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Kierkegaard on Making Religion Radical Again

I recently finished reading Bruce H. Kirmmse’s new translation of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling (having previously read the Hong translation), and was struck by how extreme some of Kierkegaard’s claims are. If Kierkegaard was campaigning for president, one of his slogans might be: make religion radical again. Kierkegaard, in a subtle way, was interested in how religious faith can be at odds with religion as a social or ethical good.

This got me thinking about how writers such as Emile Durkheim, or contemporary authors like Joseph Heinrich, could be seen as anti-Kierkegaardian. Not only are they concerned with the utilitarian function of religion, they also take groups as their fundamental unit of analysis rather than the individual. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, sees religion as a fundamentally individual phenomenon that cannot be justified externally to others.

Fear and Trembling is primarily focused on the Abraham and Isaac story from Genesis, and how radical the story really is—it cannot be easily understood when looked at plainly. After waiting so long for a child, Abraham is ordered to sacrifice his son Isaac, which he is ready to do without complaint. As Kierkegaard says, it’s not the sort of story one would expect to hear about during an average Sunday sermon.

In Fear and Trembling, I think it’s possible to interpret Kierkegaard as putting forward an argument in favor of a threefold social order:

  • The vast number of people don’t understand how radical the Abraham and Isaac story is.
  • A much smaller group understand the story but do not desire to be enter into such a personal and painful relationship with god (Kierkegaard puts himself in this category).
  • It is a singular world-historic event to behave like Abraham (hence the story being canonized in the Bible).

Perhaps this division is a good thing, if everyone were like Abraham, the modern world would stop functioning as everyone began operating under untranslatable personal commandments from God. Should everyone attempt to at least understand the importance of Abraham, the sort of understanding that Fear and Trembling is trying to impart? Perhaps not, for most people should not sympathize with Abraham too much: norm enforcement is important, and antinomian behavior, like attempting to sacrifice your son, should not be tolerated. Kierkegaard could be understood as saying that it’s a good thing that most people just don’t understand the story.

At least on the surface, Kierkegaard is claiming that appreciating Abraham is not dangerous since we are recognizing his success after the fact. Due to God’s grace, Isaac is spared despite Abraham’s willingness to carry out God’s command. We can witness God’s intervention after the fact, which stops Abraham’s faith from being a horrific crime. Hence, the mystery is made slightly less socially destructive, by making it only defensible in hindsight. It becomes a descriptive story rather than a prescriptive one.

Kierkegaard writes (with italics added):

If I had conceded as true the judgment that Abraham was a murderer, I don’t know whether I could have silenced my veneration of him. But if I had thought that, I probably would have kept quiet about it, for one ought not initiate others into such thoughts… it is only by faith, not by murder, that one achieves likeness with Abraham… Everyone, of course, has passing emotions, but if, on that basis, everyone therefore wanted do the frightful thing that love has sanctified as an immortal achievement, than all would be lost, both the achievement and the individual who had gone astray. So it is certainly permissible to speak of Abraham, for what is great can never cause harm when it is understood in its greatness: it is like a two-edged sword that both kills and saves.

In other words, Kierkegaard believes that people can safely understand the story and move into the second category (of people who understand the importance of the story) as long as they understand how profound Abraham’s achievement was. Norm enforcement won’t be harmed, since the saving grace that transforms a cold-blooded murder into a holy act comes from God (not from someone turning his back on a crime). And the mystery of Abraham is still preserved: to try and be like Abraham is to leave all considerations of society and the group behind and enter the completely isolated realm of fear and trembling.

And yet despite Kierkegaard’s claim to the contrary, Fear and Trembling still feels a little dangerous. The ability for people to misunderstand such a story is very great, and history is littered with murderers who received messages from God. Even if readers did understand how difficult it is to be like Abraham, people regularly make attempts at greatness, whether to become a professional athlete or a Fortune 500 CEO. Furthermore, people also overestimate their own intelligence, abilities, and greatness perhaps believing that they’re already pretty close to Abraham’s faith. I think it’s obvious that people are likely to read Fear and Trembling and be inspired—Kierkegard is just trying to minimize the dangerous purpose of the book: to show how profoundly radical, yet amazing, religion really is. People can’t help but take that message seriously, and try to do similarly. I think whether Kierkegaard recognizes it or not, and perhaps only marginally, he is making religion dangerous again.