Why do Christians hold up Abraham, a would-be murderer of his own child, as an example of profound faith? That is the question that engrossed Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), a maverick Danish thinker whose influence on subsequent theology has been enormous. Kierkegaard sought to restore the unsettling nature of the Christian faith in a culture that had assimilated Christianity to comfortable middle-class values. Kierkegaard feared that the culturally conformist church had made Christian faith too easy. He struggled to reintroduce the uncertainty, challenge, and risk that are necessary components of any passionate faith.
Kierkegaard was well aware that, beginning with Paul, the church had regarded Abraham as the father of faith. Regarding Gen 22:1-14, the story of God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, the church had usually concentrated on God’s ultimate sparing of Isaac in response to Abraham’s faithfulness. Kierkegaard, however, retold the tale in order to make Abraham’s initial confusion, ambivalence, and pain come alive. Kierkegaard feared that without the uncertainty that Abraham experienced in trying to understand God’s will, faith would degenerate into spiritual smugness.
In Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac serves to undermine the idolatrous identification of God with a culture’s values, even its most noble ones. Kierkegaard created a pseudonymous author, Johannes de Silentio (Latin for “from silence”), who expresses passionate concern for authentic faith, wariness about breaking the profundity of silence before God with superficial pious words, a suspicion of popular culture, and an absolute fascination with the troubling plight of Abraham.
Kierkegaard tells the story of Abraham’s decision to sacrifice Isaac in four different ways: each one accentuates Abraham’s struggle against despair and provokes the reader to imagine Abraham’s acute disorientation. The author forces the reader to face the disquieting possibility that faithfulness to God could require flouting our most deeply enshrined communal values. Abraham’s devotion to God trumps one of society’s most foundational principles, a parent’s obligation to preserve the life of his own child.
In Kierkegaard’s retelling, Abraham’s anguish becomes a vividly painful example of how even the most cherished ethical convictions lose their status in the face of God’s demands. All our commitments to such socially beneficial goods as being dutiful citizens, diligent workers, conscientious businesspeople, and dutiful parents are of secondary importance to our relationships with God. God is bigger than the value system of the average decent citizen of an allegedly Christian nation. Through these reflections on Abraham, Kierkegaard emphasizes the difference between a life oriented toward God and a life devoted to some culturally constructed concept of collective well-being.
Fear and Trembling raises more questions than it provides answers. De Silentio, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym, never does quite manage to understand Abraham’s spiritual life. But his perplexity about Abraham motivates the reader to question the too-easy identification of faith with adherence to any human community’s status quo.