Despite their differences, all three of the monotheistic traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—trace their origins back to the story of one man. Abraham, as he was named by God, is considered the patriarch of these organized religions. He is revered as the first man to actively choose a life of faith, and in doing so, develop a close relationship with God. Abraham had waited a lifetime for his son, Isaac, to be born, and God had promised him that he would become the father of many nations through him. Despite all of these promises, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac to Him. And Abraham, unfailingly devoted to God the Father, was willing to comply. He took his only son and was ready to slay him in God’s name when an angel called for him to stop, providing a sacrificial ram instead.1
In the Catholic faith, the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son, disturbing as it may be, is one of the Bible’s most venerated examples of faith. Conventional Catholicism preaches the courage and devotion of Abraham in listening to God without question, as well as the compassionate spirit of God in sparing him. Through this story, Catholics teach that Abraham proved himself a good man and an even better follower of God. But while teaching Abraham’s story of faith with such admiration, the Church also teaches that being religious and having faith is synonymous with obeying the rules like the Ten Commandments (for example, number five: thou shalt not kill), as well as with being an ethical human being. When a cornerstone of Catholic faith lies in the story of Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his son without question, while a cornerstone of Catholic morality insists that killing other human beings is wrong, how do we reconcile the two?
Fear and Trembling, the dialectical lyric written by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, attempts to address this paradox of faith through an intensive examination into the story of Abraham’s sacrifice. He tells variations of the story, reflects on other tragic heroes who are easily understood, and constantly notes that he does not understand Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. Through this thoughtful, troublesome inquiry into Abraham’s faith, Kierkegaard ultimately contends that despite the teachings of the Church, faith is an individualistic experience—higher than ethics and morality and entirely subjective.
As a Christian himself, Kierkegaard recognizes the apparent strangeness of picking apart the discrepancies of his religion and the story of Abraham. He sarcastically says that for theologians—who teach the story and claim to understand it—going “beyond Abraham is the simplest of all.”2 But in his own experience with trying to understand Abraham, he is “virtually annihilated,” as well as “constantly repulsed” and “unable to enter” into understanding.3 After all, Abraham was a man who almost killed his child because God told him to. Understanding the implications of such devotion to God is not as simple as conventional Catholicism implies. For this reason, Kierkegaard maintains that truth is subjective—to understand Abraham’s story, and faith in general, one needs to be made “sleepless,” and constantly, desperately attempt to understand and experience this truth.
But in a religion where God personally handed down a set of ten laws to follow, how can the truth of faith be as subjective as Kierkegaard claims? Indeed, conventional Catholicism, with all its rules and traditions, holds that religious truth is entirely objective. There are a number of measurable ways to be a good Catholic: praying often, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, receiving the Eucharist at Sunday mass, confessing your sins, and being able to recite the Apostles’ Creed. Catholicism, like the other monotheistic faiths, has very specific prescriptions for how to be faithful.
Yet, despite the religion’s longstanding emphasis on such actions and values, Kierkegaard’s claim that truth is subjectivity may be substantiated by the Bible itself. The often told parable of the Good Samaritan aligns with Kierkegaard’s argument. The story begins with one of Jesus’ followers asking him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus replies by asking him, “What is written in the Law?…How do you interpret it?”4 The man explains that he thinks he needs to love God, and love his neighbor as himself, and Jesus says he’s right. But still needing more clarification, the man wants to know: Who exactly is my neighbor? To answer his question, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, where three men encounter a beaten, helpless stranger on the side of a road. The first two men walk past him without offering help, while the third, the Good Samaritan, cleans and carries him to an inn to recover, even though they’re supposed to be enemies. At the end of the story, Jesus asks his student, “Which of these men was a neighbor to the man who needed help?”5 The student knows that it was the Good Samaritan, to which Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”6 The story of the Good Samaritan, similar to the story of Abraham, exemplifies the subjectivity of faithful living. Jesus’ Socratic method of teaching directly challenges his followers to not just know that they should love their neighbor, but to know what such a value translates to in different aspects of their own lives.
That being said, Kierkegaard does not contend that such teachings of loving and serving thy neighbor should be ignored. Instead, what he does in Fear and Trembling is explain to us that one could follow all the guidelines of a religion and still lack faith. Kierkegaard makes a distinction between ethics—being a good neighbor—and the kind of faith that Abraham had: being willing to sacrifice your son. By ethical standards, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son is clearly wrong. Kierkegaard repeatedly asserts that if we were to judge his actions based on ethics, we would surely deem him a murderer or a maniac.7 And yet, there are three monotheistic traditions founded on Abraham’s testament of faith, traditions followed by millions of people. Kierkegaard explains that this is because the faith that Abraham had is higher than ethics. Ethics are important, but they are ultimately earthly guidelines; if God is higher than earth, which He is, then faith is higher, too. With this, he adds a dimension to the duties of Christ’s followers that is not present in conventional Catholicism, where ethics and morality are both supposed to be synonymous with faith. For Kierkegaard, true faith transcends any earthly conceptions of morality.
And for this reason, Kierkegaard also contends that the nature of someone’s faith cannot be fully understood by anyone except that person and their God. Faith is an individualistic, intimate experience.8 In order to explain this point, Kierkegaard includes in his analysis the importance of the Virgin Mary, another one of the Catholic faith’s most revered figures. Like Abraham, Mary rose to God’s call to serve though she knew her decision would carry serious social implications. When the angel Gabriel came to Mary and revealed that God wished for her to become the mother of His only son through immaculate conception, Mary, like Abraham, chose to answer God’s call. In agreeing to this, she ran the risk of being branded a liar, an adulteress, a lunatic. Kierkegaard writes, “The angel came only to Mary…[he did not go around] to all the other young girls in Israel and say: ‘Do not despise Mary, something out of the ordinary is happening to her.’”9 Yet, she did not fear the possibility of social ridicule or isolation; she took up God’s task with grace and willingness and endured the agony that accompanied it because like Abraham, Mary had faith. Through their faith, both Mary and Abraham entered into a personal relationship with God, which no one could ever fully understand except for them.
By their very nature, Catholicism and organized religions in general revolve around ideas of conformity, commonality and ordinariness—even though the whole point of congregating is supposed to be to celebrate the extraordinary nature of God. Fear and Trembling reminds us—or maybe even exposes to us for the first time—that true faith is also extraordinary in nature. Kierkegaard shows us that what made Abraham so special isn’t that he was willing to kill for his God, but that he had unflinching faith in God, fully believing in His promises, as well as His abilities to return his son to him. Abraham was willing to go beyond ethics, to break with tradition, to go against his own people, all while trusting the Lord to carry him through. Ultimately, Kierkegaard does not attack religion in a damaging way, in fact, it is extremely clarifying. With Fear and Trembling, Søren Kierkegaard challenges convention, not religion; the Church, not God; and ethical philosophy, not faith, all in a cadence that returns followers of God back to the purest origins of their devotion.
1. Genesis 22:1-19 (New International Version).
2. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), 62.
3. Ibid, 62.
4. Luke 10:26 (New International Version).
5. Luke 10:36.
6. Luke 10:37.
7. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 60.
9. Ibid, 93.