In our "Philosophy in the Pub" meeting yesterday we started Søren Kierkegaard's classic book Fear and Trembling. It is a beautifully written text and deeply profound (although, I find it hard to think that I'll end up agreeing with him).
What struck me was the critique of the philosophers of his own day (nineteenth-century Denmark) who liked to say that they start with radical doubt (like Descartes) and go beyond faith (after all, everyone has faith, right?). Their doubt and their faith, however, are cheap and false. Both real faith and real doubt are lifelong projects not the kind of thing one can acquire in a few days.
Abraham is Kierkegaard's model of true faith and he forces the radical nature of such faith by means of exposing its problems (willing to kill his own son!). It is simply impossible to make any rational or ethical sense of Abraham's faith.
Abraham's faith was his lifelong project. He trusted God for years and years before Isaac was born. Then, when Isaac grew, God demanded that he kill him. In order to keep Isaac Abraham had to draw the knife (not to do so, or to hesitate when doing so, would utterly change the dynamics of the act and nullify it as an act of faith). This terrible story (and Kierkegaard is great at highlighting just how terrible it is) is the climax of Abraham's life-journey of faith. He never progressed to "higher" or "better" things: "in one hundred and thirty years you [Abraham] got no further than faith."
To Kierkegaard's contemporaries, faith was mundane; everyone had it. The task was to progress from there to higher things. Kierkegaard offers a radically different and deeply challenging vision of faith. This is a faith that one does not presume that one already has. This is a faith that is a pursuit for life. It is hard. It is rare.
Now, as I said, I have some serious worries about Kierkegaard's vision (esp. on the core issue of the relation of faith and ethics). Nevertheless, I think that he is spot on to show us that the most profound and deep things are often the apparently simple things that we take for granted. It reminded me of a little quote I read as a teenager: "never further than thy cross; never higher than thy feet."
Theological profundity does not come from moving beyond the core and "simple" story of the gospel. It never goes further; it only goes deeper.