My first exposure to Søren Kierkegaard’s work
was in college, when I read his Concluding Unscientific Postscript.
That book left a lasting impression on me;
what struck me most was its rejection of the idea
that one can come to a recognition of the truth of the Christian faith
via a process of rational, scholarly investigation.
At the time, I had been studying classical apologetics for many years,
as well as the writings of a variety of famous philosophers.
It was becoming increasingly clear to me that there was no way
one could possibly get to the bottom of all the philosophical arguments
for and against the Christian faith (not to mention competing worldviews)
in a hundred lifetimes, let alone a single lifetime.
On the other hand, the main alternative I had encountered
was some kind of fideism that simply demanded acceptance of
the gospel “by faith” divorced from all rational inquiry.
Kierkegaard was the first thinker I had encountered who seemed to
recognize the paradox and find a way to embrace it.
Despite my strong positive impression of the Postscript, I did not rush to read Kierkegaard’s other books. Recently, I decided that I really ought to explore Kierkegaard further. Fear and Trembling seemed to be a natural choice, since it is widely regarded as one of his most accessible as well as influential books. In it, Kierkegaard—or rather, the pseudonymous Johannes de silentio, whom we are not supposed to assume voices Kierkegaard’s own personal beliefs—grapples with the troubling implications of the famous episode in which God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.
Kierkegaard is of course not the only one who has found the Abraham/Isaac narrative disturbing. I have met many people who perceive God as asking Abraham to sin by murdering his own son. Surely if God were perfectly good, he would never demand anyone to sin? Or even if somehow, killing Isaac would not have been a sin, surely it is repugnant for God to test the loyalty of Abraham by asking him to do something so horrific? And finally, are we really supposed to admire Abraham for being willing to kill Isaac? Would Jesus have done the same thing in Abraham’s place? If I become convinced that God is telling me to murder some innocent child, am I supposed to imitate Abraham’s example of great faith?
Fear and Trembling confronts many of these difficult questions. While Johannes de silentio does not seem to feel any need to defend the goodness of God, he does believe that Abraham is being asked to commit murder, and thereby violate a universal ethical demand. How can Abraham’s apparent willingness to kill his own son be regarded as a shining example of great faith? That is the fundamental question that occupies the entire book.
Preceding the main body of the book are several introductory sections, which in the translation I have read (by Walter Lowrie) are called the Preface, the Prelude, the Panegyric upon Abraham, and the Preliminary Expectoration. The Preface is mostly a disclaimer that Johannes de silentio is not a philosopher. The Prelude is a rather peculiar section that gives four counterfactual ways that the Abraham narrative might have gone, but did not:
1. Just before the crucial moment, Abraham exclaims to Isaac that he is not his real father, and that he is an idolater who does not worship God. This is a lie, but Abraham says this so that Isaac does not lose faith in God.
2. Externally, everything seems to happen in accordance with the biblical narrative, but Abraham is sorrowful the whole time, and even after Isaac is delivered, he remains downcast for the rest of his life because he cannot forgive God for putting him through such a trial.
3. After the incident is over, Abraham is tormented by the thought that his willingness to sacrifice Isaac was a sin, and he prays to God to forgive the sin, while at the same time not understanding how it could be a sin to offer God his best thing.
4. Everything seems to happen in accordance with the biblical narrative, but at the end, Isaac loses his faith.
It is not completely clear to me what the purpose of these counterfactual scenarios is. Perhaps the point is to underscore how remarkable it is that Abraham and Isaac managed to go through such an ordeal and still retain their faith in God. This may also be the point of the Panegyric, which praises Abraham for his great faith, and suggests that if at any juncture, Abraham had doubted or behaved differently from how he actually behaved, he would have failed the test and not been venerated as a man of great faith.
It is in the Preliminary Expectoration that Kierkegaard (or de silentio, if you prefer) lays out what he sees as the fundamental paradox in the Abraham narrative, and offers an elucidation of Abraham’s faith using the famous concepts of “dread” or “anxiety” (Angst), “infinite resignation,” and “belief by virtue of the absurd.”
Kierkegaard draws an analogy between Abraham and the rich young man, both of whom were asked to give up the best that they had, but Kierkegaard insists that the two cases are not at all parallel, because Abraham is being asked to commit murder. He points out that if any of us were to try to imitate Abraham today, we would be locked up for insanity or attempted murder. This ethical contradiction means that the concept of “dread” enters in Abraham’s case but not in the case of the rich young man.
The ethical expression for what Abraham did is, that he would murder Isaac; the religious expression is, that he would sacrifice Isaac; but precisely in this contradiction consists the dread which can well make a man sleepless, and yet Abraham is not what he is without this dread.Kierkegaard returns to the concept of dread frequently in Fear and Trembling, but it remains somewhat mysterious. In a later book, The Concept of Dread, Kierkegaard discusses it in much more detail. Dread arises when we become aware of the terrifying reality that we have the freedom either to act in accordance with ethical imperatives, or to violate them.
For if I had got Isaac back again, I would have been in embarrassment. What Abraham found easiest, I would have found hard, namely to be joyful again with Isaac; for he who with all the infinity of his soul, proprio motu et propriis auspiciis, has performed the infinite movement [of resignation] and cannot do more, only retains Isaac with pain.The crucial step of faith consists in continuing to believe in the precise thing that one has resigned oneself to as being impossible—belief “by virtue of the absurd.”
He mounted the ass, he rode slowly along the way. All that time he believed—he believed that God would not require Isaac of him, whereas he was willing nevertheless to sacrifice him if it was required. He believed by virtue of the absurd; for there could be no question of human calculation, and it was indeed the absurd that God who required it of him should the next instant recall the requirement. He climbed the mountain, even at the instant when the knife glittered he believed…that God would not require Isaac. He was indeed astonished at the outcome, but by a double-movement he had reached his first position, and therefore he received Isaac more gladly than the first time. Let us go further. We let Isaac be really sacrificed. Abraham believed. He did not believe that some day he would be blessed in the beyond, but that he would be happy here in the world. God could give him a new Isaac, could recall to life him who had been sacrificed. He believed by virtue of the absurd; for all human reckoning had long since ceased to function.Although the above passage occurs in the Preliminary Expectoration, in a sense it captures the main point of the whole book: Faith, as exemplified by Abraham, the “knight of faith” par excellence, is all about maintaining belief in a promise of God even after one has “infinitely” resigned oneself to the impossibility of its fulfillment. The final step is what Johannes de silentio says he cannot understand and cannot make himself do. He can imagine the step of infinite resignation, which can be achieved through enormous but purely human effort, but to believe by virtue of the absurd defies human understanding.
The paradox of faith is this, that the individual is higher than the universal, that the individual (to recall a dogmatic distinction now rather seldom heard) determines his relation to the universal by his relation to the absolute, not his relation to the absolute by his relation to the universal. The paradox can also be expressed by saying that there is an absolute duty toward God; for in this relationship of duty the individual stands related absolutely to the absolute. So when in this connection it is said that it is a duty to love God, something different is said from that in the foregoing; for if this duty is absolute, the ethical is reduced to a position of relativity. From this, however, it does not follow that the ethical is to be abolished, but it acquires an entirely different expression, the paradoxical expression—that, for example, love to God may cause the knight of faith to give his love to his neighbor the opposite expression to that which, ethically speaking, is required by duty.I find this key passage to be very obscure. Among other things, it hinges crucially on the puzzling terms absolute and universal. These are probably to be understood in terms of Hegelian philosophy, which Kierkegaard mentions several times, but having struggled through a fair bit of Hegel myself, I do not think that a study of Hegel would make these concepts any less opaque.
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.” He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead; hence, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. (Hebrews 11:17–19, RSV)Now, perhaps you do not agree with me, and agree with Kierkegaard that killing Isaac would be unethical. In that case, I think that Kierkegaard gives as good a defense of Abraham as any. Namely, ethics concerns the public realm of human interaction, with publicly known rules. Although ethics might seem to place absolute demands on us, it is actually subordinate to our individual relationship with God. In extreme cases such as Abraham’s when the two conflict, our love of God and neighbor must take priority over what the human world currently deems to be the ethically correct action. I see some affinity between this view and so-called “situation ethics.”