Kierkegaard and the work of faith

I was talking, on Monday this week, during the lecture of Kiekegaards’ Fear and Trembling, about the conception of faith. The notes that I have just uploaded to the students page don’t really touch on this discussion since they are still predominantly reading notes – though the section in there about the various different forms of conceiving of the work that we are meant to do is central to these thoughts.

The idea goes something like this: in the ‘Preamble from the heart’ Kierkegaard uses this continuous trope of ‘work’, of having to do some work in order to do justice to the subject. The subject under discussion is Abraham’s faith, his act of intended sacrifice/murder of Isaac, and the faith that underlies this act. Thus there is a certain amount of work that we need to do in order to understand his concept of faith, this experience of faith that is the one that makes Abraham sleepless, anxious. Without this work we will not be able to reduplicate the passion of the thought, we will not be able to truly shudder at the thought of faith.

If there is a certain amount of work to do, what exactly is this work? How would we know that we’re engaging in it, let alone succeeding in it? What happens through this work…

The suggestion I was making was that we have to do the work in order to rid ourselves of the concept of faith as a comfort, as a form of knowledge that we have because we have faith – faith, in this ‘comfort’ situation, provides us with a ground or major premiss for a general outlook on life or at least the specific situation of Abraham’s sacrifice. It provides us with some security – but then the issue becomes one of how does it do so and is this what Kierkegaard / Johannes Silentio means

If we take the following structure we might see what I mean. We begin with a concept of faith that we bring to the table, something that derives from the commonsense understanding that is given us along with the giving of our language and its various meanings and concepts. We then engage in a work of philosophy, of questioning and thinking, which produces not a different concept (trust, perhaps) but instead a transformed concept of faith. The work both maintains and transforms this concept of faith, replacing the comfort viewpoint with one of trepidation, question, anxiety. This, after all, is precisely the concept of faith that seems to be inherent in Abraham – he is not simply ‘doing as God tells him’ in a comfortable way, in a dumb and unquestioning way – as though the questions never even occured to him. Rather he seems to be presented by Kierkegaard as precisely troubled, shuddering, aware of what he is doing and thus aware of the questions that arise (was it God talking to me, not the devil? why would God order me to do such a terrible thing? how can I murder Isaac? just because God tells me to do it, it doesn’t mean it is right – God must be telling me to do it because it’s right, but I can’t see how it is…and similiar such thoughts.) Without these worries, these anxieties, these questions it seems inconceivable that the struggle Abraham purportedly has could exist – what is the struggle if not with the apparent answers to these questions, answers which would imply disobeying God…faith, as Abraham has it, then seems to not be a comfort but precisely a capacity to act in the midst of the most terrible questioning, to carry out an act or move to do so in the midst of the questions. Without the questions the act of faith becomes dumb – no longer an act of faith, merely one of obedience, requiring nothing active from me but only a slave like passivity. Abraham isn’t just obeying – he is obeying in faith and thus obeying as the struggle with anxiety and questions. It is this struggle that characterises faith, or at least the faith of Abraham as Johannes wants to portray it.

Article written by

philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

Please comment with your real name using good manners.

Leave a Reply