Destroying Strongholds Essay:
Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling
By Todd Lewis

The goal of this paper will be to compare and contrast Dr. Ronald M. Green's observations of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling from "Developing" Fear and Trembling from the Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard, and Dr. Evans' view of the same work in his Faith as the Telos of Morality: A Reading of Fear and Trembling from Kierkegaard on Faith and the Self. I will evaluate their inferences from Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling and see how they differ, or how they are alike and see if either one is better, or if there is a better third position to the text which combines portions of both.

Dr. Green's essay "Developing" Fear and Trembling is divided into five parts: 1) The Call to Christian Commitment, 2) The Psychology of Faith, 3) The Normative Shape of Christian existence, 4) Sin and Forgiveness, and 5) Toward a Transparent Text.

The stated goal of Dr. Green in this essay is to look at Fear and Trembling through the conceptual eye of photography. He sees Kierkegaard's message of the text as facts that one is unable to directly communicate the richness and depth of ethical and philosophical truths. The author must communicate these truths via artistic activity forcing the reader to engage the text and peal away the layers of meaning. Green likens this attempt to cinema. With a cinematic film there is more than just the moving colors and images on the screen, analogous to the text of Fear and Trembling, with deeper meanings of, depending on the director, love, fear, tragedy and hope. Green attempts to peal away the surface layers of Fear and Trembling and sees the deeper truths in it. He wants to make the text transparent so that one can, at a glance, see all the meaning Kierkegaard intended in all its richness and subtlety.

In Part 1, Green claims that Kierkegaard is worried about the decline of Christian piety by Hegelian-Bourgeoisie society. Kierkegaard fears that as Christianity triumphed over and tamed civilization it lost its primitive purity. When the stories of the saints are told we tend to water them down because we already know the ending, but Abraham did not know that he would receive Isaac back, and Mary did not know she would survive the scandal of a virgin birth. By trivializing the difficult decisions of the saints we end up trivializing the faith. While we should not seek to completely relive the events, since this would be impossible, we already know how they end, we should at least take seriously the struggles they went through.

To counteract this danger Kierkegaard shows us the example of Abraham, the "Knight of Faith", who with humility confronts the terror of the act of relating to the absolute (i.e. God). Abraham shows us that Christianity is marked by faith and trust in God, because with his childlike faith he left his home in Ur to go to the Promised Land and proceeded to sacrifice Isaac; the latter is the focus of Fear and Trembling.

As Jerry Gil points out, to present a "dialectical corrective," Kierkegaard offers the story of Abraham as a reduction ad absurdum of all traditions that see faith as involving mental assent.1

Kierkegaard is specifically writing against Hegel whose philosophy treats faith as nothing but a historical event that can be observed and moved beyond. Kierkegaard believes that one cannot move beyond faith because there is nothing beyond it. Hegel has a deficient view of faith and this view of faith has contaminated the churches and Christianity of Kierkegaard's day.

In Part 2, Green discusses the "double movement" of faith, in understanding the psychology of faith. When a person is called to have faith in God he is forced to give up everything, yet he also needs to believe he can receive it all back. Abraham believed that he had to give up Isaac, but he also believed that God would return Isaac to him. Now Abraham could not have believed that he could have kept Isaac and only pretended to that he would get him back or visa-versa. No he must really believe in both simultaneously, which is a paradox of the faith. This is a work of the "Knight of Faith". The Knight of Faith unlike the Tragic Hero cannot rest securely in his deeds knowing that he fulfilled his duty to the ethical, since the demands of faith transcend the ethical. One who obeys them cannot find safety, but must hold the paradox of the teleological suspension of the ethical in tension with the ethical itself.

In Part 3, Green discusses Kierkegaard's view of normative Christian life.

For Kierkegaard the duty to the ethical is overcome by the teleological suspension of the ethical and the absolute duty to God. The former has already been shown above and the latter is made manifest in Christ's commandment to hate one's one family if one is to follow him.

Green then covers Kierkegaard's tension with the ethical. Abraham cannot be understood in an ethical way, as his deeds were not the deeds of an ethical person; he is not a tragic hero. The tragic heroes such as Agamemnon, Japtheh and Brutus all slew their children, but for the higher good of the state or God. They denied their short-term pleasure, their children, for their long-term duties to the good. Abraham did not do this; he did not attempt to sacrifice Isaac because he was told it would prevent a calamity, but because it was a test from God to see how faithful he was. Abraham's actions cannot be comprehended or imitated if one only has the ethical perspective in mind, since his act either transcends the ethical making him a man of God, or goes below the ethical making him a devil.

In Part 4, Green sees three interpretations of the effort to remove this tension: 1) the Duncan's Kantian interpretation, 2) the Outka-ethical philistinism interpretation and 3) the revolt against Hegelian Sittlichkeit interpretation.

The Duncan view is that Kierkegaard is revolting against the rigidity of the Kantian ethical method, which prevented one from telling a lie to serve some greater good (i.e. protecting an innocent from a murderer). Duncan believes Kierkegaard rejected such Kantian inflexibity and created a religious sphere to allow for these contingencies which the Kantian view did not allow. Green sees two problems with this view: 1) the claim that Kantian absolutism is the reason for the "teleological suspension of disbelief" is not warranted, the counterpart to the knight of faith, as the tragic hero does not hold to a rigid inflexible Kantian ethic, and 2) it ignores the fact that Kierkegaard states over and over again that when Abraham stepped into the religious he left entirely the realm of the ethical. In either case the claim that Kierkegaard is attempting to confront a rigid Kantian absolutism falls flat.

In the second view, according to Outka, Abraham is seen as an individual who challenges social norms by accepting an ethic different than society at large and this causes offense to the people of his age. This view on the surface seems to jive with Kierkegaard's view of being out of step with society, but it fails to do justice to the notion that Abraham's act is beyond the ethical, not another form of it.

The third view is that Kierkegaard is seen as challenging Hegelian Sittlichkeit. For Hegel the ethical holds the individual subordinate to the demands of the universal. The ethical life is made manifest in the social norms of the state, family and civility and must be obeyed. This interpretation does seem to fit with Kierkegaard's view that the social ethic of Hegel must be challenged and that Abraham, by transcending the ethical, is an example of such a challenge. If this third view is correct, it can take one of two forms that can alleviate the problem of Johannes de Silentio in that he both praises and condemns Abraham: 1) Abraham is an ethical challenge to the Hegelian subordination of the individual to the universal. The primary reason some people hold this view is that it is seen as a protest to Hegel's suppression of the individual which they see as leading to totalitarianism, i.e. Marxism, by appealing to the individual. The problem with this view is that of so many others, Green asserts, since it treats Abraham as offering another ethic, but he has transcended the ethical; 2) the other view states that Abraham is an individual seeking to define himself contrary to society. He is defining himself as an individual rather than a father. While this view does coincide with Kierkegaard's criticism of Hegelian ethics, it does not account for the fact that Abraham was chosen as the Christian example with its clear moral implications.

It seems that if Fear and Trembling is to be read as an ethical treatise, his choice of Abraham and the clearly unsettling message of a father prepared to sacrifice his son, would naturally make us balk and seems to be overkill. That might have been Kierkegaard's intent, but there might a deeper truth lying beneath the seemingly outwardly revolting message. Green believes that if one can find this meaning then that perhaps explain why Johannes de Silentio praises Abraham even though Johannes de Silentio claims not to be a Christian. The problem arises because Johannes de Silentio claims that one cannot praise Abraham from the position of the ethical, because from that position the act is atrocious and condemnable, but Johannes de Silentio himself is still operating in the ethical.

To unravel this conundrum, Green believes that you have to consider three things: 1) the Christian understanding of Abraham, 2) the context of Abraham in Fear and Trembling, and 3) Kierkegaard's life.

First, Green says that from earliest times the Christian tradition saw Abraham as a model of faith. His attempted sacrifice of Isaac was seen as a pre-figuration of God the Father sacrificing Christ. Abraham and Job, the focus of Repetition, both were faultless before God, both lost everything and both got it back. These two thus show us how the Christian responds to loss.

Secondly, we see the tension between sin and grace. With the example of Merman we see an individual who has left the ethical by going below it and seducing a young woman. Like Abraham he has left the ethical, not by transcending it, but by violating it. Both are mirror images; both have left the ethical, but Merman in sin and Abraham in faith. When one leaves the ethical one can only be reconciled back to it via the religious. This is the same for Abraham and Merman. While the Merman fell by sin, Abraham was raised by grace, but both can only be saved by grace.

Third, we can read Kierkegaard's work as a secret message intended for Regina explaining his breaking off the engagement with her, because he had to obey God's will. This reading does fit nicely with the notion that Kierkegaard is reacting against Hegelian Sittlchkeit. Within the book there are numerous references to secret messages, i.e Tarquin Superbus' secret message to his son in Veii. Kierkegaard is then seen as both father and victim, both Abraham and Isaac. He gave Regina up to prevent her from suffering under his families melancholy. Yet Fear and Trembling should not be seen as all negative for there is redemption at the end of the line, for God can suspend the ethical and redeem the lost.

Lastly in Part 5, Green ties all this together. He believes that fullest reading of Fear and Trembling reads it as a "transparent image" which must be unraveled from the text. As each new level of meaning is discerned it builds upon and complements the last until that image is drawn out.

Commitment to the Christian faith is paramount, no watered-down bourgeoisie life can suffice. The Knight of Faith shows us the internal struggle and spiritual challenges that await such an authentic Christian life. Christians must obey God even if that means disobeying family, the state or society.

Sin and grace dominate the latter half of the book. Here Kierkegaard calls for greater commitment to God and the Christian life. He wants to transcend the skin deep view of morality that comes from the Hegelian ethic. Kierkegaard emphasizes the radical call that Christianity makes on us in the "teleological suspension of the ethic", i.e. Christ's difficult commands to reject family and society for him, if need be. Yet it is only a suspension not a rejection or annulment of the ethical. Grace is seen as seeking the moral restoration of the individual.

Green concludes by tying Kierkegaard and Abraham with Luther and Paul in that they share the belief in God's transcendence over the moral law.

Now that we have considered Green we shall move on to Dr. Evan's view of Fear and Trembling.

Dr. Evans sees Kierkegaard as being unnecessarily misunderstood by the confusion that Fear and Trembling has generated. Some see Kierkegaard as a moral nihilist or as an irrationalist. While Evans disagrees with both interpretations, in this essay he seeks to combat the latter. He seeks to show that Kierkegaard's and his pseudonym Johannes de Silentio's view are not irrational. Evans states that some might not think it necessary to defend Kierkegaard since: 1) Kierkegaard did not care how people viewed him and 2) since Johannes de Silentio states that the point of the book is to make Christianity more difficult and more paradoxical not less. Evans replies to this by saying that: 1) he wants to do Kierkegaard justice by trying to understand his reasoning not just bandying about the notion that his views are in the category of the absurd and therefore unintelligible, and 2) if read straightforwardly Fear and Trembling might, and often does, confuse the reader who exercises insufficient care. The motto of the book is: "What Tarquinius Superbus said in the garden by means of the poppies, the son understood but the messenger did not" indicates the secret message underling the text.

One problem Evans sees is that if read in isolation Fear and Trembling would be an unfathomable read, yet if taken in context with all that Kierkegaard wrote it becomes more intelligible. For instance the religious does not abandon the ethical, indeed it subsumes the ethical as it moves beyond it. The ethical is subsumed in the religious. The view that the commands of God are arbitrary and beyond understanding do not jive with the other statements in Kierkegaard's works, a good reason to not read Fear and Trembling in this manner. Kierkegaard believes that to love your neighbor is to love God as is said in scriptures, so he is not teaching anything different than Christ. Evans uses quotes from Works of Love, and Practice in Christianity to make this point.

One problem might be that if the evidence Evans has provided is true it means at least one of three things: 1) either Kierkegaard did believe that the ethical and the religious are in contradiction and later changed his mind, (the two above-mentioned works came after Fear and Trembling), 2) there is in fact no contradiction and it exists only in the mind of the reader, or 3) that since Johannes de Silentio is writing from the position of a non-Christian not all of his views are representative of Kierkegaard's own. Evans seems to think that there is no major contradiction between the ethical and the religious and between Johannes de Silentio and Kierkegaard for that matter.

Yet Evans realizes that there still is a tension between the ethical and the religious, because, according to Johannes de Silentio, if Abraham's attempted human sacrifice is considered from the ethical position, it is criminal and even evil, but if considered from the religious it is praiseworthy and the foundation of Judaism and Christianity. Some examples of the tension of the ethical and the religious are : 1) the ethical is universal and faith individual, 2) the ethical is within the bounds of human reason, while the religious is beyond the realm of the ethical in paradox, 3) the ethical sees duty to God, but in a general and unspecific way, while the religious sees duty to God in a specific and revelatory way, and 4) the ethical, because it is universal, is able to be shared with others, the religious because it is individual is unable to be shared with others. While these readings may seem to lead the unwary reader to believe there is a contradiction between the ethical and the religious, Evans thinks it does not.

The real problem between the ethical and the religious is not that they are necessarily in conflict, but only if the ethical is thought of as the absolute. For in Stage on Life's Way Kierkegaard sees the ethical life as a necessary prerequisite for the religious life. If the ethical is seen as the absolute, or the point beyond which one cannot go, then it does come into conflict with the religious. This seems to be what Hegel does and is why he is so continuously lampooned by Kierkegaard.

Evans believes that while the language of the ethical sounds Kantian it is really Hegelian in nature. Partly because Hegel himself used Kantian language in describing ethics. Abraham's deed, the sacrifice of Isaac, is not ethical because it is not done for some higher good, i.e. the preservation of the state. Abraham is doing what he did out of faith in God and obedience to his command. The ethical that runs into conflict with the religious is not the timeless categorical imperative, but the ethical that thinks itself supporting social institutions, which gives it a more Hegelian flavor.

The ethical then is the embodiment of social values of the day and believes itself to be the point beyond which no further progression is possible and these two points produce the contradiction of the ethical. The willingness to believe that he might receive Isaac back is the absurdity of Abraham, for being willing to give something up is the "knight of infinite resignation;" to be a "knight of faith" you have to both be willing to lose what it demanded and be expecting at the same time to get it back. The "knight of infinite resignation" while not a member of the religious life is also not a member of the ethical; for he realizes that there is more to the ethical, but either does not know it or chooses to reject it. This shows that the ethical form of life is not the highest.

The ethical life cannot be the highest form of life because while we believe in and feel the demands of the moral law we mistakenly think we can obey them on our own power (the ethical), we do not realize that we need God (the religious) to help us achieve perfection. One point of Fear and Trembling's use of Sarah and Tobias and Agnes and Merman is to show us the difficulty and contradictory nature of life which prevents us from living in such a way. If Abraham had taken his own life rather than Isaac's, he would be remembered as a tragic hero by the ethical, but would not be the father of faith. In the end one cannot perform the duties of the ethical without the aid of the religious.

Evans then goes on to point out a major flaw in Johannes de Silentio's thinking, though not necessarily Kierkegaard's, for Johannes de Silentio in making a comparison between Abraham and Merman shows us that they both left the ethical, the former in obedience to God and the latter in sin; but as Abraham was "sinless" or "righteous" this seems to set up a false dichotomy between those who are really holy and pure and the rest of us who are really, if not terrible, unregenerate. This, Evans thinks, is erroneous since even Abraham is in the same state as the rest of us, he only responds to God with greater faith than most of us.

In closing, Evans states that Kierkegaard is not rejecting the rational in saying that the object of Christian faith is the absurd, but is merely saying that God cannot be totally comprehended by human reason. The walk of faith is not absurd, since the Christian has faith. The life of faith does not abandon the ethical, it merely subsumes it, rather than basing the ethical on the social norms it is based on God's holy oracles and the religious is not just concerned with what right action is, but how one might be able to live out the deeds of righteousness. So Christian faith is not irrational, because the object of that faith is beyond human reason and the ethical does not contradict with the religious, unless it believes itself to be the point beyond which no further progress is possible.

It seems that while Green and Evans have somewhat different reasons for covering Fear and Trembling, the former wanted to peal away the outer text and dive into the deeper meaning while the latter wanted to show that Kierkegaard was not irrational; they seem to have a very similar interpretation of Kierkegaard and, I would argue, are complementary.

They both deal with the tension of the ethical and religious. Green thinks that the challenge is, "how can leaving the ethical be considered good" (i.e. religious), while Evans tries to show that the ethical and the religious are not contradictory. Green believes that because Abraham was seen by the Church as a pre-figuration of Christ and Luther and Paul believe that God can suspend the ethical, Kierkegaard is merely walking in the traditions of Christianity and is not talking nonsense. Evans believes that the ethical is only in conflict with the religious when it claims to be "the point at which one cannot go beyond"; that place is, truly speaking, the religious.

Both writers also see a tension between the sayings of Johannes de Silentio. Green because Johannes de Silentio as an outsider to the Christian faith praises Abraham, but he also says that from the position of the ethical Abraham is to be condemned. Evans seems to think that the dichotomy between the ethical and religious is a mistaken view of Johannes de Silentio, not necessarily Kierkegaard. Yet if Green is correct and Johannes praises Abraham it might be the case that this is Kierkegaard speaking directly rather than via a surrogate. If then Johannes de Silentio's view of the ethical and religious is the same as Kierkegaard's then, one could argue, that at the time of his writing of Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard did believe they were contradictory, which would if, shown to be true, validate the possibility that Evans' view that Kierkegaard later changed his mind on these issues in Works of Love and Practice. Yet in opposition to the idea that at the writing of Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard's views of the ethical and religious are identical to Johannes de Silentio one might appeal to Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments where Johannes Climacus, in A Glance at a Contemporary Effort in Danish Literature, criticizes Johannes de Silentio for committing a contradiction of claiming that the individual is uncommunicable, because it cannot appeal to the universal (by its very nature) rendering the individual unintelligible, yet he claims to describe the individual.

Here is an example of Kierkegaard via the pseudonym Johannes Climacus criticizing Johannes de Silentio giving evidence that Kierkegaard did not hold to the views of Johaness de Silentio. As for my position I confess I do not know enough about Kierkegaard to say one way or the other. Though I am partial to Evans' reconciliation of the apparent contradiction between the ethical and religious, and Kierkegaard's view of both.

Green, in trying to show that Abraham's transcendence of the ethical is not irrational, covers many different attempts to explain it, but rejects them because they all seem to think that Kierkegaard is merely offering another ethic, rather than transcending it. Evans like Green sees the Merman and Abraham as doppelgangers, the former leaves the ethical in sin and the latter in grace, but both must be reconciled to the ethical via the religious. Evans worries that, in calling Abraham "righteous" or "sinless" Johannes de Silentio is creating a false dichotomy between the saints, the depraved and the rest of us. Evans believes that all three groups of people need to be reconciled with the ethical via the religious. Whether this was just a belief of Johannes de Silentio or Kierkegaard as well Evans cannot tell.

I think that Green is somewhat mistaken in rejecting the view that Kierkegaard is reacting to Hegelian Sittlichkeit. Because to reject Sittlichkeit one does not have to do so by replacing it with the ethical, but by critiquing it with the religious, which is what I think Kierkegaard is doing. So this position that Evans challenges is not enterily wrong and can be rehabilitated if one understands Kierkegaard's attack of the Stittlichkeit as religious rather than ethical in nature.

I believe in short that Green and Evans are both correct and complementary in their interpretation of Fear and Trembling; they differ only in the sense that they are asking and answering different questions.


Evans, C. Stephan, Kierkegaard on Faith and Self, (Baylor University Press 2006)

Ronald M. Green et al., Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard (Cambridge University Press 1998)

Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, (Princeton University Press 1992)

Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, (Princeton University Press 1982)


1 Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard p. 259