“It was early morning. Abraham rose in good time, had the asses saddled and left his tent, taking Isaac with him, but Sarah watched them from the window as they went down the valley until she could see them no more. They rode in silence for three days; on the morning of the fourth Abraham still said not a word, but raised his eyes and saw afar the mountain in Moriah. He left the lads behind and went on alone up the mountain with Isaac beside him.
But Abraham said to himself: ‘I won’t conceal from Isaac where this way is leading him.’ He stood still, laid his hand on Isaac’s head to give him his blessing, and Isaac bent down to receive it. And Abraham’s expression was fatherly, his gaze gentle, his speech encouraging. But Isaac could not understand him, his soul could not be uplifted; he clung to Abraham’s knees, pleaded at his feet, begged for his young life, for his fair promise; he called to mind the joy in Abraham’s house, reminded him of the sorrow and loneliness. Then Abraham lifted the boy up and walked with him, taking him by the hand, and his words were full of comfort and exhortation. But Isaac could not understand him. Abraham climbed the mountain in Moriah, but Isaac did not understand him.
Then he turned away from Isaac for a moment, but when Isaac saw his face a second time it was changed, his gaze was wild, his mien one of horror. He caught Isaac by the chest, threw him to the ground and said: ‘Foolish boy, do you believe I am your father? I am an idolater. Do you believe this is God’s command? No, it is my own desire.’ Then Isaac trembled and in his anguish cried: ‘God in heaven have mercy on me, God of Abraham have mercy on me; if I have no father on earth, then be Thou my father!’ But below his breath Abraham said to himself: ‘Lord in heaven I thank Thee; it is after all better that he believe I am a monster than that he lose faith in Thee.’”
“It was early morning, Abraham rose in good time, embraced Sarah, the bride of his old age, and Sarah kissed Isaac, who had taken her disgrace from her, was her pride and hope for all generations. So they rode on in silence and Abraham’s eyes were fixed on the ground, until the fourth day when he looked up and saw afar the mountain in Moriah, but he turned his gaze once again to the ground. Silently he arranged the firewood, bound Isaac; silently he drew the knife. Then he saw the ram that God had appointed. He sacrificed that and returned home… From that day on, Abraham became old, he could not forget that God had demanded this of him, Isaac throve as before; but Abraham’s eye was darkened, he saw joy no more.”
“It was early morning. Abraham rose in good time, kissed Sarah the young mother, and Sarah kissed Isaac, her delight, her joy for ever. And Abraham rode thoughtfully on. He thought of Hagar and of the son whom he had driven out into the desert. He climbed the mountain in Moriah, he drew the knife.
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?”
“It was early morning. Everything had been made ready for the journey in Abraham’s house. Abraham took leave of Sarah, and the faithful servant Eleazar followed him out on the way until he had to turn back. They rode together in accord, Abraham and Isaac, until they came to the mountain in Moriah. Yet Abraham made everything ready for the sacrifice, calmly and quietly, but as he turned away Isaac saw that Abraham’s left hand was clenched in anguish, that a shudder went through his body – but Abraham drew the knife.
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.”
The above are all Eulogies by Kierkegaard, as found in his book of 1843, “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 absorbed Kierkegaard in his reflections, and have indeed absorbed a great many great minds before and since.
I can’t think of this story of Abraham without thinking of Kierkegaard.
Of course Kierkegaard was going through his own struggles as he reflected on Abraham’s dilemma. The great Dane had just finished his training for the priesthood. He had completed his doctorate in theology and was ready to be ordained as a priest in the Lutheran church of Denmark. He was engaged to the lovely Regina Olsen, and he had before him the prospect of a quiet and comfortable career as a country parson, happily raising a family and pastoring his little flock out in the tranquil environs of rural 19th century Denmark.
And yet at the same time he felt called by God to do something more radical with his life – to become a prophetic figure, to be a writer and an outspoken critic of his society and his church. And in as much as he desired that quiet and happy life, he found that he couldn‘t extinguish the fire that burned within him to speak out about the way his society was sliding towards ever-increasing bureaucratisation and obsession with the bottom line at the expense of individual human need, and equally to speak out against the insipid moralism that he saw all around him that was being passed off as Christianity!
And so Kierkegaard found himself in a dilemma. There was nothing wrong with being a country parson as such. Surely, he told himself, he could offer a useful ministry to his people from the parsonage and from the pulpit. And certainly he felt an obligation to provide Regina with the happy life she had been hoping for with him. And the Dane could not rid himself of the gnawing thought that he had been called to sacrifice all of this for the sake of following God into the wilderness as a despised and outspoken prophet!
And so Kierkegaard found himself pondering over and over again the story of Abraham – the ‘father of faith’ – who himself had had to deal with the most terrible of existential dilemmas.
There Abraham was, enjoying fulfilment of the promise that God had made to him many years earlier – that he and Sarah would have a son, even in their old age. And he was enjoying his son, and he was enjoying the prospect of seeing his name live on through his son, and he was enjoying the thought that his descendants would indeed one day become a great nation, and yet he could not rid himself of the thought that the same God who had given Isaac to him was now calling him to take his son into the desert and kill him!
As I say, I can’t read this story of Abraham without thinking of Kierkegaard, and frankly I also can’t read it without thinking of my friend, Morde Vanunu – a man we pray for each week here at Holy Trinity, and the man who ‘blew the whistle’ on Israel, revealing to the world the truth about that nation’s hidden stockpile of weapons of mass destruction.
Now, the connection might not be immediately obvious to all, but when I first met Morde back in 1986, he too was in a terrible existential dilemma. He was in Australia as a backpacker, enjoying the vibrant lifestyle of Kings Cross at the time. He was on holidays from his work and his studies in Israel, and he was enjoying his time away very much indeed.
And I got to know Morde, and I got to know him very well, and I remember him well as a man with very few ambitions – a man who would have liked nothing better than to have settled down with a nice girl, perhaps in a quite suburb in Sydney, and raise a family, and enjoy all the benefits that his education and professional training could give him.
And yet Morde had in his backpack a set of photographs that he had taken from inside of the secret nuclear weapons factory in Dimona. He had taken these photos while working as a junior nuclear technician, and he had taken them because he didn’t feel right about what his country was doing.
Morde saw the devastating potential that these weapons of mass destruction could have on his neighbours in the Middle East, and he knew that it was wrong that his government was maintaining silence over the existence of these weapons, even from its own people! And yet Morde wasn’t sure what to do with the photographs he had because he knew that if he published them, he would be hated, reviled as a traitor, disowned by his family, and quite possibly hunted down and killed! And he yearned for a quiet life!
When Morde arrived in Australia in 1986 he was in a dilemma, similar to the dilemma Abraham had experience, similar to Kierkegaard’s dilemma. And the other interesting connection is this – being brought up in a traditional Jewish family, Morde knew well the story of Abraham, the ‘father of faith’. Interestingly though, he had also read Kierkegaard’s reflections on the story!
Morde had been studying philosophy at University when we first met and he had been studying Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. I, on the other hand, had only completed my thesis on Kierkegaard two years earlier (in 1984), so this became a significant topic of conversation between us. Notably though, the only book of Kierkegaard’s that Morde had actually read, I believe, was the only one that had been translated into Hebrew – Kierkegaard’s reflection on the story of Abraham – the book I have been reading from, entitled, “Fear and Trembling”.
And so Abraham’s dilemma, which became Kierkegaard’s struggle became likewise Morde’s struggle and dilemma!
How can you be sure that it is God who is telling you to do something and that it’s not just your imagination? How do you separate (as Father Eugene Kennedy put it) ‘the grain of inspiration from the gravel of human impulse’?
I know people who talk as if they chat with God all day long and hear every word the Almighty has to say to them as clear as a bell? How is it that they seem to so easily separate the grain from thegravel?
Life and morality seem to be all so very straightforward to such people – all blacks and whites. How do they do it?
I know lots of other people too – religious people mostly – who don’t seem to have the same private dialogue with God going all day but who nonetheless have very straightforward moral frameworks where they find a law for every occasion, and where, if you are in any doubt as to what to do, you only have to look up the book or consult your priest or your Rabbi or your Iman and he will tell you what is allowed and what is not allowed and all such dilemmas are happily resolved.
And it’s not my place to judge anybody else’s faith but we can say though that Abraham, the ‘father of faith’, found life to be more complex than that, didn’t he?
Abraham resolved his dilemma of course by setting out to sacrifice his son Isaac. He took his son into the wilderness, he took him up the mountain, he bound him, put him on the wood, and got as far as raising the knife before he saw the alternate sacrifice that God had provided, trapped in a nearby thicket.
Abraham acted in faith, so we’re told, and so he was rewarded! He got his son back, and life went on and moved forward from there.
Kierkegaard resolved his dilemma similarly, by sacrificing everything. He gave up his hopes for a position in the church, broke off his engagement with Regina and devoted himself entirely to his writing.
Kierkegaard nonetheless always hoped that, like Abraham, who got his son back, he might get his Regina back somehow, and this despite the fact that he publicly spurned her, so as to free her from any suspicion of blame in the affair. He didn’t receive her back though. She married someone else, and so Soren Kierkegaard lived on as a bachelor, becoming increasingly strange in his appearance and increasingly the object of public ridicule, until his death in 1853 (at the young age 42).
Our brother Morde resolved his dilemma similarly too, though the final chapter of his story, of course, is yet to be written.
Even so, our brother Morde did knowingly sacrifice his life and his freedom for the sake of the truth and for the sake of peace. He came to the front of St John’s church in 1986. He said, ‘now I give my life to Jesus. Now I do what I must do’. He had his photographs published. He told the world the truth. He was subsequently kidnapped, shipped back to Israel, given a secret trial and found guilty of treason, espionage and the betrayal of state secrets, after which he spent the next 18 years of his life in prison (being released in April 2004).
As of today Morde is still being held in Israel – not in gaol at the moment but still restricted from leaving the country, and he awaits a further court hearing this coming month that could potentially land him back in gaol again!
Ironically perhaps, as many of you know, only one country thus far has had the courage to offer him refuge outside of Israel, and it’s a Scandinavian country, though not Denmark but Norway. Whether he’ll ever make it to Norway, and get his life back, remains to be seen, but it is indeed our hope and prayer.
So did he do the right thing – Morde? And for that matter did Kierkegaard to the right thing, and did Abraham? And more to the point, even if we can see the value of their decisions now, could they have known for sure that what they were doing was the right thing when they made up their minds to do it?
These were not easy decisions to make, as in truth lots of real-life challenges leave us with decisions that are not easy to make. From a moral perspective there often are lots of plusses as well as minuses, though in Abraham’s case there seem to have been a lot more minuses than plusses, and lots of things that just didn’t seem to make sense at all.
Kierkegaard called this the ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’, which is a wonderfully complicated way of saying that sometimes you’ve just gotta do what you’ve gotta do even though you’re not exactly sure why you’ve gotta do it!
This, at any rate, in Kierkegaard’s understanding, is what it means to live by faith, as against living by law and reason. And yes, we believe in faith that it will all make sense in the end, but to quote Kierkegaard again, ‘while life can be understood in retrospect it unfortunately has to be lived forwards!’ And the only way to move forward in faith is to do so with ‘fear and trembling’!
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 live by faith; to be a ‘knight of faith’ (to use Kierkegaard’s term), and to venture out into the darkness – not only the darkness of an unknown future but also the darkness of a morally and spiritually ambiguous terrain – holding only to the hand of this God, the God of Abraham! Who has the courage to take up that calling? Who indeed?
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 Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, June 2008.