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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Fear and Trembling and the Incarnation

Posted by John Holbo on 12/02/08 at 01:21 AM

Adam K. and I have been having a good old-fashioned Zizek brawl in comments. As Adam R. notes:"Ah, just like old times.”

But one of the fun things about Zizek brawls is learning stuff about Kierkegaard. So let’s reflect on Fear and Trembling. Adam K. doubts my claim that Kierkegaard’s concept of faith and the essence of true religion hinges on his understanding of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. The obvious counter-argument: Fear and Trembling is about Abraham, obviously a pre-Christian figure whose story is related in the Old, rather than New, Testament. Adam K writes: “Isn’t it interesting, then, that Fear and Trembling doesn’t deal with the Incarnation at all?” But this is, I think, a misreading, albeit one that is quite understandable. In fact, Fear and Trembling is very centrally, but only implicitly, concerned with the Incarnation, and it is rather hard really to get what it is about until you see this. 

How so? Briefly: the peculiar thing about Abraham, for Kierkegaard, is that he is, at once, the paradigm of faith - the Father of Faith - and also sui generis. That is, no one else is like Abraham. There aren’t other cases that have the same features as Abraham’s case. How can you have a paradigm case that doesn’t function as a paradigm, because there aren’t other cases like it?

There is no dearth of keen minds and careful scholars who have found analogies to it. What their wisdom amounts to is the beautiful proposition that basically everything is the same. If one looks more closely, I doubt very much that anyone in the whole wide world will find one single analogy, except for a later one, which proves nothing if it is certain that Abraham represents faith and that it is manifested normatively in him, whose life not only is the most paradoxical that can be thought but is also so paradoxical that it simply cannot be thought. (Hong trans., p. 56, “Problema I")

I am reasonably certain that the ‘later one’ is not Lenin, as a Zizekian might suppose, but Jesus. And we are hereby given a clear, if quick, hint as to the significance of Abraham’s case, for Kierkegaard’s understanding of Christianity. Christianity cannot lay exclusive claim to the concept of faith. That is, faith is not something peculiarly indigenous to Christianity, for Kierkegaard. So my comment in the Zizek thread was a bit inaccurate. But Kierkegaard thinks Christianity does have the unique distinction of having made faith truly paradigmatic - that is, imitable. Or at least it moves the features of the Abraham case front-and-center, as no pagan religion does, and as even the Old Testament fails to do clearly. There isn’t any obvious way for everyone to be like Abraham. His case is, to repeat, apparently sui generis. But we can all be Christians, potentially.

The peculiar thing about Abraham is his attitude toward Isaac. His life is gray and empty without a son to redeem (succeed) him. A son who has been promised, a son who will be king. And the son arrives, and now Abraham is told he must be sacrificed and Abraham is prepared to sacrifice him, yet in the serene belief that - absurdly - he will get Isaac back, in this world. Somehow Abraham believes that Isaac will die and not die in this world. Isaac hereby crucially prefigures the peculiar features of the Incarnation: eternity in time. How can God be eternal and outside of time, and yet be in time - a man - and die in time? For Kierkegaard, faith is that - belief in the absurd doctrine of the Incarnation. What is significant to Kierkegaard about Abraham is, crucially, that his attitude toward Isaac prefigures the Christian view of the nature of Christ, the God-man.

Let me qualify this: there are lots of peculiar things about Abraham, according to Kierkegaard: his teleological suspension of the ethical. But the good thing about being Abraham is his faith that he will get Isaac back. It is this feature that Kierkegaard (Johannes de Silentio, call him what you will) would like to be able to imitate. (No one actually wants to be ordered to sacrifice their son, presumably. But, K. thinks, you would want to be able to have this serene conviction of the possibility of getting Isaac back in this world, in the unhappy event.)

Now: why does Kierkegaard care so much about the Incarnation (apart from the fact that, as a Christian he is obliged to believe in it?) For Kierkegaard, the Incarnation is the key to the possibility of escape from despair. It’s like the old Woody Allen joke: ‘the food is so terrible.’ ‘Yes, and the portions are so small.’ That’s life. Or rather: if that’s life, then eternal life - reward in the next world - isn’t really what you want. Any more than you should want bigger helpings to compensate for the terribleness of the food. What you want is for the food to be less terrible. But despair is a matter not just of seeing life as not worth living but really not being able to conceive of how life could become worth living. It needs to become qualitatively different than it seems possible for it to be. Christianity, Kierkegaard thinks, is religion for alleviating despair. Somehow Christianity promises us that life in this world can be qualitatively different than it seems possible for life in this world to be. This is the existential promise exemplified by the Incarnation. (I’m condensing a lot of Kierkegaard here. This paragraph is a lossy theological format.) If you want the full discussion: Concluding Unscientific Postscript is a good place to start.

In short: until you see that Fear and Trembling is actually, implicitly, nodding to the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, you don’t really see what’s good about faith, for Kierkegaard. You can still see what’s unique about faith - teleological suspension and all that. But discussions of it can tend to have an Extreme Theological Sports quality. Abraham as supreme spiritual athlete. He’s an impressive freak, according to Fear and Trembling. But why would you want to be in fear and trembling?


Except for whatever I was assigned in my History of Philosophy course, which I have entirely forgotten, most of what I know about Kierkegaard I read in Irrational Man.  In that book, William Barrett labels Kierkegaard THE proto-existentialist, and describes existentialism as Protestantism by another name.  Barrett is an Italian-American, raised Catholic.  If it matters.

Does it matter?  Because, what is Protestantism, in a primarily Catholic society?  Is it an ideology which Catholicism can ecumenically embrace, or is it Catholicism’s Other?

And if the latter, what is someone like Zizek?  Assuming an absolute dualism (and why did Barrett label existentialism as Protestant if he did not assume that kind of dualism?).  Is he a godless communist, or a tortured religious who sees the virtues of socialism and laments his inability to incorporate them immediately into his belief?

By bianca steele on 12/02/08 at 04:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And, Paul had something to say about Abraham, didn’t he?  I can’t recall offhand what it is.

By bianca steele on 12/02/08 at 04:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, good grief.  You’ve brutally misunderstood me and written a long post in response to no one.

By Adam Kotsko on 12/03/08 at 12:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Now that I’ve aired that frustration: there is no doubt that Kierkegaard’s project in general is centered on the incarnation.  But is Fear and Trembling?  I daresay it is not.  That’s because Kierkegaard is writing under different names that represent different perspectives.  Johannes de Silenetio does not understand the incarnation, and so his picture of faith ends up being somewhat skewed.  You can see foreshadowings of genuine incarnation-oriented faith if you’re looking, but it’s rather thin—and even thinner is your claim to see the “later example” as being definitely Jesus.  Maybe Kierkegaard is slyly inserting an unconscious reference to the incarnation into his author’s mouth, but the point in the immediate context is that if Abraham is the father of faith, then examples can only come after him—otherwise faith would’ve always been in the world and therefore never in the world, etc.

You have to take the multiple authorship seriously.  Johannes de Silentio is looking at faith from the standpoint of despair—just as, one might add, for Zizek his liberal readers are looking at the prospect of revolution from the standpoint of despair.

By Adam Kotsko on 12/03/08 at 12:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In terms of traditional allegorical and typological readings of the Old Testament, the (near) sacrifice of Isaac is equivalent to the sacrifice of the Son, right?  That’s the significance of the event.  But Abraham cannot understand that, because he is not historically situated in a way that that knowledge would be available.  Not only that, but if his sacrifice is carried out, there is no covenant, none of what was to promised Abraham, and the second sacrifice of the Son cannot take place either.  So he has to be willing to go through with something that ultimately is the negation of what his act has to signify.  So I don’t see how the prefiguration of Jesus can be merely “sub-conscious.” Unless the argument is the Kirkegaard is not highly conscious of this typology.

By on 12/03/08 at 09:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"You’ve brutally misunderstood me and written a long post in response to no one.”

Sorry, how have I misunderstood you? (I see that you don’t agree with my interpretation of F&T, but how does that amount to misunderstanding of YOU? I trust you are not one of the multiple Kierkegaard pseudonyms? Soren, is that you behind the Kotsko mask?)

“the point in the immediate context is that if Abraham is the father of faith, then examples can only come after him—otherwise faith would’ve always been in the world and therefore never in the world, etc.”

This makes no sense whatsoever, so far as I can see. Abraham’s existence a condition of the possibility of faith, rather than a paradigmatic exemplification of its nature? Why would you think that Abraham made faith possible so that, before Abraham, there was not only no faith, but no faith was possible, because faith is possible only through Abraham? Kierkegaard (J de S) doesn’t say anything of the sort, and it would be very theologically unorthodox. “otherwise faith would’ve always been in the world and therefore never in the world, etc.” This part I get, but it has nothing to do with Abraham coming first and being the condition of the possibility of faith in those who come after. It has to do with not understanding ‘faith’ in such a general way that it becomes trivial. The whole ‘everything is the same’ problem J de S mocks.

OK, let’s consider the K. passage. It clearly says that there is really only one clear later analogy to Abraham - I take this to be an implicit nod at the incarnation. What do you take it to be?

I think it is a dropped hint that the significance of Abraham is that he prefigures the proper attitude toward the incarnation. His relationship to Isaac is so bizarre that possibly no one else is like him. But Jesus is like him. So every Christian should be like him. Now, you say this might be “slyly inserting an unconscious reference to the incarnation into his author’s mouth” but it surely isn’t that. Johannes is alluding to someone, and allusion is not unconscious reference. (If I say ‘a certain fat someone may come down the chimney come X-Mas’ my audience may say ‘he’s thinking of Santa’. But they won’t say - or shouldn’t say - ‘he’s thinking about Santa, but he doesn’t know it.’)

I don’t deny that the multiple authors have different personalities (who could confuse the Aesthete and the Judge, for example?) But, by the same token, you shouldn’t separate them needlessly (insisting that Johannes can’t be referring to something that he certainly seems to be referring to). There is an overall unity to K.’s literary production, and the pseudonyms succeed each other in accordance with a certain, perhaps loose, dramatic logic. I am sure you agree with that much. My point was simply that it is a fallacy to assume that, because F&T is K’s book on faith, that therefore it can’t be that K’s concept of faith centers on the Incarnation. Because F&T has a very definite bit of foreshadowing built into it. And the shadow is precisely the shape of the subsequent discussion of the Incarnation.

Maybe the clearest way forward would be for Adam K to who he thinks the “later one” is, if not Jesus. Who is Johannes de Silentio thinking of?

By John Holbo on 12/03/08 at 09:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, just to be clearer: J de S is obviously consciously alluding to someone, even if he may be unconsciously alluding to Jesus (as Adam supposes). But for that reading to work we need to have a plausible target for the conscious allusion. My Lenin suggestion was obviously facetious. Then who?

By John Holbo on 12/03/08 at 09:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t know jack about Kierkegaard, but John, I think you’re (possibly) misreading that phrase.  K writes, “I doubt very much that anyone in the whole wide world will find one single analogy, except for a later one,” and the argument between you and Adam rests on how we understand “a” working here.  Is it a synonym for “one,” meaning “except for one later one,” or is it simply an indefinite article, meaning “except for ones that are later”? 

You assume that “a later one” can only mean “one later one.” But take a slightly different sentence: “You want to see the 6 o’clock showing, but you won’t make it to a single movie but a later one.” Here, “a later one” can mean “any number of later ones, provided they are later.” That seems to be Adam’s reading.

Of course, it would help to know the Danish original here, right?  I mean, we wouldn’t have a debate over a few fucking words—which is the case here—of a philosopher and not be reading this in the original language, right?

By on 12/04/08 at 12:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s a good point, Luther.

First, I’ll say this. I don’t mean to rest my entire reading of F&T on this razorsharp dispute about whether ‘a’ is supposed to be definite or indefinite in its referential import. Basically, I just think my reading makes sense. That is, there is a precisely Incarnation shaped foreshadow in F&T, so it’s best to read it as foreshadowing later discussions of the Incarnation. So it is proper to regard K.’s account of faith as centering on the Incarnation. Whether we think Johannes de Silentio gets it - and if so, whether consiously or unconsciously - is a nicer literary point that agreeable people, such as ourselves, might agree to disagree about.

I do think that one good reason to read the ‘a’ as definite is that there’s no particular reason why analogies to Abraham should only come later, not earlier, unless one independently thinks that the only analogy actually comes later - that is, if you happen to have a specific case in mind.

There’s a new edition out from Cambridge, which a somewhat modified translation (I can tell because the section titles are different, but I actually don’t know who the translator is). I just peeked in via Amazon look inside and it says ‘a later one’ but the editors have seen fit to add a footnote on p. 49 ‘possibly a reference to Jesus Christ’. I don’t think they would add such a note if they thought it was just a shot-in-the-dark speculation. So at least the two editors of the Cambridge edition, Evans and Walsh, seem to like my reading (it had never really occurred to me that it would be a controversial one).

By John Holbo on 12/04/08 at 01:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

My understanding of the statement is as follows:
1. as Silentio is saying it, it means what Luther is saying I say it means—i.e., there could be some later example, with “later” being the big thing. 
2. as we read it as a work of Kierkegaard, the “later” example seems to be obviously Christ.

There are tons of examples of faith after Abraham in the Old Testament.  Even in the New Testament, I daresay that John the Baptist is an example of faith before Christ.

The brutal misunderstanding was that I would have to be fucking stupid not to think that the incarnation was central to Kierkegaard’s idea of faith.  I was accusing you of having a certain misconception of Kierkegaard, perhaps based on secular liberal presuppositions.  Then you did your standard reversal thing and said that really, I have those secular liberal presuppositions—despite being, let’s say, a PhD student in theology.  Finally, you seem to have said that the presuppositions that I accused you of having and that you then projected back at me are straightforwardly my own stated position.  And that, to me, is a brutal misreading.  No, I don’t think Kierkegaard’s idea of faith is based on irrationality.  That was an emphasis I was accusing you of having and that I was claiming was leading you into misreadings of Kierkegaard.  Apparently you have no such misreading!  If so, great!  But neither do I—unless I am self-consciously taking on positions that I believe to be erroneous (as evidenced by my critiquing other people for holding said positions).

By Adam Kotsko on 12/04/08 at 01:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam K, what’s the motivation for not reading Silentio as referring specifically to Christ? That seems to impute to him the notion that there definitely couldn’t be any cases of faith before Abraham. But why would he think that? Isn’t it just more straightforward to say that Silentio is nodding to the case of Christ?

As to the brutal misunderstanding. It is possible, it occurs to me, that you have misunderstood what I am calling passive-aggressiveness B. When I flip things around and accuse you of committing the very sin you accuse me of this is my playful way of pointing out that your accusations against me are unfounded. For example: you accuse me of having some dire fixation on insanity. I think you will admit that you don’t actually have any reason to suppose I have such a fixation. (My point about how absurdity and insanity are not the same was gentle cajoling regarding your lack of reasons in this regard.) And then you invent dire sins of spiritual narrowness on my part - blinkered liberalism - to explain how I came to make the mistakes that you actually have no reason to believe I am making at all. It is all very tiresome and I wish you would not insist on feigning that I have made terrible mistakes, when you have no reason to suppose I have, or feigning that you have made arguments that I am stubbornly refusing to address. Perhaps I shouldn’t always respond to these provocations by mock-innocently pretending you engaging in acts of complexly precise intellectual hypocrisy, when the truth is that I think you are just throwing wild punches out of annoyance.

Would it help if, in future, I just said: Adam K, you are talking complete smack? To call you back down to whatever discussion it at hand?

By John Holbo on 12/04/08 at 01:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Also, I don’t actually think it is stupid to read F&T as not about the Incarnation, as it contains no explicit discussion of that topic. But it seems to me wrong to read F&T as not about the Incarnation, by implication. So I don’t think that, in this case, I actually was saying that you were fucking stupid. I was suggesting that you were missing what is actually a rather subtle feature of a complex text.

By John Holbo on 12/04/08 at 01:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Your mind-reading abilities always impress me.  I can’t possibly mean something, so I must be bullying you pointlessly, so therefore you’re justified in being hugely passive-aggressive.  But what if—God forbid—I actually did get the idea that you were seeing religion as based in irrationality?  I am now thinking I got that impression because you were basically saying that Zizek was misreading Kierkegaard as believing faith was about irrationality.  Kind of a missed encounter: you’re saying that since Zizek is acting like faith is all about irrationality, he’s messing up Kierkegaard; I’m saying that since Zizek is using Kierkegaard, he can’t be saying faith is all about irrationality. 

So in essence, we agree about Kierkegaard underneath it all, but I’m willing to assume Zizek is actually getting him right and was more prone to see you as being in error.  Why do I trust Zizek as a reader of Kierkegaard more than I trust you?  Let us quietly ponder that question.

By Adam Kotsko on 12/04/08 at 12:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"But what if—God forbid—I actually did get the idea that you were seeing religion as based in irrationality?”

Sorry if this seems like an imposition: but where did you GET the idea?

“you were basically saying that Zizek was misreading Kierkegaard as believing faith was about irrationality.”

Where did I say anything like this? This doesn’t sound right, and - more to the point - doesn’t sound like anything I would say.

I really don’t think we ARE agreeing about Kierkegaard underneath. But I’m not sure. It depends what you mean by phrases like ‘based in irrationality’, ‘is all about irrationality’. Perhaps you can explain what you mean by them.

By John Holbo on 12/04/08 at 01:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, I’m out.  There’s only so much time we can spend rehashing a years-long debate before we reach the point of diminishing returns.

By Adam Kotsko on 12/04/08 at 01:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, that’s fine, Adam, but let me just conclude by quoting you from the last thread.

“I do think his reading of Kierkegaard in that book can be saved, but it would take too much work and the whole process would be annoying with you interjecting constantly.  I’d ultimately need to write an essay critiquing your essay, with suitable references to Kierkegaard, etc.  But I’ve already used up all the time I should’ve spent doing that—namely by arguing in comment boxes with you.”

That is, for the record, what is putting you off is surely not that we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns - which have been roughly zero to date. Rather, I think we have for the first time reached the point of increasing returns. That is, for the first time ever we are actually at the cusp of considering the question of why you believe what you do. (Alas, some things are not to be.)

By John Holbo on 12/04/08 at 06:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I get it now.  The question is whether or not one fictional event—*Mork & Mindy*, the “My Dad Can’t Beat Anyone Up” episode—is analogous to another fictional event—the “What’s Going Down” episode of *That’s My Momma*.  And once we work that out, we’ll have a grasp on the how Zizek views the world.  “Diminished returns” might be a generous term here.

By on 12/05/08 at 03:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Was that the episode where Mork’s dad has to sacrifice him, according to some comic, Orkian theological tradition - but it all works out in the end? Mindy gets Mork back in THIS world, Earth?

This much is right: Adam K was faulting me for not appreciating the distinction between K. and his pseudonym, Johannes de Silentio. This sort of authorship botheration can produce ridiculously superfine hermeneutical results, but if you care about Kierkegaard at all you sort of have to get into it. Call it: the higher sock-puppetry. I fear it’s not for everyone.

By John Holbo on 12/05/08 at 08:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

it would be very theologically unorthodox

Then it COULDN’T be Kierkegaard!

By ben wolfson on 12/05/08 at 07:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Touché. Let’s amend that to: it would be very theologically unorthodox in an apparently totally un-Kierkegaardian sort of way.

By John Holbo on 12/05/08 at 09:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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