Often referred to as a proto-existentialist or even the father of existentialism, Kierkegaard stood in opposition to the Hegelianism that dominated philosophical and theological thought in his own time. Under several different pseudonyms Kierkegaard published works that argued faith was the furthest one ought to go in life; faith should not and could not be succeeded by reason. In his awe-filled analysis of Abraham in his work Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard considers the patriarch to be the greatest hero, worthy of the title “father of faith.” Abraham keeps his faith against all reason and despite his anxiety. How? Kierkegaard’s interpretation of faith in God relies heavily on a relationship between the believer and the Divine. Through a relationship, one might come to have the trust necessary to surpass, and even alter, reason.
The binding of Isaac is a familiar story to many, though Kierkegaard believes few understand the horror in it. He goes to great lengths to wake his readers up to this horror. Genesis 22 reports God speaking to Abraham, commanding him to go and sacrifice his only son, the child of promise. Abraham seemingly begins his journey without hesitation. When the time comes to kill his son, as Kierkegaard describes, his hand does not shake. Abraham does not hesitate in slaying his son, and if the angel had not called out to stop him, Isaac would have died. Consider what is at stake. Abraham would lose his son. Isaac was his only true heir, not including Ishmael, who he had already sent away. By killing Isaac, Abraham ended his own family line—a great shame in his culture. Isaac was the promised child from God. Abraham waited decades, far into his old age to finally receive this child of promise through which he would have descendants that outnumbered the stars. By killing Isaac, God’s gift was destroyed and his promise rendered impossible.
Additionally, it is reasonable to believe that murder was punishable by death. In Genesis 9:6, God declares that “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” It is fair to assume that Abraham is aware of this declaration from God. Abraham knew that God is just; he challenged God to stay true to his justice before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. By killing Isaac, he likely sentences himself to death. Even more, Abraham directly trespasses against the explicit edict of God. How can he not? Abraham has been put an impossible situation. Either he murders Isaac and breaks God’s commandment established in Genesis 9:6 or he defies God’s direct word to himself and refuses to sacrifice his dear son. Far more is on the line than many realize. Abraham must be willing to sacrifice himself, his family, his descendants, his social standing, his honor, ethics, and God’s consistency in addition to his beloved child. His anxiety certainly was great, for much was at risk. Yet, Kierkegaard—under the pseudonym Climacus—declares “Without risk, no faith.” (CUP, VII 170).
Some have tried to make sense of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. The case has been made that child sacrifice, especially of one’s firstborn, was a common practice in ancient Semitic religion (Gordis 417). Child sacrifice remained a part of Canaanite religion well into the time of the prophets; Micah, writing some time during the eighth century BCE, contrasts the local religious practice of child sacrifice with the humility and charity God requires of His own people (Gordis 418). In his own time, nobody from the surrounding area would have questioned Abraham’s trial. With this being said, even if locals would have understood Isaac’s sacrifice, Abraham couldn’t have. The God of Abraham had already distinguished himself apart from all other gods. He had made Himself and His justice known to Abraham. Nothing in God’s character would have condoned child sacrifice. This God had already made known his abhorrence to murder, and later to Moses God would outlaw child sacrifice as an abomination (Deuteronomy 18:10, Leviticus 20:1-5). Though not explicitly decreed to Abraham, it is not unlikely he would have known how appalling child sacrifice was to God. Perhaps this isn’t the case and Abraham shared the perspective of neighboring pagans with regard to child sacrifice; the test would have still been great. Everything would still be on the line. God promised to make Abraham the father of a great nation. That promise would have been rendered impossible with Isaac’s death.
Any attempt to rationalize this story outside of faith is for nought. Belief in an infinite God nullifies traditional reason, for “the infinite is beyond the finite, and this gap could not be bridged through rationality” (Tangyin, 212). Man is unable to comprehend God; finite consciousness cannot contain the infinite. This is what Kierkegaard refers to as the paradox. Reason is wholly insufficient. It would be entirely unreasonable to expect any good to come out of Isaac’s death. Yet, Abraham proceeds without deliberation. How could he do this? Only through faith. Abraham’s faith played into the story in two key ways: he did not doubt the message he received, and he did not doubt God’s goodness. Abraham’s trust is rooted in his relationship with God.
If Abraham had even the slightest inclination to doubt the message he had received, he never would have come close to sacrificing Isaac. If the message could have been doubted at all, it would have been immediately dismissed. The message is clear. Genesis 22 informs the reader that God spoke to Abraham, addressing him by his name. Abraham’s response is immediate. He is not surprised by the Lord’s voice. It is familiar to Him. He recognizes it easily. For decades God had spoken to Abraham in this way: they conversed as any two people do. It is for this reason that when God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about,” Abraham departed without question (Genesis 22:2-3). The request is so ludicrous, so disgustingly wrong, that it required God to deliver it as clearly as possible. No dream or questionable vision or vague sign could have convinced Abraham to go. Furthermore, even if spoken with clarity, the command is only as compelling as the one who commands it. The message had to have been the word of God from God Himself. It was so, and Abraham departed for Moriah.
It is interesting to note that God commands Abraham to go to “one of the mountains I will tell you about,” (Genesis 22:2). This implies that God again communicated with Abraham while on the journey to Moriah. Kierkegaard notes that during the whole three-and-a-half-day journey Abraham had faith and did not doubt. If any inkling of doubt had begun to enter his mind, it must have vanished completely when God spoke a second time to specify on which mountain Isaac was to be slain.
This second word serves the double purpose of confirming Abraham in his mission to sacrifice his son and informing the reader on the nature of God’s relationship with Abraham. In one very real sense, God went with Abraham on this long, anxious, unreasonable journey. That companionship was not new: as stated before, Abraham and God had been in communication for decades. But more than that, God had gone with Abraham in all his journeys. God led Abraham out of the land of the Chaldeans into the land of the Canaanites (Genesis 12:1-9). God went with Abraham into Egypt when Abraham fled the famine (Genesis 12:10-13:1). God was with Abraham through the many years of impotence and infertility—a different kind of journey, per se (Genesis 17, 21:1-7). For the entirety of Abraham’s adult life, God was with him. It was on this relationship that Abraham must have relied while he went to Moriah.
Kierkegaard affirms that faith in general is a reliance on God relationally, not rationally. Faith in God requires “knowledge as relational familiarity” (Langer 71). This is exactly what Abraham had of God. This is, in fact, all Abraham had of God. Abraham had no holy scriptures to refer to. There were no theologians in his day who could discern God’s character or will through careful biblical exegesis. Yet, the patriarch came to believe exactly what the angel told Mary in Luke 1:37 more than a thousand years later: “nothing is impossible with God,” (Tangyin 218). Kierkegaard writes, “Abraham had faith and did not doubt; he believed the preposterous,” (FT 20). The preposterous—the impossible—belief that God would keep His promise and stay true to His character remained in Abraham against all reason.
Abraham’s response to Isaac’s question in Genesis 22:7-8 proves the patriarch’s faith is intact even after receiving the second word. He knows exactly what has been demanded of him; still, he does not respond by saying “I will sacrifice you, my son.” As Kierkegaard notes “by virtue of the absurd it is indeed possible that God could do something entirely different,” (FT 119). What might Abraham expect God to do? Perhaps he honestly believed God would provide an actual lamb to sacrifice in Isaac’s stead. The author of Hebrews provides a different interpretation: “[Abraham] considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive [Isaac] back,” (Hebrews 11:19 NRSV). Hope in Isaac’s resurrection would have indeed been by virtue of the absurd: Abraham would give everything up, sacrificing all, and still have hope that he would receive all back and find satisfaction in this life.
Did Abraham have any reason to believe God would work in Isaac’s sacrifice for good? No, not according to traditional reason. Abraham’s life would have been ruined, his trust in God destroyed. Any hope of salvation (for lack of better words) depended on God’s intervention, whether that would be through deliverance or miracles. God’s demand provided no hint of salvation. Kierkegaard’s dramatic response is appropriate: “Everything was lost, even more appallingly than if it had never happened! So the Lord was only mocking Abraham! He wondrously made the preposterous come true; now he wanted to see it annihilated,” (FT 19). But Abraham had faith.
This is not to say Abraham had no reason. Elsewhere in scripture Abraham is shown using his intellect no different than any other man or woman. It is fair to claim that it is impossible for any human to function without reason. Man is defined as being the rational animal. Truly, one must be reasonable to oneself. What one person considers to be logical, another might deem nonsensical. What, then, is the base of reason? Faith. One will never arrive at faith through reason. However, faith, once attained, alters reason. Kierkegaard extols Abraham, writing “Abraham was the greatest of all, great by that power whose strength is powerlessness, great by that wisdom whose secret is foolishness, great by that hope whose form is madness, great by the love that is hatred to oneself,” (FT 16-17, emphasis added). To Abraham, trusting God and expecting some sort of deliverance from his test was entirely reasonable. The author of Hebrews confirms this; another translation of scripture reads “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead,” (Hebrews 11:19 NIV, emphasis added). The original word in greek, logisamenos, comes from the word logismos, best translated to “to think” or “to reason” (Strong).
This is the crux of faith in God. Faith, rooted in relationship, confident in who God is through relational familiarity and not objective study, frees one to act by virtue of the absurd, against all traditional reason and instead according to a new reason. Essentially, faith founded in love produces hope and changes reason. The hope one has in faith is for this life; as the psalmist eloquently puts it, “I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord,” (Psalm 27:13-14). These words could have been spoken by Abraham himself.
Abraham was the father of faith—a faith beyond conventional reason. Kierkegaard writes: “Faith is the objective uncertainty with the repulsion of the absurd, held fast in the passion of inwardness, which is the relation of inwardness intensified to its highest,” (CUP VII 532). True faith demands an inwardness. It is deeply personal, but is not solitary. God Himself joins with the one who has faith, just as he went with Abraham. This intimate, absurd relationship enables the one who has faith to forfeit all one has—as St. Paul puts it, to “count it all as loss…consider it refuse,” (Philippians 3:8)—with a real expectation and hope that God will restore all. Many have studied this, but few know it as Abraham does.
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Gordis, Robert. “The Faith of Abraham: A Note on Kierkegaard’s ‘Teleological Suspension of the Ethical'” Judaism 25.4 (1976): 414-19. EBSCOhost. Web. 27 Jan. 2017.
Kierkegaard, Sören, Howard V. Hong, and Edna H. Hong. Concluding unscientific postscripts to “philosophical fragments”. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U Press, 1992. Print.
Kierkegaard, Søren, Howard V. Hong, and Edna H. Hong. Fear and trembling ; Repetition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U Press, 1983. Print.
Langer, Michael R. “The idolatry of certainty: Kierkegaard and Evangelical Covenant faith in a postmodern world.” The Covenant Quarterly 71.1 (2013): 57-75. EBSCOhost. Web. 27 Jan. 2017.
Strong, James. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Abingdon Press, 1890. Print.
Tangyin, Kajornpat. “Reading Kierkegaard on Faith through Johannes Climacus and Johannes De Silentio.” Prajña Vihāra: Journal of Philosophy and Religion 10.1-2 (2009): 208-34. EBSCOhost. Web. 27 Jan. 2017.
The Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984. Print.
3 comments on “Relationship Based Faith in Kierkegaard”
Would not Abe’s eyewitness knowledge of miracles (wife of almost 100 having a baby etc) be evidence also for his reasoning when Abe says I and the lad will RETURN (Isaac to be resurrected from the dead)? Loved your article. Seems Kierkegaard build an entire book and later used that foundation for starting all of Existentialism on missing (accidently…really?) this very point? Murder requires a dead body. Killing and then a live body appearing would be called a magic trick today…not an ethical/religious dilemma on which to build a philosophy. Its no dilemma it seems since he believed beyond a shadow of a doubt God would raise Isaac.
Thank you so much for helping. In regards to Kierkegaard’s Fear And Trembling, I have as of yet to find him siting the crux [solution?] of the Ethical/Religious struggle. S.K. never mentions Gen.22:5 or Heb.11:19. Both shed light that S.K. seems to ignore and would seem to change the entire premise of this book and all of future Existentialism. Both passages make it clear that Abe was returning with his son…alive. Thus, the sacrifice, would not ultimately keep Isaac dead. Like a magic trick…it would appear to be murder, but murder requires evidence of a dead body. Thx! Addition: 5 years ago after a stint was placed in my vein, my heart was pumping double speed. The doctor completely stopped my heart and restarted it with that amazing electronic zap…ouch. Seems a fair metaphor…dead/brought back…with knowledge that typically happens. With the Lord, much more sure odds. Eh?
Great observations, thanks for sharing!