Kierkegaard's Knights of Faith and the Account of Abraham

Lately, I have been listening to a series of lectures by Hubert Dreyfus, Ph.D., a Philosophy professor at U.C. Berekley, concerning the writings of Soren Kierkegaard. The lecture has been very interesting, and while I think that Professor Dreyfus has some questionable interpretations of the Bible, his discussions have given me a greater understanding of Kierkegaard's view of faith. Most importantly, it has helped me clarify in my own mind the use of the illustration of a Knight of Faith and the example of Abraham and Isaac.

The Two Knights of Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher of the 19th Century, can be considered the father of modern existentialism. In his work Fear and Trembling, he wrote about the difference between two types of people whom he called the Knight of Infinite Resignation and the Knight of Faith. In Fear and Trembling, , Kierkegaard identifies Abraham as a Knight of Faith. In his lectures, however, I get the sense that Professor Dreyfus, who I acknowledge is certainly more knowledgeable about Kierkegaard and his writings than I am, misses the point of what Kierkegaard was saying about Abraham because he almost dismisses Kierkegaard's faith in God.

To Kierkegaard, Knight of Faith was the greatest of all things that a person can be. A Knight of Faith is a person who devotes his entire life -- the "whole content of life and the whole significance of reality" -- into one single love. Think of the stories of knights and ladies in medieval times -- the knight devotes his entire life to the chivalrous love of his lady who may be married making it impossible for his love to be returned. Yet, despite the impossibility of the relationship, or as stated by Kierkegaard, the "absurdity" of the relationship, the knight loves the lady and devotes his entire life to her.

To Kierkegaard, the "absurd" had a very specific definition: it is that which runs counter to human experience and human understanding. Thus, if it is possible that the knight may have the love in the ordinary course of human experience, then the relationship is not absurd. Moreover, the Knight must recognize the impossibility of the relationship actually coming to fruition. He must be "infinitely resigned" to the impossibility of the relationship.

The Knight of Infinite Resignation

As I stated earlier, Kierkegaard identifies two types of Knights: the Knights of Infinite Resignation and those of Faith. To this point, the description that I have given applies equally to each of the two knights -- both make a devotion of their lives to the love and both recognize the impossibility of the love as the result of the absurd. But the Knight of Faith becomes distinguished from the Knight of Infinite Resignation at this point. The Knight of Infinite Resignation recognizes that because his love is impossible by reason of the absurd, he resigns himself to the absurd and expresses the love spiritually. But in expressing the love spiritually, he waives his claim to having it in a real, tangible and finite sense. As stated by Kierkegaard:

"So the knight remembers everything, but precisely this remembrance is pain, and yet by the infinite resignation he is reconciled with existence. Love for that princess has become for him the expression of an eternal love, assumed a religious character, was transformed into a love for the Eternal Being, which did to be sure deny him the fulfillment of his love, yet reconciled him again by the eternal consciousness of its validity in the form of eternity, which no reality can take from him. Fools and young men prate about everything being possible for a man. That, however, is a great error. Spiritually speaking, everything is possible, but in the world of the finite there is much which is not possible. This impossible, however, the knight makes possible by expressing it spiritually, he expresses it by waiving his claim to it." (Emphasis added.)

Looking at it as the relationship between a knight and his lady, the knight knows that he can never have the love of the woman to whom he has devoted his life because she is married to another and can never marry him. Yet, despite the absurdity of this situation, he continues to love the lady and devote his life to the chivalrous love for her -- but she now becomes an "ideal" which he loves. He has spiritualized her because he knows he cannot obtain her. He has retained his love in light of the absurdity by surrendering any claim or hope that he will obtain the love of his lady in this world in a true, finite and real sense.

The Knight of Faith

The Knight of Faith does something different than the Knight of Infinite Resignation. The Knight of Faith recognizes the absurdity of the love which means that he recognizes the impossibility of his love coming to be. By recognizing the impossibility, the Knight of Faith "renounces the claim to the love which is the content of the life, i.e., makes the "movement of resignation," but then he makes another "more wonderful" move -- he says, "I believe nevertheless that I shall get her, in virtue, that is, of the absurd . . . ."

It is important to point out that at no time does the Knight of Faith deny that his obtaining his wish is impossible. If he somehow justifies his love by saying that things may change that will no longer make it impossible, he is not exercising faith. Faith requires the recognition that the thing sought is impossible -- human experience and reason says it cannot happen. Yet, despite this recognition and the resignation that it cannot happen, the Knight of Faith recognizes that it will happen nevertheless "in virtue of the fact that with God all things are possible." As stated by Kierkegaard:

". . . in the infinite sense it was possible, namely by renouncing it; but this sort of possessing is at the same time a relinquishing, and yet there is no absurdity in this for the understanding, for the understanding continued to be in the right in affirming that in the world of the finite, where it holds say, this was and remained an impossibility. This is quite clear to the knight of faith, so the only thing that can save him is the absurd, and this he grasps by faith. So he recognizes the impossibility and that very instant he believes the absurd; for if, without recognizing the impossibility with all the passion of his soul and with all his heart, he should wish to imagine that he has faith, he deceives himself, and his testimony has no bearing, since he has not even reached the infinite resignation.

"Faith therefore is no an aesthetic emotion but something far higher, precisely because it has resignation as its presupposition; it is not an immediate instinct of the hear, but is the paradox of life and existence. * * *

"* * * But the next thing astonishes me, it makes my head swim, for after having made the movement of resignation, then by virtue of the absurd to get everything, to get the wish whole and uncurtailed--that is beyond human power, that is a prodigy."

Three Types of People

This is very difficult material, but it boils down to differentiating between three different types of people who have "faith" in the general sense:

1) The Non-Knight -- A person who sees something as improbable or unlikely, is not resigning herself to the impossibility. An example of this may be in the woman who sees her child dying of a malignant form of cancer who has been told that it is impossible for the child to survive, but believes that despite the gloomy prognostication, the child is going to get better. This person may see being cured as unlikely or remote in the real sense, but she doesn't see the cure as impossible. These type of people have not made the movement of "infinite resignation" and therefore cannot even be listed as among the people who are knights.

2) Knights of Infinite Resignation -- People who have recognized the impossibility, but then decide that they will get their wish in heaven, have not made the movement of infinite resignation but have, in fact, become infinitely resigned to the impossibility and are therefore denoted as Knights of Infinite Resignation. Suppose the mother who sees her child dying of a malignant form of cancer has been told and really believes that it is impossible for the child to survive. This mother loves her child and wishes with all of her heart that the child will survive. If she merely "spiritualizes" the child's life as the life that the child will have in heaven and the fact that she will someday meet that child again in heaven, she has become infinitely resigned to the child dying and has become a Knight of Infinite Resignation. Her love for the child remains constant, but she has surrendered the finite and real child for a spiritualized child.

3) The Knight of Faith -- The person who recognizes that their wish is actually, truly and completely impossible, but believe that despite the impossibility that they will get the "content of their heart" in a real and finite way is what Kierkegaard calls a Knight of Faith. Continuing with the mother example, suppose that the mother knows and believes that it is truly impossible for her child to survive the cancer (the child may even have already died). Yet, despite this impossibility, she believes that the child will be restored to her whole and complete as a living, breathing, finite child. Such a belief is an exercise of the faith required to be a Knight of Faith. Believing that she will see her child in heaven is not what Kierkegaard is talking about when he speaks about Knights of Faith -- that is a Knight of Infinite Resignation. Believing that the child will be restored to her despite the impossibility as the result of God's act is the faith that the Knight of Faith holds.

Understanding Abraham as a Knight of Faith

Having said all of that, look at the account of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. Abraham has Isaac, his only son, the miracle son prophesied to be born to him originally in the form of the general prophesy that he would be the father of "a great nation" in Genesis 12, and later specifically prophesied by the three visitors in Genesis 18 when Sarah was already beyond the age of child-bearing. God tells Abraham that he is to sacrifice his only son whom Abraham loves. Abraham does all that God asks and on the verge of sacrificing Isaac, the Angel of the Lord stops him saying ". . . now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me."

In light of Kierkegaard's discussion of Knights, what type of Knight was Abraham? Was he a Non-Knight? Did he believe that despite the apparent impossibility of the situation, that Isaac would survive the sacrifice? In other words, did he think it was unlikely or improbable that he would sacrifice Isaac? It hardly seems that way given that Abraham was the one who was to drive the knife into Isaac.

Was Abraham a Knight of Infinite Resignation? Had he resigned himself to the fact that Isaac was going to be sacrificed but that he would meet with him again in heaven where they would be together again? That may be, but it doesn't jive well with the belief that Abraham had that Isaac would be the child through whom he would give rise to a great nation. Perhaps Abraham believed that God would give him another child through whom he would give rise to a great nation, but if that were the case, then Abraham would have been disbelieving the promise of God that "it is through Isaac that [Abraham's] offspring would be reckoned." (Genesis 21:12) Thus, it appears that Abraham must have believed that even though it was impossible for Isaac to survive, God would somehow save Isaac.

For Kierkegaard, Abraham was clearly a Knight of Faith. He knew that he was to sacrifice his son to God and what God commanded would come to pass. Yet, despite all of this, he continued to believe that through God's power Isaac would continue to live even thought it was impossible in the understanding of ordinary human experience that he would do so. He didn't know how, but he believed that God would miraculously give him back Isaac despite the impossibility that Isaac should survive the sacrifice. Thus, to Kierkegaard, Abraham was the prototype of the Knight of Faith.

Food for Thought

Abraham is identified in the Bible as a man of faith and it was through this faith that he was deemed righteous before God. All Christians should seek to be as faithful as Abraham. Yet, what type of Knight are you for God?


Anonymous said…
Very well thought out and accurate. Thank you so much for putting this together!

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