From the Archives: King Benjamin Killed God

This is a repost from four years ago. I was reminded of it and thought it worth rereading. Original with comments here.

Jesus set up an impossible paradox when he explained that the two great commandments are to love God and to love one’s neighbor (though he was not the first to summarize the Law in such a way). The problem is that one simply cannot do both, as Jesus himself elsewhere noted that one cannot serve two masters.

King Benjamin saw the impossible tension between these two contradictory commandments and attempted to resolve it by collapsing them into one single ethical imperative. He said: “when ye are the in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” (Mos 2:17). The attempt to equate the love of God and the love of neighbor as simply one ethical imperative elides the problem of having two competing duties. The problem (or promise, depending on your perspective) with such a position is that the duty to love God cannot possibly come into conflict with the duty to love one’s neighbor.

Setting aside epistemological issues raised by Kant that result in Neitzsche’s proclamation that God is dead, there is another element here, namely, the teleological ethical imperative of modernity. For Kant, Hegel, and others, there was no possible justification for the suspension of the ethical. In this view, one’s God is one’s neighbor, and the ethical is the divine.

This is the problem that Kierkegaard tackles in Fear and Trembling. He suggests that Abraham discloses the tension between love of God and love of neighbor when God asks him to kill his son. Kant is very clear here that this is a violation of ethics and that Abraham was not justified in his obedience to God’s “supposed” command. Kierkegaard, in contrast, asserts that the duty to God is higher than the ethical duty, and if not, then God is simply an abstraction of ethics. (In a way, this remains the theoretical problem of the Social Gospel to articulate a basis for ethics that is not identical to a secular basis). He suggests that either Abraham is really the father of faith, or he is a murderer. If one holds the point of view that God is ethics, then the latter is the only option.

King Benjamin is not willing to concede this tension. Along with Kant and Hegel, he sees the ethical as the divine and categorically prohibits God’s command to contravene the commandment to love one’s neighbor. He must, therefore, reject Abraham’s faith, for if Abraham’s faith is correct, then so is that of the suicide bomber and the Laugherty brothers, both of who see God’s intervention in the world in such a way that supersedes the ethical. If by “God” one means something other than the commandment to love one’s neighbor, then this God can only ask that if you follow him, you must hate your father, mother, brothers, and sisters. King Benjamin killed this God before Kant did.

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