In Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, the pseudonymous author, Johannes de silentio, argues that either it must be true that religious faith can justify Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac on God’s command (as described in the biblical story in Genesis 22) or else Abraham is a murderer. The conclusion silentio defends has a disjunctive character, and he frequently admits that a person can reasonably deny that it could ever be right to kill one’s child, even if God commanded the act. However, such a person must, on pain of inconsistency, condemn Abraham. For example, in considering Problem I (whether there is such a thing as a teleological suspension of the ethical), silentio admits the possibility that Hegel is right in claiming that the individual who as an individual puts himself above “the universal” thereby does wrong. However, silentio argues that consistency requires that in making such a judgment, Hegel condemns Abraham’s action in being willing to sacrifice Isaac, since such an action is surely not something that can be seen as universal. Hegel’s view implies that Abraham “ought to have been remanded and exposed as a murderer” (FT 47/SKS 4, 149).
It appears then that silentio wants to put some of his readers, namely Jews and Christians who revere Abraham as the “father of faith,” in a difficult spot. If they regard Abraham as an exemplar of faith, someone to be imitated, as did the writer of Hebrews, who describes Abraham as one of the heroes of faith, then it appears they must be willing to judge that Abraham acted rightly in being willing to sacrifice Isaac at the command of God. However, if Abraham was right in his actions, consistency seems to demand that the same judgment of approval be given to a hypothetical contemporary who has received a similar command from God. Of course secular readers may feel no strain here; many will unhesitatingly judge both that Abraham was wrong in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac and that a contemporary who intended such an action would be morally in the wrong. However, the choice is not so easy for those still committed to a religious tradition that venerates Abraham. Silentio in effect challenges such readers either to give up their admiration for Abraham or else admit the possibility that genuine faith might require a person to sacrifice a child.
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