Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith – Theology Essay
It is difficult to ascertain whether Kierkegaard wanted his readers to see his knights of infinite resignation and faith as images of actual armor-clad medieval warriors bound by an oath, but I do not hesitate to believe that to some extent, this visualization is necessary to fully comprehend his intended meaning.
Although the knight of infinite resignation works by reason and the knight of faith relies on acceptance of the absurd for his peace of mind, either role requires quite a strong character and dedication to a sturdy oath. However, each knight has quite a different place in the realm of ethics. The knight of infinite resignation stays within ethics and becomes a tragic hero, the pity of all surrounding him; the knight of faith steps outside classical ethics and becomes an individual example of an ethical suspension for a greater purpose—a purpose which is generally irrational and absurd—actually inviting those surrounding to pity themselves.
Kierkegaard uses a wonderfully congruent example of an ethical dilemma that could be presented to a classical, medieval armored knight. In this knight’s world, there is a beautiful princess. He loves her, but she is so far removed from him, that he can never reach her to marry her. Assuming the actual impossibility of the marriage of the two, the knight has two choices. He can submit to resignation and rationally realize he will never have her. In this case, he will not be buoyed up by irrational false hopes, but we still weep for his unfortunate situation. Or else, he can become a knight of faith—he can have blind trust that he will obtain the princess, based on nothing else but his own faith. This is much more difficult to achieve than the knight of infinite resignation—it goes completely against the faculties of reason. Yet he continues to trust that he will marry her and loves her based on the absurd incomprehensible belief that he will obtain her in the end.
Abraham is not confronted with loving a woman, but his dilemma is equally great—if not extremely more trying than that of the knight and the princess. He could easily become a knight of infinite resignation in his situation—he could accept the sorrow and impending loss of his son as a pitiable fact of life. But no—Abraham is a knight of faith. He traverses to the mountain in Moriah, having faith that his son Isaac will be saved or that it will all turn out well. Of course, this is based on nothing rational—it is completely a mindset of his hope and faith. For all he knows, he is going to the mountain to become what classical ethics brands a murderer.
The knight of faith, as exemplified in the example of Abraham, is an example of the “teleological suspension of the ethical;” normal ethical code would dictate that he is an attempted murderer, but he has actually transcended our understanding of ethics for a greater purpose. Call him what you will, it does not matter—his loyalty to God brings him above any human judgment. He is no hero. Through his distress and agony and his absurd situation, he is greater than that—a greatness that brings him above our praises and our tears. We do not need to sorrow for him or try to feel his pain, for we can do no such thing. We cannot even understand him, only “weep for [ourselves]” (94). In other words, what happened to him is not necessarily something eternally unbeneficial—Abraham is a much greater person because of his trial, as we would all be. I weep because I cannot see myself climbing the mountain; I weep because I am afraid that I could not show faith that pure.
In the Book of Mormon, Nephi is faced with the dilemma of killing Laban. Like Abraham, murder is something that Nephi has never done, or most likely never even contemplated. Yet, here he is, standing with a drawn sword in front of the drunken, passed-out man who is the central threat to his life. One would tend to think that here we have another teleological suspension of the ethical, and that Nephi is a perfect example of a knight of faith. However, he is not—this is not Kierkegaard’s definition. A knight of faith thinks and acts on his acceptance of the absurd—a perfect absence of reason. This is why Abraham holds this elevated title. There was no rational argument for the killing of Isaac; in fact, the act was in direct contrast to reason as Abraham saw it. After all, hadn’t God promised Abraham’s posterity as numerous as the stars of the sky? Hadn’t He given him Isaac as a fulfillment of that prophecy? There was no visible reason to the command—to us, it was completely absurd. However, there is plenty of reason involved in Nephi’s decision. He was commanded by God, just as Abraham, but the Lord gives him plenty of reasons why it is better that “one man should perish than that a whole nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief” (1 Nephi 4:13), that phrase itself being very plausible rationale.
In the history of the world, there have been countless examples of just and righteous men killing other men. This is justified even within our own limited ethical value system through war, self-defense, etc. Although Nephi’s situation may not be a classical example of battle or immediate self-preservation, it is certainly a rational decision, simply based on the promptings of God. Abraham, however, has absolutely no reason to kill Isaac than to obey God. Isaac does not want to keep the brass plates, he does not want to kill Abraham, he is completely innocent and does not deserve to die. The fact that Abraham obeys the command of God based on no ethical reason brands him as a true knight of faith. Nephi is somewhat of a tragic hero—we may feel for him and we may even be able to put ourselves in his situation and make the same decision, but we cannot understand the pure absence of reason involved in Abraham’s situation unless we were faced with that decision ourselves. Kierkegaard certainly shares my admiration for this great patriarch, and although we need not weep for his predicament, we certainly can look upon him with wonder and awe.