by Chet Raymo
“I first read Soren Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” at about the same age as Kierkegaard was when he wrote it – thirty. The young philosopher was wrestling with his dark demons, including the death of his father, a sternly religious man who demanded absolute obedience from his son. He was torn between the opposing demands of faith and reason, certainty and doubt. In the opening pages of the book, he takes us with Abraham and Isaac on that terrible journey to Mount Moriah where God puts Abraham to a terrifying test of his faith.
What gives meaning to a life? Kierkegaard opted for belief. He wrote: “If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the foundation of all there lay only a wildly seething power which writhing with obscure passions produced everything that is great and everything that is insignificant, if a bottomless void never satiated lay hidden beneath all- what then would life be but despair?”
This is the fear that caused Abraham to raise the knife over his beloved son. This is the valley of shadow that drove Kierkegaard to choose heaven over earth, the unseen over the seen. This is the dread of a mindless oblivion that causes so many to choose faith over reason, certainty over doubt.
In “Fear and Trembling,” Kierkegaard says that “faith begins where thinking leaves off.” At the same age, Kierkegaard’s almost exact contemporary, another solitary philosopher with a fierce moral sensitivity, Henry David Thoreau, wrote in his journal: “I have just heard the flicker among the oaks on the hillside ushering in a new dynasty. Eternity could not begin with more security and momentousness than the spring. The summer’s eternity is reestablished by this note. All sights and sounds are seen and heard both in time and eternity. And when the eternity of any sight or sound strikes the eye or ear, they are intoxicated with delight.”
Some of us live our lives with our attention fixed on the hereafter. Others listen for the flicker’s note in the distant oaks. No less than traditional theists, religious naturalists need to believe that we are not poised above a bottomless void. If we are lucky, we understand that love and loyalty are blessings that well up out of the dark night in mysterious ways. We feel no need to make the terrible journey to Mount Moriah when every element of creation, great and small, here and now, is filled with redeeming grace.”
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