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Fear & Trembling

Fear_trembling_3_2 The cover of this exquisite Penguin Books ‘Great Ideas’ edition of Søren Kierkegaard’s classic philosophical work Fear & Trembling contains a quote which instantly draws the reader into the world of Kierkegaard’s thought:

If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair? 

Kierkegaard is considered to be the father of the existentialist philosophical movement, although the term ‘existentialism’ was not in common usage for another century. This short but powerful book was published in 1843 under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio (“John the Silent”) and represents one of the major works of Christian existentialism. The book explores themes central to the Abrahamic traditions, and may be difficult for a non-Christian to appreciate. It is a work of profound religious anxiety; an exploration of the doubts with which sincere souls must wrestle.

At the centre of the ideas here expounded is the paradox of Abraham, and in particular the sacrifice of Isaac. The events are from Genesis 22, but a brief synopsis is as follows: Abraham has been promised by God that he would become “the father of many nations”, but then finds his wife, Sarah, is barren, and possibly too old to bear children. But miraculously, she does conceive by Abraham, and gives birth to a son, Isaac. God then tests Abraham by instructing him to sacrifice Isaac – a son whom he loves dearly, and who is the embodiment of all Abraham’s dreams of a family by Sarah, as well as the fulfilment of God’s promise to him to be a father of many nations by her. Yet Abraham is prepared to go through with this sacrifice, despite the terrible nature of what is being asked. At the last moment an angel stays his hand, and a ram is provided for sacrifice instead. 

This story seems utterly horrific to those who find no value in faith, and is defended too vociferously by those who place too much confidence in their own certainty and call that conviction ‘faith’. Kierkegaard excoriates those of the latter kind, and denies that this behaviour can legitimately be termed ‘faith’, using the story of Abraham as the central point in his thesis. The horror of this situation – when viewed as a purely ethical matter – is not denied, but emphasised:

If faith cannot make it into a holy deed to murder one’s own son, then let the judgement fall on Abraham as on anyone else. If one hasn’t the courage to think this thought through, to say that Abraham was a murderer, then surely it is better to acquire that courage than to waste time on undeserved speeches in his praise… For if you simply remove faith as a nix and nought there remains only the raw fact that Abraham was willing to murder Isaac, which is easy enough for anyone without faith to imitate; without the faith, that is, which makes it hard. 

Indeed, to Kierkegaard’s mind faith is a rare and precious thing – he does not consider himself sufficient to its great task, even though his commitment to God is unwavering:

I have seen horror face to face, I do not flee it in fear but know very well that, however bravely I face it, my courage is not that of faith and not at all to be compared with it. I cannot close my eyes and hurl myself trustingly into the absurd, for me it is impossible, but I do not praise myself on that account. I am convinced that God is love; this thought has for me a pristine lyrical validity. When it is present in me I am unspeakably happy, when it is absent I yearn for it more intensely than the lover for the beloved; but I do not have faith; this courage I lack. God’s love is for me, both in a direct and inverse sense, incommensurable with the whole of reality. I am not coward enough to whimper and moan on that account, but neither am I underhand enough to deny that faith is something far higher. 

Kierkegaard refers to those who possess the ‘infinite movement’ of faith as “knights of faith”, and specifically considers Abraham as a great example of such a person. It is his view that such people are capable of renouncing all things, to “drain in infinite resignation the deep sorrow of existence”, and then – astonishingly – take everything back “on the strength of the absurd”. He views this as something that only a knight of faith can do, and in turn considers this to be “the one and only marvel.”

Do not mistake the term “knight of faith” as expressing a gender bias, either: Kierkegaard is quite explicit that it is “that order of knighthood which proves its immortality by making no distinction between man or woman.” 

The book begins by presenting the story of Abraham and Isaac in four alternative retellings, in order to establish the nature of the event around which Kierkegaard will develop his thoughts on faith. Then, it turns to three “problemata”, namely:

Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical? (Which is to say, can Abraham’s intention to sacrifice Isaac be justified even though ethically human sacrifice is not permissible). 

Is there an absolute duty to God? (Which we shall shortly explore further).

Was it defensible for Abraham to conceal his intentions from his wife and son? 

All three problems are related, and Kierkegaard’s solution rests upon faith as being the paradoxical situation that the individual can be higher than the universal (that is, the ethical). He admits that this position is “inaccessible to thought” but exclaims: “And yet faith is this paradox. Or else… faith has never existed just because it has always existed. And Abraham is done for.”

Either Abraham embodies faith, and his title as “the Father of Faith” is justified, or else there is no such thing as faith for what it refers to is so trivial that it was always part of human experience, and Abraham’s story loses its meaning. He accuses those exponents of shallow religiosity of failing to rise to the challenge of understanding just what is entailed by faith, and instead redefining faith as something easier so they may claim to possess it: “True enough… that many people may have a natural aversion to the paradox, but that is no reason for making faith into something else so that they too can have it…” 

All this leads Kierkegaard quite naturally to the conclusion that there is an absolute duty to God, and that this obligation is and must be higher than ethical obligations (the universal). Kierkegaard was probably writing against the tenor of the Christians of his day who touted the ethical obligations as the absolute element to be obeyed blindly. (This ‘absolute duty to God' can also be expressed in an agnostic or atheist fashion, as we shall see).

It is important to appreciate that in expressing an absolute duty to God, Kierkegaard is in no way suggesting that one must listen for whispering voices in one’s head and do what they say. The absolute relationship between a person and God is not something expressed in language. Kierkegaard says: “For in the world God and I cannot talk together, we have no common language.” 

The absolute duty to God is the absolute duty to be an individual under God, which is to say one’s proper relationship with God must be as an individual facing the infinite. The infinite – which is God in Christian terms – cannot communicate in words to the individual, so the individual is left to wrestle with their faith – to take a leap of faith on the strength of the absurd which is, after all, what is being asked in faith by definition, for if there is no step to be made here, then what we are dealing with is not that which we call faith.

Kierkegaard notes that there is “a fear of letting people loose”, resulting from the idea that living as an individual is supposedly easy, and that people must be coerced towards behaving ethically. He counters this accusation by noting: “No person who has learned that to exist as the individual is the most terrifying thing of all will be afraid of saying it is the greatest.” Because to be an individual in Kierkegaard’s terms is to have an absolute relation to God – to the infinite – which one can only do on the strength of absurdity. To follow one’s desires and whims is not to be an individual, but a “slave to the passions” (to coin Hume’s phrase). 

This is a difficult pill for many devoted religious individuals to swallow, because endemic in organised religion is the idea of a particular path that everyone should be on. Kierkegaard says that if there is a particular path that everyone should be on, it must be up to the individual to find it – because only the individual has the relationship with God, and the claim that ethical strictures are more universal than this relationship is, if not blasphemy, then deeply sacrilegious. This is why ‘faith schools’ that merely parrot someone’s interpretation of sacred texts can be seen as a travesty:

The false knight… just doesn’t grasp the point that if another individual is to walk the same path he has to be just as much the individual and is therefore in no need of guidance, least of all from one anxious to press his services on others… The true knight of faith is a witness, never a teacher, and in this lies the deep humanity in him which is more worth than this foolish concern for others’ weal and woe which is honoured under the name of sympathy, but which is really nothing but vanity. 

The ‘vanity’ being the idea that one can impose oneself between some other person’s relationship with God. That relationship is absolute: no-one may come between any individual and God. Anyone who mistakes dogma for devotion to God is in desperate need of spiritual revelation, or at least a truly humble look in the mirror.

Where does this leave the agnostic or atheist with no God to have an absolute relationship with? From such a person’s perspective, their duty is still to the infinite, even if they do not call the infinite ‘God’ – they must discover what this means to them if they are truly to be individuals. From the (external) point of view of those of us who find the term ‘God’ both meaningful and useful, it may be hard to understand how an atheist might have a relationship with God, but it is not hard to hear the Dalai Lama speak and find God within his spirituality – yet the Dalai Lama has said, and not without cause, “we Buddhists are atheists” (although the term non-theist is perhaps more accurate). 

Thus we can equally see that the atheist or agnostic who is desperately trying to foist their beliefs on other people cannot be “an atheist knight of faith”; they are as vacuous as when the religiously minded attempt the same interference in our personal duty to individuality. Even if someone does not believe in God, if they truly possess an absolute relationship to the infinite, those who believe in God will find God in their behaviour. An atheist can have an absolute duty to the infinite and not call the infinite God, and yet still uphold what the theist would call the duty to God. Again, this is a paradox, but faith itself, as Kierkegaard amply demonstrates is just such a paradox.

Kierkegaard’s conviction that we must each establish our own nature – that to truly be individual is to observe an absolute duty to the infinite – transformed philosophy. Wittgenstein said of him: “Kierkegaard was by far the most profound thinker of the last century. Kierkegaard was a saint.” His influence on modern philosophy is inestimable. 

Fear & Trembling is a breathtakingly profound book, the most astonishing and engaging Bible study I have ever experienced, and one of the great works in the history of philosophy. That this is not required reading for all Christians would be tragic, were it not the case that to assert such a requirement would be to inevitably invalidate the very message that Kierkegaard was trying so passionately to convey.

The edition of Fear & Trembling reviewed is published by Penguin Books as part of their Great Ideas series, ISBN 0-14-303757-9.


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I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Kierkegaard is The Best Christian.

Thanks. Excellent reading.


"The true knight of faith is a witness, never a teacher"

This line in particular, but the whole post in general, struck me with force of similarity to be seen between all those who have 'found faith', by which one might also say 'found buddha'*. The line itself makes me think of the koan, which is the teaching of the zen monks that transmits itself through invitation to witness*, rather than some didactic. Funnily enough, within the limited domain of a game world, I believe that's how the mechanics of player learning works.

To me, it is another reminder of the recurrence of self-similarity in the human condition, not in the minor detail, but in the more profound qualities - areas, if you like, that might be described as only accessible through insight. If you don't study these things professionally, as I don't, it's a marvellous but slightly frustrating experience to always be seeing half-answers**, as shapes through mist, but never fully understanding their nature. Which is not to say one can ever 'fully understand'.

*(That's how I see it, anyway, although I've never been sure if my grasp of faith-based/religious matters is totally accurate).
**(Half being, not a measurement, but a figure of speech. One percent maybe, if we're measuring!)

Thanks for the comments everyone!

zenBen: One of the aspects of Kierkegaard's thinking that I find most satisfying is that it extends effortlessly to any religion. A Buddha can be seen as a "Buddhist Knight of Faith", for instance.

Are koans an invitation to witness, or an attempt to short circuit rational thinking? In the context of ch'an/zen, the two are arguably one and the same! :)

In many ways, it can be better to see things as 'shapes through mist', since seen in this way there is no temptation to presume one has fully understood anything, nor that there is any hope of ever achieving such perfect comprehension. This humility is what is missing in those who have reached premature certainty, whatever their belief system.

Best wishes!

There's something that I don't understand about Kierkegaard's argument as you've presented it here (though I confess that I haven't read Fear and Trembling, so it may be a result of ignorance.)

You quote Kierkegaard as saying, "For in the world God and I cannot talk together, we have no common language." You then write,

"The infinite – which is God in Christian terms – cannot communicate in words to the individual, so the individual is left to wrestle with their faith – to take a leap of faith on the strength of the absurd which is, after all, what is being asked in faith by definition, for if there is no step to be made here, then what we are dealing with is not that which we call faith."

But if this is the definition of faith, then Abrahab does not seem to have acted in faith. For he acted in response to a direct communication from God. The narrative presents this not a a wordless absurdity from the infinite but as a message in human words and human syntax: a command to do a specific action at a specific place. If the absolute duty to God is predicated upon a wordless, absurd encounter with the infinite, then Abraham did not experience that absolute duty in this situation.

Presuming that Kierkegaard's definition of faith is right, then it would seem that absolute duty is suspended by direct intelligible words from God. There may remain a contingent duty--that is, to obey a specific and particular command--that compels an absolute ethical obligation. This, I think, might count a suspension of the "ethical" in Kierkegaard's sense of the word, meaning a suspension of the subjective sources of moral judgment in one's conscience or one's social morals. But it is not a suspension of the ethical capacity in a more (I think) Aristotelian sense, meaning one's capacity to choose between good and evil actions. It merely relocates the definition of good and evil beyond the subjective and contingent sphere of social and personal morality into the objective and absolute sphere of an infinite command. It doesn't even seem to abolish free will, as the angel's later commendation of Abraham's faith implies that he had the ability to defy the Divine command has he chosen to do so.

But if faith is not so narrowly defined, if it refers to the affirming response to all forms of encountering the divine--whether it be in wordless absurdity or explicit command or any of a number of other possible forms--then Abraham's action could then be considered a form of faith. But I do not think the example fits Kierkegaard's definition.

Forgive the typos in the previous post. I do not think they impair my meaning too badly, though, so I will not offer any errata unless asked.

Ethan: very astutely observed!

"But if this is the definition of faith, then Abraham does not seem to have acted in faith. For he acted in response to a direct communication from God."

Okay, your objection here is valid. It comes down to Kierkegaard's observation that he and God do not possess a common language. I then expand this idea to eliminate the possibility of talking to God in language - in doing so, I overreach for precisely the reasons you mention. Clearly, the tale of Abraham as recorded in Genesis involves God speaking to Abraham.

But it is I who am in error, not Kierkegaard. The possibility of communication from God is not eliminated, per se, it is simply rendered as absurd. And faith, in Kierkegaard's view, is to act on the strength of the absurd. What is eliminated in the lack of common language is the possibility of a two-way conversation - a quick chat with God, if you will. But one may pray, and on the strength of the absurd God may hear this, and presumably too God can instruct a person by some means - as is assumed in the story of Abraham (and if not directly, then by some intermediary).

On reflection, therefore, I must soften my position - that any communication from the infinite requires a leap of faith to be understood as such. (And of course, may not take place in words). The possibility is not eliminated, as I originally suggested, but it is not a daily event, it is at most something remarkable and rare - as rare as the faith that Kierkegaard admires in this book.

I hope that this response addresses your shrewdly observed issue!

Many thanks for sharing your perspective!

Chris, you give quite an elegant summary on how existentialism, christian tradition and (some) dharmic religions (and agnostics inspired by all three, I know what I'm talking about :) can be regarded as overlapping sets - if all three are interpreted in the way you propose here.

However, it seems hard to imagine how a "scientific" atheist can reach the relationship to "the infinite" you outline above? Have you met a scientist who felt that his (inifinite) endeavour was "absurd" in the end? (btw, your post begs the question whether you read Camus on "the absurdity of faith"?)

The more tricky question is of course: if Kierkegaard`s observations hold (as many great thinkers after him attested) that any practice of ethics is to be suspended in the face of an "individual's absolute relationship to the infinite" - then how on earth should humans answer the question "What should I and what should We do?"

Chris, in response to both your earlier clarifications and your recent emphasis on an individual's "absolute point of reference" let me ask you this: How is the western-style political process to be reconciled with the ontology you've outlined above? Are "knights of faith" in Kierkegaard's sense condemned to political passivity due to paradoxical paralysis?

translucy: thank you for the kind words and insightful comment!

"Have you met a scientist who felt that his (infinite) endeavour was "absurd" in the end?"

I am a scientist, amongst other things. I believe my scientific endeavours are entirely absurd. I pursue them anyway. Therefore, the answer to this question must be yes! :)

"btw, your post begs the question whether you read Camus on "the absurdity of faith"?"

I've not read Camus yet, but I am definitely interested. Care to recommend a book?

"if Kierkegaard`s observations hold that any practice of ethics is to be suspended in the face of an "individual's absolute relationship to the infinite" - then how on earth should humans answer the question "What should I and what should We do?"

Through communication and empathy we can understand each other's values. Once we understand our values, we can discuss how to proceed.

Remember that the "teleological suspension of the ethical" occurs only when the duty to the infinite interposes; in the absence of this, the ethical duty applies. Therefore I propose we continue to refine Kant's work - it seems to be far and away the best ethical framework we have right now - with the goal as stated to bring about "a merely possible realm of ends" i.e. we co-operate to form consensus and rework society to co-ordinate with this goal.

The key to such a goal is communication and understanding. I do not believe it is out of reach!

Best wishes!

"btw, your post begs the question whether you read Camus on "the absurdity of faith"?"

I've not read Camus yet, but I am definitely interested. Care to recommend a book?

The Myth of Sisyphus is the one to read.

It addresses the paradox of the meaning/lessness of life and argues that both suicide and faith are ways to avoid having to confront reality, and hence the only reasonable position to take is a stoic acceptance of the absurdity of life without recourse to blind faith as a way to avoid the paradox by placing the answer (God) outside the system.

This work is in response to Kierkegaard, so I'm certain you'd find it interesting.

Gareth: thanks Gareth! I'll add this to my reading list. It does sound of interest to me although, once again, it sounds as if Camus only considers religion from the point of view of Christianity, and not from a wider perspective. I suspect this to be a flaw in the whole tradition of Western philosophy.

Thanks again!

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