THE SERMON ON MOUNT MORIAH: FAITH AND THE SECRET IN THE GIFT OF DEATH
ADAM KOTSKO Chicago Theological Seminary, Chicago, Illinois, USA
The Heythrop Journal Volume 49 Issue 1 Page 44-61, January 2008
This essay is an investigation of three attempts to think faith. I find my starting place in Jacques Derrida's The Gift of Death,1 one of the most important treatments of Christianity in Derrida's later thought, which was increasingly insistent in its engagement with religious questions up until his death in 2004. This reading of The Gift of Death will focus particularly on the question of secrecy and its relationship with faith, leading necessarily to an account of Derrida's reading of two of his primary references in this text: the second essay of Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals2 and Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling.3 Rather than simply rendering a judgment on Derrida's reading, I will endeavor to read these texts together, extending (or expanding upon) Derrida's reading while questioning some of the positive formulations he makes in his own name – all the while remaining attentive to the gambles involved in thinking faith.
For Nietzsche, there is suffering and difficulty involved in historical existence, but seemingly the decision is not problematic in itself. One may say that everything is a bit too calculable, and indeed, calculation is the very condition of possibility of responsibility:
Man himself must first of all have become calculable, regular, necessary, even in his own image of himself, if he is to be able to stand security for his own future, which is what one who promises does!12
Later on, discussing the origin of the feeling of debt or guilt [Schuld], Nietzsche declares:
Setting prices, determining values, contriving equivalences, exchanging – these preoccupied the earliest thinking of man to so great an extent that in a certain sense they constitute thinking as such: here it was that the oldest kind of astuteness developed; here likewise, we may suppose, did human pride, the feeling of superiority in relation to other animals, have its first beginnings.13
Even in the end of his essay, where he shows some hesitation at the prospect of proposing a positive ideal, Nietzsche is still using the language of cost:
But have you ever asked yourselves sufficiently how much the erection of every ideal on earth has cost? How much reality has to be misunderstood and slandered, how many lies have had to be sanctified, how many consciences disturbed, how much ‘God’ sacrificed every time?14
Similarly, too, where Nietzsche extols the power of forgetting, Derrida asserts that ‘history never effaces what it buries’, using Patočka to read the history of responsibility as ‘a secret history of kept secrets’15 – introducing a higher degree of complexity and of moral gravity to the Nietzschean account, which, while certainly not ‘progressive’ in the usual sense, is in many ways simply ‘successive’.
One might say, then, that Derrida supplements Nietzsche's essay with Patočka's. This becomes most clear in the following dense and crucial passage, in which Derrida contrasts Nietzsche's avowedly anti-Christian genealogy with the terms drawn from Patočka's avowedly Christian (quasi)genealogy, challenging in turn each of the key concepts of Nietzsche's account of the history of responsibility:
History can be neither a decidable object nor a totality capable of being mastered, precisely because it is tied to responsibility, to faith, and to the gift. To responsibility in the experience of absolute decisions made outside of knowledge or given norms, made therefore through the very ordeal of the undecidable; to religious faith through a form of involvement with the other that is a venture into absolute risk, beyond knowledge and certainty; to the gift and to the gift of death [au don de la mort] that puts me into relation with the transcendence of the other, with God as a goodness forgetful of itself – and that gives me what it gives me through a new experience of death.16 ...
In Kierkegaard's hands, the God of Abraham becomes ‘the one who decides, without revealing his reasons, to demand of Abraham that most cruel, impossible, and untenable gesture: to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice’.27 Kierkegaard's reading of Abraham's sacrifice, then, provides Derrida with the occasion to interrogate further the relationship between responsibility and secrecy with which he began The Gift of Death – and to clarify the difference between a Patočkan (but no longer merely Patočkan) secrecy and a Nietzschean forgetting.
On this point, Derrida shifts the emphasis of Kierkegaard's reading, while maintaining Kierkegaard's insistence that the test is ultimately a matter of keeping the secret, even as the secret remains properly incommunicable. Yet whereas for Kierkegaard the incommunicability of the secret is grounded in the transcendence of the God-relationship, for Derrida, it is perhaps a more straightforward matter:
[Abraham] must keep the secret (that is his duty), but it is also a secret that he must keep as a double necessity because in the end he can't but keep it: he doesn't know it, he is unaware of its ultimate rhyme and reason. He is sworn to secrecy because he is in secret.28
That is, Abraham hasn't been entrusted with that information. He can tell others of his plan to sacrifice Isaac, but not of God's reason for the command, because God has not communicated that reason.29 Here the question is not, as with Nietzsche, one of a forgetting that serves as a productive force – rather, the motivating force in this situation is a fact that was never known, at least not by the human participants.
In making this seemingly obvious move, however, Derrida opens up the possibility that Kierkegaard has not fully grappled with the aporetic relationship between responsibility and knowledge: a responsible decision must not be taken outside of knowledge, but if a decision is made simply out of knowledge, then it is ‘the technical deployment of a cognitive apparatus, the simple mechanistic deployment of a theorem’30 – in other words, it is not a decision at all, still less a responsible decision. Kierkegaard certainly insists on the paradoxical character of Abraham's situation, and yet from a ‘God's eye view,’ insofar as he is dealing with the God whom Derrida finds alike in Paul and in Kierkegaard, Abraham is in perfect conformity with God's command, which serves as a trump card rendering all of Abraham's other concerns finally irrelevant. Kierkegaard of course insists that such a ‘God's eye view’ is inaccessible to the subject as existing, and yet for Kierkegaard there is a ‘God's eye view’ – that is, ‘Existence itself is a system – for God, but it cannot be a system for any existing spirit’.31 The quest of (at least) the Danish Hegelians to complete ‘the system’ is not only impossible given the status of the human subject as existing – it is also an attempt at usurping the place that rightfully belongs to God alone.
Yet if we already cannot, where is the necessity of saying that we must not? This question reflects a tension that is at play throughout Kierkegaard's work. For instance, in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard systematically removes the authority of Scripture, creed, baptism, and church as decisive grounds for adherence to Christianity,32 reinforcing his assertion in Philosophical Fragments that ‘[t]here is no follower at second hand,’ which is to say:
The first and the latest generation are essentially alike, except that the latter generation has the occasion in the report of the contemporary generation, whereas the contemporary generation has the occasion in its immediate contemporaneity and therefore owes no generation anything.33
This ‘occasion,’ however, remains indispensable for Kierkegaard. One might even say that in his radical insistence on the subjective character of Christianity, he still manages to sneak the objective in, as it were, through the back door. For instance, in the Postscript, he rejects the idea of an ‘Archimedean point’ from which one must make the leap of faith;34 rather, the leap is made from where one is standing, and one always lands back on the ground...
For Nietzsche, the preachers of morality are the preachers of death, those who look forward to death – yet one could see them as just the opposite, as the deniers of death, those for whom death will open onto an even better version of this world (better, notably, in that the adherents of this teaching will hold all the power). They anthropomorphize God as an existing entity who, in Derrida's words, ‘would be endowed with attributes such as paternity and the power to penetrate secrets, to see the invisible, to see in me better than I, to be more powerful and more intimate with me than myself ’.62 Here Derrida repeats Nietzsche's move of positioning God as the outer limit of reflectivity: ‘God is the name of the possibility I have of keeping a secret that is visible from the interior but not from the exterior’63 – that is, I am the Father who sees in secret. What is more, the Father who sees in secret is me: ‘God is in me, he is the absolute "me" or "self ", he is that structure of invisible interiority that is called, in Kierkegaard's sense, subjectivity’.64
My problem with Theology (and other theories and beliefs that are not supported with data and experiential knowledge) is that it starts from grand abstract assertions (i.e. existence of God) and then looks for logical proofs as confirmations of axioms. It's exclusively a top-down approach. Historically, "applications" of skewed theological constructs (i.e. the Holy Trinity, purgatory, proofs of God) dumbed down the masses, justified holy wars, all the while deifying the powerful bishops and kings.
In short, Theology falls for the traps of confirmation bias, silent evidence, narrative fallacy and ludic fallacy.
But Theology is not all bad. It's good exercise as far as philosophy and logic go. Similar to philosophy, it could generate insights into the mystery of one's existence. The problem is when these insights are conflated, used as conceptual social models and believed (and taught) as literal "truths." Theology, without practice and empiricism, is only storytelling. Some are good stories that teach us wisdom. But most are just pure bunk. Most theologians and priests are simply too arrogant to utter the phrase, "I don't know." They replace it with "only God knows" and gullible people fall for it.