Absolute Particularity

The Immanent Movement of Grace

To articulate Søren Kierkegaard’s conclusion to Problema III of Fear and Trembling, to approach an explanation of the text and its argumentation, the reader must do the impossible: he must say the unsayable. Indeed, Kierkegaard takes his readers to the “boundary of the unknown territory” (76), drawing them into the movement of a dialectic that goes beyond utterance itself, entering into a region unfettered by the Hegelian logos (Franke 74). Kierkegaard undertakes a reading of the Akadeh of Genesis 22, the binding of Isaac, interrogating Abraham’s actions in the hope that the “incomprehensibility” of the tale can be made clear (76). In Abraham’s apparent willingness to sacrifice his beloved son, to the point that Isaac lies bound on the altar and Abraham raises the knife to slay him, Kierkegaard uncovers a troubling paradox: that there is neither an aesthetic nor an ethical rational for Abraham’s actions and that, in his silence, “human knowing” is shown to be an “illusion” (76). The binding of Isaac is inexplicable. As an ethical dilemma it poses a distinctly un-reasonable problem—that a good and loving God would demand the life of a boy, and that the boy’s father would be willing to carry out the sacrifice. But in Kierkegaard’s reading this dilemma does not subvert Abraham’s character, nor does it cast God as evil, contrary to his nature. The story of the binding of Isaac contains a meaning beyond reason, a meaning beyond aesthetic “particularity” and the “infinite movement” of the ethical (76), a meaning found in the relation between these two spheres of being, a meaning revealed only in the inarticulable paradox of grace.

Kierkegaard is quick to do away with both aesthetic and ethical explanations for Abraham’s behaviour, centering his discussion on Abraham’s silence. As an aesthetic hero, Abraham’s silence would be heroic “if he knew that by remaining silent he could save another” (76). The aesthetic hero, having learned of some threat or danger, chooses to keep silent so as to save his beloved—in this case, Isaac. For instance, Paris of Troy, after leaving the court of Menelaus with Helen stowed away aboard his ship, remains silent to guard her (i.e. to keep the knowledge of her) from the conscience of his brother Hector and the wrath of her husband. Had he not remained silent, had he chosen not to seduce Helen in the first place, the Trojan War could have been averted and countless lives saved. But he does not. He remains silent to “save” Helen for himself. Such “aesthetic” heroism is patently selfish, and Kierkegaard cannot condone it, but, neither does he see in Abraham’s silence an act comprehensible as aesthetic heroism. Herein lies the dilemma. Paris “bypasse[s]” the “ethical authorities” that could have averted the crisis, and in choosing not to disclose his knowledge satisfies the aesthetic “particularity” of his desires (76). Abraham also “bypasse[s]” the “ethical authorities” of Sarah, Eliezer, and Isaac, but in his choice to remain silent he does not seek to save Isaac, as Paris seeks to “save” Helen (however selfishly) (76). Abraham’s silence is an abnegation of desire and the aesthetic, but neither is it a fulfilment of the ethical. Ethics “demands disclosure” (76). If such a disclosure could save a life or lives, then the ethical choice is to disclose. If a life or lives cannot be saved, then such a disclosure allows the ethical hero to make an “infinite movement . . . sacrific[ing] himself and everything that is his for the universal” (76). Abraham makes neither the aesthetic nor the ethical choice, and so, it would seem, fails in the eyes of both. Thus, for Kierkegaard, the binding of Isaac is inexplicable in these terms, and Abraham’s silence is a paradox.

However, as Jonathan Malesic comments in his essay “The Paralyzing Instant: Shifting Vocabularies about Time and Ethics in Fear and Trembling” (2013), this is the structure of dialectical argumentation, and as Fear and Trembling “exhibits both assumptions,” arguing for and against Abraham’s actions and, in the process, encountering the paradox of his silence, the text “must be read against itself” (Malesic 211). The “shift” that occurs in Kierkegaard’s “moral evaluation” of the binding of Isaac, the movement from aesthetic to ethical and beyond, occurs in the gap between the “different vocabularies” that he employs (212). The paradox arises in the conflict between these vocabularies, in the imperfect overlap between two sets of terms that, although not mutually exclusive, are neither inclusive of each other. The aesthetic and the ethical are related insofar as they are concerned with moral problems, but diverge from each other in the parameters of evaluation that they employ. Because Kierkegaard builds this contrast into his text the paradox that arises from it should not be taken as a failure in Kierkegaard’s reasoning, but as a successful outcome—a “disclosure” of the “illusion” that both forms of “human knowing,” the aesthetic and the ethical, entail (76). Malesic, following Kierkegaard, reads the paradox of Fear and Trembling as an opportunity for analysis, rather than a hindrance. The paradox is not an inherent quality of the moral decision that takes place in Genesis 22, not something that characterizes all moral decisions and so something that ethical agents must be resigned to, but an event that marks Abraham’s movement from one sphere of understanding, the “human,” as established in Kierkegaard dialectic, to another—the divine. The paradox is inexplicable in human terms because human terms cannot account for the intervention of the transcendent in the world, for the providential materialization of the divine will in a particular set of circumstances.

For Malesic, then, to read Fear and Trembling “against itself” is to do away with the “fine-scale intervals of time” that characterize the evaluation of ethical problems, as with the binding of Isaac (211, 213). Taking the raising of the knife as the key moment in the text, Kierkegaard repeatedly asks: is Abraham justified? All of his scrutiny is placed on that moment, and in this intensity of concentration he encounters the paradox. Neither evaluative method can account for what happens in that moment. Abraham has been commanded to sacrifice Isaac, born of a miracle to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. Abraham adores Isaac, but Abraham is also righteous, and so is willing to do as God commands. Yet, Abraham does not make the infinite movement into the ethical and disclose what he is going to do, and so cannot experience the “relief provided by speaking” (Kierkegaard 77), nor does he remain silent for the “good” (i.e. the life) of his son, because in his silence he leads Isaac to his death. It would seem that Abraham’s moral position would be solidified if only he spoke, but he does not—in fact, “he cannot speak” (77, Kierkegaard’s emphasis). It is this “cannot,” this inability, that demands of the reader a move away from “fine-scale intervals of time” (Malesic 213), a move away from the moment-by-moment binaric appraisal of Abraham’s moral standing.

As Malesic makes clear, this reading of the text “against itself” (211) is not a counter-reading of Kierkegaard, either, but a reading Kierkegaard performs in his “Tribute to Abraham” that precedes the three problems. In the “Tribute” Kierkegaard is concerned with “narratives” (Malesic 211), and specifically with the narrative of God’s covenant with Abraham. Drawing together the “Tribute” and the problems, Malesic identifies the paradox of Abraham’s silence (a paradox that is only a paradox in human terms) as openness to divine possibility, an anticipation of providential movement (211). Looking at the context of Abraham’s decision in this way, looking narratively at the chain of moments that leads to Abraham’s raising of the knife, that problematic moment itself, in which Abraham’s intent to do the unthinkable appears to be sure, is not, in fact, a violation of aesthetic or ethical values, but an expression of an entirely different moral, temporal, and existential vocabulary. Abraham’s decision is determined in relation to the word of a sovereign, eternal, omnipotent God, and his silence is the wordless articulation of his faith in the impossible possibility of this God’s intervention.

The paradox of such an intervention—the transcendental and absolute divine entering into and acting upon the immanent and particular world—is illustrated by Kierkegaard in what Malesic describes as a “theological reductio ad absurdum” (211). The event of God’s intervention, calling Abraham by name and staying his hand, along with Abraham’s anticipation of such an impossible event, is an absurdity in true Kierkegaardian fashion. Abraham’s belief is absurd in both an aesthetic and ethical framework because, as William Franke comments in his introduction to the text, “the aesthetic and the ethical absorb all possible experience into their own self-enclosed forms of existence” (75). They are fundamentally closed off, and the act of disclosure (or the choice to abstain from doing so) is always self-motivated. Abraham’s openness without disclosure, manifested in his silence and his assertion that God will provide the lamb, is not an openness to the self and the self’s desire (as the aesthetic would have it), nor is it an openness to the community and the community’s demands (as the ethical requires). Abraham’s openness has no regard for the self at all, either the self as individual or the self as member of a group. In his belief, Abraham’s self and his actions are rendered entirely contingent upon divine agency, his silence disclosing an alternative paradigm to the aesthetic and ethical spheres—that of God’s presence and movement in the world. Abraham’s self-renunciation is not, however, a complete abnegation and abandonment of self, as the ethical hero who makes the shift into the universal, but a resituation of his particularity within the self of the providential divine. Abraham’s aesthetic particularity—concentrated in his affection for Isaac—must be laid down so that it may be returned to him: this is the only outcome of the dialectic Kierkegaard establishes. In both an aesthetic and an ethical vocabulary, this outcome is absurd. And yet it happens: God intervenes, Isaac is spared, and Abraham is justified in his faith. Aesthetics and ethics have no explanation for the events of Genesis 22. The only solution to the paradox is a theological one.

If the way out of the absurd dialectic of aesthetics and ethics is by means of theology, a theological vocabulary is required, one that functions in relation to the aesthetic and ethical vocabularies above while remaining external to them. Two terms, in particular, are significant: Malesic’s “narrative” (212), and Peter Kline’s “doxology” (506), as used in his article “Absolute Action: Divine Hiddenness in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling” (2012). Firstly, to briefly return to Malesic, narrative is an inextricable and necessary component of Kierkegaard’s theology. Malesic notices that, although Fear and Trembling gains a great amount of “aesthetic force” and “moral certitude . . . through focusing the episode into one moment” (210), the text’s framing of events in such a way interferes with an accurate and productive reading of the Genesis 22 account. As has already been discussed, the conclusion of Problema III, which functions as the conclusion to Kierkegaard’s main argument (i.e. the ethical interpretation of Abraham’s actions) and his final word on the paradox of aesthetics contra ethics, and vice versa, does not resolve anything. The question, “how did he act?” (76), which begins this final section, the question that brings the reader to that “unknown territory” (76), the “boundary” of reason and “human knowing” as it verges on the paradoxical (76), remains unanswered: “either there is a paradox . . . or Abraham is lost” (83). Kierkegaard’s concentration on the decisive moment reveals a paradox, but the paradox is not, in fact, in Abraham’s actions, but rather in the hermeneutic with which we interpret his actions. The aesthetic and ethical frames are not intrinsic to the story, nor to the world. They are models, modes of thinking and deciding that, although capable in many cases, are not universally applicable. The narrowing of focus that occurs in Fear and Trembling is an interpretive method imposed on the text of Genesis 22, revealing, in the process, the interpretive limitations of the method. As Malesic argues, Kierkegaard’s theological reading of the binding of Isaac, present through implication in the final lines of Problema III, is that moral decisions lead to paradox only when the decision-maker’s hermeneutic removes him from temporal context, as aesthetic and ethical decision-making requires. The “Tribute” to Abraham, which Malesic identifies as the dialectical counter-proposition to this conclusion, makes clear that Kierkegaard also considers “Abraham’s expectations in the context of his having received a promise from God” (Malesic 219). Abraham’s silence is neither an aesthetic nor an ethical failure, but a beautiful relinquishment of control in anticipation of divine grace, a relinquishment that can only occur in the broader context of narrative, beyond the moral crises of particular moments.

What Kierkegaard’s text reveals, then, is not just the incommensurable dialectic of the aesthetic and the ethical, but a further dialectic between the aesthetic and the ethical as “self-enclosed” hermeneutics (Franke 75) and the fundamentally open doxological hermeneutic that Kline elaborates. Abraham remains silent because, in speaking, in disclosing, he would close himself off within either the aesthetic or the ethical sphere—both of which are primarily modes of “human knowing” (Kierkegaard 76). Instead, Abraham opens himself up in doxology, which Kline defines as a “lived abandonment toward the free coming of God, born along by the praise that God has acted and will act to make ‘all things new’” (506). Abraham’s sole utterance, that God will provide, captures the essence of doxology. As Kierkegaard is keenly aware, Abraham “does not speak an untruth, but neither does he say anything, for he is speaking in a strange tongue” (Kierkegaard 82). It is this “strange tongue” that reads paradoxically, because the ethical reader sees it as a side stepping of responsibility, and the aesthetic reader a failure on Abraham’s part to preserve what he desires. But the paradox Abraham’s speaking creates is no paradox at all, but a speaking of the mystery of grace. In his faith that God will provide, Abraham makes neither necessary movement—aesthetic disclosure or ethical resignation—but instead undertakes a doxological “dispossession of the self” (Kline 506, his emphasis). The aesthetic and ethical are means of taking hold—the aesthetic would allow Abraham to take hold of Isaac; the ethical would allow Abraham to take hold of himself. In either case, Abraham would be attempting to possess something. In doxology, however, in faith and praise, Abraham gives up himself. He takes no possession, not his desire, not his son, opening himself in complete necessity to the divine. This is absurd and paradoxical only in the human vocabularies of aesthetics and ethics. With a theology of doxological self-dispossession, however, Abraham’s “absurd” utterance becomes a “movement of faith” (79). Doxology is active openness to divine possibility, an orientation of inward particularity to divine transcendence, a hope in a God who has restored and will restore. As Kline argues, what “Kierkegaard’s text makes possible is an articulation of our relation to God as a lived movement” (505, his emphasis). Doxology simultaneously rejects the fixed universals of ethics and the infinitely shifting particularity of aesthetics, grounding its practice in the dialectical relation between the two, a relation made possible only by the intervention of the divine in the world.

Kierkegaard’s peculiar and paradoxical conclusion thus finds an explanation in the mystery of this intervention—that the transcendent divine would relate to the single individual as an individual, making possible the individual’s necessary relation to the absolute without alienating the individual from his aesthetic particularity. The aesthetic hero retains his particularity by ignoring his responsibility to the universal; the ethical hero satisfies his universal responsibility by resigning his particularity. Abraham’s actions cannot be described in either way, but neither is he lost. Rather, Abraham’s particularity is expressed in its totality in his relation to the absolute—better, in his relation to the divine. Indeed, Abraham transcends the absolute—what Kline describes as the “given structures of the world” (505) (put simply, law and culture)—retaining his particularity in relation to this absolute because the absolute to which he relates has a distinct particularity. The absolute “structures” which Kline opposes to God (505) create the paradox of “absolute relation” with which Kierkegaard wrestles (77): the particular individual, in relating to the absolute, must make the “infinite movement” (79) and resign himself to the universal because the infinite particularity of the individual cannot be expressed in universal terms. What is made possible by our theological vocabulary, then, is an absolute that is not an abstract structure like law or culture or ethics, but an absolute, divine person. Abraham’s doxological utterance situates himself in relation to the absolute person of God, a person who, though transcendent and divine, is, nevertheless, a relatable person, characterized by his “lived movement” in the world (Kline 505). Herein lies the importance of narrative in our theological vocabulary. Without narrative there can be no knowledge of this divine. Without a history of the divine’s action in the world, there can be no knowledge of the divine’s character, and so, his personhood. Without a knowledge of his personhood, there can be no relation to him by individuals in their particularity, and thus, individuals remain trapped in the dialectic of paradox or nothingness. Narrative allows the individual to move beyond the snapshot hermeneutics of aesthetics and ethics, opening up “in the faith that God has and will act beyond what is immanently possible” (Kline 506). In short, the paradoxical relation of the individual to the absolute is made possible only by a relation of the individual to the divine person.

As Domingos Sousa makes clear in his article “Kierkegaard’s Anthropology of the Self: Ethico-Religious and Social Dimensions of Selfhood” (2012), this relational philosophy of the self and the divine is key to an effective interpretation of Kierkegaard’s work. Drawing on Kierkegaard’s later work, The Sickness Unto Death, Sousa emphasizes that the self is primarily synthetic. Quoting Kierkegaard:

A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way, a human being is still not a self. In the relation between two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under the qualification of the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation. If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self. (Kierkegaard, cited in Sousa 37)

The “single individual” of Fear and Trembling (83) cannot relate to the absolute without a complete “resignation” (79) of the self because the absolute is an abstract structure—a conceptual thing that exists independently of any relation. The individual in relation to it must resign the interplay of qualities that constitute his self, accepting in exchange the categorical label that the structure requires. Thus, in relation to the law, the individual becomes a “citizen” and accepts the abstraction of selfhood that this label indicates. Similarly, in relation to culture, the individual accepts a national or ethnic label, becoming an abstraction as indicated by such qualifiers as “Canadian” or “Danish.” The individual’s synthetic nature is eclipsed by the abstraction and he is alienated from himself. If he refuses the abstraction (the aesthetic choice), he is rejected by the system and alienated anyway. For this reason, a divine person, an entity rather than a structure, is the only way by which a person can make the infinite movement required by moral problems without a total elision of the self. In his faith, Abraham relates to this divine person, rather than the ethical structure of family or the aesthetic structure of love, and so is justified in his particularity. He invokes his history of relation with the divine, that God will provide, making the infinite movement of dispossession, rather than resignation, entering into the providence of grace.

To understand what exactly this grace entails we must extend Kierkegaard’s formulation from The Sickness Unto Death. Abraham choice is a choice “between two.” As a particular self in absolute relation, he has two options. But, “[c]onsidered in this way,” Abraham’s choice is still not a choice. It is a false dichotomy. Abraham, as a relational self, makes a choice other than the two choices he is offered, a choice that is “the third as a negative unity”—neither aesthetics nor ethics—a choice that, in relation to itself (i.e. in Abraham’s deliberate movement of faith, contrary to the decision offered him), is the “positive third.” Just as Abraham’s self “involves a relation of opposites, synthesized in the self-relation of spirit which relates to God as the ground of being” (Sousa 38), Abraham’s choice, as a self so defined, as relation synthesized in self-relation, finds its ultimate moral grounds in the person and action of a transcendent God who intervenes in the relational particularity of his creation. Abraham chooses to believe in the “lived movement” of the divine (Kline 505), rather than in his own capacity for action. The abstract structure of the law demands Abraham’s obedience to God, leaving him with a binary choice: obey or don’t. The law itself, as an abstract structure, has no capacity for intervention, it cannot contravene itself, and so Abraham’s options are determined in relation to the law’s absolute demand. But God, as an absolute yet relating person, can make such a movement, delivering Abraham from his own divine decree, demonstrating a personal mercy and concern for the particular beyond absolute religious and legal requirement. Genesis 22 is not a depiction of a callous and violent God, nor is it the story of a man who experiences a tragic failure of judgment—Genesis 22 is a story of deliverance, of complete abandonment to the grace of a powerful and awe-inspiring God who, in his might and authority, chooses instead to stay his hand, to grant mercy, to descend into an imperfect world and fill it with his absolute love.

Certainly, fear and trembling is the only suitable response to such a demonstration. As Andrew B. Torrance remarks in his paper “Beyond Existentialism: Kierkegaard on the Human Relationship with the God Who is Wholly Other” (2014), the “absolute otherness of God”—his divinity, his transcendence, his wrath, his justice— “is overcome,” not by Abraham’s righteousness, not by any action on the man’s part, but by the grace of God himself in the “redemptive work of Christ” (295). Abraham’s utterance is not simply a statement of faith: it is a prophetic prefiguring—God will provide the lamb. For Kierkegaard, the otherness of God is a consequence of the Fall. The abstract structures that humans produce are imperfect recreations of the divine absolute that has been lost, separated from the world by the blight of sin. The law is but a poor reflection of God’s justice, desire but a faint shadow of his goodness. But the radical proposition of Fear and Trembling, the absurd proposition of Genesis 22 that Kierkegaard uncovers, is that the absolute divine will redeem, he will intervene, and he does so not simply through a show of power, which would be nothing but an abstract application of his divine authority to the world, but “through the person of Christ” (Torrance 295, his emphasis). Deliverance, justification, redemption—these are not abstract terms to be invoked as consolation for the horrors of the world, but realities to be experienced in relation to the incarnate person of God and the absolute particularity of his grace.

Works Cited

Franke, William. “Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855).” On What Cannot Be Said. Ed. William Franke. Vol. 2. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007. 74-75. Print.

Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling, from Problema III. On What Cannot Be Said. Ed. William Franke. Vol. 2. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007. 76-83. Print.

Kline, Peter. “Absolute Action: Divine Hiddenness in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.Modern Theology 28.3 (2012): 503-525. PDF.

Malesic, Jonathan. “The Paralyzing Instant: Shifting Vocabularies about Time and Ethics in Fear and Trembling.Journal of Religious Ethics 41.2 (2013): 209-232. PDF.

McDonald, William. "Søren Kierkegaard." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.

Sousa, Domingos. “Kierkegaard’s Anthropology of the Self: Ethico-Religious and Social Dimensions of Selfhood.” The Heythrop Journal 8 (2012): 37-50. PDF.

Torrance, Andrew B. “Beyond Existentialism: Kierkegaard on the Human Relationship with the God Who is Wholly Other.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 16.3 (2014): 295-312. PDF.

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