Thursday, May 27, 2010

Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard

“Much is said in our age about irony and humor, especially by those who have never been capable of engaging in the practice of these arts, but who nevertheless know how to explain everything.”

I think it’s safe to say that I was not prepared for this book. I was drawn in by the premise—Kierkegaard, one of the fathers of existentialism, writing a treatise on faith, using the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son Isaac as his basis—and its length, a scant 95 pages. It sounded right up my alley, but I hadn’t counted on Kierkegaard’s writing style, which is intentionally dense and off-putting to discourage the casual reader (me). So it turns out that this little pamphlet actually took longer to read than the 400 page Robin Hood.

But anyway, on to the content of the book. As mentioned above, Fear and Trembling is a meditation on the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac as recounted in Genesis 22. I say Abraham’s sacrifice because, although God actually provided a ram to replace Isaac, Kierkegaard argues that, in the most meaningful sense, Abraham did sacrifice Isaac since he remained willing up until the final moment, when the ram appeared.

This is one of the most difficult stories in the entire Bible, and Kierkegaard doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions it raises. Interestingly, however, he doesn’t focus on why God would ask Abraham to commit the act, as many theologians do. He rather focuses on Abraham and what his reaction to the request reveals about him and, in the bigger picture, faith itself.

As the conclusions Kierkegaard reaches, I’ll share what I understand of them here, in greatly condensed form. Kierkegaard says that Abraham is the only example of true faith he knows of, and he defines faith in a very complex way which I’m going to try to communicate in a few points:

a) Faith requires a basic belief in the object of the faith. b) Faith requires complete resignation of the finite world into the hands of God, followed by c) a resignation of infinite matters as well, so that d) finite matters can again be appreciated. Further, Kierkegaard argues that true faith requires more than hope, since hope requires a belief that the event believed in will actually happen. Abraham’s faith was true, he says, because Abraham believed that God would restore Isaac to him even though he also believed it was impossible that Isaac should be restored. Kierkegaard points to faith as an example of the absurd: believing that things that will not happen are going to happen is the paradox of faith.

There’s a lot more in this book (the information I described is mostly in the middle third), including some interesting questions about whether or not ethics can be superseded by a divine command and whether or not it is possible to act both within the boundaries of true faith and ethics at the same time (Kierkegaard argues that for Abraham, the ethical choice—that of not sacrificing his son—was actually a temptation away from the absolute best choice of following God’s command), but to be honest, these sections were both interesting and opaque to me.

I don’t really know how to end this review. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I’ve exhausted or even fairly explained Kierkegaard’s views in this short post. There’s a lot here, and I may return to it in the future.


Christopher said...

This is well summarized. Kudos!

Josh said...

Nice review Brent. I started Fear and Trembling but turned out to be a casual reader. I'll have to fix that someday.

Brent Waggoner said...

It went down pretty easily for me (aside from the crazy writing) until the last third, where it started going over my head in a bigger way.

R.M.Fiedler said...

I really enjoyed reading this book in college. One of the difficulties for me, though, was trying to distinguish a fundamentalist from the knight of faith. In fact, I tried to write a paper creating a distinction, but did horribly on it because I don't think, from an ethical standpoint, Kierkegaard would say there is a difference. However, from a divine perspective there is an infinite difference; the knight of good faith acts because God did in fact command the act; the (let's say) terrorist acts under a mistaken faith (assuming, of course, that the terrorist acts with mistaken faith).

But what I've always found difficult about this text is: If I'm someone who thinks he's received a command from God, how do I distinguish an actual command from God from a non-command from God? I think Kierkegaards answer would be: One takes the leap of faith.

But, what if I take the wrong leap of faith (into terrorism, for instance...?).

Also, to third Christopher and Josh: Good review.