The Paralyzing Instant

Shifting Vocabularies about Time and Ethics in Fear and Trembling


  • Jonathan Malesic

Jonathan Malesic, Department of Theology, King's College, 133 North River Street, Wilkes-Barre, PA 18711,


Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling presents a reductio ad absurdum regarding the time-spans subject to moral evaluation. The text's classic dilemma depends on assuming that we only evaluate discrete, contextless instants. The pseudonymous author constantly seeks the single instant or moral “photograph” that indicates Abraham's status. Doing so, however, extracts scripture's moral legislation out from narrative, resulting in theological paralysis and thereby requiring an alternative temporal vocabulary for evaluating Abraham. Fear and Trembling contains an under-explored alternative that sets Abraham within the covenantal narrative's temporality. The paper explores the consequences of shifting from evaluating instants to evaluating narrative durations, showing that while Genesis 22 remains a challenging episode, it also offers a model of imaginative faith, fidelity to promises, and hope in the face of trauma that focusing on moral instants overlooks.