Tuesday, January 03, 2006

How Theology Affects Ethics: A Post 9-11 Look at Kierkegaard After Watching a Depressing Movie About Wal-Mart

We live in an age in which, it seems, religious people can justify all sorts of immoral and/or amoral behavior because of their great "faith." Some of this was made apparent to me while, as I pastor, I was personally attacked by members of my congregation because they didn't like what I preached about. Some of this was brought to my mind as I thought about the political scandals in my beloved Commonwealth of Kentucky, in which a group of pious Christians (so self-righteous that they named themselves "the Disciples") trampled on state laws protecting workers from being fired or demoted for their political affiliation. This afternoon I watched the documentary film Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, which offered a critique of the business ethics of the devout Walton family, who made their money on the backs of their workers.

According to the film, Wal-Mart workers - who can hardly be called affluent - have given over $5 million from their paychecks to the Critical Need Fund, a program designed to help Wal-Mart employees who are experiencing some sort of crisis. The Walton family, by contrast, has given just $6,000. Bill Gates, who does not claim to be a religious person, has given 58% of his income to charities. The Walton family, who have made their fortune in part because a certain segment of our population sees them as righteous, gave less than 1% of their income to charities in that same time period. As an Episcopal priest interviewed for the documentary said, I'm sure that the Walton family considers themselves to be good Christians, but their apparent faith seems to have little impact on their ethics, if the way in which they build and handle their wealth is any indication.

Thinking of the distance between faith and ethics I am reminded of the treatment that the existentialist Soren Kierkegaard gave to faith and ethics. As an undergraduate philosophy student I wrote a paper on a passage from his great Fear and Trembling, which - as I used to be an existentialist and an admirer of Kierkegaard - used to speak to me. Here is a slightly edited version of that paper. You can thank the current gubenatorial administration in Kentucky, cold weather, sheer boredom, a chillingly good documentary and a severe case of missing academia for my decision to revisit it here.

On Kierkegaard's Teleological Suspension of the Ethical

Problema I of Soren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, titled Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical? contains two main ideas, which complement each other and come together to form the way that Kierkegaard approaches the relationship between religion and ethics. The first is Kierkegaard's concept of faith, and the second is the teleological suspension of the ethical.

Kierkegaard holds Abraham up as an example of faith, particularly for the event recorded in Genesis 22, in which Abraham demonstrates that, at the command of God, he is willing to sacrifice, in a very literal way, his only son Isaac. Earlier God had promised to make Abraham into a "great nation," and it is through Isaac that Abraham believed that God intended to keep his promise. After all, even when Isaac was born Abraham and his wife Sarah were long past their child bearing years. Surely they could not have another child. One miracle child ought to be enough. But, God asks Abraham to take his son to the mountains in the land of Moriah, and offer him as a burnt sacrifice, and Abraham agrees to do this. This willingness to follow the commands of God is central to Kierkegaard's concept of faith.

But, his concept of faith is not limited to one's willingness to follow the ridiculous commands of God. In addition to being willing to do what God has asked him to do, according to Kierkegaard, Abraham had another kind of faith. Abraham "had faith that God would not demand Isaac of him... He had faith by the virtue of the absurd, for human calculation was out of the question, and it was certainly absurd that God, who required it [the sacrifice of Isaac] of him, should, in the next moment rescind the requirement." And so Abraham, knowing what God required of him, yet, according to Kierkegaard, believing that God would not really require it of him, went up to the mountain prepared to slit the throat of his own son, yet also prepared for God to not require this of him. And so, Kierkegaard says, "Abraham had faith. He did not have faith that he would be blessed in a future life but that he would be blessed here in the world. God could give him a new Isaac, could restore to life the one sacrificed. He had faith by the virtue of the absurd, for all human calculation ceased long ago."

Abraham had "faith by the virtue of the absurd." What a strange statement. What does it mean? Does it, perhaps, mean that Abraham believed in impossible things? Perhaps, but faith here seems to mean far more than belief; even impossible belief. Perhaps it means that, when "all human calculation ceased," Abraham stopped thinking, and living, for himself. Perhaps faith here means that the one who has faith trusts that God is God, and that he/she is not God. Perhaps faith means acknowledging that God knows best, is in charge of the universe, and holds all the cards. As such, whatever God wants is what should get done, what must get done, and, in fact, in the end, what will get done.

Faith, then, is far more than belief, though it entails belief, and, in fact, makes belief possible. Faith is more like trust; trust which manifests itself in action. Trust which undergirds itself with a belief in the impossible. Faith is, by human standards, "absurd," because it removes all human values from the equation. Faith is about God, not about humans and what they can and cannot believe, what they can and cannot justify. Faith is being willing to do whatever it is that God requires, because God requires it. Faith is totally trusting in, depending on, and acting for God.

But, Abraham's situation is not only described in terms of faith, and the description of his situation matters. Kierkegaard points out that "the ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac." There is a tension between these two expressions; between these two descriptions of the same event. If the killing of Isaac can reasonably be described as murder, and if it has been commanded by God, has God commanded Abraham to do something immoral? Is God capable of such an act? Can a man, acting out of faith, by following the command of God, sin?

Is there, in other words, a tension between faith and ethics? And, if there is, which side should win? Answering this question, in light of the escalating level of religious-inspired violence around the world, is very important. Kierkegaard's approach to this is found in his idea of the teleological suspension of the ethical.

To understand this phrase, first we must understand what is meant by "the ethical." According to Kierkegaard, "the ethical... is the universal, and as the universal it applies to everyone, which from another angle means that it applies at all times." This is a very Kantian understanding of "the ethical," and the problems that arise from that may be dealt with later. Here it is sufficient to understand that this is what Kierkegaard means by "the ethical." It is a moral imperative that applies to all people at all times in all situations.

But, Kierkegaard's concept of faith causes problems for this view of "the ethical." "Faith is... the paradox that the single individual is higher than the universal, is justified before it, not as inferior to it but as superior"; and, later, "...the single individual stands in an absolute relation to the absolute." In other words, the man of faith stands above such universal concepts as "the ethical," and this causes a teleological suspension of the ethical. The story of Abraham is a good example of this suspension. Abraham, as a man of faith, is, by virtue of acting on the command of God, superior to the universal imperative to not murder, as well as the universal notion that "the father shall love the son more than himself." In "suspending the ethical obligation to [his] son," Abraham "transgressed the ethical altogether and had a higher telos [end, purpose] outside it."

In other words, the claims of faith, the claims of God, are superior to ethical claims, because God and faith are superior to ethics. They exist outside ethics. Someone acting out of faith in God, then, is justified in doing something which is unethical. This creates some problems, both morally and religiously, as well as problems of description.

The first problem dealt with here should be the problem of description, because it is the simplest problem and the easiest one to deal with. At the beginning of this passage Kierkegaard says that events can be described with two different expressions, the "ethical expression" and the "religious expression." The ethical is "universal," but the religious is superior to the ethical. Why, then, are there two expressions? And, if the religious expression is superior to the ethical expression, can the ethical really be universal?

This seems to me to be a problem of description. Kierkegaard has an important idea that he wants to communicate, but the way in which he has communicated it clouds the meaning and creates some unnecessary problems. Perhaps Kierkegaard could have said that God, as the creator of the universe, is the author of all that is ethical, the determiner of right and wrong. As such, whatever descriptions there are of "the ethical," it is best described as "what God has willed." If this is the case, then the revealed word of God could be added to the ethical description of any event. And so, the simple ethical expression of Abraham's situation is that he intended to murder Isaac, but, since God told him to do it, the better ethical expression is that Abraham intended to sacrifice Isaac to God, at God's request, and even command. Then, because murder is not merely the killing of a human, but, rather the unjustified killing of a human, and because the request of God would justify the killing of a human; that Abraham intended to murder Isaac would be an inaccurate ethical expression of that event. There would then be no tension between the ethical expression and the religious expression, because the ethical expression would take religion into account.

I do not think that this is inconsistent with what Kierkegaard meant, though it goes against the specific language of this passage. But, this description does point out the religious and moral problems with Kierkegaard's idea, and it demonstrates why the 22nd chapter of Genesis causes so many problems for people. In both Kierkegaard's concept of the teleological suspension of the ethical and in the 22nd chapter of Genesis, what appears to be a heinous action is justified. God asks Abraham to slaughter his only son, and it is OK for God to do so, because God is God, and not bound to human morals. Fortunately for Abraham, Isaac, and Soren Kierkegaard, God, who caused the problem in the first place, comes to the rescue and provides another sacrifice. And so, at least here, no real harm is done, unless you consider the kind of psychological damage that must have been done to both Abraham and Isaac, as well as poor Sarah. In other parts of the Torah, people are not so lucky.

In the 31st chapter of Numbers, for instance, God demands that the Israelites "take vengeance on the Midianites." And so the Israelites form an army of twelve thousand men, and kill every Midianite man, only to be reprimanded by God for not killing all of the women and children, too. In the end, they do not have to kill all of the women. They only have to kill all of the women who have "slept with a man." The virgins they can take home as sex slaves. This is another teleological suspension of the ethical. The Israelites are justified in their actions because they are acting under direct orders from God.

This concept, though, has real moral and religious problems. After all, how can we know that the orders really came from God? Every time a bomb explodes in the streets of Israel; every time a car bomb blows apart a crowd of people in Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or some other Middle Eastern country, someone claims that it was ordained and commanded by God. When the hijacked planes flew into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, many people claimed that the will of God had been done. If one religion justifies suspending the ethical, how can that religion deny that claim to another religion? On what grounds can a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim claim that someone else is unjustified in suspending the ethical on orders from God?

These questions are important questions to answer in a time that is marred by the threat of global, religious-inspired terrorism. They are questions that should have been answered earlier as well, during the Inquisition or the Crusades. They are questions that ought to be answered any time someone kills in the name of God. And they are questions which Kierkegaard's theory, whatever its internal merits, cannot answer.

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