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.

The Dissertation

It’s finished! That means at least two things: this blog will be up and running once again and, if you so desire, you can read the dissertation here (PDF).

Classic Kierkegaard

He has the most wonderful opening lines:

Many may find the form of this “exposition” strange; it may seem to them too rigorous to be upbuilding and too upbuilding to be rigorously scholarly.

Any guesses which work this is? No peeking!

Barth’s Romans Commentary

I’m finally reading the famous commentary on Romans. Of course, there are all the sharpened descriptions of contradiction between God and humanity, stunning and blunt: “In the Resurrection the new world of the Holy Spirit touches the old world of the flesh, but touches it as a tangent touches a circle, that is, without touching it” (30). “But the activity of the community is related to the Gospel only in so far as it is no more than a crater formed by the explosion of a shell and seeks to be no more than a void in which the Gospel reveals itself” (36). “Precisely because the ‘No’ of God is all-embracing, it is also His ‘Yes’” (38).

What is most striking just now, having spent last week with him, is how much I feel like I’m reading a biblical commentary written by Kierkegaard. Barth quotes him on the very first page, and throughout you can almost touch the Dane, he’s so palpably present. His ideas are ubiquitous: the “Paradox” (29); “contradiction” (38); “seriousness” and the demand for “choice” (39); God in “incognito” (39); the “qualitative distinction between God and man” (39); the impossibility of “direct communion” (50); and more than any other, the absolute difference between “time and eternity” (29, 44, 47), which is the presupposition of Barth’s whole text.

Yet, there is also another strand, it seems, running through Barth’s commentary, the side that sees the rest on the other side of judgment. This may well be the kinder (less polemical, more pastoral) part of Kierkegaard: “No, he who opens his arms and invites all–ah, if all, all you who labor and are burdened, were to come to him, he would embrace them all and say: Now remain with me, for to remain with me is rest” (Practice in Christianity, 15). And Barth: “the Creator has not abandoned the creation… the faithfulness of God to [humanity] still abides” (41); and, “He is the hidden abyss; but He is also the hidden home at the beginning and end of all our journeyings” (46). Of course, Barth had been a pastor ten years when he wrote this text, so he knew well the need to be assured of God’s faithfulness, that the “Yes” will be heard on the other side of the “No.”

I’m curious how much Kierkegaard’s influence will appear through the rest of the commentary, both explicit and not so subtly hidden.

Kierkegaard on Venerable Father Abraham

To my mind, the most stunning paragraph ever written (outside Scripture):

Venerable Father Abraham! When you went home from Mount Moriah, you did not need a eulogy to comfort you for what was lost, for you gained everything and kept Isaac—was it not so? The Lord did not take him away from you again, but you sat happily together at the dinner table in your tent, as you do in the next world for all eternity. Venerable Father Abraham! Centuries have passed since those days, but you have no need of a late lover to snatch your memory from the power of oblivion, for every language calls you to mind—and yet you reward your lover more gloriously than anyone else. In the life to come you make him eternally happy in your bosom; here in this life you captivate his eyes and his heart with the wonder of your act.

Venerable Father Abraham! Second Father of the race! You who were the first to feel and to bear witness to that prodigious passion that disdains the terrifying battle with the raging elements and the forces of creation in order to contend with God, you who were the first to know that supreme passion, the holy, pure, and humble expression for the divine madness that was admired by the pagans—forgive the one who aspired to speak your praise if he has not done it properly. He spoke humbly, as his heart demanded; he spoke briefly, as is seemly. But he will never forget that you needed 100 years to get the son of your old age against all expectancy, that you had to draw the knife before you kept Isaac; he will never forget that in 130 years you got no further than faith. (Fear and Trembling, 22-3)

Pascal’s Vision

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), a brilliant soul who contributed both to the birth of modern science and Christian philosophy, is said to have undergone an intense, convicting vision. He describes it in these words in his Mémorial, apparently written to himself:

The year of grace 1654,
Monday, the 23rd November, the day of St. Clement, pope and martyr, and others of the martyrology,
wake of St. Chrysogonus martyr, and others,
Since around ten-thirty in the evening until around half-past midnight,
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob.
Not of the philosophers and wise men.
Certainty. Certainty. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
God of Jesus Christ.
“My God and your God.”
“Your God will be my God.”
Forgetting the world and all, except God.
He is not found except on the paths taught in the Gospel.
Grandeur of the human soul.
“Just Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you.”
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I was separated from it.
“They have forsaken me, the spring of living water.”
“My God, will you forsake me?”
May I not be separated eternally from you.
“This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and him who you have sent, Jesus Christ.”
Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
I was separated from him: I fled him, renounced him, crucified him.
May I never be separated from him.
He is not kept but by the paths taught in the Gospel.
Renunciation, total and soft
Total submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.
Eternally in joy for a day of work on the earth.
“I will not neglect your word.” Amen.

It is said that Pascal stitched this text into the lining of his coat. It was discovered by a servant after his death.

The Lutherans vs. Locke on Faith and Reason

Luther is famous, among other things, for calling reason a whore. Let us say, at least, that Lutherans since him have been slightly suspicious of its claims. Hamann, a 19th century Lutheran, wrote: “It is the greatest contradiction and misuse of our reason if it wants to reveal” (quoted in Beiser, The Fate of Reason, 22). Reason and revelation do not stand beside each other as two parallel sources, Hamann would say, each handing out some information about the human and divine states of things. Rather, reason is a faculty that muses over the things shown to it, whether by divine revelation or in common experience. As Hamann writes elsewhere, “Experience and revelation are one and the same and indispensable crutches or wings of our reason, if it is not to remain lame and creep along. The senses and history are the foundation and ground – however deceptive the former, and naïve the latter: I nevertheless prefer them to all ethereal castles” (quoted in Betz, After Enlightenment, 230).

Luther calls us to put our full trust in the Word of God, also opposing any “ethereal castles,” though for him, these castles are built with bricks of sinful human words. He, additionally, differs from Hamann on a central point: the role of experience. Hamann saw all his experiences after his conversion as constituting secret messages from God, which simply needed a key to be unlocked. For Luther, in contrast, revelation spoke against his experience–his “clear” and “evident” experience–of guilt and condemnation before God. For John Locke, it is these clear and evident deliverances of reason from experience that make up “the sole matter of all our notions and knowledge” (in Gunton, ed., The Practice of Theology, 171).

The word “matter” here is significant, however. Our “ideas” for Locke mean the most basic elements drawn from our sensory experience of the world (e.g., colours, lengths, durations). So of course, in this sense, revelation cannot be a source of “knowledge” apart from our “reason.” (Revelation does not teach us of additional colours, for example.) But what then can Locke mean when he argues, “For faith can never convince us of anything that contradicts our knowledge” (172)? How could it? Let us turn, then, to how Locke understands “faith.” This he defines as “the assent to any proposition … upon the credit of the proposer” (170).

At first glance, this seems quite an optimistic state for faith, especially when one agrees with Locke that revelation is, by its nature, “the testimony of God (who cannot lie)” (172). The First Vatican Council, interestingly, employs the same language of “proposing for our belief mysteries hidden in God” (Dei Filius, in Gunton, 179). Yet, for Vatican I, the human person is “obliged to yield to God the revealer full submission of intellect … by faith” (178). Locke, on the other hand, is less positive about the situation, for the reasoning human person is for him the arbiter of what is or is not revelation.

Since, for Locke, the foundation of all knowledge is our “own understanding” or “intuitive knowledge”, that which we ourselves experience will always be more sure than what is reported either, “by the tradition of writings, or word of mouth” (172). Thus, Locke imposes a further requirement on the Scriptures or reports of tradition: an additional revelation must immediately be given to each individual by God to confirm that these previous revelations are genuine. Of course, God does not grant such genie-wishes and the consequences are dire. Locke writes:

Indeed, if anything shall be thought revelation which is contrary to the plain principles of reason, and the evident knowledge the mind has of its own clear and distinct ideas; there reason must be hearkened to, as a matter within its own province. (173)

It is uncertain just what constitute for Locke the “plain principles,” “evident knowledge,” or elsewhere, “common sense” (173) of a “considerate” or “sober good man” (174). But evidently, not included among these are trust of what is “passed down” from others–the etymological root of “tradition.” Let us return, then, to our polemical friend Luther, who in his commentary on Galatians, writes:

In listing faith among the fruits of the Spirit, Paul obviously does not mean faith in Christ, but faith in men. Such faith is not suspicious of people but believes the best. Naturally the possessor of such faith will be deceived, but he lets it pass. He is ready to believe all men, but he will not trust all men. Where this virtue is lacking men are suspicious, forward, and wayward and will believe nothing nor yield to anybody. No matter how well a person says or does anything, they will find fault with it, and if you do not humor them you can never please them. It is quite impossible to get along with them. Such faith in people therefore, is quite necessary. What kind of life would this be if one person could not believe another person? (Commentary on Galatians, 5:22)

By a strange twist, then, we find Luther supporting a certain claim of tradition against an unmediated–at least through persons, human or divine–delivery of reasonable knowledge. In other words, Luther would argue, against Locke, that we should trust what others tell us about this revelation that has occurred in Jesus Christ, rather than suspiciously holding it up against the light of “our intuitive knowledge” (172). At least he could be read this way here. And interestingly, Locke would be compelled to agree by his (reasonable?) judgment of the trustworthiness of the “one who cannot err, and will not deceive” (173), if only for him the mediatory nature of Scripture were not an insuperable obstacle (172). Or alternatively, if the divine authorship of Scripture were immediately obvious–something careers have been spent attempting to show as “common sense,” whatever that is. Instead, Locke seems to give this cry: if only God would split the heavens and come down! Maybe then he would believe, in view of such clear, immediate evidence. And yet God has: in Christ.