This month's Eden Reading Challenge entry is a translated book: Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard.
We don’t really like to talk about doubt.
Much like underwear, we treat it like it is dirty, and should keep hidden at all times. But that is a problem. Suppression is an imperfect method of addressing a problem, much like putting your fingers in your ears and shouting ‘Lalalala! I can’t hear you’. If you believe, you believe, and you need to get over yourself - this is a sentiment I can’t say I have never felt before. A culture of not being able to voice doubts creates an in-or-out divide, one which makes turning away from Church much more approachable than opening up about the stumbling blocks in the way of faith.
Faith is hard.
Faith is a feat of incredible gymnastics. It pirouettes across what is visible, and vaults over the logic that defines human thought. And no one, to date, has done such an honest and engaging account of the difficulties of faith than Danish philosopher, and ‘father’ of Existentialism, Søren Kierkegaard.
Born in Copenhagen in early 1813, Søren Kierkegaard’s life started in privilege. His father Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard was a notable merchant in the trade-heavy city, a man who himself came from poorer circumstances. In his youth, Søren was an avid walker and writer. Only the latter of the two would remain as depression and anxiety would often overcome him throughout his life. As a writer, though, he was voracious. In his journals alone, Søren wrote over 7,000 pages, now published in 13 volumes. Filled with reflections on all manner of interests, a great amount of his philosophical inquiries have their seeds in his extensive journals.
A defining moment in the introspective philosopher’s life was his engagement to Regine Olsen, which he broke off after believing his own sullen temperament rendered him unsuited to marriage. The other, more precise reasons for the separation have yet to be found.
It was also uncovered that Søren Kierkegaard was not always Søren Kierkegaard. On many occasions he wrote under pseudonyms. Some of these included Anti-Climacus, Constantine Constantius (wittily, as the contributor to a work called Repetition), Victor Eremita, and Johannes de Silentio - the name he gave as the author for this month’s book, Fear and Trembling.
A remarkably short book for such a verbose journalist, Fear and Trembling is a controversial examination of the story of Abraham's near-sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah. Unlike most other treatises of biblical characters, Fear and Trembling does not cast the father of Israel in an immediately awe-stricken light. He even goes as far to write that ‘Is it because Abraham has acquired proprietary rights to the title of great man, so that whatever he does is great [...]? If so, I have no wish to take part in such mindless praise’ (P. 31). No room for mincing words, then. This is not a kowtowing buttering-up disguised as study. Rather, he uses the story to illustrate the vast leap that is required to make the ‘movement’ into faith by drawing on a morbid perspective: that ‘if you simply remove faith [...] there remains only the raw fact that Abraham was willing to murder Isaac’. (P. 31)
Faith is, it seems, the leap from murderer to ‘great man’. It takes no more than a cursory glance through international news to see many others who murder, but see the act as somehow noble.
[This, whilst certainly a dangerous area in which to tread, is done so with caution: ‘Can one speak unreservedly of Abraham, then, without risking that someone will go off the rails and do likewise?’ (p.32). Kierkegaard goes on to call this a ‘two-edged sword, bringing death and salvation’, and it is a sword best discussed another time, with individuals more knowledgeable individuals than yours truly.]
Quite a leap, then, and one that is appears to be impossible for the thoughtful Dane: ‘I cannot close my eyes and hurl myself trustingly into the absurd, for me it is impossible, but I do not praise myself on that account.’ (p.36)
And there it is. The infamous ‘A’-word that was bound to turn up sooner or later, as much as I may want to avoid this particular tin of worms: absurd.
It is a word that has, on the surface, changed alot since Kierkegaard used it here. Now, when people describe something as absurd, they are more likely referring to the surrealism of The Mighty Boosh, or the self-serving leaps of logic that politicians may make when working on the behalf of an agenda (no, Mitt Romney, corporations are not people!).
But this is a different absurd, and one that means a great many things to a great many Existentialists. Albert Camus, for example, saw it as liberating. The basic, most reduced definition of it is as existence without a controlling force or logic.
‘All along [Abraham] had faith, he believed that God would demand of him, while still he was willing to offer him if that was indeed was what demanded. He believed on the strength of the absurd’. (p. 38) Abraham trusted to what was demanded, despite not making logical sense. He surrendered to the absurd, otherwise the alternative is that he would become a murder.
No wonder Kierkegaard found faith so difficult.
But why take such an uncomfortable route to exploring the nature of faith? Murderer or absurd: an existential Sophie’s Choice which doesn’t seem like a choice anyone would ever like to be presented with. Why so rough?
Cast your mind back to the pseudonyms Kierkegaard used. Johannes de Silentio, latin for John of the Silence who was a 6th Century monk and hermit of the most solitary kind. John the Silent lived alone for seventy-six years, meaning he spent more time alone than either Joseph Conrad, W.H. Auden, or Jesse Owens spent alive. Renown, then, for solitude, John the Silent came to embody to verse of Philippians 2:12: "...work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (KJV).
Questions of faith are hard. A narrow road is perilous to walk, and ease is spurned by many-a-devout believer. But this metaphor has lost its way somewhat. I can't count the times people have used the ‘narrow’ and ‘wide’ roads to paint Christianity as being separatist, and therefore better by virtue of being unpopular. This painting of the rest of the world as collectively taking the easy route is dismissive at best, and heartless at worst. Not to say that there isn't a truth in it, but there is so much more to the 'narrow-road' metaphor that raising yourself up. It also undermines what power of the verse from Philippians. This view is one that keeps an eye on the ‘lost’, and another eye on the ‘saved’ - essentially, an eye on one’s self. In damning terms, Søren Kierkegaard describes self-reflective faith as not really faith at all:
‘For he who loves God without faith reflects on himself, while the person who loves God reflects on God.’ (p. 40)
So, yes, the leap of faith is terrifying. It wouldn’t be much of a leap is it wasn’t. It would be more of a hop of faith. Rather, it is a complete sacrificing of the personal to the universal. It is a leap that ‘must be made continually on the strength of the absurd, though in such a way, be it noted that one does not lose finitude but gains it all of a piece.’ (p. 40).
So, where does faith begin?
It begins ‘precisely where thinking leaves off’ (p.61), and I can think of nothing more terrifying.
Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard is avaliable to ordered today. Being new to reading Philosophy, it helped to find that the book tows the line between Philosophy and Bible study. Some passages aside, prior knowledge is not mandetory for the book. Just be honest.
To learn more about the fascinating life of Søren Kierkegaard, check out Kierkegaard by Stephen Backhouse.
July 27th, 2017 - Posted & Written by Aaron Lewendon