We all know Abraham as the “father” of our faith (Romans 4:16).
He trusted God fully, even to the point of sacrificing his own son, Isaac.
But we often overlook how difficult and complex Abraham’s faith was and we may wonder if faith is even enough in this modern age!
Soren Kierkegaard addressed these questions and more in one slim volume: Fear and Trembling.
Soren Kierkegaard was a 19th-century philosopher, theologian, poet, and religious author from Denmark. Widely acclaimed in the secular world of philosophy as the founder of existentialism, he sought to make philosophy reflect Biblical tenets and Christian ideas.
Kierkegaard firmly believed that it was not enough to understand the teachings of Christianity. One must live them out, he argued, and one must pursue a personal, individual relationship with God rather than simply accepting His existence.
But Kierkegaard himself struggled to grasp the concept of faith. Fear and Trembling, though ostensibly a study of Abraham’s incredible faith, is also Kierkegaard’s confession of weakness.
Kierkegaard prefaces this writing by noting that modern philosophy is founded on doubt and questioning. “Every lecturer, crammer, student, everyone on the outskirts of philosophy or at its centre is unwilling to stop with doubting everything,” he writes.
He continues, “Today nobody will stop with faith; they all go further.”
Does that sound familiar? At universities everywhere around the world today, students are taught to doubt spiritual truths and question the existence of an all-powerful God and even of their own souls.
They’re taught that faith is a weakness, a poor substitute for logic.
Kierkegaard bristles at this characterization of faith, writing, “In [the] old days…faith was a task for a whole lifetime, not a skill thought to be acquired in either days or weeks.”
He underscores the importance of faith in God, and even the difficulty of that faith, by positing it as the highest calling a human being can pursue.
Kierkegaard sets forth Abraham as an example, calling to mind the story of God’s command to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19). Abraham’s ready obedience was an act of supreme faith that astounds the philosopher.
“This man was no thinker,” Kierkegaard writes. “He felt no need to go further than faith.”
In other words, the crowning achievement of Abraham’s walk with God was his capacity to trust, believe, and obey. Kierkegaard argues that modern philosophers — and modern Christians — would do well to learn from this example.
“It was by his faith that Abraham could leave the land of his fathers to become a stranger in the land of promise,” Kierkegaard continues. “He left behind his worldly understanding and took with him his faith.”
The philosopher goes on to assert that, rather than seeking acclaim for our ability to think or theorize, we should pursue the good work of faith, knowing that our trust is what God desires.
“They shall all be remembered, but everyone became great in proportion to his expectancy,” Kierkegaard writes, his poetic skills coming to the forefront.
“One became great through expecting the possible, another by expecting the eternal; but he who expected the impossible became greater than all.”
“They shall all be remembered, but everyone was great in proportion to the magnitude of what he strove with.”
“For he who strove with the world became great by conquering the world, and he who strove with himself became greater by conquering himself; but he who strove with God became greater than all.”
This first portion of the book is a beautiful examination of “a faith that is unshakeable even when it sees the impossibility” — a faith that all Christians should pursue with all their hearts!
Throughout several sections — a “Preface,” an “Attunement,” a “Speech in Praise of Abraham,” and a “Preamble from the Heart” — Kierkegaard writes about the mystery of faith, wondering how he can practice it in more concrete ways.
He admits that he cannot fathom having the faith of Abraham, though he longs to trust God so deeply and completely, and he encourages believers (and doubters) to leave behind human philosophies as a way of understanding the world.
“Faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off,” he warns.
The next few sections of the book (“Problemata I, II, and III”) become more traditionally philosophical.
Readers may find themselves bogged down in concepts of teleology, Hegelian ethics, and other obscure ideas as Kierkegaard filters Abraham’s story through a philosophical lens.
These sections are worth a glance-over at least, however, as Kierkegaard continues to weave in the Christian ideals of relationship with God, faith as a journey, and the renunciation of the world.
If nothing else, Kierkegaard’s philosophical work in these chapters highlights the mystery of faith as something humanly impossible, but abundantly possible with God.
“The highest passion in a human being is faith,” Kierkegaard writes, and it’s uniquely encouraging to hear this truth from a philosopher’s mouth.
Fear and Trembling is hardly an easy read, but it’s worthwhile to remind ourselves of this amazing mystery: that God calls us to an unshakeable faith, and He also supplies that faith.
Interested in what Kierkegaard has to say? Find your copy of Fear and Trembling today!