I recently embarked on a second reading of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, hoping to suck more marrow out of this rich text. As a guide for this journey, I checked out John Lippitt’s commentary on F&T. But beware of commentaries; they can sometimes prove a distraction, preventing one from focusing on the primary text. This has happened here, as I find myself spending more time disagreeing with Lippitt’s interpretations than engaging with the book directly. Thus, this post offers both my thoughts on F&T and a critique of Lippitt's notion of faith.
The central theme of F&T is the Akedah - Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah. Kierkegaard (via the book’s pseudonym, Johannes de silentio) never tires of praising Abraham, the father of faith. According to SK, Abraham’s faith involved a “double movement” - “infinite resignation” to the loss of Isaac, followed by belief “in virtue of the absurd” that Isaac would not be taken from him. To illustrate this concept, SK employs the example of a young lad who falls in love with a princess far above his meager social standing. As it becomes clear to the lad that he will never marry the princess, he becomes “the knight of infinite resignation”:
“So the knight [of infinite resignation] makes the movement – but what movement? Will he forget the whole thing?... No! For the knight does not contradict himself… The knight remembers everything, but precisely this remembrance is pain, and yet by the infinite resignation he is reconciled with existence.”
But if the lad had faith, like Abraham, he would make an extra movement, the movement of faith:
“Now we will let the knight of faith appear in the role just described. He makes exactly the same movements as the other knight, infinitely renounces claim to the love which is the content of his life, he is reconciled in pain; but then occurs the prodigy, he makes still another movement more wonderful than all, for he says, ‘I believe nevertheless that I shall get her, in virtue, that is, of the absurd, in virtue of the fact that with God all things are possible.’… At the moment when the knight made the act of resignation, he was convinced, humanly speaking, of the impossibility… so the only thing that can save him is the absurd, and this he grasps by faith.”
It appears that Lippitt cannot understand this double movement, which, in his estimation, “involves simultaneously believing two mutually contradictory propositions”: that the lad will not marry the princess and that he will marry her (or, that Abraham will have to sacrifice Isaac and that Isaac will not be taken from him). In short, Lippitt does not understand why the knight of faith must first become the knight of resignation.
To solve this dilemma, Lippitt argues that “Johannes’ view of faith is inherently confused” and that it doesn’t represent SK’s true conception of faith. Lippitt instead advocates for Ronald L. Hall’s reading of the text, in which resignation is described as “annulled possibility.” Here, resignation is the antithesis of faith, not its necessary precursor; whereas the knight of resignation tries to transcend the pain of the world by refusing it, the knight of faith lives fully in the world. Lippitt, quoting Hall, writes:
Human existence is ‘intrinsically subject to possibility, and hence to anxiety, to vulnerability, to loss. The faithful self does not put these elements to rest, she plunges forward through them. The faithful self is continually called to embrace the world in all of its fragility, for she recognizes that it is, at any moment, in her power to refuse. The knight of faith knows that such a refusal would bring with it a form of existence that would be other than the human, and to this possibility she must continually say ‘no!’.