The Gift of Faith: Rethinking an Ethics of Sacrifice and Decision in Fear and Trembling and the Gift of Death

By Gibson, Suzie | Philosophy Today, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview
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The Gift of Faith: Rethinking an Ethics of Sacrifice and Decision in Fear and Trembling and the Gift of Death


Gibson, Suzie, Philosophy Today


Fear and Trembling explores an exceptional faith that goes beyond the realm of human understanding, knowledge, and law. The Abraham story of Genesis serves as a narrative foundation through which S0ren Kierkegaard examines the absurd ethics of a father's willingness to sacrifice his only child to an invisible God. Although scandalized and outraged by the story, he is nevertheless still inspired by a father who chooses to sacrifice public morality for an intangible, private ethics. In The Gift of Death, Jacques Derrida too trembles at the thought of Abraham's sacrifice and is also scandalized enough to contemplate the unconventional ethics of his decision. Derrida's interpretation of the story not only preserves the spirit of Fear and Trembling but also takes it a step further in that the invisible is not bound to religious belief or the existence of God. Through making a comparative study of Fear and Trembling and The Gift of Death this essay will put into question the ethics and subjectivity of an absolute faith and decision that is so wholly other that it escapes from the earthly mediations of language, community, and the law.

The Genesis Story

The Abraham story of Genesis is an unadorned parable of faith that tells of a father's willingness to sacrifice his only legitimate son because God asked: 'Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah: and offer him there for a burnt offering."1 The Almighty's words are teasing and vindictive in their repetition and focus on the precious life of Isaac. Wordlessly showing obedience, Abraham rises early the next morning, takes Isaac to the mount of Moriah, prepares a woodpile, binds him and then raises his knife with the intention to kill. At this crucial moment in the story, an angel from the Lord intervenes and stops him from going through with the sacrifice.

Through the pseudonym of Johannes de silentio, a "poetice et eleganter"2 Kierkegaard breathes spirit and meaning into the silences and secrets that structure and trouble this story of faith. He inhabits the character of Abraham in order to preserve the ethics of his decision. As Gillian Rose observes in The Broken Middle, "Abraham is 'incommensurable,' which is why de silentio is so voluble."3

In The Gift of Death, Jacques Derrida too is keen to retain the ethical dimension of Abraham's decision. Abraham's faith elevates him beyond the sphere of ordinary human reason, morality, and law. Both Kierkegaard and Derrida assert that Abraham chooses to do what is most difficult and painful because in this particular case "the temptation is the ethical itself."4 It is understandable and morally reasonable that a loving father would want to save his only son but of course Abraham does not do this and what is more, he seeks neither justification nor external counsel in making such a decision. In both Fear and Trembling and The Gift of Death, the privacy of his decision is central to preserving the ethics of his sacrifice. The torment and pain of giving up what is most precious in the world is intensified by the isolation and secrecy of his sacrifice.

At the heart of each defense is a belief in Abraham's unfathomable interiority. In Fear and Trembling, Abraham's individual existence is integral to supporting the supreme existence of God. Kierkegaard's motives are clear - he believes in Abraham's subjectivity because it upholds and parallels the ultimate subjectivity of God. By contrast, Derrida's motives are not so obvious. Derrida is neither impassioned by religious crisis nor is he driven by the need to affirm God's existence, and yet he still retains the idea of the ineffable in the form of Abraham's incommensurable interiority. Kierkegaard's external creator is internalized as a wholly other who is so secret and inaccessible that he is even "more intimate with me than myself''5 In The Gift of Death, the contemplative dimension of Fear and Trembling is intensified in the idea that it is neither limited by religious belief nor tied down by the figure of God.

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