The knight of faith against the absurd

There’s an amazing analogy in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling about what he calls the knight of faith. This is the summary from wikipedia:

Kierkegaard’s Silentio contrasts the knight of faith with the other two, knight of infinite resignation (infinity) and the aesthetic realm’s “slaves.”

Kierkegaard uses the story of a princess and a man who is madly in love with her, but circumstances are that the man will never be able to realize this love in this world. A person who is in the aesthetic stage would abandon this love, crying out for example, “Such a love is foolishness. The rich brewer’s widow is a match fully as good and respectable.”

A person who is in the ethical stage would not give up on this love, but would be resigned to the fact that they will never be together in this world. The knight of infinity may or may not believe that they may be together in another life or in spirit, but what’s important is that the knight of infinity gives up on their being together in this world; in this life.

The knight of faith feels what the knight of infinite resignation feels, but with exception that the knight of faith believes that in this world; in this life, they will be together. The knight of faith would say “I believe nevertheless that I shall get her, in virtue, that is, of the absurd, in virtue of the fact that with God all things are possible.” This double movement is paradoxical because on the one hand it is humanly impossible that they would be together, but on the other hand the knight of faith is willing to believe that they will be together through divine possibility.

“But by faith, says that marvellous knight, by faith I shall get her in virtue of the absurd.”

There’s always been this tension in Christianity between faith that can “move mountains” and the ideal of saying to God “thy will be done.”

There’s a tension between Christ saying:

“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

And:

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

I’ve never seen this tension resolved in an elegant way until Kierkegaard – or how I’m interpreting him.

The usual interpretation I’ve seen is that we’re like kids asking our parents for something: we can ask and ask nicely, and keep our hopes up, but in the end we have to accept whatever our parents decide.

In other words, it diminishes the “whatever you ask for in prayer” side of things so as not to unduly upset the “thy will be done” aspect.

God’s word is final. Maybe your father wouldn’t let you go to the beach with your friends like you wanted, but he’s still your father and you still have to maintain a relationship with him. So acquiesce. Submit.

Faith and the absurd

I think what makes Kierkegaard’s answer different is that the subject of his desire – his love for the princess – is not something chosen or elected. It’s not as though Kierkegaard’s knight of faith is praying for God to help him win the lottery.

Instead, the knight of faith is in love with the princess. It’s a state he finds himself in by God’s will. He didn’t choose it. He didn’t look around and think “a princess…now that would be pretty sweet.”

The knight’s faith is that he and his love will be together in the finite world despite the apparent impossibility of such an outcome.

“I believe nevertheless that I shall get her, in virtue, that is, of the absurd, in virtue of the fact that with God all things are possible.”

This faith arises not in tension with “thy will be done” but in complete conformity with it.

Kierkegaard depicts Abraham sacrificing Isaac as the epitome of the knight of faith, because God had promised Abraham his descendants would number like the starts in heaven, He had given Abraham a son despite his wife Sarah being beyond child-bearing years, and then…then He demanded that Abraham sacrifice his son to Him.

Abraham’s faith was complete because it was grounded in God’s promise to him, in God’s own will. God had given him a son, and God then asked him to sacrifice the boy while having promised Abraham descendants numbering like the stars. It was absurd. And the only answer to absurdity was faith.

I think Kierkegaard framed it differently, and to his own tragic suffering (and that of his beloved Regine) he failed to overcome the absurdity of a finite world where self-doubt and persistent melancholy drove him to abandon his princess.

For me the answer is close to Kierkegaard’s knight of faith. When we consider what God has given us in life – the love we bear in a finite world full of apparent obstacles and reasons to fear and doubt – we have a choice.

Is the world absurd? Or do we have faith in God’s promises, in the goodness of his will?

In all aspects of life we can doubt and fear and convince ourselves to accept the circumstances of this finite world as definitive. Like Kierkegaard’s knight of infinite resignation, we carry on our hopes and our loves internally, in a spiritual aspect.

Like the insipid notion that the dead live forever “in our hearts”, or that Christ’s resurrection is a metaphor for how his spirit was “kept alive” by his disciples…

If you have faith in the power that creates and sustains this finite world, then infinite resignation really is absurd.

Either our hope and our love are the will of an all-powerful and loving God, or this world is absurd.

Faith or absurdity. It’s an easy choice, but most of us get lost in objections, complications, doubts and fears, without realising that entertaining these distractions is itself a choice.

I can’t imagine how life will work out. But in faith I know that it shall work out, and work out joyously, because otherwise the entire thing is absurd. And I already know it’s not absurd.

Kierkegaard didn’t make it. I wonder if he got stuck in infinite resignation, putting too much stock in the restrictions and constraints of the finite world, putting too many conditions of his own on God’s will.

But if we’re promised that faith can move mountains, then infinite resignation must cease. We can’t stay resigned to the apparent impossibility of God’s will being fulfilled. Nothing is impossible for God.

He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

I’ve never been a faithful person. But circumstances have brought it out of me. I’ve never had anything that forced me to challenge the apparent absurdity of life, but God’s will gave me something at last.

“Nothing will be impossible for you” is not about being powerful or some promise of spiritually-charged landscaping. It’s about knowing the will of God and the rule of love, unfolding and expanding through this finite reality.

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Are you perfect?

People think they desire to possess things (objects, status, accomplishments, the affection of others) because of some intrinsic quality of those things.  We think this object is unique or significant, this woman or man is special or wonderful, these accomplishments or status are important.

But mostly it is we who make them desirable. That is, we are already looking for things to which we can pin our special labels, to make them “worthy” objects of desire.

Once we have established these objects of desire, we live and die by them. We order our lives by their attainment. If I can just afford it… If she just smiles at me… If I can just win their vote…

We believe that once we have gained possession of these things, we will at last experience a deep, lasting, and secure happiness. We will transpose to ourselves the glory of the office, the grandeur of the home, or the grace and beauty of the beloved.

And then we will be truly happy.

But even if we obtain these things, the happiness doesn’t last. And if, as usually happens, we fail to obtain them, then we remain mired in our usual unhappy state.

Why do we do this?

Well, if those things were truly desirable then the answer would be obvious: we pursue love, property, and power because they will make our lives wonderful.

But if these things are not truly desirable – if instead we bestow desirability upon those things in the first place, then the answer is more complex, more mysterious than we realise.

I believe the latter is the case, because I have read and confirmed through my own experience that the apparent desirability of these supposedly wonderful things is not real. The possessions we once craved lose their allure. The people we once deeply admired eventually lose their glow. Status and accomplishments are soon forgotten. We move from one “wonder” on to a fresh one.

So why subject ourselves to this strange ritual?

The answer is itself a little strange.

We do it because we cannot justify being content with what we are.

What do dreaming about the perfect home, wishing for the affection of a beautiful woman or man, and imagining oneself in a position of power and respect have in common?

They all consist of mental projections of ourselves in a state that justifies feeling wonderful.

Their content is less significant than the emotional narrative they share: if I have that, I will be happy, overjoyed, resplendent.

And by implication: I can’t be happy, overjoyed, or resplendent because I don’t have that.

Whatever that is, the feelings associated with it are a kind of negative image of how you see yourself.

If that is the affection of a person, then I’m willing to bet that the qualities you think you see in that person are the qualities you most feel you lack in yourself, or the qualities you feel would redeem whatever faults you might think you have.

The same applies a little less directly to homes, possessions, status and accomplishments but in general how you feel about those things mirrors qualities you wish you had right now.

About twenty years ago I read all of this, and I reached the conclusion that if I could short-circuit this delusional dynamic I could enjoy all the wonderful feelings exactly as I am. In other words, the things I sought in external reality were just proxies for self-acceptance.

I had thought that I could only accept myself if I obtained these proxies. But if I could accept myself directly, then I could feel joy and happiness directly too?

The problem is that I took for granted that the joy and happiness were real, that I should be feeling those feelings, and if I didn’t feel those feelings then I clearly hadn’t accepted myself fully.

In other words, I turned “self-acceptance” into another proxie, something I had to obtain in order to feel joy and happiness.

I’ve come to see that as a really bad move, because if you have to chase self-acceptance it isn’t really self-acceptance. But if you call it by the same name you might not recognise the difference.

So forget about finding joy and happiness. Forget about trying to attain a state that is different from the one you currently inhabit. It’s a paradox, but don’t fall for it.

Instead, let’s ask again why we saw it necessary to seek perfection externally in the first place. How did we reach the conclusion that we need to redeem ourselves?

For a long time I didn’t really understand how the Crucifixion and death of Jesus was supposed to have redeemed anyone. People offer various theological explanations, but I’m especially leery of the argument that God required a sacrifice. At least not in a strong sense of ‘required’.

It makes more sense if we didn’t need to be redeemed, but didn’t know that we didn’t need it.

We can argue the theology but that’s the net effect of Christianity: we can’t redeem ourselves, nor ever could, so please stop trying.

If you want to go sacrificial: here’s one eternal sacrifice, the sacrifice to end all sacrifice.

This strange ‘happiness’ dynamic we’re looking at is just another attempt at redeeming ourselves. Maybe not with God, but at least privately. We believe we’re not good enough, not right, not whole, not perfect. We reject our flaws and faults, because at face value they’re unacceptable to us.

But we’re only unacceptable to us. In Matthew’s Gospel, in the “love your enemies” section, Jesus says:

He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

And just a bit later he concludes:

Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.

What kind of perfection is this? It’s a perfection that does not discriminate between the evil and the good, or the righteous and the unrighteous.

If this strikes a chord, you might see how it links in to themes I’ve raised in other posts.

In Taking what is offered I look at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the suggestion that our refusal to accept our reality is what separates us from God, and how the path back to paradise is demonstrated in Christ’s acceptance of God’s will over his own measure of good and evil.

In Pride and the delusion of self I touch on Pride as both the cause of the devil’s fall from Heaven according to tradition, and synonymous with our own delusion of authority and control in our own lives.

Finally, in Better to reign in hell? I examine how we wrongly seek to take responsibility both for our faults and flaws and for our redemption. This sense of responsibility is linked to agency, authority, and control as described in the earlier post on pride.

Bringing this final post to bear on the current theme, it is clear that the faults and flaws for which we seek to take responsibility are the same faults and flaws that motivate the ‘happiness’ dynamic I’ve described here.

It is because we refuse to accept our own faults and flaws, we refuse to let the sun shine on the good and evil in us, or let the rain fall on the righteous and unrighteous parts of ourselves, that we seek redemption and righteousness in external things.

We promise ourselves overwhelming joy and happiness, but only if we can win this battle between good and evil within us. We imagine ourselves in ‘paradise’ if only we can achieve or obtain something to outweigh our flaws.

At whatever point in our lives we first became conscious of having flaws, our reality was ripped in two. Our knowledge of good and evil came into effect, and we were bewildered and ashamed to find that the line between the two ran through our own selves.

We still refuse to accept ourselves fully, accept our reality completely. We hold out, seeking to manage, mitigate, and mend ourselves where we can. How could we ever accept the unacceptable? How could we ever accept the parts of us our own minds condemn as faults?

This is why Christianity is called the Way of the Cross, why Christ urged us to “take up your cross and follow me”, and why, in love with God, so many of the saints endured tremendous hardship and suffering.

The cross is not only the suffering imposed on us by the external world, but the suffering and fear we hold for our own hated faults. God wants us to accept our faults.

This is not a superficial message, but a radical one. It doesn’t mean persisting with bad habits, because ultimately bad habits are attempts to hide from or compensate for our hated faults anyway. This is where the Christian motif of dying and being reborn comes into its own. Christ didn’t say “pretend to die so that you could keep on living in pretty much the same way as before”.

On the level of free will and our sense of self, this means recognising that you are not responsible for your faults anymore than you are responsible for your merits. You did not create yourself, and if you get right down to it, your sense of self is just something your mind produces from various thoughts and impressions. To treat it as a separate thing, like a little god ruling over its dominion, is at the heart of what we call pride.

 

 

The unexamined iphone is not worth buying

Reader dtcwee, keeping me honest, notes in regard to the previous post:

I think there is a type of shallow goal that still needs investigation. That of a shallow goal which ‘normal’ society earnestly believes is worthy. There is no intended deception or wilful negligence here. Indeed, this could be quite important, for how would you otherwise know if you have embarked in good faith towards a goal of no substance?

So far we’ve looked at naive people pursuing genuine goals with shallow efforts, and duplicitous people pursuing shallow goals that masquerade as genuine.  But what about people who, under the influence of societal norms, accept and work towards shallow goals in good faith?

Implicit in the question is a critique of societal norms, and hence a rejection of mainstream assessments of shallowness.  While we’ve looked at naive people and duplicitous people, either category could potentially be recognised as shallow by the mainstream given the right circumstances.

But critiquing mainstream norms as shallow is clearly not something the mainstream can accept.  Things are getting serious…

Firstly, critiquing mainstream norms in any fashion is likely to annoy or upset a lot of people.  Secondly, despite criticisms mainstream norms do have certain benefits: it’s better to be obese when the mainstream is obese than to be an unusual obese outlier with a set of expensive medical requirements. Anyone with a rare disease can tell you that increased incidence translates into all sorts of indirect benefits, while rarity may leave you with underdeveloped research and under-subsidised treatments.

Or in terms of mainstream financial choices: if a bank can be too big to fail, can an over-mortgaged majority be too big to face the consequences of bad decisions?

Importantly, the critique of mainstream norms has to come from somewhere; we need a vantage point from which to say that the mainstream is shallow.

Religious and philosophical perspectives have served us well in this regard, from Socrates’ “The unexamined life is not worth living”, to Christ’s “But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through, nor steal.”

The most basic level of critique falls in line more with Socrates than with Christ, and that is the simple question of whether our goals are chosen by us or chosen for us by the mysterious processes of societal norms.  To have unexamined goals is to have no personal role in determining the value of your objectives. It is, in a sense, to be slave to the will and whims of the majority.  It’s almost as though one’s true goal in such circumstances is to want what everyone else wants, or simply to take the ‘safest’ route of following conventional wisdom, trusting in the security of numbers.

In this sense, the shallowness lies in one’s acceptance of conventional goals, the unexamined life, the reflexive urge to do what everyone else is doing.  In this context, the critique from a position of depth is that one is not truly thinking about or engaging with one’s goals and actions, and as such the goals and actions are not truly one’s own.

This is neither a shallow effort at a genuine goal nor a shallow goal masquerading as a deep one, but a shallow approach to goals that, ideally, ought to be closely examined and existentially integrated.

Some people copy the mainstream for purely pragmatic reasons, fully aware of what they doing; a minority examine life and decide that the mainstream norms are truly what they want. But for others there is, perhaps, a common characteristic of self-deception: the failure to acknowledge that you might be simply buying into the hype and marketing of a lifestyle and goals the merits of which are, to you, ultimately unknown.