Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard – An Exploration of Faith

Published Categorised as Philosophy
A head-and-shoulders portrait sketch of a young man in his twenties that emphasizes his face, full hair, open and forward-looking eyes and a hint of a smile. He wears a formal necktie and lapel.

Søren Kierkegaard was a Danish Philosopher poet and theologian. Widely considered the Father of Existentialism he explores the reason and fundamental meaning behind human existence and free will. Being a Christian himself he explores how meaning in life is found through faith in God.

How and why does a person take a “leap of faith” to believe in something that rationality cannot fully explain? How does a decision to embrace this absurdity generate ethical behaviour and meaning in a person’s life? And how might we explain the not-so-ethical behaviour purported to by the same believers or anyone for that matter? These concepts are paradoxical and puzzling, and Kierkegaard does a fantastic job of explaining such phenomena.

Named after the passage in Philippians 2:12: Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. Kierkegaard’s famous work Fear and Trembling is an exploration of the human experience of having faith.

Who should read this book: Anyone interested in the advocation of faith as an answer to existential questions. Those looking to understand why something absurd and irrational such as faith can become the cornerstone of billions of people’s lives.

A distillation of the book:

The components of faith cannot be broken down and examined under a microscope. Like a scientist describing love or suffering. The lived experience itself is very different to the definition in a textbook. Only once an individual takes a leap of faith can they hope to understand what the experience of faith is like. Just like the experience of love has certain qualities to it (slowness, passion, excitement, softness) so does one’s faith, there is a movement, flow or quality to the experience.

I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but rather, I believe in order that I may understand.
Anselm of Canterbury

As one suspends pure reason in favour of personal experience they can find themselves in relationship with God.

“If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe. If I wish to preserve myself in faith I must constantly be intent upon holding fast the objective uncertainty so as to remain out upon the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water, still preserving my faith.” – Søren Kierkegaard

In this place, one inhabits paradoxes that cannot be fully explained to others, their actions may even appear sinful, unable to be mediated in the court of public opinion. When a person “suspends the ethical” to follow what God calls them to do, they are at risk that they are putting their faith in the wrong thing. However a relationship with God is a personal individual experience, and only God can judge in the end. In this way, each individual must work out [their] salvation with fear and trembling.

Book Summary Notes:

Eulogy on Abraham

The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1602 by Caravaggio
The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1602 by Caravaggio

The book is structured around the story in Genesis 22 where Abraham is called by God to sacrifice his only son Isaac.

“Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

After taking his son to Mount Moriah a miraculous intervention occurs to save Issac’s life.

He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son..

The story ends with a promise to reward Abrahams faithfulness

because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

With this story as the basis, Kierkegaard attempts to answer three questions relating to faith and morality.

  • Problema 1: Is there a Teleological Suspension of the Ethical?
  • Problema 2: Is there an Absolute Duty to God?
  • Problema 3: Was it Ethically Defensible for Abraham to Conceal His Undertaking from Sarah, From Eliezer, and from Isaac?

Below I will summarise my key insights from each chapter:

Problema Preamble:

In the introductory Preamble, Kierkegaard explores what faith is to begin with.

For Kierkegaard, an individual comes to faith by making two “movements” of their whole being. To make a movement is to believe and accept the tenants associated with that movement completely with your being. Such movements take faith as they cannot be reduced to rationality nor explained fully with words. They are instead experienced. These movements exist in a paradoxical relationship with one another. One movement requires complete acceptance of all that exists beyond our reality (the infinite) the second involves moving through the infinite to reaccept temporal reality as it presents itself (the finite) and all that it has to offer, completely. One that performs this “double movement” is considered to have true faith.

Step 1. Movement of Infinitude:

An individual moves in this direction when they completely accept what is not of this reality as the most important and real. That only God and his infinite goodness are what matters. In this way, they resign themselves to forgo worldly things in pursuit of what lies greater beyond.

A person who makes such a movement resigns themselves to following their beliefs in God above all else.

Kierkegaard calls this person. The Knight of Infinite Resignation.

If Abraham stopped at this point of his faith journey, he may have still gone on to sacrifice Isaac but in his resignation lost the joy and happiness found in his son.

Step 2. Movement of Finitude:

After making The Movement of Infinitude an individual can make a second Movement of Finitude. They push through their acceptance of the infinite and paradoxically reaccept reality completely. They live their life in tension, suspended between these two paradoxical movements.

They hold duel acceptances in their heart. That everything could be taken away at any point but that everything is worth investing in nonetheless.

This person becomes The Knight of Faith.

Abraham, making both of these movements, lived out a paradox. Both accepting the fate of his son and equally accepting that God may or may not intervene. It did not matter as whatever the outcome Abraham would have remained suspended, held aloft, by his faith.

The Princess and the Knights

The irrational paradoxical nature of this second movement it is not easily understood. Kierkegaard compares it to a man who has fallen completely in love with a princess, his love though, is unrequited.

A young lad falls in love with a princess, the content of his whole life lies in this love, and yet the relationship is one that cannot possibly be brought to fruition, be translated from ideality into reality...

Having thus imbibed all the love and absorbed himself in it, he does not lack the courage to attempt and risk everything. He reflects over his life’s circumstances, he summons the swift thoughts that like trained doves obey his every signal, he waves his rod over them, and they rush off in all directions. But now when they all return as messengers of sorrow and explain to him that it is an impossibility, he becomes quiet, he dismisses them, he remains alone, and he performs the movement. If what I say here has any meaning the movement must take place properly. For the knight will then, in the first place, have the strength to concentrate the whole of his life’s content and the meaning of reality in a single wish...

His love is so true and pure that whether it is returned or not it remains steadfast. The Knight of Infinite Resignation may accept that his love is not returned and in his duty to that love pursue her solemnly.

So the knight will remember everything; but the memory is precisely the pain, and yet in his infinite resignation he is reconciled with existence. His love for the princess would take on for him the expression of an eternal love, would acquire a religious character, be transfigured into a love for the eternal being which, although it denied fulfilment, still reconciled him once more in the eternal consciousness of his love’s validity in an eternal form that no reality can take from him...

He keeps this love young, and it grows with him in years and beauty. On the other hand, he needs no finite occasion for its growth. From the moment he made the movement the princess is lost.

The Knight of Infinite Resignation is so committed to this movement that the princesses behaviour does not matter anymore. If it does, it shows he had never made the movement completely.

There was a person who also believed he had made the movement, but time went by, the princess did something else, she married, say, a prince, and his soul lost the resilience of resignation. He knew then that he had not made the movement correctly; for one who has infinitely resigned is enough unto himself.

Similarly for the Knight of Infinite Resignation, for a Knight of Faith, the return of the princess’s love matters not. However, he makes a second movement in which he steps into a paradoxical love that is not limited to the confines of the infinite nor of reality.

Let us now have the knight of faith make his appearance in the case discussed. He does exactly the same as the other knight, he infinitely renounces the claim to the love which is the content of his life; he is reconciled in pain; but then comes the marvel, he makes one more movement, more wonderful than anything else, for he says: ‘I nevertheless believe that I shall get her, namely on the strength of the absurd, on the strength of the fact that for God all things are possible.’

Through faith I don’t renounce anything, on the contrary in faith I receive everything, exactly in the way it is said what one whose faith is like a mustard seed can move mountains. It takes a purely human courage to renounce the whole of temporality in order to win eternity, but I do indeed win it and cannot in all eternity renounce that, for that would be a self-contradiction; but it takes a paradoxical and humble courage then to grasp the whole of temporality on the strength of the absurd, and that courage is the courage of faith. Through faith, Abraham did not renounce his claim on Isaac, through his faith he received Isaac...

– thus to live joyfully and happily in this way every moment on the strength of the absurd, every moment to see the sword hanging over the loved one’s head and yet find, not repose in the pain of resignation, but joy on the strength of the absurd – that is wonderful.

Faith cannot be grasped objectively with reason. True faith is an absurd experience yet in such absurdity an individual can gain an ability to transcend their circumstances in unique ways never open to them before.

Now that we have explored the complexity around the experience of faith we can now explore some of the tough questions which are inevitably associated with making such movements.

Problema 1: Is there a Teleological Suspension of the Ethical?

Hegel’s moral universalism suggests there are concrete ethical laws which can be counted as right or wrong, good or evil, lawful or unlawful, which transcend the subjective opinion. Under this thinking, your goal (or telos) is to live within this universal ethic not place yourself above it. Kierkegaard writes “As soon as the single individual wants to assert himself in his particularity, in direct opposition to the universal, he sins, and only by recognizing this can he again reconcile himself with the universal.

Kierkegaard disagrees with Hegel though. The first clear (and more easily understood) example of the benefit of suspending the universal ethic, is in service of a higher expression of this exact universal. He calls this person the tragic hero. These are people who you can look back on their story and the outcome their behaviour served and see that it was in fact the right thing to do. Many movies represent a tragic hero, one who sacrifices it all to bring order and peace back to the kingdom.

Kierkegaard believes that it is not the whole picture and that Abraham stands as an example of someone who doesn’t fit within the category of the tragic hero.

The difference between the tragic hero and Abraham is obvious enough. The tragic hero stays within the ethical.

Whereas the tragic hero could potentially explain to another person why their action is in fact within the ethical, their actions could, for example, be mediated by the court of public opinion. The Knight of Faith cannot make such a claim. Their actions are born out of an absolute duty to God Himself and as Kierkegaard puts it “cannot be mediated”. Abraham is an example of such a person, who Christians regard as heroes of the faith, whose actions cannot be explained or mediated by typical ethical frameworks. Another such example is Mary Mother of Jesus, who in her pregnancy before marriage could have come under ridicule from those around her:

No doubt Mary bore the child miraculously, but it went with Mary ‘after the manner of women’, and such a time is one of fear, distress, and paradox. No doubt the angel was a ministering spirit, but he was not an obliging one who went round to all the other young girls in Israel and said: ‘Do not despise Mary, something out of the ordinary is happening to her.’ The angel came only to Mary, and no one could understand her… it should not be difficult to explain why she became the mother of God. She needs no worldly admiration, as little as Abraham needs our tears, for she was no heroine and he no hero, but both of them became greater than that, not by any means by being relieved of the distress, the agony, and the paradox, but because of these.

Problema 2: Is there an Absolute Duty to God?

In this chapter, Kierkegaard describes what I would call a sort of “hierarchy of duty” and why such a delineation in one’s duties is important to grasp what it means to live by faith.

He starts by making a statement many Christians would agree with, “The ethical is the universal and as such, in turn, the divine. It is therefore correct to say that all duty is ultimately duty to God;”

This sort of blurred line between God and Goodness and Rightness comes up in the Bible for example when Jesus compares caring for the needy as equivalent to serving God. “‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” – Matthew 25:40

As God and the universal ethic are described often as being one in the same, people can confuse their absolute duty to God with an absolute duty to the universal ethic. But if one falls into this trap they are in fact not living by faith. As they have, to put it one way, put the ethical cart before the divine horse. In doing this one places duty to the ethical as primary above duty to God. In such a hierarchy the ethical is “at once the limit and completion”. One may as well say “I have no duty to God”.

This might seem trivial but this distinction is important for Kierkegaard as “The absolute duty [to God] can then lead to what ethics would forbid” but not vice versa.


The importance of this hierarchy is strongly captured in Luke 14:26 If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

Kierkegaard acknowledges the risks associated with speaking of faith in such ways. That individuals in its pursuit can become lost, thinking they are becoming Knights.

“One as a rule refrains from citing texts like the one in Luke. There is a fear of letting people loose, a fear that the worst will happen once the individual enjoys carrying on like an individual. Moreover living as the individual is thought to be the easiest thing of all, and it is the universal that people must be coerced into becoming. I can share neither this fear nor this opinion, and for the same reason. No person who has learned that to exist as the individual is the most terrifying thing of all will be afraid of saying it is the greatest. But then he mustn’t say it in a way that makes his words a pitfall for somebody on the loose, but rather in a way that helps the person into the universal, even though his words can make some small allowance for greatness.”


There are some ways to tell if one is one of these “false knights”. That those who know “how to speak with fear and trembling” are not in their number.

Let us then consider more closely the distress and fear in the paradox of faith. The tragic hero renounces himself in order to express the universal; the knight of faith renounces the universal in order to be the particular. As mentioned, it all depends on how one is placed. Someone who believes it is a simple enough matter to be the individual can always be certain that he is not the knight of faith; for stragglers and vagrant geniuses are not men of faith. Faith’s knight knows on the contrary that it is glorious to belong to the universal. He knows it is beautiful and benign to be the particular who translates himself into the universal, the one who so to speak makes a clear and elegant edition of himself, as immaculate as possible, and readable for all; he knows it is refreshing to become intelligible to oneself in the universal, so that he understands the universal and everyone who understands him understands the universal through him in turn, and both rejoice in the security of the universal.”


Abraham would have loved to have been in the security of the universal. To be “understood by every noble mind”, but he was not called to such things. He was called to his individual path with God separate from the universal. We can only hope to understand “the wonderful glory achieved by that knight in becoming God’s confidant, the Lord’s friend, and – to speak really humanly – in addressing God in heaven as ‘Thou’, while even the tragic hero only addresses him in the third person.”

Problema 3: Was it Ethically Defensible of Abraham to Conceal his Purpose from Sarah, from Eleazar, from Isaac?

In this chapter, Kierkegaard refers to concepts he wrote about in Either/Or. In this book, he discusses spheres of life: The aesthetic sphere, hedonistic and seeking of pleasures for the senses and the ethical sphere, concerned with social responsibility and morality. Stories and myths contain motifs that reflect these spheres of life.

In an aesthetic story such as a comedy, the characters do not need to act morally often concealing truths from one another. But in such stories, things change at the last minute to resolve this tension by luck or chance. “at the mere sound of the word ‘concealment’ everyone can easily shake a dozen romances and comedies from his sleeve.

Ethical myths on the other hand punish concealment. When someone hides the truth they must disclose or uncover it to bring resolution to the story. Or as Kierkegaard puts it “Thus aesthetics called for concealment and rewarded it. Ethics called for disclosure and punished concealment.”

These examples are nothing like the concealment we see from Abraham the Knight of Faith. For Abrahams concealment comes neither from the aesthetic nor the ethical, but from faith, the third, religious sphere of life. The paradox of faith in which one is suspended above the ethical. He lives as an individual in relation to the absolute, to the divine. In acting as an individual one risks that they are living in sin but that is a risk they take to follow God’s Will.

Whilst God will not always require of us what he required of Abraham if it does occur there is no explaining one can do, no disclosure that will make it better. This is the burden one bears as the individual as they relate to the divine.

The ethical is as such the universal; as the universal it is in turn the disclosed. Seen as an immediate, no more than sensate and psychic being, the individual is concealed. So his ethical task is to unwrap himself from this concealment and become disclosed in the universal. Thus whenever he wants to remain in concealment, he sins and is in a state of temptation, from which he can emerge only by disclosing himself... If, however, there is such a concealment, then we face the paradox, which cannot be mediated, just because it is based on the single individual’s being, in his particularity, higher than the universal, and it is precisely the universal that is the mediation.

Abraham demonstrated that he had made both the movements of faith (finitude and infinitude) in his response to Isaac as they made their way up the mountain when asked “where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

a last word of Abraham’s has been preserved, and so far as I can understand the paradox I can also understand Abraham’s total presence in that word... Now if Abraham had replied, ‘I know nothing’, he would have uttered an untruth. He cannot say anything, since what he knows he cannot say. So he replies, ‘My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering.’ Here one sees the double movement in Abraham’s soul, as it has been described in the foregoing. Had Abraham simply renounced his claim to Isaac and done no more, he would have uttered an untruth. He knows that God demands the sacrifice of Isaac, and he knows that precisely at this moment he himself is ready to sacrifice him. So, after having made this movement Abraham has at every instant been performing the next, making the movement on the strength of the absurd. To that extent he utters no untruth, for on the strength of the absurd it is after all possible that God might do something quite different.”

Epilogue

Kierkegaard ends this book by describing the nature of faith as a personal exploration that never ends. A journey that one must inhabit and experience for themselves.

“However much one generation learns from another, it can never learn from its predecessor the genuinely human factor. In this respect every generation begins afresh, has no task other than that of any previous generation, and comes no further, provided the latter hasn’t shirked its task and deceived itself… That task is always enough for a human lifetime.”

After all, it is a relationship with God Himself…

Just as the lover would be indignant if someone said he had come to a standstill in his love, for he would reply, ‘I’m by no means standing still in my love, for I have my life in it.’
Søren Kierkegaard

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