A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.
Saturday, December 08, 2012
One of the most troubling passages in Western literature comes in the book of Genesis: And God tempted Abraham and said unto him, Take Isaac, Thine only son, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering... If this passage doesn’t particularly trouble us it’s only because we already know the ending of the story. Things turn out ok in the end and Abraham sacrifices a ram instead of his only son. This interpretation didn’t satisfy the Danish writer Soren Kierkegaard. He knew the ending of the story too. But Abraham didn’t know things would turn out ok and it took him three days to travel with Isaac to Mt. Moriah. What was going on in Abraham’s mind during those three days? And even more troubling, Kierkegaard saw no reason why the same thing might not have taken place on a barren heath in Denmark. In other words, most readers want to treat this story as a version of “long ago and far away” but that turns the whole thing into a sort of childish fairy tale. It’s not. Kierkegaard explains why this is not a story for children: When the child became older he read the same story with even greater admiration, for life had separated what was united in the pious simplicity of the child. The older he became, the more frequently his mind reverted to that story, his enthusiasm became greater and greater, and yet he was less and less able to understand the story… We may marvel at this story when we read it with the pious simplicity of the child. But that doesn’t mean we understand it. In fact, the more we think about it we become less and less able to understand the story. What makes this such a disturbing story for Western readers is the possibility that it may not be understandable through rational analysis. Westerners generally try to think their way through problems. In Crito Plato patiently explains the reasons he would rather face death than break the laws of Athens. In Wealth of Nations Adam Smith explains the reasons that some nations are rich and others are poor. In his Politics Aristotle says mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good. We don’t just act randomly. We look for reasons why we should obey the law or acquire wealth or seek out those things which we think are good for us. That’s because we’re rational creatures. Our default mode is to think things through and then act on our thoughts. What Kierkegaard is asking us to do is set aside our rational mode and put ourselves in Abraham’s shoes. Try to see things as Abraham saw them. Instead of looking through the eyes of a modern Western rationalist, try looking through the eyes of an ancient Near Eastern man of faith. What would we see then? Both views can look at the same text: Take Isaac, Thine only son, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering… To a rational mind this makes no sense. No reason is given; just go do it. What kind of a god would ask a parent to kill one of their own children (much less their only child)? To Abraham no reason is needed. God said so. No other reason is necessary. To the rational Western mind this is very disturbing. It’s especially disturbing to the modern American mind which also holds the concepts of freedom and human rights to be basic core values. Americans don’t think a loving God would ask (much less command) us to do something that violates our most cherished human values. And that may be the key phrase: human values. Abraham isn’t looking at human values. He isn’t thinking about human values because Abraham was not a thinker, he felt no need of getting beyond faith… Abraham doesn’t try to think things through. He isn’t asking for reasons why. Thinking is a natural human response but Abraham’s heart is firmly set on following divine values rather than human reason. “God said so” is good enough reason for him. For Abraham faith is a personal matter between him and his God. Any of us can understand that 2+2=4 if we just learn how to do the arithmetic. But who can teach us what faith is? Kierkegaard wonders if any of us can ever truly understand this old, old story about faith unless we can somehow learn to see through Abraham’s eyes.