Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling is a challenging read, but gripping when you’re in the mood for that sort of thing. The main thesis has something to do with faith being the greatest passion of human beings, that faith reaches beyond rational ethical doctrines, and that modern society is wrong to think that it can go beyond faith. The faith exemplar is the biblical Abraham, who is asked by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham’s faith leads him to comply with God’s command, except that God stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac at the last second.
Kierkegaard tries all sorts of psychological tricks to get us on board with his thesis. He asserts repeatedly that he cannot understand Abraham, because Abraham is superior to him by virtue of his faith. The implication is that if we think we understand Abraham, we are wrong, because not even Kierkegaard understands Abraham. He asserts that if faith is not beyond ethics, then faith is nothing. And if faith is nothing, then the story of Abraham is pointless. So if we want to believe that faith is something special and that the story of Abraham is something special, then we must follow and agree with Kierkegaard that faith is above ethics. Resorting to tricks like these raises red flags. It suggests that the author knows something about the weakness of his thesis when it is presented straight and sober.
Another challenge is we are dealing with an analysis of stories, stories that explicitly defy the parameters of regular experience. Why should we care about a world where God commands human beings to do unethical things, when we live in a world where God is silent? Can faith be understood to be beyond ethics without the Abraham story? If it can’t, and the Abraham story is pure fantasy, then who cares about Kierkegaard’s argument that faith is above and beyond rational ethics?
Nevertheless, I admit that there seems to be something important in this writing. Is it possible that God might want mankind to go beyond ethics? The idea itself creates fear and trembling. Obviously, any attempt to go beyond ethics could very likely amount to falling below ethics. But isn’t it an attractive idea that the universal rules of ethics are too clunky and cumbersome for the full color and vibrancy of the human spirit to emerge? Not that we should be allowed to cheat the ethical rules, but that there are available extraordinary purposes in life that demand we hate ourselves, that we hate those we are expected to love, and concentrate our love in something higher? For Kierkegaard, this seems to be in part what the Abraham story is suggesting (and echoed in Luke 14). And this higher purpose is that we love only God and serve Him, setting aside our rational ethical obligations to our nation, our family, and ourselves.
I am aware of the semantical pitfalls in this presentation. If a thing is contrary to what God wants of us, how could it be called ethical in the first place? Kierkegaard works around this by distinguishing the universal from the absolute. It seems just as well to say that one can think of a lower ethics and a higher ethics. The lower ethics involve calculation, and include those rules that were everyone to live by, the world would be harmonious and just. The higher ethics call on us not only to be compatible with a world that might be just, but to suspend all worldly calculation in service to God.
But there is a final piece to this, in order to account for the emphatic distinction Kierkegaard makes between Abraham, who is described as a knight of faith, and those others who are praised but would be better described as tragic heroes. It is not faith, but tragic heroism, to sacrifice in order to save a nation. It is not faith, but tragic heroism, to calculate and act for the sake of the outcome. So what is faith, and why is it higher? Faith is a personal, not a public or civic, virtue. It is faith to believe that regardless of the immediate consequences, and regardless of public opinion, that God keeps His promises to those that trust, love, and serve Him. Also, that these promises are kept in this world, not exclusively or primarily in the afterlife. God promised Abraham Isaac in this world, and though God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in this world, Abraham continues to believe that in obeying God, he will still have Isaac in this world, because this is God’s promise to him for his faith. Abraham thus lets go of everything as it appears in the world, and in so doing proves his faith.
But does Abraham’s faith put him closer to God by leaving him willing to abandon rational ethics and sacrifice his son? Are we all called by God to surpass our ethical inclinations? Is it really not better to be a tragic hero, or even just a regular-old-good-person, than to have (this) faith?