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).
Hanson, Jeffrey. Kierkegaard and the Life of Faith: The Aesthetic, the Ethical, and the Religious in “Fear 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.