Fearful Faith

For anyone raised in the Christian church, the story of Abraham being asked by God to sacrifice his son on a mountain in Moriah induces an ethical mindfreeze. If God is love, how could he ask anyone to sacrifice his only son? Isn’t it a sadistic God who would test his believer with such a torturous task, only to turn around last minute with a “just kidding”?

Soren Kierkegaard, in his Fear and Trembling (a short work all about the ethical and spiritual significance of faith) pokes fun at those who would interpret this story’s meaning as a sign of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his greatest possession in service to his God. Supplanting “only son” with metaphors of “possessions” and “ownership” leaves out:

“the anguish; for while I am under no obligation to money, to a son the father has the highest and most sacred of obligations.” Johannes de Silentio1

So Kierkegaard is drawing attention not to what a magnificent servant of God Abraham is, but to the deep existential conflict that can arise between one’s ethical obligations and the calling of one’s spiritual path. From an outsider’s perspective, Abraham would have been murdering his son. Kierkegaard asks the question that everybody should: what “fear and trembling” arrives in the moment of doubt, when one entertains that the “voice of God” may be nothing more than the whisperings of a mad man?

Faith is not a hot word in today’s culture. Most often, it is associated with a blind belief in an often biased and judgmental God. And yet even if the word itself has fallen out of favor, we nevertheless act on faith all of the time: in our relationships, in our professional lives, politically, and otherwise. Faith renews itself continuously in the idea that things will work out all right, or that they will continue to conform to our desires. Without such faith, everyone would give up in despair. There certainly is nothing objective to confirm that life will work out okay; we take that on faith, because we have no choice not to.

Our culture frowns upon spiritual faith, because it only considers legitimate the facts of “objective” knowledge. The world of objects and things, the world of dualism, is the only truth this culture affirms. As a result, there is a profound inflexibility toward the seemingly mystical or transcendent qualities of our experience.

It is incredibly frightening, perhaps more so now than ever, to be called to act on faith. A decision based on true faith is one that smacks against the status quo, that looks insane and sometimes unethical from the vantage point of accepted cultural knowledge.

Because the Truth of Being is, as Eastern and other traditions affirm, an experience beyond discursive knowledge (past the knowledge of words), anyone called by that Truth is going to, from a certain perspective, appear irrational and without objective foundation. It is sometimes inevitable.

The point of Abraham’s story, to me, is not that, under certain conditions, murder of one’s kin is permissible. (Just make sure God was the one who asked!) No, the story is not meant to be analyzed into a sensical conclusion. The point is rather that from the world of sense, from the cultural world, the event of faith is irreducible. It cannot be rationalized. But from the standpoint of one’s path toward embodying Truth, the act of faith is an occasionally intolerable, an agonizing, but necessary choice.

The call of the universal is one that resonates at the deepest levels of one’s being. As a call from Being to human being, the leap of faith is a condition for uncovering fullness. For those not taken up by the project of seeking Truth, that leap reads as often little more than a naive fancy.

But sometimes, in the most fortunate of circumstances, that leap can cause a spiritual avalanche, uprooting the sediment of a soulless status quo, inaugurating the dawn of a new present where presence present.



  1. From Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard (1843)