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.
In Chapter 2 I introduced Kierkegaard's view that human lives can be usefully categorized as aesthetic, ethical, or religious, the well-known view of the “three stages on life's way.” One might say that these represent different forms of inwardness or subjectivity, different configurations of caring and passion that give particular shape to human lives. In referring to these forms of human life as “stages,” Kierkegaard means to speak about human existence in a developmental fashion, indicating that in some sense it is natural for human beings to begin as children in the aesthetic stage and progress to the ethical and eventually the religious stages.
However, Kierkegaard also refers to the aesthetic, ethical, and religious as “spheres of existence.” So a first question is how they can be both stages and spheres. The answer lies in recalling the spiritual character of human selfhood. Human persons are partially self-determining beings who freely participate in their own development. Although Kierkegaard thinks that human persons are intended by their Creator to develop from the aesthetic to the ethical and the religious, and in that sense such development is “natural,” spiritual development is never inevitable or automatic. Becoming spiritually mature is not at all like acquiring facial hair or wisdom teeth. Rather a person can become “fixated” (to use contemporary psychological jargon) in a particular stage, and if the person becomes aware of this and aware of the higher possibilities he or she is refusing, then that stage really has become an existentially-chosen sphere of existence.
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