Some reflections on Abraham – the father of faith:
It was a tranquil evening when Abraham rode out alone, and alone he rode to the mountain in Moriah: he threw himself on his face, he begged God to forgive his sin at having been willing to sacrifice Isaac, at the father’s having forgotten his duty to his son. He rode more frequently on his lonely way, but found no peace. He could not comprehend that it was a sin to have been willing to sacrifice to God the best he owned: that for which he would many a time have gladly laid down his own life; and if it was a sin, if he had not so loved Isaac, then he could not understand that it could be forgiven; for what sin was more terrible?
They turned home again and Sarah ran to meet them, but Isaac had lost his faith. Never a word in the whole world is spoken of this, and Isaac told no one what he had seen, and Abraham never suspected that anyone had seen it.
Eulogies by Kierkegaard, as published in his 1843 book ‘Fear and Trembling’. How do you deal with the conviction that you are being called by God to go and kill your own son? How do you deal with that conviction, and how do you deal with the God whom you perceive to be behind that conviction? These were the questions that so fascinated Kierkegaard in his reflections, and have indeed absorbed a great many great minds before and since.
I had a conversation with a friend in the pub on Friday. “You love other people”, he said, “because when you show love to them, you feel good in yourself.” He wasn’t just saying this about me, of course, but was offering a comprehensive theory of human motivation – that people love other people because it makes them feel good about themselves.
“But” I countered “don’t we generally think of genuine love as something which actually begins after the good feelings come to an end? It’s easy to look after your aging mother when you’re enjoying her company and feeling good about what you’re doing. But it’s when you’re sick to death of looking after her, when you want your own life back and can’t handle her whinging any more, but you push on and you give her your time and your energy anyway – isn’t that what genuine love is: not feeling good about what you’re doing, but doing what you know is right despite how you feel about what you’re doing?”
Surely this is what love is – doing what we are called to do by God, despite what we might feel like doing, because we know that it is the right thing to do. That’s what love is.
But what do we call it when we feel called by God to do something which we don’t just not feel like doing, but something that seems furthermore ridiculous, and something which we feel is actually morally wrong – something that we don’t just emotionally recoil from, but something that also strikes us as being irrational and even wicked?
If love is ‘doing what you’re called to do, despite how you might feel’, what label do you apply to the act of ‘doing what you’re called to do, despite how you think and feel and despite your own God-given moral convictions which are urging you to do the opposite?’ What do we call that? ‘Faith’Kierkegaard would say.
“Faith … is not the immediate inclination of the heart but the paradox of existence” says Kierkegaard. “While Abraham arouses my admiration,” he says, “he also appalls me. The person who … sacrifices himself for duty gives up the finite in order to grasp on to the infinite… The tragic hero gives up what is certain for what is still more certain… But the person who gives up the universal (i.e. his universal moral principles) to grasp something still higher that is not the universal, what does he do?” How do you understand him?
Oh, to live by principle! Oh, to live according to straightforward rules of duty and commandment. Oh, to simply deal with God the divine lawgiver, who can be grasped and dealt with as straightforwardly as any human magistrate! But to be a ‘knight of faith’ (to use Kierkegaard’s term), to venture out into the darkness – not only the darkness of an unknown future but also the darkness of morally and spiritually ambiguous terrain – holding only the hand of this God…! Who would have the courage to take up that calling? Who indeed?
Why do I read to you this story this morning – this story of Abraham and Isaac, this story of Kierkegaard? It’s not our set lectionary reading. Why do I choose it this morning? Because this story – Abraham’s story, Isaac’s story, and Kierkegaard’s story – is also Morde’s story.
When I first met Morde back in 1986, we stood out the back of St John’s church in Darlinghurst, talking to the early hours of the morning about life, philosophy, existentialism, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard, over coffee and biscuits.
Morde had been studying philosophy at university in Israel, and he had, coincidentally, focused his studies in much the same area that I had focused on – on the ‘continental philosophers’ Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. We spoke together about Nietzsche’s concept of standing on the edge of your existence and staring into the abyss of your own despair, and Kierkegaard’s concept of throwing yourself into the abyss, and finding that Christ is there to catch you and to hold you. (I think we also talked about a few good-looking chicks we’d seen).
It was clear from the beginning that Morde’s decision to follow Christ and to turn his back on his Judaistic upbringing was, for him, also a decision to adopt the philosophy of Kierkegaard over that of Nietzsche. And yet it wasn’t until some time later that it clicked with me that the only work of Kierkegaard that Morde had ever read was the only one that had ever been translated into Hebrew: this one – ‘Fear and Trembling’ – reflections on Abraham, the father of faith.
Like Abraham, Morde felt called by God to do something that not only scared him, and which he didn’t want to do, but something which he wasn’t even sure was the right thing to do.
All of his upbringing in Israel would have warned him away from this. To tell the world about Israel’s nuclear armaments build-up – that would be to act as a traitor to your family and to your nation. Could it possibly be right for him to not only put his own life at risk, but also to risk the retribution that might indeed be inflicted upon his own mother and father (which indeed did happen)? Was it right to put his own national security at risk for the sake of some broader possibility of peace? Who was he to make that sort of decision? What would he know? And yet … he felt called by God to do it. And so one day he came to the front of the church in Darlinghurst and he knelt down at the alter rail and he said out load “now I give my life to Jesus. Now I do what I must do.”
Oh, to be the knight of faith – to risk everything: not only your own life, but the lives of those you love, your own family and country, and to risk not just death but ignominy and shame for yourself and for your entire family. Who would have the courage to take up such a calling? Who indeed?
It is notable that Kierkegaard also, when he wrote the book ‘Fear and Trembling’ was also working through some Abrahamic issues of his own. In 1843, Kierkegaard had been feeling completely torn about a decision he had to make. He had been engaged to Regina Olsen – a woman he obviously deeply loved. He had completed his doctoral studies in theology and was qualified and ready to be ordained into the Lutheran church of Denmark. A large part of him yearned to move on to ordination and to take up priestly duties in a quiet country parish, with Regina at his side and with children around his feet. And yet … he felt called to do something else. He felt called to become a polemical writer, a prophet who would speak out against the excesses of the church, a missionary and evangelist of sorts who would work outside the comfortable structures of established Christendom. And he knew that if he took this path, that he could not take his beloved Regina with him.
And so he made his morally ambiguous decision. He broke off the engagement with Regina, publicly spurning her as if he no longer cared anything for her (so as to save her from any public embarrassment) and he pursued his work as a writer, for which he became famous.
Abraham, offered up to God his only son, but received him back from God. Morde, we trust and pray, will likewise one day receive back his freedom and his family. Kierkegaard though, it is worth noting, never received back his Regina (though he somehow secretly always hoped that he would). And he lived with the pain of that until his death in 1855, at the age of 42.
There are no guarantees for knights of faith that they will not have to endure lifelong pain because of the sacrifices they are required to make. Did Kierkegaard ever overcome his pain? I think not, though he never regretted the decision he made.
Did Abraham ever regret his decision to follow what he believed was God’s call? We think not.
In the case of Morde, the answer is crystal clear, and let me quote from that letter he wrote from solitary about a year after his capture, explaining his actions:
“[To do what I did] I had to overcome the force of general opinion around me, especially the opinions of those who were held to be wise and intellectual, and those who worked with me. I had to say to them ‘you are mistaken. I know the truth. You are on the wrong track.’ … I had to overcome many personal barriers to do what I did. The chief barrier was the sacrifice of my private life to exposure and slander, and of my plans for the future – all on this alter. But the action was worth it. By this action I pointed out the path in which I believe … about what must be done … [and I demonstrated] the way in which a man must be willing to sacrifice and risk his life for the sake of an act that is important and beneficial to all mankind.”
Abraham rose early in the morning. He saddled the asses himself and left early, before Sarah had awoken, not able to share with her where he was going or what he was preparing to do. He rode with Isaac by his side but they rode mostly in silence. Then he saw the mountain of Moriah in the distance. He laid the alter. He lifted the knife. And so he became the father of faith.
First preached by Father Dave at St Johns, Darlinghurst, September 30th, 2001.