Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
-T. S. Eliot


Søren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling

The cover of this book is blowing my mind right now. Here is the far-away version:

The image is a small section of Caravaggio's The Sacrifice of Isaac, which was painted some time around 1600. But here's the thing that kills me about this:

Isaac is looking straight into the eyes of the viewer. While sitting in my apartment taking a break from reading, I glanced down into my lap to find Isaac pleading with me. In his face you see the confusion, the horror, and the fear of this young son: a son who, in many ways, is living my worst nightmare. A mere rejection by those who love me is pain enough, but Isaac faced execution at the hand of his father with no notice or explanation. All of that is made known in the Biblical account of this story, and is most likely depicted faithfully in the Caravaggio. But the fact that this image in particular appears on the cover of Fear and Trembling brings a whole heap of problems to mind.

So here I am, reading this book about the man of faith. Kierkegaard tells me that Abraham lives the kind of faith that us regular folks can only hope to possess, and goes on demonstrate through the universal and resignation exactly what that faith requires. It's hard for me at first, but I begin to understand his reasoning and his project. I start to see how what he says could be true. But then I take this tea break, and when I come back to my book I am confronted anew with Isaac. All I see of Abraham are hands that resolutely grasp the knife and neck. Rather than staring into the eyes of the man of faith, who I have been so concerned with, I come face to face with his victim.

In this moment, the whole problem of this book comes crashing down on me. How can I reconcile the picture that Kierkegaard paints of Abraham's love for God and Isaac with the clear picture Caravaggio has given me?  In what Isaac thought were his final moments, he saw no love in Abraham's actions. While Abraham's case may be extreme, I can't help but wonder how it is that God could ask us to live with this sort of faith if the love we have for others could, as it did for Isaac, look like abandonment and rejection.

The obvious example that comes to mind is murder. According to what Kierkegaard identifies as the universal, God has set up ethics that indicate the system in which humans rightfully operate. As such, there are some actions that clearly go against the universal, and it is wrong for humans to commit such deeds. One such deed is murder. It goes against the universal to deliberately take the life of another human being. But Kierkegaard claims that when Abraham obeyed God and set out to sacrifice Isaac, he was able to act outside the universal because he was following God. This is faith: to do all that God asks of you without questioning it, and to absolutely believe that everything asked of you will result in immediate happiness so that you never have to hope that God will not truly demand all of you. Clear as mud? Right.

Well, now that that's settled, here's the problem I was faced with. If faith like Abraham's requires God telling you to go against the universal and therefore act outside of ethics, how can we tell when someone is doing wrong and when someone is following God? To Isaac, it must have just looked like his father had gone off the deep end. And that makes me think of those in recent years who have killed and claimed that God directed them. To us, as it did to Isaac, that makes no sense. It looks unethical. It seems to go against everything we believe about God-- why would He ask anyone to disregard His own commandment regarding murder? But Kierkegaard says that the man of faith does not stop to ask why when God commands him to step outside the universal. Rather than wonder what Isaac will think, or doubt that God would ask him to kill the child that was promised to be the first of a constellation of descendants, Abraham believes that God has Isaac's and his own immediate happiness in mind. And Abraham will kill Isaac unless God stops him.

God stops him. But the assumption I leap to is that sometimes, God doesn't stop the man of faith. That means that for all I know, those who murder or do other things I perceive as ethically wrong are just better believers than I am. When there is no other explanation than divine revelation, how according to Kierkegaard can man determine what is just? It seems like a justice system that allowed for men of faith acting outside the universal would be a justice system pandering to the criminal. Can Christians participate in justice and uphold the law if no Christian can say for certain whether a man has acted rightly by his neighbor?

Justice as a claim made by the individual seems fraught with problems; but if we were all men of faith, we would know that such a world would function just as it should because it was ordained by God. Maybe Kierkegaard would say that the reason I can't agree with him is because I am not yet a man of faith. Either way, I can't stop looking at the cover of my book.

It's bizarre that Penguin chose this small part of a painting as the cover of this text. If the focus of the cover had been the depiction of Abraham, I feel like this post would have gone in a very different direction. But Isaac's eyes are distracting and have caused me to ask the questions he must have been asking. The pairing of this early 17th century painting with a mid- 19th century text has caused this 21-st century thinker to scratch her head.


  1. This is faith: to do all that God asks of you without questioning it, and to absolutely believe that everything asked of you will result in immediate happiness so that you never have to hope that God will not truly demand all of you.

    Nope, you question it profoundly; you ask why. That's what fear and trembling is about. If you followed orders without questioning it, you wouldn't suffer 'fear and trembling'; and did the act without any remorse, you would just be a monster.


    how can we tell when someone is doing wrong and when someone is following God?

    We don't. That's Kierkegaard's point. That's why we, as outside observers, ought to call Abraham a murderer.

    The point of the analysis is that "Christians" don't really understand faith and think they have it. Kierkegaard wanted to show his fellow "Christian" danes what it means to really have faith. It's a terrible thing from our point of view.

  2. Actually, the cover is perfect and not at all bizarre IMO. The focus of Fear and Trembling is not on Abraham per se, but with confronting the reality of what Abraham was willing to do, something which is commonly glossed over.

    James has it right. de Silentio's entire polemic RE: Faith is that doubt is an integral part of it because Faith is inherently paradoxical. Fear and Trembling brings this out by analyzing the binding of Isaac's relationship with God's previous promise to Abraham as well as the paradoxical possibility of transcending ethical norms by God's commands. In this sense, your reaction, provoked in part by the cover, is appropriate.

    It's worth keeping in mind that Fear and Trembling is a part of Kierkegaard's pseudonymous writings. Never take anything Kierkegaard wrote under a pseudonym at face value.

  3. "Bizarre" was perhaps unfair of me-- it's not that I think the cover is inappropriate to the content or anything like that. But Penguin covers are sometimes wildly inexplicable and frequently do no more than illustrate some obvious connection to the book. I was amazed that the publishers obviously carefully selected that small section of the Caravaggio rather than printing the whole painting or choosing another of the scores of renderings of that scene. It became much more of a commentary on the text than covers usually are, and that changed the way I was thinking about the text.

    And Anonymous, you're right that pseudonyms should set off alarm bells on authorial intent and voice within a work. I wrote this post under the assumption that because Kierkegaard was under so much scrutiny and so heavily criticized by secular and religious leaders, he of necessity wrote under another name. The piece was, to my understanding, far too controversial for him to publish as his own; but I think the ideas were truly his.

    James, as far as your comment re: fear and trembling, that sounds far better to me than the summary I provided. I see that working out of faith as a much more tortured process. I think I have difficulty with reconciling the questioning with the hope and firm belief. Obviously, I am not a man of faith yet. I'm also not afraid to be wrong!