From Essential Selections in 19th and 20th Century Philosophy, by James Fieser
Copyright 2014, updated 5/1/2015
Born in Copenhagen, Søren Kierkegaard (1813—1855) was Denmark’s most influential philosopher. Reacting against the overly abstract and formal philosophical system of Hegel, Kierkegaard instead emphasized more practical concerns of individual choice and faith commitment. In the selection below, from his work Fear and Trembling (1843), he uses the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac as a way to show the difficulty of acting on the basis of faith. In the story, God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac his son, and, in an act of faith, Abraham prepares to do so, and nearly succeeds, until at the last moment God calls it off. For Kierkegaard, Abraham was justified in abandoning his ordinary ethical duty in response to God’s command, but the choice was one of intense anguish. Further, Abraham’s only ground for doing so was his faith, which, considering what was at stake, produced fear and trembling.
There lived a man who, when a child, had heard the beautiful Bible story of how God tempted Abraham and how he stood the test, how he maintained his faith and, against his expectations, received his son back again. As this man grew older he read this same story with ever greater admiration. For now life had separated what had been united in the reverent simplicity of the child. And the older he grew, the more frequently his thoughts returned to that story. His enthusiasm intensified more and more, and yet the story grew less and less clear to him. Finally he forgot everything else in thinking about it, and his soul contained but one wish, which was, to behold Abraham: and but one longing, which was, to have been witness to that event. His desire was, not to see the beautiful lands of the Orient, and not the splendor of the Promised Land, and not the reverent couple whose old age the Lord had blessed with children, and not the venerable figure of the aged patriarch, and not the god-given vigorous youth of Isaac; it would have been the same to him if the event had come to pass on some barren heath. But his wish was, to have been with Abraham on the three days’ journey, when he rode with sorrow before him and with Isaac at his side. His wish was, to have been present at the moment when Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw Mount Moriah afar off; to have been present at the moment when he left his donkeys behind and wended his way up to the mountain alone with Isaac. For the mind of this man was busy, not with the delicate and fanciful thoughts of the imagination, but rather with his shuddering thought.
The man we speak of was no thinker, he felt no desire to go beyond his faith. It seemed to him the most glorious fate to be remembered as the Father of Faith, and a most enviable lot to be possessed of that faith, even if no one knew it.
The man we speak of was no learned theologian, he did not even understand Hebrew — who knows but a knowledge of Hebrew might have helped him to understand readily both the story and Abraham.
The Story of Abraham: Four Versions
And God tempted Abraham and said to him: take Isaac, your only son, whom you love and go to the land Moriah and sacrifice him there on a mountain which I shall show you.
It was in the early morning, Abraham arose and had his donkeys saddled. He departed from his tent, and Isaac with him; but Sarah looked out of the window after them until they were out of sight. Silently they rode for three days; but on the fourth morning Abraham did not say a word, but lifted up his eyes and beheld Mount Moriah in the distance. He left his servants behind and, leading Isaac by the hand, he approached the mountain. But Abraham said to himself: “I shall surely conceal from Isaac where he is going.” He stood still, he laid his hand on Isaac’s head to bless him, and Isaac bowed down to receive his blessing. Abraham’s appearance was fatherly, his glance was mild, his speech admonishing. But Isaac did not understand him, his soul would not rise to him; he embraced Abraham’s knees, he begged him at his feet, he begged for his young life, for his beautiful hopes, he recalled the joy in Abraham’s house when he was born, he reminded him of the sorrow and the loneliness that would be after him. Then Abraham raised up the youth and lead him by his hand, and his words were full of consolation and admonishment. But Isaac did not understand him. He ascended Mount Moriah, but Isaac did not understand him. Abraham then hid his face for a moment. But when Isaac looked again, his father’s expression was changed, his glance wild, his aspect terrible, he seized Isaac and threw him to the ground and said: “You foolish boy, do you believe I am your father? An idol-worshipper am I. Do you believe it is God’s command? No, it is but my pleasure.” Then Isaac trembled and cried out in his fear: “God in heaven, have pity on me, God of Abraham, show mercy to me, I have no father on earth, be you then my father!” But Abraham said softly to himself: “Father in heaven, I thank you. Better is it that he believes that I am inhuman than that he should lose his faith in you.” . . .
When the child is to be weaned, his mother blackens her breast; for it were a pity if her breast should look sweet to him when he is not to have it. Then the child believes that her breast has change; but his mother is ever the same, her glance is full of love and as tender as ever. Happy he who needed not worse means to wean his child!
It was in the early morning. Abraham arose early and embraced Sarah, the bride of his old age. And Sarah kissed Isaac who had taken the shame from her — Isaac, her pride, her hope for all coming generations. Then the two rode silently along their way, and Abraham’s glance was fastened on the ground before him; until on the fourth day, when he lifted up his eyes and beheld Mount Moriah in the distance; but then his eyes again sought the ground. Without a word he put the sticks in order and bound Isaac, and without a word he unsheathed his knife. Then he saw the ram God had chosen, and sacrificed him, and walked his way home. . . . From that day on Abraham grew old. He could not forget that God had required this of him. Isaac flourished as before; but Abraham’s eye was darkened, he saw happiness no more.
When the child has grown and is to be weaned, his mother will in maidenly fashion conceal her breast. Then the child has a mother no longer. Happy the child who lost not his mother in any other sense!
It was in the early morning. Abraham arose early; he kissed Sarah, the young mother, and Sarah kissed Isaac her joy, her delight for all times. And Abraham rode on his way, lost in thought — he was thinking of Hagar and her son whom he had driven out into the wilderness. He ascended Mount Moriah and he drew the knife.
It was a calm evening when Abraham rode out alone, and he rode to Mount Moriah. There he cast himself down on his face and prayed to God to forgive him his sin in that he had been about to sacrifice his son Isaac, and in that the father had forgotten his duty toward his son. And yet oftener he rode on his lonely way, but he found no rest.
He could not grasp that it was a sin that he had wanted to sacrifice to God his most precious possession, him for whom he would most gladly have died many times. But, if it was a sin, if he had not so loved Isaac, then could he not grasp the possibility that he could be forgiven: for what sin more terrible?
When the child is to be weaned, the mother is not without sorrow that she and her child are to be separated more and more, that the child who had first lain under her heart, and afterwards at any rate rested at her breast, is to be so near to her no more. So they sorrow together for that brief while. Happy he who kept his child so near to him and needed not to sorrow more!
It was in the early morning. All was ready for the journey in the house of Abraham. He bade farewell to Sarah; and Eliezer, his faithful servant, accompanied him along the way for a little while. They rode together in peace, Abraham and Isaac, until they came to Mount Moriah. And Abraham prepared everything for the sacrifice, calmly and mildly; but when his father turned aside in order to unsheath his knife, Isaac saw that Abraham’s left hand was knit in despair and that a trembling shook his frame — but Abraham drew forth the knife.
Then they returned home again, and Sarah hurried to meet them; but Isaac had lost his faith. No one in all the world ever said a word about this, nor did Isaac speak to any man concerning what he had seen, and Abraham suspected not that anyone had seen it.
When the child is to be weaned, his mother has the stronger food ready lest the child perish. Happy he who has in readiness this stronger food!
Thus, and in many similar ways, thought the man whom I have mentioned about this event. And every time he returned, after a pilgrimage to Mount Moriah, he sank down in weariness, folding his hands and saying: “No one, in truth, was great as was Abraham, and who can understand him?” . . .
Different Ways of Understanding Abraham’s Story
An old saying, derived from the world of experience, has it that “he who will not work shall not eat.” But, strange to say, this does not hold true in the world where it is thought applicable. For in the world of matter the law of imperfection prevails, and we see, again and again, that he also who will not work has bread to eat — indeed, that he who sleeps has a greater abundance of it than he who works. In the world of matter everything belongs to whosoever happens to possess it. It is slave to the law of indifference, and he who happens to possess the Ring also has the Spirit of the Ring at his beck and call, whether now he be Noureddin or Aladdin,” and he who controls the treasures of this world, controls them, howsoever he managed to do so. It is different in the world of spirit. There, an eternal and divine order obtains, there the rain does not fall on the just and the unjust alike, nor does the sun shine on the good and the evil alike. But there the saying does hold true that he who will not work shall not eat, and only he who was troubled shall find rest, and only he who descends into the nether world shall rescue his beloved, and only he who unsheathes his knife shall be given Isaac again. There, he who will not work shall not eat, but shall be deceived, as the gods deceived Orpheus with an immaterial figure instead of his beloved Euridice, deceived him because he was love-sick and not courageous, deceived him because he was a player on the cithara rather than a man. There, it is of no use to have an Abraham for one’s father, or to have seventeen ancestors. But in that world the saying about Israel’s maidens will hold true of him who will not work: he shall bring forth wind; but he who will work shall give birth to his own father.
There is a kind of learning which would presumptuously introduce into the world of spirit the same law of indifference under which the world of matter groans. It is thought that to know about great men and great deeds is quite sufficient, and that other exertion is not necessary. And therefore this learning shall not eat, but shall perish of hunger while seeing all things transformed into gold by its touch. And what, in fact, does this learning really know? There were many thousands of contemporaries, and countless men in after times, who knew all about the triumphs of Miltiades; but there was only one whom they made sleepless. There have existed countless generations that knew by heart, word for word, the story of Abraham; but how many has it made sleepless?
Now the story of Abraham has the remarkable property of always being glorious, in however limited a sense it is understood. Still, here also the point is whether one means to labor and exert oneself. Now people do not care to labor and exert themselves, but wish nevertheless to understand the story. They praise Abraham, but how? By expressing the matter in the most general terms and saying: “the great thing about him was that he loved God so passionately that he was willing to sacrifice to Him his most precious possession.” That is very true; but “the most precious possession” is an indefinite expression. As one’s thoughts, and one’s mouth, run on one assumes, in a very easy fashion, the identity of Isaac and “the most precious possession” — and meanwhile he who is meditating may smoke his pipe, and his audience comfortably stretch out their legs. If the rich youth whom Christ met on his way’’ had sold all his possessions and given all to the poor, we would praise him as we praise all which is great — aye, would not understand even him without labor; and yet would he never have become an Abraham, notwithstanding his sacrificing the most precious possessions he had. That which people generally forget in the story of Abraham is his fear and anxiety. For as regards money, one is not ethically responsible for it, whereas for his son a father has the highest and most sacred responsibility. However, fear is a dreadful thing for cowardly spirits, so they omit it. And yet they wish to speak of Abraham.
Example of a Man who Emulates Abraham
So they keep on speaking, and in the course of their speech the two terms “Isaac” and “the most precious thing” are used alternately, and everything is in the best order. But now suppose that among the audience there was a man who suffered with sleeplessness; and then the most terrible and profound, the most tragic, and at the same time the most comic, misunderstanding is within the range of possibility. That is, suppose this man goes home and wishes to do as did Abraham; for his son is his most precious possession. If a certain preacher learned of this he would, perhaps, go to him, he would gather up all his spiritual dignity and exclaim: “You abominable creature, you scum of humanity, what devil possessed you to wish to murder your son?” And this preacher, who had not felt any particular warmth, nor perspired while speaking about Abraham, this preacher would be astonished himself at the earnest wrath with which he poured forth his thunders against that poor wretch; indeed, he would rejoice over himself, for never had he spoken with such power and unction, and he would have said to his wife: “I am a preacher, the only thing I have lacked so far was the occasion. Last Sunday, when speaking about Abraham, I did not feel thrilled in the least.”
Now, if this same preacher had just a bit of sense to spare, I believe he would lose it if the sinner would reply, in a quiet and dignified manner: “Why, it was on this very same matter you preached, last Sunday!” But however could the preacher have entertained such thoughts? Still, such was the case, and the preacher’s mistake was merely not knowing what he was talking about. Ah, would that some poet might see his way clear to prefer such a situation to the stuff and nonsense of which novels and comedies are full! For the comic and the tragic here run parallel to infinity. The sermon probably was ridiculous enough in itself, but it became infinitely ridiculous through the very natural consequence it had. Or, suppose now the sinner was converted by this lecture without daring to raise any objection, and this zealous divine now went home elated, glad in the consciousness of being effective, not only in the pulpit, but chiefly, and with irresistible power, as a spiritual guide, inspiring his congregation on Sunday, while on Monday he would place himself like a cherub with flaming sword before the man who by his actions tried to give the lie to the old saying that “the course of the world follows not the priest’s word.”
If, on the other hand, the sinner were not convinced of his error his position would become tragic. He would probably be executed, or else sent to the lunatic asylum — at any rate, he would become a sufferer in this world; but in another sense I should think that Abraham made him happy; for he who labors, he shall not perish.
Now how shall we explain the contradiction contained in that sermon? Is it due to Abraham’s having the reputation of being a great man — so that whatever he does is great, but if another should undertake to do the same it is a sin, a heinous sin? If this is the case, I prefer not to participate in such thoughtless praise. If faith cannot make it a sacred thing to wish to sacrifice one’s son, then let the same judgment be visited on Abraham as on any other man. And if we possibly lack the courage to drive our thoughts to the logical conclusion and to say that Abraham was a murderer, then it were better to acquire that courage, rather than to waste one’s time on undeserved praise. The fact is, the ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he wanted to murder Isaac. The religious expression is that he wanted to sacrifice him. But precisely in this contradiction is contained the fear which may well rob one of one’s sleep. Yet Abraham were not Abraham without this fear. Or, again, supposing Abraham did not do what is attributed to him, if his action was an entirely different one, based on conditions of those times, then let us forget him; for what is the use of calling to mind that past which can no longer become a present reality? — Or, the speaker had perhaps forgotten the essential fact that Isaac was the son. For if faith is eliminated, having been reduced to a mere nothing, then only the brutal fact remains that Abraham wanted to murder Isaac — which is easy for everybody to imitate who has not the faith — the faith, that is, which renders it most difficult for him. . . .
The Absurdity of Faith
Love has its priests in the poets, and one hears at times a poet’s voice which worthily praises it. But not a word does one hear of faith. Who is there to speak in honor of that passion? Philosophy “goes right on.” Theology sits at the window with a painted appearance and sues for philosophy’s favor, offering it her charms. It is said to be difficult to understand the philosophy of Hegel; but to understand Abraham, why, that is an easy matter! To proceed further than Hegel is a wonderful feat, but to proceed further than Abraham, why, nothing is easier! Personally, I have devoted a considerable amount of time to a study of Hegelian philosophy and believe I understand it fairly well; in fact, I am rash enough to say that when, notwithstanding an effort, I am not able to understand him in some passages, it is because he is not entirely clear about the matter himself. All this intellectual effort I perform easily and naturally, and it does not cause my head to ache. On the other hand, whenever I attempt to think about Abraham I am, as it were, overwhelmed. At every moment I am aware of the enormous paradox which forms the content of Abraham’s life, at every moment I am repulsed, and my thought, notwithstanding its passionate attempts, cannot penetrate into it, cannot forge on the breadth of a hair. I strain every muscle in order to contemplate the problem — and become a paralytic in the same moment.
I am by no means unacquainted with what has been admired as great and noble. My soul feels kinship with it, being satisfied, in all humility, that it was also my that cause the hero espoused. And when contemplating his deed I say to myself: “your cause too is at stake.” I am able to identify myself with the hero; but I cannot do so with Abraham, for whenever I have reached his height I fall down again, since he confronts me as the paradox. It is by no means my intention to maintain that faith is something inferior, but, on the contrary, that it is the highest of all things; also that it is dishonest in philosophy to offer something else instead, and to pour scorn on faith; but it ought to understand its own nature in order to know what it can offer. It should take away nothing; least of all, fool people out of something as if it were of no value. I am not unacquainted with the sufferings and dangers of life, but I do not fear them, and cheerfully go forth to meet them. . . . But my courage is not, for all that, the courage of faith, and is as nothing compared with it. I cannot carry out the movement of faith: I cannot close my eyes and confidently plunge into the absurd — it is impossible for me; but neither do I boast of it. . . .
Now I wonder if every one of my contemporaries is really able to perform the movements of faith. Unless I am much mistaken they are, rather, inclined to be proud of making what they perhaps think me unable to do, namely, the imperfect movement. It is repugnant to my soul to do what is so often done, to speak inhumanly about great deeds, as if a few thousands of years were an immense space of time. I prefer to speak about them in a human way and as though they had been done but yesterday, to let the great deed itself be the distance which either inspires or condemns me. Now if I, in the capacity of tragic hero — for a higher flight I am unable to take — if I had been summoned to such an extraordinary royal progress as was the one to Mount Moriah, I know very well what I would have done. I would not have been cowardly enough to remain at home. Neither would I have dawdled on the way. Nor would I have forgot my knife — just to draw out the end a bit. But I am rather sure that I would have been promptly on the spot, with everything in order. In fact, I would probably have been there before the appointed time, so as to have the business soon over with. But I know also what I would have done besides. In the moment I mounted my horse I would have said to myself: “Now all is lost, God demands Isaac, I shall sacrifice him, and with him all my joy. But for all that, God is love and will remain so for me. For in this world God and I cannot speak together, we have no language in common.”
The Infinite Resignation of Faith
Possibly, one or the other of my contemporaries will be stupid enough, and jealous enough of great deeds, to wish to persuade himself and me that if I had acted in this way I should have done something even greater than what Abraham did. For my sublime resignation was (he thinks) by far more ideal and poetic than Abraham’s literal-minded action. And yet this is absolutely not so, for my sublime resignation was only a substitute for faith. I could not have made more than the infinite movement (of resignation) to find myself and again peace in myself. Nor would I have loved Isaac as Abraham loved him. The fact that I was resolute enough to resign is sufficient to prove my courage in a human sense, and the fact that I loved him with my whole heart is the very presupposition without which my action would be a crime; but still I did not love as did Abraham, for else I would have hesitated even in the last minute, without, for that matter, arriving too late on Mount Moriah. Also, I would have spoiled the whole business by my behavior; for if I had had Isaac restored to me I would have been embarrassed. That which was an easy matter for Abraham would have been difficult for me, I mean, to rejoice again in Isaac; for he who with all the energy of his soul “by his own impulse and on his own responsibility” has made the infinite movement of resignation and can do no more, he will retain possession of Isaac only in his sorrow.
But what did Abraham do? He arrived neither too early nor too late. He mounted his donkey and rode slowly on his way. All the while he had faith, believing that God would not demand Isaac of him, though ready all the while to sacrifice him, should it be demanded of him. He believed this on the strength of the absurd; for there was no question of human calculation any longer. And the absurdity consisted in God’s, who yet made this demand of him, recalling his demand the very next moment. Abraham ascended the mountain and while the knife already gleamed in his hand he believed — that God would not demand Isaac of him. He was, to be sure, surprised at the outcome; but by a double movement he had returned at his first state of mind and therefore received Isaac back more gladly than the first time. . . .
On this height, then, stands Abraham. The last stage he loses sight of is that of infinite resignation. He does really proceed further, he arrives at faith. For consider all these caricatures of faith. Wretched lukewarm sloth thinks: “Oh, there is no hurry, it is not necessary to worry before the time comes.” Miserable hopefulness says: “One cannot know what will happen, there might perhaps —” All these caricatures belong to the degraded view of life and have already fallen under the infinite scorn of infinite resignation.
I am not able to understand Abraham, and in a certain sense I can learn nothing from him without being struck with wonder. They who flatter themselves that by merely considering the outcome of Abraham’s story they will necessarily arrive at faith, only deceive themselves and wish to cheat God out of the first movement of faith. It is equivalent to deriving worldly wisdom from the paradox. But who knows, one or the other of them may succeed in doing this. For our times are not satisfied with faith, and not even with the miracle of changing water into wine: they “go right on” changing wine into water.
Is it not preferable to remain satisfied with faith, and is it not outrageous that everyone wishes to “go right on”? If people in our times decline to be satisfied with love, as is proclaimed from various sides, where will we finally land? In worldly shrewdness, in mean calculation, in paltriness and baseness, in all that which makes man’s divine origin doubtful. Were it not better to stand fast in the faith, and better that he that stands beware for fear that he fall. For the movement of faith must ever be made by virtue of the absurd, but, note well, in such wise that one does not lose the things of this world but wholly and entirely regains them.
Going through the Motions of Faith
As far as I am concerned, I am able to describe most excellently the movements of faith. But I cannot make them myself. When a person wishes to learn how to swim he has himself suspended in a swimming-belt and then goes through the motions; but that does not mean that he can swim. In the same fashion I too can go through the motions of faith; but when I am thrown into the water I swim; to be sure (for I am not a wader in the shallows), but I go through a different set of movements, to-wit, those of infinity; whereas faith does the opposite, namely, makes the movements to regain the finite after having made those of infinite resignation. Blessed is he who can make these movements, for he performs a marvelous feat, and I shall never weary of admiring him, whether now it be Abraham himself or the slave in Abraham’s house, whether it be a professor of philosophy or a poor servant-girl: it is all the same to me, for I have regard only to the movements. But these movements I watch closely, and I will not be deceived, whether by myself or by anyone else. The knights of infinite resignation are easily recognized, for their gait is dancing and bold. But they who possess the jewel of faith frequently deceive one because their bearing is curiously like that of a class of people heartily despised by infinite resignation as well as by faith — the philistines.
Let me admit frankly that I have not in my experience encountered any certain example of this type. But I do not refuse to admit that as far as I know, every other person may be such a example. At the same time I will say that I have searched vainly for years. It is the custom of scientists to travel around the globe to see rivers and mountains, new stars, gay-colored birds, misshapen fish, ridiculous races of men. They abandon themselves to a sluggish state of unconsciousness which stares at existence and believe they have seen something worthwhile. All this does not interest me; but if I knew where there lived such a knight of faith I would journey to him on foot, for that marvel occupies my thoughts exclusively. Not a moment would I leave him out of sight, but would watch how he makes the movements, and I would consider myself provided for life, and would divide my time between watching him and myself practicing the movements, and would thus use all my time in admiring him.
The Knight of Faith
As I said, I have not met with such a one; but I can easily imagine him. Here he is. I make his acquaintance and am introduced to him. The first moment I lay my eyes on him I push him back, leaping back myself, I hold up my hands in amazement and say to myself: “Good Lord! that person? Is it really he — why, he looks like a parish-beadle [i.e., a minor church official]!” But it is really he. I become more closely acquainted with him, watching his every movement to see whether some insignificant incongruous movement of his has escaped me, some trace, perchance, of a signaling from the infinite, a glance, a look, a gesture, a melancholy air, or a smile, which might betray the presence of infinite resignation contrasting with the finite.
But no! I examine his figure from top to toe to discover whether there is anywhere a chink through which the infinite might be seen to peer forth. But no! he is of one piece, all through. . . . Thus he shows as much unconcern as any worthless happy-go-lucky fellow; and yet, every moment he lives he purchases his leisure at the highest price, for he makes not the least movement except by virtue of the absurd; and yet, yet — indeed, I might become furious with anger, if for no other reason than that of envy — and yet, this man has performed, and is performing every moment, the movement of infinity . . . He has resigned everything absolutely, and then again seized hold of it all on the strength of the absurd. . . .
The Paradoxical Moment of Faith
This last movement, the paradoxical movement of faith, I cannot make, whether or not it is my duty, although I desire nothing more passionately than to be able to make it. It must be left to a person’s discretion whether he cares to make this confession. And at any rate, it is a matter between him and the Eternal Being, who is the object of his faith, whether an amicable adjustment can be affected. But what every person can do is to make the movement of absolute resignation, and I for my part would not hesitate to declare him a coward who imagines he cannot perform it. It is a different matter with faith. But what no person has a right to, is to delude others into the belief that faith is something of no great significance, or that it is an easy matter, whereas it is the greatest and most difficult of all things.
But the story of Abraham is generally interpreted in a different way. God’s mercy is praised which restored Isaac to him — it was but a trial! A trial. This word may mean much or little, and yet the whole of it passes off as quickly as the story is told: one mounts a winged horse, in the same instant one arrives on Mount Moriah, and presto one sees the ram. It is not remembered that Abraham only rode on an ass which travels but slowly, that it was a three day journey for him, and that he required some additional time to collect the firewood, to bind Isaac, and to sharpen his knife.
And yet one praises Abraham. He who is to preach the sermon may sleep comfortably until a quarter of an hour before he is to preach it, and the listener may comfortably sleep during the sermon, for everything is made easy enough, without much exertion either to preacher or listener. But now suppose a man was present who suffered with sleeplessness and who went home and sat in a corner and reflected as follows: “The whole lasted but a minute, you need only wait a little while, and then the ram will be shown and the trial will be over.” Now if the preacher should find him in this frame of mind, I believe he would confront him in all his dignity and say to him: “Wretch that you are, to let your soul lapse into such foolishness; miracles do not happen, all life is a trial.” And as he proceeded he would grow more and more passionate, and would become ever more satisfied with himself; and whereas he had not noticed any congestion in his head whilst preaching about Abraham, he now feels the veins on his forehead swell. Yet who knows but he would stand aghast if the sinner should answer him in a quiet and dignified manner that it was precisely this about which he preached the Sunday before.
Let us then either waive the whole story of Abraham, or else learn to stand in awe of the enormous paradox which constitutes his significance for us, so that we may learn to understand that our age, like every age, may rejoice if it has faith. If the story of Abraham is not a mere nothing, an illusion, or if it is just used for show and as a pastime, the mistake cannot by any means be in the sinner’s wishing to do likewise. But it is necessary to find out how great was the deed which Abraham performed, in order that the man may judge for himself whether he has the courage and the mission to do likewise. The comical contradiction in the procedure of the preacher was his reduction of the story of Abraham to insignificance whereas he rebuked the other man for doing the very same thing.
But should we then cease to speak about Abraham? I certainly think not. But if I were to speak about him I would first of all describe the terrors of his trial. To that end, like a leech I would suck all the suffering and distress out of the anguish of a father, in order to be able to describe what Abraham suffered while yet preserving his faith. I would remind the hearer that the journey lasted three days and a major part of the fourth — in fact, these three and a half days ought to become infinitely longer than the few thousand years which separate me from Abraham. I would remind him, as I think right, that every person is still permitted to turn about before trying his strength on this formidable task; in fact, that he may return every instant in repentance. Provided this is done, I fear for nothing. Nor do I fear to awaken great desire among people to attempt to emulate Abraham. But to put forward a cheap version of Abraham and yet forbid everyone to do as he did, that I call ridiculous.
Source: Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (1843), tr. L.M. Hollander.