Essay / Misc.

Søren Tender from Fearen Trembling

Thoughts after six hours of discussing Søren Kierkegaard’s beautiful, terrible little book Fear and Trembling, which puts forward Abraham as “the knight of faith,” who is greater than all the wise and strong of the world:

great with that power whose strength is powerlessness, great in that wisdom whose secret is folly, great in that hope whose outward form is insanity, great in that love which is hatred of self.

What Kierkegaard (or rather, Johannes de Silentio, the authorial pseudonym who we are supposed to think of as responsible for the text) admires in Abraham is precisely his inconceivable and indefensible act of binding Isaac for sacrifice. The rest of Abraham’s life is shoved aside, and our attention is focused on this one act in which his obedience to God is conspicuous because it is outrageous. Abraham may have been obeying God all his life, but that obedience always conveniently tracked right along with the universal rules of right conduct. In the binding of Isaac, Abraham had to obey God in a way that stood out from the binding demands of the ethical. This is the test for the knight of faith.

But there is another knight of faith in Fear and Trembling, besides Abraham. The other knight of faith is not named, and is described in such excruciatingly normal terms that when I asked a class (hi, Homer group!) about him, one of my students responded, “Oh yeah, that one guy, the guy of faith.”

I think “guy of faith” is a perfect title, because this other knight of faith is not Father Abraham doing the unthinkable; he’s just a guy. Johannes imagines meeting him:

‘Good God! Is this the person, is it really him? He looks just like a tax-gatherer.’ Yet it is indeed him. … I examine him from top to toe, in case there should be some crack through which the infinite peeped out. No! He is solid through and through. … he belongs altogether to the world, no petit bourgeois belongs to it more. … Carefree as a devil-may-care good-for-nothing, he hasn’t a worry in the world, and yet he purchases every moment that he lives, redeeming the seasonable time at the dearest price; not the least thing does he do except on the strength of the absurd.

It’s hard enough to believe in Abraham the way Johannes describes him, but it’s really a bit much to think that such a person as “the guy of faith” could exist, and that his utterly normal, this-worldly life is on par with that of Father Abraham’s binding of Isaac.

But as far as I can tell (and I have more than my fair share of trepidation when it comes to interpreting Kierkegaard), Kierkegaard / Johannes is utterly serious in equating the two. Both knights, as different as they are, have take the step out into the open space where they stand in the presence of God alone with no mediating structures, no ethical codes, no systems of practical reason, no proofs or demonstrations or crutches or guarantees, and they obey God. Abraham makes the move in one supreme act on Mount Moriah, the guy of faith makes the move over the course of a long middle class lifetime.

The guy of faith, by the way, reminds me of nobody so much as G. K. Chesterton, who never did anything except on the power of the absurd, and did nothing but the most absolutely normal things he could imagine in his wildest dreams. Or maybe his character Innocent Smith from the novel Manalive, the great sinner who coveted his own things and ran away with his own wife.

What matters in Fear and Trembling is that we catch a glimpse of absolute duty to God, such that we obey God not because we convince ourselves to obey God after submitting God’s claims to some higher court of appeal, but because God is God and we stand before him directly in our entire existence. Catching a glimpse of that is about all I can take from Kierkgaard, because I have an inborn dread of the existentialist program as a program — insert rant here against pious versions of epistemological subjectivism. That’s exactly the kind of stuff the world needs a whole lot less of right now.

But let Søren have his say: The main danger, I hear him warning me, is not any kind of retreat to commitment, or a failure of Christians to bring forth a good set of supporting arguments for the reasonableness of faith. The main danger, the dread that haunts him, is that structures like universal ethical norms (they’re real!) would so fill our horizon that we would live our lives interacting with them rather than with God. Kierkegaard is freaked out (technical existentialist term there) at the prospect of losing God behind a screen of non-divine absolutes. The danger is learning the human habit of relating to God impersonally, as an inert object of thought rather than as the Living One, as he rather than thou.

That may be a phantom fear, and the whole set of concerns may be the effervescence of overheated continental spirits. Kierkegaard apparently thinks it’s the difference between being a hireling and being a son. The hireling follows rules and gets his pay, owning nothing of the Father’s. The son owns everything that is the Father’s.

To switch the gender of the parental metaphor (as in the opening “attunement” section of Fear and Trembling), the baby must be weaned from the easy food and eat solid food. Ethical norms are the easy food, the weaning causes distress, but solid food is at hand.

I had a drawing teacher who used to ask the class, “If it were illegal to come to the studio and make drawings, would you still do it?” His goading was meant to force us to reflect on our artistic activities, to see if they mattered to us. Kierkegaard forces the issue of faith in a similar way: “If it were immoral to obey God, would you still do it?” The question is wild, self-deconstructing, and absurd. But if you let it inside your mind, it can work its pressure on you, pushing you to discern why you do what you do. You may find yourself being “the guy of faith.” You may find yourself halfway up Mount Moriah. Either way, you are alone with God, without laws, norms, and codes to mediate the relationship. And that directness of personal encounter is the point of Fear and Trembling.

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