MacDonald and Kierkegaard: Sonship and the Knight of Faith

Recently, I have been trying to describe the particular concerns of George MacDonald’s theological writing that could, I believe, with some fairness be described as existentialist. In the process, I have learned that the label “existentialist” is a slippery one, and that there is no universal agreement on to whom it should be applied. If there are aspects of MacDonald’s thought that can justly be labeled existentialist, then they certainly exhibit a vastly different form of existentialism than Sartre’s. MacDonald’s ontology is decidedly Platonic; he most emphatically believe that we have a “true nature” that exists in God’s idea of us.

On the other hand, if we call Kierkegaard an existentialist, or describe him as having existentialist concerns, then I think we must do the same for MacDonald. MacDonald’s concern with the paramount responsibility of the individual to be, to realize an authentic existence, in the face of our essential aloneness as individuals, and in the face of massive contradiction from the world around us, seems particularly characteristic of existentialism to me, in the broader sense in which Kierkegaard is an existentialist.

This has led me back, in the last couple days, to re-reading and pondering Kierkegaard’s work Fear and Trembling. Kierkegaard was responding to a kind of ethical philosophy that identifies the right action as that which is universally generalizable. For example, Kant had famously said, “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard chooses to focus on the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. What God commands Abraham to do is most certainly not universally generalizable, and, stripped of all the excuses we can make that it was “only a trial”, it is baldly unethical: Abraham is commanded to murder his son.

Kierkegaard seeks to show that the individual, as an individual, has an absolute relationship to the absolute (God), and therefore that the individual is higher than the universal. At the same time, Kierkegaard does not regard Abraham’s action as meaningless for us: he is searching into the sense in which Abraham can truly be regarded as the “father of faith”. Kierkegaard’s description of faith is in terms of “movements” of the will, which he compares to the movements of a skilled dancer. The “knight of faith”, as he names his hero, must first make the movement of infinite resignation–of giving up all to God freely, with no ulterior motive–but this in itself, Kierkegaard says, is not faith. Faith is the motion of receiving back what you have completely surrendered “on the strength of the absurd.” Abraham’s faith is manifested by his ability to receive Isaac back from the dead with joy. If Abraham had stopped at infinite resignation, Isaac would have been dead to him even if he had survived.

This allows Kierkegaard to put forward a notion of faith as costly, in contrast to the way that he felt the Danish state church had cheapened it. Faith, then, has something to say to the loneliness and anguish of the individual who must be, unsupported for a time, perhaps, by the universal.

Kierkegaard’s description of faith has an unmistakable affinity with MacDonald’s description of sonship to God. The normative example of this life is Jesus:

“This choice of his own being, in the full knowledge of what he did; this active willing to be the Son of the Father, perfect in obedience—is that in Jesus which responds and corresponds to the self-existence of God. Jesus rose at once to the height of his being, set himself down on the throne of his nature, in the act of subjecting himself to the will of the Father as his only good, the only reason of his existence. When he died on the cross, he did that, in the wild weather of his outlying provinces in the torture of the body of his revelation, which he had done at home in glory and gladness. From the infinite beginning—for here I can speak only by contradictions-he completed and held fast the eternal circle of his existence in saying, ‘Thy will, not mine, be done!’ He made himself what he is by deathing himself into the will of the eternal Father, through which will he was the eternal Son—thus plunging into the fountain of his own life, the everlasting Fatherhood, and taking the Godhead of the Son. This is the life that was made in Jesus: ‘That which was made in him was life.’ This life, self-willed in Jesus, is the one thing that makes such life—the eternal life, the true life, possible—nay, imperative, essential, to every man, woman, and child, whom the Father has sent into the outer, that he may go back into the inner world, his heart.” (“The Creation in Christ”, Unspoken Sermons, Series III)

In this description we have the two movements of the knight of faith in his dance–the leap into infinity by unreserved sacrifice of oneself, and the faultless landing, back into finitude, expressed in the taking up of the privileges of one’s true being, won only through abandonment. In this case, even more clearly than in the story of Abraham, it is ourselves that we offer, and ourselves that we receive back.

It is interesting to compare what MacDonald and Kierkegaard, respectively, have to say about the rarity of their human hero. In his sermon “Freedom”, MacDonald says:

“Where then are the sons? I know none, I answer, who are yet utterly and entirely sons or daughters. There may be such—God knows; I have not known them; or, knowing them, have not been myself such as to be able to recognize them. But I do know some who are enough sons and daughters to be at war with the slave in them, who are not content to be slaves to their father.”

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard says of the knights of faith:

“In my own experience I frankly admit to having found no reliable examples, though I would not deny on that ground that possibly every other person is one. Still I have tried now in vain for several years to track one down…. But if I knew where such a knight of faith lived I would journey to him on foot, for this marvel concerns me absolutely.”

It’s also interesting to compare their reactions to the presentation of faith as something “easy”. In “The Hardness of the Way”, MacDonald writes:

“None can know how difficult it is to enter into the kingdom of heaven, but those who have tried—tried hard, and have not ceased to try. I care not to be told that one may pass at once into all possible sweetness of assurance; it is not assurance I desire, but the thing itself; not the certainty of eternal life, but eternal life. I care not what other preachers may say, while I know that in St. Paul the spirit and the flesh were in frequent strife. They only, I repeat, know how hard it is to enter into life, who are in conflict every day, are growing to have this conflict every hour—nay, begin to see that no moment is life, without the presence that maketh strong. Let any tell me of peace and content, yea, joy unspeakable as the instant result of the new birth; I deny no such statement, refuse no such testimony; all I care to say is, that, if by salvation they mean less than absolute oneness with God, I count it no salvation, neither would be content with it if it included every joy in the heaven of their best imagining.”

Likewise, in Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard protested against the cheapening of faith by leaving out its anguish:

“Now if everyone in my generation unwilling to stop at faith is really someone who has understood life’s horror… if all those unwilling to stop at faith really are people who possess the strength of soul to grasp, and give themselves time to be alone with, the thought that what they wished was impossible; if all who are unwilling to stop at faith have really reconciled themselves in pain and been reconciled by pain; if all those unwilling to stop at faith have in addition… performed that marvel, grasped the whole of existence on the strength of the absurd–then what I am writing is a speech in the highest praise of my generation by the least in it….”

It is clear, however, that while both men regard faith as a life-absorbing effort, MacDonald can more clearly articulate why it is for everyone. We all stand in an individual relationship to God, and can only discover our path through close attention to the present moment, but the double movement of self-abandonment and grateful welcoming is ours because it is the natural process by which the children of God become the sons and daughters of God.

I cannot help but think that where Kierkegaard sees the absurd, and says that faith begins where thought leaves off, MacDonald sees intelligible laws of being, albeit perhaps laws unreachable by a bare chain of reasoning. Of course, Kierkegaard’s famous “leap of faith” is not at all a blind submission to authority, as it could be misrepresented. Perhaps the idea in MacDonald’s thought that corresponds to it is his insistence on the supremacy of the will over the intellect. We have to commit ourselves to do what we already know has been asked of us, before we can come to any additional knowledge. Further reasoning in the face of clear duty is a dishonest evasion. Not the less does MacDonald maintain the rationality of all the ways of the spirit.

But perhaps what Kierkegaard sees in the “absurd” is the notion of incommensurability, a word he uses frequently, just as the “surds”, or irrational numbers, are the “incommensurable numbers”. In this sense it may capture the higher dimensionality of the laws of Being, and their quality of not being measurable by the rules of thought used to derive the philosophical systems with which he was familiar. It also reminds us of the irreducible element of “fear and trembling”, the surrender of the desired outcome its consequent placement beyond our human machinations.

Although I find it difficult to read Kierkegaard without a prior acquaintance with the philosophical currents to which he was responding, I am definitely looking forward to broadening my acquaintance with his writings. Next up is The Sickness Unto Death. At the same time, I’ve been wrestling with what I feel is MacDonald’s most existential work, Lilith. More on that soon….

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