I don’t usually use this blog for 10 page papers, but I’ve been writing on religious sensibility and how it differs from recital of creedal beliefs, and recently wrote this piece on how Kierkegaard makes it impossible — by focusing on faith as a way of being or sensibility – for faith to be self-deceptive or fanatical. Thought my readers might like it: here goes. (Read at the American Academy of Religion Meetings in San Diego two days ago.
Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith Can’t be Self-deceptive 
Let’s say we overhear a conversation critical of religious believers. The gist is that persons of faith are victims of massive self-deception.
Faith offers beautiful beliefs. God is perfect goodness; he grants forgiveness, and immortality. These are pipe-dreams, lovely thoughts, but nonsense.
The chatter continues:
There’s a simple reason why believers don’t see the nonsense of their lovely beliefs. They shield against the realties of cruelty, suffering, and death. The believer clings to these lovelies to blot out what are really ugly facts of life.
In some corner of consciousness, this self-deceptive believer, it seems, knows death is final, and only half-believes that God exists, and half-believes that God’s at fault for letting evil and injustice win. The benighted believer, we’re told, is in the sad business of manipulating her belief as part of a massive cover up.
The idea is relatively simple, that persons of faith are lying to themselves — they’re in what Sartre calls bad faith. With a little help from Kierkegaard, I can give what I think is an original refutation of this simple critique.
I’ll emphasize the conceptual divide between faith and belief, a gap that is easily overlooked. Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling is my touchstone here. We can mark this divide with a slogan: The knight of faith is not a knight of belief. Seeing this initial surprise leads to a second surprise. The logical gap separating faith from belief makes it impossible for the knight of faith to be in self-deception. We can know this with a priori certitude.
- Faith is not Belief
Fear and Trembling’s knight of faith has unflappable assurance and steadiness in adversity, has courage, care, and poise, has love and flexibility in self-assessments and judgments of others.
Think of those early scenes of Abraham failing in faith. It shows in the unsteady shake of his hand, in the quivering furrows of his brow, or in his rising up, acting like a madman intent on murder. His movements and mien betray him. His being is compromised. Johannes will say that faith is a double movement – it is not a double or single or triple belief.
Faith is a matter of movements, of ways of being, of possessing unflappable assurance, for instance. The virtue of unflappable assurance is distinct from the virtue of a well-supported belief. Beliefs can be recited and listed as propositions to post on a door. Faith, in contrast, will be shown in a steady hand or in a ballet leap’s graceful descent. Self-deception concerns the mechanics of belief-selection, defense, and assertion or posting. Faith, in contrast, concerns the marvelous movements, the ups and downs, of ways of being and becoming.
I have a role in configuring my beliefs. Being in self-deception is to configure my beliefs so as to deceive myself. I configure one belief as a cover up of another. I value my honesty. My self-esteem suffers at the thought that I cheated my neighbor. I try to shield myself by working up the belief (self-deceptively) that I did not really cheat him. I configure that belief as a shield. That saves my honesty in my eyes, but at the cost of a lie to myself and to others.
I value my belief in God. If history seems to flaunt one evil after another, I shield myself self-deceptively by working up the beliefs (self-deceptively) that God did not really cheat us, that He will make things right, that the world isn’t rotten to the core. I configure those beliefs as a shield. In my eyes, that saves my belief in a good God — but at the cost of a lie.
Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling does not post or assert, center stage, a list of religious beliefs — that God is perfectly good, or that immortality comes next after death, or that the messiah is about to arrive. Center stage in your faith, he seems to say, is not what you say you believe about these things. If this is so, if saying this or that is beside the point, then whether you say them self-deceptively or not is beside the point. If you stick to faith’s marvelous movements, the ups and downs of ways of being and becoming, it’s impossible to be in self-deception about your faith.
III. Theresa and the Grand Inquisitor
Let sketch two cases outside the ambit of Kierkegaard’s writing that show faith flourishing in movement and bearing and apart from confessional belief. You may know that in her private notebooks, Mother Theresa found herself late in life in great doubt about her belief – at least in doubt about her assent to the belief that God exists. Though she struggled desperately with her belief, she remained steady in her mission. She practiced openness, vulnerability, and humility – what I’ve called the movements of faith. She maintained an unflappable assurance and steadiness in adversity despite the nightmares confided to her diary. By my lights, despite her severe doubts whether she believed in God, she maintained an exemplary faith – a faith that had nothing to do with asserting or posting (or doubting) belief.
My second case is from The Brother’s Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s portrait of Christ facing the Grand Inquisitor. I’ll assume without discussion that Christ is an exemplar of faith and that the Inquisitor gives us self-deceptive rationalizations for burning believers and imprisoning Christ. The Inquisitor protests too much (his speech goes on forever). It’s as if he’s trying to prove to himself something he only half believes. He is, until the last second, rigid in his beliefs, and closed to Christ (who does not protest, but is silent).
A Cardinal of the Church must encourage confessional belief; he must assert and post doctrine. He hates Jesus for daring to continue a misconceived mission that would spread love on behalf of ordinary people apart from their adhering to public church postings and assertions. The Inquisitor takes it as un-posted doctrine that the people need and desire suppression, that suppression can be a kind of love, and that he, as a Cardinal, is uniquely positioned to answer this craven need and desire. These are his operative beliefs. They sit awkwardly with whatever beliefs he thinks he must post publically.
In contrast, Christ is silent. He does not combat assertion with counter assertion. His faith is embodied in poise and comportment, not in posted assertions about the human condition or in posted assertions of doctrine. Faith is embodied in Christ’s openness, vulnerability, and humility; in steadiness of purpose, courage, and care; in a mix of straight-forwardness and flexibility in moral assessments and actions [he doesn’t call on God to arrest the Inquisitor]. Christ is love, and love doesn’t stand or fall with the strength of assertions delivered as argument, nor on posting a belief in it, nor on the truth of a fashionable political anthropology or political theology.
IV. Silence about Belief, not about Being
Fear and Trembling is a set of wild, improvisations on Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, and what that willingness means for the self-sufficiency of ethics. There is no defense of a belief in God’s justice or good will, nor a defense of the belief that God exists and must be obeyed. The lyrical parts of this marvelous book display a menagerie in motion: knights of faith and failed knights of faith, weaning mothers and knitting grandmothers, a curious unexceptional shopkeeper traipsing home for dinner. It displays Agnes playing in the waves by the sea, and a lovesick young youth who falls short of full love for his maiden.
The book mocks the idea that faith is going to Church regularly and asserting a creed. If faith were asserting posted belief, all of Denmark would be swarming with knights. Johannes de silentio is silent about posted or asserted belief; he changes the subject. Faith is movements of being — of poise, courage, and trust maintained in adversity.
To track faith we’ll look for love, unflappable assurance and steadiness of purpose, for courage. We’ll look for vulnerability and humility. We’ll note the absence of self-righteousness or of shouting truth from the rooftops. We’ll find the modesty of Socratic ignorance. If it didn’t sound like a patter song, I say we find character, carriage, comportment, and composure — with a dash of care, courage, and commitment.
In a rare moment of abstract summation, Johannes calls faith a double movement (not a double belief). It is movements of giving up and getting back. For Abraham that means giving up Isaac and trusting that he’ll get him back, transfigured; for the weaning mother, it’s giving up the infant tied to her breast and trusting that she’ll get him back, transformed.
For the ballet dancer, it’s the leap up (resigning the security of the floor, letting go) and the trust that a safe landing awaits (she’ll get the oak-floor security back, transformed). The dancer leaps with composure and courage and lands with openness and trust. Trust refuses to let the possibility of disaster have the last word. Abraham weathers the trembling of giving up Isaac, yet doesn’t let the sense of catastrophe blot out his trust that Isaac will be returned. Faith is rich in ways of moving and being, of giving up and getting back.
The much-advertised “absurdity” of faith is not its demand that the faithful assert incompatible beliefs. The “absurdity” is that the faithful are composed and cheerful even in adversity, even when poise would seem impossible. We know Abraham has lost faith the moment his hand trembles. Trembling is a movement of unfaith. We know Abraham has utterly lost faith when he starts aping the movements of a madman, a murderer. Johannes captures a mildly “absurd” movement of faith in the poise-in-adversity of the mother weaning her infant, or in the dancer leaping up, putting poise at risk; and nevertheless maintaining poise in trusting that the fall back to oak floors will not be disaster. She falls gracefully, as gracefully as she leaps.
Johannes mocks spectators who don’t attempt a leap and sit by the sidelines. Wanting to see Abraham climb the mountain is remaining a spectator, not a knight of faith. Then there are knights of infinite resignation, willing to leave the safety of home to leap into the unknown, giving up all security—yet falling short of full faith.
The infinitely resigned lover loves his departed, but with no hope of love’s return. He despairs of getting love back in his life. He performs the first movement but freeze out the possibility of the second movement. To have faith is to have the trust and poise to expect (and receive) a safe landing, a return of the beloved.
There are, of course, no guaranteed safe landings. The knight of resignation leaps, but stumbles, not trusting a finish without guarantees. A young man launches himself into love, but if that love suddenly becomes unavailable, he has no faith he will get it back. He stumbles. Lacking the second movement of faith, he lapses into melancholy. He knew — and then lost — love. He hovers above the world, afraid to land.
V. The Akedah: release and return
I can’t skip the Akedah. The near-sacrifice brings to the forefront issues of openness and trust. How can one trust ethics, trust God, when these trusts collide? How can one be open to disaster and open to goodness, when the world dishes up both? The master question is how Abraham can weather these collisions and incongruities — these absurdities — without losing faith, either by revolt against God (in the name of Ethics) or revolt against Ethics (in the name of God).
Johannes confesses he can’t understand how Abraham does it. He tries, seeing Abraham from this angle and that. What defies understanding is not a bundle of conflicting propositions but a bundle of ways of being: being able to trust in the world, be open in the world, care, and commit; being able to avoid self-righteousness and revolt. An upgraded Abraham, better than the failed Abrahams of the “Attunement,” will remain poised in the face of realities that are unaccommodating. It’s hard to picture how this can happen. Thus silentio remains silent and only teasing and suggestive. He’s an artist who arrests our attention. He’s not a passport photographer who gets a legitimately identifying portrait. He pictures failed Abrahams, and then Abraham approximations: the shopkeeper, the weaning mother, the dancer who completes a double movement.
Stories of weaning mothers and shop-keeping knights of faith deliver an ordinary sublime for rendering faith. Of course the sublime is evident when we find failures of full representation. The representable and the un-representable are mixed. The mountain peak we know as Mt. Whitney can be represented. Its full aura of power and mystery escapes any photo rendering of it. A video of the shopkeeper traipsing home will not capture the aura of his faith. But bringing the scale of apprehension down from Moriah to the sidewalks the burgher traverses, or to the setting of a weaning mother can seem to help, though we have to look closer to find faith.
The mother faces the danger of harming the child through severing a connection, yet trusts that the infant in fact will be returned. She weathers adversity and absurdity on an intimate scale. The shopkeeper? It’s hard to detect the shopkeeper weathering much of anything – he whistles and enjoys the sight of rats scampering by in the gutter. Perhaps he fears he will be as invisible to God as he is to us, but we’d never know it. In a wry satire, Abraham’s trust in Isaac’s return matches up with the shop-keeper’s faithful trust that although he has abandoned his home for the day, his wife will be there, transformed, and have a meal waiting – roast lamb, no less. Roast lamb!
VI. Can Faith Diminish Self-deception ?
Faith isn’t a simple thing (like an abstract circle) but a cluster or complex of concrete virtues – openness, assurance, and so forth. The parts can blossom and fly off to pollinate elsewhere more or less independently of its integrated whole. The openness of faith – one factor in the cluster– can break from other items of the cluster to migrate. If it rubs off on a self-deceiver and takes hold, it will loosen the rigidity it finds there. In their conceptual ideality, faith and self-deception are as apart as circles are from squares. But circles and squares are not complex, and in their mathematical abstractness are not embedded in the messiness of the world. Faith is complex, and descends to the messiness of the world. It is hard to accurately represent partly because it is sublime, and partly because there are always gaps between a clean Platonic conception and the actual embeddedness of the conception in the world.
We have an inventory of parts of faith. Composure and absence of self-righteousness are among them. Self-deception is centrally a dynamic among beliefs, but in the world it manifests an inventory of typical though non-definitional features. For example, a self-deceiver is typically rigid and self-righteous. That’s the way the dynamic of lying to oneself typically plays out. A part of faith – say its openness – can migrate through the mess of the world to take hold in the self-deceiver. It will work as a foreign agent. Flexibility, openness, and non-judgmentalism will sabotage self-righteousness and rigidity when it finds them. If only the self-deceiver were to be miraculously pollinated by faith’s full array of virtues and ways of being, self-deception would depart the earth.
In addition to rigidity and self-righteousness, self-deception is home to over-simplification, defensiveness, and violence (Think of the Grand Inquisitor). The self-deceiver protests too much, and often becomes violently defensive. The world of their self-esteem is at stake, and inflated egos merge their value with the value of the world. An awful lot is at stake in defending one’s belief. In defending themselves against their own lies, and against the perception that others suspect them of lying, self-deceivers become overwrought, at war with themselves and with any who would expose them.
Self-deceivers, like people at war, grasp for simple, rigid answers. For safety’s sake, they close down possibilities: “Desolation, despair isn’t an option for me,” I protest – and protest with a dash of self-righteous venom – “it’s an option only for weaklings, for the faint of heart.” The knight of faith, in contrast, openly faces to the possibility of desolation – the loss of a son, the loss of a child. The self-deceiver might violently close down the option of despair, but also, in another incarnation, violently close down the the options of joy, serenity or happiness. The simple, rigid protest is growled like this: “happiness is overrated, it isn’t an option for me, it’s for the faint of heart, for those who can’t face reality as it is! “ — Again, uttered with a dash of self-righteous venom. Both atheist and churchgoer are vulnerable to the rigid, self-righteousness and over-simplifications characteristic of self-deception.
For Kierkegaard, utter desolation is possible, and utter joy is, too. Faith is holding the ‘absurd’ trust that joy will eventuate. Whoever nourishes the openness, composure, and trust of faith needn’t lurch toward simple judgments in a world of darks and lights. There is no need to rush to judgment or defend with self-righteous venom the snap-beliefs so typical of the self-deceiver.
In a full life, we develop a knack for weathering setbacks – weathering inevitable threats to our poise, care, and trust that ambiguities and catastrophes present. To get this knack of faith is a gift and a task. We try to inoculate ourselves against the strident singleness-of-vision so characteristic of self-deception – and sometimes succeed. The self-deceiver fails, blotting out complexity, erasing any consideration of setbacks. Faith is marked by the ever-present expansion of its virtues. Self-deception is a lethal contraction of virtues like openness to ambiguity or contingency. The minute either weaning mother or shop-keeping knight try to wrestle ambiguity or contingency to the mat, they will have lost faith.
Single vision is subject to “hyponomia” — a compulsive adherence to narrow, constrictive rules – nomoi are laws — that block appreciation of multivalent circumstances. Rules break down. Kindness can conflict with truth, mercy with justice, strength with humility. Rather than shutting down these conflicts among rules, an expansive virtue abides increasing complexity. Kierkegaard is right to link faith to objective uncertainty, and to the possibility that ordinary ethics, as a compendium of commonplace rules, might have to be suspended – they’re just too simple, and in any case, collide.
Apart from whether self-deception is an issue, many, if not all, of our ideals or aspirations can slip — in just an instant — from legitimacy to poison: “No one’s better than anyone else!” (said stridently in green envy) “You’re mine, my dear!” (said graspingly, demeaningly) “The unexamined life is not worth living!” (said as a put down of day-laborers). Thus beliefs worthy “on the surface” slip into rigid, poisonous opinion, often as an element in self-deception.
Faith opens to morally complex realities – increasingly opens to ever more of them. It is the opposite of a deadly dogmatic embrace. Love, too, opens endlessly, shifting between letting go and embrace. What goes for love goes for faith. We see the ultimate impossibility, when they’re realized, of anything like self-deception. Whether mortals can attain (or receive) such faithfulness or love, and what the odds are, is quite another question.
Openness to inscrutable complex situations is openness to what Cora Diamond calls “Difficult Reality.” Inscrutable realities often appear as intractable conflicts in reasons. Faith is then the radical hope that one can weather an impossible situation. A fanatic lacks faith and typically simplifies a complex, difficult reality by closing off considerations that count against the position held. If Abraham had stiffened his resolve, climbing steadfastly under the assurance that nothing is more important that doing as God commands, then we’d witness fanatical devotion. Closed off is the possibility that Loving one’s son (as God Commands) bears down just as strongly. Closed off is the possibility that God is no longer to be trusted, having promised Abraham a son, and now reneging. It is precisely weathering this situation inscrutable to reason that is a mark of Abraham’s faith – and only the fanatic would declare that the situation isn’t inscrutable, and that there’s a clear-cut ‘right answer’ to what Abraham should do.
I made this point in the late ‘80s by imagining an Abraham who resolves his inscrutable situation that has no correct solution by refusing God’s command – a response that is no less correct than obedience. Without clear guidelines refusal is as permissible as obedience. If Abraham refuses he maintains faith in the God who promised him that Isaac would start the lineage that would make Abraham the father of a great nation. If Abraham refuses he maintains faith in a God who will understand that in presenting Abraham with an intractable situation, Abraham was ‘on his own’ in resolving it, and this God was “big enough’ to honor Abraham’s decision to refuse. And we’d imagine the outcome as a return not of Isaac (who was not put at risk) but of a viable relation between Abraham and God that was momentarily at risk – severed – in Abraham’s refusal. This ‘new Abraham’ had faith that refusal would not irreparably sever his relationship to God any more than his relation to Isaac would have been irreparably damaged had he ascended the mountain.
To return to the motif of the contrast between creedal belief, or belief in posted propositions, and assurance and hope in ‘impossible situations,’ Abraham is free of adherence to propositions like “Obedience to God must outweigh every other consideration always” – or “However bad things seem, God will make things turn out Alright [He’s just and loving, after all.] A refusing Abraham has a radical hope that his situation can be weathered. It is assurance and poise and concern that makes Abraham of faith – and angel returns and renews his relationship to God, just as Isaac was returned and renewed.
NOTES [need editing]
 A sketch of this essay was published in Excursions with Kierkegaard, Bloomsbury, 2012.
 At one point in writing this paper I thought this analogy would work: I can know a priori that my favorite baseball pitcher isn’t going win or lose the game by missing a field goal, and I can know a priori that the knight of faith isn’t going to win or lose his faith by configuring his beliefs. I now believe the situation isn’t as neat as that.
 Alternative readings could cast Christ as the villain and the Inquisitor as the hero; or make the standoff between them a reason to retreat to agnosticism: we just don’t know who is self-deceived, and who is of faith.
 Johannes displays many tragi-comic distortions of faith. He gives us, for example, a lunatic would-be believer who is convinced that being a knight of faith is believing the Abraham doctrine, which he simplifies to mean: obey God, give up your most prized possession. He rushes from church: he’ll raise his knife against his son.
 Imagine a moment in ice dancing when the male releases his partner, throwing her into a leap (or letting her leap?) – and then watching as she lands. Or stumbles. If she falls, she does not return. But he has faith he will get her back. She spins full circle, and drifts back into her partner’s arms. Faith is the openness to contingency of an initial leap and trust in abiding this initial loss and separation – one trustingly awaits her return, assured one will gracefully get her back. Faith is action and release, and receptivity to the gift of return.
 Of course if the believer or non-believer aren’t necessarily suppressing a belief they know to be true. The militant atheist or militant believer may just be loud and ignorant — not in self-deception but in some other dangerous state of belief.
 And he’s right to highlight the terror that can very well accompany a suspension of rules in the name of deeper connections to ultimately joyous realities.
The aim of preserving a single, constricted, and violently “purified” virtue “justifies” the sacrifice or scapegoating of what does not fit. Quite apart from whether self-deception is an issue, we can see this impulse toward self-purification in the suicide of a soldier. He can’t live up to the categorical demand that because others in his unit died for him, he must die for them. The self kills itself in the name of a “purifying” nomos. Or consider the death of Amy Winehouse, a talented and successful young British singer. In her own eyes only a would-be beauty, she takes her life because (for one thing) she lets her vision of superlative beauty become isolated from all other value. She demands that she be an instance of “pure beauty.” She can’t be ordinarily beautiful — or simply attractive or plain.
Sometimes the self of constricted single-vision kills others in the name of “purifying” – cleansing the social landscape. One tolerates only the pure Aryan, the pure Christian, the pure revolutionary. An articulate Dane murders dozens of children on an island outing, shouting a full and self-righteous testament of belief.
 Abraham must believe both that he’ll get Isaac back and that he won’t get Isaac back; the dancer must believe both that severing rooted contact with the floor is a disasterous severing, and that that it isn’t disastrous because that rooted contact will be reestablished