I have a mere 6 pages typed up of “The Call,” part of my lecture series Abraham, Then and Now. I believe I can finish this lecture–projected at 10 pages long–tomorrow. I have written down much of the part on Christianity. Largely this involved a lengthy quotation about the Apostle Paul from Bruce Feiler’s Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. However, I need to complete that part with selections from the New Testament and Early Christian Writings. I also want to write about Islam in another quotation from Bruce Feiler and then some of the Quran. Then I shall see if there is room to write about Thomas Mann’s Abraham, Avivah Zornberg’s Abraham, and Bill Moyer’s Abraham. Looking this over, I may not be finished until Sunday. Yet I will try to finish Christianity and Islam. Throughout I shall be guided by Bruce Feiler and Karl-Josef Kuschel’s Abraham: Sign of Hope for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. I am waiting for “Prehistory” and “Sarah and Hagar” to use Jon Levenson’s Inheriting Abraham; Legends of the Jews; the Sefer ha-Aggadah; and Prophets of the Quran. I will Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and Elie Wiesel’s Prophets of God along with certain Biblical and Quranic passages for “The Akedah and It’s Aftermath.” The Bible is quoted in each of the four lectures, as is the Quran.
Looking over this, I am struck–though I shall not be able to expand beyond a certain point–by the many faces of Abraham. It reminds me of an evocative title name to a film whose contents seemed oddly lacking in promise on the back of the take: “The Three Faces of Eve.” I forget what it was supposed to be about. Yet I hope to tease it out of the different sources about Abraham that his personality is multifaceted, and as Whitehead thought God changes over time, so too does Abraham. Perhaps the character of the Prophet Abraham reflects a reality which is constantly reinterpreted by human beings, even as there may never have been a literal Abraham about whom the story remains.
I remember a rabbi telling me that many Jews in Israel who are not religious regard the Bible as “mythology,” much like the Iliad and Odyssey. Perhaps they are half right. I also like to think, as Peter Gomes wrote in The Good Book, the word is “lively” and points to something greater than itself, which is God. I want to believe there was a moment when God reached out to touch the Jewish people–much like the scene in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel where God’s finger touches Adam’s–realized that they had been chosen by God for a special destiny, a destiny which would change the world.
Scholars believe that the Israelites did begin as slaves, whether as runaway Egyptian slaves (perhaps the Shasu) or as ex-Canaanites in the mountains of what would become Israel. Either way they were aware of Egypt, and in their rebellion for God they argued that God could be against the status quo. They might not yet have the idea that all men should be free, but they believed they as a people should be free. This is in marked contrast to the Egyptians, whose religion was almost designed to teach complacency about Pharaoh’s absolutism and the acceptance of a person’s suffering in this world in the hopes of an afterlife in the next. Whatever later Judaism taught about the afterlife, in their zeal to exorcise all things Egyptian from their faith in a previously unknown God, the early Israelites spoke of the need to practice their faith in this world. More, it was Spartan simplicity that they stressed in how they lived. They would learn about the World-to-Come later. In those early days they learned how to be free.
I find the “Many Faces of Abraham,” is an exciting way of expressing some of the ideas I hope to work out in some longer book someday. I admit I am only of middling philosophical talent, but perhaps it will prove useful to somebody. William James quoted G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy in Pragmatism, and having read both books I can only say I prefer Pragmatism. Yet perhaps somebody will read it, and it will matter to them. It doesn’t matter whether they are a great philosopher or an ordinary person. Perhaps it will bring somebody back to God without their becoming a fundamentalist of some sort. I don’t mind fundamentalists exactly except that their insistence on attacking Charles Darwin and Julius Wellhausen (when they know the name of the man who formulated the Documentary Hypothesis). Well, that and the apocalyptic form of Christianity.