The Book of Genesis is nothing new to me.The stories contained within it have been told to me for as long as I can remember, first as a preschooler in Sunday School. and later throughout 13 years of Catholic education. These continuous retellings left little room for interpretation; we were told the story, why it was important and what it meant. This information was drilled into my mind so thoroughly that I never had any doubt that the way I had been told the tales was the only truth. Being asked to examine the Book of Genesis from an objective standpoint, and to discover meaning, connections and themes was something I never considered and found very difficult to do.

It was not because I was I was deeply religiously connected to the stories that this essay was so hard to write for me, but rather the challenge of looking at things from a new standpoint and delving deeper into texts I had for so long thought I knew. I realised that over the many years of hearing the stories, I had begun to not think of them as part of a book, but rather as commonplace tales that everyone just knows. It was extremely difficult for me push past this immediate recognition and regurgitation of Genesis, and to come up with arguments to support ideas and thoughts that conflicted so bizarrely with what I thought I knew about this book.

The chance to explore this text with a new perspective has allowed me to see the possibilities that arise from looking at old stories in a new light, and how allowing myself to let go of preconceived notions can open many new areas of thought.

Fear and Trembling

Soren Kiekergaard’s Fear and Trembling instills a sense of curiosity and confusion in me. I find most readers share this opinion, as the text takes many different directions. Kierkegaard chose to focus his text on the Abraham and Isaac story, a tale of a father who is instructed by the ‘God’ figure to sacrifice his son. There can be found many interpretations as to the reasons behind why God asked Abraham to sacrifice his kin but I want to offer my ideas. I’ve been thinking a lot about the ‘why’ behind both God’s and Abraham’s actions.

Though it is never stated in Genesis that God is omniscient, there are indications of Him possessing advanced knowledge. He is understood as a powerful being, having created plants, animals, man, etc. Readers aren’t given much sense of God’s character. His emotions, thoughts, and interior workings, if He even possesses these qualities, aren’t expressed in Genesis, which leads a reader to question the purpose and motives of the God figure in Genesis. When Kierkegaard poses the controversial and unsettling question of why God told the human He created to commit murder, we grapple with a satisfactory answer. I’ve been playing with the idea that maybe God wanted to set the example that He should be honoured, revered and respected above all else including the ethical responsibility to family. I’m sure we all shudder at the notion of asking one to commit murder to prove that another human is of less importance than the divine. It’s an idea I find unnerving but also interesting. From the text of Genesis, we know God has some form of knowledge that is beyond comprehension; he seems to know things he shouldn’t or would have no way of knowing. Therefore, we can assume, based strictly from what I’m extracting from the text, that He is above humans. His level of intelligence and superiority is above mankind. After all, he did create the human race. He came first and has reign over his creation of the human race. If we assume this, could it be likely that He wanted Abraham to demonstrate his utter obedience and trust to God? Abraham did not commit murder. He was instructed to do so, but God stopped him before the deed was committed. Maybe the reason Abraham acquiesced was due to his devotion to God. On page 95 of Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard says that, “faith is a passion.” I personally agree with this statement and see this reflected in Abraham’s actions. I believe he obeys God because the awe and fear of God is so ingrained within him that he can’t imagine saying no to God. Kierkegaard touches on this on page 58 of Fear and Trembling in reference to Abraham, “‘his greatness was that he so loved God that he was willing to offer him the best he had.'” Maybe that dominion over man is what God wanted to put through its paces. The idea of God experimenting and testing His creation is an interesting idea to scrutinize. Potentially in the Abraham story this experimentation and questioning of the abilities of man plays out.

I think a large part of understanding the Abraham and Isaac story is to first understand the character of God as He holds such a critical role. I present the question for further exploration, is it possible that God never intended for Abraham to kill Isaac, and instead wanted to use the relationship of father and son to test the spiritual tenacity of mankind?

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Meeting Myths

“Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them” (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 490)


This week, I revisited Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling for Arts One. This text is one that has, in many ways, haunted me for almost a decade. I’ve read it several times, recommended it to others, and most importantly, struggled with it. Because you are meant to struggle with this text. It is meant to unsettle you, create dis-ease, confusion, uncertainty and–to put it bluntly–blow your mind. It is an exercise in thinking about something beyond thought, after all! And I think that’s why the text has always intrigued me. I am fascinated by the idea of pushing thought further and further, of testing the boundaries of intelligible reason, of wondering why Kierkegaard found himself so caught up in the intelligibility of the Abraham story.

On that last point, there is one enduring theory that is referenced even in the introduction to our own edition: Kierkegaard’s relationship with Regine Olsen. Kierkegaard’s father was a melancholy man who was consumed by guilt and depression. His guilt was never entirely explained, but may have derived from the fact that he slept with Kierkegaard’s mother out of wedlock when she was still a maid in his home. Kierkegaard appears to have inherited this depressed, melancholy and guilt-ridden temperament from his father. His mother and several of his seven siblings died before Kierkegaard was 21, many dying in childhood. Kierkegaard himself was convinced that he would not live much past 33, though again, the reason for this is unclear. But this back-story is necessary in order to understand Kierkegaard’s relationship with Regine Olsen.

Kierkegaard met Regine in 1837 and proposed to her in 1840. She accepted him. However, in 1841, Kierkegaard broke off the engagement, much to Olsen’s confusion and dismay. When he was asked why, Kierkegaard never did give a satisfactory answer. Some speculate that he broke the engagement off because he was afraid of his impending early death, and fearful of leaving Olsen widowed. Some said he was fearful that his melancholy temperament would make him an unsuitable husband and father. But some people suppose that Olsen was Kierkegaard’s Isaac; she was his test of faith. That is, Kierkegaard sometimes claimed that he could not see how be a good husband and father and be the religious scholar he felt called upon to be at the same time. While this might be dismissed as someone making the decision to pursue fame and glory over pursuing a life of home and family (a perfectly rational and intelligible decision) some scholars suggest that this is only what Kierkegaard said. What he meant, what he could not say, was that he was being tested.

If he was being tested, it seems possible that he failed the test. He never got Olsen back (as Abraham got Isaac). Instead, she married another, and Kierkegaard lived alone. However, indications are that he never stopped loving Olsen. He left everything to her in his will.  If he failed the test, it seems to have been because he could not sustain the duel movement of faith. Indeed, Johannes de Silentio claims at many places in Fear and Trembling to be able to understand, and even to make, the move of infinite resignation (giving up Isaac/Olsen) but not the double-movement required of faith (giving up Isaac/Olsen, but still believing that one will get him/her back somehow). That is, de Silentio cannot sustain the paradox of believing two conflicting beliefs. And it is possible that Kierkegaard cannot as well.

So, Kierkegaard’s fascination with the Abraham/Isaac story is often thought to result from his own love, and loss of, Regine Olsen. But I don’t want to jump too quickly to the conclusion that Kierkegaard and de Silentio are the same person, or share the same experiences and perspectives. They may, they may not. Indeed, part of the reason Kierkegaard may have written under this pseudonym may have been to distance himself from these ideas and theories. Another reason may have been his desire for us to meet these ideas on their own merits, and not do what I just did: explain them away as a result of Kierkegaard’s past experience.

Still, when I read this text, I am vividly aware of how intimate and passionate it is. This is not an essay. It is, as one student recently put it to me, more like a diary, or a stream of consciousness. It is a personal exploration of an old myth. Whether he intended to or not, whether this is about Olsen or not, the text will contain elements of Kierkegaard’s identity within it, simply because he wrote it. And, in writing it, he brought his own lived experiences to bear. This doesn’t invalidate Kierkegaard’s reading of the Abraham/Isaac story, nor do I think it allows us to dismiss his interpretation. What it does do, is illuminate something interesting about interpreting texts. Interpretation is personal. It is a meeting of you and the myth. You bring your life experiences to the meeting, and the myth brings all the past interpretations and discussions. But what comes out of this meeting is unique.

Which brings me to the quote from Camus with which I started this blog post. It’s one of my favorite Arts One quotes. And I think Kierkegaard exemplifies it. He breathes life into this Abraham story, possibly by breathing his own lived experiences, his own unfulfilled hopes and dreams, into the myth from Genesis. And in doing so, he attempts to flesh out the subtle characterizations of Abraham, Isaac and Sarah as represented in the original biblical text. We may not agree with the life he breathed into these texts. We may take issue with them, or delight in them, or be unsettled or confused by them. And we may want to breathe our own life both into Fear and Trembling and into Genesis itself.

All these options are open to us this week. In speaking about these texts, we bring them to life again. But, in speaking about them, we aren’t being silent.

Perhaps that’s another reason Johannes di Silentio (and by extension, Kierkegaard) returns to this text. Perhaps his obsession with this text was a way to drown out the silence.


For more on Kierkegaard and Regine Olsen, see: