“Faith” In Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Part III

Here is part III of a four part series on Soren Kierkegaard’s understanding of “faith”.


There once was two small boys. The boys were at the age where they were allowed to go and play in the fields surrounding their houses all alone, although not old enough to understand entirely what responsibility such freedom required. One day the two boys were sent outside to play, and being friends they sought each other out in order to enjoy each others company and play together. Not long after they found themselves some distance from their houses in a part of the field neither had ever been before. Seeking to wade in a small river they discovered they both became horribly caught in quick sand. Their cries soon reached the attention of one of the boy’s mother. She came running to the side of the river and standing on the bank took in the scene. Calling out to her child and his friend she told them sternly not to struggle against the quick sand, but rather to stand still and not fight it. Of course adults know that this will considerably slow down the sinking process, but the small children knew nothing of the sort. Now each boy reacted considerably different. The child whose mother stood on the bank of the river stopped as soon as he heard his mother and stood still. However the other child, who did not know who this woman was, ignored her and continued to struggle with all his might. He even began to cry to his comrade not to listen but to continue to struggle. The very concept of giving up resistance and holding still was so contrary to his instincts that the only explanation he could imagine for his friend’s actions was that his friend had simply gone mad. But what had really happened? His friend had displayed faith. To the child standing by, ignorant of who this woman was, his friend’s faith undoubtedly seemed like an irrational leap into the absurd. And perhaps if his friend was rescued and the boy never learned the identity of the woman he might live on and become convinced that an irrational leap of faith saved his friend’s life. But the one boy’s faith could not be anything farther from some unintelligible act. Simply and only because the boy knew the woman. It was his mother, she wished him no harm. He had spent years in her care. She had time and time again proved herself worthy of his trust. So his faith was not irrational or absurd, even though neither child understood. Rather his faith was an action and a belief based on trusting of good authority, and in this particular event, there was nothing more rational or reasonable that he could have done.

Granted there are obvious differences in my analogy and the actual Abraham story. It is crafted as such to prompt one to think about the nature of faith. Although faith does not at times seem reasonable, it might be. Notice I am not saying that faith is simply trust. Faith is a belief, and action, based on a reasonable authority. Reasonable authority will not mean the same thing to everyone, what seems trustworthy to one will not seem trustworthy to another. But nonetheless so long as faith is based on this reasonability, true dialogue is possible. The “knight of faith”, to borrow Johannes’ words, need no longer be unintelligible. Not only this, but those who express faith are no long free to have faith in anything they’d like. Now they must at the very least offer a defense for how the authority they are acting upon is trustworthy. My definition of faith has now been articulated and a defense of why the reader ought to accept it has been provided. It now arises to compare this definition to Johannes’ and highlight crucial differences. This entire conversation takes place against the backdrop of Scripture because after all that is where one finds the story of Abraham. What this means though is that whatever definition  of faith either myself or Johannes arrives at, our definition must hold consistent with the story of Abraham as well as the larger narrative of Scripture. Both Johannes and myself subject ourselves to this standard when we take up the task of interpreting the story of Abraham, the father of faith. My attention shall turn to Scripture after I have highlighted important differences between Johannes’ definition of faith and my own.

At this point in the paper, the differences should actually be quite clear. For Johannes, faith is performing an unintelligible action for the sake of G-d. It cannot be understood or justified to anyone else because it places the individual above the universal which is the ethical. My own definition of faith states that faith is an action performed on the basis of trustworthy authorities. Although it may at times be unintelligible to spectators it need not always be so. Because faith is at its core based on a reasonable trust, it could be explained and if not explained at least defended as reasonable and explainable. Now let us turn to Scripture and see why I believe my definition better fits the biblical narrative than Johannes’ definition.


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