Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Second Interpretation of Abraham Story

The discussion in class has made me think about the way Kierkegaard has interpreted the story of Abraham and Isaac. I think that one can interpret the story entirely in the realm of the ethical.

First of all, within the ethical realm there are some ethical principles that can trump others. For example, we are all taught as children not to lie. However, imagine you are hiding a Jewish friend and a Nazi asks if there is anyone in the house besides your family. It is obvious that the right thing to do is to lie to protect your friend.

Therefore, the moral of the Abraham story could be that whatever God says trumps or overrules any other moral law. Moral law states that it is important to help people, more important not to hurt people, and most important not to kill people. However, the purpose of this story could be to show that whatever God says overrules any other law. (Because clearly not everyone accepts this claim, we will say it is part of the Christian ethical realm).

I think that this interpretation still makes the Abraham story as disturbing as the Kierkegaard interpretation: God could command someone to steal, murder, or any number of awful tasks. However, I do not think that the Abraham story is an idiosyncratic event.

If God had said "squiggle" and Abraham had responded by jumping up and down for two days: that would be idiosyncratic. That story is completely meaningless and I am not able to understand it. However, one can understand what Abraham was asked to do and why it was difficult because this story is within the realm of the ethical.

Kierkegaard might respond by saying that Abraham was completely alone in his experience: that no one would believe he was sane or say that what he did was right. However, this "aloneness" is dependent on the fact that only Abraham heard God's commandment to kill Isaac. If a Christian was on the jury deciding whether to punish a man who had performed Abraham's task, he/she would be forced to punish the man because there is no proof of God's commandment. However, if a Christian (who believed that God's laws could trump other ethical laws) was asked by God to perform Abraham's task, then the Christian would take that commandment as the highest ethical law. In the same way, a mother might punish her child for lying but that does not mean that the child had to go beyond the ethical to find a reason for lying within the ethical.

I had just been thinking about this today and was wondering what everyone else thought about it.


  1. I think you've hit on a good point here. Is it that God is beyond good and evil, as it were, or that He still operates in the realm of the good? What incentive do we have to obey a God who is not good in the sense in which we mean it, other than fear of retribution?

  2. Are you also saying that, since God can trump any other moral, universal law, that we should understand His (capital "H" for clarity) law as universal, therefore placing it in the ethical realm? If so, then I agree that Abraham's story could be seen as occuring in the ethical realm. However, that does not change the fact God is the absolute, and any direct relationship with God (as Abraham had) is automatically rejected from the ethical realm.

  3. You used the example of hiding a Jewish friend from Nazis and lying about it to protect them, however its not like God told you to do so. As we talked about in class there are the three existential stages to live one's life which are aesthetic, ethical and religious. Now the ethical is universal where as the aesthetic (that of the individual) and the religious are both particular. This leads one to wonder whether these two things overlap. As I said before you didn't need God to tell you to lie to the Nazis, you would have figured that out for yourself as it is a particular situation. In class Dr. J said that Abraham bypassed the universal and went straight to the absolute by following God's orders, however, I believe that the aesthetic and the universal go hand in hand instead of having one above the other. One doesn't need God to figure out they should protect the innocent, however, one definitely needs God to justify killing their son for no reason as there is no way to explain this in the ethical or aesthetic. Including the absolute just allows one to justify random actions.

  4. I disagree with Carol's differentiation of a "Christian ethical" realm. The entire concept of the ethical rests on its ability to be universally understood. Therefore, there cannot be a purely Christian ethical. Moreover, if God told man to "squiggle," I think it would still be deemed in the absolute, rather than the ethical. A third party might think that they could understand what God meant by this command, but if they never experienced that command first hand, there is no way for them to know what was meant by it. This example, therefore, is still within the absolute, opposed to the ethical, or even "Christian ethical."

  5. To Rush's comment: yes, how you put it is exactly what I was trying to say. I don't really think that Kierkegaard gives a good reason why the absolute/God must be excluded from the ethical though. God might contradict the ethical, but then again ethical laws can sometimes contradict themselves.

    To Hugh's comment: You've definately pointed out a problem. But I think I might can find a way around it by saying that not everyone agrees on what's ethical. There are many situations in which people have completely different opinions on what to do in a situation (death penalty, torture practices, etc). However, we can understand other's ethics because they are within the rational realm of the ethical. So, although many people would say that there is no ethical rule higher than "don't kill your only son," this does not mean that the ethical realm couldn't contain such a rule. I didn't mean to say that there are two ethical realms (one Christian and one regular). I meant to say that the rule of "following God's orders" can be contained within the ethical realm.


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