Review of Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard

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.

Kierkegaard then argues that if Abraham did not thoroughly love Isaac, and recognize his duty toward his son, there would be no real test. If he hated Isaac then the thought of murdering him would be a simple temptation to do something wrong, rather than a grand test of faith. So to understand what is going on, we must assume that Abraham had intense love for Isaac (as indeed God states: “your only son, whom you love”). Given this, it follows that, before being able to take the trip to Mount Moriah, Abraham must have had to mentally let go of Isaac and resign himself to performing the ultimate sacrifice. This is what Kierkegaard calls “infinite resignation,” and is also a necessary ingredient in Abraham’s faith.

But dread and infinite resignation are still not the whole story. Johannes de silentio says that if he were in the position of loving Isaac and resigning himself to the inevitable (but no more), then he would still fail to attain to what Abraham attained.

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.

Much of the rest of the book concerns itself with examining analogies to Abraham’s situation, as well as non-analogies (examples which seem to be analogous at first, but which really are not). The main body of the book consists of discussions of three problems:

Problem I. Is there such a thing as a teleological suspension of the ethical?

Problem II. Is there such a thing as an absolute duty toward God?

Problem III. Was Abraham ethically defensible in keeping silent about his purpose before Sarah, before Eleazar, before Isaac?

Again, even the phrasing of these problems makes it clear that Kierkegaard regards Abraham’s behavior as violating, or apparently violating, universal ethical norms. Ethics is public and universal. Suppose for a moment that we adopt the viewpoint that the Abraham narrative is straightforward and non-paradoxical—Abraham simply did what ethics demanded he do. Kierkegaard then asks, why then did Abraham remain silent about his intent? If it were “merely” an ethical decision then he could have exposed all the facts to public scrutiny and everybody would have agreed. There would be no “test of faith” because his obedience of God’s command would have coincided with the verdict of ethics. But of course, Abraham did remain silent, and it was a test of faith. By reductio ad absurdum, we conclude that there is something going on here beyond a simple ethical decision.

To refute those who might try to argue that it is all still a matter of ethics, but that an ethical duty to God simply trumps other duties, Kierkegaard gives examples where an ethical duty to God (or a god) is involved, but that he argues are not analogous to Abraham’s situation. Kierkegaard contrasts Abraham with Jephthah, the judge who vowed to sacrifice to God whatever would come out of his door first, and was horrified when his daughter came out first. Kierkegaard says that in Jephthah’s case, there is no “teleological suspension of the ethical”; Jephthah’s vow may have been rash and foolish, but once it is made, his subsequent actions are simply carried out in accordance with ethical demands. Everything about the incident is public. The daughter is fully informed and understands the ethical obligation that her father is under, and she submits to her grim fate without objection. Jephthah is not a “knight of faith” but a “tragic hero.” Similarly, Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his eldest daughter Iphigenia to appease Artemis is a public affair, and Agamemnon is a “tragic hero” rather than a paradigm of faith. Abraham’s case is different. He goes against universal ethical norms. Yet he is not regarded as sinning. How is this possible? “He believed. This is the paradox which keeps him upon the sheer edge and which he cannot make clear to any other man, for the paradox is that he as the individual puts himself in an absolute relation to the absolute. Is he justified in doing this? His justification is once more the paradox; for if he is justified, it is not by virtue of anything universal, but by virtue of being the particular individual.”

As an example of a situation that Kierkegaard thinks is analogous to Abraham’s, he cites Gabriel’s revelation to Mary that Jesus will be conceived virginally. Crucially, Mary’s encounter with Gabriel is private. Externally, she appears to have had an illicit sexual encounter with an unknown man, and she cannot defend herself by appealing to any universal, public facts and norms. The promise of God that she is asked to believe appears to be impossible, but she believes it anyway.

Johannes de silentio’s analysis of the Abraham narrative is certainly original and striking. But his use of the concepts of paradox and absurdity to defend Abraham is not easy to swallow. What are we to make of it?

There is a “cheap way out” that appeals to the biographical facts of Kierkegaard’s life. Kierkegaard was strongly attracted to a woman called Regine Olsen, and they became engaged. However, much to Olsen’s dismay, he later broke off the engagement, for reasons that are unclear and that have been much debated. Fear and Trembling, as well as other books by Kierkegaard, can be read as an attempt to describe and perhaps justify his seemingly illogical and unjustifiable behavior toward Olsen. One can thus (uncharitably) dismiss Fear and Trembling as an incoherent defense of indefensible behavior. Indeed, many have charged Kierkegaard with irrationalism and the rejection of reason, and at times it does seem that Kierkegaard’s faith comes perilously close to fitting Mark Twain’s definition: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

However, I do not agree that Kierkegaard is advocating irrational behavior, or rejecting the law of non-contradiction. Kierkegaard—correctly in my opinion—rejects the view that faith is about latching on to abstract propositions or axioms that reason rejects (or at least abstains from). Rather, Christian faith is primarily about believing God’s promises, and is to be contrasted not with reason, but with sight. Hebrews 11 opens with the grand statement that faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. If one sees God’s promises being fulfilled, then there is no need for faith; faith is needed when God’s promises have not yet been fulfilled, or seem to be incapable of being fulfilled. The example of Abraham illustrates an extreme case where he is asked by God to do something that directly thwarts God’s promise to make him the father of countless multitudes through Isaac. It is not a logical absurdity for God to fulfill this promise if Isaac is killed—again, Hebrews 11 offers a key insight, namely that God could raise Isaac from the dead—but it certainly seems absurd. Faith means believing God’s promise in spite of this absurdity.

For an example of how Kierkegaard’s account of faith might play out in the life of an ordinary believer, consider God’s promises about the afterlife. We are promised that in heaven there will be no mourning or crying or pain. At the same time, there are dire warnings that those who reject God will be severely punished in the afterlife. For Christians who have loved ones who have rejected God, a serious difficulty arises. How can I be joyful in the afterlife if my loved ones are suffering terribly? Again, there is no logical absurdity or contradiction here, but it seems impossible for God to fulfill his promises. Faith means believing that somehow God’s promises will be fulfilled in the afterlife despite the seeming absurdity.

So, this aspect of Kierkegaard’s analysis I find to be insightful and even of practical value. On the other hand, there is another important aspect of Kierkegaard’s account of faith that I find difficult to understand and accept. Namely, as we have already seen, he is insistent that ethics is universal, and (along with many other people, as I mentioned earlier) he thinks that for Abraham to kill Isaac would have been a violation of ethics. Nevertheless, Abraham is to be praised for his faith, because the relationship between God and Abraham as an individual somehow transcends ethics.

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.

My instinct is that there is something wrong with Kierkegaard’s insistence that ethics is universal and that Abraham was doing something unethical by forming the intention to kill Isaac. While it might seem obvious to us that killing Isaac would be unethical, I believe that the Bible does not portray Abraham’s “test of faith” as a test of whether he was willing to do something unethical.

It is worth recalling that in biblical times, a child was to a large extent regarded as the property of the father. Let us revisit the analogy between Abraham and the rich young man. If we think of Isaac as a precious possession of Abraham’s, just as the young man’s riches were precious to him, then we see that Abraham is still being subjected to a supreme test of faith, even if the murder-is-unethical difficulty is removed from the narrative. In this regard, note that the writer of Hebrews does not seem to think that Abraham’s test was a test of his willingness to do something sinful, or even a test of whether his loyalty to God exceeded his love for Isaac. Instead, God was primarily testing Abraham’s faith in God’s promise to make Abraham a father of many nations through Isaac.

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.”

As a final remark, I would characterize Kierkegaard as one of the few theological writers I have encountered who regard the paradoxes of faith as a feature, and not a bug. Given that in real life, paradox does seem to be a pervasive part of the faith experience (and after all, should we not expect our encounters with a transcendent God to often seem incomprehensible?), perhaps we would do well to spend more time with Kierkegaard and less time with apologists who are fixated on debugging.
Posted November 2019

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