Fear and Trembling in Las Vegas

Nov 22, 2006 • Karen

The paper prompt:

In the “Problema I ” in Fear and Trembling, Johannes de silentio speaks of a “Teleological Suspension of the Ethical.” What is this teleological suspension of the ethical? Include a discussion of why Abraham is said to represent an exception to the ethical and why “tragic heroes” are not. And please explain what you take to be at stake in this discussion (i.e., what are the theological or ethical implications of this discussion).

The first part of this question I could answer in a sentence: It means prioritizing a particular goal above one's ethical duties (as commonly conceived--Kierkegaard isn't partial to any particular ethical system). I dislike it when people use big fat philosocrap words for things that really aren't that hard to explain. But it's the phrase Kierkegaard uses (or something like it; I mean, it's a translation from Danish)...

Despite the apparent obscurity of the question, I really, really like Fear and Trembling. And I want to write this paper on it. But. I have so many questions, phrased so colloquially, that I don't know how well I'll be able to construct them into a three-page paper due tomorrow. I'll probably end up writing my ten-page final paper on this book, too...

God Himself tells you to cut your child's throat. Not for any greater good--not to save your town or uphold the law or defend your country as Jephthah or Brutus or Agamemnon (for the purposes of this argument) did. Because God told you to, and nothing else. Do you do it? Or do you tell God to f*** off?

What is it about faith that people admire so much, anyway? Anyone with half a brain, religious or not, will recoil in horror when a father murders his son. So why does Abraham get the praise and respect of not one, but THREE major religions? Every year whole sermons get delivered on this Bible story, all glossing over the fact that, while *we* know Isaac's okay in the end, Abraham *doesn't*. For three days, he as good as kills Isaac. Religion must fear this story, notwithstanding how much it lauds its protagonist.

Kierkegaard's Problemata III extends the problem further. The question is whether it was ethical for Abraham to not tell Sarah, Isaac, or anybody else about what he was planning to do. Kierkegaard's discussion points out that "God told me to" is not a valid argument. I don't know if God told *you* to, but He certainly didn't tell me! God is not something that works in communication.

The obvious extension of this problem is regarding *any* matter of faith, not just murdering children. Want to see how? Ask a bunch of Christians why they believe in God. I've heard a few bad arguments commonly used as answers to this:

"Because [so-and-so; often the Apostle Paul] became a Christian; if he could be so convinced as to convert, God must exist!" Great. You don't believe in God. You believe in so-and-so. Your faith is that he was not mistaken, crazy, or lying--while all the other religions' claimants to prophethood/conversion were wrong. Good luck with that.

"Because nature is so beautiful, etcetera." Yes, flowers and stars are pretty. Science agrees very much! But there's an awful lot of ugly things in nature, for example tapeworms and tsunamis. If the vague feeling of "beauty" is your only argument for the existance of a God (let alone the whole Jesus Christ/Ten Commandments/big honkin' holy book baggage)... can I interest you in various forms of paganism?

Then you have the personal stories. Life-changing experiences, when you could just FEEL God walking with you. Visions, voices in your head, that sort of thing.

At that point, you have a sort of paradox. It is clear that the person you're talking to has a logical reason to believe in God. Unless they have a history of mental illness or some other explanatory circumstance, they cannot be expected to discount their personal experience of God; otherwise, they'd have to doubt *all* the things their senses tell them! Their belief is logical--for them.

For you, the listener, on the other hand, you're put in the same position as the believer in my first bad argument. If their testimony is going to have any logical impact on you, you'd have to put absolute faith in them, a fallible human being. That's not something most people will (or should) do. There's so many easier, more logical explanations for why they think that's what they saw/heard/felt. Modern neuroscience is all about poking people's brains and making them have out-of-body experiences and whatnot. While it can't be proven that their prophetic vision was really a brain fart...which explanation are you gonna default to?

Faith is not a thing that can be communicated. It defies expression.

The most interesting Christians are those that dodge or refuse the question. They've already figured this out. What's the point in trying, if it just opens you up to pity or ridicule without any chance of benefit?

And yet... So many religious figures, particularly evangelical ones, put SO much emphasis on testifying: sharing one's personal experiences with God. Lots of people see faith as an interpersonal thing, and believe it both can and should be built upon in a communal setting. Churches are social structures. What is their answer to Kierkegaard? He's been around for almost 150 years...surely someone has come up with a viable counterargument? I'm honestly quite curious. This might be the focus of my final paper.

On a lighter note, when we read the Abraham story in the Genesis, I couldn't stop thinking about the Holy Bibble version (starts here, or maybe here). Tee hee hee.