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Kierkegaard and the secret weapon against fear


Ryan McGuire - PD

Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble - published on 11/29/16

Fear is a part of the human condition. But faith is the antidote.

I was working in San Francisco for a successful startup company when the housing bubble burst and the United States entered a severe recession. I don’t know if those days of fear are etched in anyone else’s mind like they are in mine, but just working in a big city gave me a sense of the anxiety that coursed through the nation’s veins.

When the stock market plummeted at a frightening rate, some of my coworkers started to check their retirement portfolios obsessively. Every day on my way to work, I would observe men and women walking more briskly than usual, heads down, talking on their phones in lowered voices. Everyone looked afraid all the time.

Even though I was young and not nearing retirement, I absorbed the fear in the air. One day, I was talking on the phone in the atrium outside my office and I asked my mom half-seriously if she thought our family could manage to live off the land if something terrible really happened. (She thought we would make it with our combined skills. Big families are the best.)

Of course, the United States is the richest country in the world and recession or no recession we are privileged in many ways. But turmoil is turmoil. People all over the world feel panic for many different reasons, but we all share the universal experience of fear.

In the famous philosophical work Fear and Trembling, Søren Kierkegaard makes a distinction between what he sees as two movements of faith. He paints a picture for his readers describing the first movement toward faith as a knight who cannot marry the princess he loves. This “knight of resignation” accepts the pain of not being with his love, but he believes that in the eternal, all will be returned to him.

Though Kierkegaard admires this knight, he argues that real faith is more like the faith of Abraham in Scripture. Like the knight of resignation, Abraham is willing to give up his son Isaac because God asks it of him. Abraham knows that it is impossible to do what God asks without losing Isaac. But despite this reality, Abraham continues to believe that he will get Isaac back in this life. This absurd belief is what Kierkegaard considers real faith. He calls Abraham, our father in faith, a “knight of faith.”

Of course, there are many more subtleties to this great work that cannot be covered in 1,000 words or less. But the remarkable argument Kierkegaard makes for the radical, paradoxical essence of faith reveals the Christian’s powerful antidote to fear.

Very often, fear has reasonable foundations. We can exaggerate our fears, but there are very real, rational reasons that we feel afraid. And we do feel frightened, all the time. Fear is a part of the human condition. It is no mistake that Scripture repeats the words, “Do not fear” and “Do not be afraid” over and over.

There is much to fear in the world.

But faith is the antidote to fear.

Faith is not irrational. It does not look at the world and say, “Everything is going to be just fine no matter what.” No, faith looks at the world and makes the movement of resignation, acknowledging that sometimes it seems impossible for things to resolve well. The person of faith sees the logic, the impossibility, and accepts the pain that comes along with it. A person of faith is not naive. A person of faith does not see the world through rose-colored glasses. But the person of faith sees reality and accepts it, knowing God is in charge.

But Kierkegaard rightly points out that faith does not stop there. Faith sees what is possible in this life, and still believes in the impossible. Following in the footsteps of our father in faith, Abraham, a person of faith believes that all will be well in this life, not just in the next. A person of faith who knows a powerful, loving God believes with all of his or her heart that our God is a God of the impossible.Jesus himself told us, “What is impossible for human beings is possible for God” (Lk 18: 27). This is why we live in a different world than others who grieve because “they have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13).

We know that all is possible with God.

In the midst of fear, in the midst of turmoil, faith believes in the impossible.

Faith believes in the absurd.

Because we know God.

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