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.

On Trump’s video leak

My latest piece at Mercatornet examines the Trump video leak and his reluctant Christian supporters:

Having made the difficult decision to support a tarnished and disreputable candidate, the only consolation was that they were doing so with their eyes wide open. But even if you “hold your nose and vote”, Trump’s notorious video from 2005 has just demonstrated that your wide-open eyes might start to sting in his noxious atmosphere.

Nonetheless, many of Trump’s reluctant supporters argue that nothing has changed. They knew voting for Trump was going to be a bad deal, but like an urgent sale when you’re desperate for cash, they’ll take the best offer they can get.

http://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/democracy-and-providence-does-political-participation-trump-religious-faith

The paradox of “you create your own reality”

Years ago I spent some time reading “law of attraction” material.

I ended up quite skeptical about it for two reasons: firstly because I tried it and it didn’t work (more on this in a moment); secondly because the primary advocates of the law of attraction were making money by selling the law of attraction, and using their success in this enterprise as evidence in favour of the law of attraction. This implied not so much that the law of attraction can bring you success, but that selling people on the law of attraction can bring you success.

At the same time it’s impossible to really argue that the law of attraction “didn’t work”, because according to the theory (depending on which version you come across) the law of attraction is always working.  Your beliefs are always and continuously shaping your reality, and it’s a moot point whether you take that to mean literally altering the external world or merely filtering your perception of life’s possibilities and horizons.

Either way, what really struck me about the law of attraction is the paradox of investigating and attempting to exploit a law that is theoretically already operative in every single aspect of your internal and external world – including your attempts to exploit this law.

Which means we have to view “law of attraction”-related behaviours (buying and reading books on the topic, thinking about the law of attraction a lot, trying to “manifest” good things into your life) not as evidence of people really understanding and using the law of attraction for their own benefit, but of people wanting to feel that they are understanding and using it, while being ultimately disappointed.

It’s like the lottery. You could say that people who play the lottery want to be winners. But to be more precise we should say that such people want the experience of a faint glimmer of excitement every week, followed by routine disappointment. They want the remote possibility of being winners, without much risk of actually winning and upsetting their whole lives.

If the law of attraction is true, then many of us are somehow deeply satisfied by the experience of repeatedly failing to win the lottery.

The continued popularity of the law of attraction can therefore be understood as an expression of the same wish to flirt with success without actually experiencing it.  Trying to “manifest” a new car by really really wanting it is no different from ticking off your “lucky numbers” each week in hopes of hitting the jackpot.

Trying to use the law of attraction to improve your life reminds me of that scene in Life of Brian where the crowd obediently chants in unison: “Yes, we are all individuals!” It’s a kind of self-refuting idea like “this statement is false” because seeking to utilise the law of attraction to improve your life implies that you really do wish to improve your life. But if you really did wish to improve your life, then according to the law of attraction your life would already be improved.

This paradox is covered by some of the law of attraction materials, where they claim that people often fail to distinguish between a wish or desire and an affirmation of scarcity or lack. That is to say: a person might think “I want to be rich”, but the law of attraction hears “I hate being poor”, and it’s the latter “vibration” that has creative power.

People read such commentary and conclude that they should therefore not only focus intently on the things they desire so that the universe can dutifully “manifest” them into existence, but that to do so successfully they must control how they feel about these desired objects. I want more money, but whenever I think about it I feel desperate and scared of not having enough. So instead I must try to think about it in a positive way, feeling hopeful and joyful and optimistic about wealth.

Trying to force a change in your feelings implies a kind of violence against yourself, and I wouldn’t recommend it. But more importantly, here again is the paradox of control.  You think you can control what you want and how you feel, with the implication that you want to want something other than what you currently want. It’s a “free will” complication, and more profound than people realise.

Let’s reiterate: if the law of attraction is true, then you already have what you want, and this includes your apparent desire to want differently, your dissatisfaction with what you currently have.

It would make more sense to use the law of attraction as a kind of diagnostic tool for examining your own deeply held beliefs and desires, examining the struggles and major themes of your life. If you struggle with money, then the law of attraction implies that you want to experience struggle; the proof is in how your life unfolds.

This paradox is not confined to the law of attraction movement:

“Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

This famous line from the Gospel is the nexus point of New Thought positive thinking, its quasi-Christian prosperity-Gospel equivalent, and the lived tradition of the Christian church.

It raises the same ambiguity: are we supposed to try harder to believe that we have received the things we pray for? Or is our belief or non-belief supposed to indicate whether the thing we pray for will come to pass? This conundrum leaves us with the horrible spectacle of sick people wondering whether God wants them to be ill despite their prayers, or if they are supposed to somehow make themselves believe, have more of the necessary faith to effect a miraculous healing.

In the orthodox Christian tradition, faith – belief – is viewed as a gift. Your belief in the tenets of Christianity is something caused in you by God. But even this claim goes to the heart of an intellectualist-voluntarist debate within Christianity and Western Philosophy more broadly, a debate I only learned about through the early stages of my now defunct PhD project.

At the heart of the debate is the question of which is prior: the intellect or the will? From my reading of the problem, it seems that intellectualists are inclined to see human beings as something close to an intelligent automaton, like a robot from science fiction, that follows its programming with great sensitivity and complexity yet is programmed nonetheless. We act according to reasons. There is no point at which we simply will without the guidance of reasons provided by our understanding, our beliefs.

Voluntarists object to the view of will as dependent on the movement of the intellect, arguing that it diminishes the freedom of the will and amounts to a form of determinism. Voluntarists maintain that we can will independently of the advice provided by our intellect, going against our own better judgment, or acting without consideration at all.

So even in the supposedly “new age” movement, this old debate remains relevant. If the law of attraction follows our thoughts and desires, what do our thoughts and desires follow? Can I simply will to have different thoughts and desires? Or must a change in my thinking and willing come about through a change in my understanding?

Without even attempting to settle the old debate here, I wonder if the problems presented by the law of attraction theory would make more sense when viewed from an intellectualist rather than a voluntarist view?

What we have is a situation where reality allegedly responds to one’s thoughts and desires, yet where our thoughts and desires are not necessarily transparent or trustworthy to us.

Not only are they not transparent or trustworthy, but they prove much harder to alter and influence than many law of attraction believers have hoped.

From an intellectualist perspective, this makes a great deal of sense. You have not arrived at your present thoughts and desires by accident. It has taken years of experience and compelling reasons to form your deepest beliefs and desires. Nor can you simply change those experiences or those reasons simply by having a superficial desire for change.

More to the point, as implied in an earlier paragraph, it is entirely appropriate and reasonable that certain people would be drawn to the law of attraction theory, and reiterate superficial desires for a better life. There are reasons why some people find the theory believable, and others do not.

There is perhaps more to be gained by people interested in the law of attraction theory if they were to reflect on why they are interested in it in the first place. Why are you receptive to it? Even on its own terms, the law of attraction theory promises that the answer to this question will be quite revealing.

Beyond that, the desire to change your beliefs and desires is nonetheless still a desire. And the belief that you can change your beliefs is still a belief. What if the crux of the problem is not how successfully you can change them, but what to make of the inner conflict they imply?