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Fear and Trembling

I own copyright, academic and intellectual authorship and creative rights to this paper, as it was written for my Modern Christian Thought Class. No unauthorized reproductions, or academic linking without proper author citation, as directed in the pages list.

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In the sphere of existential writings and authors, Soren Kierkegaard stood out amongst the many and led me to further explore his writings and theology and views on Christianity and community as a whole. There is a wealth of learning in the teaching of despair and fortitude. Despair can lead to a spiritual hardening and death; it can also serve to awaken a person to his or her eternal validity. But there is no salvation except in passing through despair.

“[A] ny human being who has not tasted the bitterness of despair has fallen short of the meaning of life.”

To despair absolutely is to break one’s bondage to the finite perspective, for “in despairing a person chooses again, and what then does he choose? He chooses himself, not in his immediacy, not in this accidental individual, but he chooses himself in his eternal validity.” [1]

I can identify with much of what Kierkegaard writes on the topic of despair and the awakening that can occur if one gives one’s self over to the process and in a sense, “go with the flow” and see it through to the end.

Abraham as the father of nations, by his seed, was faithful to God in all things. He was faithful to the process, in God’s time, because he had faith. In the land with other man, Abraham could have been familiar, but he chose the desert experience to become closer to God as he was directed by God. He allowed himself to explore the Promised Land, as a stranger, thereby putting himself in odd situations to be tested in many ways, and he was.

The ultimate servant of God would be tested to the ultimate point of despair in the command of God to take his son unto the land of Moriah where he would be directed to the holy mountain where he would be commanded to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering for God. Lesser man would have buckled under pressure, and would have said “no” to God, yet Abraham chose the high road and trusted in his god, that whatever God had in store for him, he would have faith. But it is this road of faith that as observer, Abraham did despair, after all this time in the desert following the God he listened to, to be pushed to the limit like this, was truly a test of faith, not to lead into despair.

There are specific thoughts that we can talk about, where concerned with Abraham. Those of faith, doubt, and despair. Abraham as a man of faith, and a man of God had faith. There is no question of this truth. As a human, Abraham may doubt and he may even question his ability to do what God had commanded of him, yet he persevered. “But Abraham had faith and did not doubt. He believed the absurd. If Abraham had doubted – then he would have done something else, something great and glorious; for how could Abraham have done other than what is great and glorious?”[2]

Of all the choices Abraham could have made and the actions that Abraham could have taken, he chose to honor God and himself, in his decision to follow the command of God, in all of its insanity. We as human beings look at his decision with derision and skepticism, and we ask that one question we all want to ask, “How could you sacrifice your own son? Doesn’t that go against everything that is sacred and ethical? Valid questions for sure. Abraham did not doubt that God knew what he was doing, Abraham was always mindful of the universal relationship he had with god. God had not let him down, even after years of wandering in the desert.

“Here there prevails an eternal divine order, here it does not rain on the just and the unjust alike, here the sun does not shine on both good and evil, here only one who works gets bread, and only one who knows anguish finds rest, only one who descends to the underworld saves the loved one, only one who draws the knife gets Isaac.[3]

One could consider how we trust God, but would we have the strength to walk the journey of Abraham and commit to whatever God asked of us, no matter how ethically challenging such decisions might be? Would we have a mustard seeds amount of faith that Abraham had? “All along he [Abraham] had faith, he believed that God would not demand Isaac of him, while he was still willing to offer him if that was indeed what was demanded. He believed on the strength of the absurd, for there could be no question of human calculation, and it was indeed absurd that God who demanded this of him should in the next instant withdraw the demand.”[4]

The Question of the Ethical

“Abraham’s relation to Isaac, ethically speaking, is quite simply this, that the father should love the son more than himself. Yet within its own compass the ethical has several rankings; let us see whether this story contains any such higher expression of the ethical which might explain his behavior ethically, justify him ethically for suspending the ethical duty to the son, yet without thereby exceeding the ethical’s own teleology.”[5]

There is a dynamic relationship going on here in triune form, the relation of Abraham to God, Abraham to his son, Isaac and God to Isaac. This trusted relationship finds all three persons in conflict because of what is asked of them both before God.

“Abraham is great through an act of purely personal virtue. There is no higher expression of the ethical in Abraham’s life than that the father shall love the son. The ethical in the sense of the ethical life is quite out of the question. In so far as the universal was there at all it was latent in Isaac, concealed as it were in his loins, and it would have to cry out with Isaac’s mouth: ‘Don’t do it, you are destroying everything.’

Then why does Abraham do it? For God’s sake, and what is exactly the same, for his own. He does it for the sake of God because God demands this proof of his faith; he does it for his own sake in order to be able to produce the proof. The unity here is quite properly expressed in the saying in which this relationship has always been described: it is a trial, a temptation. A temptation, but what does that mean? What we usually call a temptation is something that keeps a person from carrying out a duty, but here the temptation is the ethical itself which would keep him from doing God’s will. But then what is the duty? For the duty is precisely the expression of God’s will.”[6] I think that Abraham had moments of despair and he had moments of doubt, as to the wherewithal of God. I can understand how faith works, but faith without some amount of skepticism, doubt and question is rare. Abraham might have been the vehicle with which God moved and created – I don’t believe that Abraham was in himself a perfect being, which would set him on the same universal plane as God.

Speaking on the subject of ethics, we are looking at two very specific points in time. I believe that ethics went out the window when we consider the servants of God from biblical times. Moses had his issues with God, and he questioned God and in the end was not allowed to cross the river Jordan. Abraham did exactly as God instructed him, and it seems, he did these things without questions. But one must imagine that Abraham had human thoughts, I am sure the inner dialogue of doubt and despair was haunting him.

I suppose that the inner dialogue, kept internal would not have been reported – and still God knew his thoughts. Which begs the question; If God knew the heart and mind of Abraham, and still God demanded Abraham prove his faith in Him in the journey to Mount Moriah with Isaac and the ritual of sacrifice with Isaac on that altar, only to be saved at the height of the sword to find the ram there in the thicket, was God truly God at that moment or was he having fun taunting a human for God’s humor?

Abraham, as the silent knight took his command from God to his heart and said nothing to anyone until the moment that Isaac was put upon the altar. Abraham knew that if he was right with God, he would be right for whatever gift God was to bestow upon him. Lesser man would have walked away from this challenge. God challenges us each day to sacrifice what we have to the betterment of ourselves and each other, but today, we would not see this kind of challenge put to any man. We can look upon this story with a certain filter.

I have come to understand that with any topic be that theology or religious tradition, in order to fully approach it, understand it and interpret it, one must approach with a sense of respect and as well, hermeneutic suspicion. “To interpret the religious classics is to allow them to challenge what we presently consider possible. To interpret them is also to allow ourselves to challenge them through every hermeneutic of critique, retrieval, and suspicion we possess. To understand them at all we must converse with them. But no more than with any other classics do we converse with them if we only passively contemplate their suggestiveness. If we would understand the religions at all, we must allow for a genuine conversation with them on the leaning of truth and their classics and the applicability or non-applicability of their strategies of resistance.[7]

This means to me, in my reading of this text is this, if you bring to a text your own preconceived notions or ideas and you do not respectfully open a dialogue with that which you are studying, you will not be able to “see or understand” what the text might be attempting to teach you or show you. There are many layers to language, there may be ideology, theology, tradition and or dogma to interpret, and if you are in any way prejudice or ignorant in your state of being, when approaching any tradition or text, them you will surely miss a possibly very valuable lesson from that text or religion.

I have become a bit more critical and I carry the understanding of hermeneutical suspicion when approaching a religious classic. When one is not educated to look deeper into a tradition or text or religious classic, one cannot fully grasp and understand their personal religion of choice or heritage. If one relies on the past to inform the present and forecast the future, what is left but to remain an automaton guided by old knowledge – not allowing for change and evolution?

I love that quote by Kierkegaard, “interpreters can build castles with their thoughts, but like everyone else they live next door in a hut.”

The story of Abraham and Isaac has been told and retold over the years in my religious teaching, so I chose this reading because I think Kierkegaard approaches the topic from a direction that I had not considered, as an observer and a writer. I approach the reading as a student and a religious scholar, though far from that title, I am in a sense interpreting a religious classic. One can engage the text in discussion and dialogue with certain respect for its origin and dogma and the lesson it is supposed to impart to the reader.

In interpreting Kierkegaard one must identify with the writer which I think I have successfully done. I have asked my questions and given my interpretation of the text on “Fear and Trembling” and in the end we understand to some degree what faith, honor, obedience and despair must have felt like to Abraham on the Mountain of Moriah. And I can appreciate the wisdom and knowledge that came from this “test of faith.” And I can also pray that God never challenge me to a test of this degree in my lifetime.

I have been tested in my own way so I can identify with what real faith means and how I inhabit “real faith.” I can also identify with real doubt and despair, because I have doubted and I have been in some real despairing moments in my life, so I understand what it means to hear God speak and to follow him to Mount Moriah. Each reading of a text is an interpretation. And as a scholar of religion I believe I have traveled and identified with the subject of this inquiry.

Bibliography

  1. Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Penguin Classics, London England, 2003
  2. David Tracy, Plurality and Ambiguity, University Chicago Press, 1987


[1] Livingston, Modern Christian Thought – Soren Kierkegaard, text, 2006, pg. 389

[2] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Penguin Books, London, 2003, pg. 54

[3] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Penguin Books, London, 2003, pg. 57

[4] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Penguin Books, London, 2003, pg. 65

[5] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Penguin Books, London, 2003, pg. 88

[6] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Penguin Books, London, 2003, pg. 88

[7] David Tracy, Plurality and Ambiguity, University Chicago Press, pg. 84

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