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
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
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
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.