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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Miracle cures and short-sightedness

I’m in my second day without wearing glasses, because I want to cure my myopia.

If that sounds bizarre, let me explain.

The miracle ‘cure’

I’ve always been both hopeful and skeptical about the prospect of ‘miraculous’ cures for physical illnesses and ailments.

I use the term ‘miraculous’ loosely to refer to cures that do not match our normal expectations for how health and illness work.

So, for example, I can quite honestly say in one sense that I ‘cured’ my autoimmune disease. My honesty makes me put ‘cured’ in quotation marks because I don’t have sufficient evidence to prove that what happened to me amounts to a ‘miraculous’ recovery from that disease.

In practical terms, I no longer have symptoms of that illness, and I have a subjectively meaningful narrative for how those symptoms came to an end as a result of my own actions.

My rheumatologists were quite happy to give me a provisional diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis based on my symptoms and a genetic marker. The only caveat is that if my symptoms stopped, then obviously they would withdraw the diagnosis.

A skeptical contention would be that if I hadn’t done anything to change my outlook on the illness and seek some kind of psychological cure to the physical problem, the symptoms would have disappeared anyway.

It’s impossible to prove in my case, and it’s hard to imagine an appropriately rigorous medical trial to test the theory (hard but not impossible).

So for me it remains a choice. I had to choose to face my illness as a reflection of a deeper psychological or spiritual issue. In so doing, I observed a pattern to the symptoms that matched changes to my mental and emotional state. When I became aware of these changes and adapted them, the symptoms ceased.

A short-sighted approach

So what about eyesight?

I’ve been short-sighted for a long time. I had my eyes tested in about year 5 at school, but I may have suffered from short-sightedness before that.

Wearing glasses has always bothered me. I don’t like being so dependent on a fragile external tool to interact with my environment. So when my glasses frame broke two days ago I decided to take the opportunity to investigate the problems with my vision.

Meditation on illness

Both auto-immune disease and short-sightedness  relate to extraordinarily complex biological systems.

An auto-immune disease is a good candidate for examination because it consists in essence of the body attacking itself without an obvious external cause.

But it turns out that myopia is also somewhat mysterious, with both hereditary and environmental factors at play.

Myopia is a form of refractive error due to the shape of the eye. I have trouble seeing long distances clearly because my eye is longer than it ought to be.

I don’t know about you, but my response to being told “your body’s immune system is attacking your joints” and “your eyeball is too long to focus the light properly”, is a profound and indomitable sense of challenge.

The spiritual approach

For want of a better word, let’s call this a ‘spiritual’ approach to illness. The idea is that our experience of life is not simply the random outcome of external processes. Rather, our experience of reality is mysterious and meaningful.

What this means is that something like suffering an auto-immune disease or having bad vision is not an accident or a random outcome. It has deeper significance. It relates to your life and your own person as if you were a character in a story.

Whether we continue to suffer from the illness, or find reprieve, I think it makes sense to try to see the personal meaning in it.

For me this process of looking for meaning begins with observing how I feel about the illness, the symptoms, and their impact on my life.

It turns out that despite not giving much thought to my short-sightedness for many years, I do carry strong feelings about it.

Going for two days without my glasses has made me realise how much fear and powerlessness I feel when I can’t clearly see what is going on around me.

Driving without my glasses is safe enough – I can see every object in my vicinity – but more than a hundred or so metres away and objects become blurred. People are easy to see but impossible to recognise. They become fuzzy humanoid shapes, obvious but unreadable.

The inability to see what’s coming right to the farthest horizon or the very end of the road is fear-inducing. I can see things but I don’t know what they are.

Then there’s the powerlessness. I can’t look down the aisle of a supermarket and read the signs for the food categories anymore. I have to walk towards things to make out exactly what they are. And as for people – they might as well be dressed in shrouds and wearing masks until they come within about five metres of me.

It’s a profoundly alienating experience.

So there you go. This short-sightedness does have a great deal of meaning for me, a meaning I’ve ignored and neglected by wearing glasses all the time.

I don’t want to wear glasses anymore, and that means I have to start confronting and facing these fears and insecurities.

So what am I saying?

Does that mean if I confront my fears and anxieties my eyes will magically change and I’ll be able to see without glasses?

Well, what I discovered when I tried to heal my auto-immune disease was that I had to accept the truth about the disease first. The truth was that my disease was just a reflection of my own psychological and spiritual state.

I know how challenging that sounds, because I resisted accepting it for a long time. I didn’t like the idea that progress would depend on choosing to believe something. If the evidence could convince me, I was ready to believe it. But to just believe, without evidence? That sounded pathetic and weak.

Yet there was evidence. Not evidence that could convince me this was the truth, but evidence that I could make no progress, do nothing more, until I had accepted this basic premise.

To put it bluntly, if my disease really was just some random or genetically determined biological quirk, then I was ******.

If my symptoms weren’t a reflection of my deeper psychological and spiritual state, then there was nothing I could do about it. But if they were a reflection, then nothing was set in stone.

In the end that was the choice: the choice to try to give up or try to find answers.

And if there’s one thing I know from my studies and reading in philosophy and mysticism, it’s that our claims to absolute knowledge of external reality are as much a choice as any.

We choose to believe the world is real, not because we have seen convincing evidence that it is real, but because we have seen evidence that to choose otherwise gives us nothing in return.

If I choose to believe the world is a figment of my imagination, there is nothing anyone can say or do to prove me wrong. But there is plenty that can be said and done to prove that a real world is a much better thing to believe in than a deluded imaginary one.

How not to heresy

I got caught up this morning in a piece on the ABC titled “Why should we believe unbelievable religion?”

So what does he make of the feeding of the multitude tale, when Jesus reportedly fed 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fish?

‘In my view nobody at the time would have read that particular miraculous feeding literally,’ says Tacey. ‘In other words, they sat at his feet, he provided spiritual nourishment and it was as if they were fed with loaves and fishes, and then there were 10 baskets full in the end to collect.’

It’s one thing to find such an interpretation more satisfying or credible than the miraculous version, and I can sympathise with people for whom the standard interpretations of Christianity seem insufficient.  But despite the caveat “in my view”, I bridled at the subsequent “nobody at the time”. Unless by “in my view” the speaker means “I prefer to believe that…”, it strikes me as insufficiently humble for someone explicitly breaking with a long-standing tradition to not maintain the weakness of their own position.

After all, the root of ‘heresy’ is ‘choice’; why not own up to it as a choice, instead of trying to pass it off as the obviously and self-evidently preferable, more intelligible, and more spiritually rewarding interpretation?

Yet for all their efforts to disentangle the historical Jesus from the web of mythic stories about him, have these scholars offered Christians a Jesus they can believe in?  If miraculous stories involving Jesus are merely reworked stories about Moses, do they leave Christians with a more appealing focus of faith?  Tacey thinks not.

‘They’re the ones who I think are in danger of ending up emptying Jesus of all his spiritual significance, so that he simply becomes a community health worker or something like that,’ he says.

Of course: my personalised heresy that I developed in the context of a post-Christian society and my specialised and eminently democratic skill-set as a professor of literature with a background in Jungian psychology is in every way superior to the interpretations favoured merely by the credulously devout of the past twenty centuries.

It makes perfect sense that a professor of literature might find more meaning in miracles as metaphors than in miracles as miracles. However, it is one of the more intriguing aspects of Christianity that it embraces the supposed dichotomy between the spiritual and the material, binding the two together in a great and unfathomable mystery.  It is, for instance, by no means novel to read into the feeding of the five-thousand a metaphor of spiritual food. Indeed, as the short form of the forthcoming Corpus Christi sequence states:

In figúris præsignátur, Cum Isaac immolátur: Agnus paschæ deputátur Datur manna pátribus.

It was prefigured in types: when Isaac was immolated, when the Paschal Lamb was sacrificed, when Manna was given to the fathers.

It’s not that tradition doesn’t recognise the metaphors, just that it doesn’t hold with the modernist certitude that metaphors must only be metaphors, that an event can’t be both real and symbolically meaningful at the same time. It is, ironically, a much less nuanced perspective to hold either that the miracles have no greater significance, or that they are so full of significance that they can’t possibly have happened.

Personally, I don’t understand why some people are so wedded to the conviction that miracles cannot have occurred as they are claimed to have occurred. What’s the big deal? It’s as though they’ve been told that faith itself must hinge on belief in second-hand accounts of miracles, and hence find themselves riven by existential doubts, like a born-again Christian trying their hardest to feel appropriately saved.

Skepticism alone doesn’t account for such doubts.  A skeptic is free to doubt the existence of miracles, but they’re equally free to doubt the staid pseudo-skepticism that insists that miracles are not possible. Again, it shouldn’t be such a big deal to admit the possibility.  What kind of person has a world-view and identity contingent on the insistence that the biblical accounts of miracles are false?

I won’t pretend to understand people’s emotional or ideological baggage around miracles – whether they’ve been force-fed a false piety, or long to rehabilitate their spiritual life in the good graces of some kind of anti-supernaturalist clique.  Listening to the broadcast itself, Tacey contrasts his parents’ view of the bible as a “history book” with his own eventual discovery of it as “a long sacred narrative poem”; but he makes somewhat inconsistent references to his own perspective being on the one hand “not for everyone”, while on the other hand claiming that “official” Christianity has erred in taking any of Jesus’ teachings literally.

The irony is that Tacey extols the ability to live with uncertainty rather than having everything nailed down, yet in his discovery of metaphoric scriptural interpretation turns adamant that a metaphoric interpretation is the only valid one.  He accepts that Jesus did exist and was crucified, but that his life was subsequently converted into a metaphoric or parabolic story in its own right, and eventually converted by literalist Western Europeans into a series of lies told for God.

Tacey doesn’t see this interpretation as diminishing Christianity, but perhaps only because he is in the grip of a false dichotomy: the scriptures are either literally true with no metaphoric significance, or they are metaphorically true and not to be taken literally.  Yet as far as I am aware, there exists a substantial orthodox tradition of viewing the scriptures as true both literally and metaphorically.  In fact you could go so far as to say that the tying together of spiritual significance with real events is kinda the whole point of Christianity.