Kierkegaard and the Silence of Faith

Laura Nelson
22 min readAug 17, 2020
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1 — Kierkegaard the Quiet

Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling is a disconcerting book, not only to its readers but also to its pseudonymous author, Johannes de Silentio, John of Silence. Johannes tries to understand the faith of Abraham, father of nations, but in the end cannot embrace the paradoxes it embodies. Johannes’s name is well chosen. In the end, he remains quiet.

If we take Kierkegaard at his word that his authorship was essentially religious, even in its beginnings in the “aesthetic” works, and if we take Johannes at his word that he does not find faith to be possible for him, or Abraham to make sense for him, then the nature of the faith described, articulated, and defended in Fear and Trembling raises all sorts of questions. It also fails to definitively answer any of them. Are we all, then, whether we believe or not, consigned to Johannes’s silence?

While he admits he can’t understand him, Johannes nonetheless admires Abraham, the central character of the work, as a Knight of Faith. Yet Johannes portrays Abraham’s intended sacrifice of Isaac, at God’s command, to be ethically abominable, on any workable account of the Ethical. Fear and Trembling gets stranger still when Johannes tries to parse the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, as falling under a “teleological suspension of the ethical” — a suspension that he finds not only cogent but praiseworthy, even as he cannot himself make that leap. Is Johannes saying that it is God’s command, and God’s command alone, that matters — that if God commands human sacrifice, we are duty bound to comply? Or is he using the Akedah as an allegory of what faith really is, and how to distinguish it from simulacra of faith? Can one determine this on the basis of the text itself?

Is Johannes confessing his failure to understand Abraham’s faith to be a fault of his own, his inability to carry out a suspension of the ethical? If he acknowledges it as his fault, why, then, can he not take the leap of faith? Is he raising questions about the teleological suspension of the ethical even as he is defending it?

By having Johannes “author” Fear and Trembling, is Kierkegaard playing games with his readership — shocking them yet never softening the blow of seeing the teleological suspension of the ethical as something that can…

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Laura Nelson

Writer, philosopher, information technologist,guitarist, neurotic, polite radical, avid and indiscriminate reader, Episcopalian, trans woman.