Reflections on Søren Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling”

Writing about Søren Kierkegaard’s theory of faith is an interesting task, because faith demands silence. The absurd is untranslatable; in its essence, it is incomprehensible. I will not follow in the footsteps of Kierkegaard by attempting to draw an analysis of all that faith is not. Instead, this analysis is broken into two sections. The first addresses a passage from the text, which I have reiterated below. The second is an abstraction of the philosophies explored in the first.

A silhouette of the movement of faith is sketched using Kierkegaard’s philosophy as the canvas, focusing specifically on renunciation and isolation, the two forms of suffering bound to faith. What follows is a contemplation of the courage needed to make the movement of faith and the subsequent enriched capacity for love. Courage is ignited by passion.

The preliminary examination of faith will act as a torch that I will pass to you, dear reader, so that it might aid you when I present to you a scene in which faith is aroused. The latter portion of this paper is a depiction of realized faith, which shall be illuminated by the torch so that the understanding thereof conveyed in the earlier portion of this work is more clear. As you read, I hope the torch’s glow will wax so that you are warmed by infinity’s radiation upon completing this paper, not for the sake of renewed faith, but for the ability to step out of time for a brief instant and plunge into depth.

The thesis I wish to articulate is as follows: faith is a movement that every individual strives to make, regardless of a religious framework for channeling said faith, because the movement of faith is the movement of infinity, which is the key that opens the door to the realm of metaphysics; of not just understanding, but living philosophy. In making the movement of faith, one must renounce everything grounded in the normative, even (and especially) time. This is extraordinarily painful. So, to make the movement of faith, one must break through a barrier of fear – a fear of extraction, isolation, silence and perpetual solitude. As one leaps into the absurd unknown, one must have the courage to leave all things held to be certain and real behind; everything that one holds dear. This fear is paralyzing. It violently disrupts the movement of faith. In Problema III of Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard argues that it takes courage to overcome the distressing fear. On the final page of the chapter, he makes the unbreakable assembly between courage and love.

“…one can perhaps understand Abraham, but only in the way one understands the paradox. I, for my part, perhaps can understand Abraham, but I also realize that I do not have the courage to speak in this way, no more than I have the courage to act as Abraham did; but by no means do I therefore say that the act is of little importance, since, on the contrary, it is the one and only marvel.

“And what was the contemporary age’s verdict on the tragic hero? That he was great and that it admired him. And that honorable assembly of noble-minded men, the jury that every generation set up to judge the past generation – it gave the same verdict. But there was no one who could understand Abraham. And yet what did he achieve? He remained true to his love. But anyone who loves God needs no tears, no admiration; he forgets the suffering in the love. Indeed, so completely has he forgotten it that there would not be the slightest trace of his suffering left if God himself did not remember it, for he sees in secret and recognizes distress and counts the tears and forgets nothing.

“Thus, either there is a paradox, that the single individual as the single individual stands in an absolute relation to the absolute, or Abraham is lost.” (119-20)

I do not wish to reiterate the details of this passage in my own words, so I will begin with a reflection on two words: suffering and courage. By starting with these key terms and then scaling down into the precise notions thereof, I will be able to a) extract the most meaning from the passage as it relates to Kierkegaard’s entire philosophy of faith and b) relay my own interpretation of the text and intertwine it with Kierkegaard’s theories with utmost clarity. There is a third term, love, which is not afforded its own reflection, but is touched upon in moments when a clear line can be drawn between faith, courage and love. Love is a phenomenon that every individual struggles to understand, and it is my own belief that a full-bodied comprehension is unattainable, although every human is capable of experiencing the richest sensation thereof. Nonetheless, love is fundamental to Kierkegaard’s theory of faith, and so I will do my best to illuminate the love that he expresses in the above passage between Abraham and God. Love is not the center around which this paper revolves, but is what I believe to be faith’s ultimate doctrine. The axis to which the following reflections are bound and upon which they freely spin is time.


Fear and Suffering in the Movement of Faith

The leap of faith is wrought with a fear that will never retire into an absolute dissipation. It may hide away in the shadows for some time as one basks in infinity’s purest light, but time and again fear veers its ugly head and snarls, exposing the fangs with which it threatens to shred every piece of physical reality, not excluding the hand that desperately clutches to all things certain. This fear is a barrier that resides and moves within the self. Once overcome, it builds itself anew. For this exact reason is faith a movement, and not a triumph of transcendence. It is a movement because one doesn’t stop at the universal, although the security and enticement that the universal offers and that others too will recognize in you is alluring. Faith is ever moving, ever breathing, never looking forward with expectation, always releasing what is left behind. (70-80)

It is my own belief that once you can muster the courage to make the movement of faith, and the more you practice making this movement, your fear will wash away, because you will see great beauty in the infinite, you will access the near precipice of metaphysical understanding, riding the passion with such certainty into an unknown so uncertain, that ultimately, your fear will melt into tranquility. Your soul is a pool of water that is perpetually disturbed. Trembling and fear create the most pronounced ripples. At times of faith, the water will be completely still and the surface will harmonize with infinity, but this is never permanent, which, again, is what makes faith a movement and not a final resting transcendence.

The movement of faith transitions through two kinds of suffering. As you stand ready to make the movement of faith, you must turn, look back over your shoulder at the world and renounce all that tethers you to existence, removing the weight of the physical world so that you’re free to float up into the universal. This extraction and renunciation is the first torment. The second is the understanding that as you walk along the path of faith, you must walk alone.


In faith, there is a teleological suspension of ethics, aesthetic, higher reasoning, cause, end and goal. Everything is suspended, which is what makes the movement of faith absurd. Otherwise, how would one transcend the normative? One might then ask ‘to what extent is the absurd simply absurd and nothing more?’ This is precisely the case.

Thus, the movement of faith begins with a resolute relief of all worldly understanding. The term understanding refers specifically to the logic and rationale derived from and defining the physical world. The most important logical construct to be resigned is time. One must renounce the temporal realm and, thus, gain infinity. Renouncing finitude, and thereby the entire construct of time as we understand it, is what makes faith a paradox to existence. By turning one’s back on rationale, one awaits the absurd; “…faith begins precisely where thought stops” (53). For this reason, no one can understand Abraham. The realities mankind has deemed most certain are bound to the physical world and they provide the most security to an individual’s existence on earth. The irrationality and insecurity of the absurd is totally unintelligible unless one can comprehend the hidden gem of faith: true love.

Infinity has no end, and so one must always move deeper into its abyss, knowing full well that an end will never be reached. The drive to move with infinity, letting go of everything temporal that passes you by and never projecting an expectation onto what might lay ahead demands insurmountable courage because it is wildly distressful. One of the greatest fears of man is the collapse of the normative system that defines known existence.[1] Being asked to sacrifice said normativity – all that in which one has assured confidence and which one holds most true and valuable – by a divinity in which you place all your faith is the fear of fears. The divine commands, ‘throw your normativity to the wind’ and have faith only in the absurd. The command is directed toward you and you alone, for you alone can act upon it.


The paradox of faith is a paradox of isolation. Kierkegaard claims that he cannot speak the way Abraham does, but as he expresses throughout the pages prior to the selected passage, Abraham does not speak because he cannot speak. Isolation is the greatest challenge posed by faith and it is the condition most crucial to the movement’s authenticity.

In isolation, the knight of faith must remain silent, and this is the most distressful of all, for as a human, as a thing that only exists as a part of the whole, it goes completely against man’s nature to remain forever silent. If he were to speak, it would not matter because no one would understand. The absurd lacks all understanding and thus any understanding thereof cannot be conveyed to another mind. An attempt to do so would be futile. (80)

“The tragic hero relinquishes himself in order to express the universal; the knight of faith relinquishes the universal in order to become the single individual” (75). It is indeed glorious to be enveloped in the universal and radiate it out to the rest of the world so that others might perhaps, upon touching you, touch the universal themselves. Once having extended into the universal, the tragic hero is satisfied and secure. The knight of faith, however, must continue moving along a lonesome and narrow path, because faith must never lie dormant. The knight of faith can still radiate the universal, but must also radiate an absurd passion, an irrational certainty, by which others who wish to walk along a path of faith themselves can be encouraged, although it will not aid them in their own understanding of faith or offer support as they navigate their own steep and unsteady path; “the one knight of faith cannot help the other at all. Either the single individual himself becomes the knight of faith by accepting the paradox or he never becomes one” (71).

Hence, the leap of faith is wrought with fear. That is, fear does not propel one into faith, but is an internal barrier through which one must break as one makes the leap of faith. Like time and the certainty of existence, the immediate fear must be resigned and the anxiety that enflames the soul must be transformed into passion. In a state of fear, the body recoils, curls and presses itself into the earth. To feel fear but not succumb to its weight is to feel anxiety, which is a crouch that must then be repositioned into a spring powerful enough propel one into the great leap.


Only he who experiences anxiety can find rest. Only he who has the courage to let the mind stretch itself can gain better understanding. This is not simply the courage with which one must equip oneself when anxiety begins to boil up from within when facing a faceless ‘enemy’ like death (a vital component of Heidegger’s Dasein), but rather the courage to plunge into the absurd – an entirely new unknown.[2] The first courage, it seems to me, is more of an acceptance of the state of fear – a resiliency, and a component of the resignation that Kierkegaard speaks of. It is possible for resignation to supplant faith, as Kierkegaard confesses is the course of his own deviation from faith (48). The latter courage appears to be the key to finding peace and happiness in every moment of one’s life. It is active; a movement. Said courage is intertwined with love, for one cannot love truly and wholly without the courage faith demands from an individual (104). Courage is a kind of passion, but not one that ignites in a moment of fury and terror then, once past, exhausts and extinguishes the being’s potentiality for passion. Rather, it is a passion that permeates every fiber of the being, tenderizing the soul and unbending the mind. For the courage to be a courage of faith, it requires permanence and therefore must be instilled with an intrinsic quality of patience. The beginning of the movement is marked by suffering and so the end must be marked with a complete dissolution of said suffering. In the passage around which I have centered my analysis, Kierkegaard claims that suffering is forgotten in love. I believe it is wrong to say that the suffering is forgotten, for love is its own kind of suffering. Reflected from this distress is the purest calm. One cannot exist without the other, and so neither can or should be forgotten.

Finitude to Infinity to Finitude

In the realm of the absurd, human calculation is out of the question, for it has been long left behind. The fundamental understanding that one already possesses thereof and one’s sense of finitude must both be tossed to the wind. In embracing absurdity, one regains finitude, but in a new light (a greater appreciation of finitude, if you will). Finitude must be set free (allowed to exist simply as such) and thus one will be freed from the constraint of finitude. In freeing finitude, one sees the whole, lives wholly. It is important to note that living with an appreciation for the finite, in the clichéd sense, is not the first step in the movement of infinity – quite the opposite, in fact: “…having made the movements of infinity, [faith] makes the movements of finitude” (38).

The movement of infinity is wildly interesting and its layers so complex. Living first without finitude is to expect everything and nothing, and to be eternally satisfied with both. Everything is renounced and everything is recollected. The immense pain derived from both actions allows one to discover peace in the banal. Instead of finding tediousness and anxiety in routine, one finds in it a pleasant security.[3] The precision and assurance with which one moves with infinity is what allows one to simultaneously open one’s eyes onto the finite and to see it with greater clarity and acceptance than one normally would. To live this way is “to be able to come down in such a way [from a position of elevation] that instantaneously one seems to stand and to walk, to change the leap into life into walking, absolutely to express the sublime in the pedestrian…” (41).

Reaching toward infinity is a way of Being that is a state-of-mind; mental acuity and elevation that reaches beyond all worldly comprehension and existence. As such, he who moves with infinity and walks in the world has a step that lands heavily on the earth in a movement of solid and precise existence. We philosophers strive tirelessly to achieve such a way of being via reflection, but Kierkegaard claims, rather, that every movement of infinity is carried out through passion: “Faith is a marvel, and yet no human being is excluded form it; for that which unites all human life is passion, and faith is a passion” (67).

Courage and passion are inextricably intertwined. They are not absorbed from the world and the people surrounding the one who moves with infinity. No, they are born in the Self. For love can only be infinite (permanently retaining its youthful jubilance and purity) when one loves oneself, one’s own existence, infinitely (69). This is the only way love can become timeless. When one lives moving with infinity, then one’s love can saturate the depths of infinity. Once one learns to love one’s own Self, said love can then be drawn across all living things if one has the courage to see all beings as equally finite, thus possessing a life of equal value to one’s own. Infinite love has the potential to wash over all of humanity, all of the world, all of Life.

The target of one’s faith, thus, should be Life and all of its absurd essence. Life is, after all, the paradox of existence; the existence of such a fragile living and dying Life in a universe that has no concern for its existence is perhaps its most absurd quality.[4] And Death, the unknown nothingness which we fear most is that which shines light onto Life. After all, “temporality, finitude – that is what it is all about” (49). What is truly absurd, is loving one’s own finitude, and thus living in a movement of infinity. In the end, what is most important is the inwardness of faith. It starts and ends with the Self. No, it starts with the Self and ends will all existence. After one’s superficial tie to reality has been severed via renunciation, one enters the surreal and can then reclaim reality with a new appreciation for its true value; with love.

Kierkegaard depicts love as something that exists only between the knight of faith and God, thereby drawing the knight out of his fearful state of isolation. It is my own belief that God is the false target of this true love, and that an equal love can be drawn from and attributed to the collective and, what’s more, all of existence. This love blooms the moment one is humbled by one’s own triviality as a finite fragment of the Whole.

I don’t believe it is inappropriate for me to draw such a conclusion about the relationship between man and God as it pertains to Kierkegaardian faith. His theology is a humanist a-theology because there is no proposal of a necessary God. No one thing can express all spiritual and ethical complexity, nor can it express or exhaust the whole essence of the universe.[5] In addition, faith implies a guarantee (and a reciprocated acceptance) that you will never truly know or understand that in which you have faith – the most absolute thing. Why, then, must it be a God? The world is too beautiful and reality too remarkable for there to be a singular divine power behind it all. Instead of a God, I believe faith to be tethered to Existence itself, for it is humabity’s own untouchable, unattainable, incomprehensible thing.



A child floats in a bath, silent and alone. He turns his head to the side. Scaling the wall not far from his face is a spider. Naturally, one cannot help reproaching slightly upon sighting a spider so near, but the child shows no sign of trembling. Unaffected, he fixes his eyes on her every movement – her tiny abdomen and her delicate little legs’ steady, captivating gestures. The depth of perception engulfs time. In the still water drifts a calmness that washes over the child and pours into the space beyond which the little pool is contained. This spider, this infinitesimally small fraction of life, this perfect product of nature – out of this tiny spider blossoms faith. It does not emit from the creature’s perfection. No. Although her seamlessness is splendid, faith only begins to appear when the child leans closer and observes the true randomness of her movements; of her Being. There is an incredible beauty in the sporadic jerk of her legs and her inadvertent twitches in a moment of instability as she fixedly weaves her web. The randomness of her entire existence makes this little spider remarkable to behold, because this spider exists with the purest certainty. But this certainty comes easily to her because the spider has no awareness that she and her delicate web she tirelessly weaves can both be crushed at any moment. Such a thought does not weight heavy on the child’s soul. Elated, he simply continues to observe the randomness of the spider’s existence and the immeasurable beauty of her fragile finitude.

The child lifts his hand out of the water and turns his eyes away from the spider’s perfect legs to his own fleshy fingers and sees no difference – equally as admirable, equally as random, equally as perishable. He and the little spider, the child realizes, share the same existence, the same life, the same finitude, along with rest of the universe. With this realization, the boy transcends. But instead of becoming disjointed, his inner self is perfectly aligned.

His transcendence does not arise from an appreciation of life and all its infinite beauty, which, nonetheless, should be cherished with every exhale. Rather, the child is elevated to a state of assured faith the moment he sees life and existence as perishable and thus entirely nonsensical. Faith is only achieved when normativity and logic are tossed to the dogs who tear it apart in a hungry frenzy and leave a trail of distorted shreds in their wake. The child’s faith grows out of the spider and wraps itself around his small, naked body. The blanket is not a shield. Rather, it provides warmth when Death appears and holds the boy in his frigid hands. When he draws this blanket from the world again and again, the boy learns to fashion it into gloves, with which he adorns himself as he learns to walk through life hand in hand with Death.

When the boy goes out into the world, continually weaving a tapestry of faith, he gains an ever greater awareness that the simple absurdities of life and of the universe cannot and should not be reined in, diffused or rationalized by the minds of men. The labour is ultimately fruitless and dehumanizing. Absurdity is unique to every instance of one’s life and so it should highlight the beauty of every moment, of every breath, of every instance when one’s own existence encounters all other existence. Such a way of being in the world is free from temporal constraint. Randomness is potentiality; to see the randomness of all existence is to appreciate incredible depth.

Having tapped into this faith, the child’s whole being relaxes into the tranquil pool, from which he drinks patience and acquiescence to the absurd.

The child submerges himself under the water’s surface. He drifts there for a moment and watches the bubbles dance from his nose to the edge of the silent liquid cocoon. He sees them dissipate as they cross over into a world incapable of encapsulating the pockets of air; where every breath belongs to the biosphere. The child follows the vesicles and joins them above in the world of air. The oxygen tastes sweet on his tongue and in his lungs. His frame melts into the form of the tub, his head slipping back along the rounded ceramic brim then rolling to the side. He peers across his shoulder, only to find that the little spider had vanished.

So tentative is her existence. So much more precious are the delightful movements of her delicate legs, which exist now only in the child’s mind. This paradox of existence is enchanting, and would be petrifying, had the boy no faith in the universe’s absurd behavior.


One might view time as a river, flowing at a constant tempo in one direction. Nothing is lost and nothing is gained. We float along the surface, bouncing into one another as we move steadily in one cohesive direction. One can never walk through the same segment of water twice – either the Self has changed or the river has changed (123). One might claim that the Self is the river; that time, space, people, places, things flow through you. Either way, there is a limitation of possibility that emphasizes all other possibility. Every moment you live, therefore, requires a choice – to flow this way or that; to allow this or that to flow through you. Or, if you let fear take hold of you, to fight a bloody, relentless battle against the current like the Pacific salmon, which will inevitably be wrought with a distress to which there is no cessation. The only possible existence is surrendering everything to the universe; standing on a cliff with nothing in front of you but endless expansive nothingness in which everything is reflected back at you.

To the knight of faith, time, like the soul, is not a river but an ocean. Its calculable value is lost, and so it, like the soul, reflects infinity. Nothing is fixed and nothing is moving in any particular direction. The knight floats in the middle of the endless body of water, takes in infinity from every direction, and plunges into the depths at one moment, then levitates and flies high above the surface at the next. This is where the knight resides – dancing between realms of infinity. He dives into the deepest, darkest depths and when he runs out of oxygen, he bounds from one infinity to the other, where the inhale of a single breath is more sensational than ever before. The further the knight ventures from the surface where time and all other contours of existence stretch on a flat plane, the more easily he can look back on them and note that their dimensionality is a facade. Each time he returns to the surface, the tip of his finger touches it with an ever-heightened perceptibility.

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