Kierkegaard’s Abraham and the Lonely Leap of Faith

by Mark Safstrom

Søren Kierkegaard made a habit of keeping others at arm’s length. By the time he died he had generated critics and even some enemies in the Church of Denmark, humiliated himself in a newspaper feud, distanced himself from family members and broke off a promising engagement to the lovely Regine Olsen. While some of these moments of isolation demonstrate the frailty of the human experience common to us all, they can also be seen as deliberate, prophetic statements of non-conformity and complement the theology of his works.

Suffering is a common theme in “Fear and Trembling” (1843). Kierkegaard paints a portrait of Abraham in which this patriarch of three faiths is similarly isolated and unable to explain his faith or himself to his family. In this haunting retelling, we see Abraham confined in silence, unable to express himself and his faith even to the very son that his faith has brought him to the point of sacrificing. Kierkegaard’s prose in his analysis of Abraham is as beautiful as it is disturbing. Disturbing most of all perhaps in that he seems to affirm the superiority of the individual’s relationship to the absolute (God), over and against the relationship of the individual to the universal (the state, the church, or other ethically-based communities).

Kierkegaard’s starting point is the observation that in Denmark in the early 1800s, people had often concluded that faith was childish, and was something that one needed to move beyond in order to understand God and the world objectively. This objectivity had resulted in formalized systems, which in Kierkegaard’s mind had caused the Church of Denmark to become dead, in part a consequence of the systematic theories of philosophers like Hegel (whose followers are his main target). These formal structures demanded that the individual submit to the universal (states, churches, communities), and that the individual’s actions were to be judged in terms of the ethical good they brought to the universal.

What Kierkegaard attempts to validate is the importance of the individual’s experience, as well as the necessity of non-conformity, if the individual is ever going to truly know himself or herself. This non-conformity is a movement so radical and subversive that it has to begin with the individual relating directly, and solely, to the absolute (God). But, the reader may wonder, after this movement of non-conformity occurs, can an individual ever find his or her way back to community?

Kierkegaard’s prescription for lonely suffering was not popular in his day in Denmark, but surprisingly, in recent decades, Kierkegaard has begun to strike a chord with two unlikely companions: contemporary evangelical theologians and post-modern existentialists.

Although these groups are unlikely companions, they have similar reasons for embracing a philosophy where non-conformity and individual expression are at the center. Post-moderns are often disillusioned: with “organized” religion, governments that do unjust things in the name of the good of the state, and age-old community norms that are oppressive of individual rights and self-discovery. Evangelicals are traditionally skeptical of “the world” as well as high-church “spells and bells,” rituals, and rigidity. Instead they advocate a “personal” relationship with God, one where the individual alone must choose to embark on the journey of faith, even if community membership follows that individual milestone. For both groups, the restlessness of individual non-conformity, in which the individual is drawn out (or kicked out) of one community, often makes it possible for that individual to find other like-minded non-conformists who gather together, and form a new community that is free to move in a direction that follows their consciences and hopes.

This initial step – to leave one community and form another – is what makes social movements possible at all. Just think of the sense of rejection, mockery and isolation that was faced by early agitators for the religious awakenings in the 19th century, the temperance movement, the labor movement, women’s suffrage and anti-war protests. All were accused by the communities that they left of being heretical, judgmental, dangerous, immoral and unpatriotic. But then, think too about the new sense of community that often overwhelmed these lonely individuals, once they landed among others with similar experiences and then developed plans of action. Many of us with Pietist roots have experienced feelings of affinity, of warmth, of “coming home,” when we have time and again realized that our congregations, institutions and communities were born out of non-conformity with the world long ago. This movement away from the greater collective still resonates with our own (perhaps Kierkegaardian) dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Is there any hope for Kierkegaard’s lonely Abraham? Was he forever traumatized by the “test” that God put him through? Could he ever rediscover community, and confide with Isaac again, or Sarah?

Some answers can be found in reconsidering the nature of God’s test. Like Kierkegaard, I was rather horrified by the Abraham story when I heard it as a young child. Even toddlers know that it is wrong to kill your children, not to mention scary if it is God who is telling you to do that. With all due respect to my teachers, this was explained as a way to “test Abraham’s faith” and see if he was actually willing to go through with it, as if God needed to award him with the gold star for faithfulness in order for Abraham to become the father of a great nation. This answer was not satisfying then, and is even less satisfying when I consider Kierkegaard’s response.

According to Kierkegaard (who seems to have attended the same Sunday School classes as I did), this could not just have been a bizarre initiation ritual, like the arbitrary and cruel initiations that college fraternities have made famous. Instead, Kierkegaard suggests that if Abraham is truly “the father of faith” and not some madman, then this test must be about non-conformity. It is essential for Abraham to be isolated from his family and from the community that he had hoped to create – the great nation that was to begin with the son he had been promised, Isaac. He must take a leap of faith and be prepared to act in a way that might bring him the disapproval and rejection of others. He cannot be like the tragic hero of Greek drama, who takes comfort in resigning himself to his fate because he knows what he is doing is ethical and will serve the interests of the community and the cosmos. Abraham is not a tragic hero, but a “Knight of Faith.” It is not possible for him to obtain faith unless he experiences this movement from community to isolation.

Abraham’s non-conformity is a painful and lonely process…until, at the last second, God reveals that he will provide the ram for the sacrifice. Abraham, as the leader of a new faith, a new movement, is actually being called out of the culture around him (in which child sacrifice was not uncommon). He has seen all his hopes almost disappear, and has relied solely on one remaining hope – that by his obedience, God will provide a miracle. He takes a leap of faith, plummets into an abyss of solitude, but at last realizes that what he had almost dared not hope is actually coming true!

It seems almost that Kierkegaard leaves Abraham in a distressed, lonely state at the end of the book. But the reader cannot help but sense the immense reassurance that must have washed over Abraham as he makes several realizations that are implied in Kierkegaard’s retelling: God is not arbitrary, God is trustworthy, God affirms the individual and calls for non-conformity, but that after the trials of temporary loneliness, God has the potential of a new community waiting for Abraham.

Perhaps the greatest difference between the non-conformity Kierkegaard recommends and the non-conformity that is prevalent in our post-modern context is that in Kierkegaard’s day, the notion of the “self” was a novelty. Community norms dominated the individual, and the individual’s rights and perspective were under-emphasized if they were present at all. For us, there is a super abundance of individuality; almost everything we buy can be personalized, and if not we can always shop elsewhere, in the religious as well as the commercial sphere. But a striking commonality between the post-modern expression of non-conformity, the traditional non-conformity of the Pietist, and that of Kierkegaard, is that in the end, all three point toward a re-entry of a community or movement. It is necessary to move away from others in order to discover oneself (to undergo conversion, to find one’s “voice,” or understand one’s own perspective and context). But that discovery then allows the individual to join or re-affiliate with a community. Whether or not they do is up to them.

Whenever Christians realize the commonality they have with their post-modern neighbors on these points, there is a fruitful field waiting be more effectively harvested. Those who have realized this have often attempted to marry seeming opposites in the post-modern context; rational skepticism and passionate faith, the necessity and solitude of non-conformity and the longing for community affirmation. Those who are hesitating in their leap of faith need assurance that this solitary leap is not only necessary, but will be rewarding beyond measure. The best expression of this that I have found, which complements well Kierkegaard’s notion of the leap of faith, are the lyrics of contemporary musician Nicole Nordeman (“What if,” 2005). Seen from this perspective, perhaps Kierkegaard wasn’t as lonely as he let on.

What if you’re right –
He was just another nice guy?
What if you’re right?
What if it’s true –
They say the cross will only make a fool of you?
And what if it’s true?
What if he takes his place in history with all the prophets and the kings,
Who taught us love and came in peace,
But then the story ends –
What then?

What if you dig,
Way down deeper than your simple-minded friends;
What if you dig?
What if you find
A thousand more unanswered questions down inside –
That’s all you find?
What if you pick apart the logic and begin to poke the holes?
What if the crown of thorns is no more than folklore that must be told and retold?

You’ve been running, as fast as you can
You’ve been looking for a place you can land,
For so long –

But what if you’re wrong?
What if there’s more?
What if there’s hope you’ve never dreamed of hoping for?
What if you jump and just close your eyes?
What if the arms that catch you, catch you by surprise?
What if he’s more than enough?
What if it’s love?

Mark Safstrom is Chief Editor of Pietisten, and an assistant professor of Scandinavian Studies at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.

See all articles by Mark Safstrom