Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher, lived from 1813 to 1855. In his work, Fear, and Trembling, he engages with the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of his son Issac.
Scholars point to Kierkegaard’s exploration of literary figures like Don Juan, the wandering Jew, and Faust during his time as a student as an early pretext for his desire to find existential models for his own life. He is now widely considered to be the first existentialist philosopher. His theories and ideas contributed largely to Western philosophical thought.
However, his existential beliefs revolve in large part around his love Regina Olsen. Scholars believe that Kierkegaard’s experience of love and the loss of love directly influences Fear and Trembling.
In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard says that “I am convinced that God is love…” (Fear and Trembling). He takes Abraham and Issac’s story as metaphorically tied with parts of the human experience rather than being a literal anecdote on the necessity of physical sacrifice. In this essay, I will connect Abraham’s intention to sacrifice Issac to Kierkegaard’s wrestling with the idea of love from his own experiences. In conjunction, these two scenarios serve to illuminate the more significant concept of selfless love in the Bible.
In the first part of the book, Kierkegaard gives alternative examples and auxiliary stories of what happened on Mount Moriah. In the first interpretation, Abraham scolds his son and tells him that he desires to sacrifice him rather than God’s. Shortly after that, he cries out to God: “Lord in heaven, I thank you; it is surely better for him to believe I am a monster than to lose faith in you” (Kierkegaard 9). Thus, Abraham portrays to his son that he is assuming responsibility for killing him instead of leaving the responsibility to fall on God. In doing so, Abraham prevents his son from losing faith in higher sovereignty by making the decision a personal one.
Kierkegaard’s existential views spur significantly from the sense of loss and despair he felt after his separation from Regina. Thus, this quote reflects Kierkegaard’s plea to humanity not to blame the love itself for its failure but instead blame oneself through the mouth of Abraham.
The second section of the book is titled, A Tribute to Abraham. On the surface, the passage speaks to the moral perfection of Abraham. Yet, it more generally describes the qualifications for a perfectly righteous man and the force of love and its significance to humanity. He ties the genuine struggle with God to achieving greatness over all others. “For the one who struggled with the world became great by conquering himself, but the one who struggled with himself became great by conquering himself, but the one who struggled with God was greater than everybody” (Kierkegaard 13).
His struggle with his loss of love allowed Kierkegaard to see the finitude of life. Similar to Abraham, Kierkegaard wrestled with God, or love, in the surrendering of that thing in which they loved. For Abraham, it was Issac, and for Kierkegaard, it was Regina. Abraham struggled with God, Kierkegaard with love by coming to terms with the idea of love in its most brutal state. They both loved the one whom they were ready to lose. Kierkegaard believed that love in its purest form was utterly unselfish, an idea repeated in the Bible repeatedly. For Abraham to be willing to sacrifice his son reinforced the concept of this selfless love. To love someone dead, or lost, would mean that you can not receive anything in return.
Kierkegaard’s writing on Abraham in Fear and Trembling shares parallels to his own life. The willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son, one of his most loved possessions, represents the highest form of love. Likewise, Kierkegaard’s love of Regina, who he lost, is also the highest form of love he could give her. Thus, in Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard’s life is paralleled to Abrahams by the metaphor of sacrifice and selfless love.