Revisiting Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling

Thomas J. Millay on Jeffrey Hanson’s Kierkegaard and the Life of Faith

Jeffrey Hanson, Kierkegaard and the Life of Faith: The Aesthetic, the Ethical, and the Religious in Fear and Trembling, Indiana University Press, 2017, 264 pp., $60.00
Jeffrey Hanson, Kierkegaard and the Life of Faith: The Aesthetic, the Ethical, and the Religious in Fear and Trembling, Indiana University Press, 2017, 264 pp., $60.00
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Any serious consideration of the story of Abraham and Isaac is bound to produce anxiety—perhaps even sleep deprivation. You end up asking questions like: how could God ask someone to sacrifice his son? What kind of God would do that? Should this really be in the Bible? What kind of religious community makes such a horrifying event into its paradigmatic example of religious faith?

Søren Kierkegaard famously went about pondering some of these disturbing questions in his 1843 book Fear and Trembling, published under the pseudonym Johannes de silentio. There are no easy answers provided here. God’s demand to sacrifice Isaac is not explained away through Religionsgeschichte, as if it were some pedagogical moment when humanity learns that it’s not okay to sacrifice children. Kierkegaard will not brook such distractions, seeing them as all-too-human attempts to mitigate the difficulty of this text. Instead, he develops a concept of faith that is able to account for the Abraham of the Akedah as embodying a truly religious life, and to describe that life as not so much in conflict with ethical norms as transcendent of them.

It is important to note straightaway that, despite its initial focus, Fear and Trembling is about faith itself—that is, the concept of faith; it is not narrowly focused on Abraham. A certain punctiliar reading of Fear and Trembling, most famously espoused by Emmanuel Lévinas, reduces Kierkegaard’s masterpiece to one single moment: Abraham’s drawing of the knife. What Johannes de silentio aims to achieve, in this interpretation, is a vindication of religious faith over against ethics. Fear and Trembling is made into an apologetic text, one that claims faith needs no external or ethical justification. Kierkegaard scholars have hastened to defend the author against this interpretation of Fear and Trembling, which might provide a fidesitic defense of religious violence, and instead they have sought to place Fear and Trembling within (for example) a rationally defensible divine command theory.

The only problem with this reading is that it makes little sense of Kierkegaard’s text. If Fear and Trembling is really about this one moment, what is all the other stuff doing there? Abraham isn’t the only character. Why speak of Agnes and the Merman? The lad and the princess? The dancing tax-collector? The cast of characters is nearly endless. Suffice it to say that Fear and Trembling is concerned with a lot more than Abraham.

Jeffrey Hanson’s patient and clear analysis of Johannes de silentio’s dialectical lyric thoroughly demolishes the above readings. This is not to say that this is the first time such misreadings have been contested, only that Hanson provides a particularly clear riposte. What Fear and Trembling is actually about, according to Hanson, is how the ideals we hold for our lives are shattered by actuality, and—subsequently—how we can successfully negotiate the loss of such ideals through religious faith. This general topic applies to the entire ensemble cast of Fear and Trembling, Abraham included. In short, Fear and Trembling is about the life of faith; it is not some extended apology for religious violence or divine command theory.

In Fear and Trembling, the ideals that actuality shatters can be either ethical or aesthetic in nature. Abraham’s vision of the good life is to live as an ideal father, providing for his son through whom Abraham will become the father of many. This ethical goal is brought to a halt the moment he receives the command of sacrifice from God. Isaac, the son he loves, the son of the promise, is to be given up. This is not the life Abraham envisioned, to say the least. The lad, on the other hand, wants to marry a beautiful princess, yet he cannot do so; it is likely the princess will never even know of his existence. His aesthetic goal founders in impossibility.

Faith is holding onto these ethical and aesthetic ideals even when they seem humanly impossible: Abraham still believes the promise will hold true through Isaac, the lad still believes he will marry the princess. Faith is a continual transformation of the actual into the ideal, as we see in the knight of faith who expects a luxurious dinner when he arrives at home, yet does not respond in disappointment when the dinner is not there. Instead, the knight of faith resigns the original ideal and simultaneously makes whatever is on his table into his new ideal, gratefully celebrating the love of his wife in the process. By extension, after resigning the original princess, the lad will marry someone he considers to be akin to or even greater than the princess, and Abraham will receive Isaac back.

In Fear and Trembling, faith is not a destruction of the ethical or the aesthetic, it is not a canceling of all human laws or a renunciation of all beautiful things; it is the reconstitution of those domains on new grounds. Scholars, such as C. Stephen Evans, Edward Mooney, Merold Westphal, John Lippitt, and Paul Martens, have already shown that Fear and Trembling dismantles only a certain totalizing version of a philosophical ethic that excludes an absolute duty to God; a re-imagined ethics can subsequently be reconstituted, recognizing the ethical claims of society as legitimate when they are not in conflict with the divine will. The thematic reconstitution of ethics has thus been well-established in Kierkegaard scholarship.

What has drawn less attention is the reconstitution of the aesthetic. According to Hanson, the life of faith is not only good, but beautiful as well. Problema III, which cycles through stories about figures as diverse as Richard III and Faust, is sometimes seen to be a long, meandering addendum to the portions of the text that focus more directly on Abraham. Hanson demonstrates to the contrary that Problema III is central to what Fear and Trembling is trying to accomplish. What the problem shows is the incapacity of aesthetic pursuits to achieve the good life, and the ability of religious faith to preserve the goal of aesthetics—beauty—in a reconstituted form that is able to see the ideal as already within the actual. Faith gives us new eyes, so to speak, and what is seen is beautiful. This is a, perhaps the, major achievement of Kierkegaard and the Life of Faith.

What one doesn’t get from Hanson’s commentary is any notion of how complex Kierkegaard’s thinking on faith is throughout his authorship. In fact, a few years after Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard penned a journal entry titled “New Fear and Trembling,” where the Abraham and Isaac story is labeled a “Jewish” story. In the “Christian” version of the story, by contrast, Abraham would not get Isaac back until eternity. This is in accord with a general development within Kierkegaard’s authorship toward describing the life of faith as one of pure and unmitigated suffering, one that leaves the Christian—as he says in his final journal entry—in a state of “life-weariness.” One gets little sense of these difficulties from Hanson, and my hunch is that he is okay with that. His focus is on the version of Kierkegaardian faith we find in Fear and Trembling. Readers of Kierkegaard can decide which is superior.

Related to the focused presentation of Kierkegaard’s thinking, there is a more serious issue. The life of faith as Hanson depicts it is a downright attractive one: through reliance on God, our actuality is made into the ideal ethical and aesthetic life. Sound good? Of course, but that is precisely the problem. Instead of letting the story of Abraham keep us up at night, Hanson’s reading turns the account into a fairy tale, one in danger of lulling us into a peaceful slumber. Such a danger can be avoided if you continually remind yourself that the life of faith, good and beautiful as it is, could still require intentionally killing your child. Yet Hanson himself often leaves such awareness up to the reader. The result is a compelling description of how faith helps us negotiate the inevitable disappointments of life and turn those disappointments into new manifestations of a hitherto unexpected ideal. However, if such a result ceases to frighten us, we must conclude that the description of faith is Hanson’s, not Kierkegaard’s.

A final comment: it is a most welcome moment to have such an in-depth commentary on Johannes de silentio’s lyrical-dialectical manifesto. Recently, John Lippitt, Clare Carlisle, and Paul Martens have expertly introduced Fear and Trembling to first-time readers. What was lacking is exactly what Hanson has given us: a thorough, considered, and provocative treatment of what justifiably remains Kierkegaard’s most famous book.

Thomas J. Millay is a Ph.D. student in Theological Ethics at Baylor University. He is a contributor to the book series Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception and Resources and has published articles in the International Journal of Systematic Theology, the Scottish Journal of Theology, and Telos.