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“Kierkegaard saved my faith,” he said.
Words spoken from the deep, dusky voice of my professor Dr. Robbins, or “DJ,” as many called him. His lecture had concerned the time of the Scientific Revolution, during which the church as a whole had begun to despair—in comparison to the Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and his concepts in theology and existentialism.
“The Scientific Revolution’s criticism of Christianity and the historicity of Jesus was taking the furniture in the ‘room’ of the church and moving it around, turning off the lights, and tearing down the walls,” DJ continued. “But Kierkegaard found a way to sit in that room.”
Enter my curiosity. My 21-year-old, deeply-rooted-church-girl turned sick-of-mandatory-university-chapels curiosity. My Humanities-discipled, over-analytical, clinically heavy-hearted curiosity. I decided I must pursue this Kierkegaard, this “saver-of-faith.”
The following semester, my last as an undergrad, I added a one-unit independent study on Kierkegaard to complete my Humanities minor. I studied his book Fear and Trembling, a Christian Classic that examines Abraham as a hallmark of faith, in view of the particularly upsetting (to Kierkegaard) story of the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22:1-19.
Faith is therefore no aesthetic emotion, but something far higher.
Instantly, Fear and Trembling draws the reader in with Kierkegaard’s imaginative narratives of Abraham’s experiences following the Lord’s request to sacrifice his only son Isaac. The narratives create a relatable and approachable trailhead for the ascent into the philosophical discussions that follow. Kierkegaard enthusiastically confronts the questions of ethics, faith, and God’s identity, mirroring his challenge for Christians to adopt bravery and boldness in wrestling with the difficulties of faith. I was filled with excitement and intrigue in my journey through his ideas and conclusions.
In those months, the study of Fear and Trembling became my worship song, during a time when I could barely lift my voice to sing. Sore from emotional whiplash, daily wrestling with yet another season of stress-triggered anxiety, drifting in the void of spiritual depression—the bundle of balloons that proclaimed “On fire for Christ!” had long since been cut from my wrist and floated away into the aether. The resentment I felt towards those who still carried them proudly was joined hand-in-hand to the general sense that something was wrong with me. As I clung to my intellect and the will of my mind, reading Kierkegaard’s words gave me hope: “Faith is therefore no aesthetic emotion, but something far higher…it is not the immediate inclination of the heart but the paradox of existence” (76).
Finally. I had finally encountered a fellow lover of wisdom and member of the Christian faith who told me that the authenticity of my faith doesn’t depend on how I feel before I go to bed at night, or how I feel during worship at church. That my choosing faith is what matters, as opposed to depending on whether or not I feel like I have faith.
As Kierkegaard continues to dive further along into his discussion of faith, he demonstrates the dialectic of the Christian faith: the process in which faith and knowledge cyclically build upon each other, with knowledge ultimately revealing more of the mystery and paradoxical nature of faith. For example, to deem Abraham’s actions that of “faith,” Kierkegaard reasons that Abraham must have fully recognized the intrinsic impossibility of receiving his son back after “resigning” him to death, and yet still believed that, in some way, Isaac would be received back (in accordance to the Lord’s promise in Genesis 15:1-6) (76). This is the truest sense of faith, Kierkegaard argues:
Resignation does not require faith, but it requires faith to get the slightest more than my eternal consciousness, for that [more] is the paradox…Through resignation I renounce everything, this movement is one I do by myself…Through faith I don’t renounce anything, on the contrary in faith I receive everything, exactly in the way it is said that one whose faith is like a mustard seed can move mountains…Through faith Abraham did not renounce his claim on Isaac, through his faith he received Isaac. That rich young man, by virtue of resignation, should have given everything away, but once he had done so the knight of faith would have to say to him: ‘On the strength of the absurd you shall get every penny back, believe that!’ (77-78)
Through faith I don’t renounce anything, on the contrary in faith I receive everything, exactly in the way it is said that one whose faith is like a mustard seed can move mountains.
Truly, this Way is the “greatest and most difficult of all,” and it is this very “strength of the absurd” that permeates every aspect of the Christian life—to pretend otherwise would be to demean the profoundness of faith (80). Even in my recent skimming back through Fear and Trembling to freshen up on its content, I found myself getting sucked into fully rereading prominent sections—sensing my eyebrows raising and mouth gaping at times in view of such insightful and even lovely writing. At one point, I simply couldn’t take it any more and rushed into the next room to unleash my theological fangirling on a friend. We ended up discussing spiritual issues at length—predominately our struggles to find balance between pursuing knowledge and faith.
Well played, Kierkegaard.
I don’t know if I could repeat DJ’s words for myself. I don’t know if I could say with certainty that Kierkegaard alone “saved my faith,” in view of the depression in my spiritual life—which has slowly, but surely, begun to lift. However, I know that during those months, Kierkegaard definitely became the counselor that I needed to encourage my “absurd” faith, and will continue to teach me for years to come.
“Faith is a marvel, and yet no human being is excluded from it; for that in which all human life is united is passion, and faith is a passion” (95). If you feel lost in trying to grasp the meaning of faith, or heavy-hearted beneath the weight of despair, or even just curious about the nuances and mystery of faith, Fear and Trembling is a book you will be glad you took the time to wrestle with.
Interested in reading Fear and Trembling? Check it out HERE!
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Image credit: wolf4max, Creative Commons