“Fear and Trembling” by Søren Kierkegaard

Fear and Trembling

Over the Abyss

This book reminded me of a close call I had many years ago. It was on a sunny Saturday. I was cruising on the highway, enjoying the scenery, music playing in the background, and a gentle breeze in my face. All of a sudden, a spider started crawling across the steering wheel. I tried to gently wipe it off, but lost control of the wheel. My car swerved and flew off the edge of the highway! I remember vividly, at the very moment when the car went over the edge, I thought to myself, “Wonder how deep is this abyss I’m falling into.”

Faith, the subject of this book, in a sense to me, is like stepping over the abyss and expecting to fly.

Many people are familiar with the painting by Michelangelo, “The Creation of Adam”, in which the hand of Adam reaching out almost touching the outstretched finger of God. Imagine in your mind’s eye that the right half of the painting is missing, i.e., if God were not in the picture, Adam would be staring and groping into the Abyss.

Contemplating Abraham’s Faith

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, ‘In Isaac your seed shall be called,’ concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense.” Hebrews 11:17-19

I’ve read the biblical story of Abraham in Genesis 22 many times, and memorized the definition of “faith” in Hebrews 11. I thought I understood Abraham, that he was a friend of God and the father of faith, the same faith that I possess, albeit to a much smaller measure.

Kierkegaard showed me how little I knew Abraham and the true nature of faith. Abraham sacrificing his beloved son Isaac to God, is not unlike throwing Isaac into the abyss. Was he a murderer, a madman or a saint? We understand and admire the tragic heroes, who sacrifice their own lives and their loved ones for a higher and just cause. But who would understand Abraham if he killed his own son for no apparent justifiable purpose? How could he even know what he was doing was right when the ethics of society plainly condemned murder?

Abraham Gave Up His All

If Abraham had not loved Isaac, sacrificing Isaac would have been a selfish act. But Isaac was his only son, one born in his old age by the promise of God. He loved Isaac more than his own life. All his passions, hopes and the future of the entire race were bound up in Isaac. To give him up was to give up all.

One can not understand Abraham unless he too has an all-consuming, undying passion in his own life, and is deprived of the object of his passion either of his own volition or by the circumstances.

Abraham Was Damned to Isolation

Kierkegaard proclaims, “Isn’t it true that those who God blesses He damns  in the same breath?” The Scripture confirms, “For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God”, and vice versa.

Virgin Mary was blessed by God, and yet despised by the people, for she bore the Child miraculously; Abraham was a friend of God, and yet what he intended to do was condemned by society. He could not explain nor justify his apparently unethical action, for he believed the impossible, the absurd, and therefore was isolated from society.

There is no safety net, i.e., the support and sympathy of other people, underneath him as he stepped over the abyss. He could not fall back and take comfort in the strength of the multitude. He believed in God alone, in his own conviction of what God asked of him; He walked and bore his burden alone.

Abraham Was Elevated as an Individual Above Universal

“Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Not because of his philanthropic or heroic deeds, but because of his own faith. However, he would have been regarded as demon-possessed if he had killed Isaac. Therein lies the paradox.

Many individuals isolated themselves from and elevated themselves above the Universal, being led stray by demonic passions and pride, some thinking that “he offers God service”, and they perished in the Abyss. Could he have been one of them?

It’s unfathomable what is contained in these three words, “Abraham believed God”. And yet paradoxically, it is also very simple, all he (and any of us) had to do was to take the step, the leap of faith.

Kierkegaard’s Passion

Kierkegaard was known for his keen intellect, and I find his wit and pithy style very refreshing among philosophical writings. He gave a thorough, insightful analysis of Abraham, describing the doubt, the fear, the distress and the agony he must have gone through, and demonstrating how his faith is similar and yet different from all the other historical, mythical and fictional figures we’re familiar with, such as Agamemnon, Socrates, Richard III and Faust.

Halfway through the book, however, it dawned on me that Kierkegaard was not only writing a philosophical or psychological treatise, but a love letter not addressed to the beloved. He could relate to Abraham and understand him in part, because he shared the same passion. He too dedicated himself to the love of God and gave up the love of his life, his fiance Regine. In describing the agonies of Abraham, he was also relating his own struggles with faith and sacrificed love.

Anyone with a spark of passion in his soul would see his own reflection in this book.

Quotes:

“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 then would life be but despair? If it were thus, if there were no sacred bond uniting mankind, if one generation rose up after another like the leaves of the forest, if one generation succeeded the other as the songs of birds in the woods, if the human race passed through the world as a ship through the sea or the wind through the desert, a thoughtless and fruitless whim, if an eternal oblivion always lurked angrily for its prey and there were no power strong enough to wrest it from its clutches — how empty and devoid of comfort would life be!”

“For he who loves God without faith reflects on himself, while the person who loves God in faith reflects on God.”

“Faith is a marvel, and yet no human being is excluded from it; for that in which all human life is united is passion, and faith is a passion.”

References:

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23 thoughts on ““Fear and Trembling” by Søren Kierkegaard

  1. “How could he even know what he was doing was right when the ethics of society plainly condemned murder?”

    I was under the (very possibly wrong) impression that child sacrifice was very common during Abraham’s day. If this is true, then it would put a slightly different spin on the story, no? If society did condemn the action he was contemplating then yes, was he a madman or a saint? What was God thinking, asking him to do such a thing? But if it was common, then it would not seem terribly unusual for God to ask it of Abraham…and then God Made a HUGE show of poitning out thst this was not His purpose for His followers, that God Himself would provide a sacrifice for us,creating a religion vastly different from any other.

    “Virgin Mary was blessed by God, and yet despised by the people, for she bore the Child miraculously; ”

    What are you basing this statement on? How was she despised by the people? I am not familiar with this interpretation. 🙂

    “”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 then would life be but despair? If it were thus, if there were no sacred bond uniting mankind, if one generation rose up after another like the leaves of the forest, if one generation succeeded the other as the songs of birds in the woods, if the human race passed through the world as a ship through the sea or the wind through the desert, a thoughtless and fruitless whim, if an eternal oblivion always lurked angrily for its prey and there were no power strong enough to wrest it from its clutches — how empty and devoid of comfort would life be!”

    This is a great quote. I underlined it myself, but I also wrote out beside the highlight, “The fact that a world without God results in absurdity does not necessarily provide proof of His existence. It does not follow that absurdity is untrue.” Thoughts?

    1. You may be right about child sacrifices being common religious practice in Abraham’s time, but Kierkegaard’s point is that other people make sacrifices always to gain something, they do that for some set purpose which is accepted by the society. In Abraham’s case, his sacrifice gains him absolutely nothing. It doesn’t do the society any good, nor does himself any good.

      As for your question about Mary, it says in Matthew 1:19, “Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly.” (NKJV) Why did he do that, if her miraculous conception was not despised by the custom of the people?

      If the world is void of hope and meaning, where does the idea of hope and meaning come from?

      1. I understand this point about Abraham’s selflessness in being willing to make the sacrifice. However, I was thinking it might be an important distinction to make about the original “calling” to commit this act because once you get into what Kierkegaard calls the “teleological suspension of the ethical”, it could lead to problematic thinking in individuals, no? God called him to commit this act in a certain time and place under very specific societal circumstances. Could not someone today take this idea and commit a heinous act of their own under the guise of being a knight of faith? I have to go back and read it more closely so if I am “arguing” from ignorance of all his points then please forgive e. 🙂

        Re:Mary-Ah, yes. I was not thinking about it as regarded the circumstNces of His birth.

        Re: The validity of absurdity- Is your reply a paraphrase of Anselm’s Onotological Argument?

      2. I think Kierkegaard was making the point that God’s calling can and does pit the individual against the social norm (of his time and place). Otherwise, Jesus and the Apostles would not have been persecuted by the religious and secular authorities of their time. OTOH, it can be very problematic, as you say.

        Ultimately, we have no window into another person’s heart, but God knows who is the true knight of Faith.

        I was paraphrasing Descartes, who might have been influenced by St. Anselm, but I haven’t read the latter firsthand.

  2. “Halfway through the book, however, it dawned on me that Kierkegaard was not only writing a philosophical or psychological treatise, but a love letter not addressed to the beloved. He could relate to Abraham and understand him in part, because he shared the same passion. He too dedicated himself to the love of God and gave up the love of his life, his fiance Regine. In describing the agonies of Abraham, he was also relating his own struggles with faith and sacrificed love.”

    This was another thing interesting to me. I read the introduction to my copy before I read the work, something I do not usually do, but anyway I knew about this background story while reading it. Kierkegaard points out that Abraham sacrificed all, but gained it all back. He believed God FOR THiS LIFE, a phrase that really stuck out to me. Yet Kierkegaard sacrificed his all and did not gain his beloved. What do you make of that?

    1. Even Abraham didn’t live to see God’s promise fulfilled in his lifetime: his descendants were not yet as numerous as the stars, nor did they inhabit the Promised Land.

      Kierkegaard and his love affair with Regine are a mystery to me. He wrote in his journal, “Had I had faith, I would have remained with Regine”.

      1. “Even Abraham didn’t live to see God’s promise fulfilled in his lifetime: his descendants were not yet as numerous as the stars, nor did they inhabit the Promised Land.”

        He didn’t see THAT promise fulfilled, but Isaac was a promise also, a promise Abraham almost “lost”. Abraham sacrificed his promise, and gained it back. I can’t remember exactly where Kiekrkegaard said that, but anyway…I think we may have talked about this elsewhere but it seems to me that Abraham knew God so well and the nature of His promises that he was willing to sacrifice because He knew, as he told Isaac that, “God Himself would provide a lamb”.

        ” He wrote in his journal, “Had I had faith, I would have remained with Regine”.”

        That is interesting! Something to ponder.

      2. Even if Abraham had sacrificed Isaac on the altar, God would still have provided for Himself the lamb, for He gave Isaac to Abraham. So what Abraham said to Isaac came true both ways. If we look at it from another perspective, Isaac, who offered himself as a sacrifice in loving obedience to his father, foreshadows Christ, and the promise of Isaac is fulfilled in Christ.

        It says in Hebrews 11:17-19 that Abraham believed God was able to raise Isaac from the dead, presumably after he had been sacrificed as a burnt offering. This is the faith “in the absurd” that Kierkegaard is referring to. The “absurd” may or may not be realized in the believer’s lifetime. (If all the promises of God are gained back in this life, those promises are too small and not worthy of God.)

        Abraham knew God so well and the nature of His promises that he was willing to sacrifice

        I agree. He knew God so well that he was called friend of God. Friendship and trust take time to develop. Abraham had known the Lord for at least 25 years before Isaac was born. There was a long buildup to the Sacrifice, during which time his faith must have grown like a mustard seed. It was by grace that Abraham made the leap of faith, not as “absurd” as Kierkegaard rendered it, but no less amazing.

  3. “It says in Hebrews 11:17-19 that Abraham believed God was able to raise Isaac from the dead, presumably after he had been sacrificed as a burnt offering. This is the faith “in the absurd” that Kierkegaard is referring to. The “absurd” may or may not be realized in the believer’s lifetime. (If all the promises of God are gained back in this life, those promises are too small and not worthy of God.)”

    You’re right about Abraham believing That God would either stop the sacrifice or raise Isaac. I don’t think I have ever paid attention to that verse and I have read it so many times! 🙂 However, one of the points Kierkegaard makes, and I quote,”Yet Abraham believed, and believed FOR THIS LIFE. Yea, if his faith had been only for a future life, he surely would have cast everything away in order to hasten out of this world to which he did not belong. But Abraham’s faith was not of this sort, if there be such a faith; for really this is not faith but the furthest possibility of faith which has a presentiment of its object at the extremest limit of the horizon, yet is separated from it by a yawning abyss within which despair carries on its game.”

    I like your point about the promises of God being too small and not worthy of Him, but I do think most of His promises are for this life also. For this life they are not fully realized, but will be in the life to come. Indeed, the most precious promise, Jesus, gives us life, not just eternal, but in this world gives us life and power beyond what we could experience on our own.

    1. Abraham had faith for this life, yes, and died in faith. “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”(Heb.11:13) If Abraham received the promise, he would possess the object of faith, and faith would no longer be necessary. But the just shall live by faith, and the opposite of faith is despair.

      If the upshot of the test is Abraham keeps Isaac, the test would be a triviality, since he already received the promise when Isaac was born; but the test compels him to have greater, even complete trust in God, that He is able to do exceedingly above all that we ask or think. Before, the son of promise came from Abraham’s own body, so he might think he contributed in fulfilling God’s promise, but now he must believe that the life of Isaac does not depend on him, but is preserved by the power of God alone.

      I agree with you that God gives us the power to live a godly life in this world, to live by faith in the Son of God. His promises also, we obtain through faith. You remind me to be more specific and persistent in prayers. 🙂

      1. Good points. In the specific case of Abraham, you are right. Wonderful point about the preservation of promises by the power of God alone.

        But to your first paragraph, I am wondering now, if we never obtain the object of our faith, then what? For example, there are numerous promises that God will give us strength when we need it. If we believe those promises for strength during some trial, we keep having faith but never obtain the object of our faith, the strength, what does that mean? Isn’t the end of faith the object of our faith? It has to come to an end at some point, right?

      2. The object of our faith is God, don’t you agree? If we have faith in God, He is with us, it is impossible that we never obtain the object of our faith, because God is faithful; OTOH, our faith never comes to an end in this world, because God is infinite.

    1. Hmm, I wasn’t expecting that question at all. If not God, what?

      “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” (Heb 11. 6)

      1. Ultimately, yes. But He also promises “things”, both tangible and intangible, no? I think where HE comes in as being the object of our faith is that even these “things” are from Him.

        And you say our faith never comes to an end in this world because God is infinite. But in this world, we are finite. So would that not mean that our faith is finite as well, coming to en end at some point? God’s infinity has litttle to do with our faith as we experience it in this world?

        One verse that popped into my head was Proverbs 13:12: Hope deferred makes the heart sick,But desire fulfilled is a tree of life. If our hope, or faith, is never fulfilled, especially when He promises it will, then is that not misery?

        I suppose now we have to try to define what a promise is, and if there is one type or many? Lol

      2. As far as I know, the Bible never teaches faith in “things”, except as negative examples, but only faith in God and His Word. So the object of faith is God, not “things”.

        Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith, which means faith starts and ends with Him, not in this world; because God is faithful, our faith and hope in Him shall never fail. In contrast, if our faith ends in this world, all our hopes and desires will fail us, either before or when we depart.

        Kierkegaard posits that we are not only finite, but also infinite, being spirit.

  4. You’re completely right. I got off track. 🙂 I actually love the verse that talks about Jesus being the author and finisher of our faith because faith has never come easily to me. The fact the Jesus even helps me with it is such a comfort.

    1. Faith doesn’t come easy to anyone. In one of his books, Kierkegaard likens the leap of faith to execution by guillotine, speaking of fear and trembling.

      1. 🙂 a good analogy. I’m glad I read this. I can’t wait to reread it and discover more. Thanks for taking the time to respond to my posts!

  5. Hi Nemo, you may not remember this, but when the classics group read Phaedo, I made a comment about applying Plato’s argument from contraries to love and hate. You replied that Kieerkegaard had done that exercise. Do you remember which work this exercise is in? Thanks!

    1. Yes, I remember. It is “Works of Love”, where Kierkegaard expounds the Christian teaching on love and contrasts it with the romantic love praised by the world.

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