Bunnies, Ducks, and One Great Dane

Caravaggio: The Sacrifice of Isaac (Detail)

Caravaggio: The Sacrifice of Isaac (Detail)

And Abraham stretched forth his hand and took the knife to slay his son. — Genesis 22:10

Zvi and I are going down the stairs at the Park Street T stop in Boston when we pass a downcast-looking guy disinterestedly handing out small single-fold paper booklets. Surprise, surprise, they’re Christian religious pamphlets. Bible quotations in bold, have faith and be saved, no life but Jesus, repent your sins, write us at this address to learn more.

“Do you think anyone has ever written to them?” I ask Zvi.

“I don’t know,” he says, “But I’d pay good money for the list of people who did. They’ll buy anything.”


I like to think that I’m an unbeliever because I have high standards. I don’t date religions I wouldn’t marry, and I don’t care for sectarian pick-up lines. I know before I even answer the door that I’m not about to let Jesus into my heart, to say nothing of my living room. There’s just something off to me about any religion that offers street-corner salvation and door-to-door deliverance, something unconvincing. What does it say about your mysteries if they fit on an index card, if they can be put in words at all? I mean, come on, stand up straight there, don’t mumble like that, take yourself seriously for once. Do you believe in something beyond human reason or not? You do? Then stop trying to reason with me!

I wish I could say I came by my skepticism on my own, but I didn’t. I wish I could even say someone came along and persuaded me into it, but no. A long-dead Dane extolling faith drove me away. He wanted nothing more than genuine religious belief on the part of his readers, and for his troubles he got from me a rejection of the whole idea. His soaring defense of faith may be the worst knife in the back faith has ever received.

Denmark in the 1840s was a prosperous and church-going nation, combining a Scandinavian sense of middle-class propriety with a German taste for order, prone to congratulating itself on the quality of its piety. Its philosophers worked mostly in the shadow cast by the late G.W.F. Hegel, and Hegelian thought makes a decent metaphor for Danish society: convinced of a harmonious fusion of religion, reason, and everyday life, obsessed with systematizing and ordering the world, rational to the point of self-parody. Faith was a public affair, reasonable and uncontroversial. Going to church on Sundays was like eating mutton for dinner or reading a little philosophy by the fire in the evening: pleasant, uplifting, and all for the best.

In other words, it was a terrible society to be born into if you were one-half as prickly, one-half as ungainly, or one tenth as depressive as Søren Kierkegaard. Like Hans Christian Anderson, Kierkegaard was one of those curious Danish geniuses whose literary inspirations are of a piece with their own intense social discomfort, thwarted Samsons whose works hum with the sublimated desire to pull down the temple on their own heads. Against the complacent religiosity of mid-century Denmark, he wrote Fear and Trembling as though to remind his countrymen what real religion entailed.

Writing under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio, Kierkegaard brings Abraham, that “father of faith,” in for a probing interrogation. Why is it, Kierkegaard asks, that Abraham is venerated for his willingness to go after the innocent Isaac with a knife? Christ has his desert, Jonah has his whale, Job has his boils and sores, but the test God sets Abraham is of a different and more disturbing sort. Being willing to die for God is one thing, ethically speaking, but being willing to kill for His sake is quite another. God told Abraham to commit murder, and Abraham obeyed, cheerfully, quietly, faithfully — and for this he is praised? To a nation of pious churchgoers, this ought to be quite a shock.

After all, should anyone be so inspired by Abraham’s example as to emulate it, no amount of scriptural quotation would keep us from recoiling in shock or pressing criminal charges. “If a person lacks the courage to think his thought all the way through and say that Abraham was a murderer,” Kierkegaard writes, then Abraham is no hero and we may as well go home. “If faith cannot make it a holy act to be willing to murder his son, then let the same judgment be passed on Abraham as on everyone else.”

It is said that with love, all things are possible, but with faith, all things are holy. Even murder. You don’t get too many people ringing your doorbell wanting to talk about filicide. Conversationally, it’s kind of a non-starter. If someone sits down with you and starts talking about the blood and the gore and the hey hey, are you going to believe them when they say “God said to do it?” Sure He did, sure He did, and can you please sit still while I call the police?

That service to God might conflict with ordinary ethical intuition is such a strange concept that the mind will bend over backwards to avoid facing it. He who kills in the name of Allah blasphemes Islam, it is said — but who knows what voices killers hear in their heads? Is that Allah speaking, or just a bad echo in the frontal cortex? You never can tell.

Little wonder that the openly religious make people nervous. It’s not just that hermits aren’t comfortable with other people; other people aren’t comfortable with them. Prophets and priests are shut away in caves and temples to keep the unaccountable divine essence from leaking out. Nothing is scarier to the authorities than a new sect on the rise, and with good reason. Falun Gong; Branch Davidians; Aum Shrinkyo. Christianity.

Look at things from a Roman perspective for a moment. Jupiter and Minerva didn’t much care about faith. As long as the sacrificial animals kept coming, it was all good. A pious man kept an orderly house, was obedient toward the state, and didn’t make trouble. No priest going through the sheep entrails expected to find instructions to “make it a human next time.” But those monotheists? Those crazy Christians with their doctrine of faith and their transcendental theology? The very center of their religion was an impossibility.

You can’t trust people like that with anything. Loan one of them 20 sesterces and he’ll come back to you next week with some sob story about Christ appearing to him in a vision and telling him to give the money to the poor instead. The Romans understood that deep down, the man of faith is a sociopath. His mind is fixed on eternity, besides which matters of this world concern him not at all, and you had better hope that the god giving him orders didn’t tell him to kill you in your sleep. For is it not written in their gospels that “if any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple?”


Faith is an optical illusion. Look at it one way and it’s a fluffy bunny; look at it another and it’s a duck with a murderous glint in its eye. But of course the duck and the bunny are one and the same, and so it is with faith. God is terrible, awful, unknowable. God is great, transcendental, wise beyond all human understanding. To enter into faith is to give up reason for something higher: That’s what makes it faith, that’s what justifies it, that’s the whole point. The divine presence descends into the world, and where it alights, the old rules no longer apply. Too bad for those of us who like those rules, but if you’re not prepared to give them up, well, you’ve got a lot of nerve, telling God what He can and can’t demand.

This is the bunny face of Kierkegaard. Faith is the highest, faith is an absolute, beyond faith there can be nothing. He praises faith, stands in awe before its paradoxes. He writes to inspire new humility and new ambition, to encourage others on the difficult and lonely journey to its dizzying heights.

But when I read Fear and Trembling, I see the duck. Faith is lonely, terrifying, immoral, and irrational. There is no way to justify it logically, there is no way to approach it reasonably. Faith takes every ethical rule and suspends it; faith laughs at all that is human. And if, by divine grace, you should find your way into faith, you will become a little inhuman yourself, unable to explain or communicate the wonder and the knowledge that now fill your heart.


I wonder if that’s what old Søren was thinking when he wrote Fear and Trembling. As with so much in that elliptical and allusive book, it’s a little hard to tell. As Johannes de Silentio, Kierkegaard is a man without faith. Like a religious Socrates, perhaps, Silentio knows only that he does not know God, and from this humility flows his insistence that no one else knows, either. He magnifies faith into something remote and harsh by starting from beyond it, which makes it a sort of ironic critique of faith.

Little wonder that the confirmed faithless might find such a perspective appealing. Fear and Trembling is full of sentences like “Abraham cannot speak, because he cannot say that which would explain everything (that is, so it is understandable): That it is an ordeal such that, please note, the ethical is the temptation.” They may have been meant as exaltations of Abraham’s faith in God, but to me they read more as laments over Abraham’s isolation from everyone else.

Unless that’s not it at all. Two years before writing Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard broke off his engagement to Regine Olsen. He offered little reason, suggesting only that the fault was entirely his and that something in his temperament made him unsuitable for matrimony. It was the self-mutilating act of a depressive, convinced that he is capable only of making others miserable, and the cheerful Regine seems to have taken it more or less in stride, eventually marrying the suitor Kierkegaard had displaced when he started wooing her.

Kierkegaard, on the other hand, remained obsessed in a complicated self-loathing sort of way, shoving a new figure into his philosophical works: the seducer, aghast at his own baseness, who tries to save his victim from himself. Part III of Fear and Trembling is the longest and strangest: Abraham shares the stage with Faust and a wild mer-man. His silence to Isaac becomes, in a slightly obscure way, analogous to the lies the mer-man tells so that the maiden he has seduced will not follow him and drown. And this is where Kierkegaard’s personal history makes me sit up and take notice, for if he is with these analogies emphasizing the dangerous, almost demonic, element of faith, he is also making the reverse comparison, suggesting that even the evil and the banal may be concealing in their hearts a nobility of purpose.

Such is the final inversion of faith: that it is just as hidden in the heart of a grocer as it is in the heart of murderer. To those of us on the outside looking in, which is all of us all of the time, we can never say that someone else lacks faith, that his actions are not in accordance with some God-given command. So maybe the whole exercise, the doubt and the horror, are all just to convince us not to look so harshly on Kierkegaard the feckless fiancée, to suggest that beneath the banal and boring explanations for his behavior might lie a purer, less selfish motivation.


Even if it is, I prefer to take Fear and Trembling closer to face value, to believe that it is more than just one man’s allegory of his own life. Just as I believe that along with respect for faith comes horror, I believe that along with respect for faith comes, well, respect. Who am I to question the faith of abortion-clinic killers? Let them come under every judgment our civic law can offer, let not God’s command stand as a defense in the courtroom. But between a man and his God, let no other man intervene. I hope never to upbraid anyone for lying when they claim to act on His instructions, or to criticize them for the poor quality of their scriptural scholarship in overlooking the Sixth Commandment.

Perhaps I’ve been too harsh on the Romans, to say that theirs was a pantheon without the oddities of faith; after all, it takes a certain inexplicable spark to seek out signs and portents in the movements of birds, and at this distance, who can say? “They who carry the treasure of faith are likely to disappoint, for externally they have a striking resemblance to bourgeois philistinism,” writes Kierkegaard, and maybe he is defending his own incongruous actions, or maybe he is being bitingly sarcastic about his countrymen, but maybe, just maybe, he is allowing that even self-satisfied mutton-eating businessmen may have faith after their own fashion. The 700 Club, the mullahs of the Taliban, celebrity Buddhists, and uninspiring preachers the world over: There’s no such thing as a dumb religion, because there’s no such thing as a smart one either.

And that guy on the T handing out brochures? There is someone out there convinced by such trifles, who would believe in their truth, who sees in them all the workings of faith and the hand of the Lord. Who? The guy handing them out.

Faith moves mountains, kills the innocent, and sends you down into the subway with an armful of pamphlets. And I do faith no insult when I say that I do not understand it, never have, and most likely never will.

James Grimmelmann is a programmer and writer. He lives in Boston, where he maintains the Laboratorium.