Perhaps St. Augustine’s famous question should be reconsidered and posited again, but this time with a different voicing. Instead of asking what I love when I love my God, maybe I should ask: What do I have faith in, when I have faith in God? But even still, that is a question not ready to be answered. Instead I must ask: What is this thing which I have, only to place in something other? As Johannes de Silentio finishes Fear and Trembling and blatantly tells his reader to either approach the paradox or watch Abraham, as the father of faith, come to an end, I am only certain that in the statement of “either there is a paradox, that the single individual as the particular stands in an absolute relation to the absolute, or Abraham is done for,” that the absolute is God, the absolute relation is faith, and that the single individual is Abraham (120). However, the key to this puzzle is the particular, and the particular can be stated as Abraham fulfilling his absolute duty to God. In this essay I want to say that this relation between individual and God through absolute duty and faith is necessary because it expresses the true relationship between the immeasurable and the finite as the finite recognizing its own impotency in the face of the immeasurable.
To recall my repositing of Augustine’s question, this “thing” in which I have, only so far as to place in something else, is for de Silentio, faith. This faith that we can have (as it is a potentiality) is only purposeful in that it can be placed in something that is not us. It can be understood as a kernel of the truly infinite, which I call the immeasurable. It is not the ethical, but is instead beyond the ethical and into the religious. For de Silentio, this faith is the most important thing that Abraham can possess, because he must possess it or everything is lost. If Abraham is lost, everything is lost because we need Abraham’s faith for the religious to be understood. Abraham shows the existence of an absolute duty to God out of necessity. If Abraham is just a man that went on a mountain to murder his son, but then changed his mind, then there is no faith and we are all deceived. In standing as “the single individual as the particular” Abraham transcends the idea of ethical duty, as the ethical duty is simply to fulfill the universal. The ethical duty for Abraham would be simply to love his son, as a father must love his son. However, Abraham is not sacrificing Isaac out of love for Isaac; nor is Abraham forgoing the sacrifice of Isaac because he loves Isaac as a father loves his son. He is sacrificing Isaac because that is his impotency in relation to the immeasurable. Abraham is acting through virtue of the absurd. This absurdity- the religious- is beyond ethics. Who is Abraham to say that God is unethical or immoral? This is Abraham’s impotence, and simultaneously the impotence we all must confront in the face of the immeasurable. Our impotency is that our idea of infinite is still of a separate, lesser, quality than God’s infinity.
To say that God is immoral is to place God within the standards of the ethical, but God is not ethical. To say that God is ethical is to bring God down from the religious infinite into the universal infinite, which is applicable only in human reason. This is impossible to do with God or faith because “faith begins precisely where thought stops” (53). This is not meant to be the common fundamentalist phrase that excuses God from any questioning, i.e. “God’s ways are higher than ours!” It is to say that at any moment in which one takes God and places him within a purely human sphere (albeit a non-physical, infinite one), one has perverted God into something that God cannot be if we hope to imagine him as made up of a substance or quality that is separate from our own. One goes beyond thought, beyond ethics, with a leap of faith, removing he or she from what is known, understood, and formulated, and placing his or her self into something that is unknown, impossible to understand, and impossible to formulate.
This leap of faith is the beginning of an encounter with the immeasurable. The leap of faith is what enables Abraham to stand as the particular in absolute relation to the absolute. Abraham as the particular is Abraham expressing his absolute duty to God in a form that cannot be expressed to Sarah, Isaac, or Eliezer. The absolute duty to God is based upon the recognition of our own finitude in relation to God. Even within the ethical we fall short of our duty to God because God requires the service of the individual. The individual acts within the spheres of the aesthetic and the ethical; however, to make a movement that is neither sensual to the self as its purpose, nor an appeal to the ethical obligations of being a human, a third sphere, the religious, is required. Because this absolute duty to God brings us an experience of humanity as inhumane, it cannot be formulated in any words without a certain convolution, and with the convolution there is only misunderstanding for those around us. If Abraham’s situation is understood solely in aesthetic and ethical terms, Abraham loses his humanity; for his intentions and actions are too monstrous to be considered human. They are worse than evil dare imagines to be. There is no purpose in Abraham’s potential murder of Isaac other than murder for the sake of murder. Evil is born out of a misplaced ideology. In Abraham’s case, there is no ideology that the aesthetic or the ethical can provide. For Abraham, putting this situation into words that will only be understood by Sarah or Isaac in terms of the aesthetic or the ethical is wholly detrimental to the faiths of those around him.
Abraham’s final movement separates two distinct forms of infinity: the ethical and the religious. The ethical is infinity that is observed and seen as infinite. It has a beginning, but has no end. It began with the beginning of humanity and unfolded itself through generations until it became what is understood between people as what is truly good or bad. It allows for a form of objectivity among people. If I say it is wrong to kill your child, ethics agrees; and people, informed by ethics, also agree. However, the infinite as immeasurable only takes place within the religious. There is no beginning and there is no end. Essentially, the differentiation of the two types of infinite expressed by the ethical and the religious is exemplified in mathematical terms when the difference between a ray and a line is understood. A ray has a set point in which it begins and then continues onward infinitely in one direction. A line infinitely continues in both directions. In attempting to explain this with the terms that de Silentio lays out, expressing the ethical is like expressing a ray that began and now continues infinitely. In expressing the religious, we express the line, as God is understood to be outside of time, and therefore to have no beginning or no end.
Indeed it can be found that beyond just the aesthetic and the ethical, a form of religious relation must also exist. If it is said that for something to be understood it needs correct context then faith is no exception to this rule. However, the context is not to be found within the finite, or our own daily interaction with the infinite as the ethical. As Abraham shows us his faith by virtue of the absurd, this is how faith is to be found in all situations. Faith is an expression of helplessness in the sense that it is admittance from an individual that he or she cannot stay within his or her own means to understand everything. Even in this admittance of not understanding, one does not gain understanding, but yet chooses to embrace a paradox that puts the individual above the ethical in relation to the absolute. It is as de Silentio points out, “during all this time [Abraham] had faith that God would not demand Isaac of him, and yet he was willing to sacrifice him if it was demanded… He climbed the mountain, and even in the moment when the knife gleamed he had faith- that God would not require Isaac” (35-36). Abraham does not ever understand why, nor does he question it. Yet somehow he expects both to sacrifice Isaac and to get Isaac back. This is faith; and it is in this faith that we encounter our own helplessness in the face of the immeasurable.