Faith, it goes without saying, is a personal thing. It is a private aspect of a person's life that may, if they wish, become public, though there is no real need for this to occur. Faith is something that cannot be explained - certainly not to the satisfaction of an atheist; rather, it is something that is believed. Faith, in short, is faith. The particularities of faith are among the causes of many great schisms of the last thousand or so years of European history. Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard's small, dense work on faith, tackles the problem of what it means to believe.
In the 19th century, secular philosophy believed that religion was explicable, whereas the difficulties of Hegel were exceedingly great:
'I for my part have devoted a good deal of time to the understanding of the Hegelian philosophy, I believe also that I understand it tolerably well, but when in spite of the trouble I have taken there are certain passages I cannot understand, I am foolhardy enough to think that he himself has not been quite clear. All this I do easily and naturally, my head does not suffer from it. But on the other hand when I have to think of Abraham, I am as though annihilated.'
Annihilated. Kierkegaard explores the biblical story of Abraham, who was commanded by God to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. Abraham sets out with the full intention of doing so, but is prevented at the last moment. A ram is provided as a sacrifice instead. Kierkegaard saw this as the supreme example of what it means to have faith, and how faith could never be properly understood through the lens of faith. He puts forth, at the start, alternate versions of internal thoughts for Sarah (Abraham's wife), Abraham and Isaac, and then explores what it means that Abraham was willing to go to such lengths for God.
The concepts Kierkegaard is dealing with are obviously very heavy, but there is a lightness of touch to his philosophy that makes reading Fear and Trembling a pleasure rather than a chore. Kierkegaard's language is conversational, almost casual, but it is also elegant and powerful. He wrote the novella through the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio, but the text is heavily personalized throughout, with much of the opinion coming directly from the author. Kierkegaard suggests that 'the ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he was willing to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he was willing to sacrifice Isaac.' He goes on to say that it is this very contradiction that shows the chasm between reason and faith. For any reason, and in almost any context, the story of Abraham is the story of a man willing to murder his own son. But only when the story is read from the viewpoint of faith does it become something more, indeed it becomes something so far above our experience that Abraham will forever remain impossible to understand.
He asks whether the duty to obey God supersedes the ethically negative choice to murder. To say that Abraham acted admirably or ethically is to miss the point, Kierkegaard answers. Abraham acted with faith. He was not, at any time, aware of the outcome of his actions, other than the outcome which had been directly demanded by God. He was going to sacrifice his son with the full understanding that what he was doing was committing murder in the name of God. That he was spared at the final instant reflects nothing on Abraham, because he passed every challenge perfectly. If Abraham had known Isaac would be spared, the whole story would remain at a level which we, as humans using our reason, could understand. But that he did not know, that he was willing to sacrifice his son, shows a level of faith that can only be understood by faith.
Kierkegaard asks difficult questions with Fear and Trembling. Faith, whether one possesses it or not, is a fascinating topic for discussion and contemplation. Kierkegaard was writing at a time when faith was on the wane - and this time has arguably continued until the present - indeed, when philosophical energy was devoted to purely secular problems. He argues, emphatically and convincingly, that a true understanding of God can only come about after a supreme test of faith akin to that of Abraham's. Abraham proved that he had faith by being faithful in the absolute sense of the word - Kierkegaard dubs him a Knight of Faith. He also introduces the concept of a knight of infinite resignation who, though they may live a similarly heroic, majestic, important, influential life, know that at some stage they will get it all back - be it historical justification, or wealth and power while they are alive. Abraham only knew that he would end his day having killed his only son, and yet he still climbed the mountain and raised his knife high. That is faith.