Søren Kierkegaard

Fear and Trembling

Review by Susan Scully Troy, 2008

Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling. Radford, VA: Wilder Publications, 2008.

Fear and Trembling is a compelling, transformative and thoroughly considered account of 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard’s personal understanding of and reflections on the nature of faith.  The key to this understanding for Kierkegaard is found in Scripture and is the actions of one person, Abraham; the Abraham revealed in the account of the sacrifice of his son Isaac on Mt. Moriah.  According to Kierkegaard, when Abraham left to go sacrifice Isaac, he “left his earthly understanding behind and took faith with him (Kierkegaard, 13).”  The question of faith versus reason is central…“because faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off (Kierkegaard, 38).” Abraham as the father of three world faiths always intrigued and engaged Kierkegaard. His pondering, examination and eventual understanding of what he sees happening in this passage, who Abraham is and how he is the “prophet” of faith for Kierkegaard, is the context and content of Fear and Trembling.

Kierkegaard starts and stays with a focus on Abraham as the key to understanding the paradox he finds at the heart of genuine faith. “For faith is this paradox, that the particular is higher than the universal (Kierkegaard, 39).” This paradox is central to the story of Abraham; that Abraham believed “by virtue of the absurd (Kierkegaard, 36).” Kierkegaard goes on to draw distinctions between ethics and faith, the universal and the particular, and how they relate and inform each other.  The tragic hero of myth and literature and the “knight of faith (Kierkegaard, 33)” such as Abraham are discussed and compared. Kierkegaard eventually arrives at the understanding that Abraham is alone in the magnitude and quality of his faith in God.  His faith is a unique example.   Kierkegaard is clearly in personal awe of Abraham’s actions and of the nature of his faith.

Abraham accepts the miracle of Isaac in this life, and thoroughly loves him as each father should love his son.   It is Abraham’s “trial (Kierkegaard, 37)” and how he acts that set him apart from all others. Abraham response to God’s command to sacrifice Isaac will be committing murder in terms of universal ethical standards. However, for Kierkegaard the key is that Abraham acts in the particular, not the universal, and therefore, ethical considerations do not apply.  Abraham’s faith, his commitment to God, is beyond the universal, it is individual and seen as superior and rare by Kierkegaard.  Abraham does not argue with God.   He does not involve Sarah or anyone else.  He does not hesitate to act as commanded, because his faith is so great that he knows that what God has promised will be maintained.  He will not lose Isaac.  He acts out of this understanding, this faith.  Again and again, Kierkegaard emphasizes the power of belief.  “Yet Abraham believed (Kierkegaard, 14,15).” Individual action is central to Kierkegaard’s understanding of authentic faith.  Abraham epitomizes this.  “Only he who works gets the bread….only he who draws the knife gets Isaac (Kierkegaard, 19).”

The notion of Abraham as the “prophet of faith” grounds Kierkegaard’s understanding of the particulars of genuine faith, the difficulty of living in genuine faith, and the foolishness of striving for the “more.” This is one of the other themes of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, that he finds great fault with “the System (Kierkegaard, 6),” the contemporary system of philosophical and religious thought.  Throughout Fear and Trembling he questions why contemporary thinkers believe that they must go beyond faith; why they always strive after something “more.” “Would it not be better to stop with faith and is it not revolting everybody want to go further? (Kierkegaard, 26).” This work is both a personal account of Kierkegaard’s discovery of the true nature of faith and a refutation of contemporary trends in Christianity and philosophy.

It is clear throughout the well honed dialectics of Fear and Trembling that this is also a personal account of faith from one who is a philosopher and theologian of note.  Kierkegaard directly addresses the nature of his own faith. It is from this work that we get the original concept of “leap of faith (Kierkegaard, 25).” His is a very personal sense of awe concerning Abraham.  Abraham for Kierkegaard is the exemplar “knight of faith (Kierkegaard, 54).” The reader senses that Abraham’s influence on Kierkegaard’s life is very real and contemporary; “I admire him more than all other men (Kierkegaard, 41).”  In a very broad but true sense, Fear and Trembling is a story about one man’s desire to unlock the mystery of faith through the story of Abraham and Isaac.  Furthermore, it is the story of how the author then allows this understanding and revelation to profoundly influence him.