By Paul Heinowski BSc(SocSci)
Kierkegaard often says the opposite of what he means, and uses words to mean the opposite of what they denote. He calls this ‘the oppositional presentation’. In addition, he distributed key passages of his theory among his numerous works. This is why there is so little agreement as to what he actually said.
Basically, he was writing for Christians who had committed a sin against love (a term used by Gabriel Marcel). This initiated them into a secret pact with God who tries to entice them into further transgressions. This is by way of a trial.
The prototypes of this theory are the Biblical Abraham, and of course, Kierkegaard himself.
Once the sinner has entered into the secret pact with God, there arises the temptation to reject God and return to the reassurances of social morality. This retreat is itself a sin against God, but not visible to others.
These trials arise when a love relationship becomes permeated by the God relationship (ref1). And when the sinner rejects God’s enticements, it constitutes a further sin, the sin of incredulity (again a term of Marcel’s).
The motivation for these sins is terror and the cowardice that is the response to it. The terror is the fear that one will reject the Beloved, and the sin is the actual rejection (taking ‘Offence’).
Kierkegaard maintained that Man is permanently predisposed to sin and is always in the wrong in relation to God. Therefore in order for them to relate to each other, there must always be a suspension of the ethical. Suspension of the ethical is forgiveness of sins that are going to be committed.
Diverging into biography, the cardinal sins of Abraham and Kierkegaard are fairly well known. Abraham married his sister, and Kierkegaard cruelly broke off his engagement to a young woman whom he loved. Both sins against love.
Kierkegaard also refers to the Biblical Job who defied God’s insistence on taking away his home and family. Job’s persistence (faith) resulted in his getting them back.
Abraham was not so persistent. He went along with God’s insistence that he sacrifice his son Isaac. Right up to the point where he held the knife in his hand! Abraham’s fear of God was so great that he appeared unable to defy God’s insistence. Of course, God stayed Abraham’s hand at the last moment and he got his son back. No thanks to his lack of faith in God’s goodness. A sin of incredulity.
Kierkegaard’s sin of incredulity was in failing to reverse his decision to break with his fiancee despite their both loving each other. This showed an inflexibility or fear of losing face (pride).
For the sinner in these trials an overpowering sense of guilt and unworthiness makes it almost impossible to approach the Beloved. One is caught up in a terrifying dilemma between obeying God and obeying one’s conscience. Kierkegaard assumes that normally the individual will be unable to obey God and will reject Him (ref2).
Kierkegaard was addressing himself to Christians, but of course Abraham was not a Christian, and Marcel has argued that the theory can be used by followers of other religions. Going further, Marcel’s rival, Sartre tried to completely disentangle Kierkegaard’s insights from their religious roots.
- Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Hong translation) Page 53.
- Page 266-7.