Repeating Abraham

In his Conferences, John Cassian relates the story of a monk who failed in his discretion. This monk, who remains unnamed, is tempted to repeat the sacrifice of Abraham, who was called to give up his only son Isaac:

Why also should I speak of one (whose name we had rather not mention as he is still alive), who for a long while received a devil in the brightness of an angelic form, and was often deceived by countless revelations from him and believed that he was a messenger of righteousness: for when these were granted, every night he provided a light in his cell without the need of any lamp. At last he was ordered by the devil to offer up to God his own son who was living with him in the monastery, in order that his merits might by this sacrifice be made equal to those of the patriarch Abraham. And he was so far seduced by his persuasion that he would really have committed the murder unless his son had seen him getting ready the knife and sharpening it with unusual care, and looking for the chains with which he meant to tie him up for the sacrifice when he was going to offer him up; and had fled away in terror with a presentiment of the coming crime. (Conferences 2.7)

This reminds me of the comments of Kierkegaard in his work Fear and Trembling, a lengthy meditation on Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac:

The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac—but precisely in this contradiction is the anxiety that can make a person sleepless, and yet without this anxiety Abraham is not who he is. (Fear and Trembling, 30)

What distinguishes Abraham from Cassian’s deceived monk? For Kierkegaard, the difference between Abraham and a murderer is faith. For Cassian, the difference between Abraham and the monk is discernment–or more properly, obedience to the discernment of the elders. But how would Cassian have counseled Abraham? Surely he would have counseled him that he had not heard God properly, that his act could only be murder, that such a sacrifice would not be in faith. For Kierkegaard, the counsel of others is impossible; it must be avoided because it cannot be undertaken:

But the distress and the anxiety in the paradox is that he, humanly speaking, is thoroughly incapable of making himself understandable. (Fear and Trembling, 74)

Perhaps there is something to both analyses. On the one hand, by the time God’s command comes to Abraham (Gen. 22:1), he had already had revelations from God on several occasions (Gen. 12:1-3, 7; 13:14-17; 15:1-19; 17:1-22; 18:1-33). We could say that he was accustomed to discerning the voice of God; he had developed a habit and virtue of discernment. So then when God comes to him with the demand to sacrifice his only son Isaac, Abraham recognises the voice of God and obeys.

On the other hand, Abraham has faith in the voice of the true God. Cassian’s monk, on the other hand, is deceived by a demon masquerading as an angel of light. In the grammar of Scripture, one can only have “faith” in the true God; to believe in false gods is not to have faith at all. In the case of Cassian’s monk, he fails to discern the voice of the true God, and so fails to have faith; thus his act is “murder” and not “sacrifice,” on Kierkegaard’s distinction.

Nevertheless, this leaves open the difficult question of discernment by individuals in the midst of the community. What happens when a single individual believes they hear the voice of God on a matter, and the “elders” of the community–the wise, and not simply the elderly (see Conferences 2.13)–disagree in their collective discernment? Kierkegaard has no space for yielding to the latter; Cassian, no space to yield to the former. What is the solution when an individual needs to adhere to the guidance of the community? Obedience. What is the solution when the community needs an individual to correct its discernment? Prophecy.

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