“Fear and Trembling” by Soren Kierkegaard— Abraham as a Paradigm of Faith


Kierkegaard, Soren. “Fear and Trembling” (Penguin Classics), translated by Alastair Hannay, Penguin Classics, reprint edition, 1986.

Abraham as a Paradigm of Faith

Amos Lassen

Soren Kierkegaard is regarded as the father of existentialism and he was able to transform philosophy with the idea and his conviction that each of us must create our own nature and that a true understanding of God can only occur when a leap of faith is made. His perspective on the Bible is one that we do not usually hear and the uses the story of Abraham to show us how the Hebrew Bible should be treated.

In the Christian Bible in the book of Paul is says, “you must work out your own salvation in fear and trembling” and this where Kierkegaard found his title. He also chooses Abraham as his paradigm of faith and Abraham lived thousands of years before Christianity. The concepts that the author uses in “indirect communication” which are obscure and ambiguous but if the reader sticks with the writing there are many rewards.

Kierkegaard sees religion on three levels: the esthetic or the life of immediate enjoyment, the ethical or life filled with duty and responsibility and the religious or living within existential freedom. This book concentrates on moving from an ethical existence to one of religious orientation. Abraham assumes the title of father of faith because he was willing to sacrifice his only son, Isaac who held all the hopes and dreams of his father. Abraham believed that God will restore Isaac but Abraham cannot see how. If one shares his faith with Abraham, he will have no trouble understanding what is written here and those who live an ethical life will see that it is Abraham’s duty to protect his son, Isaac, and surely not kill him. Faith however goes beyond both of these issues as well as superseding immediate desires and the demands of ethics. We must ask if it is necessary for the tragic hero—in this case, Abraham, to give up something he loves to a higher power or principle like what is best for an entire community and not just himself. There are two desires tearing at Abraham here and while we seem to be able to understand his sacrifice, I am not sure that we do. The tragic hero lives on the ethical level while the protector of the faith gives up what he is able to understand—loving and protecting a child and no reasons are understandable or even necessary. One has to be Abraham in order to understand him.

I have heard that many think that Kierkegaard is difficult to read but I disagree. I find him not nearly as complicated as others might think but then my M.A. is in existential philosophy.

Abraham’s act of faith was offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice just because God requested it be done. Abraham’s obedience to God was his way of suspending the ethical.

Kierkegaard seeks to penetrate the mystery of faith with his rational mind and by and large he succeeds but basically because he shows us faith by telling us what it is not. He sees faith as a radical act or as a gift from God. Faith cannot be part of the ethical and the binding of Isaac story shows just that. If faith is simply a way of acting ethically there would be no need for religion and we only need to study ethics. In Kierkegaard’s is so superhuman and difficult then very few people are capable of it.

Kierkegaard gives us Abraham as an example of what he calls the “teleological suspension of the ethic” and presents us with his three levels of religion. In this hierarchy, Abraham transcends the second level, the ethical (which would have made the sacrifice of his son become absurd), and gives himself to the third level, the religious. That means to Kierkegaard that Abraham’s obedience to and absolute trust in God goes beyond any human commitment and Abraham comes to represent just that. However, Abraham is not allowed to carry out the sacrifice of Isaac after God tells him to do so. We can only wonder whether he felt that he ultimately would not be permitted to do so and if the fact that he even agreed to take Isaac to Moriah shows his deep trust in God. He was not allowed to practice child sacrifice (as was a practice among pagan religions) and he sets out on a new higher level, an ethical way for mankind in which every human life is held to be sacred (this is ethical monotheism) and such a sacrifice would be forbidden simply because it invalidates and violates the commandment about the taking of life. If the human is created in the image of God than he cannot and, in fact, is forbidden from sacrificing the divine to the Divine.

In terms of the Jewish religion it is not simply Abraham’s willingness to kill his son but that God ultimately allow him to make that sacrifice.

There are several ways of looking at what Kierkegaard has to say here. Students of Kierkegaard will tell you the meaning of this book in terms of his personal life; philosophers will show you its philosophical meaning; the religious will describe it as a treatise on faith. “Fear and Trembling” is all of these, and even more. The concentration on Abraham and the sacrifice of the son who Abraham truly loved and who is the fulfillment of God’s promise to him causes fear and trembling in all of us. The very idea that God would ask such a thing makes us wonder about God’s nature and here is where Kierkegaard begins his thesis that this story also serves as an archetypal example of faith itself in uncompromising terms. He poses two questions—what is the nature of faith and if Abraham actions were ethical and if those actions are ethically defensible.

To Kierkegaard, the world is divided into the finite vs. the infinite or, equivalently, the temporal vs. the after-life/spiritual. Within this framework, he says that faith can only be applied to the outcomes of the finite vs. the infinite. Abraham could have faith that God would grant him a son, and that his son would be the ancestor of a great nation, but it would not be faith to believe (say) that he would meet that son in heaven. If one reflects upon this for even an instant, one will immediately recognize this definition of faith is very narrow Christian theology sees heaven, the afterlife and resurrection as outside of this definition of faith.

Faith cannot be achieved or attained through the intellect. If faith is part of what we take to mean intellect then there is no acceptance of infinite resignation. Kierkegaard admires those who do indeed have faith and I doubt that, at the time, there existed a man as faithful as Abraham. The concept of faith that we see in Kierkegaard is that it rises over the temporal and does not deal with one is to come spiritually. Infinite resignation has to occur before there is faith. This is to say that one who has not considered impossibility has no faith or his faith is misguided. If indeed faith can be gained, it must be also mean that other things must change.


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