Friday, September 12, 2008

teleological suspension of the ethical?

I've been reading more Kierkegaard lately, and I was wondering if anyone had any opinions regarding what is referred to the "teleological suspension of the ethical". This was interesting to me, so I thought i'd see what you folks thought.

In the book "Fear and Trembling", a Kierkegaard book written under the pseudonym of Johannes de Silentio, he explored the idea of faith. The story of Abraham and Isaac is brought into light, and the character of God is called into question. Of course, in the biblical story, God does not end up requiring Abraham to sacrifice his son; although Kierkegaard sought to lift the story out of its historical context in order to challenge what he thought to be the passivity, or complacency of the faith of his time. "de Silentio maintains that his contemporaries have been peddling faith at a cut-rate price while purporting to surpass faith by means of philosophical knowledge. His job therefore, is to show how costly real faith is an how, far from getting beyond it, Abraham spent a whole life trying to get as far as faith. The true price of faith is the horror religiosus, the fear and the trembling of Abraham's dreadful task.........The slow ascent to Mount Moriah is filled with the terror. Abraham is isolated before God, denied the comforts of the universal, stripped of an explanation, and deprived of human community and human language". There are many interesting questions that come into play in a situation like this, perhaps the bottom line of this idea is that God is outside the realms of human reason, so any request made of us by Him can not be thought of in the context human rationality, or ethics. Although, the morality of a Christian is based on God's law. Is there a connection between God's law and God's calling? What takes priority in the case of God requiring something that seemingly contradicts his Law, like Abraham being called to sacrifice his son. It is a fine line between relying on our own rationality in the context of our understanding of God, and the passion for his calling and receiving his will into our lives. What is the story of Abraham and Isaac supposed to represent? Let us avoid a literal interpretation for the moment and consider that this story is meant to illustrate the difficulty, or even horror, of truth faith. If anyone today were called to sacrifice their own child, I hesitate to say many would believe that it is God calling him or her to do something unfathomable and horrific. I would imagine that the disbelief and reluctance would be justifiably rooted in the idea of the apparent contradiction; that being God's love and the evil of such an act; that would then propel that person into a very trying isolation, to put it lightly (perhaps even calling one's own devotion to Christ into question....why would I want to serve a Christ who would ask this of me?). So, is it even possible to remove your own rational understanding of God and morality in order to deconstruct morality completely, and begin to open yourself up to the call of God, being that God defies all human reason. This can also open up the discussion to the problem of "fanaticism". "Is something true just so long as you are deeply and passionately convinced that it is true? Is that not the very definition of fanaticism? That is precisely the problem which everyone must wrestle who approaches this text." So the sum of this post I suppose ends on this basic question: What happens when your faith in God and your attention to his will brings you face to face with the "horror religiosus". Thoughts?

"Faith is this paradox that the single individual is higher than the universal--but please note, in such a way that the movement repeats itself, so that after having ben in the universal, he as the single individual, isolates himself as higher than universal"

"Our generation does not stop with faith, does not stop with the miracle of faith, turning water into wine--it goes further and turns wine into water"


Blogger AJ said...

actually, as christians our morality is not based on the law any longer since Christ's sacrifice/propitiation for our sins on the cross--this is the good news of our faith--we are no longer under the law, but under grace--unmerited favor--because Christ came and died for us, He is the fulfillment of the law for us. the story of abraham and issac is such a radical and wonderfully complex faith picture...i love that it is a foreshadow or a picture of what God did do for us...sacrifice His only Son,Jesus so that we could live eternally with Him. I know that is an oversimplified response to your deep theological inquiry, but in all my analysis over the years, I seem to need to always remind myself to come back to the simplicity of God's love...but then again, I know that can spur a philosophical & theological dig as well. :)

6:09 PM

Blogger David said...

is there such thing as God's law? I realize that man's law does not stand up to God's law at all, but does is the law of God (ten commandments) mean something different since Christ died for us? Is there a connection between Christian morality and what Christ may command of us? I realize the case of Abraham and Isasc is extreme, but there are events in the bible which God called for extreme action. Does Christ dying on the cross for our sins set a new path in how we are to obey God. It is a good point you make though, about the foreshadowing of the new testament. In relation to Kierkegaard, I actually am not sure how this all played into Christ's death, since obviously the story of Abraham and Isaac takes place in the old testament.

6:49 PM

Blogger David said...

how should this all relate to living today?

7:39 PM

Blogger AJ said...

Good question: "Does the law of God (ten commandments)mean something different since Christ died for us?" I believe it does and does not: The ten commandments (God's law) is the same--it never changed just like the Word of God never changes--it is "the same yesterday, today, and forever." And yet, God knew and knows we could never keep his perfect law ("there is none righteous"/"we have all fallen short of the glory of God"), so because of our falling short and His great love for us, He sent His Son to stand in our place of the judgment we would face for not being able to keep the law. Your last question is perfect: "Does Christ dying on the cross for our sins set a new path in how we are to obey God/how should this all relate to living today?" I believe it does set a new path in how we are to obey God, but not in the way of the law--it is the same--but our approach, our means to obey is no longer based on our works, our efforts (Romans 3:27-31 and Ephesians 2:8-10). There is the call for us to walk in "good works," but it is only through Christ and His gift of grace that we are able. "How should this all relate to living today:" ..."Jesus said to him," You should love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and Prophets." (,Matthew 22:37-40). Love & grace.

9:11 PM

Blogger Melanie said...

I suppose in some sense he asks a question that I suppose we all do wrestle with to some extent. I fear in this culture we tend to be more in favor of complacency than fanaticism.

In regards specifically to Abraham, didn't the whole thing with Isaac happen before the law was given? The 10 commandments had not yet been given, so the struggle with the law was likely not an issue with Abraham.

I had it pointed out to me once that Abraham knew that God would make him a father of many nations, and to do this, he needed the promised son. It is possible he figured God would work this out even if it meant bringing Isaac back from the dead. The other point is that Isaac was likely not a child and had to willingly go along with his father. It probably didn't hurt any that there was also some confirmation from his wife and the angels. Most people don't have visions witnessed by their spouses nor are most having children in their 90's. LOL

It's a tough thing. I do sometimes wonder what I would do if God called me to do something that extreme. I trust God, but I don't trust my own hearing that well. I doubt God would do this for a whole lot of reasons that do in some sense have to do with historical context. For one thing, it would have to point to something else. But would I see it?

The apostle Paul does the the best explanation of the law, and of faith both in the book of Romans. Paul is at least as deep as Kierkegard. In fact, I do think he at least touches on this:
is there such thing as God's law? "I realize that man's law does not stand up to God's law at all, but does is the law of God (ten commandments) mean something different since Christ died for us?"

5:59 AM

Blogger David said...

such burning questions!! haha, this story is a call to faith for Kierkegaard, and it was written in the context of his dissatisfaction with Christianity at the time, but of course, I believe it can be applied to day just as well. It's one thing to chose one career path over another because of something you feel that could be attune with God's will, and those are tough decisions, although, obviously not even close to the challenge Abraham faced. It's completely immoral and unimaginable by today's standards, but I'm always hesitant to speak in terms of our understanding of "linear" time. I wouldn't be so quick to think that God and Jesus think of time like we do, and that in part, is what makes the story of Jesus so hard to fathom, and eternal figure put into the context of time, sent to tell of God's love, which is beyond human comprehension, despite our efforts.

8:36 AM

Blogger Melanie said...

Yea, I've thought a lot about God and time. Time is a created thing... I see God as being rather outside of it. We see things unfinished in our time, He sees them as completed, finished works. It is very true that this is hard to fathom:
"and eternal figure put into the context of time, sent to tell of God's love, which is beyond human comprehension, despite our efforts." I have a hard enough time imaginging the infinite sometimes, much less all that Christ being sent here means in that context.

I arrived at a venue for a show really early, so I had some time to kill. I didn't think to bring a book, so I decided I had a Bible in my car, and that's a book. LOL
I ended up in Galatians 5, and wrote my thouoghts which seemed somewhat applicable.

Christ did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Christ fulfilled the law - how? We trespassed against the law, and the penalty was death. So the law was broken, the penalty paid. Which leaves us free to love, does it not? And how can we (talking to myself here) continue to abuse that freedom knowing what it cost?

Anyway, since the topic of the law came up, just thought I'd share my thoughts on what I read.

I think we have probably all been somewhat dissatisfied with what we see in the church, being as it is made of such imperfect people.


11:52 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Zachary, you never cease to amaze me. Somedays I think, WOW. Somedays I think, who are you and what have you done with my son. I believe God has given you some unique and special gifts - do not squander them. Sent with much love.

10:40 AM

Blogger AJ said...

zach, I agree with your mom--you are an amazing man...hoping you find all God has prepared for you. :)

7:36 PM

Blogger Kyle A. Roberts said...


Excellent thoughts here on Kierkegaard and the "teleological suspension of the ethical."

Kierkegaard had a big problem with Hegel, you know, and with the "cultural Christianity" that Hegelianism seemed to be cultivating in Denmark. Hegel basically thought that the Enlightened age of Western Christianity was a progression on the "primitive" religion of Judaism and early Christianity. So for Hegel, philosophy (adn, in particular, a kind of universal reason) sort of takes the place of revealed, experiential religion in terms of truth value. So, as you point out, the Enlightened age has "gone beyond faith." But if that's the case, argues Kierkegaard, Abraham cannot be a hero. In fact, he must be some kind of monster. Johannes de Silentio knows that Abraham can only be admired as a hero or rejected as a villain, or at least a lunatic (who hears "voices"!). De Silentio wants to have faith to believe in Abraham, and to live on the basis of a "primitive" God-relationship, rather than on a universal code of ethics based on "rational" religion.

For Kierkegaard, Abraham represents a transitional figure from the "ethical life" to the "religious life." Kierkegaard is inviting his readers to take the leap from the universal ethical to the religious, where they live "in fear and trembling" before God. This is a terrifying prospect, because one cannot simply appeal to universal rules for the way we should live. Rather, one must "become a true self," before God. One must discover his or her distinct "angularity" as a person, and allow the God-relationship to direct their development and behavior.

This has obvious implications for contemporary discussions of morality which take place in our public square. When the "religious right" (or the "political left") tries to dictate to the world how to live based on supposed universal ethical laws accessible to anyone with a brain, the Kierkegaardian recoils with distaste! Let each one learn from the Teacher what he or she is to do...

8:41 AM


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