Fear and Trembling

Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling was another difficult work from season six. Fortunately, I read this shortly after the significantly more dense Notes from the Underground, so the philosophical questions posed by Kierkegaard weren’t quite as daunting.

This book appears in the season six premiere LA X. Hurley finds the book on the dead body of Montand (part of Danielle’s team) after crawling underneath the temple wall. We previously saw in season five that the smoke monster drug Montand to his death down the same vent that Hurley, Jack, Kate, and Sayid crawled into to reach the temple.

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Kierkegaard begins with the story of Abraham and his son Isaac that appears in various forms throughout Lost. For those that aren’t familiar with the Bible and/or didn’t have the fine Jesuit education that I did, Abraham is a central character in the book of Genesis. The story of Abraham and Isaac is the ultimate test of Abraham’s faith.

God instructed Abraham to take his only son Isaac (who took a ridiculously long time to conceive) to a mountain in Moriah and offer him as a sacrifice. The journey to Moriah took three and a half days and Abraham reluctantly accepted the mission and said nothing to Isaac, his wife Sarah, and his servant Eliezer.

Kierkegaard expresses admiration for Abraham because of his faith. He describes the state of faith as something more than the state of infinite resignation. In the state of infinite resignation, one simply accepts what is coming to them and trusts that in the afterlife, they will be rewarded. This is a hard enough step as it is – few people would be able to accept the fate handed down upon Abraham in this case.

According to Kierkegaard, we all have free will and we will all react differently to this situation. Kierkegaard himself thinks that he could get to the state of infinite resignation. But he doesn’t think he can reach the state of faith, which is one step past infinite resignation. Abraham made a leap to faith; that is, he believes, on the strength of the absurd, that God will save Isaac. He has absolutely no rational reason for this, but does it anyway. Abraham is a knight of faith – he is not walking to Moriah for some reward in the afterlife, he believes against all reason that he will receive the reward in this life.

With this preface, Kierkegaard turns to three questions in an attempt to figure out the nature of faith:

1. Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical?
2. Is there an absolute duty to God?
3. Was it ethically defensible for Abraham to conceal his undertaking from Sarah, Eliezar, and Isaac?

The first point gets to the fact that Abraham was ready to murder Isaac. Murder is inherently unethical, but God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son. Should we applaud Abraham for being a knight of faith or chastise him for being a murderer? A little of both it turns out. We can’t actually appreciate Abraham to the fullest without acknowledging that he was ready to murder Isaac. Abraham was a knight of faith precisely because he had to choose between his own ethical code and what God commanded to him. Which leads us to the second point…

Is there an absolute duty to God? If there isn’t, then Abraham doesn’t look so hot. He is simply skirting our own ingrained ethical codes; the only way the murder can be justified is if the absolute duty to God supersedes our own ethical code. Kierkegaard doesn’t come out and give his preference. Instead he highlights the paradox to explain just how tough it is to be a true knight of faith. This is why there are so few true knights of faith (Kierkegaard can think of none other than Abraham): Christianity is rooted in this difficult paradox.

Finally, Kierkegaard turns to the issue of whether it was okay for Abraham not to tell anyone his intentions. This is a variation on the first question – like murder, lying is unethical. He concludes that it is okay for Abraham to not be completely forthcoming for a slightly different reason. If he told Sarah or Eliezar, they would have stopped him from performing the task. They could not have understood what it meant to be a knight of faith, so not telling them the truth was okay both ethically and practically.

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Kierkegaard’s knight of faith should sound familiar to Lost fans. The obvious knight of faith in Lost is John Locke. In season two, he describes himself as a man of faith. His actions in the first half of season two are like the man of faith, rather than the man of infinite resignation. When he pushes the button in the Hatch, it’s not because he has some expectation of a reward in the afterlife. He firmly believes, on the strength of the absurd, that pushing the button every 108 minutes is necessary to keep the world from ending.

In the season two episode Orientation, Locke implores Jack to take a leap of faith and push the button. This language comes from Fear and Trembling in which Kierkegaard describes Abraham’s leap to faith from infinite resignation.

But it’s not easy for Locke; he eventually loses this faith at the end of season two based on curiosity. This also fits in with Kierkegaard’s depiction of faith and why he can’t fully grasp Abraham’s faith. Abraham is steadfast in his faith – so steadfast that he is willing to sacrifice his only son. As much as Locke wants to be the man of faith, he cannot totally reach Abraham’s level. His discovery of the Pearl station convinced him that the button was fake. He simply did not have the total faith that Abraham did at that stage of his development.

Perhaps Locke did eventually regain his total faith when he gave his own life to bring the Oceanic Six back to the Island, but I’m not so sure. I think he was closer to infinite resignation at that point. He never seemed to believe on the strength of the absurd that he would live. The Hatch incident shook him too much. The knight of faith was gone forever, leaving only the knight of infinite resignation.

The knight of faith concept shows up other places in Lost as well. Ben seems to wrestle with Kierkegaard’s first question with his loyalty to the Island. He was responsible for Alex’s death. He lied, he cheated, and he connived, all for what he thought was for the good of the Island. Ben would argue that there is a teleological suspension of ethics when it came to the Island. For him, it was okay to be unethical, so long as the Island demanded it.

We also see Jack’s transformation to a knight of faith, starting with the season six episode Lighthouse. In the episode Dr. Linus, Richard Alpert wanted Jack to light the fuse in the Black Rock so Richard could die. Jack did so, but believed on the strength of the absurd that the dynamite would not go off. Jack’s act of faith might just be the closest to Abraham’s ultimate test of faith.

Jack’s position as the knight of faith culminates in the series finale, when he willingly accepts the role of protector of the Island – something he never would have even thought about doing in the first five seasons.

There are countless other times that the faith question pops up in Lost. Really, we should be surprised that it took the writers six seasons to finally put this book in the show. For anyone that is seriously interested in the philosophies behind Lost, this book is a good place to start.

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