The Art of Living: The Paradoxes of Faith and Existence

Who shall I be? How do I become? What highest value(s) ought I aspire toward? What is the end and aim of life? The Art of Living refers to the project and the problem of our lives as characterized by these fundamental questions.

This discussion will explore implications for our Art of Living gleaned from the short book "Fear and Trembling" by Søren Aabye Kierkegaard [masked]). What does Kierkegaard think the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac teaches us about the paradoxes of faith and of existence? What does Kierkegaard say about the role of faith in our lives? To what highest value(s) does Kierkegaard urge us to aspire? What does he think the end and aim of our lives ought to be? What can we learn from Kierkegaard about addressing the problem and the project of our lives? What can Kierkegaard teach us about who to be and how to become? For you personally, what is the role of the paradoxes of faith and existence in your life? How do these values fit into your art of living?

The plan for the discussion is to follow the Stanford lectures on Kierkegaard, so it is recommended that you watch these three 50 minute videos:

• Abraham is the Knight of Faith: Faith versus Love, Morals, and Reason Itself by R. Lanier Anderson

• Was it so Easy a Matter not to be Mistaken? by Joshua Landy

• Abraham is the Knight of Faith: On the Roles of Reason and Faith by Kenneth Taylor

I recommend getting an overview by watching the videos before reading this complex and difficult text. If you have time to go deeper, read the text which is short at around 100 pages, relevant biblical passages (Philippians 2:12, Psalms 55:5, & Genesis 22:1-19), read the Wikipedia entry on "Fear and Trembling", and watch the videos a second time. I got the 1986 Penguin Classics edition from my library. There is also a newer 2006 edition from Penguin. You could also read the on-line version of "Fear and Trembling" at Religion-Online or the extensive excerpts translated by L.M. Hollander. After reading the text, the ambitious participant will re-watch and study the three Stanford lectures a bit more carefully.

This is the third discussion in a series inspired by an accessible, exquisite, free on-line course The Art of Living (, three Stanford professors discuss five great works to explore how philosophy and literature can help us practice the art of living. The lecturers are Kenneth Taylor, Joshua Landy, and R. Lanier Anderson and the works are Plato's "Symposium", Shakespeare's "Hamlet", Kierkegaard's "Fear and Trembling", Nietzsche's "The Gay Science", and Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon". The course video lectures will guide our exploration of "The Art of Living" in a multidimensional way. For an overview of our topic, please watch the 50 minute video Introduction to The Art of Living.

These are links to the other meetups in The Art of Living series:

1. The Art of Living: Love and Reason in Plato's Symposium

2. The Art of Living: What Can We Learn From Shakespeare's Hamlet?

3. The Art of Living: The Paradoxes of Faith and Existence

4. The Art of Living: The Roles of Art and Science

5. The Art of Living: The Roles of Self and Community

6. The Art of Living: Engaging the Project of our Lives

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  • Joe N.

    But isn't philosophy about the search for truth? What good is faith if there aren't at least some convincing signs pointing to the truth and reality of what we have faith in?

    1 · November 13, 2013

    • CJ F.

      On p. 76 of the Hannay translation, Kierkegaard writes "Faith ... is not the immediate inclination of the heart but the paradox of existence. Thus that a young girl in the face of all difficulties rests assured that her desire will be fulfilled in no way means that her certainty is that of faith.... She is convinced in all her childlike simplicity and innocence. ... Her conviction is ever so lovable, and one can learn much from her, but one thing one does not learn from her, how to make the movements [of faith]. Her certainty does not dare look the impossibility in the eye in the pain of resignation."

      So Kierkegaard seems to say that belief is the Knight of Immediacy (or aesthetics or sensation), beyond that is the glory of the Knight of Resignation, and at the highest height of human existence is life-affirming faith.

      November 14, 2013

    • CJ F.

      Joe, as I was reading Nietzsche's "The Gay Science", I found a footnote by Walter Kaufmann (my translator) on p. 147 which suggests that Nietzsche may have thought "that truth is unobtainable, that errors are required for life, and that the conviction that truth can be discovered by man is itself an error". Based on your definition of philosophy, Neitzsche would not qualify! I agree with the view that truth is unknowable. For me wisdom is merely the reduction of some of the inevitable and inherent error in thinking. From this perspective, Philosophy, is the search for wisdom and knowledge, not truth. Back to reading more Nietzsche ...

      November 25, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    CJ, my take on your notes is that Faith = Provisional Certainty.

    November 24, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      Fine as well ... Like I say (but hardly invented) certainty is what we want. And I'll even go as far as to say (and this is not as a criticism, just as an attempt to offer insight to an intellectual point) that god is the anthropomorphization of certainty. (Which is a over the top way of saying that

      November 24, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      (Which is a over the top way of saying that religion is a pretty darn GOOD thing for the bulk of the world's population.)

      November 24, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Thank you CJ for all of the time you devote to preparation for these meetings. It seems unbalanced to me that we attendees get the use of the Ethical Society meeting room plus your time and expertise for free. Have you considered that attendees make a contribution?

    1 · November 15, 2013

    • CJ F.

      Marie, when it is a labor of love, who needs "contributions"­?

      The Art of Living series at the Ethical Society is an educational partnership to support our common mission to further ethical culture. So it and similar programs are designed to be free.

      I am starting a series on Finance on Dec 8th. Perhaps there are some ideas that might make the group better which would require "contributions"­. For the time being, there are no plans that could use funds and so it seems inadvisable to collect any.

      The best gift you could provide is to attend more events!

      November 15, 2013

  • CJ F.

    Thanks everyone for contributing to a great discussion! My interest in paradox as a wellspring for creativity inspired a deep interest in Kierkegaard's vision of faith as the paradox of existence. I really enjoyed Jim's list of takeaways for his art of living: 1) a leap of hope, 2) a basis for choosing non-universal ethical principles, and a 3) commitment to act for success (this is really important, I think).

    Walking home I was bothered by the issues that always concern me about belief and Christianity: mistakes and bold openmindedness. I value trial and failure as a core principle for learning. I think mistake mystique is much healthier than hope & doubt with fear & trembling (why sin? I embrace mistakes!). As an "explorer in Universe" I delight in the dynamics of thought (serendipity is exquisite!). Kierkegaard's uncompromising & deeply serious faith with all its fear & trembling just doesn't seem to invoke a delight in curiosity which I'd want in my art of living.

    1 · November 15, 2013

  • van w.

    Good interesting talk and deep subject matter

    1 · November 15, 2013

  • CJ F.

    "The paradoxes of faith and existence" is quite the cosmic fish: I look forward to working with you to land this one!

    I decided we should start where Kenneth Taylor left off: what is the importance of faith to solving the problem and the project of the "Art of Living" for any reflective human being. More specifically, why is it important that we equanimously embrace the absurd paradox of existence, that is, both recognizing the impossibility of satisfying our wills (resignation) but nonetheless expecting satisfaction in this world! This wrenching paradox is the problem for which Kierkegaard finds faith to be the joyous solution. I will start at the beginning by asking: Does this make sense? Do you understand Kierkegaard's problem? What do you make of it?

    If you have not read the text nor watched the videos, come anyway. My act of faith will be to guide the discussion so everyone deepens their understanding of faith regardless of your background! See you at 7.

    November 14, 2013

    • Joanne

      Too bad, I missed this opportunity, tonight....!

      1 · November 14, 2013

  • Julia

    Sad that i have to miss this meetup, but work demands my evening. Looking forward to attending the next meetup!

    1 · November 14, 2013

  • CJ F.

    My notes on the exquisite 53m video "Abraham is the Knight of Faith: On the Roles of Reason and Faith" by Kenneth Taylor:

    Taylor brilliantly explains why the issue of faith is of vital importance to any reflective human being. The "frogs in the swamp" accept what the finite world gives them, but humans ought not allow the finite world of possibility to usurp the validity of their lives! The Knight of Resignation accepts finititude as The Possible, but insists that humans are autonomous self-governing beings thereby eternally validating The Self. Faith goes further: it validates the real world with an absurd paradox: the impossibility of satisfaction (resignation) and yet also expecting satisfaction in this world. Thus faith overcomes despair (=sin) and brings equanimity & joy to life. Faith gives us serious, grounded lives of radical interiority. This is ineffable and defies reason yet it is wonderful!

    Watch Taylor's video:

    November 13, 2013

  • CJ F.

    Here are my notes on the 44m video "Was it so Easy a Matter not to be Mistaken? by Joshua Landy:

    Landy explains the what, why and how of faith in Kierkegaard's "Fear and Trembling". Faith is the highest value: you have to be willing to sacrifice everything including your most valued objects and ideals, your morality, and even the 10 commandments! Faith involves the anguish of leaping between doubt and hope continually. It involves a decision to expect something positive to come in this world (the finite).

    The why of faith is that the paradox of anguishing doubt & hope gives us Isaac back as an exquisite miracle. It gives us joy & wonder on the strength of the absurd. The how of faith is a quiet serious inwardness involving hard work and divine grace.

    Landy starts to explain the purpose of the book, but is cut off by the end.

    Watch Landy's clear explication of the most important points in Kierkegaard's profound philosophy of faith:

    1 · November 12, 2013

  • Haoyang

    Is it OK if I arrive at 7.15PM? I have a previous engagement that ends at 7PM. Thanks!

    November 12, 2013

    • CJ F.

      Sam, that's OK. I look forward to meeting you.

      November 12, 2013

  • CJ F.

    Here are my notes for the 52m video "Abraham is the Knight of Faith: Faith versus Love, Morals, and Reason Itself" by R. Lanier Anderson:

    Faith is not religious, not fleeting feelings, not love, not morality, and not rational. Faith is available to each of us: it gives us our individuality, stabilizes our lives and puts us in touch with external reality. Faith requires fear and trembling to be continually felt AND is characterized by being confident and transparent (despite the presence of essential, persistent fear and trembling). Faith is independent of morality (the universal) and is profoundly serious. Faith requires resignation (Anderson cites his colleague Kenneth Taylor's video on "Hamlet: Knight of Resignation" which you might watch if you haven't already: Abraham is the knight of faith.

    Watch Anderson's clear explication of Kierkegaard's profound philosophy of the paradox of faith at

    November 11, 2013

  • Joanne

    Sounds so "interesting! (&, stimulating!) All-good!:)"

    1 · November 8, 2013

  • CJ F.

    One week from tonight we will discuss "The Art of Living: The Paradoxes of Faith and Existence". The topic is based on Kierkegaard's great work "Fear and Trembling". Since his book is difficult, I recommend you watch the 3 Stanford video lectures instead (you might watch each twice to dig deeper).

    The notion of "resignation", accepting that our will in the world of infinite possibility is inherently limited by finite reality, is important in Kierkegaard. As such the 3 lectures build on Kenneth Taylor's on Hamlet (the other Dane we discussed last month) which addresses this point at length. Watch it at

    The 3 lectures on Kierkegaard's "Fear and Trembling" are:
    1. R. Lanier Anderson:
    2. Joshua Landy:
    3. Kenneth Taylor:

    All three are excellent. Taylor deeply drives home the point that even atheists need to carefully consider Kierkegaard. This will be a focus next Thursday.

    November 7, 2013

  • CJ F.

    The discussion "The Art of Living: The Paradoxes of Faith and Existence" will explore the problem (What shall I be?) and the project (How shall I become?) of our lives through Kierkegaard's great work "Fear and Trembling". Here are some relevant passages from the Bible for understanding our discussion, his book, & the Stanford lectures.

    Kierkegaard probably found "Fear and Trembling" in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 or Philippians 2:12. It also occurs in Psalms 55:5, 2 Corinthians 7:15 & Ephesians 6:5.

    These are all from the Book of Genesis:
    Abraham and the promised land: 12:1-2 & 15:18-21
    Abraham's servant Eliezer: 15:1-6
    Abraham & Sarah laugh: 17:17 & 18:12
    Birth of Ishmael: 16:1-4,15-16
    Birth of Isaac: 21:1-8
    Ishmael & Hagar leave: 21:14-21
    Sacrifice of Isaac: 22:1-19

    Search for these passages on-line:

    On 14 Nov we will deeply & critically examine Kierkegaard & the Bible: does faith matter in our lives? For atheists? Is there a paradox of faith? Of existence?

    1 · November 5, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    This sounds great, and I've signed up for it. But I want to understand what the paradox is ... is this speaking to it?

    October 31, 2013

    • CJ F.

      Randy, that is a dense passage and I'm having difficulty parsing it. My sense is that it is related.

      Here are some of my notes: Faith is a paradox: to attain the heights of faith, we must renunciate what we rightfully believe is good about ourselves which makes us low and humble.

      Faith grounds the self by embracing the paradox of existence: the absurd paradox of recognizing the impossibility of satisfaction of the desires of the self (resignation) AND confidently nonetheless expecting satisfaction! Faith is a passion beyond the rationality of resignation: it is unbridgeable by reason.

      Over the next two weeks, I plan to re-read "Fear and Trembling" and get even clearer about it. But that's what I can quickly pull out of my notes.

      I look forward to seeing you again!

      October 31, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      Well I get what you're saying. In my filter it always still boils down to existential vs. conventional. Conventionally we're always imperfect (uncertain) because there's no limit to what one can have or improve. Existentially we're always perfect ... so there's no need to prove anything. An anxious person is (existentially) performing their anxiety perfectly and then we observe how others are performing and naturally assume we're missing something. (That conventionally we can reach the need to not have to strive for anything more ... (existential) perfection.)'s dense! (I had no idea what anyone might think of it so I threw it out there.)

      But I certainly (no pun) am clear, at least for myself, that paradoxes come down to perspective and conventional/existential­ and the basic qualities of reality. The paradox is thinking that you can reach one by being the other.

      October 31, 2013

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