This is a slim little book, so slim it could almost be considered a pamphlet, yet it is dense with ideas to consider and reflect upon. I don’t think that in this, my first reading, I fully grasped the full scope of Kierkegaard’s ideas, but I found myself digesting his discussion and making the most of it. Buried, or rather, planted within this text is worthy inspiration that prompted a lot of personal reflection upon my relationship with faith, the man of faith I once was, and the closeted agnostic I have become.
Having finished this book over a week and half ago just before the Thanksgiving holiday, I’ve found myself slowly digesting its impact upon my thoughts and I don’t think that I have yet settled into a conclusive opinion on this book. I will say that this is a good book. Kierkegaard’s writing is direct and unfettered with philosophical jargon or long-winded proof theorems. As a philosopher and as a writer he doesn’t beat around the bush or tease the reader along. For these qualities, Fear and Trembling is one of the best explorations of man’s relationship toward faith in the eternal that I have read. I feel that my hesitancy towards settling in a final opinion has much to do with my own tenuous relationship towards faith – but more on that later.
The premise of Fear and Trembling is a multifaceted evaluation of the possibility that man exists without God and without an eternal conscious. To Kierkegaard, this thought, this possibility brings despair and he counter argues the possibility through an extended reflection upon the story of Abraham and Isaac taken from the book of Genesis. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son – the son he waited 100 years to conceive as a testament of his faith in God’s love for him, the son he loved dearly – is an absurd leap of faith because it requires his resignation of that which is dearest to him, his only son. Abraham accepts this call of sacrifice because faith is what he has, faith is what grounds him and ultimately, faith is more important than the son he loves.
“The highest passion in a human being is faith, and here no generation begins other than where its predecessor did, every generation begins from the beginning, the succeeding generation comes no further than the previous one…so long as the generation only worries about its task, which is the highest it can attain to, it cannot grow weary.” (150)
To Abraham, and to Kierkegaard, faith is the highest form of human achievement, the purest form of human ability. With this perspective, it is understandable why the possibility that faith is a fruitless endeavor would ignite despair in Kierkegaard. If the highest form of human passion is fruitless, then what worthwhile fruit can man possibly achieve? Now, to clarify, as a mind of high intellectual capacity, Kierkegaard doesn’t see faith as an opposing force to objective evidence or scientific reasoning. Faith stems from that which cannot be proved, and thus it is inherently absurd, but in its absurdity it is eternally necessary.
Personally, I like the idea that faith is absurd. In contemporary times, there is too much arguing between believers and non-believers, each presuming the foolishness of the other, when the truth is that the two speak in separate languages and view the world with distinct visions. As an inquisitive person that has studied the sciences, literature, and religion all my life, I have been aware that even during my periods of most fervent religious zealotry, I maintained an appreciation and acceptance for scientific theories about our origins such as evolution and the Big Bang that many of the dogmatic “faithful” view as contradictory or false. The literal interpretations of religious texts never made much sense to me because such literal views appear childish and ignorant towards the evidence that surrounds us.
Kierkegaard penned Fear and Trembling a generation after Darwin’s book and several generations prior to Georges Lemaitre proposed the theory of the Big Bang. No where within the text of Fear and Trembling does Kierkegaard even speak of these ideas prompted by biological or physical studies as an impetus to his book. I bring these ideas up here only to acknowledge these concepts as ideas that are often perceived, or even cherished as pinnacles of achievement that have transcended the contradictions offered by the foolishness of the faithful. From my perspective, such thinking is boastful and just as foolish as literal fundamentalism for both viewpoints deny the limitations of the bigger picture, a view of space and time and existence that is beyond our human capacity for understanding. Yes, there is much that we as a race of clever hominids have come to understand about the workings of the world and the universe, but we fail to achieve basic understanding of ourselves. Despite our transcendent understanding of the objective cosmos, we continue to destroy this world and each other.
Kierkegaard authored this book during the vibrant changes of the industrial age towards the twilight of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment. Understandably, this was a period of dramatic change in human understanding and capability. In the preface to Fear And Trembling Kierkegaard voices concern towards the philosophies of his contemporaries that are “unwilling to stop with doubting everything” (3). Amidst a time of persistent questions, this book stands as a sober reflection upon the capacity of human life, the capacity to live in a world of turmoil and accept the path of living as a celebration of the good.
As an example of that capacity, Abraham does not doubt or turn away from the call to sacrifice his son, Isaac. He accepts the call for he believes that in the action there is a greater purpose beyond his understanding. Through what would be seen as filicide, Abraham suspends his relation to human ethics out of duty to that which is greater then himself and greater than human ethics. And he does this in all in silence, never telling Isaac of the true purpose of their mission to the peak of the temple mount. His silence is a sign of his complete submission and resignation. When Isaac asks where the lamb of offering is, Abraham only tells him that the God will provide the offering. In so doing, Abraham becomes a hero of faith, never boasting, never doubting. His actions are paradoxical and absurd, yet admirable for in resigning to the call he transcends human values.
“The mass of humans live disheartened lives of earthly sorrow and joy, these are the sitters-out who will not join the dance. The knights of infinity are dancers too and they have elevation. They make the upward movement and fall down again, and this too is no unhappy pastime, nor ungracious to behold. But when they come down they cannot assume the position straightaway, they waver an instant and the wavering shows they are nevertheless strangers in the world…One doesn’t need to see them in the air, one only has to see them the moment they come and have come to earth to recognize them. But to be able to land in just that way, and in the same second to look as though one was up and walking, to transform the leap in life to a gait, to express the sublime in the pedestrian absolutely – that is something only the knight of faith can do – and it is the one and only marvel.” (45)
Now, what do I make of this? I have pontificated about Kierkegaard’s evaluation of Abraham as hero, but what does this mean to me? In the words above I have spoken highly about the transcendence beyond human ideals, but does that have any meaning in a cosmopolitan world of global interconnectivity? What value does the eternal have against the remains of the day? Through this life I have live I have enjoyed moments of tranquility when encountering faith, yet I have also been subject to soul torturing despair when such ideals presented only disappointment during periods of tumultuous loss. I am no hero. I am no Abraham. I am no Kierkegaard. I do not share his exuberance for the Abrahamic story as a torchlight for the faithful. Yet, something prompted me to read this book, something within me is intrigued, and for that I acknowledge a presence within me that seeks a greater understanding. Will I achieve the sublime? Perhaps not, but if I do so, it will likely be in silence.