Highway 61 Re-revisited: Fear and Trembling before Faith

Aaron R. aka Ricochrist, doctrine, doubt, faith, fear, God, Jesus, Mormon, resignation, righteousness, salvation, testimony, theology, violence 27 Comments

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61.”
(Bob Dylan)


Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) has written about the experience of Faith.  His short book ‘Fear and Trembling’ discusses the experience of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, and his subsequent designation as the ‘Father of Faith’.  This is probably not the place for an in-depth discussion of this book but I want to outline his views because it asks some important questions about what Faith is, how we exercise it and its fruits.

The first section of the book, is entitled, ‘Attunement’.  In this Kierkegaard explores a number of different narratives that may have occured as Abraham takes his son up the mount.  In one he characterises Abraham as scared, in another he is fearless, in another he is angry.  To me it seems that Kierkegaard is trying to help us realise that Abraham’s faith was not just in the act itself, but was exercised in every step in his journey?

Kierkegaard then poses a series of questions that the story of Abraham raises: but prior to that he outlines his view of faith as being able to give up everything and trust that you will receive it again on the strength of the absurd.  In other words, Abraham had faith because he gave up his son, but trusted he would be given back to him regardless of how absurd this hope was.  Is faith exercised in the absurd, or does it rest in the rational or logical?  I have always leaned toward the latter because I have been taught to study it out in my mind, but Kierkegaard’s challenge has made me re-think.  Is it not absurd to believe that Jesus has suffered for our sins?

The first question regards whether what is ethical can be suspended?  Can Abraham’s act to sacrifice his son (or Nephi’s act) be considered good despite it being unethical, or even contrary to God’s ‘general’ commandments?  Does faith lead us to do things that are contrary to the commandments?  If not what do we do with Abraham and Nephi, because it seems they are to be damned?

The second question asks whether there is an absolute duty to God?  In a similar way Joseph Smith said ‘whatever God requires is right’!  Is this correct?  Do you believe that God would give you as an individual a specific command that might contradict what is more widely accepted as right?

The final question asks whether it was ethically defensible to conceal from Sariah or Isaac what he was going to do?

In each case Kierkegaard does not give an answer but leaves us with an either/or.  Either the ethical can be suspended,and their is an absolute duty to God and it is ethically defensible to conceal his intent or Abraham is not the ‘Father of Faith’?  My problem then is that I am not sure I can have this kind of faith, because it asks things of me that I feel unable to do.  Moreover, I am not even sure that I would want to have this kind of faith.  This is, probably, Kierkegaard’s intent.

I remember, as a naive Missionary, discussing with someone Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy, which for me has many parallels with how Kierkegaard frames Abraham’s experience .  He argued that it was sinful.  I countered that it was practised in the Bible.  He said that it was for that time only, not now.  I asked, ‘if God asked you to practice polygamy would you do it?’   He said, ‘No’.  I smugly retorted, ‘Then that is why you are not a Prophet and Joseph Smith was’!  Unsurprisingly, he did not let us teach him.  I regret this now, not only because I was an arrogant 20 year old who was supposed to be an ambassador of Christ, but also because I see more clearly the dilemma of doing something so reprehensible to our values that it is absurd, and that this may be the real test of our faith? A test I am unsure I would pass.  But is this something God asks of us at all?  (This is not intended to be a discussion of polygamy).

Soren Kierkegaard

So what do you think? 


  1. Do you have faith in the way Abraham does? 
  2. Would you do anything God asked of you? 
  3. Do you believe the story of Abraham or Nephi are literal and if so how do reconcile what they did with Christian Ethics? 
  4. If they are myths what is the lesson to be learned from these stories?
  5. Is Kierkegaard wrong in his logic? 
  6. Can faith be rational or is the irrational the foundation of faith?

Comments 27

  1. Well, to begin, I don’t have faith in the way Abraham does (or in much of any formal sense at all). So, if God decided to talk to little old me, I wouldn’t just do something he asked because he is God (in the same way I don’t do anything now because my parents are my parents, etc.,) If I do something, it is because it seems reasonable to me (not to be taken in a cold and calculating “rational” vs. “irrational,” but rather in a holistic subjective + objective calculation…so that is why I say seems reasonable). Or maybe if the person giving me the advice/request seems reasonable (e.g., my parents have a good track record…it doesn’t mean I would do “anything” they asked me, but even if things seemed iffy, to a certain extent I would weigh it against their track record and be willing to at least listen.)

    IMO, the numerous stories of the scriptures do not establish a positive track record for God. I suspect the stories of the scriptures aren’t meant to do that…but rather, one should have a subjective, personal experience that establishes the track record and then “adopt” the scriptures as an attachment to that track record.

    I think that whether one look at question 3 or 4, if one is going to believe, one should come to a similar conclusion. Namely…”ethics” be darned. As even Kierkegaard described, the ethical may be a stage above the aesthetic (at least, I think that’s what that was called), but the leap to faith is just that…a leap in the midst of the absurd. It doesn’t coexist necessarily with the ethical. So I think that the very idea of “Christian ethics” should take this into consideration (otherwise, it doesn’t distinguish itself from any other kind of ethics, except perhaps in minute content differences.) Christian ethics should support faith, and as such, support God’s ability to sanction things that appear to go against some traditional ethics (whether with Abraham, with Nephi, and so on).

    I do not think Kierkegaard is necessarily wrong in his logic…I just think that if you want to be ethical, then you won’t be persuaded to take the leap to faith.

    I do agree that the absurd is the foundation of faith. This isn’t necessary to say “irrational” in the sense that some people (most notoriously some of my fellow atheists) want to put it…but rather, absurd, in that it may fly against everything we know only to show that we don’t know a lot. (Then again, Camus would say that the leap of faith is irrational, not absurd, because it doesn’t confront absurdity in the universe rationally…but instead runs away from it…leaping into faith that it’ll all be better eventually with God).

    But I say this because I like absurdism in other realms (not just Christian existentialism like Kierkegaard writes, but also in secular existentialism).

  2. I kinda went overboard in that last post.

    I’d like to post (oops, i didn’t ask permission from Jared, so I hope he doesn’t mind) something that I think sums it up well (one of the latter comments here: [http://www.ldsaliveinchrist.com/2009/08/another-bloggernacle-stories-of-lost-faith/#comments] :

    …The concern I have, is that they [beautiful stories posted throughout the ‘Nacle] are generally testifying of moral and ethic principles. Moral and ethical principles are wonderful, but they are not equivalent to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    Another way of saying this is to use an analogy with the three degrees of glory. The moral and ethical teachings are the equivalent of the terrestrial glory, while the doctrine of Christ is the equivalent of the celestial glory. In the language of the Lord, speaking of those who obtain the terrestrial glory instead of the celestial, “These are they who are honorable men of the earth, who were blinded by the craftiness of men.”…

    Dang, who know the church was so kierkegaardian?

  3. I have done things that I believed God asked me to do without knowing why or wanting to do them – but I have never believed God wanted me to do something I considered to be reprehensible, so I have never had to make that choice.

    I’m not sure why that is my experience and not others. I honestly don’t know. I tend to look for ways to reconcile things, so perhaps it wouldn’t be such a test for me. Perhaps I would find a way to accept whatever I felt God was asking me to do – with the caveat that I would have to feel it was God doing the asking directly to me. Perhaps I would reject something like killing Laban or sacrificing Isaac, but if I truly believed GOD was asking me to do something similar . . .

    I don’t know – and I hope I never have to find out.

  4. I’m pretty against black and white thinking. But on this issue I’m pretty black and white about it. If God “told” me to kill someone, especially my own son, I would immediately check myself into a hospital treating mental illness. I would SERIOUSLY question any such “revelations” that I had. More strongly, I don’t believe I’m capable enough of discerning my own psychology from “revelation” or “God.” Call me faithless, but I do not find my spiritual experiences to be reliable enough to do something morally reprehensible.

    On another note, I really like Andrew S on absurdity vs. irrationality. I don’t think those who have faith are irrational. Mostly because, in their subjective experience they are, in fact, acting according to what they perceive as evidence of God/religion/faith, or whatever. However, faith does seem to require motivating believe in something more fantastic than just being able to walk across a bridge.

  5. “Joseph Smith said ‘whatever God requires is right’!
    Since Joseph Smith was stating what God required, the idea was that we must do whatever Joseph Smith said to do.
    When people give up their internal moral compass to follow a charismatic leader’s wishes, it does not absolve them of responsibility.
    so if we accept Andrew S.’s (#2) comment: “The moral and ethical teachings are the equivalent of the terrestrial glory.”
    Then if we are moral and ethical, we are lacking Godliness.
    We have people killing their children or families under the delusion that they are saving them and psychologists generally attribute that behavior to mental instability by the aggressor, e.g. post-partum depression in women.
    Abraham’s story is not a favorite for psychologists, because it provides an example of behavior that is dangerous being condoned by God and encourages blind action, promoted by various religious groups as good faith.

  6. Ok, I have to admit, I was only aware of Kierkegaard by the choral/orchestral work “Prayers of Kierkegaard” by American composer Samuel Barber. I was also reading this post and got to question 5, “Is Kierkegaard wrong in his logic?” and had to go back and read again to try to remember what exactly the logic was.

    I was seeing a patient during my residency that was a normal middle aged woman that I had seen a number of times. She told me at one visit that since I had last seen her, she had been visited by angels and discovered a new communication from God that was changing her behavior and approach toward life. She then asked my if I would like to see a demonstration of the language of the angels that she could reproduce for me. It was shocking to observe the bizarre singing/jibberish speaking demonstration that followed, and I excused myself to get assistance from the attending physician on how to dose anti-psychotic medication.

    So it does seem an absurd irony that I take on faith the visitation of Joseph Smith by angels, when I had no second thoughts about this womans mental health crisis. As to the Abraham story, from the perspective of the Book of Abraham, it seems that beyond being totally apalling and reprehensible it would seem indefensible from his own personal experience of bound to an altar and unloosed by the power of God. His loathing of human sacrifice was confirmed by first hand revelation on the subject.

    I have pondered about his answer to Isaac’s question “where is the lamb?” When he replied, “God will provide himself a lamb,” did he have an absolute understanding of the atonement? I certainly do not have faith anywhere near that degree.

    I do see a type in the faith of mothers sending their sons off for missions. A missionary I heard that just returned from Puerto Rico mentioned having been mugged twice, walking by accident into a drug deal, and having a gun pointed at his face. Sending a child off to face that kind of risk flies in the face of a parental duty to protect their children. It is with a parent’s testimony of the atonement that God provided a lamb. It is with faith that those children will be with them in the eternity if they do not return in mortality.

    Back to the Barber musical contata of the Prayers of Kierkegaard. Referring to Kierkegaard, Barber said, “the truth he sought after was a truth for me, one that demanded sacrifice and personal response.” As I said, I don’t know anything about Kieregaard’s writings, but does he emphasize a religion requiring sacrifice of its adherents? The Oregon Symphony website describes this musical work in the following way:

    Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s belief in a truth requiring personal sacrifice and an affirmative response to the world resonated with Samuel Barber, particularly in light of the atrocities of WWII. The prayers Barber chose to set were taken from Kierkegaard’s journals and sermons, and reflect both Kierkegaard’s and Barber’s belief in the power of God’s redemption through affirmative human deeds and personal self-awareness.

  7. In my very biased opinion F&T is probably the greatest book written in the Christian tradition, Thanks so much for writing a post about it. I think to really understand SK’s thinking we need to place greater emphasis on the madness of faith, as well as the context that SK chose to use. He called Abraham a knight of infinite resignation. A phrase that doesn’t make a lot of sense outside of the way SK drew on literary sources for his celebration of Abraham. You emphasis SK’s logic, but he presents the book primarily as a celebration, his own expression of delight and awe when considering the greatness of Abraham. This makes it such a complex work, not easily talked about in terms of its argumentation or logic, etc.

    You ask some fun questions:

    1)Do you have faith in the way Abraham does?
    No my faith is not structured as Abraham’s. The reason comes down to the question “Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical?” For my personal faith this may be the most important question that SK asks. I think the context for this question is provided by contemporary violence done in the name of religion. When a suicide bomber commits an atrocity in the name of his religion, believing it is God’s will that he do so. Is he merely a Kierkegaardian tragic hero, or is he expressing the madness of faith that SK celebrates in Abraham’s resignation to murder his son? I am not entirely sure, I suspect that a suicide bomber is more of a tragic hero (in SKs terms). I also think the way in which we are called by God to transcend the ethical matters a great deal. I am very comfortable saying that we should never give our prophets so much power that we believe them when they ask for such a transcendence. This is beyond what one human can ask of another, even if they claim to speak for God. Can an individual be called by God directly to transcend the universal, the ethical? This is a question that as a person of faith, I want to approach with great humility. If a person can’t be called of God to transcend the ethical, the religion and faith are bound by the ethical. Such faith is limited and will never rise to the level of that celebrated by SK. If a person can be called by God to transcend the ethical, then how do we tell the difference between the madness of faith, and plain old madness? Does such a distinction matter? If not then I think there is a great affinity between the possible actions of faith, and the actions of Surrealism as described by Breton.

    4) If they are myths what is the lesson to be learned from these stories?
    F&T provides many answers to this question. I think we need to see them as great myths. In Christianity in general and Mormon culture in particular there the problem that in stories understood to be literal, their literalness becomes their meaning. The only way to rescue Abraham from such a reduction, the only way to allow his struggle to have any meaning is to regard it as one of the greatest myths there has ever been, the meaning of which can not be exhausted, summarized or even completely known. If we take the account of Abraham as journalism, then its meanings and its great potentials are lost.

    5) Is Kierkegaard wrong in his logic?
    His logic is wonderful, and not flawed, but what he is doing in F&T is so much more than logic, and his logic is contextualized by this excess. Its his appreciation of Abraham, its his ability to comprehend Abraham better than anyone ever has, and to articulate that understanding to the reader that is so powerful and that sets us on a course of personal discovery. To talk about SK being right or wrong, is to fight that journey, to skip to an outcome that can’t be reached by any shortcut. SK shows us a great way to wrestle with Abraham, to be horrible disturbed by him and to admire him and celebrate him at the same time. I think we should resist the temptation to assess F&T by thinking of it in terms of logic or argumentation.

    6) Can faith be rational or is the irrational the foundation of faith?
    In my personal journey, from unber rationalist, radical anti-religion, non-believer to Mormon convert, the very first thing I discovered was that faith is without question in excess of reason. I don’t know if this is the same as the irrational. I spent a lot of time talking about it in terms of the irrational but that term has so many negative conations for people in the realms of religion and philosophy, its very difficult for them to not reject it outright. Some very bright people show remarkable fear of the irrational, and want to capture everything they value, including emotions, faith, dreams, etc. under the name of reason. I’ve discussed this issue with people of faith, philosophers, and psychologists. The only really interesting discussion occurred with the psychologists because they were the one’s who really hesitated when asked to distinguish between the rational and the irrational when it comes to human experience and behavior. They also are the only one’s who really respect the importance and the power of what lies beyond reason. Obviously a huge part of the Christian project is to prove that it has a rational basis, but there is no question that this project arises out of two things. First is the desire to spread the word and to convert. Who would join a religion that didn’t make any sense? One of the best things about F&T is that it shows us just how important and meaningful things that do not make sense, that are not part of sense making, are. The second source, as I see it, is the tension between the two competing notions of truth and the good in Christianity. They coexist but can not be reconciled or synthesized. These are the Greek and the Hebrew, and they are elegantly summarized in the question: Is something Good because God commands it, or does God command only that which is good? Does God function within a structure that has certain limitations, or is God the structure itself? Christianity hopes to be both Greek and Hebrew at the same time, but it can’t be, this is an aporia, a bind spot within Christianity. But this internal competition, the struggle for the nature of truth within Christianity has led to many many assertions of the rational basis of faith. Thank goodness for SK who put the smack down on that kind of thinking and who was not afraid of that which is in excess of reason.

  8. I would like to express genuine gratitude for such thoughtful responses from people who clearly understand Kierkegaard better than me. Moreover I would like to try and express my own feelings in relation to reading Kierkegaard.

    #1-2 – I agree that there is a difference between the rational and irrational and the absurd. Thank you for highlighting that. I think your comparison of the ethical and the degrees of glory is or would be a challenging one, primarily because I sense that some Mormons would argue that the degrees of glory are measured by degrees of obedience not by making the leap to faith. I think one of the major differences I observed in Kierkegaard’s framing of the Abraham narrative compared to the LDS one is that K. sees the journey as relating to the ethical while LDS people seem to frame in terms of sacrifice. Are these two different or they both require the absurd faith.

    #3 – I feel that your comment does seem to express some of my questions regarding this issue. That we have never been asked to do the reprehensible does that mean we have not have this kind of faith.

    #4 – I may be wrong but it seems that you accept that the absurd is part of faith but at the same time you are limiting the degree which the absurd can be incorporated into your faith. If this is right then how do you distinguish between what is within the absurd faith as opposed to being insanity?

    #5 – I think you raise a valid question but because our ethical values change then how can we be sure our values do coincide with God’s will, therefore for me faith needs to require not that we do something contrary to ethical values but that we live by those ethical values because of something outside of the cultural motivation. This, I think, might have been what Andrew S was trying to convey, but he would be better positioned to respond than me.

  9. re 8

    Aaron, I think that the idea then is that a certain level of obedience to God requires/suggests a leap of faith and suspension of the “regular” ethical. as Jared said, it is the “craftiness of men” to suppose a system of ethics that God cannot push away.

    While I think there is some difference between Mormon ideas about sacrifice and obedience, I actually think it plays somewhat well with the idea of a leap to faith. After all, Kierkegaard’s Abraham is a knight of faith because he believes that despite his sacrifice, he will have Isaac in this life. He is not resigned to the idea that after this is done, Isaac will be gone until a future life or whatever. God *will* provide some way (a lamb, or whatever) now.

    Similarly, many members have this kind of faith. Think about popular LDS tithing stories of the person who was poor, didn’t know if s/he could make ends meet, but s/he paid tithing, and things worked out. The story would be anti-climactic if it just “worked out” in the afterlife…but of course, the faith promoting stories always include blessings *in the here and now*. So even sacrifice can require absurd faith. (Now, some people, through their attitudes, do not express absurd faith.)

    Quite frankly, I don’t know what to say to Jo re 5. Remember, I’m not a believer, and there are important reasons for that. I do *not* leap to faith, and the leap (and its absurd assurance) boggle my mind. For all the Abrahams who happened to have things turn out alright in the nick of time (and for all we know, that could be allegorical and not historical…), there are too many who have full faith that things will be restored but who end up leading to death, despair, etc.,

  10. #6 – I will have to look into that Samuel Barber contata. Moreover, I really like the way that they describe K.’s work. I think what Douglas Hunter (#7) notes fits with this well, that K.’s work is trying invoke this self-wareness and affirmative response in his readers.

    #7 – I think all would have to agree that you should have written this post instead of me. But I should try and respond and express the difficulties that K. raises for me. As mentioned above I totally agree that K.’s book is more than logic and I believe his attunement section is supposed to help the reader to move into a different domain than does not look only at the logic. It is, for me, that K. raises these tough questions without definite at the same time that he recognises he is own inadequacy that he provokes in me a response.

    You make an interesting distinction between what God can ask and what our leaders can ask which I think is vital.

    Your response to question 4 is interesting for me because I feel the opposite about these myths, although I acknowledge they are mythical I read them as literal in order to challenge myself. For me F&T would not be as challenging if the story of abraham were a myth.

    Your response to ques. 5 is spot on. I choose to frame the question that way in the hope of getting a particular response, but it seems that most of the people writing here so far believe that faith is related to the absurd, in part at least. I also loved your response to question 6.

    My struggle with these issues is how to live faith in the absurd. How does this become practical. In some ways I recognise that belief in god is absurd anyway, like andrew s notes in #9. However, I sense that SK is trying to challenge our faith in a deeper way. I think the idea of infinite resignation is a move I need to make before I will perhaps grasp this notion of faith fully. I also agree that sacrifice and the ethical are linked but they also seem different in the type of discourse they elicit. Sacrifice implies something like the infinite resignation to me which I think then enables someone to grasp the universal of then ethical. Maybe the Lectures on Faith were on to something when they write that the only the sacrifice of all things can lead to the faith necessary to obtain life and salvation.

  11. In answer to this question: The second question asks whether there is an absolute duty to God? In a similar way Joseph Smith said ‘whatever God requires is right’! Is this correct? Do you believe that God would give you as an individual a specific command that might contradict what is more widely accepted as right?

    If I truly believed that God asked me to do anything, I would do it, no matter how out-of-the-ordinary it seemed (at least I think I would, sitting here in a comfortable place behind a computer). My issues that make me think that I would never be asked to do this:

    1) I am somewhat untrusting of my own feelings. I have had times where I think I have felt the spirit, but I have had similar feelings just out of nowhere. I have felt times where I thought I had an answer from God, but it didn’t turn out like I expected. I have had other times where I have only seen God’s hand in retrospect. So I suppose it depends on degrees. If I had a prompting to do something fairly simple, like buy the guy in front of me dinner, or turn left instead of right, I’d do it as the downside is fairly minimal. For something like Abraham or polygamy, however, I would have to have such a clear knowledge that that was REALLY what God wanted me to do that I don’t know I’d ever have that sense of certainty short of talking to Him, face-to-face. And I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

    2) I would also have a problem with an intermediary, which I suppose goes to faith in our church leaders. If they were “perfect” and always spoke for God in everything they said, it wouldn’t be much of a problem. However, they teach that they are “imperfect men” and history has shown that even prophets are wrong, so it then becomes a question as to whether something they tell you is “God’s words” or their opinion. Again, for simple things, I’d go along with it. Both things that went against my judgement, however, I would also have a harder time. Examples: I’m glad I didn’t live in California during the Prop 8 issue, as I disagreed with the church’s methods. I also don’t think the number of earrings a girl has makes any difference to their salvation.

    So, I would like to think I would follow God’s words 100%. My issues is more with knowing what they are (again – not for the basics of the gospel, but things other than that)

  12. 1- “Do you have faith in the way Abraham does?” Like Ray, I have never felt compelled by faith to do something I consider reprehensible. Taking out extra earrings doesn’t qualify. 😉 And like JMB, I would immediately seek professional help if voices told me to kill.
    2- “Would you do anything God asked of you?” See answer #1. But yes, I think I would do anything God actually asked of me. The difficulty is determining whether it’s God asking or just being delusional.
    3- “Do you believe the story of Abraham or Nephi are literal and if so how do reconcile what they did with Christian Ethics?” I don’t believe the story of Abraham is literal. In fact, it is quite clearly intended to be an allegory. If literal, God was explaining to Abraham His own dilemma in sacrificing his own Son so that Abraham could very directly understand the method of atonement. I don’t like the way Abraham responds to the lesson, stoicly and robotically carrying out God’s orders with no remorse like some sort of Stepford Wife. The Nephi story strikes me differently because its allegorical value is less important. The question there is whether it was justifiable homocide. By today’s standard that’s questionable. Laban stole their property and threatened to kill them, but at the time Nephi killed him, he was incapacitated.
    4- “If they are myths what is the lesson to be learned from these stories?” Lesson of Abraham story I’ve already given. Lesson of Nephi story is “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.” IOW, murdering one person to bring eternal life to many is justified (at least in Nephi’s mind, and Laban could hardly rebut it).
    5- “Is Kierkegaard wrong in his logic?” Only in that I see the stories as not literal.
    6- “Can faith be rational or is the irrational the foundation of faith?” Most LDS would say that faith must be rational, so the only way to reconcile the irrational (such as the above stories) with the rational (gospel principles) is to assume there is some sort of higher principle or bigger picture at play (God’s higher way). In that sense, if faith is merely rational, why do we need God? But if the foundation of faith is where we leave the known and enter the higher unknown (God’s views), then faith seems founded in the irrational.

  13. #12 “I don’t like the way Abraham responds to the lesson, stoicly and robotically carrying out God’s orders with no remorse like some sort of Stepford Wife.”

    You should read F&T because it will change your mind about this. Its not that Abraham is stoic or robitic, I think its more accurate to say that the emotional aspects of Abraham’s experience are not included in the story. This is one reason the opening Attunement section of F&T is so useful, it really gets into the emotional world of the story, and some of its emotional / spiritual potentials. In one re-telling Abraham even looses his faith. A great deal of F&T takes into consideration the emotional experience of a man who is committed to doing something he finds unthinkable because he believes that it must be done because he is called to do it by God. In one sense the story is the ultimate allegory of cognitive dissonance, and of course anyone is going to have a profound emotional experience in the face of such a crisis.

  14. I believe if God asked you to do something against your value system, first and foremost it would have to be clear it was Him speaking. I know that some will want to debate this, but I have had an answer to pray that included a sure knowledge that it was coming from God and that I was not being deceived. Because the answer felt conflicting to me, I needed the assurance that it was coming from God without ANY doubt. Since I can’t explain how that feels I won’t try to (so Cowboy don’t try to get me to 🙂 ) but I had no doubt it was the Lord speaking.

    Second, I think once you know it is God speaking to you without a doubt, then you have to work through the conflict that comes with it. As you read of Nephi’s experience, he did just that. I believe God allows that emotional challenge to take place and it is intentional on the Lord’s part to test and try those that He commands. In the midst of the emotional challenge there has to be an overriding peace that accompanies it (in order to maintain the emotional challenge) telling the person it is indeed the Lord speaking to them and commanding them. Otherwise, it would be easy to say forget it.

    Third, I don’t believe God asks very many people (relatively speaking) to do things as severe as portrayed in the scriptures, but when He does, I believe it is because that person has something they need to accomplish that is going to affect many people for good. In other words, the Lord has a work for them to do that is of great importance and they must be tried in this manner to receive the blessings that attend the work they have to do.

    I don’t believe the stories of Abraham or Nephi are an allegory. I do believe that God does literally test some people in this severe of a manner, but I also believe they as they obey they receive blessings that compensate for their suffering. Again, I don’t believe He tests most people in this manner, just some who have significant work to do that affects many for good.

  15. Douglas Hunter, #7, Beautifully stated commentary.
    I see K.’s strength in demonstrating the strength of God’s love toward us and the earnestness of our weaker attempts to return that love to God. My favorite prayer from K is:
    Father in Heaven! . . .
    Hold not our sins up against us but
    hold us up against our sins: So that the thought of Thee should not
    remind us of what we have committed But of what Thou didst forgive;
    Not how we went astray, but how Thou didst save us!

    Douglas Hunter (#13) touched on the emotional/spiritual potential of mankind’s ability to love as compared to God’s love and mercy toward mankind. Mankind has a potential or breath of divinity, which pales in comparison to God’s greater love and mercy. God sees our goodness and forgives our weakness. Abraham’s sacrifice was an allegory of God’s sacrifice of his only son to save mankind. The found sacrificial lamb was the lamb of God, Jesus. God’s love of mankind, spared the son of Abraham from death, and spares mankind from eternal death by the same mercy.
    ¶John 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

  16. Re 8 Aaron
    “#4 – I may be wrong but it seems that you accept that the absurd is part of faith but at the same time you are limiting the degree which the absurd can be incorporated into your faith. If this is right then how do you distinguish between what is within the absurd faith as opposed to being insanity?”

    Well, I would propose to leave out the faith business since I’m not really sure what my “faith” is. The deeper question is what do I consider to be some form of universal “truth.” That is, what is within the tolerance of my moral compass, and what is beyond? I have no idea. There is pretty much only one universal that I can come up with that I wouldn’t violate (except out of weakness). That is love. I think if there is universal truth, it is love.

    1. killing – this is very near the top, but I will not concede that if someone is threatening my family with a gun, and he is likely to use it, and I can stop him/her by killing that I then wouldn’t do it. But note that this is a real life, observable, legitimate threat (although I admit I can in nowise guarantee that the individual WILL kill my family), not something that God “told me” to do.
    2. killing my own children – not sure here. I suppose there could be circumstances in which I had to sacrifice the life of one child to save the lives of the other children.

    These are all concocted, unlikely, theoretical situations, but they illustrate a point. Things in my moral compass obviously have various priorities associated with them. Killing of family members is pretty close to universal “truth” with killing others a very close second. But still, there are theoretical exceptions.

    But with this specific post, it’s as hawkgrrrl said, the hard part is determining if God really told me to do something. For me, I have learned too much about psychology to put enough trust in my abilities to discern all the nonsense that goes on inside my head.

  17. #10
    “My struggle with these issues is how to live faith in the absurd. How does this become practical. In some ways I recognise that belief in god is absurd anyway, like andrew s notes in #9. However, I sense that SK is trying to challenge our faith in a deeper way.”

    I agree, in my own experience I receive F&T as a questioning of the basis, and the extent of my own faith. Your first question of how to live faith in the absurd, strikes me as an important one, because it requires a step that moves one away from the strictly rational understanding of faith, towards a more Hebrew conception. At this same time its such a pragmatic question. I struggle with pragmatism in this context. I understand the desire for it. maybe I should say that in this context it’s not only a way of reaching for something knowable, its a way of trying to find the difference between reason and what lies beyond reason, by thinking about it in terms of application. But is that possible? I don’t know. I also struggle with the pragmatics of the madness of faith because it does not seem there are all that many situations which require it. In some ways our faith has been domesticated, has become a program. I think the absurd or the madness of faith, by definition shatters our programs. If it didn’t I don’t think SK would have addressed the problem of the individual becoming the particular. Abraham in the absurdity of his faith becomes the particular that defies the universal. On one level that’s a huge problem, One that a number of the comments have tried to get around in their own ways.

    “I think the idea of infinite resignation is a move I need to make before I will perhaps grasp this notion of faith fully.”

    This was one of the more difficult aspects of reading F&T for me, it was a mirror reflecting back to me, the limit of my own faith. That is not a comfortable thing to experience. Can we make the move towards infinite resignation without an event or context that requires it of us? Was Abraham infinitely resigned to God’s will prior to the command that he murder / sacrifice his son? I don’t know. It may have taken this command for Abraham to discover this potential in himself. How do you see a move towards infinite resignation playing out in your own experience? What would it consist of, how would you do it? I’m really curious about this because I think since I am so skeptical of anything that suspends the ethical, my faith is contained within the ethical and therefore I am probably not capable of infinite resignation, Even if I desire to answer “yes” to your question #2.

    “I also agree that sacrifice and the ethical are linked but they also seem different in the type of discourse they elicit. Sacrifice implies something like the infinite resignation to me which I think then enables someone to grasp the universal of the ethical.”

    Isn’t our hesitation to transcend the universal a sign that we do comprehend it? Or at least understand the power the universal has over us?

    “Maybe the Lectures on Faith were on to something when they write that the only the sacrifice of all things can lead to the faith necessary to obtain life and salvation.”

    This is different topic, but I don’t think even JS was able to navigate the Greek / Hebrew (reason and what exceeds reason) division very well. Again and again he talked about these huge tests that the early saints would face, and that God would have a tried and tested people. As we know JS talked about these trials in the context of Job and Abraham, he often invoked the hebrew context. The thing is, his theodicy was such that the end was always already known. It was a form of behavioralism, in that trials and suffering were identified as tests as they were happening, and the telos was always being re-articulated. The saints would have their reward if they behaved in a certain way. With a known telos in place I have a hard time seeing how the absurd is involved. I hate to say it but, don’t you think that JS presents us with a vision of Abraham that SK would describe as a tragic hero, rather than a knight of infinite resignation? I think this is the structural price one pays when trying to make Christianity reasonable.

  18. #14 – I sense that you are right when you argue that few people have their faith tested in this way. The question i would raise then is that if this is the type of faith that only comes to a few people or is it something we can all grasp?

    #15 – If you see the lamb he found as a symbol of finding Christ what was it that brought Abraham to the mount. Are you suggesting that killing his son was some form self-sacrifice or self-punishment?

    #16 – I know that I do not have good answers for the questions I raised either, primarily because of the issues you suggesting. The ethical is not universal when it is pushed to its limit, which is actually one of the issues I have with Kierkegaard, but I also sense that he was aware of that and that he is trying to find a possible way of dealing with that.

    #17 – The little I know about K. background tells me that his vision of faith was one that challenged the rigidity of his religious milieu. I struggle with this because of the value I place on my Church membership, even though that may not be required. Again here I feel a limit to my faith because I want to be a member of the Church. However, in my less-challenging moments your notion suggests to me something J. Bonner Ritchie said regarding Church attendance: We should only go if we have nothing more important to do. I think he means that we should not go out of habit that serves no one and that if we are willing to think about our doing the observances of our religion and put them in relation to other possible activities then we know we are oding something because we love it not out of routine. Although I do believe K. is asking more of us than this.

    “How do you see a move towards infinite resignation playing out in your own experience? What would it consist of, how would you do it?”

    I have heard that K. wrote this book after giving up the love of his life. It seems that he feels that he is a tragic hero rather than a knight of faith and yet this experience seems in his mind to have possibly served as a leap to faith. Sometimes I have connceted the infinite resignation with the Buddhist idea of non-attachment (I enjoyed reading McLemore: The Yoga of Christ in Sunstone on this issue) and that this may be a way of making this move without having an experience similar to Abraham. To me it is possible that being able to be free from the desires we have for things in a dependent way might be one way to understand the idea of infinite resignation.

    I have to concur that I don’t necessarily think Joseph navigated these issues perfectly. Yet what then challenges me in his case is that I do believe he was a prophet. I think his actions surrounding polygamy and Emma show he had not made the move of infinite resignation himself. Then I ask myself if I believe god called him then why do a concern myself with these issues. Now I recognise how silly that is but because this is difficult it becomes an attractice option.

  19. Hawkgrrl, you said, “In fact, [the story of Abraham] is quite clearly intended to be an allegory.”

    What do you mean?

    I think it is quite clear that the Abraham story was symbolic of god giving up christ, but that symbolism exists whether it is literal or allegorical. So I don’t understand what you mean when you say it is quite clearly intended to be an allegory. The author asked if it is literal. Are you saying it is quite clearly not literal?

    I find it interesting that many LDS believe that many parts of the bible are not literal. Does anyone have any information on JS’ view on whether it was literal? It seems odd to me that JS would write in the D&C that Christ said to him, “have you suffered even as Job,” unless JS did believed Job’s story to be literal. Similarly, references to Abraham’s story seem to be literal from the way it was treated by early mormon prophets. Assuming JS believed them to be literal (and if anyone can shed light on that assumption, for or against, I would be interested to learn more), it seems odd that modern day members would disagree with JS’ understanding considering that he was not only the prophet who ushered in the last dispensation but that he also had his own translation of the bible.

    I suppose I am simply asking this question: is there any evidence to suggest that JS believed the bible was or was not literal? And if there is compelling evidence either way, would it affect any of your opinions on whether or not the bible is literal or not?

  20. “is there any evidence to suggest that JS believed the bible was or was not literal?”

    Honestly, I don’t really care. “As far as it is translated correctly” fits etiher scenario for me, so I am left to try to figure out which parts are literal and which are allegorical. The Job account, for example, could be either without losing its power – or its usefulness as a source text to be quoted by God. I reference myths and allegories all the time to make a point without specifying explicitly each time that they are not literal. I have no problem with God doing so.

    “And if there is compelling evidence either way, would it affect any of your opinions on whether or not the bible is literal or not?”

    Already answered in this comment, but just to be totally clear:

    Not for me. I think the Bible is literally an attempt to provide / record a history for a people. I think the events up to David, at least, are largely a compilation of oral traditions that might or might not have been literal. I feel the same way about the New Testamnet frankly – that they are a compilation of what specific people wanted to propogate as their “acceptable” history. Were the miracles of Jesus literal? Did he actually give the Sermon on the Mount in one great speech? Etc. It’s left to me to weigh each author / compilation and try to construct an overall perspective that works for me.

  21. 1. Do you have faith in the way Abraham does?

    I’m not sure if I do or not, I don’t think I can really know until I’m tested in such a way.

    2.Would you do anything God asked of you?

    I have already made this decision, the answer is no. I have been brought up believeing that to attain the highest degree of Celestial Glory, I would have to take on two or three or more wives. This always troubled me, after being head over heels in love with my wife it troubled me even more. I made the decision that what ever the consequences I was not going to do it. My understanding of polygamy as an eternal absolute is different now, but my decision was made.

    3. Do you believe the story of Abraham or Nephi are literal and if so how do reconcile what they did with Christian Ethics?

    My ethical code is a little warped anyway, partially due to having to justify stories such as Nephi, the She Bear of the O/T and also watching 24.

    I believe these stories to be literal, however even if they are not literal, the message is so clear and the intent is so direct that even if they were allegorical, we are to kill if asked to. Whether Abraham & Nephi’s accounts are literal or non-literal makes no difference, it would still place God under the same condemnation, unless we accept that God has the capacity to ask us to break ethical boundaries. God = Ethics what he say’s goes.

    4. If they are myths what is the lesson to be learned from these stories

    God is the one who gives life & can take it away. (my Mom also has this power as she has warned me many times)

    5.Is Kierkegaard wrong in his logic?

    by logic you mean ? “Either the ethical can be suspended,and their is an absolute duty to God and it is ethically defensible to conceal his intent or Abraham is not the ‘Father of Faith’?”

    I believe that there are Temporal Ethics that God can adjust and change when required, but I also believe that there are eternal ethics, as explained by Alma.

    6.Can faith be rational or is the irrational the foundation of faith?

    God makes Faith rational no matter how absurd, his word is what provides the confidence required to act. Abraham was not acting irrational he knew that Isaac would be resurrected, God had assured him that through his seed all nations would be blessed. Nephi’s account shows that he reasoned it out rationalising that he new it was the Spirit of God’s command and that one must die for the many.

  22. #18 Aaron-

    “I sense that you are right when you argue that few people have their faith tested in this way. The question i would raise then is that if this is the type of faith that only comes to a few people or is it something we can all grasp?”

    I think we all are tried and tested in ways that stretch us to our limits and I think our tests and trials depend on our level of stewardship and how much will be expected of us on earth. For example, if we are going to be a prophet of the Lord we have to be able to handle severe stress on a daily basis and be able to not be overcome by it. Our capacity to trust in the Lord and to be able to handle that level of stewardship has to be great. I think we all are capable of grasping the kind of faith that Abraham had, but within our stewardship and life situation. In other words, just because I am not asked to sacrifice my son doesn’t mean that my faith won’t be tried in a way that will enable me to develop the level of capacity and faith I need to fulfill my work on the earth and will help me to one day see the face of the Lord.

  23. Ray,

    I agree that true stories or fictional stories can both be powerful and effective teaching methods. But I do not believe they are equal in power. If I tell a true story about my life or my father’s life to a friend of mine, I think it is inherently more powerful than a fictional story. I would be interested to know Paul Dunn’s opinion on this.

    In regards to the Bible, don’t some of the stories have to be literally true? I mean, Christ’s atonement and crucifixion have to be literal, right? If they are not literally true, would that destroy christianity or can they be allegorical as well without destroying anything?

  24. Mr. Q&A #21
    Your response to the polygamy question was amusing to me as some DH’s have the attitude of “polygamy is punishment”. Here’s a little story to back up your experience.
    My DH was recovering from an endoscopy and I was in the recovery room with him. His oxygen monitor tended to show a drop in Oxygen levels as the anethesia depressed his breathing. I was there to remind him to breathe as he recovered, if the monitor registered too low. It did and I was reminding him to breathe, when the recovery nurse came to his bedside and began doing exactly what I was doing. It sounded like an echo. I leaned over my DH and said, “This is how polygamy would be.”

  25. #21 – Your comments have provided me some interesting questions regarding God and Faith. The Lectures on Faith teach us that God has Faith and it is the source of his power. However, as you rightly point out (I think), God cannot be irrational. This does necessarily leave us with an issue when it comes to our lives, because the test of Abraham is only difficult because he cannot see the whole picture, therefore requiring his faith in the absurd. However God’s faith cannot be of the same kind it would seem for it must be centered in himself and the relationship he has with the other divinities of the Godhead. If this correct is faith in the absurd part of this life only? Or are there some things God cannot know (like Ostler argues) and thus he too must accept on the strength of the absurd that his plan will work??? For it would seem that unless this is true then it is overcoming the absurd (or being able to understand the reasons for a commandment that) we should follow it. Is life absurd because we don’t know alot (see Andrew S #1), and therefore needs to be overcome in rational ways, or is there some kind of infinite contradiciton/absurdity that must always be faced?

    #22 – “I think we all are tried and tested in ways that stretch us to our limits and I think our tests and trials depend on our level of stewardship and how much will be expected of us on earth.”

    I am not sure I agree with this because it seems to suggest that our trials are tailored by God to suit our needs. I see a great deal of contingency in our lives here, meaning that I don’t think God planned everything. It seems to me that this contingent part of our lives is just as important to our faith as those that God may have prepared, because it is these contingent experiences that will be absurd, in that they lack meaning or purpose. I don’t belief all suffering has a purpose. The leap to faith in this instance may well be to find meaning in the meaningless, or to trust God that your losses will be restored to you, not even in the life to come but here. Further, I think I am now leaning toward a position that our trials do not much for us unless we decide to make the move to faith, unless we try to find the limits of our faith and test ourselves. I agree that our callings and life experience can challenge and change us, but I also believe that we probably try to protect ourselves from the full the extent of their redemptive power if we merely experience them as difficult obstacles rather than opportunities to test the limits of our faith.

  26. #25-

    I do believe that all suffering has purpose, and even especially that which seems to lack meaning or purpose. I think a big one for me has been not just suffering, but time that seems to be wasted that could have been used to do much more meaningful things. I think the experience that we gain from suffering is what matters and that gives us capacity to do what we need to do….if we let it. We always have the option of becoming bitter and turning away from God, but if we do not, we can learn to be patient and long-suffering in ways we otherwise never would have if apparent “meaningless” suffering is a part of our life. I have learned that the experience we gain is what is the most significant in our suffering and when it seems meaningless, we can learn more what meaningful really is and what matters most.

    We differ in that I believe that our trials are absolutely tailored by God to suit what we need to become like Him and I don’t feel like anything in life is just meaningless. I will admit I used to see things much more like you do, but after having experience with the Lord in a very specific situation in my life, I realized how very involved the Lord is in all we do. I realized more specifically that what I thought was a big waste of my life was actually necessary for me to gain experience and the ability to help those that need me now and I am now grateful for what seemed like meaningless suffering at the time.

  27. #26 – I would certainly never want to contradict another person’s interpretation of their life and the experiences they believe have brought them closer to God, esp. as I consider myself to have had a fairly charmed if not short life so far. I believe that the Lord can be involved in parts of our lives. So it is certainly not inconceivable to me that your experience is exactly as stated, however I might also argue that perhaps other people have had similar experience that were not part of God’s plan for them.

    In addition, I would not say that this means that these people do not have God in their lives to support them. Nor do I think God cannot overcome the suffering and hurt of such experiences through his healing power (in large measure I think this is what makes God, God). So I agree I think there can be meaning in the broad experience of mortality in that it teaches us to come to Christ, I am just not convinced that everything that happens is supposed to do that, or that some suffering is more than is necessary to help that person feel the need to saved or to help draw to God.

    Thank you for your response and I hope that I have explained myself a little more clearly.

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