Søren Kierkegaard used to intimidate me. In truth, he still does. He’s a daunting figure, both prolific in output and profound in thought. I viewed him as part of an undefined group of unapproachables, authors whose work lies beyond the scope of my ability to comprehend. But one of the joys of research is that you get to engage formidable thinkers and grapple with their work, approaching the unapproachables to learn their secrets. This semester, I spent some time researching Kierkegaard’s thought surrounding his book Fear and Trembling, and I was indeed challenged academically. However, the more I studied, the more I found myself challenged spiritually as well.
In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard examines Abraham’s faith in Genesis 22, the sacrifice of Isaac. In a culture which sought to make faith fit neatly within a comprehensive ethical system, Kierkegaard called for a closer look at Abraham’s decision, arguing that Abraham cannot be understood by any human ethical standard. By all accounts, Abraham should be seen as a murderer, and yet he is praised for his faith. How does such praise make sense? For Kierkegaard, Abraham is worthy of honor because he, by faith, embraced a paradox: Abraham understood the normal ethical standards to which he was bound were suspended in his situation because of a higher call. For Kierkegaard, God holds absolute authority over people, such that even recognized ethical guidelines are ultimately subordinate to him. This doesn’t diminish the importance of ethics; it simply reminds us that God can’t be placed into a box we can comprehend or control. To have faith, then, is to trust in God absolutely.
As he explores Abraham’s faith, he does two things worthy of note. First, Kierkegaard reminds readers of the tension inherent in Abraham’s obedience. To obey God, Abraham had to be willing to sacrifice his son, an action both ethically reprehensible and emotionally agonizing. This was the child of promise, the child for which he and Sarah had waited for years. This was the son through whom God would make Abraham a people. Now, he was called upon to sacrifice his son. He had to walk with Isaac three days to the appointed place, unable to explain himself to anyone around him, unable to know the mind of God. We often see Abraham’s story in light of the ending; we know God didn’t ultimately require Isaac from him, that Abraham passed the test. Kierkegaard reminds us that Abraham didn’t know how the story would end until the moment he raised the knife to kill his boy, and he calls us to feel the weight of the event and to embrace the fear and trembling that should come as we attempt to understand Abraham’s faith. We ought to marvel at Abraham’s faith in God in the midst of such a test and humble ourselves before such unshaken faith in the goodness of God.
Second, Kierkegaard reminds readers that individuals stand first and foremost before God. Although we may try to justify ourselves by human standards, seeking comfort in community, we relate to God above and before all else. Thus, God’s call reigns supreme. Again, this doesn’t mean we abandon ethical systems. God calls us to submit to governing authorities, to live in peace, and to love our neighbors. Yet our ultimate duty is to God, not to this or that system. Because of this, we must follow God even when we don’t understand him, trusting him whose ways and thoughts are higher than our own.
When I think about Abraham now, I slow down. I think more about what Abraham faced and how he responded. I think about the level of trust he must have had in God to act with such obedience, trust built over time as he saw God keep his promises. I think about the love he must have had for God to be willing to sacrifice all for his Lord, love grown as he grew to better know God’s love for him. And as I think about Abraham, I’m challenged to evaluate my own faith and love for God. I confess I don’t trust him as I should or love him as I ought. He is worthy of absolute devotion, not partial, comfortable acquiescence. He cannot be molded to my system; I must be molded to his. I pray for greater faith and love because of Kierkegaard’s work, and I thank God for Kierkegaard’s willingness to tackle such a weighty subject and record his thought for the good of others.
Thanks to Dustin, Will, and Maci for reading over this post and offering feedback.