Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death | Søren Kierkegaard

The cover of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto DeathKierkegaard is the godfather of Existentialism. He relentlessly disposed of the elegant self-contained world of Hegel’s thesis→antithesis→synthesis and asserted that philosophy can only be done in fragments. Furthermore, because you can never stand outside any self-contained system of philosophy and view it as a whole, you need to throw yourself into it—commit yourself. In Christian terms, have faith.

This emphasis on commitment comes through in all of his writing. Take The Sickness Unto Death, for example. Kierkegaard spends a few pages dismantling the Socratic understanding of sin as ignorance. One big problem with this view is that:

It lacks a dialectical determinant for the transition from having understood something to the doing of it. (224)

If sin is ignorance, you can understand (the opposite of ignorance) the Socratic view of sin without doing anything about it. The true Christian view of sin, on the other hand, moves us past this inactivity:

The whole of Christianity hinges upon this, that it must be believed, not comprehended. (229)

And, of course, believing means committing. It’s this sort of commitment that forms the interpretive centre of Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death.

Fear and Trembling (1843)

The story of Abraham and Isaac is one of the most emotionally devastating passages in all of scripture. In Genesis 22, God told Abraham to take his promised Son, Isaac, and sacrifice him on Mount Moriah, a three day’s journey from home. Much ink has been spilled on this story, as James Goodman’s book, But Where is the Lamb attests. Yet no one has entered into the paradoxical nature of the story as deeply as Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard begins by imagining what that event must have been like. What went through Abraham’s mind on that three day journey to Mount Moriah? How did Isaac’s faith handle the ordeal? Kierkegaard imagines Abraham violently accosting Isaac saying, “Stupid boy, dost thou then suppose that I am thy father? I am an idolater. Dost thou suppose that this is God’s bidding? No, it is my desire” (27). Perhaps this, Kierkegaard reasons, may have rescued Isaac’s faith.

One of the challenges of reading Fear and Trembling is understanding Kierkegaard’s voice. He writes as Johannes de Silentio, a pseudonymous person who has passed through the aesthetic stage of life—that stage in which sensory experiences are the most important and has entered the ethical stage. In the ethical stage, the person acknowledges that there is a universal principle which at times overrules aesthetics. De Silentio has not, however, reached the religious stage which is only attained through faith. This makes the book that much more intriguing because the voice of de Silentio cannot comprehend Abraham’s action—this is something only a believer can grasp.

The believer embraces the paradox of Abraham’s choice. He believed two contradictory (from the ethical point of view) things:

  1. God gave him Isaac to fulfill his promise of future descendants.
  2. God asked him to sacrifice Isaac.

Abraham believed God “by virtue of the absurd.” He had faith despite the paradox:

What a tremendous paradox faith is, a paradox which is capable of transforming a murder into a holy act well-pleasing to God, a paradox which gives Isaac back to Abraham, which no thought can master, because faith begins precisely there where thinking leaves off. (64)

Kierkegaard doesn’t mean that faith is irrational. De Silentio has not made the existential leap which would allow him to grasp that act.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is difficult material to meditate on. It’s far easier to skip ahead to a gentler story. If you’re ready for your faith to be challenged by the weight of this story, Kierkegaard’s de Silentio is the best guide you’ll find.

The Sickness Unto Death (1849)

“This sickness is not unto death” (John 11:4), and yet Lazarus died. (144)

With these words Kierkegaard launches into an immensely insightful exploration of sin and human psychology. The book is divided into two parts:

  1. That despair is the sickness unto death
  2. Despair is sin

Kierkegaard’s study of despair is precise. He demonstrates how pervasive despair is and how it exhibits itself in various ways. On one side you have the despair of not willing to be oneself. On the alternate side there is defiant despair—the despair of being willing to be oneself. And despair is sin.

Here’s how Kierkegaard describes sin:

Sin is this: before God, or with the conception of God, to be in despair at not willing to be oneself, or in despair at willing to be oneself. Thus sin is potentiated weakness or potentiated defiance: sin is the potentiation of despair. (208)

Kierkegaard’s understanding of sin is wise. More than mere acts, sin is a state that a person is in. For as often as a person remains in that state, sin accrues to his or her account. Thus, despairing over your sin only adds to it. Despairing of forgiveness of sin—that which Christ offers— adds to sin. In the end, despairing of Christianity altogether is the ultimate sin which is “sin against the Holy Ghost” (255).

Reading Kierkegaard can be a challenge. It takes work to understand what he means by various words and to follow the subtlety of his logic. Kierkegaard, writing as Johannes de Silentio, suggested that there would come a day when people wouldn’t take the time to understand this sort of writing:

He can easily foresee his fate … in an age when an author who wants to have readers must take care to write in such a way that the book can easily be perused during the afternoon nap. (24)

Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death demand more than a casual read, but the rewards are proportionately great.

—Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death, Trans. Walter Lowrie (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1941).

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