Written by Nick Joseph
Fear & Trembling & Brain Science
Pretend you knew me, and that we had been friends for about 15 years. We met when we were 75, and we went on this crazy adventure together, leaving the world you knew behind. I was well aware you and your wife didn’t have any kids, but here we are at 90, hanging out on your patio one night as we watch these huge burning balls of sulfur annihilate a couple of cities. Suddenly, I turn to you and say, “You know what? One day, you will have more descendants than there are stars in the sky. (1)” You tweak the volume on your good hearing aid, and I repeat the words, then sweeten the deal: ”One day you will have more descendants than there are stars in the sky… but only after you ritualistically sacrifice your son to me first. (2)”
Would you yell at me and call me crazy? Stare at me blankly? Or would consider your 90 year-old wife (who, by the way, is laughing at me  ) and completely abandon all rationality to pursue me and my prediction solely on the basis that I said it would happen?
Thus the story of Abraham, and the focus of Søren Kierkegaard’s most famous work, ‘Fear and Trembling.’ In it, Abraham is praised as the Knight of Faith, the one who can abandon the universal and act on the absurdity of faith alone. The Knight of Faith has a fundamental belief so strong that he can abandon every external signal he’s receiving and leap into the unknown sustained solely by that faith. Armed with that, he believes he will not only overcome what lies before him, but that the outcome will be in his favor.
Suffice it to say, not a lot of people can do this. So rare is this ability, in fact, that Abraham is praised across three major religions for it: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. The very three religions that can’t agree on the ethical validity of Steak & Lobster Night have long recognized that what this ‘Abraham’ guy did was - and remains - pretty special.
Ironically though, Kierkegaard’s work was meant to question Abraham’s unquestionable faith. Not to disavow it, but to argue against the prevailing ‘wisdom’ of his own time, Hegelianism. In a nutshell (a huge, ontological nutshell), Hegelianism is the idea that only the rational is real - what’s not logical doesn’t exist.
Well as anyone who has ever been punched in the face knows, emotion quickly supplants logic, but that black eye remains very real.
Thus Kierkegaard’s rebuttal to the Hegelian ideal: if only the rational is real, why did Abraham not only proceed with the machinations of sacrificing his only son, but win God’s favor in doing so? Nobody in their right mind would think it reasonable to trek by donkey for three days with the very person they were about to sacrifice to their ‘loving’ god. Yet there was Abraham, strapping Isaac down to the altar and drawing his knife right up until the ram appeared in his son’s stead.
What motivated Abraham to move into the absurd with blind faith, one, and two: what made him persevere? What does it take to become a Knight of Faith ourselves? How can we surrender our resignation so that we can persevere when it appears the world is closing in? To be one of Leonidas’ soldiers facing down the Persians… and winning? Talk about owning Career Day at your kids’ school! Twenty-five hundred years ago, sure, but a win’s a win.
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Seems the answer may lie in a region of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC. In English, that translates roughly to “band of fibers at the front part of your brain” (if you’re imagining your own head, think, ‘behind your eye and up a little’). Believed to play a crucial part in our thinking and emotion (4), this pinky-sized ridge of material is rich with spindle neurons (5), nerve cells that look like the base of a tree with its roots extending everywhere below ground. They are larger in diameter than other neurons, and can therefore transmit more signals faster.
It’s why firefighters don’t have garden hoses on their trucks.
Here’s the kicker, though: patients given electrical excitation along their ACC (specifically, its middle portion) reported feelings of “challenge” and “worry,” but remained motivated and aware they would overcome the challenge. One patient reported that the feeling was positive, “more like push harder and try to get through this.” (4)
But we’re not just talking cognition and feelings here, we’re talking cognition, feelings AND the realization of intentional motor control (6). In other words, the ACC is crucial in our ability to know, feel, and act on that knowledge and / or feeling.
All this though - the knowing and feeling and acting - that only gets us to the precipice. Sure, all of that is involved in getting us to that point, but what allows some to make the Leap of Faith, and others to hesitate?
Kierkegaard asks a similar question in his example of unrequited love. Basically, poor boy falls in love with rich girl, but she’s rich and Hollywood’s full of lies (I threw that in there), so she wants nothing to do with this poor boy who must now decide if he will be a Knight of Faith (like Abraham), or a Knight of Infinite Resignation.
Very simply, at the dinner table of life, the Knight of Faith sets a place for the one he loves, while the Knight of Infinite Resignation admits no one else is coming.
Faith requires submission to and release of control. Prior to any submission, however, there must first be a challenge, and in our case, Abraham saw God as worthy of a challenge, and vice versa. He made God reflect on his own actions when God confided in him the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, arguing for the lives of anywhere from 10 to 50 people (7) and God challenged him by announcing he would be a father at 91. If you take the argument posed by Maimonides (^^), it would stand to reason that Abraham and God HAD to challenge each other in order to prove the existence of one and the faith of the other.
Abraham’s story is not just one of blind faith, but one of daring action. He took reality head-on and, despite surrendering control to the outcome, accepted standing still was not an option.
That’s the message: take action. Challenge life and be prepared to sacrifice something you love for the promise of a new and better future.
1.) Genesis 22: 17, CEV
2.) Genesis 22: 2, CEV
3.) Genesis 18: 13, CEV
4.) Parvizi, J., Rangarajan, V., Shirer, W. R., Desai, N., & Greicius, M. (2013). The Will to Persevere Induced by Electrical Stimulation of the Human Cingulate Gyrus. Neuron, 80(6), 1359-1367. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2013.10.057
5.) Carter, Rita. The Human Brain Book. p. 124.
6.) Hoffstaedter, F., Grefkes, C., Caspers, S., Roski, C., Palomero-Gallagher, N., Laird, A. R., . . . Eickhoff, S. B. (2013). The role of anterior midcingulate cortex in cognitive motor control. Human Brain Mapping, 35(6), 2741-2753. doi:10.1002/hbm.22363
7.) Genesis, 18: 24-32, CEV
8.) Riskin, S. (2012, October 25). Parshat Lech Lecha: Why God chose Abraham. Retrieved February 27, 2019, from
9) Image at the bottom - The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1602 by Caravaggio
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