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.
Liturgy, Violence, and the Life of Faith
Fear and Trembling (FT), Jeffrey Hanson argues, is less about polemics such as divine voluntarism, the juxtaposition of ethics and faith, or the issue of killing in the name of God, and more about how faith changes one’s whole life and allows one to live more fully in relation to God and others. With the creative insight and clarity of argument that characterize his work, Hanson brings out what is often neglected in readings of FT, namely, that the life of faith is as beautiful as it is good. Given Silentio’s insistence that we not only admire Abraham but imitate him as the Father of Faith, there is a special burden for readers and commenters to draw out general patterns that we can follow after in our everyday lives, or to describe how the ordeals found therein are comparable to the kinds of trials we too experience. Perhaps no other commentary that I have encountered does this so as well as Hanson’s. However, as I see it, Hanson’s portrayal is so relatable that, at times, it loses some of the tectonic shifts that characterize the life of faith FT portrays.
A particular challenge of reading FT has always been to account for the “violence” in the text in responsible ways, specifically in reference to Abraham’s ordeal, without easing the anxiety the text evokes. I think Hanson is right that faith allows us to cope with inevitable losses, heartbreaks, and difficulties that happen to us in life, but I think FT probes at something more than cultivating acceptance of that which is outside of our control and acquiring the agility to navigate new relational terms and circumstances after our ideals get put to the test. I am not saying these things are not important and cannot be meaningfully derived from the text. I am suggesting, rather, that in order to be able to live this way, there is a more fundamental movement that we must make, one that Jean-Yves Lacoste calls “the resolute deliberate gesture made by those who ordain their being-in-the-world a being-before-God, and who do violence to the former in the name of the latter” (Lacoste 2004, 39). In what follows, I shall briefly describe what sort of movement this is and how I think it is crucial for the life of faith that Hanson describes in reference to FT.
According to Hanson, FT demonstrates how faith changes the faithful person’s response to the world, especially her response to life at its most challenging. Faith also changes the faithful person’s relationships with others, not by trivializing them, but by deepening them. Particularly in his discussion on the exordium, Hanson highlights the challenges to fatherhood Abraham experienced in order to be called the Father of Faith. As the vignettes demonstrate—especially in the descriptions of the mother weaning the child—the parent/child relationship changes over time and the coming of the new always involves some sort of loss. To make space for the child to grow into maturity, the parent must gradually relinquish measures of control and withdraw particular forms of protection and care. Going through the weaning process so the child can transition from milk to solid food, withdrawing the hand so that she can take steps on her own, dropping her off at school for the first time, practicing “tough love” in the adolescent years, or allowing her to learn hard lessons of early adulthood, are all necessary transitions that can be painful for both the parent and the child, and even seemingly cruel. Sometimes reality shatters a parent’s ideas of what it means to be a good parent, her vision for what is best for the child, and her attempts to secure it—even when it comes to matters of faith.
Of course, all of these insights can apply to differing degrees to any kind of relationship or situation. Life throws curveballs, and any opportunity for growth will require the experience of some kind of loss. Hanson concludes, beautifully, I think, that
faith does not meddle with God’s commandments in the service of its own vision of what is best. Faith does not seek to protect God from others’ incomprehension or mistrust of the divine. Faith does not shield others from who God is and from what he expects. All these things it faces resolutely and with readiness to be made grateful, happy, free of bitterness and hostility, and at peace with those we love. Faith will put us to a test we cannot understand but that we will be the better for having endured cheerfully, bravely, and with thankfulness. (66)
While I take Hanson’s insights to be compelling and undoubtedly relevant, I would like to offer a more focused consideration of how “ordeals” can be said to build this kind of faith. I suggest that they provide the occasion not just to change our response to the world, but to change our mode of being within it. Undoubtedly, faith is necessary to navigate challenges, to ameliorate the disappointing vicissitudes of life (79), and to cope with that which comes at us and lies beyond our control (82). Yet, I argue that the full force of God’s call to Abraham was to lose, to sacrifice, to put to death something irreplaceable and something beloved. It is for that reason that Silentio cries, “Who is this who seizes the staff from the old man, who is this who demands that he himself shall break it!” (Kierkegaard 1983, 19). God’s call to Abraham was not to accept courageously the tragedy of his son’s premature death, it was a call for Abraham to employ his agency, to break his own staff, to make what Lacoste calls a “resolute deliberate gesture” that does “violence” to the world.
How are we to make sense of this kind of agency, and in what way can it lead to a life of faith that is both beautiful and good? This is a question one would ask not only after reading FT, but the hard sayings of Jesus as well. Hanson rightly attends to Silentio’s exposition of Luke 14, but he does so primarily to demonstrate how the teleological suspension of the ethical leads to “second ethics,” which only redoubles the force of our call to love and be responsible for the other. I think it is important to consider the kind of rupture—the “violence”—that is portrayed in these hard sayings in order to understand what sorts of deliberate gestures we are to make to imitate Abraham.
Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). In other “corresponding” passages, such as Deuteronomy 13:6–7, followers of Yahweh were commanded to put to death family members that enticed them to idol worship. In Matthew 19:29, Jesus says that those who leave their homes, which includes their brothers, sisters, father, mother, spouse, and children for his sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. Likewise, in the account of the rich young ruler, Jesus told the wealthy man that though he had kept the law and commandments, one thing he lacked was to sell everything he had and give it to the poor (Mark 10:17–27). I bring up these passages not because Hanson neglects them (in fact, he mentions them all), but to consider the “resolute deliberate gestures” that each require. Jesus did not prepare the rich young ruler to lose his wealth in a bad business deal, but to give it away. He called his disciples not to come to terms with a soured relationship, but to surrender what was sure, calculable, achievable, comfortable, dearly loved, or whatever else made of up “the whole substance of [their] life” (FT, 53) in order to bind themselves to Christ. These deliberate gestures indeed open onto “second ethics” by which we love more freely and generously than first ethics dictates precisely because they lose their purported ultimacy. However, the movement from first ethics to second requires a rupture, one that can often feel more gutting than consoling. There is no way to buy Christianity at a “bargain price,” Silentio insists. Faith can only change the whole substance of one’s life if she first makes the deliberate gesture to pick up her cross.
In modern society, material wealth, hitting the expected life milestones, social norms, and achieving everything else that the world would characterize as “the good life,” is often regarded as the exclusive horizon of meaning by which we project our lives and determine their worth. Acts that critique this horizon do not deny the goodness of the particular things found within as much as they denounce their ultimacy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls this counting the cost of discipleship:
[Followers] are called away and are supposed to “step out” of their previous existence, they are supposed to “exist” in the strict sense of the word. Former things are left behind; they are completely given up. The disciple is thrown out of the relative security of life into complete insecurity (which in truth is absolute security and protection in community with Jesus); out of the foreseeable and calculable realm (which in truth is unreliable) into the completely unforeseeable, coincidental realm (which in truth is the only necessary and reliable one); out of limited possibilities (which in truth is that of unlimited possibilities) into the realm of unlimited possibilities (which in truth is the only liberating reality). . . . Again, it is nothing other than being bound to Jesus Christ alone. This means completely breaking through anything preprogrammed, idealistic, or legalistic. No further content is possible because Jesus is the only content. (Bonhoeffer, 2000, 58–59)
What Bonhoeffer describes are not consolations for coping with an unfortunate loss or a passive acceptance of suffering. They are actions willfully carried out by one’s own hand to transfer one’s ultimacy from the provisional to the eternal.
Making an important clarification, Bonhoeffer writes, “There is no ultimate difference whether [the break with the world] takes place externally in a break with one’s family or nation, whether one is called to visibly bear Christ’s shame, to accept the reproach of hatred for humans (odium generis humani [hatred of the human race]), or whether the break must be borne hidden, known by the individual alone, who, however, is prepared to make it visible at any time.” “Abraham,” he concludes, “has become a role model for both possibilities” (Bonhoeffer, 2000, 96–97). Visibly and invisibly Abraham gave Isaac, who was a gift from God in the first place, back to God. Likewise for us, living in a way that is not beholden to the horizon of human understanding and meaning may involve visible actions of resistance and sacrifice, or it may involve a silent relinquishing of what the world insists is important, possible, and necessary.
Whether a visible or an invisible act, picking up one’s cross is always an intentional act. You never pick up your cross by accident. You cannot choose the cross you bear, and no one can carry it for you. Your cross is unique to you and the responsibility to take it up is yours alone. Cross-bearing may involve refusing to give into various forms of corruption, even if it costs you career advancement, financial stability, social standing, or other such tangible losses. It may mean ordering your life around what you believe is most meaningful and worthwhile, even if that pushes against the rhythms and priorities of everyone around you. It may mean to persist in neighborly love even when everyone else thinks you are crazy or wasting your time. It may also mean refusing the consumeristic impulses, the hunger for power, the ruthless pursuit of self-advancement, and other gods of this age, in order to order to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
Across his authorship, Kierkegaard frequently recognizes that resisting the urges that consume and propel modern life in order to live beneath a broader horizon will cause one to be misunderstood and even despised by others (see, for example, Kierkegaard 1995, 194–204; Kierkegaard 1991, 75–76). He cautions that those who seek to gain the world will lose their soul (Kierkegaard 2005, 164–65).
Therefore, it is only by deliberately taking leave of the world—or the purported ultimacy of the world—that we can then love it with the freedom and generosity Hanson describes. It is only beneath the broader horizon of faith, accessed by taking up our cross, that we can then face the losses and hardships of life with hope. Our crosses are most certainly not Abraham’s cross, but they are real, tangible crosses nonetheless. And if we don’t seem to have any real crosses to bear, it is worth asking if we too might be seeking to purchase Christianity at a bargain price.
By negating the ultimacy of the world, we, like Abraham and the knight of faith, can live fully in the world beneath the horizon of faith. As I see it, navigating life’s trials and stresses in ways that deepen our relationship to God and others, and relinquishing possessions so we can enjoy life’s gifts, is done best by this horizon exchange. Ordaining our being-in-the-world a being-before-God makes it possible to move forward in trust as the stories of our lives unfold. It gives us the courage to open ourselves to God’s love and good purposes for us and for others, come what may. Hanson is right to show us how the life of faith is as beautiful as it is good, but what we need not forget is the resolute deliberate gesture that is necessary to make it so.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses. Translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University, 1992.
———. Fear and Trembling and Repetition. Translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University, 1983.
———. Practice in Christianity. Translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University, 1991.
———. Works of Love. Translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University, 1998.
Lacoste, Jean-Yves. Experience and the Absolute: Disputed Questions on the Humanity of Man. Translated by Mark Raftery-Skehan. New York: Fordham University Press, 2004.
After the End
If one takes a walk along Copenhagen’s Slotsholm Canal and looks down from Højbro bridge, one can glimpse eight figures in the greenish water: A kneeling man with an infant in his arms, surrounded by seven children, all pleading and in obvious anguish. The bronze sculptures are an artwork by Suste Bonnén, called Agnes and the Merman (Agnete og Havmanden, 1992). Agnes, however, is missing from the group, and she is the reason for the family’s distress. Bonnén focuses on a part of the legend about Agnes and the Merman that has not quite made it into the collective imagery. Usually, the focus is on Agnes standing on the shore looking out onto the sea, as in Vilhelm Kyhn’s painting from 1861, or face-to-face with the mysterious merman just before he dives into the floods with her, as in John Bauer’s drawing from the early twentieth century. The story of Agnes and the Merman is a prominent part of Scandinavian folklore, and it has been retold many times and with significant variations. Kierkegaard presents his own version in Fear and Trembling, letting the reader know that his Agnes is essentially characterized by utter innocence and trust. This leads to an innovative twist in Johannes de Silentio’s retelling of the story: When Agnes agrees to follow the merman, assuming without a hint of doubt that he will just show her the wonders of his underwater kingdom, the lecherous merman is genuinely moved and cannot go through with his hideous plan to take advantage of the young woman. Thus, in contrast to the traditional narrative, Agnes stays on the shore.
This change allows Johannes de Silentio to turn the merman into someone resembling the knight of resignation. When the merman realizes the monstrosity of his egotistic, abusive self, he has two options: either he can repent alone or with Agnes, the woman with whom he still longs to be. He chooses the first one and does not disclose himself. As a consequence, he makes Agnes unhappy, who genuinely loves him (so we are told) and cannot understand the change in his behavior. But the converted merman, too, suffers because of his decision. His guilt about his former intention is increased because he now also is the cause of Agnes’s suffering. The demonic in him arises. Sinking deeply into the “demonic in repentance,” he tells himself “that this is indeed his punishment, and the more it torments him the better” (FT, 96). Turning away from Agnes, the merman is rejecting the possibility of being forgiven. Instead, he is in defiance, the worst form despair can take (cf. SUD, 67–74).
Johannes de Silentio notes that one could imagine other outcomes of the encounter of the merman with Agnes. Repenting and disclosing himself to Agnes, he could marry her, hoping against all common sense and through “an absolute relation to the absolute” (FT, 98) that he would receive back what he has resigned from (Agnes) and that he would be able to build a genuinely loving relationship with the woman—something that the knight of faith would do. However, Johannes de Silentio does not follow through with this option, maybe because a similar outcome usually is conjured up by poets, who would describe a happy wedding, “throw the cloak of love over the merman, and everything is forgotten” (FT, 97n). This illustrates one of the existential shortcomings of esthetics; it “just sees to it that the lovers find each other and does not concern itself about the rest. If only it would see what happens afterwards, but it has not time for that” (FT, 97n).
Frankly told, Johannes de Silentio does not really concern himself about the rest, either. He does not reflect on the narrative implications of his account of Agnes and the Merman. In traditional versions, the two indeed do get married, or rather: the merman makes Agnes his queen, she enjoys their life in the underwater world, and they even have seven sons together. One day, however, Agnes hears faint church bells ringing, and she longs to attend a church service. The merman lets her go on the condition that she will return to the sea. She does not. Even when the merman rises to the shore himself and pleads with her to come home, reminding her of the children needing their mother, she firmly refuses. Thus, the merman and the seven children are abandoned. It is their pain and desperate longing which Bonnén’s sculptures under Højbro bridge bring to life.
It is worth shortly noting a few more details of the lore, which makes the story even more intricate: In some versions, the merman follows Agnes into the church where he finds her kneeling, observing her crying father who still mourns losing her eight years ago. When the merman enters the church, the images of the saints turn their faces away, and after Agnes has told him to back off, they turn their faces appreciatingly to her. In some versions, Agnes grew up without a mother; in other versions, the merman only lets her go on land if she promises not to talk to her mother. And in yet other variations of the story, Agnes is even married and a mother herself when she meets the merman and starts a second family with him.
Johannes de Silentio’s depiction of the merman is core to Jeffrey Hanson’s argument that there are two teleological suspensions of the ethical in Kierkegaard’s thought. Bringing Fear and Trembling in an illuminating interaction with The Concept of Anxiety, Hanson demonstrates that it is not only faith that suspends ethical obligations, as undergraduate students of theology have learnt for generations in their ethics class, but also the most extreme form of sin, i.e., demonic defiance: “the resolute sinner, the demonic individual, is like the knight of faith outside the universal; here there is indeed a teleological suspension of the ethical.” The ordinary sinner “is one who merely misses the mark; the demonic sinner has stopped trying to hit the mark” (130). The latter is illustrated by the merman, who, before he meets Agnes, made the abuse of women his life’s content. But Hanson also shows that Fear and Trembling is not about faith trumping the ethical, quite to the contrary. It is essentially about the transformation of ethics, about a repetition of one’s relation to others on a strengthened and intensified level. This also happens in the sublation of the demonic in faith, i.e., the yielding of the demonic to trust in salvation. If the merman wanted to be with Agnes in marriage—the paradigmatic ethical commitment, as Hanson notes with Kierkegaard—he would have to surrender himself to the belief that he too, can and will be forgiven:
It is in this way that faith makes possible an actuality that is greater than the merman can envision for himself. His own sinfulness stands in the way of the attainment of the good he imagined for himself, the desire he thought he had: possession of Agnes. He can, in defiance of course, stay there with the self-pitying realization of his own sin. Or he can accept Agnes’s love in repentance, cease being the merman he was, and become a higher self than he was eligible before, the self that loves truly and is truly loved in return. (131)
Hanson continues with a fine analysis of Johannes de Silentio’s inability to give a full account of sin and the implications for Fear and Trembling’s concept of ethics. However, what is more relevant for the purpose of my commentary is Hanson’s thorough translation of the knight of faith’s double movement into our daily lives, opening up alleys for an application of Fear and Trembling in pastoral care. Core to his reading of Kierkegaard’s account of the Akedah is Abraham’s role as a father. God’s demand does not only affect Abraham’s relation to Isaac (who experiences his father offering him as sacrifice) but also his self-understanding (never was it part of his expectations and anticipations of his fatherhood that he would one day raise a knife against his dearest son). After the traumatic event on Mount Moriah, the ideals Abraham held about his relations and himself are shattered, Hanson maintains. And yet, Abraham’s belief that “God will provide” is not limited to the offering itself (like the ram that appeared out of nowhere). It extends to the relationship with his son and his life as father and husband. Abraham trusts that he will continue to be a loved and loving father, albeit in a different, intensified manner, and he returns home.
Kierkegaard and the Life of Faith is rich with examples from the three essential human relationships that constitute our life: as a parent, as a spouse, and as a child. It is in these relationships that we are most likely to suffer blows that touch the core of our existence, destroy our ideals, and bitterly disappoint our expectations. In his unique reading of Fear and Trembling, Hanson shifts the focus from Abraham as an exception to Abraham as a paradigmatic model for everyone. The reader, he notes, “is meant to be challenged not with the literal prospect of having to offer a child in sacrifice to God but with the challenge that their relationship to a beloved individual will in the course of life necessarily be subject to change, even trauma” (85–86). Johannes de Silentio’s Abraham can function as a beacon of light in such crises because his faith demonstrates “itself in the readiness to receive back what is given up” (83). Imitating the father of faith precisely (and only) in this attitude, therefore, prevents us from falling into despair and bitterness. Abraham encourages us to work through hardship, to rebuild our ideals and relationships. Fear and Trembling, Hanson argues, has a “largely therapeutic purpose: to help the reader move forward with her life after she has received a serious setback to her own hopes, ambitions, and plans for happiness” (114), and it does so by inspiring us to believe in a possibility that exceeds all human imagination and understanding.
Hanson’s application of the Akedah to our family lives does not close its eyes from the fact that Johannes de Silentio incorporates the “hard sayings” of Jesus into his reflections, like Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” (see Fear and Trembling, 72). But Hanson shows that such demand does not lead to cold indifference, even hate toward our dear ones, neither in the Bible nor according to Johannes de Silentio. Rather, the absolute duty towards God leads to a “second ethics” (CA, 21–24). It does not annihilate other duties. Rather, it transforms them, raising them to the second power. Hanson illustrates this with the example of a dutiful daughter (it can also be a son, to modernize the example a bit) who gets married. As custom has it, her parents are now no longer “the number one” in her life. However, she can still be a “good” daughter, maybe even a better one, because now her care for her parents is not influenced by society’s or by her parents’ expectations to be her top priority. As Hanson concludes, “the point of absolute duty is that I take it up in perfect freedom and in so doing I recommit myself, as my self, to all my duties with renewed alacrity” (166).
It needs to be noted that what the daughter (or son) experiences here is not a conflict between a divine command and an ethical obligation, but rather between two ethical obligations (to take care of our parents and our spouses and children). The example illustrates the teleological suspension not of the ethical as such, but of one ethical obligation. Still, it serves as a powerful illumination of the often misunderstood relation of the absolute (faith) to the universal (ethics). With his book, Hanson skillfully masters the challenge to connect us as existing individuals with one of Kierkegaard’s most perplexing works. In the midst of our family lives with all its strains and wonders, Abraham finds his place, the father of faith, who had to fundamentally revise his ideas about being a parent.
I fully agree with Hanson, and yet I cannot help to feel a slight uneasiness. Fear and Trembling’s lifeblood is tension. Tension constitutes the content it discusses, and also the text’s performativity. The tension between the absolute and the universal, between the exception and the paradigm is mirrored in a text that on the one hand seems to have an easy rapport with the reader, and at the same time lets the reader’s efforts to understand and come to terms with Abraham founder. As I will argue below, this is part of the decisive treatment the reader receives, part of a paradoxical engagement with Abraham. Hanson acknowledges this, but due to the focus of his project does not fully elaborate on it. Therefore, to reinforce the tension between identification and repulsion, between the mysterious and the familiar, I will try to set up a counter-pole to Hanson’s integration of Abraham into our lives.
As I see it, there are three main difficulties in reading Fear and Trembling as a vade mecum, at least as a straightforward one: the complexity of our (modern) lives, the emphasis of continued suffering in Kierkegaard’s later writings, and the performative role that a kind of hermeneutic “suffering” and “resignation” plays on the level of the text. Let us look at each of them in turn. We shall start with Agnes and the merman and imagine what happens after the story ended, that is, after they got married—something that Johannes de Silentio wisely omitted from his version. In some tales, Agnes gives up her family twice, leaving the merman and their children in order to return to her first husband and children. A somewhat profane translation into our times could be a divorce followed by a new relationship, which fails and leads to a return to the ex-partner. One might indeed understand such a course of life as a repetition on a higher level, as an intensified and strengthened relationship, raised not just to the second power (starting anew with another partner), but to the third power (rekindling the relation to the first partner). If there are children involved, however, things become ambivalent. True, patchwork families can provide a nourishing and loving environment to grow up in, but still, at least in the beginning, they are likely to cause pain and confusion among the children. And sometimes extended families are simply not possible, as in the case of Agnes’s families. Sometimes it would make the situation even worse to try to establish such an arrangement, and it would be illusionary and detrimental to our loved ones if we hoped for a repetition that exceeds our understanding and imagination—sometimes it does so with a very good reason.
We cannot help but draw our innocent children into the difficult entanglements of our various obligations and relations (like Abraham). Hence, it is not only that we experience huge disappointment and pain ourselves, but that we are the very reason for such pain and disappointment. We need to realize that whatever we choose, there might be suffering and long-term trauma of others involved, which is impossible to mitigate (how did Isaac cope; did he?). The trust that “God will provide” and that all will turn out well, should not relieve us from a serious reflection on our failures and the fact that we cause damage. It is a long passage from resignation to repetition, and maybe we need to dwell a bit more on the transition which, after all, might be a crawling rather than a leaping.
It gets even more complicated when we add the possibility of a divine command to the mesh of all the ethical obligations, ideals, and various forms of love that constitute our lives. A mother might perceive her risky involvement as a foreign correspondent in war zones as her God-given vocation, as an absolute duty. Even though this implies that she has to give up her traditional role as a mother and leave her child with other carers for a significant amount of time, the absolute does not trump her duties as a mother and spouse. It could raise the nourishing mother-child relation to the second power: when she is home, she might be more attentive than she would be when she would always be around and she might also serve as a role model of an independent working woman who dedicates her life to a higher cause. But despite all efforts and hopes, it does not always work out like that, as Deborah Levy has vividly illustrated in her novel Swimming Home (2011; another account of parenthood, shattered ideals, and broken selves).
Furthermore, the call to absolute duty might not be as clear as it was for Abraham. And hence, it might also be impossible to identify the repetition supposed to follow from it. What are the constituents of our lives that we are right in believing to receive back, albeit in a different manner? Aren’t some ideals better given up once and for all, and not to be repeated, in no manner at all? How do we tell the difference? Traditionally, Agnes’s first family is depicted as the “right” one—after all, it has the blessing of the Church and her parents. In contrast, her hybrid offspring is regarded as inferior, and when the church bells ring, it is the call of the Divine to resume her duties as a Christian (probably with more devotion than before, so there it is, the repetition). But couldn’t it also be a deception? The saints turning their faces away from the merman suggest everything but the desire to forgive, so maybe it was not a Divine call after all. . . . And even if there was no deception, and Agnes indeed fulfills an absolute duty, she still caused immense suffering that is hard to turn into a blessing.
Hence, what about the merman? He has opened up and become vulnerable, putting himself at the mercy of Agnes and her ability to forgive, trusting that he will receive her back after having resigned from all intentions towards her as an object of lust. He did receive her back, but only for a while. Does he not deserve a continuous repetition? Did he do anything wrong, is he to be punished, or is he simply the collateral damage of Agnes’s intricate relation to the absolute and her other ethical obligations?
One could of course refer to Abraham who, being tested more than once, also had to continuously trust in a blissful repetition. However, we must not forget that Abraham had God’s explicit promise. In the merman’s case (and in most human cases), such explicitness is missing, and this makes it harder to believe that one will receive back what has been lost. According to the traditional view, the merman’s very essence is the opposite of the pure and holy (as conveyed by the name Agnes). He is refuting salvation, and thus, according to the logic of the Christian narrative, he cannot and must not thrive. But if read without this taxonomy in mind, the merman draws attention to another essential element of the life of faith: suffering. In Kierkegaard’s later writings we encounter suffering without the soothing prospect of a recuperation of what has been lost. There appear to be two reasons to endorse such existential kenoticism:1 in unmitigated suffering we are able to imitate Christ as best as it is humanly possible. Moreover, suffering serves as a kind of purgatory: when our existence is shaken up to its very core, we are cleansed of all the too-worldly, smug constituents of our self which have distorted and soiled the imago Dei in us.
The third part of Practice in Christianity (1850) shows how both aspects are connected. We read about an unnamed young man who has only one wish: to imitate Christ. In the beginning, he has a beautified and idealized account of what it entails to follow Christ. But step by step, the young man realizes that true suffering is an ever-continuing process, not something to which one can relate as an achievement or result (PC, 187 / SKS 12:186). This wrong understanding of the image of the Crucified still leads to an imitatio Christi, but not in the way the young man anticipated. At first, the idealized image of Christ’s passion drastically clashes with actuality. The young man narcissistically concentrates on resembling his mental image of the Crucified. Neighbor love is not part of it, so he isolates himself and acts “like a dreamer” (PC, 189 / SKS 12, 188) until he “suddenly discovers the surrounding world of actuality in which he is standing and the relation of this surrounding world to himself” (PC, 189 / SKS 12, 188). This comes as a shock. Probably, he now is aware that instead of admiring his bravery, people make fun of him. The young man still trusts that this will change: “who knows, he says, after all, better times may come, help will certainly come, and it can still turn out all right” (PC, 190 / SKS 12:190). But better times do not come. God does not turn his suffering into glory. Contrary to his expectations, selfless deeds of love and humility are not rewarded, and at no point does the suffering feel heroic. This, however, is the imitation of Christ as much as it is humanly possible: the total resignation from one’s expectations, specific hopes, and plans. And yet, the young man experiences that God always provides, albeit differently to what one anticipates. In his case, God provides through the careful administration of the pain, which only slowly increases: “If existence had done this at the outset, it would have crushed him. Now he is probably able to bear it—yes, he must be able to, since Governance does it with him—Governance, who is indeed love” (PC, 191 / SKS 12:190).
The young man’s journey resonates with Hanson’s description of resignation. And there also is a repetition, arising out of the reconstruction of the shattered ideal in actuality and leading to following Christ with a changed attitude. But the repetition is still a repetition of suffering. It is such a repetition that people with a rapidly developing terminal illness might hope for. Faith in these instances does not consist in the trust of unimaginable blessings to come,2 but in the solace that Christ has walked the path of uttermost suffering before us and that he is there with us amidst our pain.
We do not get any details about what exactly causes the young man’s suffering in Practice in Christianity. Since it is self-inflicted, it might be the provocation of the public, mirroring Kierkegaard’s relentless attack on institutionalized Christianity. But it is important to note that in the young man’s case, it becomes a crucial, if not the essential, element of his suffering that his image of God and what it means to be a follower of Christ (which constitutes his self-understanding) is radically destroyed. Kierkegaard probably took up this idea of entbildung (i.e., the resignation from mental images that constitute our existence) from the German Dominicans Meister Eckhart and Johannes Tauler, as I have argued elsewhere in more detail.3 David R. Law coined the term “existential kenoticism” in his monograph Kierkegaard’s Kenotic Christology ([Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013], 287). According to these thinkers, images of worldy things to which we are unduly attached and complacent self-images block our ability to be receptive to the image of God. In order to restore our existence in likeness to the imago Dei, we need to embark on a process of entbildung. And since we are constantly drawn into worldly matters as long as we live and tend to hubristically overestimate our role in the order of life, which we assume we can understand, anticipate, and control, this process has to be perpetual. From a more contemporary perspective, one could maybe say that since we cannot get rid of the cultural imagery we live by, there needs to be a continuous revision of these images, asking critically what they reveal about our view of creation and our role in it.
And that is why I think we need to dwell a bit more on the phase of suffering before we leap to the resulting resignation and repetition. As Hanson notes, Johannes de Silentio chides his contemporaries for only concentrating on the outcome of Abraham’s actions, for being “curious about the way a book turns out,” not wanting to “know anything about the anxiety, the distress, the paradox” and enjoying just an “esthetic flirtation with the result” (FT, 63 / SKS 4:156). In the Exordium, when Johannes de Silentio retells the Akedah in different versions, he is reminding us that there could have been other results, depending on how Abraham managed the arduous, anxious journey to Mount Moriah. Hanson argues that storytelling or “literature is just as powerless as philosophy to understand Abraham” (65–66), and that “the man spoken of in the exordium is moved no closer to understanding Abraham as a result of considering these different possible iterations of the tale” (66). And yet, I think that the Exordium does something in addition to this, or rather through this, and it does bring us closer to Abraham as the father not only of faith but also of resignation. The Exordium aims at performatively transforming the reader. It confronts us with the false mental images we hold of Abraham, which focus on Abraham as the founding father of world religions. By narratively stretching the time before the moment of the knife, these images are dissolved.4 The hermeneutic kenosis (resigning from a particular understanding, attitude, and expectation towards a text or figure) thus trains us in existential kenosis (resigning from our ideals, self-images, and expectations of the persons close to us).5
Johannes de Silentio could have employed a similar strategy to the story of Agnes and the Merman. The variations in the lore offer ample opportunities for us not only to let go of a particular interpretation—indeed, Johannes de Silentio does challenge the traditional image of the merman as villain—but also of our false securities, and of taking for granted our families and domestic lives, which actually are repeated gifts.
Out of the muddy waters, the merman and his little sons stretch their arms. Bonnén’s sculptures embody all the possibilities of traumatic change and loss that we might have to navigate in our lives; possibilities we cannot anticipate or even imagine. When we turn away to continue our walk into Copenhagen’s buzzing inner city, we are left with a slight sting of anxiety, reminding us that we, too, need to work out our salvation in fear and trembling.
David R. Law coined the term “existential kenoticism” in his monograph Kierkegaard’s Kenotic Christology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 287.↩
One could, of course, argue that the repetition awaits in an afterlife.↩
Becker-Lindenthal, “Kierkegaard’s Reception of German Vernacular Mysticism: Johannes Tauler’s Sermon on the Feast of the Cross and Practice in Christianity,” International Journal of Philosophy and Theology 80.4–5 (2019), 443–64.↩
The sketches of the Danish artist Peter Brandes achieve the same on a pictorial level, counteracting the moment of the knife (and the appearance of the angel and the ram) which had been famously depicted by Titian, Caravaggio, and Rembrandt. See Ettore Rocca, “At se Abraham: Peter Brandes’s tegninger til Frygt og Bæven,” in Ettore Rocca and Peter Brandes, At se Abraham (Skive: Wunderbuch, 2014), vi; see x, xiii. Hanson has aptly chosen a painting by Jan Lievens to illustrate his interpretation: Abraham and Isaac are shown in a tight embrace, the knife and the ram on the ground in a puddle of blood. Here, the focus is on the moment after the ordeal—the beginning of the repetition.↩
Together with Ruby S. Guyatt, I have argued for something similar in “Kierkegaard on Existential Kenosis and the Power of the Image: Fear and Trembling and Practice in Christianity,” Modern Theology 35.4 (2019): 706–27.↩
Fear and Trembling for Our Time
Jeffrey Hanson opens his meticulous and well-argued book by asking what justification there may be for writing yet another study of Fear and Trembling “today” (1)? His answer is twofold. On the one hand, “because many of the interpretations that have been lately offered are incomplete in scope.” On the other, because many of them are “woefully off the point,” littered with “misunderstandings.”
The first point centers on the claim that previous studies fail to consider the whole of Fear and Trembling. As a consequence, they do not recognize that the religious life Kierkegaard depicts “not only suspends and reinvents the ethical but also suspends and reinvents the aesthetic.” A full examination of the text makes clear, in contrast, that these stages of existence cannot be treated as distinct, since they constitute different answers to the same problem: the relation between ideality and experience (what Hanson later refers to as the “ideal-actual relation” or “conjoining”; 120, 123). Without a doubt, Hanson is correct in this assessment and right to emphasize its importance for an understanding of Kierkegaard’s thought.
The second point is more problematic. The “misunderstandings” Hanson wishes to correct arise from the view that the different stages of existence are in conflict with each other. What Hanson wants to show instead, is that Kierkegaard’s focus is less on the tension between them than on the way faith changes our relationship to the world, to others, and to ourselves in a manner that integrates the ethical and the aesthetic, rather than dismissing them wholesale (2–3). To Hanson, Kierkegaardian faith makes new and rebuilds the aesthetic and the ethical (12), transforms, recuperates, rehabilitates, and rescues them (173, 182), such that they can be successfully unified (195). As he sums it up: “The religious ideal is lovely as the aesthetic ideal and not as impossible to realize as the ethical ideal; it is the marriage of the beautiful and the just” (15).
My hesitation on this issue arises from my sense that the forms of life that Kierkegaard presents us with exclude the possibility of their reconciliation. The reasons are immediately visible, I think, in Fear and Trembling’s central example: the difference between Agamemnon and Abraham. In both stories, we encounter a father forced by some divinity to sacrifice his child. The ideal meaning of fatherhood, Kierkegaard insists, is to love and protect one’s child, and any act that contradicts that purpose (preeminently the act of harming our children) necessarily constitutes its betrayal. Whatever such a person is, he is not a father, even if he contributed to the child’s biological existence.
Now, the key difference between Agamemnon and Abraham is that the patriarchic conception of politics that underlies both allows Agamemnon to retain his ideal of fatherhood by rearticulating it at a higher level. If he is forced to betray his role of father in relation to Iphigenia, he is nevertheless able to fulfill that same role in relation to the Greek people that he rules: those he does love and protect, and he does so precisely through this act of violence. In relation to his daughter, the idea of fatherhood is articulated in wholly aesthetic terms: fatherhood is a relation of immediacy, between two individuals who are linked by sensuous contiguity, and exercised through physical presence and assistance. With regards to his political subjects, the relation is mediated. Agamemnon does not physically resemble the people he rules, he is not tied to them biologically, and he will never encounter most of them in the flesh. To understand how he can nevertheless count as their father, we must engage in an act of reflection that allows us to determine what the criteria of paternity (love and protection) look like in that context. The idea of fatherhood itself survives this abstraction to the extent that the translation of its criteria into a new medium is successful, even if this necessarily depends on the negation of all those immediately visible marks of paternity that constitute the realm of the aesthetic. Agamemnon thus does not offend the idea of fatherhood, but merely exchanges one form of its expression for another.1 As a consequence, however painful the situation, he can continue to face himself and others without shame, since he has remained loyal to his essential obligations.
With Abraham, everything is different. To begin with, Abraham cannot transpose his paternal obligations into his relation to his people because that people only exists in Isaac’s future offspring (SKS 4:153). Negating the immediate, aesthetic embodiment of his fatherly ideal (Isaac) necessarily means negating its mediated, ethical embodiment (the Jewish people). The only way that Abraham could be said to fulfil his ideal, therefore, is if the violence he perpetrates somehow counts as its instantiation. This would have to mean that every moment of the trial—when he binds Isaac, when he witnesses his terror, when he draws the knife—embodies the ideals of love and protection (no less than, for Kierkegaard, all Romeo’s actions must express his love of Juliet).2 And that possibility, in turn, is only available if the ideas of love and protection turn out to mean something completely different than either ethics or aesthetics thought. Only to the extent that the idea of love does not exclude the act of senseless murder, and that the actual embodiment of our care does not require the physical wellbeing or existence of our beloved, can Abraham (no less than Agamemnon) receive Isaac back without hesitation, since in his faith he knows that what he did fully exhibits his obligations.
What is at stake in Kierkegaard’s argument is the claim that Christian faith completely reconceives the conditions of our ideality no less than those of our immediate existence. This does not mean that religion provides us with a “chastened” or “tempered” version of ethical ideals, once these have shown themselves to be incompatible with our experience, as Hanson puts it (13, 46, 195). That sounds much too much as though religion simply offers watered-down versions of our initial aspirations, ones that stand a chance of being actualized in the imperfect world that we inhabit (cf. also 65, 85–86). To the contrary, faith for Kierkegaard achieves its realization in experience (the project that it shares with ethics and aesthetics) not because it has given up on absolute ideals, but because its ideals are of a wholly different nature. That is the meaning of the central claim that faith requires the determination of our relation to the universal through our relation to the absolute (SKS 4:162). It is his faith in God that provides the measure for how Abraham understands the ideal of fatherhood. God will never demand of Abraham that he negate his love of Isaac (SKS 4:165). Accordingly, what love means must be subject to what God demands. If care and protection are excluded, then it must be that what we thought counts as love was wrong, and that what appears as harm and horror in the flesh in fact is something different. Analogously, if that miserable human being over there is God, then it must be that what we thought counts as divinity was mistaken, and that we must learn to see this misery with different eyes.
The full reach of Kierkegaard’s claim comes into view here: that faith can give the ethical the opposite expression of what ethically speaking is required (SKS 4:162). This goes beyond saying that faith is a different form of the ideal (a more spontaneous, free, generous version than what cold-hearted ethics demand; Hanson 158–59). It extends to asserting a completely new conception of the content of that ideal. It is on that basis that having faith, for Kierkegaard, is to see the world as absolutely valid because we have received completely new criteria by which to understand its meaning. If the religious shares something with the aesthetic it lies here: that immediacy is intrinsically meaningful. But the nature of that meaning and the immediacy in question is completely incompatible with the structures of aesthetics (the natural forms of sensuousness) as well as ethics (the principles of reason). As Kierkegaard insists in relation to the works of Thomasine Gyllembourg already in his earliest publication, and reiterates again in one of his last: for faith, the imperfections of the world have disappeared, not because it ignores them (as aesthetics does), nor because it limits its demands to more feasible projects (as in the realist novel), but because both world and perfection are measured by a different standard, one wholly different from, and irreducible to, both human sensuousness and reason, natural forms and ethical ideals.3
For this reason, it would be wrong to assume, as Hanson does, that Abraham is subject to anxiety (96–97). De silentio never says he is. It is the story of Abraham (SKS 4:124), the contradiction it involves (SKS 4:126), that generates anxiety for us, its audience (cf. also SKS 4:142, 158). But for Abraham himself there is neither doubt nor fear (SKS 4:114, 117, 118). He sees the world under the meanings faith provides, and under those, everything he does is a direct expression of love. That is why the outcome of the trial is irrelevant (SKS 4:156). For Hanson, it seems this is because even if things end up badly, faith allows us to be grateful for what we’ve had and to appreciate the goodness of this life (106). But for Kierkegaard, I submit, the outcome is irrelevant because even if God were to go through with the murder of Isaac, then that would serve as the measure of what we must truly understand by love. The story of Abraham doesn’t show that life can be good in spite of murder, but that it can be good because of it. The murder is the standard of life’s goodness. We are miles removed here from the view of faith as teaching that love undergoes change in the course of our lives, like the change in the relation to our parents once we marry (162–63). Without doubt, there is deep and difficult wisdom in the need to accept such change in our world, and the many virtues of Hanson’s book amply display it. But as far as I can see, Kierkegaard does not think we need faith for that. Faith does not intensify our experience of the world we currently inhabit. It is, rather, prophetic, in that it seeks to show us a new heaven and new earth. If it were otherwise, as de silentio constantly reiterates, then faith has never existed because it has always existed (SKS 4:149–50 et passim). In Kierkegaardian faith, one fears, there is no escaping what Hanson rejects as a “dangerous interpretation” and “intolerable conclusion” (120).4
It is one of the great shortcomings of Kierkegaard studies in general, in my view, that the horror of Abraham is almost never properly acknowledged. De silentio reminds us that it takes prodigious courage to confront his story (SKS 4:126), and we would be well advised to heed the warning. The issue, however, is not simply internal to Kierkegaard scholarship. Rather, it strikes me that it is precisely here that one must find the greatest relevance of Fear and Trembling “today.” What I have in mind can perhaps be exemplified most easily by the idea of the Anthropocene. As is generally known, that term refers to our historical period, when humans have become a geological force. That does not mean, however, as is sometimes assumed, that the reign of human agency is extended to the planet as a whole. Rather, the Anthropocene’s disclosure of the increasing likelihood of the disappearance of the parametric conditions for our species’ survival makes clear that the meaning of human actions have become subject to conditions and timescales that are no longer compatible with the criteria of human intelligibility and life.5 Two consequences that have been drawn from this fact is that neither aesthetics nor ethics as we traditionally understand them are capable of dealing with our new ontological condition, which resonates strongly with the situation Kierkegaard depicts.6 More generally, the inability to render the condition of the Anthropocene intelligible on the basis of our established forms of meaning (which is a significant part of the reason for the failure of adequate mobilization against it) lands us in an age of “cultural devastation.”
In his extraordinary book Radical Hope, Jonathan Lear examines the philosophical implications of such a condition through the prism of the Crow Nation’s ruin in the nineteenth century.7 Under the pressures of the US Government and intertribal warfare, primarily with the Sioux, the Crow gradually saw their form of life go extinct. Ultimately confined to a reservation, hunting and warfare—the two pillars around which Crow culture was organized—became illegal, making the ideals of Crow life and subjecthood impossible. The problem here is not simply that it became difficult to be a good warrior or a good squaw, but rather that the very frame of meaning for such actions was gone. There was no longer anything in the world that could recognizably count as an instance of those virtues. If you steal horses from a neighboring tribe, you’re no longer planting coups, but committing a crime; if you dance the Sun Dance, you are no longer praying for revenge, but engaging in cultural nostalgia; you cannot even any longer cook a meal, insofar as that was a way of preparing your family for battle. The impossibility is the same as that of the father teaching his son to swim in the postapocalyptic world of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. In a very real sense, as the Crow Chief Plenty Coups put it in the phrase that serves as Lear’s point of departure, “After this, nothing happened.”
In that predicament, two paths forward stand out. An individual could decide to hold on to the traditional forms of life even in the face of their impossibility, as Wraps His Tale did for the Crow and Sitting Bull for the Sioux. However heroic, that way is fated for destruction. The alternative, chosen by Plenty Coups, is to imagine wholly new meanings for traditional ideals, with wholly new criteria for success and failure, applicable to life in a completely different world. Instead of courage taking the form of bravery in battle, for example, it may consist in the willingness to listen and learn from one’s surroundings. This demands a radical form of hope because the individual must have faith in the validity of ideals that he or she does not yet fully understand, and which may, indeed, appear as the exact opposite of what they profess to be. Where courage in battle consisted in not letting the enemy pass beyond a certain point, courage to listen is the contrary. The death of a world requires such acts of reimagination if occurrences are to go on counting as meaningful events.
Although Lear, who is a keen reader of Kierkegaard, does not explore the connection in detail, he does link Plenty Coups to the Knight of Faith in Fear and Trembling on a few occasions (6, 92, 146). I think he is absolutely right to do so. But the horror we feel at the thought of Abraham (the horror we must feel, as de silentio insists, if we have any hope of understanding him) is also nothing like what we may feel for Plenty Coups, no matter how much someone could disapprove of his decisions. That difference makes clear that what Kierkegaard sees in the Binding of Isaac is not simply the historical negation of human intelligibility (the negation of this or that form of human life for another). It is metaphysical: the negation of all human standards for what counts as meaning, precisely what the Anthropocene compels us to confront.
This is the heart of Kierkegaard’s utopian anti-humanism. For him, if the world reveals itself in principle incompatible with our values, only three options are available. We may despair, or we may retreat into our bourgeois spaces and settle for lesser ideals. But if we have faith, Kierkegaard assures us, then we will recognize that insofar as God has given us this world, in all its horrors, it must be good and beautiful, and that we must therefore work to transubstantiate our understanding of those terms and our immediate experience until they are able to do justice to that gift.
Yet this is also where we must acknowledge the great danger Kierkegaard’s thinking represents. For the ethics of cultural devastation lend themselves all too easily to the politics of cultural despair.8 To accept that all our standards for making meaning have met their end is to throw ourselves into uncharted waters, where we are prey to the seduction of false prophets. Holding on to the offense of Abraham’s unjustifiable act may turn out to protect us here. It could mark the point beyond which we should not give up on human criteria, not just for what counts as worthy purposes for organizing our lives, but for what can recognizably count as purposes at all. The challenge would be to hold on to that minimal inheritance in ways that are neither merely nostalgic nor delusional, simply the symptoms of our existence in a privileged social class where such talk of goodness and beauty still carry the illusion of making sense. But that is arguably the challenge of any culture, and thus perhaps just masks another loss of nerve when facing the dissolution of all human aims.
Kierkegaard’s great promise as a thinker of the Anthropocene is that he fully understands the pain and danger of letting go of human virtues. The difficulty of the road to Mount Moriah must be recognized, and from outside of faith (and we are all outside of faith, notwithstanding the assumptions of complacent Christendom), there may be no ways of telling if what approaches is a demon or a god. For Kierkegaard, that is a risk that we must take, since salvation only lies in that direction. For many, it will be cause enough to stay at home, to hold on to our humanity as the only guide we have, until the end of time, however faulty. The question Fear and Trembling forces us to think today is whether there can still be history tomorrow.9 How do you raise a child in a world not ours, a world no longer “world”?
Søren Kierkeagard, Frygt og Bæven: Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter, vol. 4 (Copenhagen: Gads Forlag, 1997), 152, 169. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have not been able to access English language translations of the text. All subsequent references to Fear and Trembling will be to this edition, abbreviated as SKS 4.↩
Søren Kierkegaard, Stadier paa Livets Vei: Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter, 6:378.↩
Søren Kierkegaard, Af en endnu Levendes Papirer. Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter, 1:20–25; and En literær Anmeldelse: Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter, 8:22–23.↩
I have developed this reading of Kierkegaard at greater lengths in my Marginal Modernity: The Aesthetics of Dependency from Kierkegaard to Joyce (New York: Fordham Univesity Press, 2013). With reference to Fear and Trembling in particular, see chapter 4.↩
For one of the best explorations of this implication of the Anthropocene, see Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Climate and Capital: On Conjoined Histories,” Critical Inquiry 41.1 (2014): 1–23.↩
For an argument that aesthetics falls short of the Anthropocene, see Amitav Gosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016); for an argument about the limits of our traditional ethics, see Dale Jamieson, Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle against Climate Change Failed (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).↩
Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).↩
For a historical account of this present danger, see Fritz Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology (New York: Anchor, 1965).↩
On the climate crisis’ challenges to history, see Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35.2 (2009): 197–222.↩
8.9.22 | Christopher B. Barnett
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:
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.
See Martin Luther, Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Anchor, 1962), 99–166.↩
8.9.22 | Jeffrey Hanson
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,
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.
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.↩
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).↩
Søren Kierkegaard Works of Love, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 158.↩
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.↩
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.↩