Book review of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling: Abraham’s fine line between faith and child sacrifice

I have wanted to delve a little deeper into philosophy for a while now, but it always is so intimidating. I have a copy of Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft (Critique of Pure Reason) in the original German sitting on my bookshelf that I pull out every time I feel in the mood for an inferiority complex. It’s intimidating stuff to say the least. I have pieced together the rough edges of a few thinkers in the field through passing references made in other books I read, a few introductory sources to philosophy like the School of Life and The History of Philosophy without any Gaps podcast. And I have semi-recently read two more in-depth books on two philosophical movements (The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte about German philosophy in the 18th century during the Enlightenment era and The Existentialist Cafe covering existentialist philosophers of the 20th century). Kierkegaard is likely a name that many have heard before, but may not know exactly what he was about. He was a Danish Christian philosopher born in 1813, considered by some to be one of the first existentialists, others as a forerunner who anticipated their ideas. Fear and Trembling (in the original Danish, Frygt og Baeven) published under the pseudonym Johannes de silentio is my first real attempt at reading an original work by a philosopher. Kierkegaard seemed less intimidating than, say, Kant, but he also is one I could resonate with. I wanted to find out exactly how he meshed some of the ideas of existentialism, which is often associated with atheism, and Christianity. He was mentioned in The Existentialist Cafe, but his ideas didn’t fit into the overall narrative. The definition of existentialism given in The Existentialist Cafe is fitting to include here, so we can determine whether or how Kierkegaard fits into the big picture:

Existentialists concern themselves with individual, concrete human existence. They consider human existence different from the kind of being of other things have. Other entities are what they are, but as a human I am whatever I choose to make of myself at every moment. I am free and therefore I’m responsible for everything I do, a dizzying fact with causes an anxiety inseparable from human existence itself. On the other hand, I am only free within situations, which can include factors of my own biology and psychology as well as physical, historical and social variables of the world into which I have been thrown. Despite the limitations, I always want more: I am passionately involved in personal projects of all kinds. Human existence is thus ambiguous: at once boxed in by borders and yet transcendent and exhilarating. An existentialist who is also phenomenological provides no easy rules for dealing with this condition but instead concentrates on describing lived experience as it presents itself.

Kierkegaard’s ideas definitely hit some of these points. His idea of the individual’s duty to God that goes beyond universal ethics hits on both the ideas of individualism and personal responsibility. He also captures the ambiguity of human existence in his central theme of paradox. But more on that later.

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While Kierkegaard isn’t explicitly mentioned in The Fate of Reason, some of his ideas surrounding faith arise in the ideas of the fideists of the previous century. Here’s what I wrote in that review:

One of my favorite questions discussed was between the rationalists and the fideists. The rationalists believed that reason could justify morality, religion, and the state. Fideists believed that if you took reason seriously and followed it to its logical conclusion, it would undermine all three; hence, a reliance on something outside of reason to justify belief in God and all that follows.

The fideists referred to what they called a leap of faith, and that you have to rely on it to, well, do anything of value. If you try to build a moral framework on pure reason, you will fail or build a dystopian nightmare. Others on the rationalist side, like Mendelssohn, disagreed, and felt that by not relying on reason, you open a Pandora’s box of problems. Kierkegaard falls solidly on the side of the fideists. Much of Fear and Trembling is dedicated to this very idea.

Fear and Trembling builds a cohesive worldview, but to really understand his argument, you have to clearly pay attention when he defines terms. I will explain two of them here that set up one dichotomy central to his argument. There are two recurring archetypes that Kierkegaard relies on. The first is the tragic hero, the man who is willing to give up all (what Kierkegaard refers to as infinite resignation) for the good. The second is the knight of faith who is also willing to give up all, but goes a step further: in the very moment he gives up all, he steps into the absurd with the absolute certainty that “things will work out.” That really is poorly phrased, so sorry about that. But Kierkegaard’s whole idea of faith is this zone of absurdity that doesn’t make sense. He admits that he isn’t a knight of faith and can’t attain it. The title of the book Fear and Trembling comes from the awe he gets at observing the level of dedication these knights of faith exhibit.

Abraham as the model existentialist

Kierkegaard uses Abraham, the great patriarch of the Old Testament, as his central example throughout the book. Abraham was miraculously given a son, Isaac, by God in his old age. Through Isaac, Abraham was promised numerous posterity and a great legacy. Isaac meant everything to Abraham, and he loved him. And yet, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. I appreciate authors who do spiritual work with the story of Abraham, because it is such a difficult story to grasp. The standard Mormon interpretation (and, I think, general Christian one too?) that really sidesteps a lot of the complexity is that God was teaching Abraham a lesson about Christ’s atonement, and that Isaac was simply a symbol for Christ. Abraham had to know what it was like for God to sacrifice his only Begotten son. But it leaves a lot of things unanswered too: did God just ask Abraham to perform a human sacrifice? Isn’t that antithetical to all that is good and holy? Can God revoke his commandments (like not murdering) at will? And what was Isaac’s opinion on all of this?

First, two interpretations that have helped me at various points in my life: the first was Ty Mansfield’s use of Abraham’s sacrifice as a way to explain the lot of LGBT Mormons in In Quiet Desperation. Well, it was more to explain his own experience as a gay Mormon: I won’t say he was trying to make a blanket statement about the experiences of others. He believed that everyone eventually comes to a point where they have to make a sacrifice similar to Abraham’s, a deciding point where your have to give something up for your faith. For Ty, that was choosing to stay actively engaged in the Church despite his attractions to men. Pardon that poor explanation: you should probably go read the book, as I slaughtered it. So, Abraham is the archetypal example of sacrifice: our faith will require us to give some things up that will be hard.

Ty’s use of the story of Abraham helped me through a difficult time in my life, but his explanation still leaves some ambiguities: like, wouldn’t you be the least bit concerned that your spiritual antennae was a little off if it’s asking you to kill your son? Why would God be asking that? Another explanation I really liked was JKC’s post over at BCC How (not) to pass an Abrahamic test:

In my opinion, the test was not just to see if Abraham would obey. It was to see how Abraham would wrestle with the dilemma. I don’t mean that God is a trickster just messing with Abraham for his own amusement. I think he wanted Abraham to come to grips with the contradictions of what it means to be human. Failing the test would be to fail to wrestle with those contradictions. In my opinion, there were two equally damning ways for Abraham to fail the test: One would have been to just say “Go jump in a lake, Lord, I’m not doin’ that.” But the other would have been to just say, “yeah, let’s go, where’s the knife?”

OK, I really need to get this blog post moving, so let’s finally get to how Kierkegaard uses the story of Abraham. Kierkegaard sets up his argument by positing two sources of morality: the first is the universal ethic: what we can all generally agree is good and bad. This applies to all people. And yes, sometimes the universal ethic will conflict with your own self-interest, and you will have to make sacrifices to keep it. The second is the individual’s personal and direct duty to God. And I don’t mean a set of rules laid down by an intermediate institution: this isn’t the Latter-Day Saint law of chastity or Word of Wisdom. This is God directly communicating to me. In general circumstances, God lets us live by the universal ethic. But sometimes, God asks us to do things that are directly contrary to the universal ethic. This doesn’t change our respect for the universal ethic. Abraham didn’t cease to love Isaac when he agreed to sacrifice him. And he still believed murder was a horrible and bad thing. But he agreed to it because of his absolute duty to God, but he went into it fully knowing that God would provide the way. The most important element of the story to Kierkegaard is the journey to Moriah when Kierkegaard is having an internal wrestle. If he just whipped out the knife (similar to the BCC article) read to sacrifice Isaac, he wouldn’t have been exercising any faith.

This conflict between the absolute duty to God and the universal ethic is central to Kierkegaard’s whole concept of faith:

Thus when we see a man do something which does not comport with the universal, we say that he scarcely can be doing it for God’s sake, and by that we imply that he does it for his own sake. The paradox of faith has lost the intermediate term, i.e. the universal. On the one side it has the expression for the extremest egosim (doing the dreadful thing it does for one’s own sake); on the other side the expression for the most absolute self-sacrifice (doing it for God’s sake). Faith itself cannot be mediated into the universal, for it would thereby be destroyed. Faith is this paradox, and the individual cannot make himself intelligible to anybody.

Many nonbelievers may agree with Kierkegaard that religious folk can’t make themselves intelligible to anybody. On the other hand, many believers, Kant for example, fully believe that faith can be fully justified with reason. Some may find it almost offensive to suggest that you have to inherently be irrational to have faith. This is the essence of Kierkegaard that makes him simultaneously a Christian and an existentialist. Take it for what you will. Kierkegaard has carved out a unique niche for himself.

A few other notes in closing: while I had an easier time tackling Kierkegaard than Kant, there definitely still are some hard parts. There are a lot of references to contemporaries, books, and folklore with which I am not familiar. I don’t know the story of Agnes and the merman. I an unfortunately not familiar with Richard III from Shakespeare. Particularly in Part III, Kierkegaard starts springing a lot of these kinds of examples, and it weighs down what he is trying to say, at least for my ignorant self. I could have perhaps taken the time to look up some of these references, but, well, I didn’t (my excuse: I don’t have internet access while I’m commuting).

Kierkegaard gets you thinking outside the box. I haven’t heard too many people argue from a Kierkegaardian defense of faith these days, but maybe I’m just not looking in the right places. I’d like to engage with them some more. This whole concept of separating universal ethics from the absolute duty to God is profound, but has unsettling implications; it sounds like you could potentially get into a lot of messy situations if everyone started trying to break universal ethical standards in the name of God. That’s not exactly Kierkegaards line of argument, because he acknowledges the importance of universal ethics. But he posits that faith only arises when our duty to God outweighs our ethical responsibilities. I’ve got to think about this more.

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