The Seventh Seal and the Knight of Faith (Kierkegaard meets McGilchrist)


By Wayne Allensworth

And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven...

Revelation 8:1

In Fear and Trembling, Soren Kierkegaard wrote that faith begins precisely where thought stops. What then is faith? In answering that question, YouTube’s “Boy In The Badlands” channel renders a very perceptive interpretation of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal, especially focusing on the character of the knight, Antonius Block. I will summarize that interpretation, then add some of my own comments that I hope will further illuminate the meaning of Antonius’s spiritual struggle.

Briefly, let’s set up the story told in Bergman’s film, and summarize “BITB’s” interpretation: Antonius Block is a medieval knight who has returned home from the crusades to a land ravaged by the plague. On a rocky seashore, the knight encounters an eerie figure, pale and intense, dressed in black. That figure is Death, who tells Antonius that his time is approaching. The knight has set up a chess board, which viewers can see as Death draws near the wandering knight. Our knight has many questions about life, death, God, and meaning and is not yet ready to depart the earthly realm. He challenges Death to a game of chess, hoping to win and thereby buy himself more precious time to seek the answers to his existential questions.


Death playing chess (Albertus Pictor)

In a subsequent scene, the tall, spare figure of Antonius, cloaked in the chain mail that marks him as a knight, enters a church and ponders the crucified Christ. In the confessional, we learn of the doubts and questions that have haunted him. Unbeknownst to the knight, his confessor is no priest, but Death, who has followed him to the church. A despairing Antonius says, as Death looks on impassively, that “I want knowledge. Not belief.” He wants God to show his face, reach out with his hand, to speak to him. “I cry to him in the dark,” says the knight, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone there. “He is silent,” says Death. And then Antonius tells his “confessor” of Death’s approaching him — and of the game they are playing. Antonius suddenly appears to change his aim. He had stated his desire for knowledge, proof, certainty of God’s existence. Yet he tells Death disguised as his confessor that the chess game is buying him time, not to achieve certainty, but to perform some vital task. Antonius says that he wishes to perform one truly meaningful action before he dies, as he does not believe anything he has done in life satisfies that requirement.

 Antonius in the confessional

BITB sets up the knight’s dilemma this way: Antonius has plagued himself with questions. He wants knowledge. He wants certainty. He relies on reason, yet reason alone cannot answer his questions. He needs faith in order to abandon reason, as it cannot answer the ultimate questions. Yet his dilemma whipsaws him. At the same time, he also realizes that until he abandons reason, he won’t have faith. How, then, does one acquire faith? Kierkegaard’s view, as expressed by BITB, is that faith is a “movement,” realized only in its continuing pursuit of itself. It is not knowledge as such. It is best expressed through action: “I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). Kierkegaard put it like this: Love of God may bring the “knight of faith” to love his neighbor.

Death asks Antonius, “Will you ever stop asking questions?” But the knight admits he cannot, and Death replies, “But you get no answer.” Whatever his struggles, Antonius finds his way, not to precise answers to his questions, but to meaning. In his travels in his plague-stricken land, with Death trailing him, a group of traveling companions joins Antonius. The wanderers are attempting to avoid plague-stricken regions, one of Death’s manifestations in a harsh world.

Among the group is a joyous and vital family of three, a man, a woman, and a baby boy. Jof, Mia, and Mikael are an obvious analogue of the Holy family, Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus, avoiding the death called down on their firstborn by Herod. Antonius sees his opportunity to perform his meaningful action. He distracts Death with a resumption of their high stakes game, giving the family time to escape, an act that manifests his faith. As the family flees, Death tells Antonius that “no one escapes me,” and wins the chess match, informing Antonius that the next time they meet, he and his companions will die.

Death asks Antonius what he has gained from the game. Antonius replies, “A great deal.” As Jof, Mia, and Mikael escape, they pass through a storm. The winds howl, sheets of rain envelop them, and the family takes refuge in their wagon. Jof, invoking the Biblical Passover, tells Mia that the Angel of Death has gone by them.

Death will not be put off for long. He catches up to Antonius and his remaining traveling companions at Antonius’s castle. With Death approaching, Antonius prays to God for mercy. “Out of the darkness, we call to thee, O Lord! We are small, afraid, without knowledge.” Antonius still lacks knowledge or certainty, but he has shown his faith. BITB cites Philippians 2:12: We work out our salvation with fear and trembling. This struggle is also expressed in the very name of “Israel,” of those who “wrestle with God.”

Death enters the castle, and Antonius’s companions introduce themselves to the cloaked figure of mortality personified. In the film’s final scene, Jof has a vision of the Grim Reaper, scythe and hourglass in hand, leading his latest victims in the Danse Macabre. He and his family walk away, continuing their life’s journey in a land haunted by Death.

 The Dance of Death in The Seventh Seal


Faith is not a thing, but belief expressed as action. It’s a process, a coming to be. We long for answers. We have a deep desire for certainty. Life can be terrifying and is often painful. We grow older and watch our loved ones die. Disease ravages our bodies. And the joys we have experienced seem so fleeting; they quickly become only memories. It’s understandable that throughout history humanity has sought certainty in rigid systems of utopian politics or religious strictures. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of the Pharisees. Such constructions can give us the required answers to pat questions, yet entirely miss the real spiritual target, as Jesus, in confounding the ideologues of his day, demonstrated many times. Faith is a way of knowing without certainty. It is an understanding of reality without precision. It is based on trust, not knowledge in the sense of information. Experience and intuition inform it, but it takes shape in action, in living and interacting with our world and with others. It is reason, in that life tells us it is reasonable, but it is not rationalistic or mechanical. It is a way of being, not a formula or algorithm. It reconciles the many instances of paradox in our world, something that rationalism cannot do. And its complexity and suppleness have the ring of truth about it, truth that accounts for context and for paradox.

While I was watching BITB’s video on The Seventh Seal, it occurred to me that the film overlaps in some ways with the writings of Iain McGilchrist, which I have tried to shed some light on in a number of recent articles. In Bergman’s film, the knight Antonius Block is engaged in the psychic struggle described in McGilchrist’s work between conflicting visions of reality as viewed by the right and left brain hemispheres. The LH requires certainty and precise answers, is detached and distant, and eschews ambiguity and paradox. The LH’s detached reason clashes with the desire for faith that is engaged with the living world. The faith that Antonius seeks can only be lived out by engaging with the world in an intuitive, holistic, empathetic manner grounded in the RH. Antonius’s leap of faith is superior to reason in lending his life the meaning he has longed for.

The clash of reason and faith is Antonius wrestling with God. Jordan Peterson has done so publicly for years, and in doing so has done us all a great service if we are willing to listen. It’s no accident that his forthcoming book is entitled We Who Wrestle with God. I would enjoy McGilchrist and Peterson taking on The Seventh Seal, especially Antonius’s spiritual struggle, in a podcast. It is a complex film and has other aspects that would provide more grist for Peterson and McGilchrist to mill. It would not be their first meeting, but I believe it would be a particularly fruitful discussion. 

Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of  The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood. For thirty-two years, he worked as an analyst and Russia area expert in the US intelligence community.

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Wayne Allensworth

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