One of my very favorite books (oh my poor, dear parents) is Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Here’s a little taste (it’s an asterisked footnote he wrote in the work):
“In olden days people said, ‘What a shame things in the world don’t go in the way the priest preaches.’ But the time may be coming, not least with the help of philosophy, when we shall be able to say, ‘How fortunate that things in the world don’t go in the way the priest preaches, since at least there’s a little meaning to life, but none in his sermon.’”
Fear and Trembling is an impeccable carriage ride (it was published in 1843) through an elegant, logical landscape that challenges our understanding regarding the true lesson that is behind the story of Abraham and more specifically the part where God asks Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. (If you do not know this story here is a very very quick sketch: God tells Abraham that he is going to be the father of a religion. A lot of good and bad stuff happens. There is a pretty good sexy part with a teenage slave and a freakishly stunning sixty-something woman. God then tells Abraham that a lot of super awesome stuff is going to happen if he sacrifices his only “official son”. The other son came out of sexy part mentioned above. His wife was super old—now in her seventies—though still eerily foxy. Isaac was Abraham’s entire future. However, Abraham does a lot of lying—including to his son—and then raises his knife to plunge into his son’s heart. At just the very nick of time an angel comes down and grabs Abraham’s wrist. Then the angel says, “Sorry to put you through all of this, but it was just a test. You do not really have to kill your son.”) If a man today were to attempt to murder his son and when caught says that God had told him to kill his son as a test of faith, he would have been arrested and possibly considered insane. Yet, Abraham is considered Great and is celebrated for his reverent act of faith. So how is it that we manage to square this in our heads? It’s okay if Abraham did it but certainly Not okay if a father tried it today?
Kierkegaard points out that the Abraham sacrificing Isaac story is always presented in this formula: Isaac = most valuable possession, therefore Abraham was willing to give up his most valuable asset to God. And as long as we all see it that way then we can continue to see Abraham as Great—as the sort of Old Testament triumphant counterpoint to the loser young rich boy who asks Jesus how he can be saved and Jesus tells him to give away all of his wealth and follow him (and of course with head down the young rich boy walks away defeated as surely, he’s no Abraham; he’s not able to give away all of his wealth). Now I agree with the late, Rev. Gomes who preached that the poor rich boy story was not an indictment of wealth; rather it was a test of daring and commitment. However, if you go to the awful (brutal) truth of the matter Isaac was not simply a valuable asset. Isaac was a person, a boy, with friends, family, a mother, and a destiny of his own. We do not punish people who give their fortunes away to charity; but we do imprison (or worse) fathers who murder their sons (regardless of their motives). The difference is significant, and the fact that the whole messy murder part is unexamined and not really dealt with is significant.
It is clear as you read Fear and Trembling that Kierkegaard, through impeccable logic, is pointing out how most people in society are really faking their religion.
It’s a killer read. It will turn you into a terrible person for a month or so after you read it (or maybe ten or so years—but only if you were pretty bad to begin with). However, over time you will see that Kierkegaard had simply sharpened the focus on your perception lens. (Though again, it will at first seem to you and maybe everyone around you as though it was your tongue that received the sharpening.)
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”
Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.