On the presidential suspension of the ethical

What in the history of government has ever given citizens any reason to have faith in government?

In Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, our boy Kierks examines the extraordinary story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, begging readers to consider how if choosing the right yogurt causes you existential crisis, imagine being commanded by your chosen deity to murder your son. Bit of a dilemma, innit?

Now if we look at Abraham’s situation through the narrow scope of a universal ethics, we might conclude that he’s just a madman murderer.* This betrays a more radical understanding of faith and how terrifying it is to have a truly personal relationship with God and your own morality. In Kierks’ needlessly complicated paradigm for spiritual development, Abraham ascends to the religious sphere, where effectively you create your own ethics according to inexplicable divine law, but the shit is so dumbfounding and beyond human comprehension that you can’t translate it to any of your friends in the material realm. As a consequence, you look batshit crazy for being authentically faithful. You can’t justify what you’re doing except for blindly pointing in an arbitrary direction (since God is everywhere) and going, “but He said it was cool!” You might add, “don’t ask me to explain why it’s right, it just is, okay?”

In essence, you adopt God’s peremptory logic as an ethical stance and are put in a position to suffer, like Him, when no one else cares to listen to your bullshit anymore. I mean, good for you that you’ve transcended everyone else’s moral perspective, but like how does that help me deal with this earthly stuff right now? So let’s put the knife down and discuss this like the supremely rational beings we desperately want to believe we are. No, I can’t just take your (or His) word for it. Slitting my son’s throat can’t be an act of Faith.

You coming up with that totally reasonable (by “universal” human standards) argument reveals why Abraham is above you (spiritually). When he’s committed to murdering Isaac, he becomes the Knight of Faith, someone for whom our ethics no longer flies. He’s completely on his own, abiding by rules he can’t fathom but somehow knows are absolutely right. In this, he experiences a teleological suspension of the ethical. His personal relationship with God is his primary end (telos), and so everything else must crumble before it. Although Abraham doesn’t understand why following God in this instance is right, he follows him despite his doubts and experiences genuine faith in his sacrifice.

So…but how is he not just crazy?

We can’t be sure. It’s also not really our business to question. What Abraham does with God, that’s for him to understand, not us. When our test of Faith comes, we’ll be faced with something similarly confounding; inexplicable to others. Will we have the strength and courage to abide by our internal sense of what’s truly right? How will we know we’re not crazy?

Faith offers no consolation; in fact, it is the very suspension of consolation that makes it Faith. Kierkegaard was basically calling contemporary Christians out for their bullshit spirituality. They didn’t have faith; they had delusional justification in the universal doctrines of the ethical (what “they” say is right and wrong), or untenable comfort in the ignorance of the aesthetic (where no one has to care about right and wrong in the first place).**

Let’s now bring our attention briefly to U.S. Presidents. In many ways, we abdicate ethical responsibility to our leaders, having faith in them to know what Faith truly is and to abide by it as a moral exemplar that we can then follow. Increasingly, we’ve learned that such faith is misplaced, so much so that we now have no recourse but to turn more deeply into ourselves to reclaim our lost Faith. Fortunately, Faith never leaves. It’s in there waiting. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to recover, and even when you recover it, it certainly isn’t easy to maintain. Faith is an ongoing tension that can never really be resolved.

That we expect our Presidents to do anything right (or Right) is a fool’s hope. That we turn to ourselves instead to do the same is our only hope.

That we let Presidents get away with suspending the ethical in favor of them doing them? I don’t have an answer for that. But instead of pointing our craven fingers at them for such selfishness, we might want to consider how suspending our attachment to the ethical in the first place could serve us.

Presidents, like religious leaders, are no closer to God (for secularists or atheists or whatever, substitute “some transcendent force that is beyond our comprehension” here) than we are. It is not their responsibility to save us; they couldn’t if they tried. From what might they save us anyway? If it’s from the fundamental reality that Faith is always yours, sorry, that’s on you, buddy. If you’re not ready to move toward the religious sphere and into increasing layers of the unknown (those outer circles in your concentric spirituality are goddamn massive…pretty much pure dark matter), no one can help you. Just don’t expect anything from your aesthetic position. You can pray and go to church and go through the motions and not really mean anything, and so that’s all you’ll have: praying and going to church and going through the motions and not really meaning anything.

Or you can let go of your default setting and experience Abraham’s insanity, i.e. a suspension of everything you know in order to reclaim everything you’ve always already known.

Will you surrender and risk your life and, finally, live?


*Since this allusion is a set-up for looking at U.S. Presidents, pardon my gross reduction of Kierks’ agonizingly nuanced reflection on this Christian myth. For more, read Fear and Trembling. For less, eat a box of cookies. In both cases, you’ll come out feeling not so good and wondering why you thought it was ever a reasonable idea to do either in the first place.

**Turns out we went deeper with this analogy than I expected. Pardon that as well. If you don’t, that’s okay. I’m a Knight of Faith. I don’t need your bullshit approval. (Please love me still though.)

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