That monstrous paradox

A rhetorical shower-bath like that from a height of eighteen centuries is very invigorating. Concluding Unscientific Postscript

In Fear and Trembling (1843) the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, writing under one of his many pseudonyms, “Johannes de silentio,” strongly objected to contemporary understandings of religious faith as impoverished, mistaken, and inept. Like many of Kierkegaard’s writings, this work is explicitly aesthetic. In being a “dialectical lyric,” as the subtitle puts it, it is intended to provoke and stupefy—like “a rhetorical shower-bath.” To be lyrical is to evoke a “mood,” as another pseudonym, “A,” puts it in Either/Or, published in the same year.[1] What mood is being evoked in Fear and Trembling, then? If one wants to understand the nature of faith, Johannes asserts, it is insufficient to look to a theological gloss on the Bible, to a comprehensive philosophical system such as Hegel’s, or to a sermon given from the pulpit by one’s parish pastor. None of these readings is appropriately attuned to the lived experience of faith. If we are truly interested in knowing what faith is, we need to become the kind of people who can grasp the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac as a kind of absurd event. Otherwise we will simply reflect our staid understandings back upon ourselves. We will remain blind to the radical nature of decision-making.

Before evaluating Johannes’ claims and the manner in which they are delivered, I want to begin by sketching the story of Abraham and Isaac as recorded in the book of Genesis. If we turn to chapter 22, verse 1, we read that “some time later God tested Abraham.” God is testing the father of faith by demanding that he sacrifice his only son Isaac as a “burnt offering.” Here readers should recall the extensive background to Abraham’s story, just as its ancient listeners would have been familiar with the repeatedly retold versions in communally-maintained oral tradition. If we go all the way back to Genesis 12, where Abraham is introduced by his old name, Abram, we find that God is already promising that he will be “a great nation” and that he will one day take possession of the blessed country of Canaan (12:1-3, 7; see also 13:14-17, 15:7). It’s worth pausing here to note the telling trajectory of Abram’s journey: from the general vicinity of Israel’s later captivity in Ur, to the land of Israel’s later promise, Canaan. From the very beginning, then, Abram/Abraham’s story intimates the future story of the people of Israel. Noteworthy too are the occasions on which Abram builds altars—deeply symbolic and significant rites of possession—marking the terrain that the exemplary patriarch will leave to his future descendants (12:7; 12:8; 13:18).

In the course of the story Abram eventually complains that, in spite of all the blessing and favour God has shown him, he still does not have a son to whom he can pass his possessions. God responds by speaking through a prophetic vision, showing Abram in a dream that he will indeed have many descendants. At this point in Genesis we encounter another crucially important detail. For by this same vision Abram learns that his future descendants will be held captive for 400 years in a strange country, and that they will eventually return to the promised land with greater blessings (15:12-19). This instance of the promise to Abram is once again sealed with a sacrificial rite, but the rite now establishes a covenant between God and his faithful servant (15:18). It is a second intimation of the destiny of the later Israelites. Further such associations follow. After the episode of Hagar and Ishmael (chapter 16), yet another covenant is established with the newly named Abraham, henceforth “the father of many nations” (17:3). This new covenant is more detailed and more insistent than the first: it now stipulates that all males be circumcised as a sign of the everlasting bond between God, Abraham, and Abraham’s descendants; and it concludes with the announcement to Abraham that Sarah will bear him a son, to be named Isaac, with whom God will also maintain an “everlasting covenant” (17:19, 21).

If we return now to the story of Abraham’s obedience to God, in which he is supposed to sacrifice his son Isaac, we can appreciate to a greater extent the puzzle it presents. The textual background to this episode has repeatedly shown us that there is a covenantal relationship between God and Abraham, one which includes God’s promise that Abraham will have many descendants and that they will possess the land of Canaan. Isaac is the living sign of God’s fulfillment of the covenant. Earlier God had told Abraham that it is “through Isaac” that his descendants “will be reckoned” (21:12). God then confusingly demands that that living sign be put to death in a sacrificial rite (22:2). Abraham obeys, going so far as to undertake the journey to the mountain in Moriah, to build an altar, to place his son upon it, and to raise the knife for the slaughter. At the last moment an angel calls to Abraham, telling him that he has passed the test (“Now I know that you fear God,” 22: 12), and a ram is offered on the altar in Issac’s place. Abraham’s obedience extends so far as to perform an act which would have completely nullified the proposed covenantal promise. In response God pledges once again to fulfill the covenant, even swearing an oath. He declares that Abraham’s descendants will be as numerous as the sand on the seashore and that they will be victorious over their enemies, taking possession of the promised land (22:15-18).

If the episode of the sacrifice of Isaac is an integral part of Abraham’s narrative, as surely it is, then the tale of Abraham is simultaneously a story of the covenantal relationship between the later Israelites and their God. Herein we can see that the language of covenant is like Ariadne’s thread, a paradigmatic strand linking diverse aspects of Scripture.


Johannes does not approach the Abraham and Isaac episode in its literary or historical context. Fear and Trembling more or less ignores how it fits into Genesis, ignores what type of text Genesis is, ignores how a historical or literary account might illuminate its content.[2] This is a major problem even on Johannes’ terms. For it may be fatal to getting Abraham’s lived experience right. If Johannes is saying that Hegelian philosophers and Danish pastors don’t understand faith correctly because they are incapable of facing the genuine decision presented to each person in lived experience, then he is likewise guilty of failing to face the fundamentally historical nature of lived experience (though he offers some insufficient reflections upon it in the “Epilogue”). In keeping with its rhetorically self-aware style, Johannes’ polemic shines a penetrating light on one particular spot: Abraham’s choice. In so doing he leaves something fundamental in the shadows; something that puts his entire paradoxical project in question. For the moment let’s leave this point here.

Johannes insists that we cannot understand the Abraham and Isaac story unless we are willing to put ourselves in contact with its world, unless we are will to attend to the moment of choice. And so Fear and Trembling tells the tale in several different ways, each leaving the reader wondering if Abraham’s experience can be understood at all. It certainly doesn’t make sense in light of Hegel’s ethical system, Johannes insists, for Abraham is apparently willing to sacrifice his son for no greater social or political good; on a religious level there is no justification for the sacrifice either, except as a rather bizarre test; and practically speaking, anyone who sought to imitate Abraham would be rightly regarded as a madman. How then are we supposed to understand the decision made by the father of faith?

One of the ways Johannes tries to get his reader to understand the nature of the problem is by contrasting what he calls the “knight of faith” with the “tragic hero.” In viewing a tragic hero such as Oedipus at the theatre, it is possible for me, as a spectator, to grasp his action and his situation in thought. Through the distance that the theatrical play enacts, I am able to see the tragic hero face a set of circumstances that are beyond his control, resigning himself to his destiny and acting virtuously anyway. In brief, I can understand Oedipus’ actions in social or religious terms. Abraham would be a tragic hero like Oedipus if he was willing to sacrifice his own son for the good of his community. But Johannes insists that this Hegelian form of legitimacy is not available in this episode. Abraham is not sacrificing his son for the greater good of society (“Problema I”), as if he were a judge impartially punishing the crime of a family member; nor could the sacrifice of Isaac be described as the love of God through the love of another (“Problema II”), for Abraham was prepared to kill his son; nor did Abraham make clear to Isaac or Sarah why this sacrifice was warranted (“Problema III”), since he remained silent.

Like the tragic hero, Johannes tells us, the knight of faith is resigned to his circumstances. He accepts his situation even if he wishes it were otherwise. However, unlike the tragic hero, the knight of faith believes on “the strength of the absurd.”[3] That is to say, he is properly resigned to his situation—Abraham obeys God in preparing to sacrifice Isaac—but believes that what is incomprehensible will happen—somehow God will fulfill his promise that Isaac will be returned to him. This faith is characterized by Johannes as something that stands outside “mediation.”[4] In other words, the knight of faith does not relate as an individual to the universal, as in Hegel’s system. He does not relate to God through the performance of any social or religious duty. Instead, Abraham relates to God as an individual “above” the universal; he relates to God “absolutely.” Johannes circumvents the Hegelian relationship between the particular and the universal through faith. This “absurd” relation—for how could the individual relate to the universal outside it?—provides the knight of faith with a transformative new perspective on the world, living as he does, in the decisive moment. To illustrate the difference this involves, Johannes compares the Hegelian philosopher to a mere onlooker at a dance. By contrast, the knight of faith is someone who passionately participates in the dance. The knight is not sitting on the sideline, deciding whether or not to do something by the cool light of abstract objective reflection. On Johannes’ terms, to be most fully alive as a human being is to be a knight of faith; it is a matter of being open to the possibility of making a decision on the “strength of the absurd” and in so doing transforming one’s vision. To step back from the “universal” is precisely what is involved in attuning oneself to the dynamic flow of the dance and, in faith, joining it. The “Epilogue” suggests that each person develops themselves to the extent that their whole passionate being, their capacity to exercise faith, is actively engaged in the task of living. As the use of the word knight indicates, to live by developing the capacity for faith is akin to a quest in which one deepens one’s love for another—enduring yet playful, committed yet joyful, resolute yet valiant. The knight knows how to reflect with Hegel, certainly, but he is first and foremost passionately alive to the play of dance.


Earlier I suggested that the power of Johannes’s polemic creates a blind spot. By aiming so narrowly at his target he not only bypasses the question of whether or not Hegel got some aspects of historical experience right, he fails to consider whether or not the episode of Abraham and Isaac, read attentively and historically, might call into question his “teleological suspension of the ethical.” Yes, in using a pseudonym, and in categorizing this work as a “dialectical lyric,” polemically addressing a specific audience in order to wake them up to their limitations, Kierkegaard’s aim retains a measure of validity. Readers can still benefit from the jolt of his aesthetic parry. At the same time, in paying attention to Kierkegaard’s rhetorical acrobatics, we are in fact paying attention to the quality of his writing in a way that he does not extend to others. Has he paid attention to the “mood” of the book of Genesis? In his attempt to create a certain mood is he not himself blind to the mood of the episode he seizes upon? As is clear from later works by Kierkegaard, such as the Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846), he has probably skipped over the literary and historical aspects of the Bible because he regarded such an approach too closely with the “abstract approximations” of Hegel. In those later works history is not regarded as a qualitative form of knowing, and thus historical understanding cannot yield anything of significance for the living individual in the moment of choice. By 1800 there were many scholars who had raised questions about the historical accuracy of the Bible, particularly with respect to miracles. But this problem and its relation to how the Bible was formed does not impinge on Fear and Trembling at all.

Most scholars today date the “final” compilation of the Hebrew Bible around or after the period of the Israelite exile, c. 587 BC. Neither the extent of scholarly consensus nor the exactness of the date will undermine the point I wish to make here, though. It is enough to see that the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis is evidently not a contemporary account, or even a near-contemporary account. If one accepts a revised version of the documentary hypothesis on the origins of the Pentateuch, which, in its classic statement, posits four different major sources for the text as we have it (Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly), these having been transmitted orally and textually, then it is best seen as a collectively remembered series of stories, blending different genres of literature and thought, from legendary to legal, that incorporated centuries of additions, editions, and alterations. I say this not to call into question the exact historical veracity of the Abraham and Isaac episode, but to try and set it in the right light.[5] Briefly put, we owe the final shape of the Abraham-Isaac story to the fact that it is part of the collective memory of “the people of God” emerging from captivity and exile. A major component of this mnemonic activity was the Israelite self-identification with Abraham as his descendants. Thus, by focusing so intently on the figure of the biblical Abraham as if he were nothing more than a historical person, Johannes has mistakenly seized upon the wrong lived experience. The lived experience of faith at issue is not just that of Abraham himself, it is also the remembered lived experience of the people of God in exile, captivity, and return.

By using the figure of Abraham, the stock figure of faith for his Protestant contemporaries, Johannes tries to catch out Hegelian ethics. He thinks Abraham cannot have made the choice he did for any ethical or religious reasons. The only possible solution, he would have us believe, is that Abraham’s action is determined by the decision of faith, by a choice made on the strength of the absurd. As depicted, this choice is basically contextless. Any and all forms of historical explanation would be mere “approximations” of the texture of what it means to live passionately in the moment. But what do we see if we situate the story of Abraham in history, as a tale told by the ancient Israelites after their captivity and exile? We see that the lived experience in question is not adequately appropriated by Johannes. By sketching the historical context for this story we do in fact have an “ethical” reason for Abraham’s decision which makes sense on Hegel’s terms—though of course that doesn’t mean Hegel is thereby vindicated tout court. According to the internal narrative logic of the final text in Genesis, without Abraham’s obedience there would be no future Israelite nation with whom God could have a covenant.[6] Abraham’s story is part and parcel of the covenant paradigm. The affirmation of Abraham’s faithfulness is therefore an avowal of the remembered faithfulness of the later Israelites. The Abraham-Isaac episode is part of Israel’s collective meditation on exile, which other parts of the Hebrew Bible grapple with in various ways, including faithful lament and prophetic denunciation of Israel’s lack of fidelity. Abraham’s obedience to God in the past, which was being re-told and re-lived in the present of exilic and post-exilic Israel, summons Israel and God once again to covenantal faithfulness. By trying to understand the story in its varied literary and historical context—though I’ve just begun to scratch the surface here—the “monstrous paradox”[7] Johannes presents us with begins to unravel.

Now, to be fair to Kierkegaard/Johannes, he lived before the classic statement of the modern documentary hypothesis by Julius Wellhausen (in Geschichte Israels, 1878). At the same time, he was certainly aware of some of the important historical and philosophical work undertaken in Germany in his time, from Reimarus (via Schiller) to Schleiermacher. I’m not criticizing Johannes in order to score points anachronistically, but to draw attention to the fact that, despite his reading in Hegel and his reflection on history, he was unable or unwilling to see how the stories of ancient Israel could be grasped in terms of their communal function. Apparently Johannes did not have the means to see that even his favoured example, which was supposed to completely stump or at least corner Hegelians, nonetheless possessed a rich ethical-historical purpose. Likewise with the anti-historical slant of the Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Even granting its rhetorical strategy, it is completely ensnared by the bipolar contrast it draws between Hegelian history as the self-determination of objective spirit and the solipsistic subjective reality of personal experience. No space is given to the possibility of a less totalizing way of talking about the past and its relationship to the present.

How, then, can we square Johannes’ failure in historical thinking with the part of his challenge that retains its validity—namely, that being human is a task, something which demands active, self-conscious development, a sort of skill one possesses and can improve upon, like a dancer? Not easily. To start with, the “Epilogue” to Fear and Trembling appears to cut history off from personal development: “no generation has learned from another how to love, no generation can begin other than at the beginning, the task of no later generation is shorter than its predecessor’s”.[8] That is, each person must choose to love completely afresh, just as each person must choose their faith. Johannes is (intentionally?) overlooking the extent to which human beings are historically situated, how the very terms by which they engage in the process of developing their capacities are themselves conditioned by history. After all, one’s practical judgment does not just emerge out of nowhere, lacking any and all context. Yes, each of us must make decisions in the lived reality of the moment. Yet each of us makes these decisions through our more or less developed capacity for choice, through our practical judgment. In choosing to dance I am employing a practical skill I have developed as part of my overall personal character. But the commencement of that development is historically mediated in all sorts of ways—socially, culturally, politically, even existentially. I say “mediated” because the notion that Abraham relates to God absolutely, somehow outside mediation, is not just wrong for concrete historical reasons, it is also insufficient as a statement about humanity’s historical condition.

Which brings me to the subject of Kierkegaard’s literary playfulness. For although there is not much subterfuge behind his pseudonyms, neither is it straightforwardly true that Kierkegaard and Johannes are one and the same. Kierkegaard is using Johannes to create a mood, as I noted at the outset. He wants us to see that unless we address ourselves to the fact that each of us has to make a decision of faith, has to dance the dance of life, we will not be able to understand what it is to be human. This is why he overstates his case in placing Hegel and philosophers like him on the sideline. Regardless of its accuracy, the goal of the polemic is to direct our attention to the problem or task of living. On that score I would say it succeeds, though the price for admission is too high. But now I wish to introduce a further complication. In Either/Or readers are presented with the following statement, delivered by A, which contrasts strongly with what Johannes says in Fear and Trembling:

Every individual, however original, is still a child of God, of his age, of his nation, of his family, of his friends. Only thus does he have his truth.[9]

At this point A is trying to draw a distinction between ancient and modern tragedy. Whereas in ancient Greek tragedy the hero’s downfall and suffering is not simply the outcome of his own action (i.e. fate is involved), in modern tragedy the hero is held completely responsible. In each case the hero’s truth depends on the socio-ethical backdrop in which he is set. A is suggesting that modern tragedy has lost the true sense of tragic by highlighting the hero’s responsibility. Its mood is therefore one of despair. To account for the changing relationship between the hero’s subjectivity and the backdrop in which he makes his ethical decision in this way is to take a rather Hegelian view of things—and A explicitly mentions Hegel a few times in the pages surrounding this quote. Thus Kierkegaard is clearly aware of something like the historically-based critique I’ve put forward. However, through his pseudonyms he resolutely pursues another line of approach, one rooted in an atomistic, aesthetic view of life.

In Fear and Trembling Johannes is right to say that the effort and act of development is something each person must realize afresh, and in that sense they start in the same place as previous generations. Each person’s efforts must be their own. No amount of abstract reflection on history will change that. Each knight of faith must take up the initiative to dance. However, in the spirit of A’s reflection on tragedy, when I learn to dance it must be said that I do not learn dancing-in-general. Nor do I learn any such thing as language-in-general. If I am a nineteenth-century Dane, I will learn how to dance by dancing specific dances belonging to my social and cultural coordinates. I will express my love through the Danish language, which is already there before me, the appropriation of my mother tongue being a constitutive element of the very creature that I am. Furthermore, languages have their grammar and syntax as well as their rhetoric. They are at once structural systems and a nexus of affective paradigms realized in their performance. Ultimately, this means that Johannes is wrong to argue that Abraham or any other person’s choice occurs without a horizon. A decision does not occur in spite of the constraints of history. Rather, the freedom realized in a choice, energized by effort, is a practical capability exercised in and through an already-constituted background of significance, a major constituent of which is language. If this way of putting it is right, then the task of living is not somehow beyond or above the field-of-forces that precede us, as if living was a series of interconnected existential leaps from nowhere to someplace. Instead, the task of living is an activity undertaken, accomplished, appropriated, and continually renewed in the historically-constituted here and now.

  1. Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, ed. Victor Eremita, trans. Alastair Hannay, Penguin, 1992 [1843], p. 127. []
  2. It must be said that Kierkegaard may not be all that committed to the historical accuracy of this story anyways. It could serve as a poignant example regardless of its strict veracity, as a story from any great work of literature might. []
  3. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling: Dialectical Lyric by Johannes de silentio, trans. Alastair Hannay, Penguin, 1985 [1843], p. 65. []
  4. Fear and Trembling, pp. 84-5. []
  5. For a good overview of the composition of the Pentateuch and the history of source criticism, with specific reference to the Abraham and Isaac story, see The Pentateuch: The Oxford Bible Commentary, eds., J. Muddiman and J. Barton, Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 16-52, with useful reference to Abraham and Isaac story at p. 29. []
  6. For how this claim fits with grasping the way the Pentateuch was formed, see: Muddiman and Barton, The Pentateuch, pp. 33-4. See also Bill T. Arnold, Genesis, Cambridge University Press, 2009, pp. 110-11, 117. Arnold also points out that the story serves to distinguish later Israel from its neighbours and their practice of child sacrifice: Genesis, p. 200. []
  7. Fear and Trembling, p. 62. []
  8. Fear and Trembling, p. 145. []
  9. Either/Or, p. 144. []
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