Fear and Trembling
To Soren Kierkegaard, it seemed that in the modern age, everyone begins by doubting everything. This was exactly the approach taken by the arch doubter of modern philosophy, Descartes. Or was it? Descartes, Kierkegaard notes, was in fact “no doubter in matters of faith”. In his Principles of Philosophy, Descartes supported the ‘natural light’ of reason only if nothing contrary to it was revealed by God; his writings were not a call to the rest of the world to doubt all.
The opposite of doubt is faith, and Kierkegaard had long been fascinated by the story of the Old Testament’s Abraham, the ‘father of faith’. Fear and Trembling recounts the three day journey of the biblical Abraham to Mount Moriah, where God has seemingly requested he go in order to sacrifice his son Isaac as an offering. Kierkegaard spends the book getting to grips with how Abraham could be willing to do such a thing. For Isaac was not just any child, but the only son of Abraham and Sarah, who had miraculously been given them in their old age, after many years waiting. Thus he was especially loved and cherished.
Yet when Abraham seems called by God to go to the Mount to make the sacrifice, he does not hesitate or question, but saddles up his horses and sets off. When Isaac realises what is happening he pleads with his father, but Abraham does not, as you might expect, blame his actions on God, instead assuming full responsibility. He reasons that it is better that his son believes him to be a monster “than that he lose faith in thee”.
What happens? At the last minute, while Isaac is bound and a fire is being stoked, a ram comes into Abraham’s vision, and it is clear that the animal, not Isaac, that is to be offered up. Abraham has been tested, and found to be a man of the greatest faith.
To Kierkegaard, Abraham’s absolute willingness seems otherworldly, inhuman. After all, who would be willing to sacrifice their only child? At one level, Abraham is simply a murderer. However, because he is willing to follow through with what seems patently absurd if God wills it, Kierkegaard argues that his actions represent the height of being human. The leap of faith is what binds man to the Absolute.
Levels of greatness
Everyone can be great in their own way, Kierkegaard says, according to what he loves and what he expects. A person who loves themselves can be “great in themselves”; one who loves another can become great “through their devotion”; but he who loves the Absolute or God stands above these. The first person becomes great through expecting the possible, the second through expecting the eternal, “but he who expected the impossible became greater than all.” Beyond personal strength or self-sacrifice is the greatness of one who is willingly ‘powerless’, giving all power to God.
Such a person can, to the rest of humanity, seem to follow a path that is mad or absurd, but only because he or she is not depending on earthly wisdom or reason. If God moves in mysterious ways, then the person who is simply a vehicle for God will also, sometimes, seem to act beyond reason. If this were not so, Abraham would never have gone to a strange place to commit a seemingly unspeakable act.
Abraham may have wondered why this was being asked of him, a ‘chosen one’ whom God had given the miracle child Isaac, and who had been told that his seed would bless the Earth for generations. Yet Abraham did not think like this. When it took so long to come about, he did not give up in resignation or panic. As the years passed and he and Sarah grew old, and received derision from others for their childlessness, Abraham kept the faith. He might have said to God, ‘So, it’s not going to happen – if that is your will, so be it. It was probably only my selfish wish in the first place’. But Abraham stayed young by believing, and this rubbed off on Sarah, who in the fullness of time did conceive. As Kierkegaard puts it, “for he who always hopes for the best becomes old, deceived by life, and he who is always prepared for the worst becomes old prematurely; but he who has faith, retains eternal youth.”
Believing the absurd
An average person would have given up long before, perhaps dismissing the child-would-be-given prophecy as a trick of the mind. But Abraham was supremely great in his willingness to go along with what seemed absurd, to suspend his own reason. Resignation, Kierkegaard observes, is actually an act of the ego, making one’s self seem heroic. Faith is actually something much higher, since it means believing even after we have, at one level, resigned ourselves. And it means not giving up on our actions in this world.
On Mount Moriah, Abraham never really thought God would demand Isaac of him, yet he was willing to do so “if that was indeed what was demanded”. Because all human rationality had long since been suspended, Abraham had to believe in the absurd. He had effectively to say to himself, ‘I don’t know the meaning of this, but I am leaving the meaning of it up to God’.
Kierkegaard describes Abraham’s leap of faith as a ‘movement’, one which appears to demand the giving up of everything – and yet which finally delivers everything to Abraham. Not only was Isaac given back to Abraham, but he was given a new Isaac, even more wonderful than before, who would fulfil the prophecy of prosperity and fertility over many generations. Because he had recognised God as the source of everything first, Abraham now had absolute security of knowledge.
Though a leap of faith is the most difficult thing for us to do, by uniting us with what is universal it is the only true security.
Knights of faith
A ‘knight of faith’, Kierkegaard says, transforms the leap of faith into a gait – for this person it is simply a normal way of being. He will happily bet his whole life on a single love, or a great project. In contrast is a person whose life is simply ‘running errands’.
Kierkegaard gives the example of a knight of faith in love with a woman. It seems that his quest is useless, and he admits as much. But then he makes one more ‘movement’, saying, “I nevertheless believe that I shall get her, namely on the strength of the absurd, on the strength of the fact that for God all things are possible.” On a purely human level he admits his chances of getting the woman are zero, but this very impossibility forces him to make a leap of faith, knowing that only God can bring it about. He must believe the absurd in order for the Infinite to find expression. On our own strength we grab at things in the world, and don’t get them. But in faith, all is given to us, but only if we are willing to believe in what, on an earthly plane, seems ridiculous.
The point about Abraham is that he suffers (obviously in great anguish, even going to the extent of tying Isaac up and starting a fire for the offering) while still believing. Abraham is great not because he transcends, fear, anguish and agony, but because he lives through them. In doing so he becomes a master of life. The mistake people make is to read the Abraham story and think his greatness is inevitable, to only see the outcome while glossing over what he went through to arrive on the other side. If we want to be like Abraham, we should look to how he began, how he acted before he was the famous figure of the Bible.
Philosophy, Kierkegaard notes, slights faith as something inconsequential. In fact, philosophy cannot really tell us anything about faith, because it is beyond words and concepts. Normal thought cannot really comprehend Abraham’s actions, because normal thought in such situations is redundant.
As Kierkegaard saw it, faith is in fact, “the highest passion in a human being” because it unites him or her with the absolute. The universal becomes expressed through a person, and that person expresses something timeless and limitless. And yet, this is something open to all of us. We can all be ‘knights of faith’, Kierkegaard believed.
Source: Philosophy Classics: Thinking, Being, Acting, Seeing, Profound Insights and Powerful Thinking from Fifty Key Books by Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey.
Born in Copenhagen in 1813, Kierkegaard was from a well-off but deeply religious family. At 17 he enrolled in theology courses at University of Copenhagen, but to his father’s disappointment was drawn to philosophy and literature. His father died while he was still at university, and after being awarded his degree, he proposed to the daughter of a civil servant. The marriage never happened, and he remained a bachelor for the rest of his life, living mainly off the proceeds of his father’s estate.
He settled down the life of a writer, publishing Either/Or in 1843, followed a few months later by Fear and Trembling. A year later came Philosophical Fragments and The Concept of Anxiety, and in 1846 Concluding Unscientific Postscript. He also wrote books under pseudonyms, The Sickness Unto Death and Training in Christianity. Edifying Discourses in Various Spirits (1847) presented what Kierkegaard believed was the true message of Christianity. His later books presented an uncompromising view of the Christian faith, and he became a harsh critic of the Church of Denmark and its worldly outlook.
Kierkegaard died in 1855. Wittgenstein described him to a friend as “by far the most profound thinker of the last century. Kierkegaard was a saint.”