Kierkegaard, Abraham and Isaac

July 2, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 6:42 pm   Category: Ethics,orthodox,Personal Revelation,Scriptures,Theology,Truth

Clark has mentioned in a couple threads how he thinks my position is very similar to that of Soren Kierkegaard.  There are several important parallels between Kierkegaard’s thinking and my own, but this should not blind us to the important differences.  At the heart of our differences is that Kierkegaard follows the Protestant thinking of his time – the same thinking that he so strongly disagrees with is other ways – in assuming that religion in deeply and irretrievably individualistic.  This individualism is exactly what makes Kierkegaard the father of existentialism, while I on the other hand, am much more of a pragmatist of sorts.

A convenient way of looking at the differences between myself and Kierkegaard can be found in his reading of Abraham’s being commanded to sacrifice Isaac.  For Kierkegaard, this story illustrates how God and our faith in Him is neither reasonable nor moral, at least not in any human-centered or social sense that Kant, Hegel or any other modern thinker would recognize.  Abraham did not explain himself to Isaac for the simple reason that he could not explain himself.  There was, quite frankly, no reasons to give on the matter.  Any attempt at explaining, discussion or arguing, according to Kierkegaard, would have inevitably brought Abraham’s faith back into the realm of socially regulated reasons and morals.  (It is very much worth noting what Sartre also noted: that Abraham never for a single second questioned his interpretation of God’s commandment.)

It’s not that I so much disagree with Kierkegaard here.  I too resist attempts by many to domesticate God through the use of human-centered reason and morality of various modern stripes, and in most people’s view this is already too much.  Where I differ from Kierkegaard, however, is in bringing Isaac into center stage along with Abraham, for even though the latter did not question, reason about, resist or seek to reinterpret the word of the Lord, the former did not question, reason about, resist or seek to reinterpret the word of his mortal and fallible father.  While I agree with Kierkegaard’s rejection of the intrusion upon faith by the Scientific Revolution, I go even further in rejecting the intrusion upon faith of the Protestant Reformation.  This, for most people, is to jump out of the blue and into the black.

Isaac’s father could offer no explanation, reason or justification for what he was doing, nor, apparently, did Isaac expect any such things.  What mattered to him was that his father was a righteous man of the Lord who was quite obviously not chasing his own ambitions.  That much of the story is clear.  Perhaps we might suppose that Isaac also experienced some kind of inward confirmation of Abraham’s instructions.  But perhaps he didn’t.  All that we can be sure of is that Isaac had placed an immense amount of faith in another mortal and fallible person, regardless of how absurd what that other person said was.  The point I take from the story of Isaac is that in the same way that we are not supposed to domesticate God through the use of human reason and ethics, we are similarly not supposed to domesticate the righteous servants of the Lord through the same processes.   It is the equally irrational word of the Lord Himself – and that alone – that can legitimately domesticate His righteous servants.

This is the social element that Kierkegaard does not, in my opinion, give its full due and also, I submit, lies at the very heart of Mormonism.


  1. Jeff, doesn’t this argue for up, in, out, back source of legitimacy for Mormonism?

    Comment by James — July 3, 2015 @ 1:23 am

  2. I really, really like Kierkegaard. I am curious, my take on Kierkegaard is that he might say that authentically looking inward will ultimately lead everyone to the same up? He seemed like such an unashamed believer to me. So while his method of subjectivism may start out as individualistic, it would end up being universal. I think Mormonism is similar here, in that many would expect all sincere truth seekers to end up at the same destination.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — July 3, 2015 @ 4:53 am

  3. Martin,

    I don’t think so, of course I am biased in that I refuse to place obedience to mortal authorities above all constraints. I simply cannot imagine that to be the Lords’ way.

    I think think if Isaac had received an inner confirmation to run away or something along those lines, he would have been perfectly justified in following them. Not because he preferred to not be sacrificed or because it was the rational thing to do, but because God was giving Him instructions to follow.

    I also find stories like this one and the garden to be good illustrations of how God’s instructions and revelations do NOT have to be logically consistent across time and space. The same person receives contradictory revelations at different times and we are giving zero reason to believe that one of the revelations wasn’t “really” from God.

    Comment by Jeff G — July 3, 2015 @ 11:19 am

  4. I always took Pascal, not Kierkegaard to be the father of existentialism. But K definitely gets a lot of the credit.

    I should note I only took the fideism aspect of K as a parallel. In particular K’s relationship and opposition to Kant seems quite different from your approach.

    The question of how to read Abraham’s sacrifice is interesting. Nibley had an interesting article taking it all from the point of view of Isaac as well. i.e. the test wasn’t a test of Abraham at all.

    To me the interesting parts of K aren’t his discussions of Abraham but more how he describes his fideism in terms of romantic love. It’s that aspect that I think is closer to what you are relating.

    Comment by Clark — July 5, 2015 @ 4:34 pm