Fear and Trembling centers on the biblical story of Abraham. Abraham, childless after 80 years, prays for a son. God grants his wish, and Abraham has Isaac. Thirty years later, God orders Abraham to kill his son. Abraham prepares to kill Isaac, but at the last second God spares Isaac and allows Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead. Fear and Trembling includes four different retellings of the story, each with a slightly different viewpoint. In the first version, Abraham decides to kill Isaac in accordance with God’s will. Abraham convinces Isaac that he’s doing it by his own will, not by God’s. This is a lie, but Abraham says to himself that he would rather have Isaac lose faith in his father than lose faith in God. In the second version, Abraham sacrifices a ram instead of Isaac. Even though God spares Isaac, Abraham’s faith is shaken because God asked him to kill Isaac in the first place. In the third version, Abraham decides not to kill Isaac and then prays to God to forgive him for having thought of sacrificing his son in the first place. In the fourth version, Abraham can’t go through with killing Isaac. Isaac begins to question his own faith due to Abraham’s refusal to do what God commanded.
In the rest of Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard examines his four retellings of the story of Abraham, focusing on the religious and the ethical. Kierkegaard claims that the killing of Isaac is ethically wrong but religiously right. Kierkegaard also uses his retelling of the Abraham story to distinguish between faith and resignation. Abraham could have been resigned to kill Isaac just because God told him to do so and because he knew that God was always right. However, Kierkegaard claims that Abraham did not act out of a resignation that God must always be obeyed but rather out of faith that God would not do something that was ethically wrong. Abraham knew that killing Isaac was ethically wrong, but he had faith that God would spare his son. Abraham decided to do something ethically wrong because having faith in God’s good will was religiously right. Kierkegaard claims that the tension between ethics and religion causes Abraham anxiety.
Kierkegaard argues that his retellings of the story of Abraham demonstrate the importance of a “teleological suspension of the ethical.” Teleological means “in regard to the end.” If you are hungry and you eat something with the goal of no longer being hungry, then you made a teleological decision: you acted, by eating, so as to achieve the end of no longer being hungry. Abraham performs a teleological suspension of the ethical when he decides to kill Isaac. Abraham knows that killing Isaac is unethical. However, Abraham decides to suspend the ethical—in other words, to put ethical concerns on the back burner—because he has faith in the righteousness of the end (or telos) that God will bring about. Abraham’s faith that God will not allow an unethical telos allows him to make what seems to be an unethical decision. Abraham puts religious concerns over ethical concerns, thus proving his faith in God.
Fear and Trembling details the relationship between the ethical and the religious in much the same way that Either/Or details the relationship between the aesthetic and ethical. In Either/Or, the aesthetic and the ethical are not entirely opposed. In Fear and Trembling, the ethical and the religious are not directly opposed either. However, the tension between ethics and religion produces anxiety. Abraham feels anxiety because it is his ethical duty to spare Isaac and his religious duty to sacrifice Isaac. Ethics are for the good of the many, and they transcend an individual’s personal aesthetic concerns, but Abraham recognizes that his personal relationship to God transcends his social commitment to ethics. If Abraham had desired to kill Isaac, this would have been both immoral and irreligious. However, Abraham doesn’t decide to kill Isaac for personal aesthetic reasons or for social ethical reasons. Abraham decides to kill Isaac because of Abraham’s personal faith that God will not actually allow Isaac to die.
Kierkegaard believes ethics are important to society but that only an individual can approach God, and an individual can only approach God through faith. Kierkegaard argues that Abraham’s faith in God was a faith that God wouldn’t really make Abraham kill Isaac. If Abraham had not had enough faith, he would have refused to kill his son. Abraham’s faith allowed a teleological suspension of the ethical. Kierkegaard uses this story to illustrate strong faith. Abraham’s faith was tested by God, and Abraham passed the test. In this way Kierkegaard attempts to draw a distinction between the blind obedience required by the church and the true faith of the individual. Kierkegaard would argue that if Abraham had only been willing to kill Isaac because God ordered him to do so, this would have demonstrated obedience, not faith. Instead, the Abraham of Kierkegaard’s retelling is willing to kill Isaac because of his faith that God won’t actually make him kill Isaac. This sounds like a paradox, or an inherently contradictory situation. However, the seeming paradox highlights the distinction between faith and belief. Abraham has faith that God won’t make him kill Isaac, but that doesn’t mean he believes it. To believe something is to be assured of it; to have faith requires the possibility that you will be proven wrong. If Abraham genuinely believed that God wouldn’t make him kill Isaac, the sacrifice would be no kind of test. However, Abraham cannot be fully assured that his son will be spared. He must have faith that Isaac will not die, even though he believes that he must kill him.
Kierkegaard illustrates one of the essential paradoxes, or seeming impossibilities, of ethics. An ethical system consists of rules that are established to promote the welfare of large groups of people. However, sometimes the rules actually harm people, and following a rule may help one person but harm ten. Ethical systems are created to achieve certain ends, but humans lack the ability to see into the future. Therefore, no one can be completely certain of how to reach these desired ends. Faith in God answers this uncertainty because it removes the burden of prediction. Faith involves the teleological suspension of the ethical, in which faith allows one to believe that an unethical action will actually result in a better end. Humans alone have no access to this kind of information, only God does. Therefore, humans must put their trust in God whenever doing so conflicts with society’s ethical systems. The decision to do this produces anxiety because a person can never know if he or she has passed the test until the test is complete. Kierkegaard thinks anxiety is a negative feeling, yet it can be taken as a positive sign that one is pursuing the correct relationship with God.
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