Furthermore if you look back on your own experience, is it not in that victory by which your faith overcomes the world, in "your exit from the horrible pit and out of the slough of the marsh," that you yourselves sing a new song to the Lord for all the marvels he has performed? Again, when he purposed to "settle your feet on a rock and to direct your steps," then too, I feel certain, a new song was sounding on your lips, a song to our God for his gracious renewal of your life. When you repented he not only forgave your sins but even promised rewards, so that rejoicing in the hope of benefits to come, you sing of the Lord's ways: how great is the glory of the Lord! And when, as happens, texts of Scripture hitherto dark and impenetrable at last become bright with meaning for you, then, in gratitude for this nurturing bread of heaven you must charm the ears of God with a voice of exultation and praise, a festal song. In the daily trials and combats arising from the flesh, the world and the devil, that are never wanting to those who live devout lives in Christ, you learn by what you experience that man's life on earth is a ceaseless warfare, and are impelled to repeat your songs day after day for every victory won. As often as temptation is overcome, an immoral habit brought under control, an impending danger shunned, the trap of the seducer detected, when a passion long indulged is finally and perfectly allayed, or a virtue persistently desired and repeatedly sought is ultimately obtained by God's gift; so often, in the words of the prophet, let thanksgiving and joy resound. For every benefit conferred, God is to be praised in his gifts. Otherwise when the time of judgment comes, that man will be punished as an ingrate who cannot say to God: "Your statutes were my song in the land of exile.”
- Bernard of Clairvaux, sermon on the Song of Songs (1)
I recently reread Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, and, while I am not quite its target audience, it left me with a distinct impression of failure. Kierkegaard's objective is to polemically disprove the traditional bourgeois interpretation of the story of Isaac. This interpretation relies essentially on an economic view of Abraham's dilemma: the business with Isaac was so traumatic because Isaac was very precious for him. In other words, if the circumstances were different Isaac could have been replaced by a well-worn Led Zeppelin T-shirt. For Kierkegaard (as you no doubt already know) the problem is that Abraham is in effect committing murder based on nothing but his individual act of faith--which is nevertheless a justified act. (What's really at stake here is Kantian morality, which, in Kierkegaard's view, can acknowledge no situation in which the individual would have the power to suspend the universal moral law.)
Here's why I think he fails. In order to properly position the leap of faith in relation to both everyday behavior and the maxim-driven conduct of a Kantian, Kierkegaard needs to evacuate all notions of calculation, weighing of possibilities, and other essentially economic considerations from the faith-act itself. The whole point is that the leap of faith transcends calculation, and as long as it is subject to being calculated, it appears entirely irrational. But on the other hand, in order for the book to have a purpose, there must be an element of volition: Abraham could have chosen not to obey God. These two demands are fundamentally in conflict. If I must make a choice about my leap of faith, I must make it using the familiar evaluative strategies that are available to me--otherwise there is no choice at all. Kierkegaard, in short, begs the question; his approach to agency requires its occlusion in other, irrelevant, pseudoproblems.
Skimming inattentively through a few of Bernard's sermons on the Song of Songs, I noticed a recurring echo of this problem of agency. Here Bernard notes how we praise God when we have overcome temptation (but note the passive voice!). What, precisely, are we giving thanks for? In another sermon, he says that baptized infants can enter heaven because of a gift of grace, not, like adults, a "reward of merit." What's the difference? Where in the chain of causality is there an agency not always-already guided by grace--and whence, then, this notion of reward?
Of course, for many believers this is not a problem at all. They can point out that God "gives one the strength" to resist temptation but does not erase one's agency. But this only defers the question: if, hypothetically, I am given the strength to resist temptation, is it possible for me not to resist it? If yes, I have not been given anything; if no, then I have made no choice and therefore deserve no reward. Suppose another answer is given--that God gives one the strength but one must still make a choice to use it. Again, the question is deferred: if God does not give me the strength to use the strength He gives, he has given me nothing. And so on. If we believe Nietzsche, this underlying cover-up is at the very center of Judeo-Christian religion.
Bernard, though, is a bit more complex than that. His sermons outdo the most hardened postmodernist in their dissection of isolated lines from the Song of Songs. (Half a dozen are dedicated to a single line.) What emerges from the discussion is something beyond the typical elision of the poem's sexuality. Almost like a Sufi mystic, Bernard embraces the "drunkenness" or irrationality underlying the beloved's demand for the lover's kiss (i.e. God's grace). Such a view provides the opening for a way out of the dilemma of agency. In drunkenness, both calculation and reward disappear--a consequence Bernard wisely does not dwell on.