Kierkegaard and the attainment of faith

Upon first reading, it is apparent that Kierkegaard writing Fear and Trembling pseudonymously as Johannes de Silentio, which translates to John of Silence, is dealing with the teleological suspension of the ethical and yet with a great deal more. In this paper, I will examine the purpose of the book, which I take to be an attempt to get people to view faith as something hard to attain, and I will examine why Kierkegaard cannot understand Abraham.

The purpose of writing Fear and Trembling for Kierkegaard was on the surface simply because he enjoys writing and Abraham is someone he admires a great deal. “He writes because to him it is a luxury that is all the more pleasant and apparent the fewer there are who buy and read what he writes” (pg7) At the time, it is known that few people indeed actually took the time to read his works. In the preface of Fear and Trembling he is clearly stating that he is writing the book, merely for the joy he gets out of writing. As one reads further into the text, however, there appears to be another possible reason for him to write the book, perhaps a strong reason. This reason is that he wants people to go back to viewing faith as something which is difficult to come by not something which is easy. “Faith is another matter, but no one has the right to lead others to believe that faith is something inferior or that it is an easy matter since, on the contrary, it is the greatest and most difficult of all.” (pg52) It is clear that Kierkegaard believes that his generation views faith as something relatively easy to obtain and then continue past it, “In our age, everyone is unwilling to stop with faith but goes further.” (pg.7) Kierkegaard denies this is possible, and so what he wants to do is to get people back to the notion that faith is actually something which is extremely hard. This is a direct challenge to the Hegelian belief that through philosophy faith is something which one can transcend. I believe the way in which he does this is analogous to his example of the mother weaning her child off of breast milk. (pg.11) Kierkegaard brings up the example of a mother blackening her breast in order to wean her child off of breast milk in the first of his four Abraham and Isaac scenarios, in order to understand why Abraham in the first scenario turned back to Isaac with a wild gaze. It was to make Isaac have faith, the same way in which a mother does something which she knows the child does not want in order to do what is best for the child in the end. Along these lines Kierkegaard is shocking the reader into a realization that faith is something which is not easy to come by, is not something which someone can go beyond, but rather extremely difficult, and impossible to go beyond.

The difficulty of attaining faith is constant throughout the entire text as is the notion that one cannot go past it. This is never more explicit than when speaking about Abraham the father of faith, his entire obsession, he states “…you got no further than faith.” (pg. 23) He makes it clear in the epilogue why someone cannot go beyond faith, and it is based on the notion that faith is unlike science in which generations can build upon the previous generations, rather each generation starts primitively and cannot go any further than the previous one. “…no generation has learned to love from another, no generation is able to begin at any other point than at the beginning…” (pg.121) He goes on to state that thinking someone could go further than the previous generation is “foolish and idle talk.”

It seems to me however that Kierkegaard is making it appear harder to attain faith than he truly believes it to be. The reason for this is that he begins the epilogue with a case when merchants sank a few cargoes of spices to increase the value. This specifically is not the reason why I believe he is making it seem harder to attain faith than he truly believes but rather his sympathy towards the case. Kierkegaard stating “This was an excusable, perhaps even necessary, deception.” (pg.121) and “Is this the kind of self-deception the present generation needs?” (pg.121) along with his emphasis on the mother weaning the child by blackening her breast all indicate to me that Kierkegaard wrote this book to shock people, by overemphasizing how hard faith is, into realizing they should change their ways, even if they do not realize at the time it is the best thing for them.

Kierkegaard uses the example of Abraham in Fear and Trembling because Abraham has achieved what is extremely difficult, which is having faith. The strange thing about Kierkegaard using Abraham is that he continuously mentions throughout the book that he cannot understand Abraham. “I cannot understand Abraham – I can only admire him.” (pg.112). Even more perplexing perhaps is when at the end of Fear and Trembling when he states, “I, for my part, perhaps can understand Abraham…” (pg.119). All of this can be explained I believe when one takes into consideration the relationship in which the ethical, the universal, and speech all have to one another and why Abraham thus cannot speak.

For Kierkegaard, the ethical is universal because it applies “to everyone…at all times.” (pg.54) As a result of this, it places the universal in the realm of the public. The one thing which connects people to one another in the realm of the public and allows us to share our experiences is our ability to speak to one another, and yet when trying to become a “knight of faith” one must do so as a single individual above the universal so that they may stand in absolute relation to the absolute. (pg. 113) If someone were to speak about their experience they would no longer be a single individual rather they would be in the realm of the universal. “As soon as I speak, I express the universal, and if I do not do so, no one can understand me.” (pg.60). This sheds light onto why Abraham does not speak.

Abraham remains silent out of necessity. Abraham’s experience with God is his own individual experience; he has entered into a private relationship with God in a manner through God’s command to Abraham. The moment Abraham speaks to someone is the moment he would go from the individual private relationship with God to the universal public domain. No one would be able to understand Abraham if he spoke. If he was to explain to me what he was doing in a manner in which I could understand, which Kierkegaard would deny is even possible, he would be sent back to the universal, the public realm because his journey would no longer be done by the single individual in isolation, he would have shared his experience with me. It is not the case that Abraham cannot open his mouth and utter words. To say Abraham cannot speak is really to say that if he were to try and explain his actions there would be no way in which someone else could understand him. “Abraham cannot speak, because he cannot say that which would explain everything (that is, so it is understandable)…” (pg.115). “Speak he cannot; he speaks no human language…he speaks in a divine language, he speaks in tongues.”(pg.114)

This explains why all throughout the book Kierkegaard states time and again that he cannot understand Abraham. The reason is that Abrahams experience is a unique one, Abraham was in a unique relationship with God, one in which no one else can experience, one in which, because of its uniqueness to specifically Abraham, no one can understand. “Faith itself cannot be mediated into the universal, for thereby it is canceled. Faith is this paradox, and the single individual simply cannot make himself understandable to anyone.”(pg.71) If Kierkegaard could understand Abraham than Abrahams experience would not be in the private realm of the single individual in relation to the absolute, rather it would be in the realm of the public, the universal.

What is one to make however of the fact that Abraham actually does speak at one point to Isaac. After Isaac asks Abraham where the lamb is for the offering, Abraham replies, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”(pg.116) Kierkegaard’s reply to this is that Abraham although he was speaking he was doing so in a way in which Isaac, or anyone for that matter, could not understand. Had he told Isaac the truth he would have broken his special relationship with God and moved back into the universal. There is an irony here that relates to the irony and paradox of faith in that Abraham is actually speaking the truth but a truth in which only he can understand. The paradox which is expressed through irony here is what also explains how at the end of Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard states he may be able to understand Abraham.

The only thing that can be known is that Abraham was in a paradox and experienced the absurd. The absurd and the paradox are both non-rational, they go against basic human ways of thinking and yet it is this which is necessary for someone to become a “knight of faith”. They must believe in the absurd. Kierkegaard states at one point that it is not that Abraham believes that God will stop him from sacrificing Isaac but that Abraham believes in the absurd in that after sacrificing Isaac he fully expects that God will bring Isaac back to him. It is also in this irony that the use of Johannes de Silentio as a pseudonym can be understood. The only thing Johannes wants to talk about and write is the one thing one cannot.

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