Symposium Introduction

Unlike many readers of Kierkegaard, I did not first encounter him in Fear and Trembling. Instead, I was introduced to Kierkegaard during a graduate course on “Romantic Irony” in which we read Either/Or. Quickly impressed (and a bit intimidated) by this enigmatic thinker who used pseudonyms not to hide from his audience, but more clearly to communicate with them, I was hooked. I then went on to read Fear and Trembling because that was the book that everyone seemed to be talking about. What I found there was more than a little bit frustrating.

September 11 had just occurred and I couldn’t shake the thought that Abraham seemed to be more like Bin Laden than the people at my church trying to navigate their faith lives. The book seemed to excuse violence in the name of religious faith. Understandably, I was troubled by the idea that this all seemed to lead to zealotry, rather than to humble earnestness. Abraham was somehow able to suspend moral codes in the name of religious certainty, but that seemed like cause of condemnation, not celebration. To read him as the “father of faith” seemed to implicate us in acts of violence justified due by religious conviction. I remember going to one of my other professors, David Kangas, and asking him about all of this. His response was nearly as enigmatic as Kierkegaard’s own texts: “Why do you think this is a story about Abraham?” he asked me. I was perplexed and my frustration continued.

It took me many years of further study to figure out what Kangas might have been trying to convey to me. Fear and Trembling is not a case study in fanaticism, but in the riskiness of living faithfully. Faith is not just about weak knowledge, but about reorienting everything else in one’s life due to the depth of a grounding trust by which one’s very selfhood is constituted. Importantly, Kangas always taught Fear and Trembling with the Upbuilding Discourses that Kierkegaard published at the same time. There we see the connection between faith and love, we discover that faith prevents loss from having the final word, and we are able to unpack a logic of the gift that facilitates selfhood as anchored in patience. Only by understanding this can we make better sense of the passages in Fear and Trembling where Silentio claims:

No one who was great in the world will be forgotten, but everyone was great in his own way, and everyone in proportion to the greatness of that which he loved. He who loved himself became great by virtue of himself, and he who loved other men became great by his devotedness, but he who loved God became the greatest of all. Everyone shall be remembered, but everyone became great in proportion to his expectancy. (FT, 16)

Notice the emphasis on the love of God that reorients us in relation to ourselves and others. Silentio positions Abraham as “the greatest of all” not because he did something superlatively celebrated by external standards of worldly success. Instead, his greatness lies in the paradoxical way in which he no longer allows such standards to be ultimate for him:

Abraham was the greatest of all, great by that power whose strength is powerlessness, great by that wisdom whose secret is foolishness, great by that hope whose form is madness, great by the love that is hatred to oneself. (FT, 16–17)

Such passages made more sense after reading books like For Self-Examination, Practice in Christianity, and Works of Love. Only then was I able to read Fear and Trembling as not “about Abraham,” but about my own attempt to live faithfully in the midst of existential struggle. This is not a story about a religious ideal that we should try to be like, but instead it is about finding, as Silentio notes, “the sublime in the pedestrian” (FT, 41). That is, it is a book about us all. It is not about moral exceptions, but about religious exemptions. Far from celebrating confessional certainty and zealotry, Fear and Trembling invites us to appreciate the radicality of kenosis.

Despite my more developed interpretive approach to the text, there is still so much in the book that gives me pause. And that is, I think, how it should be. The story should “render sleepless” all who seriously consider it (FT, 28). Yet, such insomnia is not due to the horror of Abraham’s actions, but at the continued risk of our own. Silentio, like Kierkegaard, makes “blessed assurance” a bit harder to come by than we might wish. However, in that very pause, that Sisyphian moment at the bottom of the hill before we begin to push the rock anew, we are invited to grasp the notion that faithfulness stands at odds with success. The goal is not to be done with the task, but to take up the task as “a task for a whole lifetime” (FT, 6–7). Fear and Trembling is about us in that it forbids complacency in our religious lives. “The person who has come to faith . . . does not come to a standstill in faith,” Silentio writes at the close of the book (FT, 122–23). Instead, we must all, for ourselves, realize that faith is not an add-on to a life of accomplishments and achievements, instead it reorients who we are and what matters. Only when we realize that can we say of faith: “I have my whole life in it” (FT, 123).

Thankfully I had professors like David Kangas who didn’t simply hand me the “right” interpretation of the book, but instead invited me to wrestle with it for myself. A couple years after that first question to Kangas, I asked him another one. I was considering proposing to my then girlfriend and yet because I had read so much Kierkegaard, I was hesitant. Surely “purity of heart is to will one thing,” right? Wasn’t Kierkegaard right to break his engagement to devote himself more fully to philosophy? I approached Kangas with these worries and I can still see the twinkle in his eye and the smirk on his face as he told me: “Kierkegaard was an amazing philosopher, but he also was an idiot.” Kangas was right. Those who spend the most time thinking so well about existence are often the worst at figuring out how to live in joy. I did get married, by the way, and now having celebrated by twentieth anniversary with my wife, I still turn to Kierkegaard’s texts for encouragement on how to live, but rarely turn to him for an example of how to put that encouragement into practice.

Reading is hard. Living is harder. Kierkegaard knew that and invites us to know it as well.

I am thrilled to have been able to organize this symposium on Jeff Hanson’s excellent book Kierkegaard and the Life of Faith, precisely because Hanson, like Kangas, appreciates the way that Kierkegaard should impact us. As Hanson notes,

Kierkegaard has almost no interest whatsoever in how or whether the apparently unethical can be explained or excused by recourse to “faith”; what he is trying to do is alarm a complacently Christian audience of readers into recognizing what their faith actually requires of them and the extent to which real adherence to that faith should alter the entirety of their lives. (2)

A book that avoids sycophantic praise of Kierkegaard as being unable to get things wrong, Hanson self-consciously pushes beyond where Kierkegaard/Silentio are often willing to go. He does this in order to let Fear and Trembling speak to where we are now. In this way, Hanson’s careful and rigorous scholarship is existentially aware. Whether you buy Hanson’s specific arguments about the finer points of Kierkegaardian scholarship (and as our symposium participants show, there might be reason to push back on some of those points), he is right that Fear and Trembling should wreck us. But, like faith, we are not left marooned on a rock in the middle of angry seas. Instead, it is there in the midst of life, suspended above seventy thousand fathoms (and the terror of mundane exhaustion that we face every single day), we find faith. With faith comes joy, but the joy never eliminates the risk. Hence, the continued task . . . for a lifetime.

The participants in this symposium, Christopher Barnett, Amber Bowen, Hjördis Becker-Lindenthal, and Leonardo Lisi, all approach Hanson’s book (and Kierkegaard’s authorship) from slightly different perspectives and they all facilitate a critical and yet constructive conversation that far outstrips abstract technical scholarship. Scholarly disagreement is important in order to recognize the fact that precious little in life is obvious. This symposium reminds us all that how we (should) read is intimately related to how we (should) live. Humility, hospitality, and gratitude are virtues on both fronts.

I didn’t come to Kierkegaard through Fear and Trembling, but now almost all of my life is undertaken in light of it. Hanson’s book reminds me why I love reading Kierkegaard, because it reminds me that “to proceed on the basis of faith is to recover on the far side of the ruins of the ethical and the aesthetic a life that is both morally renewed and beautifully restored” (15). Kierkegaard and Hanson are right that each person “finally stands alone before God and thereby becomes the one she uniquely is and is called to be” (205). Kangas was right—Fear and Trembling is not, finally, about Abraham. Rather than being obsessed with Abraham in ways that cause us to forget to look at ourselves, Fear and Trembling, Hanson explains, invites us to realize that “such is the task, for each and for all” (205).

 

Works Cited

Hanson, Jeffrey. Kierkegaard and the Life of Faith: The Aesthetic, the Ethical, and the Religious inFear and Trembling. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2017

Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling and Repetition. Ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Christopher B. Barnett

Response

Kierkegaard and the Lutheran Sola Fide

Over the last decade, a number of commentaries on Kierkegaard’s classic text Fear and Trembling (Frygt og Bæven, 1843) have appeared. The trend began with Clare Carlisle’s Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling”: A Reader’s Guide (2010) and continued with Daniel Conway’s edited collection Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling”: A Critical Guide (2015), followed by Paul Martens’s Reading Kierkegaard I: “Fear and Trembling” (2017) and Jeffrey Hanson’s Kierkegaard and the Life of Faith: The Aesthetic, the Ethical, and the Religious in “Fear and Trembling” (2017). Each of these volumes is distinct in tone and in purpose, and the fact that each can be said to make a contribution to Kierkegaardiana is a testimony both to the skill of the commentators and to the richness of Kierkegaard’s text itself, which seems to never fail to provoke new readings.

The task of this brief essay is to respond to Hanson’s book, which is arguably the most ambitious of the commentaries listed above. For Hanson, Fear and Trembling is not so much about divine command theory as about overcoming the tragic circumstances of earthly life. On this account, Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac is an arch-metaphor for how the real world wrecks our ideals and how religious faith is needed to cope with this state of affairs. For example, Abraham’s ethical ideal is to raise and to provide for his son Isaac; it constitutes his identity as a father and gives purpose and shape to his life. Yet, this ideal is seemingly taken away by an unexpected command from God himself: “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of” (Gen 22:2). If it were not for faith, Abraham could not endure this paradox. Through faith, however, Abraham is able to convert what is the case into what is the ideal case. Abraham does not believe that he has lost Isaac; rather, he believes that what appears lost will ultimately be redeemed. According to Hanson, faith similarly reconstitutes the aesthetic. He devotes the eighth chapter of Kierkegaard and the Life of Faith to this issue, demonstrating that Fear and Trembling’s much-maligned Problema III does for aesthetics what its previous problemata did for ethics. In other words, faith is able to see beauty in actuality, even when actuality has ostensibly become ugly. When the world has conquered us, there is only one thing left that can conquer it: “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4).

Kierkegaard and the Life of Faith serves as a welcome corrective to the once-predominant reading of Fear and Trembling, when the text was seen as a celebration of the individual’s free and even arbitrary choice to operate outside of the social order or, in Hegelian terms, Sittlichkeit. Hanson’s argument tempers and hatches the blunt conclusions so often imposed on the Dane’s most well-known book. Even the questions that Hanson raises are nuanced. That is, while he avoids the trap of reducing Fear and Trembling to a handful of bullet points in an “Existentialism 101” course, he is likely to leave the reader in a ponderous state. One might wonder, for example, who put the Frygt in Frygt og Bæven, given Hanson’s contention that the book’s pseudonymous author Johannes de silentio actually presents an “edifying” picture of faith. There are also questions of a more academic variety. To wit, if the book’s interlocutors range beyond Hegel and Danish Hegelians such as Johan Ludvig Heiberg (1791–1860), who exactly are they? To his credit, Hanson pays notable attention to St. Paul, not to mention René Descartes and, naturally, Hegel. But most of Kierkegaard’s theological influences are overlooked by or even absent from Kierkegaard and the Life of Faith, which is unfortunate since the book is, after all, about faith. One cannot help but ask how Kierkegaard managed to cook up such a pungent conception of this theological virtue?

This is a big question, which could merit a book in its own right. However, I want to briefly sketch a response with an eye to Martin Luther, who only appears once—in a footnote no less—in Kierkegaard and the Life of Faith. Luther, of course, was the Augustinian monk and chair of theology at the University of Wittenberg, who, beginning in 1517, spearheaded the Protestant Reformation. By Kierkegaard’s day, Lutheranism was firmly established as a global Protestant denomination, though its influence was felt in Denmark almost immediately. Future Danish king Christian III was present at the Diet of Worms (Reichstag zu Worms) in 1521, where he heard Luther himself field questions from Scholastic theologian Johann Eck (1486–1543). Persuaded by Luther’s answers, Christian III eventually assumed the Danish throne and, in October 1536, established the Lutheran state church of Denmark. This was the church in which Kierkegaard was raised, though he had other notable theological influences—above all, the transconfessional spiritual movement known as Pietism.

Nevertheless, Luther’s influence on Kierkegaard ought not be ignored, and it would seem to have a role in the Kierkegaardian conception of faith presented by Hanson. For example, observers have long noted that Luther’s theology pivots around the tension between law and gospel. While Catholic doctorum from Augustine of Hippo (354–430) to Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) argued, albeit in different ways, that faith finds expression in particular actions or dispositions, Luther worried that human beings all too often put the cart before the horse: they use human achievement and effort as means to justify themselves before God and neighbor. Opponents retorted that the Lutheran position of justificatio sola fide leads to a rejection of good deeds and even of the law itself. But such assumptions often fail to consider the metaphysical basis of Luther’s argument. Luther did not disparage works prescribed by religious law—in fact, he explicitly denied the antinomian option—but he did question the motivations of those who presume to achieve righteousness before God. In his Commentary on Galatians (ca. 1531),1 Luther remarks that human beings proudly want to believe that righteousness is “earthly and active,” an outcome of human planning, when in fact righteousness is “heavenly and passive: which we have not of ourselves, but receive it from heaven.” Since human beings bear “the image of the earthly Adam” and thus are destined to twist even cogent schemes and good intentions into occasions of sin, it is simply not possible for them to conjure up “the new man in a new world.”

There are, simply put, limitations on what a human being can perceive or accomplish. No amount of red-blooded optimism can view the COVID-19 pandemic as anything but a tragedy; no measure of charitable donations or volunteer hours can render a person morally flawless, unscathed by the failings and iniquities of the world. On a Lutheran reading, it is fantastical and potentially wicked to believe that membership in a certain community or adherence to a certain creed will indemnify one against judgment. Yet to fathom this truth is even more terrifying. If a person can do nothing, is not all hope lost? On the contrary, according to Luther, people need to place their trust in a transcendent power that is infinitely and qualitatively other than the authorities and forces of the world. Only in and through this trust, which is synonymous with faith, is the brokenness of human life restored:

Why, do we then nothing? Do we work nothing for the obtaining of this righteousness? I answer: Nothing at all. For the nature of this righteousness is, to do nothing, to hear nothing, to know nothing whatsoever of the law or of works, but to know and to believe this only, that Christ . . . is our high-priest intreating for us, and reigning over us and in us by grace. Here no sin is perceived, no terror or remorse of conscience is felt; for in this heavenly righteousness sin can have no place: for there is no law, and where no law is, there can be no transgression. (Rom 4:15)

Hence, out of merciful love, God is against human righteousness, not because righteousness itself is sinful, but because the human desire to define and to control righteousness is. Ultimately, then, the greatest temptation that Abraham faces is to be good in the eyes of the world. In faith he is freed from this temptation, so that he can rest in the goodness of God alone.

Whether or not Luther’s understanding of faith is correct is, of course, a famously contentious and labyrinthine question. In fact, Kierkegaard himself grew critical of the Danish state church’s application of this issue, arguing that Luther’s passionate and almost mystical conception of faith had been reduced to a “hidden” interiority whose sole external guarantor was ecclesial membership. With this in mind, Kierkegaard would turn to spiritual writers who were mainstays of his roots in Pietism, for example, Thomas à Kempis (ca. 1380–1471) and Johann Arndt (1555–1621). Under their influence, and with polemical rigor, Kierkegaard would come to press the motif of imitatio Christi. But this turn would not come until a number of years after the publication of Fear and Trembling—a text that Kierkegaard and the Life of Faith, without acknowledging it, seems to reveal as a Lutheran exegesis of the Akedah.


  1. See Martin Luther, Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Anchor, 1962), 99–166.

  • Jeffrey Hanson

    Jeffrey Hanson

    Reply

    Response to Christopher Barnett

    I thank all the sensitive and thoughtful respondents to my book, and I appreciate the questions that probe the limits of my account of Fear and Trembling found therein. I first read Fear and Trembling when I was seventeen years old, so it only took me twenty years to come up with what I thought was a reasonably original interpretation of the text. That it continues to reward not just my attention but the attention of scholars like Christopher Barnett, Amber Bowen, Hjördis Becker-Lindenthal, and Leonardo Lisi, and that the five of us could continue to discuss it beyond the limits of this format is testimony to the inexhaustible riches of Fear and Trembling.

    If there is a common reservation shared by my interlocutors it is one that I could have predicted: I have “softened” the sharp edges of Johannes de Silentio’s account of faith. The consensus among the respondents has given me the opportunity to reflect further on the origins of my approach to the text and its shortcomings. I had never thought of this before, but I think my mature reflection on the text (not at age seventeen but in graduate school) was influenced—perhaps in an outsized way—in response to Jacques Derrida’s The Gift of Death. That book stresses the incompatibility of absolute duty with general duty, an unresolvable dilemma that Derrida takes to be the heart of Fear and Trembling. I have moved farther away from this view, and I have moved farther away from my youthful kneejerk response to any implication that Kierkegaard may have been positively influenced by, and not only militantly opposed to, Hegel. I have come to regard Kierkegaard as the thinker of not just “either/or” but also “both/and.” Consequently, my emphasis is indeed on reading the text for potential reconciliations, convergences, and constructive collisions.

    In this book Kierkegaard is walking a tightrope, as he so often does. Any analysis is bound to fall more to one side than the other, as Kevin Hoffman observed as well. He seeks to steer between two responses to the book’s “violence” that he thinks Johannes de Silentio is also aware of: “naïve, unreflective acceptance and knee-jerk offense. Each of these reactions are inappropriately distracted, one by the knife and the other by the happy outcome. Focusing on the outcome fosters pious but Sunday-schoolish sentiments, while focusing on the knife confirms good old-fashioned moral humanism.”1 I have acknowledged Hoffman’s considerable contribution to my own approach, which I modeled on his own by trying to steer between these two “distracted” responses, but I suspect that any reading is bound to drift toward one or the other. It is probably equally inevitable that a drift toward one response is bound to attract a corrective toward the opposite response. As I emphasize the “happy outcome,” I expect to be reminded of the knife, which is what my interlocutors have done, and I welcome the corrective.

    In some cases I think my interlocutors have seized upon not so much shortcomings in my book but in Silentio’s view of faith. I will try to point these out as I confront each person’s response in order.

    As to Barnett, I am grateful for his drawing attention to Kierkegaard’s theological inspirations. I am not a theologian, but fortunately good work has been done by people who know more about Kierkegaard’s theological inheritances. The debates that Barnett invokes are storied and complex; I certainly cannot resolve them, and I am not settled in my own mind as to how Kierkegaard does either. As we learn from his journals, his relationship to Luther was complicated: often appreciative but frequently critical too. The Lutheran point about the inadequacy of human effort is certainly reflected in Kierkegaard’s writings, and I think Fear and Trembling expresses this point by recognizing the unattainable nature of humanly contrived, worldly ideals. Both in this text and in The Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard seems to stop short of saying we are fated to fail to attain our ideals (or doomed to sin, to use the more theologically inflected vocabulary of The Concept of Anxiety). Still, in good Reformed fashion it seems to be just about inevitable.

    There is a corresponding paradox at the heart of righteousness too: Good works are fruitless in themselves, but they are still mandatory. Something of the fragility of the ethical as universal perhaps gets at this. We must have a first ethics, but first ethics cannot save, nor can it even capture the full range of human excellences, those capacitated by faith alone, which for Lutheranism is an infused virtue and thus itself a gift of grace. If I have a tentative theory about this difficulty it might be that the negative phenomena in Kierkegaard’s catalogue like despair and anxiety—at their highest point of development—have the power to bring us right to the cusp of faith while never automatically delivering us to it.2

    I am grateful for Barnett’s attention to the eighth chapter of the book and for connecting the renewal of aesthetics with faith. This is an idea to which I feel I must pay more attention in future and have already tried to explore a bit further. If there is any aspect of the book’s argument that needs more development this is it, and the deficiency is at least implicitly picked up by not just Barnett but also Becker-Lindenthal if I understand her correctly: How does the faithful person detect and discern the direction their life should take when guided by their faith? I strongly suspect the answer has to do with the imagination, with the ability to discern the beauty and goodness of things, even when they are elusive. Barnett is right that this is a work of faith, but it is also a work of love. Love is not the theme of my book, though it should be brought to the fore. I think particularly of Kierkegaard’s claim in Works of Love that the lover finds people lovable. The true artist is not the one who travels far and wide and yet never found a face worth painting; the true artist is the one who doesn’t even claim to be an artist, who has never traveled far from home, and yet who says, “I have not found one single face to be so insignificant or faulted that I still could not discern a more beautiful side and discover something transfigured in it.”3

    Barnett’s claim that “there are, simply put, limitations on what a human being can perceive or accomplish” is indeed true of worldly perception, but the eyes of faith (and love) see otherwise. Elsewhere I have called it a kind of synoptic vision, according to which one sees both that tragedy and heartbreak are everywhere and that life is a comedy despite it all.4 If this kind of regenerate imaginative vision is still in the orbit of Lutheran conceptuality, it may have more to do with sanctification than justification, and it may require a retrieval of the pre-Lutheran tradition of the spiritual senses. The conduit likeliest to connect the medieval mystical tradition to Kierkegaard is not Luther, as Barnett points out (and as Becker-Lindenthal’s work has taught us), but the Pietists.

    The project of the imitation of Christ, which I think is after all present in germ in Fear and Trembling, is anticipated by the Problema III material, which highlights the need for continuity in human life, for faith to be lived out day by day, and the role that aesthesis may play in the living of such a life. As Wojciech Kaftanski (who has done much to instruct Kierkegaardians on the major role played by imitation in the Dane’s writings) points out,

    Abraham as the knight of faith is presented by de silentio as evoking admiration in the observer who then strives to imitate his movements of faith. Speaking of his own attitude toward the knight of faith, de silentio says: “I would not leave him for a second, I would watch him every minute to see how he made the movements; I would consider myself taken care of for life and would divide my time between watching him and practicing myself, and thus spend all my time in admiring him” (FT, 39 / SKS 4:133). The word for “practicing” from the quotation is Øvelser. It corresponds with the word Indøvelse from the title of Anti-Climacus’s Practice in Christianity. Johannes de silentio’s practice prefigures the religious practice key to Anti-Climacus’s understanding of radical Christianity argued in his book.5

    So the beginnings of a more fulsome account of how faith leads to practice are available in Fear and Trembling, but as Barnett’s engagement makes clear, much more still can and should be said on this front.


    1. Kevin Hoffman, “Facing Threats to Earthly Felicity: A Reading of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling,” Journal of Religious Ethics 34.3 (2006): 439–59, at 440.

    2. I go into more detail on this idea in my discussion of The Concept of Anxiety’s final chapter on anxiety as saving through faith. See my “Holy Hypochondria: Narrative and Self-Awareness in The Concept of Anxiety,” Kierkegaard Studies Yearbook (2011): 239–62. I gesture in a similar direction with respect to despair in my forthcoming “Despair the Disease and Faith the Therapeutic Cure,” in Kierkegaard’s “The Sickness unto Death”: A Critical Guide, ed. Jeffrey Hanson and Sharon Krishek (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

    3. Søren Kierkegaard Works of Love, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 158.

    4. See my “After Actuality: Ideality and the Promise of a Purified Religious Vision in Frater Taciturnus,” History of European Ideas 47.3 (2021): 514–27, at 517.

    5. From his forthcoming book, Kierkegaard, Mimesis, and Modernity: A Study of Imitation, Existence, and Affect (London: Routledge, forthcoming). I thank Dr. Kaftanski for sharing his work with me.

Amber Bowen

Response

August 16, 2022, 1:00 am

Hjördis Becker-Lindenthal

Response

August 23, 2022, 1:00 am

Leonardo F. Lisi

Response

August 30, 2022, 1:00 am

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