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Kierkegaard's concept of faith in Fear and Trembling


To: Matthew M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Kierkegaard's concept of faith in Fear and Trembling
Date: 13th January 2010 14:07

Dear Martin,

Thank you for your email of 20 December, with your essay towards the Associate Award, in response to the question, 'Discuss Kierkegaard's concept of faith in Fear and Trembling in relation to an average understanding of faith.'

Thanks also for your email of 9 January, informing me that you will be taking the Introduction to Philosophy and Modern Philosophy: Descartes et. al. modules this year for the University of London Diploma in Philosophy.

Pathways support for the University of London Diploma and BA was first offered in 2003, and was then and still is closely modelled on the Associate Program. In both programs, students are invited to write up to eight essays of 2000-2500 words. The standard which students are expected to aim for -- 2/i or higher -- is the same in each case.

With this essay, you've made a valiant attempt at a very difficult topic. What on earth is an 'average understanding of faith'? What did Kierkegaard think or assume that ordinary people understand by faith, and how is his concept of faith different?

You go round and round the topic of average or ordinary 'faith'. What is the connecting thread? Undoubtedly, religious faith takes many forms, and has a variety of motivations. But isn't the central idea, that of belief, in the widest sense of an attitude towards a statements or set of statements which are taken as fact?

Accordingly, a 'Christian' is someone who takes as fact the notion that Christ is the son of God, that he was crucified and then miraculously brought back to life on the third day. As a matter of fact, we will all be resurrected, like Christ, to face God's judgement. And so on.

How should one behave in the face of these facts/ beliefs? If I believe that I will be judged and sent to heaven or hell, then following the right course of action is a matter of making a prudential calculation. In the face of this belief, you'd think it was insane to go against God's will. Yet people do. This can be partially explained by the strength of more immediate concerns in relation to an outcome which is far from certain. Pascal nails this idea with his famous Wager. Let's assume that it is not certain that God exists or that I will be judged. Even so, the rational course of action -- based on a simple probability calculation -- is to live on the basis of the assumption that I will be judged.

To Kierkegaard, the very idea that religious faith rests on belief about matters of mere fact renders it unacceptably flimsy.

Consider Abraham. You represent him as hoping (against hope?) that God will somehow save his son at the last minute, or bring his son back to life. But this is not 'belief' even in the most attenuated sense. Abraham is totally in the dark regarding God's motives or intentions. All he knows is what God has commanded him to do.

The 'leap of faith' in Abraham's case is in the obeying of God's command, not for any reason or inducement other than the sheer fact that God is God, and must therefore be obeyed. Abraham's hopes, fears are all a side issue. He is not setting out to sacrifice his son in order for something specific to happen afterwards, or indeed to prevent something from happening (God's punishment). If the only thing driving him on was the fear of punishment, wouldn't the better course of action be to defy God and save his son? What worse outcome could there be than seeing his beloved son perish by his own hands?

To do God's will is the only thing possible, the only action that makes any sense, so far as Abraham is concerned.

Why would one think that way? Kierkegaard's view would be that the Religious is the only alternative, once one has seen that the fatal shortcomings of the Aesthetic and Ethical standpoints. It seems irrational, yet that's just what faith is. Reason is not the ultimate court of appeal. Beyond reason -- beyond things that we believe, or things that we want for ourselves -- is the choice of a way of life, and the only acceptable basis for such choice, Kierkegaard held, was unquestioning obedience to something 'higher'.

Why choose God? Why not Hitler? Should we praise the Nazi who shows unquestioning obedience to his Fuhrer? It seems to me the weak point in Kierkegaard's case is that he is prevented, by the very structure of his argument for faith, from giving reasons (as one would say, 'God is better than Hitler because...'). To give reasons, to make an evaluation based on our beliefs and desires, would be to fall back into the ordinary or average understanding of faith.

All the best,