I've been listening to Herbert Dreyfus' lecture series on Fear and Trembling by Kierkegaard on the way to work over the past few weeks. He's quite a good lecturer and I'm not only intrigued by his insights into the content of Kierkegaard's most famous work, I'm also blown away by a few aspects of the lecture that seem to be present in front of me in my every day life.
I want to give additional time to these ideas and mill them over in my mind for a bit, but I also feel the need to write some of them down lest I forget them.
Reconciling Universal and Subjective Ethics
According to Dreyfus, Kierkegaard's makes an interesting differentiation between the Universal Ethic (a Greek ideal) and the "Suspension of the Ethical" for those who are engaged in an Unconditional Commitment (a Judeo-Christian ideal). The reason this concept stuck out to me, personally, is that living here in the West, I've grown up in a culture that straddles these two concepts. We value both conformity and individuality simultaneously.
I heard a joke a few years ago that summarizes this experience pretty well (I think I saw it on a t-shirt): "I want to be different, just like everybody else."
We live within this duality in a lot of different arenas- one that's specific to my experience is my religious/spiritual life. Over the past few years I've attended "Christian" conferences, events, or church services where the speakers have made a very strong argument for Absolute Truth and Absolute Ethics (which is more Greek/Rational) even in the midst of our Judeo Christian tradition (which is based on Revelation/Subjectivity).
Now, I know that comment regarding absolute truth and relativism is sure to get a lot of resistance, so let me clarify it a bit more before I'm pounced upon for abandoning my faith. Kierkegaard reestablished a very clear historical perspective that the concept of Absolute Truth and Rationality are Greek- not Christian. It's Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (Greek Philosophers) who responsible for the idea of a Universal Ethic. Now, it's true that their influence permeated Western Christianity to the point where Augustine, Kant, Dante and other Christian philosophers all adopted a very Absolutist attitude. And with that sort of thinking affecting early church reasoning and writing, it's also true that we've been impacted (in the West) to the point where we don't have a clear understanding of the original Judea-Christian ethic, which was very personal and subjective. But there are still small semblances that remain, even with our viewpoint washed thoroughly with the Socratic Method.
For those of us who are engaged in an Unconditional Commitment to God, there are instances when we may be called to do something very personal to our own experience rather than the requirement of all. We ask “what is God's will for MY life” rather than merely His plan for the Church/collective; a hint that we care about the very personal/subjective nature of our relationship with God. And there are even times when we may find ourselves being required to do what which is "outside" of the Universal Ethic. One instance that Kierkegaard explores in Fear and Trembling is where God requires Abraham to murder (sacrifice) his son- a universally unethical, immoral act which would be sin for him to enact in any situation other than the one he's presented with.
Luckily, we know the end of the story- God provided an alternative sacrifice (a ram) in Isaac's stead. So, for us, it's a little easier to rationalize the instance. He wasn't really forced to act out the murder/sacrifice. But for Abraham, trekking up the mountain with his boy by his side, wrestling with the knowledge that he was about to kill the offspring who had been promised to him- there was a clear problem. Although the Universal Ethic says that it's wrong to kill- especially wrong to kill your children, God had revealed an instruction that usurped the Ethical. And in Abraham's Unconditional Commitment to God, he was ready to do the unthinkable. And this was accounted as Faith.
That said, it's actually Revelation rather than Rationality that we adhere to as the Ultimate Right for the Judeo-Christian Ethic. The problem for us is that it's a rather difficult concept to reconcile with the claims of "Absolute Truth" that are proclaimed by most prominent Christian leaders in the world today. They seem contradictory. And they are. They are birthed out of two traditions that have shaped our thinking here in the West.
The only way I can even come close to reconciling the two is in this:
It seems that the only exception to the Universal Ethic is when Revelation clearly counters it. But Revelation never comes from the individual. It always comes from outside of the individual- either from God or from the consensus of many individuals. This said, individually perpetuated murder is still Universally Wrong. If God clearly commands a death, perhaps it could be said that the individual is no longer driving the choice- it's being delivered to the individual from an outside force greater than the individual. So, Abraham in this case would not be violating the Universal Ethic of self/individually perpetuated murder. Likewise, an individual jailor who flips the switch on an electric chair is not a murderer even though a prisoner dies by his hand for a jury of peers may come to consensus that the person's life should be taken. This Revelation or outside opinion has not violated the Universal Ethic, but enhanced it and made the way for exceptions.
I don't know that this is what Kierkegaard has in mind. He believed that it's an individual's unconditional commitment to God (or to ideals) that allows faith to suspend the ethical. But I think my way is a better reconciliation of these two ideals.
I live in the paradox, as Kierkegaard did, and I want it both ways.
Nathan Key likes to think about faith and philosophy and talk about it with others. He lives with his family in New Hampshire. He doesn't always refer to himself in the third person.