Kierkegaard describes his hero, “the knight of faith,” in the following terms:
As for the knight of faith, he is assigned to himself alone, he has the pain of being unable to make himself intelligible to others but feels no vain desire to show others the way. The pain is the assurance, vain desires are unknown to him, his mind is too serious for that. The false knight readily betrays himself by this instantly acquired proficiency; he just doesn’t grasp the point that if another individual is to walk the same path he has to be just as much the individual and is therefore in no need of guidance, least of all from one anxious to press his services on others. Here again, people unable to bear the martyrdom of unintelligibility jump off the path, and choose instead, conveniently enough, the world’s admiration of their proficiency. The true knight of faith is a witness, never a teacher, and in this lies the deep humanity in him which is more worth than this foolish concern for others’ weal and woe which honored under the name of sympathy, which is really nothing but vanity.
The above reminds me of a book I read which included the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, about, strangely, proselytizers of the Christian faith. In it he admitted to having had a prejudice against Christians in his youth. Why? Because he would find them at his school condemning, in no uncertain terms, the gods and vegetarianism of Hindus. Now, do not misunderstand me: I believe if he had seen the work of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, then even if he had not been converted, he would be deeply moved. Yet listening to these braggarts of the faith say all kinds of evil about Hinduism he felt only contempt for them. This was despite the fact that his father would invite people of different faiths to his house so they could discuss a variety of perspectives about religion. Apparently the only Christians Gandhi knew at that point in his life were either British colonizers or the brusque missionaries whom he saw while going home from school. He went on to say that the one Indian who did convert to Christianity acted in ways equally offensive: he donned Western dress and ate meat, including beef. There was a sense in which being “fully Christian” meant “to leave behind the culture and not just the religion of India.”
Now I find the same arrogance in Kierkegaard’s writing about the “Knight of Faith.” It seems to me that faith should be practiced with humility, and that using the Good Mother as our example, Jews and Christians (and perhaps members of other faiths) should make it a point to serve those who are least able to take care of themselves. More, religion–even the religion of nuns, monks, and priests (but of course rabbis who tradition require to marry)–requires the faithful to live in community. I remember learning about the Orthodox Church at Athos, where the monks are required to take a vow of silence. In the film about Athos, it was commented that even in silence the monks formed a sort of community. This fellowship is what true religion teaches, even in its ascetic branches. To use a religion far removed from monotheism, Buddhist monks and nuns also–though practicing their faith in hopes of extinction–practice their faith in community. More, they feel that whether as doctors or as teachers of the young, they are enjoined to act on behalf of the larger world.
More, to learn the path to salvation, a person must be willing to learn from the people they meet on the way. There is a Jewish midrash that has King David say, “I make every man I meet my teacher.” Similarly, Jesus and Mohammad learned from the religious people they knew before charting their own path, as did Buddha (and Gandhi). They did this because they were men, and though of great faith they wanted to learn from those who had come before them. True, Jesus is supposed to have had his transfiguration; Mohammad his illumination in the cave; and Buddha his first taste of enlightenment under a banyan tree. Yet all three went through a series of teachers before finally embracing their own path to salvation.
What is worst about Kierkegaard is his dismissal as “vain” those sympathetic urges which bind one human being to another. The point of true faith is love, whether it is Jew for Jew or members of the Catholic or Protestant folds. Perhaps in this stage of history, we can even say, “My duty as a Jew is to love my fellow, Jew or non-Jew, as though we were both pieces of the same great whole,” or the same words with “Christian” or “Muslim” or any number of faiths included. I think that the Hegelian absolute may even allow for this greater love, once a person acknowledges that idealism’s chief failure was that it predicted a Heaven on Earth in the Twentieth Century. Perhaps, recalling the tragedies of the 20th Century, we can see serving the Hegelian Absolute–understanding God philosophically this way–as an act commanded but which may be obeyed or disobeyed.
To quote a Christian catch phrase, “For God so loved the world, not God judged the world.” Though I am not Christian, I hold that God gave us our freedom for a reason. It is true that human beings have done terrible things to each other. Yet there have also been people who do deeds of rare and exquisite beauty: Rabbi Akiba, teaching when it was illegal in Rome and dying as a consequence; Polycarp, sacrificing his life for God; Rabia a slave granted her freedom because of her devotion to Allah; Ashoka, the emperor who became a Buddhist after seeing war and being repelled; St. Francis, who discovered a God of Love after recanting fighting in the crusades; the Baal Shem Tov, whose love of nature and the emotional life of prayer led to a new phase (for some) in Judaism; Gandhi, whose life was a prayer lived for the people of India; Mother Teresa, who devoted her life to the selfless love of lepers. These people were the poets of their faith; their lives were their heart’s prayers. It is as is said of the capable wife in Proverbs,
Many daughters have done valiantly,
But thou excellest them all.
Though most pious people never live up to Rabbi Akiba or Polycarp, St. Francis or the Baal Shem Tov, yet their lives are like shooting stars, capturing that flame of faith which is so elusive for those of us who would be like them and yet know we do not have to be. The Talmud says, “Some do more, some do less,” because the trashman is as necessary to society as the rabbi. Yet even the trashman is blessed in the name of those “great in the Spirit.”