Saturday, October 19, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- Abraham, Kierkegaard, and Salvation

Question 4

Kierkegaard believes that being ethical is not the ultimate ideal mode of existence - one must also have religious faith. Explore this view point: what does he think faith can give that ethics can not ? Do you agree ? Can we be ethical w/o faith? Can we have religious faith w/o ethics ? Explain

Kierkegaard's ethics are disturbing to me. He believed that that which is ethical is that which is socially acceptable. That does not mean socially acceptable as in, you can get away with it. It means that which is universally accepted by a given culture as ethical. For Kierkegaard, it was ethical to practice human sacrifice, even of children, if that was the norm of a given society and accepted by the members of that society.

In other words, as long as your neighbors approve, go ahead and do it. I'm sure Kierkegaard wouldn't put that way, but he does not seem to have any kind of external moral standard. Everything is subjective and depends upon your culture.

Referring back to my answer on role models, what would Kierkegaard say about the brutality of the Jim Crow laws of the American South in the 1950s? At first glance, he would surely say they were acceptable. After all they were the social norms of the day. However, these were the social norms of the White society of the day. Blacks never agreed with those laws. Would their opinion matter?

Nothing is universally accepted. There's always at least someone who disagrees. So what percentage of a society or culture must agree on an ethical position before it actually becomes ethical?

You might conclude that Kierkegaard did not believe in God. After all, he makes no reference to God in his opinion about what is ethical. Surprisingly, Kierkegaard was a Christian and his faith was very important to him. He believed that if God commanded you to do something which was unethical, you should do it. God was, to use another philosopher's image, the trump.

Most people who know about Kierkegaard know about him because of his interpretation of the sacrifice which Abraham was willing to make. That is, the sacrifice of his son.

Kierkegaard accepts the Biblical explanation which is accepted by the vast majority of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. They all believe that Abraham was tested by God to see if his faith was great enough to do a terrible thing simply because God told him to do so. In other words, Abraham passed the test.

So, God is important after all! It is He who decides what is good or evil. Ethics may be a matter of social norms, but God can overrule those norms and must be obeyed when He does so.

Here I must insert my own interpretation of the story of Abraham. Many of the deeply religious would find it unorthodox at the very least. Some might go so far as to call it heresy or blasphemy. However, it grows out of my own deep love of God and my conviction of His inherent goodness.

I am convinced that Abraham failed the test. I believe God intended him to say, "You cannot be God if you demand such an evil thing because God is good and this is not."

I even find some cause to believe that the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross in order to save humanity was not required to wash us free of original sin. Surely, God has the power to simply forgive that.

Instead, I believe that such a death was required because it's the only way we humans could believe we were capable of being forgiven. Without such a sacrifice, Christians often declare that there is no way they can be freed of the awful burden of sin they carry. It is this conviction, this wrong conviction, which required such a great sacrifice. Without it, we would not be able to believe that we could be forgiven. Without it, we would not believe that we could be saved.

We are the children of Abraham, we simply cannot surrender the idea of sacrifice. We somehow, deep down in our psyches, believe that sacrifice is essential. Without it, we cannot cannot believe in our own salvation. We feel that there must be a punishment so great that it cleanses our sins, that it redeems us from them. What greater sacrifice than God himself being killed? That can cancel out all of humanity's sins for all eternity. Just as Abraham was perfectly willing to believe that God might require the sacrifice of his son, so we believe that there must be the sacrifice of the Son of God in order to set us free of our own sins.

Why doesn't God simply change us? Good question. I don't want to get into that here, but I will say that if he did change us, then we wouldn't be human anymore.

I repeat my warning, although I intend this to be very respectful of God, there are many who will find this to be a profoundly offensive position. To the best of my knowledge, many people have criticized Abraham for making the wrong decision, but I believe that I am the first to make this particular extension onto the sacrifice of Jesus. The relationship of Abraham sacrificing his son to God and God sacrificing His Son is often made, but I don't recall it being made in this negative sense, as a failure of humanity and of Abraham rather than as an entirely positive event.

The question of ethics without faith is one that really interests me. We had a discussion like that in the old philosophy club a few years ago. My point is that if faith leads to morals because all morality comes from God, then that means that things are moral only because God says so. Therefore, we can conclude that if God decided to change His mind about what is moral, then we must also change our minds about what is moral.

That means that if tomorrow God decides that from now on morality will consist of murdering your parents and eating them, then that will be moral. From that point on, it will be immoral not to murder your parents and eat them. After all all, morality comes from God. Whatever He says is moral, IS moral. Morality does not have its own existence outside of God. . All morality is external to us. It is contained in the simple fact that God said so.

(Remember that Kierkegaard said that that which is acceptable to society is ethical, but that God can overrule that at any moment in time and that He must be obeyed and is always correct.)

Naturally, we would still find murdering your parents and eating them immoral. That means that the act is immoral whether God says so or not. Even if God said to kill our parents and eat them, it would still feel immoral to do so. There is something inherently wrong about doing this thing. Right or wrong does not depend upon the word of God.

For many believers this is a shocking and disturbing statement. However, are we to assume that atheists must automatically be evil people? Many religious people insist that this is true. Nevertheless, I have known and loved at least three atheists. All of them are good, kind, decent people with high moral values. I also know some deeply believing Christians who have much lower moral values. Go figure.

What about faith with no ethics? Well, the ancient Greeks certainly had a lot of faith, but many of the ethics of that society are repulsive to us today. Not only can you have ethics without faith, having faith is no guarantee of having ethics!

I have had two relatives working in prisons. One in the state system and one in the federal system. Both of them are correctional officers working with the most brutal of all human beings. They guarded and monitored mass murderers, rapists, and just about every kind of disgusting criminal you can imagine. Both of them tell me that most of those prisoners are religious. I'm not saying that being religious makes you bad, but I am saying that being religious or not religious does not make a noticeable difference as to whether you are or are not an ethical and moral person.

If God didn't give us our morals, where did they come from? As I noted to you in an earlier post, there are certain moral and ethical values that go across every single human culture ever discovered or studied. Those beliefs came from somewhere.

The answer is that those are evolved beliefs. Remember the monkey that was supposed to share his precious food find? And don't forget the chimpanzee who would punish the other chimp if it took his food but would allow the other chimp to eat the food in peace if a human being took it away and gave it to the second animal.

Even animals have some morals. We do interpret our moral positions in many different ways from society to society, but we also share a common basic belief in what is right and what is wrong. This is true no matter what our religious beliefs may be.

And finally in regard to the importance of God to Kierkegaard: First, to Kierkegaard, God is the factor which can override ethics in determining morality. More importantly, this simply reflects the centrality of God to all things in the universe. Without God, Kierkegaard feels everything is incomplete. Nothing can be whole if it does not include Him. No person, no philosophy, no thing is complete without the presence of God.

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