from Kierkegaard it may be helpful to see this in relation to Fear and trembling. If Abraham enters the universal he is subjected to a set of criteria determining what constitutes ethical action. He must be either qualified positively, as an ethical person, or negatively, in this case as a murderer. Once Abraham enters the universal though, he can only remain there. His relation to the criteria may change if he makes a convincing argument, like Silentio’s tragic hero, which could be something like God bringing a famine upon the land if Abraham did not give him Isaac. This would be understood ethically, as it affects people throughout the land, and thus puts Abraham in a positive relation to the criteria. The criteria will never disappear though. The only circumstances under which they would disappear would be something like memory loss, the whole tragedy quietly slipping from the minds of the people, akin to the adage time heals all wounds.

So badass.

Where else might entering the universal be understood? I think of the opening scene in The Godfather III where Michael Corleone is standing in a church receiving honours for his charity work. There is a flashback to the end of the previous film where Michael watches a man he has ordered to shoot his unwitting brother Fredo while out fishing. In the present the archbishop speaks to Michael, “Do you, Michael, promise to be faithful to the noble purposes of this order, to have a special care to the poor, the needy, and those who are ill?” “Yes I promise,” Michael replies. For those familiar with Michael’s ruthless and determined rise to head of the Corleone family in the previous two movies this film, set years later, presents an interesting question. Has Michael really reformed? Or, Is his promise genuine? The flashback in the present scene, along with the entirety of the previous two films, acts as a kind of disclosure. Now, based on the evidence we have available, we must make the judgement against the criterium of Michael’s genuineness. The possibility of forgoing the question completely is not allowed. Michael has entered the universal and we cannot get him out of there unless we either ignore or forget him. The distinguishing feature of entering the universal is that the criteria to which something (an action, individual/collation of actions, etc) has been subjected is more lasting and significant than the judgement which presupposes that criteria.

* * *

What value does silence have? Is it so Abraham and the Corleone family can do dirty things behind our backs without having to face our judgement? Possibly. One of the desert fathers, Jacob the Deacon, records the legend of St Pelagia and St Nonnus, illustrating the value of silence:

As we were all listening with enjoyment to his holy teaching, suddenly there passed by in front of us the foremost actress of Antioch, the star of the local theatre. She was seated on a donkey and accompanied by a great and fanciful procession. She seemed to be clothed in nothing but gold and pearls and other precious stones. Even her feet were covered with gold and pearls. The male and female slaves accompanying her were extravagantly clothed in costly garments, and the torcs round their necks were all of gold. Some of them went before, others followed after.
The worldly crowd could not get enough of their beauty and attractiveness. As they passed by us the air was filled with the scent of musk and other most delicious perfumes, but when the bishops saw her passing by so immodestly, with her head bare, and the outlines of her body clearly visible, nothing over her shoulders as well as her head, and yet the object of such adulation, they all fell silent, groaned and sighed, and averted their eyes as if being forced to witness some grave sin.

[…]The most blessed Nonnus, however, looked at her long and hard, and even after she had passed by he looked after her for as long as she remained in sight. Not till then did he turn round and speak to the other bishops.
“Weren’t you delighted to see such beauty as hers?”
They answered nothing. He leant his head down on to his knees and shed tears into the handkerchief which he held on his lap between his holy hands. He sighed deeply and turned again to the bishops.
“Weren’t you delighted to see such beauty as hers?”
Again they answered nothing.5

In Silentio’s terms, all the bishops bar Nonnus have entered the universal. They are judging themselves against an ethical criterium of lust. If they willingly look at Pelagia then they take part in the sin of lust but if they look away then they maintain their purity. Nonnus, on the other hand, has not made the movement. He does not subject himself to the criteria and therefore has remained silent. This silence can be construed aesthetically: Nonnus wanted a brief break from priestly responsibilities so made the most of the opportune moment. But that’s probably not the point Jacob is trying to make. Nonnus’ silence allows him to act in faith, according to the religious, rather than the ethical. The religious thus sees Pelagia as beautiful regardless of the categories of sin and purity because these belong to the ethical. To ‘speak’ is to enter into those categories, whereas those categories do not exist over the individual reconciled to God.

The obvious value of silence here is not an issue of personal purity. It is that an essentially trans-ethical action has positive ethical implications. Silentio’s model of faith is very earthly. It cannot stop at otherworldly interests but wants to take the world with it. Thus Abraham sacrifices Isaac to God yet in faith receives the son whom he loves back again. Faith is a restoration of the aesthetic. The aesthetic objectifies everything for its own advantage. In the case of Pelagia, an aesthetic admirer might take a look for the sake of a stiffy. The ethical looks away for the good of Pelagia and the observer. But the religious looks to Pelagia with the aesthetic appreciation of her beauty and the ethical acknowledgement of her humanity6.

* * *

¹Kierkegaard, S. (1983). Fear and trembling/Repetition (H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (1843).

²That is, 19th Century, Northern European beliefs and values. Silentio explicitly dismisses the value of attempting to step out of his own worldview: “Or if Abraham perhaps did not do at all what the story tells, if perhaps because of the local conditions of that day it was something entirely different, then let us forget him, for what is the value of going to the trouble of remembering that past which cannot become a present” (p.30).

³Mark Taylor, cited here, pp. 61-62. Seriously I can’t be bothered with a proper reference.

4This is clearly very wordy and it will probably only make sense to most with use of the supplementary explanation. If anyone has any suggestions for reform of the statement after reading the rest of the post then let me know in the comments section.

5Retrieved here

6Readers may point out that the ethical in this case was just as objectifying as the aesthetic. Taken. Maybe it’s that many intentions ethical in orientation have an unethical expression. It also depends on where you’re coming from as to what constitutes the ethical. I get caught up too easily in the categories, but the point remains that there is a higher expression in silence and the individual which allows us to see the world differently.

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“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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

(6:7-10, NRSV)

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.

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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).

* * *

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.

(p. 100)

Veng Abbey Church, on the site of the old Veng Abbey. Protestant Northern Europe generally found other uses for their monasteries after the Reformation. Kierkegaard's snide comments about monasteries, expressed by more than one of his pseudonyms, may be indicative of general Protestant rejection of monastic life during his Zeitgeist.

Veng Abbey Church, on the site of the old Veng Abbey. Protestant Northern Europe generally found other uses for their monasteries after the Reformation. Kierkegaard’s snide comments about monasteries, expressed by more than one of his pseudonyms, may be indicative of general Protestant rejection of monastic life during his Zeitgeist, as much as he tried to distance himself from that culture.

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

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“I am here to tell you that in time, the mutator gene will activate in every living human being on this planet. Perhaps even your children, Senator” — Jean Grey

“I can assure you, there is no such creature in my genes” — Senator Kelly, X-men (2000)

* * *

People love progress. Progress is widely accessible in pop culture, for example X-men where certain mutant genes have allowed some people to develop superhuman abilities. Eighties movies like Terminator (1984) and Blade Runner (1982) imagine a future where we advance so far technologically that technology becomes independent and takes advancement into its own hands. Progress is found in the scientific world (which I know little about), in evolution where animals ‘progress’ from single-celled organisms to not-so-single-celled organisms and then they learn to live on land and they grow legs and some get wings and then finally some lucky guys and girls start finding out that they can access abstract thinking or whatever it is that separates the peoples from the animals. It is after crossing this point of separation that we can imagine the future possibility of the likes of invisibility or even, recently, immortality, and movies like Gattaca (1997) can imagine a society where only the best genes are passed onto the next generation through some technological interpolation.

But does a materialist perspective in any way allow for such a notion of progress? Is it possible to say that Homo sapiens is more evolved than Homo erectus? Is it possible to say that a domestic cat is more evolved than a bacterium? Is it even possible to say there is something which separates humans from the animals?¹ No to all the above. There is no point in evolutionary history where humanity steps outside its animal bounds. Technology does not provide humanity with an abiological means to a post-biological or post-evolutionary ends. If it did, then at what point did we transcend our biology? Use of tools/technology is contained within our biology so technology escapes ostracisation as abiological.

What is more, progress assumes an invisible universal measuring stick. All organisms can be measured against this to determine who is the most ‘advanced’. But the evolutionary measuring stick is not located in the universal but the particular, the environment. Species adapt not according to what is universally awesome, but specifically to what allows them to survive and pass on their genes in a particular environment. Thus X-men, which takes advantage of the relatively random process of mutation, falls prey to the same concept of universality. Mutants in X-men may have problems controlling their powers, and then there are far-reaching social consequences of their genes, but according to the universal measuring stick they have progressed not because they are adapted to their environment in such a way that secures survival and positive reproductive ends but they receive the possibility of mastery over the universal environment. Thus in the third movie, Xavier can refer to Jean Grey as a ‘level five mutant’. To this we can say with Senator Kelly, “There is no such creature in my genes”.

* * *

There are various ways in looking at progress in theology. Kierkegaard famously introduces his Fear and Trembling with a comparison between faith and philosophy:

In our time nobody is content to stop with faith but wants to go further. It would perhaps be rash to ask where these people are going, but it is surely a sign of breeding and culture for me to assume that everybody has faith, for otherwise it would be queer for them to be . . . going further. In those old days it was different, then faith was a task for a whole lifetime, because it was assumed that dexterity in faith is not acquired in a few days or weeks. When the tried oldster drew near to his last hour, having fought the good fight and kept the faith, his heart was still young enough not to have forgotten that fear and trembling which chastened the youth, which the man indeed held in check, but which no man quite outgrows. . . except as he might succeed at the earliest opportunity in going further. Where these revered figures arrived, that is the point where everybody in our day begins to go further.

(Retrieved online here).

Fighting the good fight

Kierkegaard is attacking the idea that we can start where others have left off. But we are in reality not a part of some external framework where this is possible. Yes we can learn and build on the discoveries and theories of those who have gone before us, we can consider ovens and then make microwaves, but these are external to what it means to be human. There is an a-temporal core to human existence. Thus Nietzsche can address his work within his work at the end of Beyond Good and Evil, “You have already taken off your novelty and some of you, I fear, are on the point of becoming truths: they already look so immortal, so pathetically righteous, so boring!” (Penguin Classics, 2003, p.221). Whereas he experienced and lived his philosophy, now it was overtaking him to exist in the external world of truth, the world where philosophical progress supposedly exists. Faith on the other hand, or Nietzsche’s existential struggles, exists between the subject and God, or existence. The subject, though a part of space and time, ignores any progressive meaning contained in the spatio-temporal to interact with the infinite/eternal, etc which transcends it.

* * *

¹If no, then you could probably also say that this inevitably leads to monism or, more familiarly, a kind of pantheism, where unity precedes difference. If there is nothing which separates a person from being a jellyfish from being a fungus from being the Loch Ness Monster (I swear she exists) because we are all contained under the category of ‘living’, then further there must be nothing to separate the animate from the inanimate, unless life is to be accorded some transcendental value.

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